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It’s that time of year again. With school breaking up for the long summer holidays, come thoughts of summer reading. I am taking part in #20booksofsummer – my progress is slower than I would have liked. I am in to the last 120 pages of book #13 – it should have been 14 but #12 was a dnf – so I had to do book #12 twice. July has been a very slow reading month – but now the holidays have started I can hopefully make up a little bit of lost time. The other reading event of my summer is All Virago/All August (although it certainly doesn’t have to be *all* August). This is a challenge to read Virago (VMCs) which started life a few years ago over on the Librarything Virago readers group. Persephone books have honorary status and so count, as do other editions of books which have been previously published by Virago as VMCs.

I did think ahead when putting together my #20booksofsummer pile. I chose thirty books – pledging to read twenty off the pile – I am usually bad at sticking to lists. Although by the time August actually starts I may only have five or six books to go for that summer challenge – but I have several VMC and Persephone books on my #20booksofsummer pile and have selected a few others as possible August reads. I won’t read all of these, but these are some of the books I am considering – I would hope to read about six or seven. There are many other Viragos on my shelves that I could have chosen, or may opt for instead – these are what appeal most at the time of writing.

I will definitely be reading Challenge by Vita Sackville West as it has been chosen by my very small book group as our August read, and I have been looking forward to The Godwits Fly since I bought it so I shall probably read that too. I am also leaning very heavily towards Love by the wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim.

I will be spending a week in Devon during August and I know it makes more sense to take my kindle with me – but I am rather enjoying reading physical books and getting them off the bookshelves.

So to recap – you don’t need to be a member of the LT Virago group to join in – just grab a VMC (original edition, new edition, ebook or another edition entirely as long as it has been published as a VMC or Persephone book at some point) and enjoy.

IMG_20160724_202339.jpgFor those doing #WITmonth – last August I managed to find a VMC that also counted towards that too The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf. I will certainly not be reading all virago in August as I have two books I would like to read for #WITmonth: The Murder of Halland and Iza’s Ballad. I am going to have to read up a storm during August, at this rate.

Will you be reading Virgo during August? or are you planning for #WITmonth? What will you be reading?

hogsbackmystery

Hello, I feel as if I have neglected this blog a little this week. I have simply been very busy and over-tired. I haven’t read as much as usual so far during July and I am finding that frustrating, I am fighting a constant battle with wanting to read but being almost too tired to manage more than a few pages. Having failed to get beyond about page 80 with my previous read, I opted for something altogether different. When times are tough, I reach for a Golden Age crime style novel, and the wonderful British Library Crime Classics came to my aid with The Hog’s Back Mystery.

This is the first mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, that I’ve read, a prolific writer I wasn’t even aware of before. The Hog’s Back Mystery was his fourteenth novel, the fifth featuring his well-known policeman Inspector French.

Freeman Wills Crofts, was a railway engineer who began writing in 1919 during a long illness. Hi first novel The Cask was published in 1920 and he followed it up with almost one book every year for the next thirty-seven years. As well as mystery novels, Freeman Wills Crofts published short story collections and both stage and radio plays. In his introduction to this edition, crime writer Martin Edwards, describes The Hog’s Back Mystery as the work of a skilled craftsman at the height of his powers.

“A short curving drive brought them to the house, a typical modern South of England cottage, with lower walls of purple brick, upper storey and roof of ‘antique’ red tiles and steel-framed casement windows. In front and at both sides the trees had been cleared back to leave room for a small garden. All round was the wood.”

The Hog’s Back Mystery is set near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs of the Surrey countryside. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a particularly secluded spot, in their cottage St Kilda. As the novel opens, Julia Earle and her sister Marjorie – who is visiting – are meeting Ursula Stone, an old friend from schooldays, off the train. The three women are all somewhere between thirty-five and forty, but Julie’s husband who she only married a few years earlier, is already sixty and semi-retired from his practice. Ursula immediately senses that the Earle marriage is not as happy as it could be. It becomes obvious that Julie is very friendly with a neighbour Reggie Slade – a man residing with relatives, whose only real talent seems to be his knowledge of horses. Already feeling a little unsettled with the atmosphere at St Kilda, Ursula is further convinced that things are far from right when she is obliged to go up to London for the day. Having clearly heard Dr Earle announce his intention of playing golf at the links near Guildford, Ursula is therefore surprised to see him sitting in a car with an unknown woman in a London street.

“Slowly the hours of that day dragged away without bringing to light the slightest information about the missing man. Earle had utterly and completely vanished – vanished instantaneously. At one moment seated in his chair, settled down for the evening, entirely normal, dressed for the house: three minutes later, gone. Neither sight nor sound of his going: no trace left: no hint either of cause or method: no suggestion of motive: no explanation anywhere of any part of it. Spirited away!”

Three days later, on a seemingly normal Sunday evening, while Ursula is visiting some other friends a few miles away, Dr Earle disappears from his sitting room, while Julia and her sister are clearing away the supper things. An extensive search is carried out, but it appears as if Dr Earle was only wearing his slippers, had no coat with him, and had been in the middle of reading the Observer. By the end of the night the police have been called, and Inspector French of the Yard is soon on the case.

French is faced with trying to discover whether the case is a domestic one of deliberate disappearance or something much more sinister. The case is further complicated by two further disappearances, at least one of which French is convinced is a murder. Yet, if all three people have really been murdered what can the motive possibly be?

I found this novel deeply engaging, it’s ingeniously plotted and the solution is fiendishly difficult to work out – I wonder if anyone actually ever does. Unusually, Freeman Wills Crofts satisfies the armchair detective by providing; in the final chapter where French sets out his evidence – the page numbers where the clues could have been spotted. Although the character development is not as strong as some other mystery writers of this period – Freeman Wills Crofts writes a very compelling mystery, which I couldn’t help but enjoy enormously.

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zofloya

On Wednesday of this week I will be attending my very small book group – essentially as things stand it is four of us meeting in a bar. Gossiping, talking politics, setting the word to rights over chips and cider before we finally get around to talking about our book. This week for the first time I shall arrive having not read the book. At least not all of it. I started reading Zofloya, or The Moor (1806) by Charlotte Dacre in the middle of a very busy, exhausting week, when my reading time was horribly short. Admittedly I had approached the book with grim resignation – never the best attitude to approach a book. I knew I was in for plenty of early nineteenth century gothic storytelling, lust, adultery, murder, guilt, divisions of race and class and the consequences of transgression – I just found the very idea of all that in less than 300 hundred pages pretty wearying. I managed around 80 pages – frankly amazed I read that much. Limited reading time this week meant that although I had only read about eighty pages I had wasted two evenings on it, I think I resent that more than anything. I think it was possibly wrong book wrong time, I see that there are plenty of four star reviews over on Goodreads, so perhaps I am just missing something.

The novel opens in Venice, Victoria di Loredani is the indulged daughter of happily married aristocrats, the Marchese di Lordedani and his beautiful wife Laurina. At the point the novel opens the couple have been blissfully married for seventeen years, and have a son and daughter. Enter Count Ardolph, a German nobleman who arrives for an extended visit. The count’s main objective seems to be to seduce Laurina and destroy the happy marriage of his hosts. Laurina is vain enough to be flattered by the attention, and soon enough she succumbs to his attentions. Now Laurina is that dreadful thing – a duplicitous wife. Her betrayal of her husband then sets off a series of terrible events – no doubt intended to serve as a warning to all the dreadful cheating, weak willed, vain beautiful women in the world *sigh.*

It is a fact universally acknowledged that all women in the early nineteenth century were either whores or angels.

Having been abandoned by his wife, who leaves with the Count, the Marchese sees his son leave the family home, leaving him alone with his impressionable fifteen-year-old daughter. A year later the Marchese has the bad luck to run in to Count Ardolph, a fight ensues and the Marchese receives a wound which will prove fatal in a few hours’ time.

‘Oh my God! – oh, Loredani, my injured husband! – bless me, I implore – oh, you cannot! – oh, forgive me, ere you die! – Curse me not with your last breath!’
So saying the frantic Laurina threw herself prostrate on the ground by the side of the bed where lay her dying husband, cut off, by her guilt and misconduct, in the flower of his life.”

Time enough then for a lovely death bed scene, with Laurina rushing to her estranged husband’s side begging forgiveness, and receiving it, and the Marchese urging his daughter to reconcile with her mother. With the Marchese dead, Laurina heads straight back to the count, this time with her daughter.
Victoria is soon involved with her own romance – meeting Il Conte Berenza, who falls madly in love with the young girl. Victoria’s mother and the count object to the relationship, and immediately set about separating them. Forged letters, incarceration with a nasty old crone, escape with the help of a good hearted servant girl, follows, and reunion with Berenza. I am aware the story probably sounds quite good – but there is nothing engaging in the writing, the characters are quite two dimensional, there’s no strong sense of place. I found ultimately that I just didn’t care.

“But desire of revenge, deep and implacable, was nurtured in her heart’s core, and gave to her character an additional shade of harshness and ferocity: thus she became like the untameable hyæna, that confinement renders only more fierce.”

I stopped reading just after Victoria was reunited with Berenza – realising that I simply didn’t care enough to carry on, life is too short, and I was in the wrong mood. I believe that the character of Zofloya doesn’t come into the novel until much later, and I am sorry I won’t get to meet him, he may have turned out to be more interesting than Victoria and her mother. However I think for me, that it is Dacre’s writing, that breathless, hectic style which I particularly disliked.

Maybe I will go back to this book in the coming weeks – though probably not. I hate setting aside a book unfinished, but I needed something entirely different.

charlotte dacre

 

 

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“Always be careful, my boy, what you make up. Life’s more full of things made up on the Spur of the Moment than most people realize. Beware of the Spur of the Moment. It may turn and rend you.”

Spending time with the hapless Norman Huntley and our eponymous Miss Hargreaves has been an absolute delight. Miss Hargreaves, is a work of an extraordinary imagination, both dark and funny, poignant, and completely unforgettable. I am sure all of you will know that it is on Simon’s (Stuckinabook) list of fifty books. A list I have copied into my phone to inform my future second hand book shopping. It is certainly worthy of inclusion on such a list, I can see why Simon and many others love it so much. In fact, Simon loves this book so much, he is quoted on the back cover of this edition.

When young cathedral lay clerk, Norman Huntley and his best friend Henry travel to Lusk in Ireland, they have no idea, what a seemingly dull visit to a pretty grim old church will unleash. The two young men being of an imaginative and light-hearted frame of mind, entertain themselves, during a long conversation with the sexton, by inventing an octogenarian called Miss Hargreaves. Miss Hargreaves so their story goes was a childhood friend of the late Mr Archer, of whom the sexton is particularly loquacious. The Miss Hargreaves of the two friends’ invention becomes gradually more and more eccentric, as they each try to outdo the other with wilder and wilder details. The sexton believes absolutely in Miss Hargreaves, why shouldn’t he – for him the old lady Norman and Henry talk about with such affection is a fully rounded person. After leaving the church and the old sexton behind, Norman and Henry continue to entertain each other with tales of Miss Hargreaves. They even go as far as to write, and then post a letter to their creation at the hotel they have imagined her to be currently residing. And that, is where the trouble starts.

When Norman is back in the Cathedral town of Cornford, he is more than a little astounded when a telegram arrives from Miss Hargreaves. Assuming it to be a prank of his friend Henry – Norman marches round to have it out with his friend. Meanwhile, Norman’s family including his sister Jim, his vague bookseller, music loving father and his girlfriend Marjorie are puzzled by all this talk of someone they had not previously heard of. Henry denies all knowledge of the telegram, and they wonder whether, coincidently there wasn’t another Miss Hargreaves staying at the hotel they wrote to who has replied to their letter. However, it is soon apparent that the Miss Hargreaves of their imagination and invention is the Miss Hargreaves who proposes to visit Cornford.

“Henry stared at me. ‘Are we going batty? Is this a dream?’
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Listen to that!’
A shrill imperious voice had cried, ‘Porter! Porter! Porter!’ Simultaneously the cockatoo, with a sepulchral growl on a low D, stopped singing. By now everybody else had got out. A porter sprang to a first-class carriage and opened the door. With his assistance, slowly, fussily, there emerged an old lady. She was carrying two sticks, an umbrella and a large leather handbag. Following her was a fat waddling Bedlington terrier, attached to a fanciful purple cord.”

Every single eccentric detail the two had invented for Miss Hargreaves is replicated in life as eighty-three-year-old Miss Hargreaves, (who abominates fuss – you know what that means!) arrives by train, with a Bedlington terrier, a cockatoo, a harp and an old hip bath, to be duly installed in a local hotel. All of Cornford is soon aware of Miss Hargreaves’ presence – she blithely gate-crashes Norman’s organ practice, insinuates herself with all the cathedral clergy and Norman’s colleagues and family. Suddenly, and absolutely Miss Hargreaves begins to take over Norman’s life, he finds himself both fond of her and absolutely horrified by her. Miss Hargreaves remember abominates fuss! but she is a stickler for the way things should be done, wears the most peculiar hats with aplomb, writes some slightly odd rhyming poetry and is blissfully unaware of ever being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While Norman struggles to explain the existence of Miss Hargreaves to his friends and family – who all start to think he is rather losing the plot – Miss Hargreaves’ batty eccentricity starts to take on a more malevolent turn as Norman begins to fear that she will destroy everything.

Miss Hargreaves is a most marvellous creation, but Frank Baker doesn’t merely confine himself to one superb creation, this is a novel packed with quirky, memorable characters. From the garrulous squinting sexton in Lusk to Norman’s adorable father – who is constantly mishearing, mispronouncing names, bullying his assistant Squeen (who always talks of himself in the third person) Baker gives us a marvellous array of characters, who step fully formed (and slightly bonkers) from the page.

I can’t believe I have had this book for three years at least and not read it before, but such is my tbr. I know Frank Baker has written other novels, but I’m not at all certain how available (if at all) they are. I shall keep my eyes peeled.

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I have been looking forward to reading Flush for months, and I really wasn’t disappointed. Written in the period after Virginia Woolf had completed writing The Waves; which she had found so draining Flush, is a complete joy. Flush – for those who don’t know – is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, a cocker spaniel that was her constant companion, both before and after her marriage to Robert Browning. The book is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, through which we meet the two nineteenth century poets, revealing something of the early years of their marriage.

flush2Although it appears so much lighter in tone than many of her other works, Flush does in fact consider social inequalities and the way that society treated and classified its women. Virginia Woolf employs her famous stream of consciousness style to explore women writers, through the point of view of a small, spoiled brown dog. Apparently Woolf drew her inspiration from the two poems that Elizabeth Barrett Browning published about her dog. What is amazingly well done, is how Woolf manages to convey a depth of feeling and understanding between Flush and his mistress – which anyone who has had any kind of relationship with a dog – maybe with any animal will find utterly charming. There has been a suggestion that Virginia Woolf uses this animal perspective, to explore the similarities between herself and Elizabeth Barrett. This is something Sally Beauman, in her preface to this Persephone edition, certainly asks the reader to consider as being the subtext to this book.

Flush was given to the invalid Elizabeth Barrett by Mary Russell Mitford, another spinster writer. At this period Elizabeth Barret was very much the invalid, subject to her father’s control, and Flush curls himself up at the feet of his new mistress and in doing so becomes as confined to the house as she already is.

“Oh Flush!” said Miss Barrett. For the first time she looked him in the face. For the first time Flush looked at the lady lying on the sofa.
Each was surprised. Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on each side of Miss Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright: his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here I am—and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been—all that; and he—But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other. Then with one bound Flush sprang to the sofa and laid himself to where he was to lie ever after—on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.”

In puppyhood in the Mitford home, Flush had had fields and space to run in, but in Wimpole Street at the feet of Elizabeth Barrett he becomes a pampered little pooch, who finishes the rich foods that Miss Barrett can’t manage. Flush’s comfortable incarceration in Wimpole Street mirror Elizabeth Barrett’s own. Enter Robert Browning, initially in frequent letters arriving at Wimpole Street. Flush can sense as each letter arrives the change that is coming to the house, and that of his mistress’s demeanour. As Robert Browning becomes a more fixed presence. Visiting in secret more and more often, the relationship between Flush and his adored Miss Barrett begins to change. Flush resents the figure of Robert Browning so much he resorts to showing his teeth.

“Sleep became impossible while that man was there. Flush lay with his eyes wide open, listening. Though he could make no sense of the little worlds that hurled over his head from two-thirty to four-thirty sometimes three times a week, he could detect with terrible accuracy that the tone of the words was changing. Miss Barrett’s voice had been forced and unnaturally lively at first. Now it had gained a warmth and an ease that he had never heard in it before. And every time the man came, some new sound came into their voices –made grotesque chattering; now they skimmed over him like birds flying widely; now they cooed and clucked, as if they were two birds settled in a nest; and then Miss Barrett’s voice rising again, went soaring and circling in the air; and then Mr Browning’s voice barked out its sharp, harsh clapper of laughter; and then there was only a murmur, a quiet humming sound as the voices joined together.”

As the relationship with Robert Browning develops Elizabeth Barrett finds strength she didn’t have before, her health improves, and on an excursion to a nearby shop, she loses sight of Flush for a second. Flush is kidnapped, held for ransom by a criminal gang. ebband flushHolding the spoilt, pets of fine ladies was a lucrative, and disgusting enterprise for these gangs at this time, and none of the men in Elizabeth Barret’s life to whom she appealed for help, thought the ransom should be paid. In the placing of the streets where these gangs operate so close to Wimpole Street, Woolf contrasts two very different sections of nineteenth century London. This interest in various sections of society is certainly something we have seen before. Bravely, and with steely determination Elizabeth Barrett takes matters into her own hands to secure Flush’s freedom. Again we have mirroring, in Flush’s freedom and Elizabeth Barrett’s. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning elope, and upon their marriage travel to Italy – where they will live in exile as it were, following Elizabeth’s dis-inheritance by her furious father. Here – but for a short trip back to London a few years later, Flush lives for the rest of his life, again tasting something of the freedom he had known as a young pup on the streets of Italy.

It is probably a given that Flush is beautifully written, it is lighter in tone, more accessible than some Woolf works no doubt, but there is surprising depth of emotion too. Flush is an absolute joy of a book, I wanted it to be far longer than it was. The Brownings are a fascinating couple, and somehow viewed through the eyes of this darling little dog they become more real, more human, than biographies often are able to make their subjects.

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Thank you to Rosy Thornton for the review copy.

Sandlands is a gorgeous collection of short stories, rooted in the Suffolk countryside, among its people, villages and wildlife. These stories and the images they evoke will live and linger long in my mind. A white doe, appearing suddenly in the dark woods, blue winged butterflies, a barn owl watching over a decades old Oxo tin of love letters, bell ringers, the spirits which exist within a four-hundred-year old house. Rosy Thornton celebrates the flora and fauna of the county she must dearly love, the stories link subtly by landscape, and by the past and present which weaves in and out of these wonderful stories.

The collection opens with The White Doe, in which the appearance of an animal shrouded in folklore, is observed with reverence by Fran. Having lost her mother six months earlier, the woman whom once she would have shared her sightings, Fran reflects on their relationship, and their differing experiences of motherhood.

“There were more sightings after the first. Several times she glimpsed the herd in the woods, away to the left of the path. Twice they moved almost in step with Fran but along a parallel ride, separated from her by a band of silver birches; on another morning they had gathered to graze in a small open area, cleared in the autumn by volunteer coppicers. Always it was the white doe that was visible before her sisters, whose coats bore the same muted grey-brown hues as the winter woodland.”
(from The White Doe)

owlI would be hard pressed to choose just one favourite story, but The Watcher of Souls would certainly be a contender. Rebecca is living alone now since her husband’s death, walks frequently in the woods near her home. She has become aware of a feeling of being watched – an owl, a barn owl, camouflaged by its surroundings, appears to be watching. Rebecca seems drawn to the owl and the part of the wood it watches over. Rebecca takes to visiting the same spot every day, looking out for her owl. One day she finds an old Oxo tin of letters, which she is convinced is being watched over by the owl, Rebecca is captivated by the story the letters reveal.

Several stories take us into the past, people from the present finding and feeling echoes in the past. There is a slight supernatural element to one of two stories, which remind us how the past and present are so inextricably linked. In Nightingale’s Returns, Flavio travels from his home in Italy to visit Nightingale Farm, where seventy years earlier his father worked during the war. His father Salvatore, a farmer back home, had slipped easily and comfortably into the rhythm of agricultural life in England during those years, and after had never forgotten the farm or the nightingales that had given the farm its name. While the stories of three generations of women are explored in All the Flowers Gone, as Poppy a botanist goes in search of a rare flower on the side of an air base.

“Nightingale Farm the place was called, and his father said they were really there, back in those days, the birds that gave the place its name. Flavio remembered hearing nightingales at his grandparent’s house at San Cesario in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna – hearing them but never seeing one. They were anonymous little brown birds according to Papi, plain as Franciscan fustian, with a drabness quite at odds with the extravagance of their song, and they kept t the densest thickets, nesting deep in the heart of gorse or underscrub. There was, besides, some quality about their song which made its source and direction impossible to gauge.”
(from Nightingale’s Return)

The Witch Bottle is a wonderfully atmospheric story, looking back to the days of witch trials and burnings. A builder working on Kathy’s four-hundred-year old cottage finds a witch bottle while digging up the inglenook. A story of love, obsession and retribution, as Kathy draws closer to builder Nick, the two discover more about the story of Patience Spall a girl accused of murder by witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Curlew call the penultimate story in the collection, brings us back to the present. A young girl, spends her gap year, living as a companion to an elderly disabled woman. A keen naturalist, it is the chance of a year in a county of sand lands, reed beds and the spectacular wildlife that exist there, that drew her to such an old fashioned sounding occupation. Instantly charmed by the curlew call she can hear from her room, she is made welcome by her eccentric employer. In a series of emails to her mother, the story of her employer’s life is gradually revealed.

In other stories, we see ghosts meet bell ringers, the various patrons of The Ship pub, butterfly collectors and Mr Napier, the inhabitant of High House, caring for a fox rescued from the floods, and a runner struggling with her impending motherhood.

I love short stories, I have said that before I know, lots of times, and this collection contains many elements I really love. Strong characters brought to life, within a stunning English landscape, the natural world, folklore, and the past and present weave together seamlessly.

I am delighted to have discovered such a fabulous short story writer, I have had several people recommend me Rosy Thornton novels – which I will look out for, (though – *whispers* – I am trying not to acquire any more books till after I have completed #20booksofsummer – this book was not on my pile so doesn’t count toward my total. Back to it now.

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ghostbird

I love it when books I am reading seem to accidently complement one another, upon finishing this novel I picked up a volume of short stories called Sandlands by Rosy Thornton. I was delighted to find aspects of at least one of the stories in that book echoing elements in the novel I had just finished. Both books are rooted within the natural world, something I find myself drawn to more and more as I get older.

I was drawn to Ghostbird by the reviews of others, and I was right to be drawn, beautifully written, lyrical with brilliantly unique women characters it has many elements that I love in a novel. Strongly rooted in the natural world of the Welsh countryside, it is a novel which draws on the traditions of witchcraft, folk tales and ghosts. It is also a compelling story of family secrets.

Cadi Hopkins is fourteen, living with her mother Violet, in the cottage next door to that of her aunt Lili Hopkins. Here the Hopkins’ have lived for generations. The Hopkins women are said to have gifts of witchcraft, and Cadi knows her mother and aunt are gossiped about, she hears the other women in the village shop. Lili’s brother was Cadi’s father but he died before Cadi was born, a month after Cadi’s elder sister was tragically drowned in the lake close to Ty Aderyn; the Hopkins’ cottages. No one will tell Cadi anything about her father or the sister she will never know, but Cadi is determined that now, finally this summer she will discover the truth.

“From the first day of August until the last, it rained at least once a day in the village. When the sun broke through, people caught their breath, marvelled at the glimmer turning raindrops to treasure.
August rain wasn’t something the village questioned. A place that old must surely be a few parts magic, and who knew what ancient charms clung to the brickwork? Old wisdom attached itself, collected in puddles, slipped under eaves and down chimneys. Wild magic loitered in lanes, cunning as magpies. If it danced by the door, the village knew the wisest move was to drop the latch. Myths were entwined with reality as tightly as the honeysuckle around the cottage doors.
And ghosts exchanged secrets with the shadows”

The village is a place of long memories, tradition and folklore, a place where is rains every day during August. Violet is damaged by the past, haunted by the memory of the child she lost, she hasn’t cried in fourteen years, but neither will she speak of the past. Lili is stuck in the middle, her relationship with her sister in law has never been easy, but she adores her young niece. However, once, Lili made Violet a promise, a promise she shouldn’t have, and is now struggling to keep.

As Cadi begins to press her aunt for information, becoming ever more desperate to understand the past and her mother’s coldness, Cadi is visited by the ghostly presence of Dora, the sister she never knew. Sitting under the trees overlooking the lake where Cadi is forbidden to go, the ghostbird gradually makes its presence felt, while Cadi tries hard to make sense of what is happening. Cadi’s awareness of this presence grows as the novel progresses and as Cadi gains a greater understanding of her own Hopkins gift.

This magical realism aspect is subtly done, both the natural world and the claustrophobia of family secrets playing their part. I’m generally not a great fan of magical realism, ghostly presences etc., but it certainly didn’t stop me enjoying this novel. Carol Lovekin’s sense of place is so beautifully done, I could imagine myself by the lake that Cadi defies her mother to swim in, walking through the village, or sitting in Lily’s magical garden. The myth laden Welsh countryside is a character in itself, and is brought evocatively to life with glorious descriptions.

Cadi’s relationship with her mother is painful to watch, Violet holds Cadi at a distance, leaving Cadi to lean more on more on Lili. As the novel progresses we learn something of the relationship between Violet and her own mother. There is a sense of history repeating itself, in this age old struggle between mothers and daughters. It isn’t surprising that Cadi has come to prefer her aunt to her mother.

“The air smelled of sun and grass, birds sang their territory songs and around the lake, small breezes sighed through the trees. Lili sat with her back against the sleeping stone. Cadi picked daisies, fashioning them into a chain.
‘Listen’ Lili said
Cadi said she couldn’t hear anything and Lili grinned and made a tutting sound.
They’d been lazing about for nearly an hour, watching the water boatmen skittering on the surface of the lake, eating apples and collecting minnows in a jam-jar. Defying Violet occasionally took precedence over prudence.”

Two arrivals in the village, a figure from Violet’s past and a woman from Cardiff bring change and possibly hope for the future.

Ghostbird is a thoroughly engaging, compelling read, Lili was my favourite character, I loved her quiet wisdom and the stories of the women who came before her. I particularly loved the Welsh lyricism of the narrative, and I am definitely looking forward to reading more by this author in the future.

carollovekin

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