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Every now and then I read a review of a novel – where the reader admits to not having liked the book because they didn’t like the character(s). While I understand that readers need to be able to engage with characters on some level, I never feel I have to actually like them – I often find unlikeable characters fascinating. Nevertheless, I feel I should issue you with a warning – if you don’t engage with unlikeable characters – steer well clear of Narcissa.

In Stella Markham, Richmal Crompton has created a monstrous narcissist, hiding behind a constantly evolving role that she has perfected. There is a lot that is unsettling about this novel, Richmal Crompton has created a character who – though perhaps not very subtly drawn – is horrifying and just real enough to haunt the reader after the book is closed. I admit I could barely put it down.

We first meet Stella in 1887, when she is just a little girl. Seemingly, a perfect Victorian child, Stella was orphaned when she was quite tiny, and lives with her Aunt Fanny. Fanny adores Stella, is inordinately proud of her – desperate to save her from the desolate kind of childhood she herself endured. Most of Stella’s days, are spent alone with Fanny in her large, gracious home in Runeham, where Fanny strives to teach Stella herself. There comes a point when Fanny decides, somewhat reluctantly that Stella needs a governess, Fanny has been finding it harder to teach her – and so it is with some nervousness that she engages Miss Fairway. Miss Fairway is a sensible, experienced middle-aged woman, weary from a succession of dull posts, she is soon under the spell of this loveliest of children too. For a time, the household is perfectly happy, Miss Fairway is blissfully happy in her new post, dimly aware that little Stella is very good at diverting her governess away from the things she doesn’t enjoy learning – like division and historical dates. The summer slips along perfectly pleasantly– until, that is, things don’t go Stella’s way. There comes a day when suddenly, Miss Fairway finds her view of Stella utterly changed.

“She thought of Stella, so sweet and docile and affectionate and suddenly she realised that though she had believed herself supremely happy in this house, there was nothing she so much wanted as to get away from it, nothing she so much longed for as a rough, noisy, naughty, normal child….”

The few playmates who are occasionally invited worship Stella too. There is Hugh Carlswell – the son of Sir Miles and Lady Carlswell – already a young squire in the making, though one with the beginnings of a social conscience – he wants to do things differently from his father. Biddy is the vicar’s daughter, endlessly untidy, badly dressed and with a mop of red hair – Biddy is slavishly devoted to her beautiful little friend. Paul Sanders is the son of a school master – though his mother (seen by ‘society’ as impossible) means Fanny doesn’t really consider him a suitable friend – though she acknowledges he is a perfectly nice, well-spoken child. Paul adores Stella too, to him she is nothing short of perfection and Stella is kind to him accepting of his society. When Biddy’s cousin Doreen comes to stay, Biddy can’t wait to introduce her to Stella. But, Doreen isn’t so easily beguiled by Stella – and sees something in her that the others can’t.

“‘Isn’t she sweet?’ said Biddy enthusiastically as the two little girls walked back to the Vicarage. ‘Isn’t she just as sweet as I told you she was?
‘She’s terribly pretty’ said Doreen slowly.
‘I don’t mean only that.’ Said Biddy, ‘she’s so kind…wasn’t she lovely to Paul Sanders, just because he’s well – he’s quite a common boy and hadn’t been asked there?’
‘Y-yes,’ agreed Doreen judicially, ‘but she was – being her person.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘I’m not quite sure, but she’s got a person – a lot of people have you know – and she – well, she does her person.’
‘Do you mean that you think she’s really different from what she seems?’ asked Biddy. Her small round face was pink with indignation at the idea.
Doreen was silent again. She considered the question thoughtfully, impersonally.
‘No… I daresay she’s the same as her person quite often, but she likes watching herself being it.’”

We follow Stella as she grows up into a beautiful young woman, caring for her ailing aunt – young men vying for her attentions. She marries, has two children, her life taking her away from Runeham. As the years pass, poor, gullible Biddy is astounded by the number of people who seem to be unkind to Stella, who don’t seem to appreciate her goodness, the sacrifices she has made for her family. Stella is obliged to move her family around from place to place – each move seems to make the family poorer – and in every place, there is someone who Stella doesn’t like. Everywhere, Stella plays her part, whatever role she has assigned herself she plays it to the full, sacrificing everyone she loves to her own vanity.

“I don’t think that people are people to her any longer. They’re just mirrors. If she can see the right picture of herself in them, she likes them. If she can’t, she dislikes them.”

Stella is a remarkable creation – and Crompton’s storytelling here is hugely compelling. Certainly, this novel is not as nostalgically cosy as Leadon Hill or The Old Man’s Birthday – which I read a couple of years ago – or as perfect as A Family Roundabout. Narcissa is altogether more unsettling, a page turner – where the reader has little hope of a happy ending.

richmal crompton

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The librarything Virago group are reading Margaret Kennedy novels during October, and so last month I went in search of something to read for it. I bagged myself a 1955 edition of The Oracles. I was delighted when it arrived, to find it was absolutely pristine. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it had even been opened at all, in the past sixty years. It turned out to be quite an unusual story, but one that is very engrossing.

The Oracles tells the story of the small community of East Head, somewhere off the Bristol channel, and the chain of peculiar events that are visited upon its inhabitants in the wake of a large storm. The storm came on a Saturday night, returning on the Sunday, causing damage to the power station and extinguishing lights all over the small town. The ferocity of the storm caused fright and unease among the people of the town, bringing back memories of the air raids during the war. The only damage was to an old tree in the middle of a field behind the town.

The tree was the playground of a group of neglected children – the children of artist Conrad Swann and his girlfriend Elizabeth – five children, two families brought together in what the locals consider scandalous circumstances. Here the children built dens among the branches, hid themselves from the strange forms that Conrad created, made believe and fought the demons of their fertile imaginations that they called the ‘artifaxes’. Serafina is the eldest and has tried to be the little mother to them all – but it’s all getting too much for a child of ten. An old garden chair that the children had used to mount the tree, was twisted into a strange and unrecognisable shape by the lightning strikes, and when the children unknowingly move the strange object to the shed where Conrad had previously stored his much-awaited new sculpture, the stage is set for all kinds of misunderstanding and artistic snobbery.

A young local couple’s marriage is at the heart of the story, Dickie married pretty Christine two years earlier, and they now have an infant son. Dickie has recently become an admirer of artist Conrad Swann, and has even received an invitation to his much talked about party. Christine’s concerns are different to Dickie’s she rather enjoys gathering in the town Pavilion for tea and gossip, her horizons are smaller. Dickie has begun to find her conversation rather limited and has to stop himself from wincing whenever she calls the sitting room, the lounge (nothing wrong with lounge!). Their young marriage is put under severe strain when they find themselves on opposite sides of an artistic wrangle, not really helped when Dickie accuses Christine of being provincial. Christina is hurt, but she isn’t faultless either. Her friend the vicar’s wife tries to talk to her honestly but Christina isn’t quite ready to hear it.

“ ‘You never seem to grow up. You’re still the same complacent little thing you were in High school. It quite shocks me to hear the way you order Dickie about. No wonder he snaps! I don’t want to be disagreeable. But I do think you’re making a terrible mistake. When people marry they… they both change a little, and grow up together, and help each other to face life. But they must be ready to alter their points of view to suit each other. A married couple… they aren’t just two people. They can be one person, in a sort of way; a kinder, wiser person than either of them could have been alone, because two people’s experience has been put in to it…’ ”

The Oracles of the title are a group of provincial art appreciators and intellectuals who pounce upon the former chair, mistaking it for a piece of modern art by Conrad Swann, and set about bullying their fellow townspeople into buying it for the town with public money. The group are led by Mrs Rawson – who is terribly blind in her artistic snobbery.

Meanwhile Conrad goes missing as people gather for a party at his house, on the Sunday evening of the storm. One of the guests is Elizabeth’s husband – Conrad’s best friend and art dealer Frank Archer. It is perhaps surprising that Frank Archer is one of the most level headed, measured characters in the book. It is perhaps less surprising that several of the characters are really quite unlikeable. However, as I have said before – I do rather like, an unlikeable character.

With Conrad nowhere to be found, and without a thought for anyone else, particularly her children, Elizabeth decides to take herself off to London, leaving a bit of money in a drawer for Seraphina. The abandoned children are happy enough to start with – but it isn’t long before they begin to long for someone to come, someone who will look after them, they are hungry and dirty and all alone. Seraphina is eventually forced to take action – if only the grownups arguing and posturing over a piece of art can be made to stop long enough to hear her cries.

“she had little trust in grown-up people but she still retained some crumbs of faith in certain natural laws. Children, so she believed, were never left alone, quite alone, in a house. She had never heard of that happening. There was always some older person, of very little use perhaps, but a symbol of responsibility. Orphans were put into orphanages because it was impossible that children should be in a house alone. Conrad had gone. Elizabeth was going. Somebody, therefore, was bound to come.”

It is the plight of the children – for whom, naturally we feel for most, the lack of care and concern by Elizabeth and Conrad is horrifying – and they never really answer for it either. The story of a piece of old storm damaged debris being mistaken for modern art is one that should be quite funny – but Kennedy makes this a much more complex story than that. One which shows us that she really understands how people work, and how small communities can operate.

The Oracles was an excellent read, a slightly unusual story perhaps, suffused with tension, it’s one I thoroughly enjoyed.

margaret kennedy

strong poison

(I am amused by this vintage cover of Strong Poison – who the people in that image are supposed to be I can’t imagine.)

I really haven’t read enough Dorothy L Sayers – and yet this was a re-read – I first read it about five years ago, but it has served to remind me how I really need to read more by Sayers who was a superb writer.

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”

It is in Strong Poison that we – and indeed Lord Peter – first meet Harriet Vane, a mystery writer she remains largely in the background in this novel, really only featuring in a couple of scenes. She was to become a very important figure in many later Sayers novels. Harriet is on trial for Murder; Lord Peter in the public gallery is convinced she is innocent. Thankfully Lord Peter’s employee Miss Climpson happens to be on the jury and although not prompted by Lord Peter – she too believes the prisoner innocent. An indomitable character; Miss Climpson sticks to her guns throughout the jury deliberations and ensures that a verdict cannot be reached. The judge – who is quite obviously seriously prejudiced against Harriet; labelled an immoral woman leading a bohemian lifestyle – orders a new trial.

“ ‘What did you think of the verdict?’
The clerk pursed up his lips.
‘I don’t mind saying I was surprised. It seemed to me a very clear case. But juries are very unreliable, especially nowadays, with women on them. We see a good deal of the fair sex in this profession,’ said the clerk, with a sly smile ‘and very few of them are remarkable for possessing the legal mind.’”

Lord Peter is relieved to have time to investigate to truth of the matter, though will it be enough time? There is really very little in the way of defensive evidence. The victim; Philip Boyes was Harriet Vanes former lover, murdered by arsenical poisoning – his last meal he shared with his cousin and the servants and they suffered no ill effects. A few hours later Boyes is taken ill shortly after drinking coffee with Harriet Vane in her flat. Over the previous few months Boyes had suffered from terrible attacks of gastritis, as evidenced by a friend who he holidayed in Wales with shortly before his death. Harriet certainly had motive – Boyes is shown to have been a thorough pig, and it doesn’t help that Harriet has been buying up arsenic as part of her research for her latest book. Peter knows there are three possibilities, he was murdered by Harriet Vane – we obviously know that is not the case, he committed suicide, or was murdered by someone else. Wimsey is convinced he was murdered – and it isn’t long before he settles on a culprit – but how was the thing done?

The plot is ingenious – true it is obvious whodunit. In a way the who is less important in this novel, it is the howdunit that keeps the reader guessing. Ably assisted by his butler, the utterly marvellous Bunter and Miss Climpson and the ladies of The Cattery – a typing bureau that is really a bureau of investigation funded by Wimsey, Lord Peter sets out to prove Harriet Vane innocent. The fact that he has immediately fallen in love with her and proposes to her upon first meeting her in prison adds a little flavour of romance, and perhaps unbelievability to the story.

My very small book chose to read Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers in October – perhaps not the first title one might think of for a feminist book group – but we actually found lots to talk about. We considered the obvious aspects of the novel – the prejudice of society (particularly men) against Harriet Vane, as she stands accused of murdering a man she has co-habited with. Sayers however is definitely telling us something about these societal attitudes in her depiction of several minor male characters. During our group discussion on Wednesday evening we also considered the imbalance of power between Lord Peter Wimsey – who sweeps in to save the day – while Harriet is seemingly almost defenceless at the mercy of a system that is highly prejudiced – in danger of being hanged for a crime she didn’t commit. Among other things we also considered the lot of poor, middle aged women like Miss Climpson, Miss Murchison and the ladies of the Cattery and whether their dependence upon Wimsey as the source of their employment, in fact negates their apparent independence. We also talked about class, Peter is an aristocrat after all – but several friendships and romances cross the social divide – highlighting perhaps the changing times in which Sayers was writing. We all utterly adored Miss Climpson, and I think we all pretty much loved Harriet too – and wished there had been more of her in the novel.

“Philip wasn’t the sort of man to make a friend of a woman. He wanted devotion. I gave him that. I did, you know. But I couldn’t stand being made a fool of. I couldn’t stand being put on probation, like an office-boy, to see if I was good enough to be condescended to. I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn’t believe in marriage – and then it turned out that it was a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough. Well, it wasn’t. I didn’t like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize.”

I found this overall to be a thoroughly entertaining read, and for those readers new to Dorothy L Sayers it would make a pretty good one to start with, but I think I got more from it this time as a re-read than I did when I first read it. I also recommend it as a book group read – it is sometimes surprising which books make for the best discussions. The very small book club now boasts an awe-inspiring eight members! Two of those join remotely via the wonder that is Twitter– and there are now six of us who meet in person (admittedly two couldn’t make it on Wednesday). I love this group.

dorothy l sayers

the ghostly lover

First things first, let’s get it out of the way – this title is terrible. No doubt the title wouldn’t have been quite so cringey when it was first published in 1945 – however these days a title like that makes us think of Mills and Boon. Elizabeth Hardwick however is a serious writer – and The Ghostly Lover; her first novel is pretty serious, don’t let that title fool you.

I had read this novel before – probably almost thirty years ago – I remembered the title and the cover and nothing else really except that I found it quite hard going. Now I know why, The Ghostly Lover is an intelligent, introspective coming of age novel – which I can’t imagine having engaged with in my late teens, but which I enjoyed very much indeed this time around. Four years ago, I read Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights – which is an altogether different kettle of fish, it’s an elegant novel of little plot, beautiful imagery and quiet wisdom. The work of an older more accomplished writer. The Ghostly Lover, however is an astonishingly good first novel – and I remain a fan of Elizabeth Hardwick’s.

“Life seemed to be an enormous subterranean existence in which nobody spoke and in which people died for want of a few words they needed.”

Marian Coleman is sixteen in the long hot summer of depression era Kentucky. Marian and her brother Albert have been living with their grandmother, while their unreliable parents are absent, moving from job to job, chasing the seemingly unobtainable American dream. Sitting on the porch of her home as the novel opens, Marian becomes aware of a man watching her. Bruce, is a neighbour, ten years older, he is already divorced, and rather attractive, he wanders over to talk to her. As Marian sits talking to Bruce that day, she is awaiting the return of her parents, who have been absent on this occasion for two years. Their return is anticipated with a mixture of nerves and excitement.

Lucy and Ted; Marian and Albert’s parents arrive, late at night hours after they were expected, and immediately begin to upset the quiet balance of the household. They are disorganised and incapable of good parenting, but Marian has yet to realise this, sorry that soon they will be off again, her father chasing yet another job that will make their fortune. When Lucy’s childhood friend Mary calls, and suggests to Lucy that perhaps her daughter might have need of her, Lucy is unrepentant, determined to see Marian as grown up enough to do without her.

“‘I know everyone thinks it’s terrible that I go away and leave the children. I know they think it’s disgraceful that we can’t stick to anything.’ Lucy paused, and she saw that Mary’s face was heavy with emotion. She was like a child, gratefully partaking of some choice confidence. Lucy thought sadly that there must always be women like Mary in the world, women with faces that showed deep concern over ever triviality, women who wore the drawn brow of sympathy like an emblem, who specialized in the quick, hushed, understanding reply. Now she had nothing to say. Whatever she hoped to tell had vanished. ‘I simply cannot live here,’ she said and turned away.”

Hattie is the young black cleaner who works for the family, a sharp tongued, cynical young woman, with whom Marian attempts to have some kind of superficial friendship. Through Marian’s critical examination of her attitude to Hattie, Hardwick touches on race relations in the South at this time (there is some use of language we wouldn’t use now, although it is in keeping with the times the novel was written in, and is not overly offensive.)

“There had never been a real stranger in this house: only the native. Dark ones, swarthy-skinned, strange-tongued, foreigners with thick, alien eyebrows never entered the unknown homes, the America lying cunning and anonymous in the rich earth. In every corner, in every face, there was a quiet, lawful, unchallenged exclusiveness, unplanned, unrecorded and violent. But the members of the family made strangers of themselves to elude and trick the pale faces the soft voices, the calm acceptance. Mother, daughter, father, and friend; each behind the mask saying, in steady rhythm to the heartbeat, in answer to the actuality within him, the relentless refrain: They would die if they knew

The Ghostly Lover of the title is Bruce – largely absent in the novel – he is the provider of Marian’s first significant male attention. During their short sojourn at home, Marian waits for her parents to show their disapproval – Bruce is after all ten years older, and Marian little more than a child – naturally they don’t and even then, Marian seems to know that this is all wrong.

Marian decides to go to college in New York, a year for which, strangely perhaps, Bruce pays. Here Marian lives in a hostel with other young women who are studying alongside her – develops new relationships, sometimes remembers Bruce, writing letters to her mother and grandmother – still in denial at her mother’s hopelessness. It is during her letter writing home that Marian makes a discovery about her grandmother, altering her view of her a little. There are some wonderful peripheral characters, one of the most fascinating (and elusive) is Gertrude – a woman living in the hostel, she is an older woman, foreign and rather awkward – she attaches herself to Marian, and then suddenly disappears.
In time, Marian is forced to recognise her parents for who they are when she pays them a visit, shocked by their selfishness and greed – she is finally ready to make her own way in the world.

Last week was such a slow reading week that I actually took six days to read this novel which is less than 300 pages, in one way that was hugely frustrating, however I was forced to appreciate Elizabeth Hardwick’s beautiful intelligent writing, which I think benefits from reading slowly. In the end, it was a joy spending such a lot of time with this novel. I look forward to reading more by Elizabeth Hardwick, hopefully I won’t wait so long next time.

Elizabeth Hardwick

familiar passions

During September the Virago group over on Librarything were reading the novels of Nina Bawden, Familiar Passions was the second I read, and my final read of the month.

In this novel Nina Bawden considers how those familiar passions of the title – which are found within all families – are apt to be repeated in successive generations.

Bridie Starr is a mere thirty-two – and perhaps the one thing that dates this really very good novel is that Bridie is viewed by almost everyone around her as being more matronly than any thirty-two-year-old is seen these days. At nineteen Bridie married James, swapping the warmth and security of her parents’ home – where she was their most cherished adopted child (they lost a child in infancy) – for marriage, motherhood and a new name.

“Bridie, love,’ he said. ‘Bridie Starr. A pretty name. At least I gave you that, if nothing else. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be Mary Mudd.”

Before her marriage she was Mary, but her insufferable, new husband’s mother bestowed the name Bridie upon her and it stuck. Step-mother to James’s two children, of whom she was very fond, Bridie later had her own daughter Pansy – now eleven and at boarding school.

After an expensive dinner on their thirteenth wedding anniversary – James drives Bridie home in silence – where he calmly announces that he wishes their marriage to end. James explains that he is being transferred to Paris, that he doesn’t want Bridie to accompany him, but in fact remain behind as a sort of housekeeper to take care of the house and perhaps cater for any future guests. Nice! We are left in no doubt about what kind of a man Bridie has been married to, an unpleasantly selfish man – who congratulates his wife on having produced a pretty daughter – what with her being adopted he could never be sure what genes she might be passing on. Bridie leaves the family home in the very early morning, going straight to her parents’ home in London – with not too much regret for the marriage that is behind her. Hilary and Martin Mudd envelope her immediately in their unconditional parental love and support – outraged at the treatment of their daughter by her thoughtless husband.

“Standing at the foot of her parents’ double bed, raincoat dripping on the fluffy carpet, Bridie smiled. How James would laugh if he could these tired old phrases – what he had called her mother’s ‘original remarks.’ How dare he laugh, she thought, remembering with shame how she had once laughed with him. How sycophantic she had been, how treacherous, how ignorant! Her mother simply spoke as she thought and felt, innocently using, in pain or happiness, the words others had used before. And why not? The crucial human situations never changed.”

Bridie is afraid though that she will have no future. Feeling rather redundant back in her parents’ house, she is worried for the relationship she has with her step-daughter who is about to become a mother – and wondering how her daughter Pansy will react to the news. Having spent some time back in the parental home, Bridie takes over the flat of an elderly lady – Miss Lacy, a patient of her Psychiatrist father. Visiting her sister in America Miss Lacy requires a tenant to care for her cat Balthazar. Bridie is grateful for what she sees as a temporary refuge.

Bridie realises that she wants to know something of her own mysterious past, following a conversation with a lonely old woman at the side of a canal.

Bridie decides to ask her dad about the circumstances of her adoption – and surprisingly he points her toward her adoptive mum, saying – that she had known her mother best after all. Gradually the story of Bridie’s birth mother and the circumstances surrounding Bridie’s birth during the Second World War is revealed, unearthing family secrets.

Bridie sets off on a journey to retrace the steps of her birth mother and adopted mother – who both spent time sheltering in the countryside during the Second World War. It was a time of isolation – the men off fighting there was little to do in the countryside marooned in a tiny cottage with an ailing aunt or on a farm with two young children to keep occupied. Bridie learns something about her birth mother’s unhappy marriage, and the mistake she made during the war which resulted in Bridie (then Mary). Bridie finds the farm where her birth mother was staying during the war, and here she meets Philip, it’s pretty much lust at first sight, and she is soon back in her flat practically waiting by the telephone – in the way one did in those far off days before mobile phones.

As Bridie contemplates the possibility of meeting the woman who gave birth to her, her parents are anticipating the arrival of Martin’s two warring sisters – who have not spoken in many years.

As I have said before Bawden writes families perfectly – and she does so here too. It is very much a novel of the seventies – women marry young, are dependent upon men and either seek to replace them when everything goes wrong, or, as in the case with Bridie’s birth mother, stick with destructive relationships.

NinaBawden2

The prince's boy

I feel as if I was introduced to Paul Bailey by Elizabeth Taylor – it is said (how true this is I don’t know) that the young Paul Bailey was the inspiration behind the character of Ludo in her 1971 novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. He has also written introductions to many VMC titles, so despite having been aware of Paul Bailey for a number of years I had yet to read one of his novels. I seem to have started with Bailey’s most recent novel – despite having his first novel already tbr.

I bought The Prince’s Boy in Shakespeare and company while I was on a little trip to Paris – admittedly I was rather attracted to the cover. Reading it was a lovely little reminder of that trip – and the all too brief minutes I spent in that famous shop.

The story spans approximately forty years, moving from Paris to Bucharest and London, as we follow the emotional life of Dinu Grigorescu. In many ways, not a huge amount happens in this novel, it is the characters and their emotional and artistic lives which we explore here. The prose is deceptively simple – but flawless, and not a word is wasted in this short novel, which can be surprisingly moving at times.

In 1927 Dinu a naïve nineteen-year-old, newly arrived in Paris from Bucharest, is still deeply grieving the death of his beloved mother. Dinu is met by his older worldlier cousin Eduard. Ready at last, to taste something of life, Dinu is drawn, nervously to the Bains du Ballon d’Alsace a place notorious in Paris for offering men ‘something different’ – whatever that might be. Here Dinu meets Răzvan, (professionally named Honoré) a man already in his thirties – who Dinu is immediately captivated by. Răzvan is a fellow Rumanian, once the adopted child of a respected, wealthy man, he was the Prince’s boy, and now entrances Dinu with stories of Proust. Răzvan is Dinu’s teacher in so many ways of the world and in the ways of love. The love between these two men is sensual and very touching – destined to last a lifetime.

“It is love I am writing about here, in this memoir of a life half-lived. I have mentioned the railway porter and my inexplicable longing for him and his re-emergence as Honoré and then Răzvan. I have documented as a fact that I was drawn in my youth to men who were hairy and muscular, who represented a manliness denied me by nature. That fact, which alarmed and mystified me in the summer of 1927, causes me wry amusement now, for the brute I met in squalid circumstances on May 26 of that fateful year was none other than a prince’s boy, the adopted child of a man of exquisite refinement, who had shaken the limp hand of Marcel Proust and mingled with artists I could only dream of meeting.”

However, the summer in Paris at Dinu’s wealthy father’s expense cannot last forever – and soon Dinu is headed back to his father’s house in Bucharest. Here he finds a new stepmother installed at home – and a stepsister – and Dinu is swamped by memories of his gentle mother. It is Amalia, Dinu’s step-mother who first realises that Dinu is hiding a secret. Life in Bucharest is slower and more traditional than the life he lived in Bohemian Paris – and Dinu misses Răzvan who he knows he won’t be able to see for ages.

“Where could I hide the photograph of Răzvan? That was my first thought as I walked into the room I had been absent from all summer. Then I wondered if there was any reason why I should conceal it. He was the friend I had made in Paris, who had turned out to be the ideal companion and guide to the city for the uninformed and guileless Dinu Grigorescu. I had no cause to be secretive about this man in his late thirties, handsome as he was, captured smiling at the camera by a street photographer on the Champs-Elysées. No one was to know, unless I told them, that he was my deflowerer, my consummate and passionate love, my precious Răzvanel.”

Dinu and Răzvan’s relationship is complicated by very long periods apart, surviving on occasional letters – largely written in code. Over time, Dinu starts to learn a bit about Răzvan’s early life – and struggles to help him with the dark depressions that swamp him from time to time.

From his home in London in the 1960s – where he fled following the political upheaval of the 1940s – Dinu remembers Răzvan, and the years they spent together – years he describes as having been like a marriage.

The Prince’s Boy is something of a slow burn but I really enjoyed it – subtle and very evocative of place – it is elegantly moving, and eminently readable.

paul bailey

nor

Seeing this novel being offered up on Twitter I nabbed myself a copy – I knew I was going to be in need of a good bit of escapism during September and this novel fitted the bill perfectly.

The simple blurb on the back of The Fourteenth Letter promises the inexplicable murder of an innocent young girl in Victorian London, and a summer of dangerous secrets. However, this historical mystery, has much more going on than I had first expected. It actually gets pretty dark. Claire Evans recreates the sprawling London streets of the late nineteenth century perfectly – with its hidden compounds, genteel squares and grand houses nestling alongside dark alleys and the seething mass of humanity at the London docks. Classical history and a sinister secret society are woven into this very readable debut.

“The man raised his arm, pointing his hand and the object it carried towards Benjamin. The crowd gasped, the knife a conductor’s baton delivering their cue.
The man’s gaze followed the line of his outstretched arm as he spoke to Benjamin. ‘I promised I would save you.’

On a warm June evening in 1881 Phoebe Stanbury stands in the midst of the guests assembled to celebrate her engagement to Benjamin Raycraft, the son of the renowned Sir Jasper. As the party gets underway – a heavily tattooed, naked man rushed through the doors of the orangery and slashes Phoebe’s throat.

The next day, in another part of the city, young legal clerk William Lamb leaves the comfortable home he shares with his aunt as usual – and plunges into a world of dangerous confusion. Visiting an important client of his benefactor Mr Bridge, William meets the mysterious Mr Habborlain and his sinister butler Fischer. Habborlain gives William a strange, enigmatic message ‘Tell Bridge the finder knows’– before rushing off, and William’s life will never be the same again.

“William stumbled on to the train at Hammersmith and took a seat, uncertain which stop would take him to Red Lion Square. He didn’t even know if the train was early or late – in fact he had no idea what time it was. He removed his pocket watch – half past four. Was that right? He hadn’t checked the time since before Mr Bridge returned to the office, the routine act of another lifetime.”

Gun toting American; Savannah Shelton, is watching a house in one of London’s genteel squares, working for a man named Pincott. Wanted for murder in the US, Savannah has a heart of gold, and a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Savannah is a glorious creation – living on the fringes of society like so many others at this period – she is not an obvious friend for nervous, quiet living William Lamb to make.

“Savannah Shelton tramped down the street towards Red Lion Square, looking everyone she passed straight in the eye. Most of them immediately looked down. or found their attention caught by something rather interesting over there. Some managed to hold her gaze for a fraction long enough to see the olive skin, the jet black hair scraped into a ponytail, the fierce almond eyes, and thin red scar that meandered from her temple to beneath her left cheekbone.”

Meanwhile, a young woman named Mildred Whitfield answers an advert for a governess, meeting the impossibly beautiful Vicomtesse Adeline de Bayeau at her rooms at a city hotel. Mildred is about to undergo a truly horrifying ordeal, but she is a tough, resourceful woman, and is not so easily broken.

It is detective Harry Treadwell who is put in charge of the Phoebe Stanbury case, something which surprises quite a few people. Small, middle aged, bow tie wearing Harry is not very popular with his colleagues, he has the reputation for being a bit plodding and easily distracted. A few years earlier Harry uncovered a web of corruption, and the scandal came close to ruining him. Now he is a saddened man his beloved wife dead, his angry grieving son has turned his back on him. Now Harry sets about investigating Phoebe Stanbury’s horrific death – an investigation which is set to get daily more complex and surprising. Harry starts with the Raycraft family – a family he soon starts to suspect may have a few secrets of their own – why was it that Sir Jasper didn’t attend the engagement party?

The story is told through multiple points of view and this certainly helps to drive the narrative along at a pretty cracking pace. The most compelling characters are Harry, Savannah and Mildred. The Fourteenth Letter, is not my usual kind of read – and although I generally don’t much care for heavily plot driven narratives – I did enjoy this one, though there were elements of the plot I found rather far fetched. Overall though, this is a really good debut – and did provide me with some great escapism when I really needed it.

claire evans