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a-girl-in-wintyer

In September, Simon (stuckinabook) and Karen (Kaggsysbookishramblings) hosted the 1947 club. It was wholly because of that, that I came to hear about A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin. Until then I had, had no idea that Larkin had written anything other than poetry. A Girl in Winter was reviewed by a couple of other bloggers around this time, and it wasn’t long before I had bought a copy for myself.

A Girl in Winter is a real pleasure to read, from the opening page the prose sings, and the reader knows they are in the hands of a poet, and as the novel progresses, a skilled and subtle storyteller. It is a novel of summer and winter, of war and exile, exploring the difficulties we sometimes encounter trying to fully understand the people in our lives. Larkin’s sense of place is exquisite, the landscape of an English winter, snow lying across countryside, village and town, while a war rumbles on.

“It lay in ditches and in hollows in the fields, where only birds walked. In some lanes the wind had swept it up faultlessly to the very tops of the hedges. Villages were cut off until gangs of men could clear a passage on the roads; the labourers could not go out to work, and on the aerodromes near these villages all flying remained cancelled. People who lay ill in bed could see the shine off the ceilings of their rooms, and a puppy confronted with it for the first time howled and crept under the water-butt. The outhouses were roughly powdered down the windward side, the fences were half submerged like breakwaters; the whole landscape was so white and still it might have been a formal painting. People were unwilling to get up. To look at the snow too long had a hypnotic effect, drawing away all power of concentration, and the cold seemed to cramp the bones, making work harder and unpleasant. Nevertheless, the candles had to be lit, and the ice in the jugs smashed, and the milk unfrozen; the men had to be given their breakfasts and got off to work into the yards. Life had to be carried on, in no matter what circumscribed way; even though one went no further than the window-seat, there was plenty to be done indoors, saved for such time as this.”

The novel is told in three parts, with the first and final third ‘present day’ story taking place on one winter Saturday during the war, framing the middle, longer section which takes place six years earlier. We’re introduced to Katherine Lind a young woman, displaced by the war, now working as an assistant in the town library. Her boss is an inadequate bully, and Katherine has formed no lasting friendships among her work colleagues. After work, Katherine lives alone in a rented room, her life; one of unremarkable routine. On the day the novel opens Katherine is reminded of the Fennels, the family she stayed with for three weeks, six years earlier. As a girl, while still living in her own country (we’re never told which) Katherine had corresponded with Robin Fennel. She had laughed with her friends over his letters, astonished when an invitation to stay had come. Now Katherine awaits a reply to a letter she has written to Robin, informing him that she is back in England. While we’re never explicitly told where Katherine is from, and what might have happened to her family, there are suggestions that she has suffered some trauma. There is a sense of listless, resignation about Katherine, all those young hopes, she had once, have gone, she is lonely, and rather hopeless.

“But did she really care what she did in England? There would be other things for her to do, and whatever it was she would do it unwillingly, obstinately, as if she were working in a field; what she did would be emptied away like a painfully-filled basket, and her time would be spilled away with it. There would be sleep, simply to freshen her again for work; there would be other Miss Greens, Miss Parburys, Mr Ansteys; all of this was inescapable, and it did not matter if she accepted it or not. It accepted her.”

While at work that day, a colleague is taken ill and Katherine offers to accompany her home, it will give her a chance to call into her flat to see if a letter from Robin has arrived.

Six years earlier Katherine arrived in England for a three week stay with Robin’s family, she only knew him from his letters, which told her surprisingly little. Robin is reserved, difficult for Katherine to get a handle on, she is made very welcome by his family, although Robin’s elder sister Jane is a constant, not always welcome presence. As Katherine settles into her English holiday, she is constantly puzzled by Robin and irritated by Jane. She considers how the story of her holiday might sound, when she is back among her friends.

“Yet had it been terrible? On the evidence, yes. On her own feelings? She was not so sure.
For not all the holiday had depended on how Robin had behaved, or what he had said, or how Jane had acted. There were moments when she was alone that compensated for them. There was a time when she could not sleep, so she had leant out of her window to look at the moonlight, and the smell of the stocks and wallflowers had made her dizzy.”

This is summer and the days are long and warm, Katherine and Robin are still young, the world is full of possibilities. War, though anticipated has not yet cast its long and terrible shadow over Europe and the world. There is tennis, river punting and trips around Oxfordshire, and Katherine enjoys her quiet little holiday, which will be over far too soon. Katherine is developing a bit of a crush on her pen-pal, though Jane doesn’t give them chance to be alone.

As we re-join Katherine on that wartime, winter Saturday – she faces the prospect of reconnecting with Robin. She has yet another run in with her horrible boss, and suspects the girl she helped earlier has just come back and gossiped about her. Katherine is the outsider, and she feels it, despite the block she seems to have put on her emotions.

A Girl in Winter is a lovely novel, an emotionally astute, though slightly sad book, I loved it of course.

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Two new, old books

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I had to share my latest two book purchases with you – two books I have wanted for ages – I went in search and struck lucky.

Well I say lucky – neither book was that cheap – I paid rather more than I usually do for old books, and neither is in perfect condition. The dust-jackets are very fragile, though as one of them is over seventy years old, and the other only a decade younger, it is hardly surprising.

Love on the Supertax – Marghanita Laski (1944) – I first saw a review of this a few years ago, and had meant to go in search of a copy before. I have read all the Marghanita Laski books that have been re-issued by Persephone books so far, they are each so different, but the writing is wonderful and the characterisation spot on. The first Marghanita Laski I read was The Village, I found an old 1950s copy in excellent condition in the Castle bookshop in Hay on Wye while on a booky weekend with friends over ten years ago, I now have the Persephone edition too. I loved it and it is definitely overdue a re-read. This is a book I have huge confidence in – I just know I will love it – perhaps that confidence will be my undoing – we shall soon see.

The Indian Woman – Diana Gardner (1954) – Last year I read The Woman Novelist and other stories by Diana Gardner – it ended up on my books of the year list. Sadly, Diana Gardner wrote very little and her one published novel is hard to come by. I found two or three copies online all priced at around £20 – I hesitated for a week or so – as I couldn’t find anything about the book online, no reviews, no synopsis, I was nervous but I decided to take a chance. So, I have little confidence in this novel, I’m worried that if this book was any good it would be better known, someone, somewhere would have reviewed it, surely? Yet Gardner’s writing in that collection of stories is just sublime. We shall soon know, I can barely stand the suspense, I need to know if I have bought a dud, I shall start reading it tomorrow.

I’m pleased that each book has a tiny little inscription inside – the Laski – Xmas 1944 – sigh! I want to know who the people were.

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I need some advice on fragile paper dust-jackets – I have a few books with similarly fragile jackets, am I better to carefully mend them with tape (I am not interested in potential value) do I need that magic tape – or is sellotape ok? Should I remove jackets (obviously when reading – but generally too) and put them somewhere safe – or leave them completely as they are.

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Recently – last month in fact I read The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner which I loved, it reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. I already knew that her short stories are highly thought of but it was this collection of all of them that I particularly liked the sound of.

“It is nothing to children to lose their illusions, tadpoles are much more put about when they lose their tails.”

Scenes of Childhood and other stories – as the title suggests draws heavily upon STW’s own life, especially that of her childhood. Throughout this wonderful collection – Sylvia Townsend Warner appears as herself, as do other members of her family. It is hard to remember sometimes that this a collection of stories – however autobiographical, it often feels more like a collection of memoirs. Therefore, I suppose we must assume that STW been a little creative here and there, bringing her own great gift of storytelling to the entertaining stories within her own family. Although STW never wrote an autobiography, these pieces which were written at periods throughout her life – compiled into this volume after her death – make for a fabulous alternative.

Scenes of Childhood contain a large number of pieces and it would be impossible I think to talk about each of them, many are very short. In its entirety, the collection leaves the reader with a wonderful sense of the woman behind the stories and the family she came from. Her father was a housemaster at Harrow (where she was born) her mother an artist. In this collection, they are re-created with huge affection and humour. The woman who emerges from this collection is one who grew up deeply loved, within a family which gave her the room to develop into the woman who wrote the glorious Lolly Willowes.

We accompany the Warners on holiday to Wild Wales, where Sylvia was reunited with Johnnie and Nanny Blount – “a monolith devoted to duty” as STW describes her. Taking very seriously the moral welfare of her young charges Nanny Blount is especially fond of morning and evening worship. Sylvia’s most joyous remembrance of her is seeing her chased by cows after an altercation in a country lane. This opening story gets us off to a fine start, introducing us to a family it becomes a pleasure to spend time with. Sylvia remembers her mother’s artistic preparations before they set off.

“Before our summer holiday in Wales, with mountains and hydrangeas in mind, she laid in so many tubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean that I too young to have any geographical notions as to where we were going, knew for a certainty that Wales would be blue.”

Other stories, bearing such titles as: My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the poodle, Lord Kitchener and the mouse – relate small eccentric goings on in the Warner household. Lord Kitchener is a cat, the poodle was always just called the poodle. When Mrs Warner is disturbed on several nights by a mouse ‘gnawing’ and shaking the foot of the bed, her husband, the poodle and the cat are each called in to lend a hand, much to the bewilderment of their house-guests who are woken by the ensuing chaos.

As an older child, Sylvia recalls in a story called How I left the Navy – that one day arriving home in her lovely dapper little sailor suit she wore while enjoying winter activities with the British Navy – her mother suddenly ripped the little hat off her head and banned all further association. It was years before she knew why – that Mrs Warner had learned from a local gossip that the ship depicted on her daughter’s little hat, had been turned into a hospital ship for sailors with venereal disease. Mrs Warner is wonderfully reproduced here –in Fried Eggs are Mediterranean we see her and the family holidaying in the Devon countryside – experimenting with self-sufficiency (no servant), she spends each day trying to perfect boiled eggs – eventually hitting on the idea of reciting the fifty-first psalm in Latin as a means to time the perfect boiled egg.

Then there’s Stanley Sherwood; the story of a dreadful butler, who having loomed over the family with his ghastly smile for years, too good to be sacked but universally loathed, he returns as a fireman and takes his own peculiar revenge.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his clothes were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

How much of these stories are strictly true, I suppose we can’t really know – but I sort of hope (and now firmly believe) that they are absolutely all true; Nanny chasing cows, bedstead gnawing mice – I believe. Happily, these stories don’t just stop at childhood, we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as a young woman, organising a home for Belgian refugees, exploring churches and their bell towers while her dog barks furiously at the vicar. She recalls with gentle humour, arguments which ensue as members of a Dorset village organise celebrations for a coronation, which in the wake of the abdication must be changed to celebrate a George instead of an Edward.

This is a glorious collection; one I am certain I will revisit. I really don’t think Sylvia Townsend Warner is capable of writing anything that is not brilliant, though I still have two novels and several collections of stories to read.

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With thanks to the author for the review copy.

Miss Christie Regrets is the second book in the Hampshire Murders series. In the first book Death in Profile we were introduced to the police officers at Hamstead police station, they include DCI Tom Allen (very much an old-style copper), Simon Collison, now a superintendent, Inspector Bob Metcalf, and D S Karen Willis. In the previous book, we learned that Collison is a fan of Golden Age crime fiction, as is Peter Collins, Karen Willis’ former boyfriend who worked as a profiler on that previous case. The complicated lives and loves of the police team continue to run through the story of the latest murder case that they become embroiled in.

This series continues its affectionate nod to the world of Golden Age fiction, both in the occasional references to it made by the characters, and more importantly in the way the characters speak to each other, behave and the refreshing lack of bad language and gory details.

“A man sat with his back to the door, slumped forwards over a desk. A mass of congealing blood covered the top of his head and had run down the sides onto the desk. Some had gone further, dripping onto the floor. What looked like a police truncheon lay on the floor slightly to one side.”

That really is about as gruesome as it gets – and I, for one prefer it like that.

I loved the premise of this one – and it does work very well, it is cleverly plotted with everything tidied up satisfactorily in the end. Two murders separated by something approaching eighty years – couldn’t possibly be connected, could they? And if that isn’t tantalising enough; the Queen of crime herself, Agatha Christie – and the letters she left behind, become a key feature of the police investigation. As the case progresses Special Branch are even drawn into the affair – as secrets of national security are unearthed.

As the novel opens Karen Willis is on leave, still living with Peter, though they both know the relationship is over. They are attending an exhibition at Burgh House, in Hampstead, when a body is discovered on one of the floors above them. Howse; the man who has been killed was preparing exhibits for another exhibition about The Isokan, a block of flats nearby, where Agatha Christie among others, had lived for a short time. There were only a few people in Burgh house at the time of the murder – though the open door to the house has been left unattended and anyone could have walked in. Howse lived and worked in the building which was once his family home, as do the Baileys, who act as caretakers. It is revealed early on that Susan Bailey was having an affair with Howse, and her husband therefore, has reason to feel great resentment toward the victim. In the room, next to Howse’s, works Professor Hugh Raffen, he claims to have had little to do with Howse generally, although didn’t seem to like the man much at all.

Tom Allen, who Collison had replaced on the previous investigation, is made SIO of the case, and Karen Willis, returns from leave to help. Collison who has refused a promotion, is requesting the chance to head up another murder investigation, and is promised the next one to come along. Another investigation does come along, faster than anyone might have expected, but it turns out to be an historical investigation.

“The storage space contrived to feel both damp and dusty at the same time. A bare lamp hung unlit from the ceiling. An inspection light, presumably erected by the builders, blazed across the room casting stark shadows. Collison noticed that in some places not just the wallpaper but the plaster too had peeled off the wall.
‘That’s a cabin trunk,’ he said, looking at the piece of luggage. ‘Haven’t seen one for years, except in junk shops.’”

A body has been discovered by workmen, in a trunk behind a walled-up section of basement in the old Isokan building, about which Howse was preparing an exhibit. The coincidence is startling. Collison is put in charge of the investigation, though he quickly suspects there is a connection between his and DCI Allen’s case.

In the interests of honesty, I must admit to a couple of small reservations, nothing that spoiled my overall enjoyment though. For me there was just a little too much musing upon the physical attributes of woman police officers, and the effect of them upon their male counterparts. Thankfully however the women are allowed to be both attractive and highly competent. Despite the novel being a really good, quick and involving read I couldn’t help wonder if it wasn’t a bit long, personally I was less interested in the complex love triangle between Peter Collins, Bob Metcalf and Karen Willis – and one possible future storyline there makes me feel rather uncomfortable – though I am probably jumping the gun completely.

The characters are all really likeable and their stories which run through both this and the previous novel do an excellent job of involving the reader in not only the case but in the people whose job it is to solve it.

I was certainly not clever enough to guess the solution of this mystery which is pleasingly complex. The author’s own expert knowledge of police and legal procedure comes through, and lends an extra dimension of authenticity to the story.

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in-confidence

Translated by Eoin Bates and Sandrine Brisset.

Kindly sent to me by Sandrine Brisset – one of the translators.

Some time ago I read Dimanche and other stories – a collection of Iréne Némirovsky short stories re-issued by Persephone books. Since then, despite my best intentions I have only read one Némirovsky novel, Suite Française. I was delighted therefore to have to have the opportunity to read In Confidence a new collection of previously unpublished stories.

Famously of course several of Némirovsky’s works have been published decades after the author’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 when she was aged just 39. When she died, Némirovsky was already a published author, and for some a controversial one, due to the depiction of Jewish people in her work. Némirovsky had been baptised a catholic in 1939, but in 1940s Paris her Jewish heritage meant she was forced to wear the yellow star. I shudder now to imagine the fate of this wonderfully talented writer, a fate shared by so many whose talent and names remain unknown to us. Reading Némirovsky is always such a poignant reminder of this.

In this collection Némirovsky explores a variety of characters – mainly women – exposing their secrets and desires. Be it Parisian suburbs or small French towns, in the years between the wars, there is a wonderfully strong sense of place. Némirovsky’s canvases are small, her themes however are not. She examines the human condition, the things which go unspoken, the secrets, unexplained mysteries and histories behind the seemingly ordinary middle aged, middle class people  who we meet in her stories.

I’m sure lots of other people will be reading this collection soon, so I will merely attempt to give a slight flavour of the collection – which I think is absolutely superb.

There are eight stories in this collection, opening with Epilogue, in which an American woman, a pianist, confesses her darkest secret to a fellow regular in a bar she frequents.

An Honest Man, tells the sad story of an ageing man cut off from his once adored son, because the father suspects the son of theft. The father nurses his fury, and his own dark secret, disinheriting his son, and refusing to see him. As the father lies dying, the son arrives at a nearby hotel – hoping that his father will consent to see him one last time.

Lunch in September Thérèse Dallas, a married middle aged woman, is remined of a man she used to have a secret infatuation for, Suddenly, he appears and asks her to lunch.

The title story In Confidence – was undoubtedly my favourite. Blanche Lajunie feels her best years are behind her, approaching middle age she obliged to earn her living teaching the spoiled teenage daughter of relatives – among other pupils. On the morning the story takes place, she visits her doctor, before returning home where she gives lessons. Blanche understands how she is viewed by her pupil. While her pupil can only think about the handsome boy across the street, Blanche wishes only to share the story of her one great romance, when she was a young girl. Blanche Lajunie is a beautifully drawn character, Némirovsky shows us the sad quality of her life, the frustration of her position, equally well drawn is Colette her pupil.

“The indifferent crowd pushed her on. It was noon. All the shops and offices were closing their doors. Everyone was rushing. No one even glanced at her. No one would recognise this supreme effort of the propriety and dignity she was imposing on herself… But she would not give up. She would walk home. At the moment of her death she would be able to think in all honesty, ‘I was my own mistress until the very last day.’”

(In Confidence)

In a rather different little story, Magic tells the story of a man who whilst in Finland as a young man, joined in a group entertainment of ‘table-turning.’ The memory of the resulting magic stays with him for many years. It is a story which considers the question of destiny.

In The Fire Madame Georges and her husband pride themselves on their ability to haggle over the estates they wish to purchase. Their latest acquisition comes with a sitting tenant – who Madame Georges can’t get out of her head.

The Spell takes us to a Ukrainian town in the memory of a woman looking back to her childhood, and the visits she made to the family of her childhood friend Nina. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale of friendship, fortune telling and romance.

“On stormy days rainwater was collected in tubs, and all the women of the house washed their hair outdoors and then dried it in the sun; this is how I saw Klavdia Alexandrovna’s hair. It was a cloak of gold. I remained motionless, gazing in admiration at it. Her hair fell to her knees, its radiant colour shimmering in the light. Sofia Andreïevna was there too, half stretched out on a straw lounger. She was wearing a lilac dressing gown, open slightly on her heavy white chest. She caught me looking and started laughing. Her chin quivered slightly when she laughed and she had a kindly, gentle, wise expression.”

(The Spell)

The final story, Nativity concerns two sisters, one the youngest is about to be married, her elder sister about to give birth. Yvonne is blissfully content, her trousseau, the wedding gifts a fond fiancée – Brigitte, has reason to be less happy. Her marriage has been soured by her husband’s debts, infidelities and several pregnancies. Yvonne is shocked when her sister goes into labour – terrified by the sounds from the room next door.

In Confidence was a really excellent collection, Némirovsky’s writing is really very good, clear, insightful with sublime characterisation. I love her writing, and I am (again) determined to read more of her work soon.

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mothering-sunday

Mothering Sunday was my last read of December and therefore my final read of 2016. I have seen it appear on a few best of lists in the last couple of weeks – and I can understand why – it is a small novel of brilliant subtlety. This only the third Graham Swift novel I have read, and it reminds me what an excellent writer he is. I really should explore more.

I am purposely keeping this review short – this is a novel I wouldn’t want to spoil for those who haven’t read it yet.

The Majority of the novel takes place on one day, March 30th 1924, a day where the sun shines as if it were June. It is Mothering Sunday, the day when domestic staff are given a whole day to themselves. The day, when traditionally they go home to their mothers, a day when their employers must make other arrangements.

Throughout the novel, Swift drops in little glimpses of the past and the future, and in this way slowly builds up a portrait of a remarkable woman, who throws off the yoke of her birth, to become the sort of person she never would have dreamed of in her youth.

Jane Fairchild has been in service as a housemaid with the Nivens since she was sixteen. As an orphan, she has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, the entire day is her own. As the other servants of the district head off for a visit home, Jane has other plans entirely. She was going to have a day of quiet reading in the garden, Jane has taken to borrowing – with permission – books from the Nivens’ library. The telephone rings, and the day is changed.

“She descended the stairs, her fingers stroking the rail more out of delicate assessment than to steady herself. Where the stairs turned, stair rods gleamed. Ethel was no slouch. Below, the hall seemed to tense at her approach. Objects might have scuttled and retreated. They had never witnessed anything like this before. A naked woman coming down the stairs!”

Jane cycles off to Upleigh – a large neighbouring property, cycling right up to the front door, she is greeted happily by Paul Sheringham, the son of the house, a young man a year older than herself, his future so very different to hers. The Sheringhams are friends of the Nivens, who are all spending their difficult, servant-less day together in Henley.

“It was March 1924. It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June. And it must have been a little after noon. A window was flung open, and he walked, unclad, across the sun-filled room as carelessly as any unclad animal. It was his room, wasn’t it? He could do what he liked in it. He clearly could. And she had never been in it before, and never would again.
And she was naked too.”

Jane and Paul indulge in a morning of illicit passion. Later, while wondering about the Upleigh housemaid who will change and wash Paul’s bed sheets Jane lies back lazily, watching him dress. Paul is due to meet his fiancé and some friends for lunch, yet he appears in no hurry. In just two weeks Paul will be getting married to Emma, though he and Jane have been secret lovers for years.

By the end of that day Jane’s world will have shifted a little – and she will have taken a significant step toward the woman she will become.

“Not that it was really so much – the knowing and seeing – even in seventy, eighty, ninety years. ‘Her maid’s years,’ ‘her Oxford years,’ ‘her London years,’ ‘her Donald years.’ You lived in your own little cranny. Didn’t you?”

I loved the subtle, sensual quality of the prose, and the way Swift moves the narrative back and forth between Jane’s present and future self. Short novels often pack as much or more of a punch than fat books, and Mothering Sunday is a case in point. Not a word is wasted, and yet Graham Swift manages to convey the entire history of one woman in around 130 pages. It is quite simply a beautiful little novel.

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the-wind-changes

This is quite a difficult novel to review, it is fascinating in many respects – especially as it was Olivia Manning’s first novel. Though the plot – is a simple one, a portrait of three complex people set against a backdrop of rising tensions.

Olivia Manning is probably best known now for her Balkan and Levant trilogies. I read The Balkan Trilogy a very long time ago, and have been meaning to re-read it for a while. The Wind Changes was sent to me this Christmas by my Librarything Virago secret Santa, and I enjoyed it a lot.

The setting for The Wind Changes is Ireland, 1921 – just before the Anglo-Irish truce. Olivia Manning’s mother was from Ulster, and she spent many holidays in Galway and Co. Clare with her cousins. The descriptions of the beach at Carrickmoy are those of someone who knew the area viewing it with the nostalgia that the distance a few years and childhood memories bring.

“Strange things were washed ashore here. Here the children found the bodies of the whip-tailed skate and of devil fish that were good to eat but when caught had to be beheaded at sea that their frightful appearance might not frighten away custom. Sometimes they found dead monsters that, living, ventured so seldom toward the land there was no common name for them. Amongst the stones they found coins worn thinner than paper and the marvellous, fine vertebrae bones of great cod, and sometimes lifebelts and wreckage bearing the names of ships long ago lost and forgotten. Once they found a sailor’s tunic and once a plait of yellow hair.”

The novel opens as Elizabeth Dearborn a young art student and Arion, a middle-aged writer sit in a car in the mist awaiting the arrival of Sean Murtough at a pier in Ireland. Sean is an Irish republican rebel, Arion and Elizabeth sympathisers. Sean is young, but the Catholic rebels are looking to him to return Riordan their legendary leader from exile. The three are a peculiar group, and although Elizabeth has been sleeping with Arion – she is soon drawing closer to the younger Sean. Sean’s plan, the plan other republicans are counting on is to bring Riordan back to Dublin by the end of that week, where he will take his rightful place as their leader and start to heal the wounds left by the memory of the Easter rising of 1916.

“The evening began to fall. Outside Ballingar their way was barred by a crowd that flowed loosely and waveringly over the road. Men and women stood talking in twos and threes. They talked with the eager impotence of anger whilst large groups of police and Black and Tans, arm in arm for mutual protection, moved silently round the fringe, Sean blew his horn. People turned their faces whitely towards the car but did not move. The police made no attempt to clear a way. Their power had gone. Had they given an order it would have been an excuse for a riot.”

Sean is a crusader, subject to mood swings and self-doubt – he is too reliant upon Arion to be a credible instigator of dangerous plots. Sean doesn’t much like Elizabeth at first, later his dreams of a united Ireland means he has little interest in spending time with Elizabeth really. Sean is sick, he believes himself doomed, dying of consumption like two of his brothers and a grandfather, his third brother was killed during the Easter Week Rising, shot by the English.

Elizabeth, with her memories of a childhood spent largely in Carrickmoy, is lonely, unsure of what it is she wants from her life, or how to go about finding it. Elizabeth is most surely a portrait of Olivia Manning herself as Isobel English asserts in her introduction to this VMC edition. Olivia Manning; had admitted to great loneliness around this period, had studied art, had connections to Ireland and appears to have had her own opinion about the British rule in Ireland.

Arion is an Englishman, a novelist he also reports on the troubles for an English newspaper. He has left his wife some years earlier, and has two daughters and a son still at Eton. Arion is a republican sympathiser, but his English accent can either get him into trouble or out of it when the Black and Tans are stopping cars on the road out of Dublin.

All three are separated and oddly connected by their loneliness none of them seem happy. Tension builds as the week progresses. The scent of betrayal is in the air as the day for Riordan’s return draws nearer.

I really enjoyed Olivia Manning’s writing, and it has made me keener than ever to re-read The Balkan Trilogy.

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