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the white monkey
It is always really difficult to review books that are a part of a series; I am never sure how interesting they are for others. Still this blog is driven entirely by what I read and what I like. Reviews aside, I am so glad that I embarked upon this reading challenge; it is hugely readable and ever so slightly addictive. The first three books of The Forsyte Saga are I suppose the best known, they are the books that have been televised – twice – and so often, as I can attest, the only volume some people read – (I originally read it and forget there were two other volumes). Galsworthy wrote the second and third volumes of his Forsyte chronicles a number of years after the first volume, with the three books of the third volume not published until the 1930’s. The Forsyte Saga earned John Galsworthy the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932.

Forsytesaga2The White Monkey is the first novel in John Galsworthy’s second Forsyte trilogy, entitled A Modern Comedy and is the fourth book out of the total nine that I plan to read this year. I am devastated (that is no understatement) to discover that this second trilogy should contain two interludes (like in the first volume) and my copy doesn’t. I may have to go in search of e-book copies of them.

The year is 1922; the Labour party are in the ascendency, The Great War still a bitter memory. Fleur has been married to Michael Mont for almost two years, despite not being even twenty one yet. Their marriage is a little one sided, for Fleur has never quite forgotten Jon Forsyte – the great love from whom she was separated two years earlier. One can’t help but make comparisons with Fleur’s hasty marriage and Soame’s ill-fated union with Irene.

“The house in South Square, Westminster, to which the young Monts had come after their Spanish honeymoon two years before, might have been called ‘emancipated.’ It was the work of an architect whose dream was a new house perfectly old, and an old house perfectly new.”

Now Fleur contents herself with collecting people, the fashionable and the fascinating – she seems at times to be like a society hostess of far greater age. One of Fleur’s particular conquests is poet, Wilfred Desert, Michael’s best friend, who has fallen rather hopelessly in love with Fleur. Michael is part of a publishing company, and both Michael and Fleur enjoy being part of a world of artists and writers. Michael is still smitten by Fleur, but not blind to her faults, his faith in her is shaken a little, and he fears for the security of their marriage, and their future. Bumping into June Forsyte one day, poor Michael learns of the existence of Jon Forsyte now out of sight at least in America.

“Light-heartedness always made Soames suspicious – there was generally some reason for it.”

Soames is a board member of an assurance company from which he has enjoyed a good income, but is now destined to give him the kind of trouble he could live without. One of his co-members is Sir Lawrence Mont, Michael’s father, and the two men are necessarily thrown together a good deal. Sir Lawrence (Bart as Michael calls him) is a more relaxed and humorous man than Soames, who is an older slightly mellower man than he was, but traditional and buttoned up still. Soames spends a lot of time with his beloved daughter, often choosing to stay over at her house, with its Chinese decorations and resident Pekinese; Ting-a-ling –Fleur’s spoiled little dog who rather rules the house. Now Soames will need his wits about him to avoid being ruined by a financial scandal, and proves himself to be very much a Forsyte of the old school.

“That tendency…to lie awake between the hours of two and four, when the chrysalis of faint misgiving becomes so readily the butterfly of panic.”

It is through Michael that we meet The Bicket’s another young married couple, although of a different economic class entirely. Bicket, sacked by Michael’s senior partners for theft, is reduced to selling balloons out of a tray, his young wife ; recently recovered from pneumonia, seeks a way to earn the money they require to fulfil their dream to go to Australia. I really enjoyed this parallel storyline, although I did wonder where it was going at first, it provides an interesting contrast to the story of Michael and Fleur. This storyline seems to be an attempt by Galsworthy to tell a story of another part of society, an acknowledgement of a changing world. True there are not many actual Forsytes in this novel, they are becoming a rare breed indeed – part of course of just how the old world is changing forever.

The White Monkey may not have the drama of the three novels of the previous volume but it is still for me hugely engaging and readable and I am looking forward to what comes next.

I am not alone in reading the Forsytes this year and you can read Liz’s review of The White Monkey here and no doubt Karen and Bridget will be reading and reviewing it too in due course.

john galsworthy

deathatthepresidentslodging

After I had finished The Custom of the Country – a book which left me with a slight book hangover, as sometimes happens with such superbly written novels – I looked around for something else to read with little idea of what I fancied. At such times I often reach for some vintage murder type thing. I reached for Death at the President’s Lodging, a book I remember hearing talked about as being a really superior mystery by an author at a talk I attended while at the Bookcrossing Convention in Oxford.

Michael Innes is a big name in golden age crime, although I have not read him before – and though I found this novel a bit slow to start, it held my interest enough, and I shall certainly explore more of his work in the future. Michael Innes is the pseudonym of J. J Stewart under which name he published several works of non-fiction as well as many novels and short stories. An academic; Stewart spent more than twenty years of his life at Christ Church Oxford, the atmosphere and experience of which he brings to this novel, and his fictional college of St. Anthony’s. Death at the President’s Lodging is the first novel that Stewart published under his pseudonym of Michael Innes, also the first to feature his detective; Inspector John Appleby, who would feature in many more novels and stories published between 1936 and 1986.

“Just beside the President’s grotesquely muffled head lay a human skull. And over the surrounding area of the floor were scattered little piles of human bones.
For a long moment Appleby paused on the spectacle; then he moved over to the French windows and pulled back the curtain. Dusk was falling and the trim college orchard seemed to hold all the mystery of a forest. Only close to him on the right, breaking the illusion, was the grey line of hall and library, stone upon buttressed stone, fading, far above, into the darkness of stained-glass windows.”

In Death at the President’s Lodging Innes (as I shall continue to call him now) created an intricately plotted mystery – the full solution to which I would say is fairly impossible to work out. The atmosphere of a 1930’s male dominated world of fusty academics is brilliantly re-created here. There are more than a few references to ancient and classical academic study that were a little over my head I confess – but certainly help to set the novel and the characters in the context of their world. Due to the aforementioned book hangover I took a while to settle into this narrative, nevertheless, I came to appreciate it as a very well written mystery. Quietly and a little ponderously written, Death at the President’s Lodging takes slow and careful reading, there is little in the way of action – and the interplay and dialogue between characters drives much of the mystery.

“An academic life, Dr Johnson observed, puts one little in the way of extraordinary casualties. This was not the experience of the fellows and scholars of St Anthony’s College when they awoke one raw November morning to find their president, Josiah Umpleby, murdered in the night. The crime was at once intriguing and bizarre, efficient and theatrical. It was efficient because nobody knew who had committed it. And it was theatrical because of a macabre and unnecessary act of fantasy with which the criminal, it was quickly rumoured, accompanied his deed.”

The novel opens in the grounds of St Anthony’s college on a November morning following the murder of the college President Dr Umpleby. Local police Inspector Dodd is already on the scene, awaiting the arrival of his colleague; Inspector Appleby from Scotland Yard. Dr Umpleby lived in a part of the college grounds kept locked at night, entry to which is only possible by key – a key in the possession of only certain people. Adjacent to the President’s lodging is the college residence of Little Fellows, where four college fellows presently live. Each of these fellows seem to be have been about the grounds at some point on the evening of the murder, telephone calls between different parts of the college, late night visits all add to the confusion of alibis that are explored in depth by Inspector Appleby – who finds himself staying at the college during his investigation. As the investigation gets underway, Appleby discovers professional rivalries and tensions between the fellows of St. Anthony’s, which would seem to give any one of them motive to either kill Umpleby or contrive to lay a trap to implicate another. The span of the novel and Appleby’s investigation is about three days – and while Appleby conducts his investigation, going over every part of each alibi with a fine toothed comb – three bumbling undergraduates think they can solve the mystery themselves. With the unexpected help of these interfering students and the St. Anthony’s burglar proving to be of more help than might be supposed, Appleby unravels the complexities of the case, with swift intelligence.

Death at the President’s Lodging wasn’t the quick read I was expecting, it is a literary, academic mystery intricately and subtly plotted. Characters are not really explored in any depth, which is a shame, all the detail seems to be in the motivations and thought processes of certain characters. Some of those thought processes are really rather improbable – convoluted plots being worked out and executed in a matter of a few minutes, but I enjoyed the detailed way Appleby explained exactly what happened when – the last few chapters particularly made for fascinating reading. I will be interested in reading more Inspector Appleby mysteries to see how the character develops – and how Innes developed as a mystery writer after this.

michaelinnes

It’s been a very slow reading week for me frustratingly – so no book review for another day or two – still I have some lovely new things to share with you.

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I do like to think I have my family well trained – and this was proved to be the case when my sister telephoned me from a second hand bookshop the other weekend. They had, she declared excitedly several green spine viragos – she proceeded to read out the titles – there were three I didn’t have – and so she bought them for me and I took delighted possession the other day. Such gorgeous covers they make me drool. I got:

Susan Spray by Sheila Kaye-Smith
Familiar Passions by Nina Bawden
The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf – a book I remember Kaggsy reviewed enthusiastically.

Their arrival has served to remind me just how many lovely green viragos I own which I have yet to read – piles of them frankly. Maybe I should try to read one or two each month? – but no! no more reading challenges – that way lies madness!

2015-05-15_19.08.45I seem quite good at winning books on Twitter – and another one offered by Serpent’s Tail arrived at my house on my birthday. It looks fabulous; All Day Long by Joanna Biggs – a portrait of Britain at work – I will be dipping into it over the next couple of weeks alongside my fiction read. As the author explains at the end of the first chapter;

“… what follows is a portrait – fragmentary, personal, fleeting – of the UK at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We may love our work, hate our work, find meaning in our work, or none, but it’s what we do all day long, and it shapes us.”

As I mentioned it was my birthday on Wednesday – not a special one or anything – just another year older and all that. My family bought me a lovely combination of theatre tickets, two shows the week after next (The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and The Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time), and Mary Hocking books. The Mary Hocking books I received are: 2015-05-14_12.42.22
Daniel Come to Judgement (1974) a first edition, and The Sparrow – a 1975 printing of Mary Hocking’s 1964 novel of conflict. The inscription inside this novel offers a tantalising possibility – which the realist in me acknowledges is highly unlikely to be my Mary (as I have come to call her) as I think authors generally sign both their names even when they know the person they are signing a book to. This brings the total number of Mary Hocking novels I have waiting to be read to six – I shall be spoiled for choice during Mary Hocking reading week when I hope to read two.

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PHJbiogNow time for a little plea – on the behalf of someone else I hasten to add. You may remember that Kat and I both reviewed an excellent literary biography recently by Wendy Pollard; Pamela Hansford Johnson, her life, work and times. I have been contacted by Wendy again who tells me that her book has been nominated for the People’s book prize in the non-fiction category. You don’t need to have bought or read the book to vote for it, so if you are a fan of literary biographies, or have been interested enough to add the book to your wish lists then I know Wendy would appreciate a vote. As she says

“…this would help enormously in our joint aim to want Pamela Hansford Johnson’s achievements to be fully acknowledged. I also want to emphasize a vote for my book is a vote for literary biography – two words very unpopular with publishers at present, but still, as your blogs prove, in favour with the reading public.”

You can vote for Pamela Hansford Johnson her life, work and times here (you do have to register etc. to vote).

customcountry(Pictured is unfortunately not the edition I have – I alternated between a tiny printed US edition and my free kindle edition – this is the edition I wish I had)

A prolific writer, and regarded as one America’s greatest ever authors, Edith Wharton is perhaps best known for her novels of New York society. The Custom of the Country is undoubtedly a biting satire on that society which Wharton understood so very well. Here Wharton explores the society of old New York families and the emerging nouveau riche.

“She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability.”

Undine Spragg – is a quite marvellous anti-heroine, her actions cannot help but appal and confound the reader. More than a hundred years after this novel was written, it is possible to see her actions, even outside the context of the times, as utterly reprehensible. Undine Spragg is the only, spoiled daughter of a self-made man. Having arrived in New York from the (fictional) city of Apex, where some business dealings of an unspecified nature have brought Mr Abner Spragg a small fortune, the Spraggs are living in a plush hotel suite. Here, the beautiful, enormously ambitious but socially naïve Undine contrives to bring herself to the height of New York society.

“She had found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous; that she was in the case of those who have cast in their lot with a fallen cause, or—to use an analogy more within her range—who have hired an opera box on the wrong night.”

As Undine is courted by Ralph Marvell the son of a respectable old New York family, who are no longer as wealthy as they once were, she runs into a face from the past. It is clear from the beginning that there is a secret to Undine’s life before she arrived in New York, a secret tied up with Apex and Elmer Moffat (it’s a secret that I defy the modern reader not to guess immediately – but that really doesn’t matter). Ralph’s family, very much represent the old order of New York society, it is a society Undine wants to be a part of, but she really doesn’t understand its rules, nor does she understand that such families, do not always have the large sums of money she imagines they must have. Nervous, that that which she wishes to keep hidden is revealed, Undine ensures her socially brilliant marriage takes place as soon as possible. It is a marriage however, that her father will have to support financially. Honeymooning in Europe – and although still very much in love with the beauty he married – Ralph is quick to see and come to dread his wife’s changing moods and sudden caprices.

“The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.”

As Ralph soon finds out, Undine is terrifyingly extravagant, with very clear intractable ideas of what she wants, and little idea of the value of money and the realities of financial constraints. Ralph is forced to enter the ungentlemanly world of business in order to support his wife, whose father has encountered some financial lows. Undine is devastated by the interruption to her life a pregnancy brings, and loathes her home because it is not close enough to Fifth Avenue. Undine almost totally rejects her little son Paul, who is adored by his fond father. Within four years of her marriage, Undine is spending greater amounts of time with those she considers, richer and more glittering, those who represent the life she now thinks she wants. Little Paul is forgotten by his mother on the day of his third birthday, left sobbing himself to sleep while Undine is enjoying herself with Peter Van Degen, Ralph’s cousin’s husband. When Undine chooses to travel to Europe with Peter, while her husband and son holiday in the country, it is the beginning of the end of her marriage. I so wanted things to end differently for Ralph, his story is utterly heart-breaking.

In Europe, Undine makes mistakes in her search for respectability and acceptance; she misjudges her relationship with Peter Van Degan, who abandons her. Undine, finds herself in an awkward position, associating with a hotch potch of both wealthy Americans and French aristocracy; she is in danger of finding herself on the outside of the society she so desperately craves. A second, seemingly more brilliant marriage beckons. Now a part of an old aristocratic family, Undine is apparently unable to understand the delicate balance of age old traditions. The shadow of her upbringing in Apex is never far away, in the person of Elmer Moffat who has now achieved extraordinary success. Always with an eye on just what it is she wants no matter what the cost might be, Undine starts to reach out again, for the next glittering prize.

“Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”

Undine seems destined to never being happy with whatever she gains, her pursuit of one thing leading inevitably to the realisation there is something else, something better. Oblivious of the misery she leaves in her wake, Undine ploughs on, sloughing off the skin of each period of her life with barely a backward glance. It is Undine’s son Paul who will linger longest in my memory; his lonely sadness in a room empty of his old belongings is a poignant image indeed.

This is a novel of society, of aspirations, materialism, greed and misplaced values. As ever Edith Wharton’s writing is unquestionably brilliant and so it is also an enormously compelling novel, powerful and hard to put down.

edithwharton2

the story of a new name

It was only a few weeks ago that I read My Brilliant Friend, happily immersing myself in the sometimes brutal Neapolitan world of Elena and Lila. Before I had finished that much talked about novel I had already ordered books two and three in the series. Last weekend – a long bank holiday weekend here in the UK – seemed a great time to start The Story of a New Name, these books aren’t small.

“Everything in the world was in precarious balance, pure risk, and those who didn’t agree to take the risk wasted away in a corner, without getting to know life.”

As The Story of a New Name opens Elena recalls how in the mid 1960’s Lila gave her a box of diaries which recount the story of her life with Stefano. From there Elena takes up the story of herself and Lila – exactly where My Brilliant Friend left us – at the wedding of her sixteen year old friend. The opening couple of chapters recount some quite horrible domestic abuse, which transports the reader immediately back into this tough Italian neighbourhood, where women often grimly accept the most terrible treatment at the hands of the men in their lives. Lila has married local business man Stefano Carracci, the son of Don Achille, who had inspired such fairy-tale fears in the two girls when they were children, and who had been murdered several years earlier. On her wedding day, Lila is made aware that her husband has done a deal with the Solara family – whom Lila passionately detests. Elena watches from the side-lines, immediately aware that Lila’s marriage is in trouble before it has even begun.

The treatment that Lila is subjected to by her husband is horrific, and I didn’t much like reading about it, but Lila is tough, her will seemingly tougher than the blows and brutality she receives. Strangely enough I don’t always like Lila – she is a fascinating character, selfish, wilful and unwise – she’s not always sympathetic. She is a truly complex product of the environment that she grew up in, and the things that happen to her, and so she remains fascinating to read about and ultimately you can’t help but cheer her on. Had Lila been written as some kind of tortured saint, she would have been far less interesting.

“We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us. As a result, since Stefano was not the hateful Marcello but the young man to whom she had declared her love, whom she had married, and with whom she had had decided to live forever, she assumed complete responsibility for her choice. And yet it didn’t add up. In my eyes Lila was Lila, not an ordinary girl of the neighbourhood. Our mothers, after they were slapped by their husbands, did not have that expression of calm disdain. They despaired, they wept, they confronted their man sullenly, they criticized him behind his back, and yet, more or less, they continued to respect him (my mother, for example, plainly admired my father’s devious deals). Lila instead displayed an acquiescence without respect.”

While Lila is adjusting to married life; living in an apartment with hot running water and four or five rooms – sheer luxury to Elena and Lila – Elena is finishing high school. Lila was always the more brilliant, natural student, but her studies stopped with elementary school, Elena has carried on, an intelligent girl, success doesn’t come without a lot of hard work for Elena. There has always been a fierce competitiveness between the girls that drives Elena ever on. This one of the key elements of their relationship is a recurring theme.

Following Lila’s marriage there is a time when Elena doesn’t study as hard as she usually does. Spending more and more time with Antonia her boyfriend, trying to ignore her infatuation for Nino Sarratore, the railway porter poet’s brilliant son, Elena’s concentration suffers. Lila is expected to have an heir – and it seems everyone is waiting for the happy news, but as Lila continues to attempt to resist her husband – fruitlessly – she believes her body refuses to carry his child. The doctor prescribes sun, sea and rest.

naples2Some wonderful summer weeks holidaying on Ischia are among the happiest that Lila and Elena spend together, but they are weeks which demonstrate to Lila how wrong for her the life she is leading is. Lila takes incredible risks in her behaviour; Elena and Lila’s mother are both terrified that Stefano – who arrives on Ischia each weekend – will hear of how she spends her time when he isn’t around. Lila and Elena’s relationship has always been one of rivalry as well as friendship, and it is on Ischia that Lila takes from under Elena’s nose the one thing she wants. Ischia heralds a huge change in the girls relationship – when they return to Naples, Elena throws herself into her studies again, and she doesn’t see Lila much for a while. Lila’s life is complicated by secrets, domestic disharmony and the business interests of her husband and the Solaras.

“she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”

Elena works hard, and following the suggestion of a visiting teacher; applies to a university in Pisa where she can study for free. Here she will have a room of her own in which to put books, and work in peace, for Elena the world is opening up a little. However Elena finds herself in a world she is not quite fitted for, here her Neapolitan accent is ridiculed, and she shields herself by associating with those who are an accepted part of the new society in which she moves.

Along with the intense and ever changing relationship between these two young women, society is very much at the heart of these novels. Questions of education and the aspirations of leaving behind the place you come from, are juxtaposed with the fates of those who never stray far beyond the street they were born. This is a superb sequel to My Brilliant Friend, a big vibrant (470+ pages) noisy novel peopled with unforgettable characters.

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Having neglected the Librarything Seven Ages of Women theme read – I chose to read another book from the childhood section of the list. I do love books told from a child’s perspective, and this novel – originally written for children, is utterly charming and brought a tear or two to this cynical old eye. As Charlotte Mitchell explains in her preface to this edition, The Young Pretenders, and the novel by the same author which followed it, were novels written with an adult readership in mind; generally it would have been adults reading the books to children. There is plenty of gentle humour that is aimed more at adults than children, and some Victorian terms and references that would be over the heads of most modern children. Also included in this lovely Persephone edition are the original drawings by Philip Burne-Jones, which are a simply perfect accompaniment.

The Young Pretenders is the story of two imaginative siblings; five year old Babs and her older brother Teddy, whose parents are away in India, serving the Empire. Teddy and Babs have been sent home to be cared for by their grandmother. With their grandmother dead, it has been left to staff to care for the children until new arrangements can be made.

“They had always thought of Grannie as a piece of drawing room furniture, quite nice, but dull and delicate as most drawing room furniture is to the child mind. She had never entered into their world at all. That was people by a host of pretending folk, all the animals they ever came across and most of the servants with their relatives and acquaintances inclusive. Such an interesting world it was, bounded by the brook and the lanes, and full of excitement in the first bird’s next, and the young rabbits, to say nothing of Giles the gardener’s thrilling stories.”

The children have little knowledge of their own parents, and live very much inside their own lively imaginations. The two are happy living in the country on the family estate, cared for by their nanny,(Nana) and the household staff who all understand and participate in the children’s games – ‘mother and father in Inja’ are mysterious figures the children write to and wonder about. Babs – a delightfully infectious little soul who is the main focus of the novel rather adores her big brother and is endlessly cheerful and happy. Her lisping slightly babyish speech is quite (as Bab’s would say ‘kite’) adorable and is somehow never as irritating as it could have been.

youngpret2One day the children are informed that their Uncle Charley is coming to see them. The children know that Uncle Charley is a soldier like their father, and so are bemused and not a little disappointed when Uncle Charley appears at the breakfast table without the lovely smart uniform they had expected. Babs and Teddy are made aware that their uncle and his wife Aunt Eleanor are going to be looking after the children from now on at their home in London. The children haven’t learned yet that adults might not be perfect, and they strike out happily enough on a new adventure. Eleanor is a horrible woman, selfish, shallow with no idea of how to deal with children; Charley is just rather out of his depth. Aunt Eleanor rather likes Teddy because he is a pretty little boy with golden curls, but Babs she considers plain and untidy, and poor Babs is made aware that her Aunt doesn’t care for her because she isn’t pretty.

“Oh I do wish she had been a doll! I’ve told such a lot of people about the little niece that I’m going to have, and now I shall be ashamed to show her, from what you say…If she’d been like Barbara now, I would have taken her about with me, and it would have been fun to have dressed her. I like the look of a pretty girl in a victoria.”

youngp1In London life changes for Babs and Teddy – Teddy doesn’t much mind, but Babs misses her countryside home. Having been able to run pretty wild in the country, and allowed plenty of irreverent chatter with their good friend the gardener, now the siblings are expected to behave conventionally, as part of a society family. In London Babs is always in trouble, falling foul of Aunt Eleanor and the new vinegar tempered governess who is employed when Teddy starts school. Little Babs hasn’t yet learned that it isn’t always appropriate to repeat the things that grown-ups say – and some of her deliciously exciting games cause mayhem. For no one has thought to explain to Babs exactly how the post office works, and how taking the letters from the hall table to play at postman could cause unimagined difficulties. The stories of Babs’ mishaps, games and little puzzlements are heartfelt and engaging, and tenderly amusing, especially for anyone who has spent any time at all with young children. Although – as I’ve found with other novels told from a child’s perspective – much of this novel is deeply heartrending. The children find out that sometimes adults can’t be relied on – like when their beloved Uncle soon gets tired of building sandcastles.

In The Young Pretenders we are very much in a world where children are at the mercy of misunderstandings and selfish adults. Separated from their parents, their fears and excitements are often greeted with bewilderment and irritation rather than sympathy. Babs starts to change under the iron fist of her aunt and governess, the light begins to go out of her a little, as she starts to fear her own ‘naughtiness’. youngp2

Uncle Charley is affected by his darling little Babs however, more than he would ever have thought possible. Through her, his eyes are opened to the selfishness of the beautiful creature he has married, and from not having had much idea about children; Charley slowly develops a deep sympathy for his little niece who he seeks to protect from his wife’s coldness. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone – but – this was originally a novel for children, so fear not.

I loved every word of this adorable, little tear jerker – and really, really hope that someone (Persephone?) would re-issue The Professor’s Children – Edith Henrietta Fowler’s second novel for children.

EdithHFowler

the evening chorus

“Flight is not the astonishing thing. I have always thought that the miracle of birds is not that they fly, but that they touch down.”

When I read Helen Humphrey’s Frozen Thames – a gorgeous little book of vignettes; the stories behind the times in history when that great iconic river froze solid – I was utterly captivated. I certainly had the intention to read more of Helen Humphrey’s work but I suppose forgot all about it, until I saw a picture of The Evening Chorus on Twitter – and promptly pre-ordered a copy. I started it within days of its arrival – such was my anticipation – and I really wasn’t disappointed.
The novel is set in 1940 and 1950 – and explores with delicate, subtlety how lives and relationships were torn apart by the war.

James Hunter is a prisoner of war, held with other officers in a German Army camp. The officers are not required to work and so must find other ways of occupying themselves. Among James’s fellow prisoners are: The Reader, The Gambler, The Gardener and The Actor, James is The Birdman. For as the letters from James’s wife Rose become rarer, James has found something to take his mind far outside the brutal confines of the camp; a family of redstarts are nesting nearby, and James begins to make a daily, detailed study of them. While other men read endlessly, garden small plots outside the lice ridden huts, plan daring escapes or dig tunnels; James positions himself near the barbed wire fence faithfully watching and recording the progress of the redstart family. The camp Kommandant – surprises James twice – first with the gift of a German bird book – that James cannot read but treasures anyway – and then with a deeply touching trip (which fills James with terror at first) to see some Cedar waxwings.

“The Kommandant withdraws a cigarette from the case, clicks the silver box shut, and returns it to his coat pocket. He lights a match, cupping his hand around the flame. James notices that the older man’s hand is shaking slightly.
“what did you read at Oxford?” he asks.
“Classics. I teach at the University of Berlin. Like you, I am not a soldier.”
How odd, thinks James, that this war and the last have been fought by classics professors and birdwatchers, gardeners and watercolourists.
“Christoph. “The Kommandant extends his hand and James shakes it.
“James”

Still traumatised by seeing friends killed in front of him, reminding us starkly that this is no summer camp, James and his friends are moved to another camp, on foot, marching away from his redstarts. Here the reader leaves James, and the next section of the novel takes us to England. At first I was bereft, I didn’t want to leave James marching toward another camp – but my disappointment was short lived. This really is a wonderful novel, and so I was quickly captivated by Humphrey’s descriptions of English countryside and by the stories of Rose, Enid and Toby.

Rose, ten years her husband’s junior is living in a tiny cottage on the edge of the Ashdown forest in Sussex with her beloved lurcher Harris. James is becoming more and more remote, they hadn’t been married long when James went away and now all his letters are about the redstarts he watches outside the camp. Rose is a blackout warden, each night she walks through the nearby village looking out for transgressors.

“Although it is called the Ashdown Forest, there are actually no ash trees on it. In fact, there are hardly any trees at all, because Henry VIII cut them all down to build his navy. But there never were any ash trees. The land was named after a Frenchman who used to own it. The English couldn’t pronounce his name, and the bastardized version became Ash.
Rose never gets tired of being out in the forest, of the smoky smell of the bracken and the mist sheathing the hollows. She likes the quiet of it, and how she can strike across it for a whole day and not meet a single person.”

Rose is trying to make a life for herself in the isolation of the English countryside that she loves so much, but more and more she begins to feel it is a life that doesn’t include James, and now a couple of his letters lay unopened and unread – put aside to be forgotten about. Rose has begun an affair with Toby – usually meeting at the pub The Three Bells where Toby is staying – she has recently allowed him to cross the threshold of her cottage.

Enid; James’s sister has been bombed out of her home in London, losing far more in the traumatic events of that night than her sister-in-law at first realises. Though they barely know one another, Enid writes to Rose requesting a bed, shelter in her brother’s home, and Rose is unable to refuse – though she fears that she will be unable to hide her adultery from Enid. Enid is reserved, outspoken and judgemental – but Rose is used to difficult women, her mother living nearby is an awful, spiteful, bullying woman, who Enid is appalled by when she meets her.

Toby meanwhile is desperate that he and Rose should have a happy ending, but little realises what obstacles might stand in their way – such is the reality of war.

Ten years later and the world is a different place for all these characters – losses and regrets, bitter hurts and things not said, lives which need re-building set against the background of a country still healing itself. Helen Humphrey’s writing is really very lovely, her characters are people who aren’t quite perfect, but they are fully sympathetic and real and I loved them. There is a deep understanding and affection for the English countryside and the natural world here which I particularly loved, (I was sad the dog characters didn’t make it to the end of the novel – I mention this as I know people who like to know this in advance – although we don’t witness their demise.) Overall though The Evening Chorus is a stunning novel of hope and the natural world.

helenhumphreys2

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