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cornishmurder

I don’t know quite what it is about old vintage murder mystery novels? but give me a village or traditional London setting sometime in the 1930’s or 40’s and it’s like wrapping a fleecy blanket of comfort around myself. I don’t at all feel like that about contemporary mystery novels which I rarely read – and when I do I try to pick them very carefully, but with vintage mysteries I feel I know where I am. It’s black and white movie territory where nothing too unseemly happens in front of the camera. The British Library Crime Classics series are right up my alley therefore – but this is only the second that I have read.

“Never, even in his most optimistic moments, had he visualised a scene of this nature – himself in one arm-chair, a police officer in another, and between them … a mystery.”

John Bude (the pseudonym for Ernest Elmore) it appears had a long career of murder writing, his novels were popular at one time, but until now, were out of print for a long time. The Cornish Coast Murder was Bude’s first novel – and while it certainly doesn’t have the complexity and ingenuity of Christie, Marsh, Sayers et al – but there is still much to recommend it, it is an engagingly readable example of golden age crime, with a rather adorable pair of amateur detectives. This is a novel very much in the cosy tradition – it is pure escapism. Much of Bude’s focus in this novel is character and setting, there is not much in the way of investigative high jinks. In fact the arm chair sleuth may feel slightly cheated not having enough information to solve the mystery themselves.

Set along the atmospheric Cornish coast of the title, the novel opens on an appropriately stormy evening in Boscawen. The Cornish coast, a good setting for a murder, makes for a rather nice change from the Greater London, or Home Counties settings of so many other novels of this period.

“In my opinion,” said the Superintendent slowly, “an arm-chair review of a case is often far more profitable than any number of enquiries and cross-examinations. You get a better perspective. More wood. Fewer trees.”

The Rev. Dodd is entertaining his friend the local doctor, the two old bachelors are enormous enthusiasts of detective fiction, volumes which they order then divi up between them and discuss at length afterwards. Following their dinner, the two friends are sat by the fire when the telephone rings, a call summoning Dr Pendrill to Greylings; a nearby cliff side house. Julian Tregarthan a secretive, mean minded local magistrate has been found shot at the home he shares with his niece Ruth. Pendrill and Dodd hurry to the scene where the local constable has already started the investigation into what happened.

It seems Ruth had recently had some furious arguments with her uncle over a relationship she was having with a writer; Ronald Hardy lodging in the village. Ruth claims she was coming home from a walk at the time the incident happened, and Tregarthan’s housekeeper Mrs Cowper and her husband the odd job man, were carrying out their duties elsewhere in the house when three shots, muffled by the noise of the storm, were fired through an un-curtained window at Tregarthan. Who was the man seen shouting at Tregarthan from the driveway of the house earlier that evening?

Inspector Bigswell is soon on the scene, utterly baffled by the lack of obvious clues, he seems to happily welcome the help and support of the Rev Dodd who in turn wastes no time in setting his mystery reader’s mind to the crime. Rev Dodd is not the kind of amateur sleuth who is in any way annoying, getting in the way, treading unthinkingly on toes of those paid to do the job – he is instead, a genial, humble enthusiast with a keen mind. Bigswell is under some pressure to sort the thing out before “the experts” – aka Scotland Yard are called in.

“That’s just where I must part company with you, Inspector,” said the Vicar with a gentle smile. “I’m rather a voracious reader of mystery stories, and it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery, an easy engaging read set in a wonderfully atmospheric location. It has certainly put me in the mood for similar type novels from The British Library Crime Classics, and certainly Bude’s novel the temptingly titled The Lake District Murder very definitely appeals, particularly as I so love that area of the country.

(The second post in a row – where I can find no author pic to post *sigh*)cornishmurder2

Layout 1(translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

I feel that Elena Ferrante by now really needs no introduction; she is the pseudonymous Italian novelist who has had the most extraordinary success. Reviews of her novels appear continually on book blogs, so much so I feel I probably have nothing to add – her novels having even gained their own hashtag #Ferrantefever. I came fairly late to this particular party, late perhaps but enthusiastically on the back of all I had seen and heard.

My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels, the fourth of which is due to be published in English in September. I confess that only a hundred or so pages into this book saw me buying the next two – well sometimes you just know! This is a novel of friendship and discovery, a coming of age novel in which two girls grow up to young womanhood with an ever gradually expanding realisation of their potentialities.

The relationship between the two central characters in My Brilliant Friend is immediately captivating, with the world they inhabit, vibrant, real and frequently dangerous. I think the reader cannot help but carry the memory of Naples with them each time they lay this book aside. The sights, smell, noise and sun bathed roof tops of that poor neighbourhood are richly rendered by Ferrante, and I look forward already to returning to it.

The novel opens with a prologue, immediately captivating, in which Elena – now a woman in her sixties, receives a telephone call unexpectedly from the son of her lifelong friend Lila. Rino informs Elena that Lila is missing, has in fact completely disappeared. The story which follows, the story of their friendship, their childhood and adolescence, is Elena’s furious reply to her friend’s deliberate disappearance.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

naplesWhen Elena and Lila become friends as young children in the 1950’s, the neighbourhood in which they live is their whole world, a place beyond which they cannot imagine and never venture. It is a place of poverty, a place of fragile allegiances and dangerous feuds, with practically all the adults having an unexplained fearful respect for Don Achille. In their young, imaginative minds Don Achille assumes an ogre like status, causing them to dare each other to mount the steps to his apartment. It is on this day that their true friendship really begins.

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.”

Both girls are very bright, their teacher is soon made aware of Lila’s almost prodigious intelligence, and where Lila leads, Elena is determined to follow. In her emulation of Lila, Elena explores the possibilities of her own mind, going on to ever greater lengths to keep up with up brilliant friend. Lila’s education stops after elementary school, her family refusing to pay for her further education, but as Elena moves on through middle school and later high school, her achievements waxing and waning as they are wont to do in all of us, Lila never stops learning. Lila uses the library, taking out books on the tickets of each member of her family teaching herself Latin and Greek at the time when Elena is studying those very subjects. In time, though it is Elena who continues to get a conventional education – it is Lila’s education of herself which drives Elena forward. The rivalry between the girls which started when they were so young propels Elena to fulfil her full potential, with Lila, still very much leading the way. It is Elena however, who first begins to see the world beyond their neighbourhood.

When adolescence hits, Elena’s childhood prettiness is replaced by acne ridden awkwardness, a discomfort in her own body, while Lila’s childish gawkiness is replaced by a beauty that stops the local men and boys in their tracks. Lila is courted by rival young men, fights break out over her honour and by sixteen she is marring a local business man. As the novel comes to an end, the roles of the two girls have almost reversed from where they started.

“At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.”

For me there is an intriguing ambiguity in the title My Brilliant Friend, who is the brilliant friend? Is Elena the brilliant friend of Lila – or is Lila the brilliant friend? I assumed at first that Lila was the brilliant friend of the title, but like so much in the relationship between these two young women, nothing is that clear. Perhaps, each is really the brilliant friend of the other.

There has it seems been a good deal of speculation about Elena Ferrante’s identity – but in a sense it doesn’t matter, this novel certainly speaks for itself – but the mystery does add a certain frisson of fascination (although no author photo for me to use at the end of this post).

mybrilliantfriend2

emilydickinsonI have been dipping my toe back into the poetry water a little this year and so it was I signed up for a poem to be delivered each Friday into my email inbox. Many of you will already be aware of this – but hadn’t heard of it until the end of last year. For anyone who doesn’t know you can sign up at Picador – and you will have a poem sent to you each week. Over the months I have had poems of Carol Ann Duffy, Walt Whitman, Tennyson and Emily Dickinson among others – and what a lovely thing it is – I only regret that I only recently started to save the poems in a folder on my computer – many of the ones from the last few months have been consigned to the email dustbin.

I loved this poem from a couple of weeks ago.

The Moon was But a Chin of Gold by Emily Dickinson

The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago –
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below –
Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde –
Her Cheek – a Beryl hewn –
Her Eye unto the Summer Dew
The likest I have known –
Her Lips of Amber never part –
But what must be the smile
Upon Her Friend she could confer
Were such Her Silver Will –
And what a privilege to be
But the remotest Star –
For Certainty She take Her Way
Beside Your Palace Door –
Her Bonnet is the Firmament –
The Universe – Her Shoe –
The Stars – the Trinkets at Her Belt –
Her Dimities – of Blue.

clivejamesRecently this poem Japanese Maple by Clive James – stopped me in my tracks – beautiful, sad and for me very surprising – I had not known Clive James wrote poetry looking at his Wikipedia page I really should have known that.

Japanese Maple by Clive James

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

2015-04-16_20.26.45A few weeks ago I bought a number of the little black penguins – one of which is the deliciously titled The Night is Darkening Round me – by Emily Bronte. This small volume of about thirty of Bronte’s poems is number 63 of 80 little black penguins – which I am trying hard not to start collecting. These poems are passionate, powerful and often poignant, depicting nature and the passage of time. I have to admit it is very many years since I read Emily Bronte’s famous Wuthering Heights – but I have never before read her poetry – and although I haven’t quite read them all yet – it is actually making me want to return to that novel for which I have such mixed feelings.

tothenorth

The task of writing about Elizabeth Bowen’s remarkable 1932 novel is one I find really very daunting. Bowen’s exquisite prose, delicate subtlety, extraordinary sense of place and complex interplay between characters requires slow and thoughtful reading, but it is effort which is then richly rewarded.

I had good company in my reading of To the North – a few members of an Elizabeth Bowen Facebook group have been or are reading To the North as well. I love how social media – so often criticised for its misuse can bring people together in this way.

“Towards the end of April a breath from the north blew cold down Milan platforms to meet the returning traveller. Uncertain thoughts of home filled the station restaurant where the English sat lunching uneasily, facing the clock.”

Set mainly in London during the 1920’s To the North explores the lives of two young women, related by marriage. Recently widowed Cecilia Summers and her sister in law Emmeline share a house; they each rely on the presence of the other in the house though they live quite independently of each other. As the novel opens Cecilia is travelling across Europe by train, headed home to London and the house she shares with her husband’s sister. On the train Cecilia meets Mark Linkwater, a lawyer, who is presented as being almost, but not quite a gentleman, this meeting brings Linkwater into the lives of Cecilia and Emmeline, upsetting the balance of Emmeline’s quiet independent life. Markie (as he is called by everyone) is predatory, unreliable, worrying to everyone around Emmeline, and Emmeline more vulnerable to the limits he sets upon their relationship than she at first realises. Emmeline is drawn into a relationship with Markie, while Cecilia and Julian seem to dance around one another rather as Cecilia reconciles her past life with the one ahead of her.

Although this is mainly a novel about a certain class of English person at home, it is also paradoxically a novel of travel. Emmeline, a wonderfully modern seeming young woman, is one half of a partnership in a Bloomsbury Travel agency. Many of the characters make or ruminate on journeys or travel arrangements of one kind or another, cars, trains, planes and buses all feature, and although there is only one significant trip made abroad – to Paris, there is the usual movement that we often see in novels of this period between houses in town and grand countryside dwellings. Even the title To the North suggests travel – someone going somewhere – this sense of movement is present throughout the novel, strange though that so few real journeys are made, but Bowen cleverly crates a sense of people in transit.

Cecilia, meanwhile is contemplating a second marriage, Julian Tower an eligible, sensible choice, is undemonstrative, unexciting but safe. Here, then we have another obvious theme, marriage, the marriage that has been of all too short a duration – that Cecilia is still quietly mourning, the new one she may yet make, and the marriages of others around her. In conveying Cecilia’s still raw grief for her husband – which is unmentioned by others despite being relatively recent – Bowen uses startlingly, beautiful images of burned out houses replaced by new lived in villas to convey Cecilia’s contemplation of a new life and attachment to what has gone.

“When a great house has been destroyed by fire – left with walls bleached and ghastly and windows gaping with the cold sky – the master has not, perhaps, the heart or the money to rebuild. Trees that were its companions are cut down and the estate sold up to the speculator. Villas spring up in red rows, each a home for someone, enticing brave little shops, radiant picture palaces: perhaps a park is left round the lake, where couples go boating”

Lady Waters, a relative by marriage of both Cecilia and Emmeline, is quite willing to interfere dreadfully in the fledgling romances of others. It is at her country home Farraways that we meet Tim Farquharson, who upon the advice of Lady Waters has just ended his engagement. Here too we encounter the Blighs, a youngish married couple, who bicker and quarrel and seem set for a truly unhappy marriage. Of Gilda Bligh we are told:

“Having read a good many novels about marriage, she now knew not only why she was unhappy but exactly how unhappy she could still be”

There is definitely a little satirical sharpness there, which I can’t help but enjoy – and there are plenty more examples of Bowen’s wit throughout this novel. Cecilia’s lunch party are described as being “not English for nothing” as they all begin to chatter to cover up a telephone conversation they are suddenly aware of overhearing.

The only child in the novel (teenager would probably be more accurate) is Pauline, Julian’s niece who he helps support. Pauline, paying visits to her uncle is an isolated child of an absent parent, embarrassed a little by Cecilia’s obvious glamour and non-maternal appearance when the latter accompanies Julian on a visit to Pauline at school. However, Pauline warms to Cecilia – a woman whose own mother is absent in America. Each of these families are fractured in some way; Markie living in a flat above his sister to whom he doesn’t speak, Emmeline’s brother is dead, and Lady Waters a matriarchal figure is irritatingly interfering and childless.

To the North is just the kind of novel that is actually very hard to describe to someone else – there isn’t an enormous amount of plot, yet there is so much packed into it, that it seems one can only ever skim the surface. There is a myriad of detail that is so wonderfully telling in this novel, nothing is wasted; everything appears to have some meaning – and weaves together in an effortless piece of artistry. The final line of To the North is utter perfection – resonating as it does in the mind of the reader long after the book is closed.

Elizabeth bowen

elizabethismissing

I feel the familiar skipping of my heartbeat, the flush of embarrassment, fear. Last Saturday. Can I even remember yesterday?

Elizabeth is Missing has been a novel that I have seen talked about and reviewed a lot of late. I am not one to jump immediately on to literary bandwagons – but from the first review I saw of it – I knew I wanted to read it. Since then, Emma Healey’s debut novel has been longlisted for the Bailey’s women’s prize, a good time to finally get down to reading it. (Talking of literary bandwagons – I have just started reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – I am I know a little late to that particular party. Still – I get there eventually).

Elizabeth is Missing is a poignant, thought provoking novel of memory loss, and ageing, it is an engaging easy read, with a memorable central character. We live in a rapidly ageing society, and so the themes of the novel are ones that may affect many of us in one way or another – that in itself can be an uncomfortable feeling. I think to some extent we all fear the prospect of some aspects of ageing and the loneliness that come with memory loss and confusion – and in this novel Emma Healey explores this difficult subject with sensitivity and understanding.

‘You know there was an old woman mugged around here?’ Carla says, letting her long black ponytail snake over one shoulder. ‘Well, actually, it was Weymouth, but it could have been here. So you see, you can’t be too careful. They found her with half her face smashed in.’ This last bit is said in a hushed voice, but hearing isn’t one of my problems. I wish Carla wouldn’t tell me these things; they leave me with an uneasy feeling long after I’ve forgotten the stories themselves. I shudder and look out of the window. I can’t think which direction Weymouth is in.

Maud is an eighty-two year old woman living alone, a widow with one middle-aged daughter Helen; living nearby, and a son in Germany. A carer, Carla comes in, bringing with her prophecies of doom from outside, news of muggings and so on, and Helen is in and out all the time, because Maud has gradually become in need of more help and support. Forced to give up volunteering at the charity shop, Maud has been struggling with her memory for some time. The cruel fact of the matter is that Maud has dementia. Maud buys tins of peaches, there are notes pinned up in the kitchen reminding Maud not to buy any more peaches and not to use the cooker. Carla reminds her somewhat archly to try and not eat her lunch before 12.00, but Maud makes herself tea that goes cold, and plates of toast she has no need of as she has just eaten, and going into the corner shop where she was once served by the current owner’s mother, she forgets what she wanted, and buys peaches.

Now out of the fog of her confusion, Maud keeps coming back to one thing that her friend Elizabeth is missing. No one it seems will take her seriously, not Helen, or Peter; Elizabeth’s grumpy seeming son, nor the doctor or the police. Elizabeth was the friend Maud made after her husband’s death, the one she had fun with, started volunteering with, and went on holiday with. Elizabeth’s house now stands apparently empty, but Maud can’t remember when she last saw her friend. Maud is desperate to find Elizabeth; Maud’s pockets become filled with bright scraps of paper with notes written to herself about Elizabeth, jotted down in moments of clarity to aid her in her moments of desperate confusion.

There is another mystery at the centre of Maud’s story¸ one that has remained unsolved for seventy years. Although Maud struggles to remember whether she has eaten that day, her memories of the past are becoming sharper. As Maud tries to discover the truth about her dear friend Elizabeth, memories of the past are triggered. Memories of when Maud’s elder sister Sukey disappeared not long after the end of the Second World War. In 1946 Maud was a teenager, Sukey a young married woman, living with her husband Frank, a removal man and black marketeer. Maud’s family had a lodger Douglas who was very taken with Sukey, and Maud’s young romantic imagination wondered whether there was any more to it than that, and she was apparently not the only one who wondered that, Frank was a very jealous man. Another strange character from those days looms large in Maud’s memory, a woman cruelly called ‘the mad woman’ by the locals.

“I think she’s overdoing the respectful pose. I screw my heel into the turf. ‘She chased me once,’ I say. ‘She chased me and stole my sister’s comb. She ripped it from my hair. As I speak I can feel the strands break, the pain as they tear from my scalp, but it doesn’t seem real, I’ve got the memory wrong somehow. ‘She watches me,’ I say. ‘She knows all about me.’ ‘Who does?’ ‘Her.’ My hands are in my pockets, so I point at the gravestone with my elbow. I want to kick the stone. I want to stamp on the earth beneath it. ‘She’s always there, always bloody watching.’ Helen’s head is no longer bowed. ‘She’s dead, Mum,’ she says. ‘How can she be watching you?’ I don’t know. I can’t think. I pull my hands out of my pockets, looking for a note. There’s a folded piece of paper with black writing on it and I scrunch it into a ball. I want to shove it into the earth, push it in where the mad woman’s mouth is.”

The one thing that I loved above all else in this novel – was that the novel is narrated by Maud; we see the world with all its difficulties, humiliations and griefs through her eyes. We feel her pain, her frustration and terror at the world around her, I have to say I loved Maud. Emma Healey has managed to get inside the mind of a frightened, elderly woman in a way that becomes almost unbearably poignant at times. As a debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing is really impressive, I have no idea how well it might do in the prestigious Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, as I have only read one other of the longlisted books so far. For me, the writing is good, there is a deceptive simplicity in the style and it is the themes and characterisation of the novel which makes it so particularly good.

emmahealey

Today April the 10th is my 10th bookcrossing anniversary and coincidently the start of the Bookcrossing World Convention 2015 which this year is being held in Oxford (they are not always held in the UK – so yay). As always I am looking forward to seeing friends who I only see once a year – generally at an ‘Uncon’ (that’s an unofficial convention) when the official one is held overseas. Bookcrossing it might surprise you to know – is a very social activity. So trying to get myself organised in good time, I spent an hour or two sat on the floor on Tuesday evening, surrounded by books, bookcrossing labels and stickers trying to work out how many I could physically fit into one rucksack and lift myself (heaven help me if I have to run for the train).

IMG_20150407_190245

bcMany of you may not have known that I was a bookcrosser – oh dear this is beginning to feel like a confession – I am not a very good bookcrosser these days. Like so many things in life the first enthusiasm for a new pastime soon dies down, beginning to take a back seat in our lives – to be honest though, my first enthusiasm lasted several years. I still believe in bookcrossing – despite having a house full of books that I really don’t want to give away – I still do love the idea of sending books out into the world, leaving them for people to find. I still love the idea, but I have to be honest I don’t do much ‘pure bookcrossing’ now. My bookcrossing activities these days are generally limited to monthly meet ups and yearly conventions.

I really do think that the world has changed a lot in the last 10 years. We are a more cynical, suspicious species even than we were I believe, and I don’t know if people bother to pick up books they find left in public places like they used to. I may be wrong – I don’t even look at my bookcrossing journal entries anymore – there are books out there somewhere in the world that I left on benches, café tables, ladies toilets, in phone boxes, on bus seats – they could be found and ‘journaled’ by someone at any moment – only I think the chances of that have become less likely rather than more likely. One of the problems I think is the fact there is still no app for bookcrossing, if there were a free app people would find a book – think ‘oh cool’ get the app journal the book etc. I understand why there isn’t an app – Bookcrossing is a big thing (where do you think WBN get the numbers for the books that no one bothers to use?) but it is run by volunteers and to develop an app would cost a lot of money. Still, bookcrossing is still going strong – and I am very glad of that, I still think it’s brilliant.

I really do need to get my bookcrossing mojo back – people still give me bags of books they want to get rid of because they know I am a bookcrosser – I have several bags of books sitting in my spare room at any one time. I have made a lot of good friends through bookcrossing, so many memories of happy bookcrossing times – there was a time when I often went to local meet ups in places other than Birmingham, swapping books and chatting Saturday afternoons away and home again by train in time for tea.

sthildas

The convention this year is being held at St. Hilda’s college – and I was luckily early enough to snap up one of the en-suit rooms available at the college. Meaning this year at least, I won’t spend half the weekend walking back and forth between my accommodation and the convention site. St Hilda’s of course some of you may know was the college of one of my favourite writers – Barbara Pym, so I am very excited to be staying there. On Saturday morning there will be a talk by Dr Clemence Schultze, past Chairman of The Barbara Pym Society. Her talk will be entitled ‘Barbara Pym: An Unashamed Reader of Novels’. That may be the highlight of the weekend for me. I will be arriving in Oxford around lunchtime today – with a rucksack of books on my back, clutching a gift for another bookcrosser. This is a lovely bookcrossing tradition – the famous nss (not so secret – similar to a secret Santa swap) the not so secret part being that when the recipient goes online and journals the book(s) in the parcel they find out who it is from. My gift is for someone travelling a very long way to attend the convention, someone I have never met – I really hope she likes her gift.

quicksand and passing

Passing was chosen by my second book group (a lovely new feminist group) for our most recent read, we discuss it on Wednesday evening. It was my suggestion – because I already had the book and it seemed it would make a great book for discussion. In 2014 Serpent’s Tail produced an attractive edition of Nella Larsen’s two short novels, Quicksand and Passing in one volume. These two novels (novellas actually might be nearer the mark) are the only ones Nella Larsen wrote, however, despite this, Larsen was highly regarded by her contemporaries and became a part of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance.

I have chosen to read and review each novella separately – spacing out the pleasure of reading Larsen’s work – the writing is absolutely brilliant –such a shame there is so little of it.

“Everything can’t be explained by some general biological phrase.”

passingPassing is a difficult book to review – partly because it is quite short, but partly because there is in fact so much packed into this hundred page novella that the danger is I say too much. The novel concerns itself with race, identity and the middle-class African-American society of Harlem in the 1920’s. Some of the characters in this novel have a clear racial identity, while others, cross the lines of racial identity as they existed within that society.

Irene Redfield is a woman with a good life, she works hard at organising charity balls, is a big part of local society, married to a doctor with two sons her life is complete. The only shadow on her horizon so far has been her husband’s desire to take the family to Brazil so he can work amongst the poor there. Irene is very pale skinned, although she only chooses to ‘pass’ as white when it is convenient to do so – to get a table at a restaurant that would otherwise be barred to her – Irene identifies as a black woman and is satisfied with her life, her position in Harlem society and her marriage.

All of this is threatened when Irene meets Clare Kendry an old childhood friend. Clare has what Irene calls a ‘having way’ – Irene had lost sight of Clare for more than a decade, and in the years since they last met Clare has spent her life ‘passing.’

“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”

Now Clare is lonely for the life and the people she has left behind her. Married to a wealthy racist businessman who has no idea of her true racial identity Clare has been playing a dangerous game. Clare begins to insert herself into Irene’s life, taking more and more risks as she walks the tightrope between two societies. Clare is captivated by the community she once turned her back on, her life outside it has been a tense, colourless existence, and she quickly embraces the world of middle-class Harlem society. Clare is a very beautiful woman, irrepressible and immediately popular with many of Irene’s friends and even her cynical husband, soon Irene realises that her old friend could ruin the respectable, fulfilling life that Irene has worked so hard to build up around her.

“The old fear, with strength increased, the fear for the future, had again laid its hand on her. And, try as she might, she could not shake it off. It was as if she had admitted to herself that against that easy surface of her husband’s concordance with her wishes, which had, since the war had given him back to her physically unimpaired, covered an increasing inclination to tear himself and his possessions loose from their proper setting, she was helpless.”

As a novel, Passing might be slight, but it is huge in its themes, it’s finely and subtly plotted, building to an astonishing, unforgettable climax. It is a novel which offers us a fascinating glimpse of this society in pre-civil rights America.

It will not be long before I read the first novel in this collection, Quicksand which I have heard is outstanding and apparently very autobiographical.

nellalarsen

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