Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The third of the four and half books I read while I was in hospital was The Late Mrs Prioleau from Dean Street Press. I had had it for some time on my kindle – and I think I wanted to read it for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen anyone else talking about it and was therefore intrigued. It was the only novel that Monica Tindall published – and some background to the novel and to Monica and her family is provided in the introduction written by her niece Gillian Tindall.

Gillian Tindall tells us that her aunt came to think of the book as weak – and while there are a few small weaknesses in the novel, I think overall it is a novel of some subtlety and is definitely worth reading. In terms of style and story, it is rather different to many of the books being re-issued by Dean Street Press. Certainly, Monica Tindall does an excellent job of very gradually building up a picture of the titular character – who we first encounter in her coffin on the day of her funeral – as does her new daughter-in-law Susan, our narrator.

“The first and only time I saw my mother-in-law was when she lay dead in her coffin. Beside her knelt Austin, her eldest son, his face buried in a wet handkerchief and his fat body shaken by sobs. The patchy spring sunshine flickered against the drawn blinds and outside a wind from the sea blew thinly over the marshes. The air in the bedroom was at once cold and stuffy, smelling of damp and illness and old clothes.”

New Zealander Susan is newly married to Henry, the youngest of Mrs Prioleau’s four adult children – Henry has had little to do with his mother, or indeed any of his family for years. Gradually it seems Mrs Prioleau drove everyone away, everyone that is but Austin, her eldest son, her spoilt fat baby, who on the day of the funeral can be heard weeping, wailing, and carrying on to the most ridiculous extent – making himself rather ill in the process. Susan senses that there is a darkness at the heart of this family, a darkness she wants to understand for her husband’s sake.

It is 1939, war is expected any day – and of course soon the whole of Europe is swept up in the conflict. The novel takes us from these early days of war, through the dark days of the blitz to around the middle of the war. With everyone it seems, busy or away – it is Susan who is gently persuaded by the family solicitor to help Austin go through Mrs Prioleau’s belongings, sorting through and disposing of what needs to be got rid of. It is a long way from being a job she wants. Austin had not made a very good impression on Susan at the funeral – and now she must spend several days with him in his mother’s house. Both the family solicitor and the family doctor want to get Austin away from the house for his own good – they consider him to be rather fixated on his late mother – who had been his whole life while she was alive. If Austin isn’t bad enough – there is also the parrot to contend with, a fairly sinister creature with the uncanny knack of mimicking his dead mistress – much of what he says sounding really quite malevolent.

“A shrill voice from down the stairs broke suddenly in on the silence. “Austin!” it called. “Austin!” Then came a low, rather malicious chuckle which made me think I was not going to like Henry’s sisters. “Draw in now,” said the voice on a gentler note. “Draw into the fire and warm yourself.” I went downstairs wondering that they had arrived so silently and that I had not heard them talking to Henry. “Fine morning!” An uncertain tenor voice greeted me. “Fine morning!” Through the open door of the kitchen Mrs Prioleau’s grey parrot looked at me with a hard, yellow eye and chuckled. “That parrot!” Henry appeared and threw a cover over him. “How they put up with him I don’t know. I hated him when I was a child, and I think he’s worse than ever now.”

It is the time that Susan spends in Mrs Prioleau’s house with Austin that starts her wondering as to what kind of woman her mother-in-law was. Having spent time working as both a journalist and a detective fiction writer, Susan is fairly well placed to try and get to the truth behind her husband’s dysfunctional family.

As the years of the war go on, Susan is separated from her Henry for long periods of time, waiting as so many did during those years for the dreaded communication one hoped would never come. She has the chance to spend time with both her sisters-in-law – and with the late Mrs Prioleau’s sister. Bit by bit a picture emerges of the woman Helena Prioleau was. What was it though, that turned a popular, attractive, witty young woman into a bitter, spiteful old woman who drove most of her family away from her? Helena’s story is told in flashback, taking us back to the end of the nineteenth century, a story of disappointments, rash decisions, a great love affair and a marriage of convenience. There are some shocking stories from Helena’s later years, including an incident of animal cruelty, a rumour that a servant was driven to suicide, and a plethora of nasty letters.

There is a little twist in the tale too – which I must say I saw coming, but it didn’t spoil the story for me. A quick, engrossing read overall, psychologically it is very astute, and it such a shame that the author didn’t produce more books.

Read Full Post »

Translated from German by Tim Mohr

A few months ago, I read My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so in fact that I went in search of other books by the same author. I downloaded The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine to my kindle and it ended up being one of four books that kept me relatively sane recently while I was in hospital.

Rosa Achmetown is our outrageous narrator, thoroughly unpleasant, vain, manipulative, even abusive. Those who dislike unlikeable, unreliable narrators look away now. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a family saga, mainly focussing on a grandmother (Rosa) daughter and granddaughter. Rosa considers herself still young (she’s only in her forties) and beautiful but has virtually nothing good to say about her own daughter Sulfia. When Sulfia becomes pregnant at just seventeen by goodness knows who, an outraged Rosa does everything she can to rid her daughter of the pregnancy, including employing some rather horrible folkloric abortion methods. However, nine months later, despite all her efforts she finds herself a grandmother, and is surprised to find her granddaughter is beautiful, with the look of her Tartar ancestors. The baby is called Aminat – and Rosa becomes obsessed by her.

“The child, a little girl, seven pounds, twenty inches long, was born one cold December night in 1978 at Birthing Center Number 134. I had a feeling even then that she would become the type of kid who could survive anything without batting an eye. She was an unusual child and screamed very loudly from day one.”

From here on Rosa enters into an epic struggle to wrestle the baby away from her daughter – who she considers useless and ill equipped – so she can bring up Aminat herself. Sulfia is little match for her mother – totally unequal to her in every way – but she does occasionally fight back and Rosa doesn’t have it all her own way. When Sulfia gets a new man in her life, finds an apartment, and gets married, Rosa finds her daughter has taken Aminat away from her and is furious. This is just one of many battles that take place over the years. Rosa’s influence over Aminat is huge – her control far more powerful, though the child’s love and loyalty to her mother never waivers.

“I had tried to teach her that nobody should be able to see when you were scared. That nobody should be able to tell when you were uncertain. That you shouldn’t show it when you loved someone. And that you smiled with particular affection at someone you hated.”

Meanwhile Roas’s husband Kalganow is more shadowy presence in Roas’s life – disappearing to the park to feed the pigeons he appears at the table in their apartment ready for food to be placed in front of him. Eventually, he leaves to set up home with another woman, and Rosa seems only marginally put out. Soon she gets used to not having him around anymore. 

Rosa always has an eye for the main chance – and quick to react to any given situation. When she wants something – she goes all out to get it – and no one would bet against her. She certainly isn’t above bribing Aminat’s teachers, after all this is the last days of the communist era in the old USSR – and bribery oils the wheels of many things. When Sulfia’s marriage fails – Rosa insists she must find another husband – a foreigner – someone who can get them out of Russia. The lengths that Rosa is prepared to go to however are extraordinary.

Sulfia – who is now working in a hospital – meets a German man who is researching Tartar cuisine. Naturally, Sulfia introduces him to Rosa a fiercely proud Tartar – whose knowledge of Tartar cuisine is shaky. In Dieter Rosa sees their chance to get to the west. The fact that Rosa can see what poor Sulfia can’t and that sleazy, predatory Dieter is rather more interested in spiky teenage Aminat than in her mother is by the by – and soon Rosa, Sulfia and Aminat are on a plane to Germany – where they will be living in Dieter’s apartment.

However, once they have achieved the dream of living in the west, the ties that so loosely bind this fractured threesome together begin to stretch and fray, Aminat is growing up and Rosa’s hold over her is not what is was.  

Rosa is quite the creation – larger than life with the most outrageous behaviour – of course she always thinks she is doing right – and she has little time for those she considers fools.


“I was the prettiest patient in the intensive care unit—and the loudest. It bored me to lie in bed with tubes sticking in me. The treatment seemed exaggerated. I had to go to the toilet and rang for one of the nurses in purple smocks. She brought me a bedpan. I screamed at her—I wasn’t potty training! She looked at me totally shocked. Nobody ever screamed in the intensive care unit. At most maybe the occasional death rattle. I knew, I had worked at a hospital.”

I love Alina Bronksy’s unique, quirky storytelling – she has a matter of fact, straight forward style. Here she has given us an unforgettable narrator – who we may even begin to pity – just a little towards the end of the book.

Read Full Post »

With thanks to the British Library for the review copy

Tension by E M Delafield the last of the British Women Writers series I had left to read – I can’t wait for the next crop whenever that may be.

First published in 1920 this is a novel which in some ways is very much of its time, and yet in its exploration of the effects on someone’s reputation of persistent gossip, it is still very relevant. Today, with the rise of tabloid journalism and trial by social media we see daily people bowing under the onslaught of a tweet gone viral. While the manner and scale of gossip might have changed a lot in one hundred years, the effects haven’t really. Coming from the pen of the author of The Provincial Lady this feels like a more serious novel – yet everywhere is Delafield’s wit and her keen observers eye, her characters speak absurdly sometimes, because they are absurd, and she is showing us how ridiculous her society can be.

The tension of the title is that which is caused by the rumour and gossip that grows up around the appointment of a new lady Superintendent to a private collage for adult education. The director of the college is Sir Julian Rossiter, his wife Edna – Lady Rossiter is the purveyor of the gossip – a little word here and there, muttered in great concern – it’s deliberate and damaging and as gossip always does, it spreads.

“‘I know that things of that kind always are known, and people I’ve been thrown with, sooner or later, always turn out to have heard the story. Or if they hadn’t,’ said Miss Marchrose in a voice of calm despair, ‘someone took the trouble to tell them.’”

As the novel opens Lady Rossiter and her husband are being treated to the lively attentions of the two precocious Easter children. Their father Mark Easter is Sir Julian’s agent – and they live in a cottage nearby. Ruthie and Ambrose (or Peekaboo as Ruthie must call him) are atrociously behaved – their father must manage them alone, as his wife is locked away in some sort of institution for alcoholics. Sir Julian is concerned with the appointment of the new Lady Superintendent to the college – and when he mentions the woman who is due to arrive to his wife Edna she pricks up her ears. Convinced the woman is someone who was once involved with a relative of hers some years earlier, Lady Rossiter sets herself against Miss Marchrose even before she is in post. Lady Rossiter loves to take quite an interest in the college – she enjoys inviting some of the staff to her home and give them tea, believing this to be a wonderful treat for them. She is of course horribly un-self-aware.

“‘I want to know this Miss Marchrose,’ said lady Rossiter with decision. ‘I think I must go to the College tomorrow – I have been quite a long time without seeing any of my friends there. Dear Mr Fuller! I love Mr Fuller – he and I have such long talks over the welfare of the staff.’

‘I shall be in there all day tomorrow. Won’t you look in and let Miss Marchrose give you a cup of tea?’ said Mark.

‘Of course I will. They love dispensing a little hospitality, don’t they, and I’m always most ceremonious about returning their calls here. Not that Miss Marchrose has come over yet with the others.’”

I always enjoy reading about workplaces of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the working world especially for women rather different to that of today. Here, Delafield sets part of her novel in a college for adult education – there’s some good detail about how the place operates and the long hours the teachers put in. One of the best characters in my opinion is Fairfax Fuller – a supervisor who is fairly no nonsense type of chap who really doesn’t suffer fools gladly – and clearly has Lady R pegged from the start.

Another story strand concerns Mark Easter’s sister Iris. She has written some sort of shocking novel called Why Ben! A story of the Sexes – it’s a very modern novel and Lady Rossiter feels duty bound to lock her copy away from the impressionable eyes of the servants. Iris is preparing to marry Douglas Garret – arrangements for which are in full swing.

When Pauline Marchrose begins her work at the college she has not reckoned on the interference of Lady Rossiter. Lady Rossiter is so convinced that Miss Marchrose behaved badly toward her relative that she is incapable of thinking anything very good of her. Sir Julian is a weak man, trapped in a loveless marriage, he has confidence in the appointment he has made, but does nothing to stop his wife’s quiet destruction of the lady Superintendent. A little word here, a suggestion there – and Edna’s job is soon done. One of the things that Lady Rossiter always asks herself is: ‘Is it kind, is it wise, is it true’ naturally she tends to answer herself in the affirmative – and on she goes, so absolutely certain of her own rightness – utterly blind to any other point of view. She is a marvellous creation, quite monstrous and yet at times the reader almost pities her – almost!

Tension also has a lot to say about the position of women at this period – just after the First Word War – Pauline Marchrose one of those surplus women – for whom the decision whether to marry or not could be life changing. Married women had position and status and things to do that a single woman didn’t – married women of this class at least, didn’t go out to earn their living. Delafield is really rather good at looking at more than one section of society and portraying its flaws with understanding and humour.

Another absolute winner from this series from the British Library.

Read Full Post »

As many of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will be aware, I haven’t been too well – again! After eight days in hospital, I came home yesterday, hence the longer than usual gap between blog posts. I am very grateful for all the good wishes I have been sent over the last week or so, this is always such a lovely community to be part of.

I now have seven books to tell you all about and my rule is to review everything I read, so in order to reduce the deficit a little I have three mini reviews for you today instead of my usual one book review per post. Back to normal soon, I hope.

I can’t say there is anything at all to link these three novels – they are quite different and just what I happened to be reading a couple of weeks ago.

The Golden Rule – Amanda Craig (2020) – with thanks for the review copy.

A novel longlisted earlier this year for the Women’s Prize I was delighted to be offered a copy of the new paperback edition for review. The novel takes some inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train – a novel several characters refer to throughout the course of the novel. The setting is now however, post referendum Britain, where the differences and inequalities between London and Cornwall are plain to see.

Hannah is a poor, harassed single mother, travelling by train from London to Cornwall to see her dying mother. She is invited into the first class carriage by a woman she has never met before – unwittingly Hannah is walking straight into a carefully orchestrated snare. Her companion is Jinni – and like Hannah she is going through a marriage break up. Unlike Hannah she is wealthy. Hannah once left Cornwall for London to go to university, but later marriage to Jake and motherhood changed everything for her. Now she has ditched her work in advertising to work as a cleaner – as it fits around school hours – she never has any money and communication with her ex-husband is difficult and acrimonious.

After only knowing one another a very short time, Jinni makes an outrageous suggestion. The women agree to each murder each other’s husbands – after all how could they possibly be connected?

“All at once, the train thundered into the first of the series of tunnels before Exeter. The air became brick, and the noise deafening. Their reflections shone dimly in the black glass, a parallel world of darkness and shadow.

Jinni leant forward, her eyes bright, and mouthed, ‘Why don’t we, then?’”

However, when Hannah goes to Jinni’s former home and meets the man who Jinni is married to, he isn’t at all what she expects. Hannah begins to question everything Jinni told her – and starts to have second thoughts at having her daughter’s father harmed. How this will play out is uncertain, and there are a few unexpected surprises still to come.

I won’t say too much more about the plot – but it really is a great page turner. What I especially loved however were the themes of poverty and inequality – Craig shows us a very realistic Britain where the haves and have nots live just streets apart – in London and in Cornwall. Single mothers have it so much harder than their former partners, who carry on earning the same, get a new partner – while the woman ends up poorer – stressed, alone and insecure. It’s a familiar story told with great understanding.

Panenka – Rónán Hession (2021)

Like many people I absolutely adored Rónán Hession’s first novel Leonard and Hungry Paul – and so I was really looking forward to this one, I wasn’t disappointed. Again, we have a gentle novel, a novel about people the reader soon feels they know – and who we care about immediately.

“His name was Joseph, but for years they had called him Panenka, a name that was his sadness and his story.”

Panenka is now fifty years old – twenty-five years ago he made a mistake, something he has lived with ever since and that is known about by everyone. Ever since he lived as an exile in his own small town, where everyone knows his story. His relationships were destroyed and for years he was estranged from his daughter who he loved fiercely. Now Panenka is managing to rebuild a family life – living with his daughter, who is separated from her husband, and her seven year old son.

However, at night Panenka suffers crippling headaches that he calls his iron mask – pain that leaves him curled up on the bathroom floor until it passes. Something is clearly very wrong. Panenka goes in search of help without telling his daughter – and so must face the reality of what is happening to him alone. He faces loosing everything all over again. Then he meets Esther, a woman who has come to live in the town – and knows nothing of Panenka’s infamous story. Together they negotiate a fragile new relationship, finding comfort and understanding in one another’s experiences allowing a little bit of love into their fractured lives.

Written with great insight into people’s frailties Panenka is a beautiful quiet little novel. It is a sadder novel than Leonard and Hungry Paul – there is a bittersweet quality to the story telling that may bring a tear to the eye. The characterisation is flawless and for me that is the sign of a really excellent novel – I believe absolutely that these people are real. A fabulous achievement – as I hear that second novels can be problematic – so such worries here!!

Poison for Teacher – Nancy Spain (1949) – with thanks to Virago for the review copy.

This is the second of two Nancy Spain novels that have been reissued this year by Virago. It is unusual I suppose for Virago to publish books that could be called mystery – but I think the decision to publish these rests more with who Nancy Spain was. She really was quite the character and a fascinating personality in her own right. The introduction to these editions written by Sandi Toksvig who is herself a big fan. Also, the mystery element in these books while present can be eclipsed a little by all the witty, jolly hockey sticks type frolics.

In Poison for Teacher, we find ourselves in London and Sussex and is great fun for those who like school stories. Miriam Birdseye – former revue star and now professional detective is definitely intrigued when the headmistress of Radcliff Hall arrives at her Baker Street agency to consult her over a series of strange pranks that have begun to look rather sinister. Concerned about her school’s reputation, Miss Lipscomb fears that even her life might be in danger.

Miriam’s friend and colleague, former ballerina Natasha Nevkorina is really rather fed up with her husband Johnny DuVivien and walks out on him and straight into the case at Radcliffe Hall. Miriam and Natasha – neither of whom like children at all, nor can barely hide the fact – travel to the Sussex girls school in the guise of new teachers. Two more unlikely teachers it is really rather hard to imagine. Soon they are thrust into the world of this rather uncomfortable sounding school, uncovering a blackmail plot, infidelity, and jealousies on a fairly grand scale.

A play is being rehearsed and both Miriam and Natasha are drawn into the drama surrounding the play which everyone seems to be taking very seriously. Tragedy strikes when a teacher is poisoned during the play rehearsals, and another member of staff is left very unwell indeed.

As with the other Nancy Spain novels I have read this is great escapism, all jolly often irreverent fun, larger than life characters and a clever plot to boot. However, things do get just a little bit meander-y and confusing and frankly at just over 400 pages I think it is too long – a hundred pages too much perhaps.

Sorry for the long post – but three in one – yay!

Read Full Post »

With thanks to the British Library for the advance copy

Many of us I think discovered Diana Tutton only because of Simon at stuck in a book’s infectious enthusiasm for a book called Guard Your Daughters – cue everyone trying to get hold of copies. Fast forward a few years, and that has been reissued by Persephone books, and now we can read Simon’s afterword in a new edition of Diana Tutton’s Mamma. Of course, Mamma has been reissued by The British Library as part of their Women Writers series – a series I have come to especially love, it’s just so up my alley.

Mamma is rather different to Guard your Daughters, the central relationships perhaps just nudging the taboo. However, everything is quite held back emotionally, there’s a lot of subtlety which I appreciated. In fact, this novel has much more to say I think about the fifties society it depicts than it does about this potentially scandalous relationship.

The Mamma of the title is Joanna Malling – as the novel opens she has just moved to a new house – and though worn out with the effort, is looking forward to showing it off to her daughter Elizabeth who is coming to visit and help out. A letter has arrived from Elizabeth (often called Libby) which Joanna hadn’t time to read in the move, when she does she is surprised to find her daughter has got engaged to a man Joanna has as yet never met. Libby’s fiancé is a Major in the army, she is just twenty but Steven Pryde is thirty-five – a quite unusually large age gap.

Joanna was widowed when her daughter was a baby and despite thinking she might remarry never did. She is still only forty-one and has decided that really she should now be just quite happy to sink slowly and gracefully into old age. At forty-one!! To us in 2021 that really seems laughable – and yet in this we begin to see the way middle class societal expectations influenced women at this time. Joanna had been living as a widow for a long time, now with her daughter about to marry it was her turn to sink off into obscurity – it was the proper, suitable way of living. These class expectations and contradictions are everywhere in this novel – in the way other friends and relatives are portrayed and most fascinatingly in the way Joanna’s daily woman and her mother are portrayed. Joanna also realises with a shock that her relationship with her daughter will change, once she is a wife.

“But this young man whom Libby loved was, to her mother, more than a stranger. She felt his stolidity to be inimical, and knew that she would always feel it so. To think of Libby kissing him was an embarrassment from which her though recoiled, and it was desolation to realize that henceforth whatever passed between herself and her daughter would, if of interest, be recounted to Steven. From Janet the loyal Libby would keep a secret if asked, but to Steven, now, all her loyalty must be given, and it would be cruel to strain it.”

When Joanna and Steven first meet it’s not an instant success, though the love struck, excited Libby can’t see that. She insists that her husband-to-be comes up with a name to call his soon to be mother-in-law – and Mamma is what is decided upon, although the word is brought out rather awkwardly – Joanna is after all only six years older than Steven. Joanna wants nothing else than for her dear daughter to be happy, and she works hard at getting to know Steven and helping plan for the wedding. Libby of course is a good, young virginal bride, excited about being married, eager to show off her culinary prowess to her intended.

The marriage takes place just six weeks later and while Steven is waiting for a posting abroad the couple are temporarily homeless. With housing shortages in the neighbourhood and Stephen working nearby Libby and Steven move in with Joanna.

There’s the inevitable shifting around trying to accommodate everyone’s needs and Joanna is particularly sensitive to that. However, soon the three have settled into a comfortable routine in the evenings when Steven comes home. Libby – or Elizabeth (sometimes Liz) as Steven calls her is very happy, she is also very young and rather naïve – she makes small, unimportant errors and her mother sees them – and whenever she can she tries to smooth out any ruffles. The problem is that it soon becomes clear to everyone but the new bride that Steven and Joanna have far more in common – they are on the same wavelength, their experiences during the war were not so dissimilar. This rather toe-curling exchange when Elizabeth wants to put some photographs in the drawing room.

“‘Darling,” said Steven, “have you got a morbid craving to see your own face all over your own drawing room?” Elizabeth seemed thoroughly taken aback.” I – I thought you’d want it there!” “But I don’t. I detest big photographs.” “But – but everyone has their photographs in their drawing rooms!” “Do they?” said Steven thoughtlessly. “How extremely suburban!” Elizabeth blushed violently, and Joanna hurried to give her some support, although as it happened she entirely agreed with Steven.’”

Libby had expected to be able to make a few little changes to her man – the curtailing of his moustache for one – and is hurt when her efforts are unrewarded, she fusses over him too much when he is ill and Joanna is upset to see her daughter struggling a little in her new role. However, Joanna and Steven are drawing just a little closer – and Joanna feels it – she worries about it – but can’t switch off her awakened feelings. It has been many years since she felt anything like this and everything she knows about her role is that now is the time to forget anything like that. Joanna adores her daughter first and foremost – and so must wrestle with these unexpected feelings as she becomes more torn between her desires and her loyalty to her daughter.

I loved this novel – and how in a quiet way it says so much about fifties society. I couldn’t help but wonder how a modern writer would have handled this plot – and I suspect it would have all got a bit dramatic and obvious – I prefer Tutton’s handling of it by far.

Read Full Post »

Popping up with a quick review, as I try to catch up a little. It’s about two weeks since I finished reading Bramton Wick, a period during which I have been reading quite slowly. My usual blogging timetable has gone out of the window, so bear with me.

Bramton Wick was perfect for an overtired weekend just as I began to feel quite unwell. I have previously read three other Elizabeth Fair novels all re-issued by Dean Street Press – and I really enjoy her world – small villages, eccentric characters, and a touch of romance. However, this one was her first published novel. Her observations are often highly amusing – her quirky characters all too believable. I was particularly struck by this quote from Stevie Smith on the back cover – taken from the time the book was originally published. Many of you will remember how – despite reading quite a number – I have struggled a bit with Angela Thirkell – and although publishing a little later than most of Thirkell’s – Elizabeth Fair was a writer of a similar type who didn’t fall into that trap of uncomfortable snobbishness that I find so unpalatable in many Thirkell books.

“Miss Fair’s understanding is deeper than Mrs. Thirkell’s and her humour is untouched by snobbishness; she is much nearer to Trollope, grand master in these matters.” – Stevie Smith

Bramton Wick is a tiny village – the setting of this delightful feel good debut. Here we encounter all the tensions, resentments and potential romances that exist in such a small community. Elizabeth Fair peoples her village with a variety of recognisable types – the romantic, the cynical, those who really need a shake up, the selfish and those who are too put upon. We have a lot of post war, genteel poverty, living cheek by jowl with those who are far better off.

There is Mrs Cole, with her two adult daughters, Gillian and Laura, Gillian was widowed in the war. Mrs Cole herself has long been a widow and she is still smarting somewhat from having to give up the big house – Endbury after her husband’s death. The house she has had to see Lady Masters lauding it over them all from ever since.

“She wondered how Lady Masters got her parlour maid to carry the coffee right across the lawn. But of course, Lady Masters got things simply by always having had them and by taking it for granted that she always would have them.”

Lady Master’s son Toby, a good friend of both Laura and Gillian’s is one of two local young men who really need to settle down and decide what they want to do with themselves. The other one is Jocelyn, who is living with his aunt and uncle – the uncle just about as irascible as it possible to be, his poor wife something of a door mat. Laura wonders whether she would like to marry Toby or not because if she did she would be able to return her mother to Endbury in time. Mrs Cole’s landlord proves not to be quite as awful as she thought – though nothing like his father – and the practical thinking Gillian meets a wealthy man with a terrible sense of dress.

Nearby at a cottage loomed over by the railway embankment live Miss Selbourne and her friend ‘Tiger’ – Miss Garrett – they once drove ambulances together in the First World War. They now have a dog kennels and a house that is a complete shambles – Miss Selbourne seems to do everything, Tiger being quite good at staying in bed or not feeling up to things she doesn’t like doing. Tiger is also the most appallingly bad driver – as we see a couple of times. These are the two best characters in the novel for me, and the novel opens with them preparing to go off to the local dog show. In another cottage close by live the three Misses Cleeve, from where much of the local gossip emanates, rather delightfully described by Elizabeth Fair as being ‘all remarkably like toads.”

This relatively short domestic comedy was a perfect little slice of escapism. A novel where of course everything gets tidied up quite nicely at the end – and how we all need that now and again. Although firmly in the category I call comfort reads – not everything in Bramton Wick is cosy – and yet it is the kind of book to curl up with under a blanket and hide from the realities of the twenty-first century.

Read Full Post »

With thanks to the British Library for the advance copy.

So, here I am on a Sunday afternoon writing my Monday morning blog post – a week since I even tried to write anything for the blog. I haven’t been well at all – I won’t bore you with the details, but I think I am on the mend, though not as well as I would like to be yet. I may even need to go back to the doctor again. So, last week I was really bad at getting through all the blogs I usually read – please bear with me – I am trying to catch up. I also need to catch up with my own reviewing – though there isn’t as much as there might be, as I have been reading very slowly during May so will have read fewer by the end of the month than usual. Ok, so on with the book.

Due To A Death is a book I read at the end of April – and it suddenly seems such a long time since I read it. A novel which again proves that the variety of mysteries put out by The British Library is actually quite wide – not all country house murders by a long shot. Mary Kelly, the author of Due To A Death, won the Gold Dagger award for her previous novel The Spoilt Kill also published by the British Library. Later she was nominated again for this one, a novel quite unlike many vintage mysteries reissued in the last few years. There is a lot more depth to this one, the mystery is really only a small part of the whole, the psychology of the characters, the daily tensions, secrets and the raw beauty of the landscape combine to raise this just a little bit above the ordinary mystery novel.

“Quarter past five. Thirty minutes since I’d run away. Fifteen miles of twisting lanes, five of Roman road. A last mile of eighty-five with the police closing up behind, impatient, menacing.”

The novel opens ambiguously, and immediately the reader is captivated. A young woman sits in the passenger seat of a car speeding along a road between the marshes. The young woman is Agnes, she has just made some kind of horrifying discovery – though we don’t know what. She is covered in cuts her stockings are ruined. She is being driven by an unnamed man who until recently was a stranger – we later discover he is Hedley Nicholson, the hero of that well received earlier novel. There are sounds of police car sirens close by, yet it isn’t Agnes and her companion who are being chased. They arrive in Gunfleet – the tiny village on the estuary where Agnes lives with her husband Tom, and where Nicholson has been staying for several weeks. Mary Kelly’s descriptions of Gunfleet, the estuary and the surrounding marshes are just perfect, it is a place swamped in claustrophobia, where everyone knows everyone else it has an air of early 1960s, post war decrepitude – and it certainly isn’t cosy at all. The moment they arrive back they find out that the body of a young girl has been found in the marsh – and panic is already starting to set in. Overwhelmed by all that has happened, and what she has arrived home to, Agnes takes herself off quietly to the church to contemplate all that has happened during the summer weeks that have brought her to this moment. The rest of the novel therefore is told in flashback, building up to where we started.

“I had to think, examine the summer, sift the past for fragments of memory, sharp, coloured, dimensional, like cubes of mosaic, which separately seemed insignificant; put together they took on meaning, formed a picture itself demanding to be explained, like a dream; or rather a nightmare so dreadful I couldn’t bear to explain it. That was weakness, evasion; it had to be faced.

They could be tied together after all, my own troubles and the girl on the marsh, one horror, worse than anything I’d ever known, the worse that could be. It was possible; I had to think whether it were true.

I had to go back to the beginning; though there is never a beginning, only a point when you wake up.”

The inhabitants of Gunfleet seem rather dysfunctional, Agnes’s husband Tom works for the university – his friends Tubby and Ian (who is in fact Tom’s step-brother) have some connection with the marsh and the work carried out in the area. Tubby is married to Carole they have a bunch of lively children and Ian, married to Helen has one son. Helen appears to have a particular dislike for Agnes – and is forever watching her with apparent disapproval. The three families are frequently together – evenings in the pub, picnics with the children – and yet Agnes is quite definitely the outsider – she carries her isolation into the midst of this group. Another outsider, Hedley Nicholson has his own reasons for coming to Gunfleet. He has latched himself onto this group, becoming already an almost accepted figure in the tiny community. He started to give Agnes driving lessons, as she bought a car that she cannot yet drive.

It seems Mary Kelly was pushing the boundaries of the mystery genre with this novel – and for me it is very successful. It is a very intelligent novel with rather a lot going on. The portrayal of a community is superbly done, a strong sense of place is always a big hit with me, but we have more than just a strong sense of place here – the sense of a community, flattened and forgotten and a million miles away from all that was happening in the British cities of the 1960s. That, and some astute character studies make this a novel that is much more than a mystery, in fact some crime fans might find this one a bit too light on the mystery side of things. For me though Due to A Death gave me lots of what I love, social history, a great sense of place, good characterisation, lots of secrets and plenty of suspense. I clearly need to read more by Mary Kelly.

Read Full Post »

Reviewing a little out of order now, as this is the first of two books I have left over from my April reading, that I read before my Daphne du Maurier books.

V for Victory is the follow up to Crooked Heart and Old Baggage and had been sitting on my kindle for ages. For those who have read the previous two books it is a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Getting back to these characters felt like quite a treat, and I always enjoy a novel with a war time setting. Lissa Evans combines humour with a delicate poignancy – revealing how families come in all shapes and sizes and are sometimes created out of people we aren’t even related to.

It is 1944, the coldest winter that almost anyone can remember and Hitler’s rockets are raining down on Londoners with grim regularity. It feels like the allies are winning, and yet the war drags on.

In Green Shutters, a large house – once owned by Miss Matilda Simpkin – Vee Sedge is just about keeping her head above water thanks to the lodgers that fill the house. She has a growing boy to clothe and feed – Noel is now fifteen. Vee is living under an assumed identity – with Noel supposedly her nephew. Everyone thinks Vee is called Margery Overs, and she fears exposure and what that could mean for her and Noel. They both keep up the act pretty well – with no one in the house the least bit suspicious of their story. Vee and Noel squabble now and then, but it’s clear that they have become family – neither of them would really want to live without the other now.

“‘I meant to ask you why you call your aunt Ma.’ ‘It’s “Mar” – M A R,’ he said, ‘short for Margery.’ Except, of course, that her name wasn’t really Margery, it was Vee, and she wasn’t his aunt at all – just as his godmother Mattie, with whom he’d lived previously, hadn’t actually been his godmother. He didn’t have a family tree, he had a Venn diagram, in which none of the circles overlapped.”

When not tending to the chickens in the back garden, Noel gets his education from the lodgers – the lady doctor teaches him Biology, Chemistry and accuracy – the others instruct him in English, Latin, French, maths, bookkeeping and even cookery and Polish. Vee chooses her lodgers by the skills they offer – though as the novel opens Noel is teaching himself Geography and History after the loss of the lodger who taught him that. Noel is a brilliant creation, bright and curious and resilient – he has been shaped by the life he has lived to this point, carrying the speech patterns and knowledge he picked up from Mattie Simpkin when he was younger, and now slotting into Vee’s rather different world.

When Vee witnesses an accident, she is suddenly forced into presenting herself officially when she is called to give evidence in court. It’s quite a stressful prospect standing up in court at the best of times without having to swear to being someone you aren’t.

“It was another forty minutes before Vee was called into court, though it felt like a week, and by that time, her mouth was so dry that when she confirmed in front of the coroner that her name was Margery Olive Overs (so help her God), every word was accompanied by little creaks and snaps, as if her lips were made of leather.”

It’s all because of the court case that Vee meets American corporal O’Mahoney, who becomes something of a regular visitor at Green Shutters, though Noel is clearly not keen on him. It’s been a tough few years for Vee – keeping one step ahead of the law, caring for Noel, maybe now she can just have a bit of fun for a change.

“…perhaps you didn’t always have to worry about every damned thing, every second of the day; perhaps sometimes you could just dance.”

Then, on Christmas day while everyone in the house is occupied in playing games, Noel receives a very surprising visitor – who could be the one to change everything for Vee and Noel.

Alongside the story of Vee and Noel and the boarders at Green Shutters we also have the story of Winnie Crowther – the Post Warden for the local ARP post – she was once one of the girls in Mattie Simpkins’ girls club – the Amazons – and Winnie remembers her with fondness. Now Winnie receives letters from her husband in a POW camp – the husband she doesn’t feel she knows very well anymore. Her sister, meanwhile, a society beauty has written a risqué novel about ARP wardens much to Winnie’s embarrassment. Winnie is doing a fantastic job in the ARP – Mattie would be proud of the resourceful, courageous woman she has become. When Winnie meets Noel, she is fascinated to learn where he is living, memories of Mattie Simpkin and the Amazons come flooding back.

V for Victory is a really engaging, satisfying conclusion to the trilogy – and although the spectacular Mattie Simpkin is not a character in this novel – her presence remains. The three books connect beautifully, and fans of the previous two novels will enjoy how everything joins up and is satisfactorily dealt with.

Read Full Post »

The Du Mauriers is a biography of Daphne du Maurier’s family, it reads however exactly like a novel, and that was always the intention. It is extraordinary I think that she wrote this book when she was just thirty, and she was already well established as both a biographer and a novelist. In fact, this books reads so much like a novel, the reader has to keep reminding themselves that these people were real – for me that made it all the more fascinating. Daphne du Maurier does this well – breathing life into people removed from us by decades or even centuries and telling their stories faithfully and with credibility.

In a sense it is a companion piece to her biography of her father Gerald: A Portrait (1934) and concerns itself mainly with the two generations that came before Gerald du Maurier. It begins however with Mary Anne Clarke at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as, her fortunes altered she left England for France. Mary Anne Clarke was of course Daphne du Maurier’s great-great grandmother, who was the mistress of the Duke of York in the early nineteenth century. She is the subject of Daphne du Maurier’s 1954 novel Mary Anne, here we meet her in middle and old age, as ribald and outrageous as ever, over painted, over dressed and a constant embarrassment.

The story of The Du Mauriers opens in 1810 – Mary Anne Clarke is packing up her London house; her twelve year old daughter Ellen watches strange men tearing up their home and removing the possessions she has known her whole life. Mary Anne’s reckless spending has brought them to this, soon she and Ellen will be sailing for France, while Ellen’s elder brother George stays at the military school that is paid for by the Duke as part of Mary Anne’s legal settlement.

“And, while her mother laughed and chatted, teasing Lord Folkestone in her own inimitable way, whispering oddities to him behind her hand that made him shout with laughter, the child Ellen sat silent, like a little sallow mouse, watching the play between them with a strange inborn sense of disapproval. If this was how grown-up people spent their time, she had little use for them; for herself she preferred books and music, having a thirst for knowledge of all kinds that her mother declared to be positively wearisome in a child not yet thirteen.

Poor Ellen – as the result of a joke by one of her mother’s friends – believes herself to be the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York – a belief that she carries through her life. Mary Anne and Ellen set sail for France – which is really where the story of the du Maurier family begins.

A few years later Ellen meets Louise Busson du Maurier a young English teacher at La Maison d’Education. Ellen comes to the school to take a short course in French literature. Despite the obvious differences in their experiences the two become friends, though it isn’t until sometime later that Ellen meets Louise’s brother, Louis-Mathurin who will be her future husband – a music loving, inventor with no common sense, a dreamer who borrows money with no hope of paying it back. Louis-Mathurin is an atheist, something that shocks his Catholic sister considerably, so though is Ellen and the two find they have a shared love of music too.  

“No one can ever be too old for prayer,’ said Louise gently. Ellen shrugged her shoulders again. ‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘Why should you? Faith in an Almighty came naturally to you. You sucked it in with your first milk, in the cradle. I breathed rather different germs; a little malice, a little flattery, a little deception—those were the qualities that came to me. No one ever told me about God. The word was used as an oath before me and that was all. The only religion I have ever learnt was to take care of myself.”

Louise also married, though her marriage was embarrassingly short. Her husband turning out to have mistaken Louise for a great heiress, and on finding out the truth runs out on her on their wedding night. A story that the scandal loving Mary Anne cackles over with cruel glee. Louise became a governess to the children of a former pupil who married into Portuguese aristocracy. Ellen is around thirty when she marries – yet surprises herself by having three children, George ‘Kicky,’ Eugéne ‘Gyggy’ and Isabella. Louise becomes the very fond godmother of Gyggy – the son Ellen has little feeling for.

We continue to follow the fortunes of Ellen and Louis-Mathurin and their children as they move back and forth between Paris, London, Brussels and Boulogne. Kicky his mother’s favourite, finding an early talent for caricature though his father wants him to study science, Isabella her painted grandmother’s darling with her pretty face and golden hair. At this point, Mary Anne is well into her seventies – she has published her memoirs in France – much to Ellen’s disgust, she still delights in the stories of her youth, the cheeky little asides, the non-too subtle references to her great success as a young woman.

“At twenty-six she had held her little world between her ruthless, exquisite fingers, and here was her grandson, at the same age, launching himself into the problematical future, in which he was to win fame by satirising the same society she had led by the ears at the beginning of the century.”

Of course, George ‘Kicky’ du Maurier does go on to be a famous cartoonist – working for Punch magazine – his targets the Victorian middle classes in particular. Later he went on to write a couple of novels – the best known of those is Trilby. We follow the story of his marriage, his career as a cartoonist and his loss of sight – such a tragedy for an artist.

The Du Mauriers is an absolutely fabulous read, what a family and what stories du Maurier draws from them. All families have their stories at the heart of them, and perhaps this family had more than most.

Read Full Post »

On this day May 13th in 1907, Daphne du Maurier was born in London, the middle daughter of the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier, grand-daughter of the Punch cartoonist George du Maurier. So, today is her birthday, and mine!

They are a fascinating family, and my review of her novelistic biography The Du Mauriers is scheduled for tomorrow.

In the meantime, and because I have been only able to read two books this year, I want to take a quick look back at some favourites. Personal favourites aren’t always the same as the most critically acclaimed – our reaction to books is so personal it can’t always be fully explained. It’s a feeling sometimes isn’t it?

So here, are my top five du Maurier books to date – I may need to update this as I read more of her books. So far I have read eleven novels, three collections of short stories and a biography by her. She is very underrated as a writer I feel – something I think her fans already know.

Rebecca was my first experience of Daphne du Maurier – I read it in my teens and later saw that classic Hitchcock film. I re-read it in 2006 and was sorely tempted to read it again this year but didn’t get the chance. From its spine tingling opening first line the reader is enthralled – some books are classics for a reason. Not a novel that needs much introduction – it is psychologically pitch perfect, full of gothic suspense – truly impossible to put down.

The only other du Maurier novel I have read twice is Jamaica Inn here again I was captivated in my teens by the brooding, melodrama, the romance of Cornish smugglers. I re-read it 2013 – and realised what had drawn me to it in my teens – the desolate moorland, those desperate men – it just the kind of thing you love at that age. When I re-read it, I realised how well du Maurier had portrayed those desperate men, how actually she in no way romanticised them in this novel – yet it is that very dark and brooding atmosphere that makes it so compelling. It was another of du Maurier’s novels that Hitchcock went on to adapt for film.

Daphne du Maurier was an excellent short story writer. Hitchcock adapted one of them – he must have been quite the fan. The Don’t Look Now collection was the first collection of du Maurier short stories that I had read – and the quality of the stories absolutely blew me away. This is a collection of five, long, short stories – stories of a really satisfying length that the reader can really get their teeth into. Many of her stories across the three collections I have read are really very dark – but I rather love that. This collection is truly excellent.

I don’t usually go for novels where the reader must suspend their disbelief – and yet with du Maurier I absolutely can and enjoy doing so. The House on the Strand utterly enthralled me from the first page – it made my books of the year list two years ago – and I have recommended it to all sorts of people since. Her evocation of the landscape here is just beautiful, Du Maurier blends the past and present beautifully – we become aware of how landscape may change over centuries – yet the basic shape of the land on which we live is essentially unchanged. In this time-travel novel – time travel du Maurier style – she celebrates the landscape she so loved in its past incarnation and the present. It is immensely compelling – so brilliantly imagined I got totally sucked into the world of this novel.

When preparing this post, I came up with the first four books on my list easily enough, but there were three books tied for that fifth spot. I have opted to talk about The Flight of the Falcon – one of the books I read last year. Something of a slow burn of a novel I felt – and yet it is really an excellent novel – with a stunning sense of place. It has a very filmic quality with its Italian setting; it has a very sixties feel to it. It is less melodramatic than many of her novels, though there are plenty of simmering resentments, petty jealousies and family secrets played out in a town steeped in history. The more I thought about this novel after I finished it, the more I liked it, I actually think it is quite brilliant.

So those are my top five du Maurier books – though it is quite hard to choose. So, now of course I want to know yours!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »