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Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Another of the books that I read for Read indies month in February which I am trying to squeeze in before the new deadline – unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get the final one reviewed before then.

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky is published by Europa Editions, and was the second book I received as part of my renewed subscription to the Asymptote book club. It was a book I loved so much I instantly bought another by the author. This is a novel about a dysfunctional family and the weakness of the human spirit, written with biting humour, fabulous dialogue and a good deal of heart. A slim novel that has the power to surprise us when we’re least expecting it.

Max is a child who lives with his grandparents in a refugee residence in Germany. The family have recently come to Germany from Russia taking up residence alongside families in similar circumstances. Max’s grandmother, a former ballerina, has some vague Jewish ancestry which allowed the family to get out of Russia and come to Germany as refugees, but she is nonetheless terribly antisemitic, she also hates the Germans – which considering she is living among mainly Jewish families in Germany makes things rather difficult. The move was all her idea, and Max and his grandfather followed meekly in her wake.

Max is the narrator of this delightful novel, who grows from a child not yet attending school to a young teen over the course of the narrative. Max’s grandmother Margarita controls everything in his life – she insists that he is sickly and not very bright – happy to talk about him in such a way right in front of him. Max isn’t allowed to play outside, he isn’t allowed sweets or cakes of any kind, even on his birthday he blows out the candle only to watch others eat his birthday cake. His grandmother parades Max around a series of doctors trying to find someone who will agree with her assessment of the child – and she has a thick file of medical notes at home to back up her claims.

“I’d always thought of women whenever I felt a cold claw gripping my heart. Grandmother had started to prepare me for my demise very early. The notion that time was trickling away gave me a sensation like goose bumps, and I wanted to soak up as much beauty as possible. I loved everything about women. The thin ones were lithe and fragile like daddy longlegs. The sturdier ones radiated warmth and plushness. If women were big I admired their strength, and if they were small I regretted the fact that I couldn’t protect them. That my grandmother was also a woman never crossed my mind.”

When Max does start school – and much to Max’s own shame – his grandmother tags along – right into the classroom, refusing to leave and setting herself down beside Max. Though with her lack of German (Max is already having to translate for her) this thankfully doesn’t last long, as it seems that it is Margarita that can’t keep up with the pace of learning, not Max.

In less assured hands Max’s grandmother could have become so monstrous she would be difficult to read about. Yet, Alina Bronsky has written the character of Max’s grandmother so faithfully and with a delightful mixture of comedy and pathos that while we may be outraged by her – we don’t really ever find her behaviour as upsetting as we might otherwise. In time we come to understand something deeper about Margarita – her anger comes from a place of loss – and a fear of ageing.

Meanwhile Tschingis; Max’s grandfather is a quiet, gentle man going about his work with little fuss. He generally lets his wife have her own way – and so he happily consents to taking Max to his piano lesson at a neighbour’s apartment. Nina – a woman Margarita actually approves of when they first meet – has a young daughter who goes to school with Max and has agreed to give Max piano lessons.

“The piano lessons felt like a short trip to a world I wasn’t allowed to live in. After the lessons Nina sent me to the kitchen where there were cookies and tea on the table. Grandfather smoked on the balcony and she went out and stood with him for a while every time. From behind the fluttering curtain the contours of their shoulders seemed to blend together, one entity with two heads with smoke hovering above.”

Max is actually a very bright child he is observant and he notices immediately why his grandfather is so happy to take him along to the piano lessons. Max understands with the simple uncomplicated clarity of childhood that his grandfather has fallen in love with Nina. The reader, along with Max wait with baited breath to find out what will happen if and when his grandmother finds out the truth of what’s been going on. When months later Nina gives birth to a child who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tschingis, the two families are forced to live with this new and unexpected world that has been created.

For all Margarita’s faults – and they are quite numerous – we come to see that she is capable of great love – although perhaps on her own terms. There are reasons why she is like she is, and while we may not wholly forgive her, we come to some understanding. As Max gets older he starts to find ways of loosening those ties that bind just a little – and in time finds a new place in the world that is just for him.

Thank you Asymptote for another fabulous book choice, and the introduction to an author I will read more of soon.

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It always seems to be the last few days or so in February when we begin to really see the promise of spring. There were a couple of mornings last week when I took my morning WFH coffee break outside – albeit in a coat and scarf – but the birds were in fine voice in this industrial part of the city and it took just ten minutes to make me feel so much better.

In reading terms February has been ok, I have definitely slowed down a bit since January, finishing just eight books this month. The first of those was rather underwhelming but all the rest have been great. Four of this month’s reads count towards Karen and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies it has been brilliant seeing so many independent publishers being celebrated – I even discovered a couple I didn’t know about. Of course, as ever I am a few books behind in my reviewing so some will end up being reviewed in March.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi was that underwhelming read that started the month. A book group read, a Booker shortlisted mother daughter story which no one in the group particularly liked.

One of my read indie choices was Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer a stunning collection of short stories. A theme of domestic disharmony and suffocation runs through this collection. There is nothing warm and cosy about Mortimer’s domestic portraits here, instead we have stories of strained relationships, unhappy children, and infidelity. 

The Feast of Lupercal by Brian Moore was next – a quite brilliant little novel which forms a sort of companion piece to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. This novel concerns a Catholic schoolmaster living a fairly narrow kind of life in 1950s Belfast. Moore perfectly captures the sadness of a wasted life – beautifully written and compelling.

Another novel I was prompted to read for Read Indie month was All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison. A rural 1930s setting it is a coming of age novel which I found something of a slow burn but enjoyed a lot in the end. Rooted in the English countryside and beautifully written it was rather a lovely piece of calm once I got going with it.

I don’t know why I chose to read After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Townsend Warner now, except that I have had it tbr a long time and it was about time. One of the reasons I like Sylvia Townsend Warner is that she isn’t easily pigeonholed as being like anything/one in particular. I knew this one would be unusual – and it is – but I did like it, it’s not my favourite of her books but I certainly enjoyed the vibrancy and colour which she brings to this allegorical story of eighteenth century Spain.

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky was a book sent to me as part of my Asymptote subscription. Published by Europa Editions it also ticked the Read Indies box. I absolutely loved this book – so much so I bought another book by this author for my kindle. Translated from German by Tim Mohr it is the story of the boy Max living with his grandparents in a residence for refugees in Germany. The grandmother is a dreadful woman, but so comically written that it never gets too much.

Murder’s A Swine by Nap Lombard is one of the British Library’s most recent publications, this review copy only dropped on to my door mat just over a week ago. I was particularly interested in the authorship of the novel, because Nap Lombard was the pseudonym for the writing partnership of Pamela Hansford Johnson and her first husband Gordon Neil Stewart. As a fan of PHJ’s writing already I was intrigued. It turned out to be a really good mystery novel – a bit spine tingling in places and very enjoyable.

I chose to read my next book group read next The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy. This title is one of the six Black Britain writing back titles re-issued by Penguin with introductions by Bernardine Evaristo who has been championing the re-issue of these titles. I really enjoyed this novel and the voices of the two women at the centre of the novel – who meet in a psychiatric ward in the 1990s.

So that was February – and there were a couple of books I had wanted to read in February that I didn’t manage to get to – so they may or may not end up in March’s pile.

March sees the start of #ReadIrelandmonth21 an annual reading event hosted by Cathy of 746 books and also of Dewithon. I don’t appear to have anything from a Welsh author for the Dewithon this year, but I do have several by Irish writers. It wouldn’t be Read Ireland month for me without Molly Keane – and I do have one of the few I have left to read on the tbr. It’s one of the more recent editions with the covers I hate, but I will try and look past it. I also have a novella by Maeve Brennan who I have heard such good things of from other bloggers and Mary Costello’s Academy Street on my kindle. However, I have decided to start with The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor and I’m thoroughly enjoying it so far. How many read Ireland titles I actually manage remains to be seen but I am glad I have such a nice little pile to choose from.

So how was your February for books? Tell me what you read that I should know about – and what are your plans for March reading?

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I have been trying my best to join in with #ReadIndies this month – and some of last month’s reads that I have reviewed this month have counted towards that as did Saturday Lunch with the Brownings from Daunt books. I picked up All Among the Barley published by Bloomsbury after my sister recently passed her copy on to me.

Melissa Harrison is a writer I have wanted to try for a while, and I have certainly read some enticing reviews of her work previously. I read All Among the Barley during a stressful few days when my concentration wasn’t great. It is definitely a slow burn of a novel – though one I ended up really enjoying, well written; beautifully capturing a time and a place.

“When I was a child, I believed that what I want mattered so little that it wasn’t even worth me discovering what it might be.”

The narrator of All Among the Barley is Edie Mather, a fourteen year old girl living on a Suffolk farm in the 1930s. In this place and at this time she is considered to be on the brink of womanhood – she has already left school – despite her teacher’s entreaties that she continue her education. Edie lives at Wych Farm with her parents, grandfather, and older brother – her sister has married and left home, there are a couple of farm workers too who have been with the family for years. The shadow of the Great War still hangs over the farm and its inhabitants, and the Great Depression has affected them and the wider community in many ways. Running through the story is that age old juxtaposition of the preservation of tradition with the progress brought by new practices. The whole novel is something of a love letter to those long gone times, a reminder of a way of life, a slower, harder time, when people still carried the most unbearable losses with them. Harrison’s descriptions of landscape and the natural world are gorgeous, she clearly has a wonderful affinity with the world around her and the land that will have changed little in ninety years.

“On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.”

Edie hasn’t always been comfortable around other children, she’s a bit of a loner, bookish and imaginative. She has a fascination for the ancient stories of witches and enjoys looking for the old witch marks that can still be found around the area. Towards the beginning of the novel Edie is reading Lolly Willowes – a book I suspect helps to fuel her imagination.

Into this world comes Constance FitzAllen a glamorous outsider from London. She is staying in the village, but quickly insinuates herself into the local community, becoming a regular visitor at Wych farm. Connie (as she quickly becomes known) is making a record of all the old country traditions and beliefs. Researching a fading way of life and discovering what modern practices are taking their place. For Edie, Connie is a breath of fresh air – bringing the glamour of London a little closer; taking much more of an interest in Edie than she is used to having. Edie’s mother isn’t sure of Connie at first, treating her with some suspicion, yet even she is soon won over, charmed by the interest Connie is taking in the farm and their lives.

However, Connie isn’t all that she appears. Along with her interest in traditional farming methods, folklore, and country traditions she brings new ideas and some dangerous politics. As the novel progresses Connie’s view of outsiders start to emerge, antisemitism and a passionate belief in the preservation of traditional ways.

As harvest approaches the pressure on everyone at Wych Farm mounts. Edie’s father isn’t himself – he gets horribly drunk at the summer fair – and Edie is mortified. Meanwhile Edie has her own worries and concerns, one of the boys she grew up with is paying her more attention than she feels comfortable with, she is confused about how she feels and how to deal with the situation.

“It isn’t easy to conceive when you are growing up, that the world could be any different than how you find it, for the things you first encounter are what normality comes to consist of, and only the passage of time teaches you that your childhood could have been otherwise.”

I won’t say any more about the plot, but there is a deep poignancy at the end of the novel – as we encounter Edie as an elderly woman, looking back on her life and all that happened to her.

Despite my odd mood and the slow burn nature of this novel, I soon came to appreciate the novel for its incredible sense of place, the lyricism of the writing and the character of Edie who I loved.

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My second read for Cathy’s Brian Moore centenary read-a-long was Moore’s 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. A rather different novel on the surface from last month’s Brian Moore read, though I can see some repeating themes, it actually reminded me far more of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I read in 2019. Where that novel concerned the celibate, disappointed life of a Catholic woman, this novel concerns a man, a teacher living a fairly narrow kind of life in 1950s Belfast.

Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at the Catholic boys school, Ardath college in Belfast. Dev – as he is known to pretty much everyone – teaches English, and a look is all he requires to instil the discipline expected in his classrooms. When that isn’t enough he has no qualms in employing the cane. Outside of school he lives in digs, getting his meals from his landlady – an arrangement he has had for ten years. Having an interest in the theatre he has worked behind the scenes with a local amateur dramatic group, though his huge efforts have been taken for granted and he has had to endure the ignominy of having his name missed off the programme for several years. It’s a small, quiet life, and despite his age Dev has had no experience with woman at all, has never had a girlfriend and has led a life that adhered pretty closely to the principles of the Catholic faith.

“As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.”

Dev has probably never given much thought to how others may see him. So, it is with some horror that Dev overhears a couple of colleagues discussing him. A conversation in which the other two men acknowledge that Dev would have no idea what it would be like to have feelings for a girl, declaring him to be ‘an old woman.’ For Dev this insight into how other people might see him is profoundly shocking and gives him much to think about.

The revelations of the day therefore are still very much with him that evening when he decides to attend a party given by a teacher friend Tim Heron at his home. During the evening Dev gets talking to an attractive young woman called Una Clarke, a niece of Tim Heron’s who is staying with Tim and his wife until she can begin her nurses training. Una is from Dublin, a Protestant and only twenty years of age. A hint of scandal has followed her to Belfast – rumours that Dev is made aware of that first evening by those who are always quick to judge. It is said that Una was involved with a married man in Dublin, so her mother has sent her to stay with her uncle to get her out of the way until she starts her nursing course. Something about Una captivates Dev right from the start, though what could she possibly ever see in him? Dev leaves the party early. I loved Moore’s observations throughout this novel – here his description of a group of Heron’s relatives at the party.

“Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quickest to take offence.”

The college Dean: Father McSwiney asks Dev to help put on a play to help raise funds for charity. After running into Una again in a coffee shop and following some discussion with other members of the theatrical group it is agreed that Una – despite having no experience of performing – can audition for one of the roles in the upcoming play. Dev soon finds himself in the position of having to coach Una for the part – and so the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Una is really not going to be suitable for the role, yet the two enjoy their rehearsal time together and a friendship soon develops – with Dev wondering if this new friendship could ever be anything more. Una even confides in Dev – telling him something about what happened in Dublin, though the unworldly Dev has no idea what to do with Una’s revelation and makes certain assumptions that only helps to confuse the issue later.

Dev is conscious of how much older than Una he is – he wants her to look on him as a possible suitor/husband – and decides to change himself for the better so she might look on him with favour. He shaves off his moustache and buys a new suit of clothes. The scene in the tailor’s shop is beautifully and amusingly rendered – with poor Dev obviously clueless about fashion.

Needless to say, it isn’t long before the whispering starts. Una’s uncle Tim is desperate that no scandal should attach itself to Una while she is under his roof. Moore manages to make this community in Belfast seem as insular as a small village – rumours are passed along swiftly, when tensions between Tim Heron and Dev threaten to get out of control it would seem that everyone knows about it. In this Catholic environment of the 1950s any whiff of scandal or impropriety can completely ruin someone.

Moore perfectly captures the sadness of a wasted life – beautifully written and compelling The Feast of Lupercal assures me that I should read more Brian Moore this centenary year – and I’m sure I will.

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For me a really good collection of short stories is one where there is a theme running across the collection, and the stories themselves are so good you just want to read them one after another after another. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one such collection, it was the only collection Mortimer published alongside nine novels, biography, memoirs and journalism.

The collection was first published in 1960, the twelve stories all written in the late 1950’s when Penelope Mortimer was known best for being the celebrated wife of John Mortimer – something which I think is key when we consider the theme of domestic disharmony and suffocation that runs through the collection. There is nothing warm and cosy about Mortimer’s domestic portraits here, instead we have stories of strained relationships, unhappy children, and infidelity. The women in these stories are often struggling with the realities of parenthood, the insensitivity of husbands or the other suffocations of an unequal marriage. Penelope Mortimer perfectly understands the unhappy child too, she is able to put herself into the mind of the child – the child who is let down by or unsure of the adults around them. Her observances are so sharp, the view of motherhood and marriage she leaves us with is ultimately devastating.

The collection opens with the brilliant The Skylight in which a young mother travels to France with her young son. They arrive at the remote house where the woman has arranged for them to stay. The child is tired and fractious and they are both in need of rest. However, the house is locked up with no sign of the owners and no way of gaining access to the house – and no one around to help. It is hot and the mother is anxious to settle her son inside. Having carefully looked to see if there is another way of getting into the house the mother spots a small skylight in the roof which is open, only it is far too small for her to get in. A ladder lies close by – an obvious though risky strategy occurs to her and after some agonised thought she puts her plan into action. She helps her five year old son down through the skylight from the top of the ladder, after giving him some very detailed instructions as what to do once inside. The child then disappears from her anxious view. It’s a story reminiscent in style of some of Daphne du Maurier’s more memorable pieces. Mortimer perfectly captures the tension and rising sense of panic in the situation.

“In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath.”

(The Skylight)

The Skylight wasn’t the only story that reminded me a little of du Maurier – another story further into the collection Little Mrs Perkins is a delicious little bit of sleight of hand. Mortimer lulls us into a false sense of security, the reader makes certain assumptions about the woman we are introduced to when all along there is something else entirely going on. The narrator of this story is a woman in bed in a nursing home recovering from the birth of her third child. The Mrs Perkins of the title is the woman brought into the bed next to her – it seems that she is threatening to miscarry the child she is carrying.

The title story Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one of the stories that perfectly shows Mortimer’s ability to capture the minutia of domestic situations. In this story we meet what would now be called a blended family – Madge and William Browning, their daughter Bessie and Madge’s two daughters from her first marriage. The adults find themselves at each other’s throats arguing over the children – William’s resentment over his step-daughters gradually showing itself over the course of one volatile family Saturday.

A comfortably married couple feature in the darkly humorous Such a Super Evening. A lawyer and his wife are delighted to have had their dinner invitation accepted by the Mathiesons, a socially glamourous literary couple whose presence at parties is to be gloated over by the fortunate host. Needless the say, the evening doesn’t go quite as the couple had expected.

Mortimer is never afraid to make us shudder a little, she excels in the unexpected every bit as much as she does the domestic. In The White Rabbit an eleven year old girl is made to visit her estranged father who has some kind of rabbit farm. The child endures the visit to her father’s home – where she encounters rabbits in various states of health – and is given a white rabbit to take home.

“All the way back to London my father sang, in a tuneless sort of voice. I knew he was glad the day was over. I kept rehearsing what my stepfather would say. I knew he wouldn’t think of letting me keep the rabbit, but I was not sure of the voice or the words he would use. This worried me. I felt I should know. The rabbit crouched in my lap. It was so frightened I hoped it would have a heart attack and die.”

(The White Rabbit)

She doesn’t want the rabbit, for the girl the rabbit represents something she can barely articulate. She wants more than anything to belong wholeheartedly to her mother and step-father – a man vastly unlike her own father – the rabbit she sees as something that can only spoil that relationship.

Another story which focuses brilliantly I think on the viewpoint of a child – is The Renegade. A young girl at a boarding school she hates is certain her father will react with sympathy when she turns up on the doorstep late at night. This story is especially successful as we start with the self-deluding viewpoint of the girl’s parents – an unsatisfied middle aged vicar and his wife.

All in all, an absolutely brilliant collection of stories which has definitely whetted by appetite for more by Mortimer – I have previously read Daddy’s Gone a-hunting and The Pumpkin Eater.

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Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi was on the 2020 Booker shortlist – and was one title that I felt like I might like to read. My book group chose it as our February read and I was fairly certain it would be a book I would enjoy and was looking forward to it. However, as it turned out my relationship with this book was not quite so straight forward or always quite so positive.

I didn’t actively dislike the novel, however I found it very difficult to engage with it fully. I always think that is one of the most important thing for any book to do – the reader must engage at some level – be it positively or negatively. Doshi’s writing is beautiful, the prose is rich and visual – though because I failed to engage with the novel as I should have, many of those images that lovely writing should have left me with, have already faded. There was something about the flow of the novel that jarred a little for me – following discussion with my book group I wasn’t the only one who felt like that.

“…the mother I remember appears and vanishes in front of me, a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing. The doll turns inanimate. The spell is broken. The child does not know what is real or what can be counted on. Maybe she never knew. The child cries. I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands. Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved. I should be sad instead of angry. Sometimes I cry when no one else is around – I am grieving, but it’s too early to burn the body.”

The mother daughter story is one that is written endlessly, it is a theme I generally like reading about. The viewpoint here though is all one way, our narrator is Antara, the daughter – a fairly unlikeable, unreliable narrator.  She is a young woman living in Pune in India – married to Dilip who grew up in America before coming to live in India. They live in their own apartment, Antara’s mother lives nearby.  Now Antara’s mother Tara is having memory problems, starting the gradual slide into dementia – forcing Antara into the role of a caregiver. There is a sharp resentment here – Antara never having forgiven her mother for the chaos of her childhood – for the times when she was absent.

As a young woman having entered into an arranged marriage, Tara shocked her family by leaving her husband and taking her young daughter to live in an ashram. Here Tara became the chosen lover of the ashram leader, leaving young Antara to be cared for by another devotee.

“The whites are still bright, some glaring and some almost blue, the white of widows, of mourners and renunciants, holy men and women, monks and nuns, the white of those who no longer belong in the world, who have already put one foot on another plane. The white of the guru and his followers. Maybe Ma saw this white cotton as the means to her truth, a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom. For me it was something different, a shroud that covered us like the living dead, a white too stark ever to be acceptable in polite society. A white that marked us as outsiders. To my mother this was the colour of her community, but I knew better: the white clothes were the ones that separated us from our family, our friends and everyone else, that made my life in them a kind of prison.”

Later, Tara and her daughter endured a brief period of time as beggars, before being taken in by Antara’s grandparents. Antara’s memories of this period are bitter – but as others around her sometimes contradict her memories of that time – not to be relied upon.

In the present, with her mother clearly declining Antara is burdened by the expectations placed upon her – stifled by her memories and resentments. Should she try and move her mother into her apartment – or is she better in her own place? Antara and her husband often disagree about what the best course of action is. He doesn’t understand the anger that flares up between the two women. As much as Antara resents her mother – she is strongly connected to her – and starts to look into ways to help her mother, slow down the progression of her illness. Yet she also wants her to acknowledge the past and its effect.

However, it appears that there are things that Antara wants to remain hidden – things she would rather not have come back to the surface. There is a slightly shocking toxicity to Antara’s treatment of her mother as the novel progresses – a cruelty that while not physically abusive is still hard to read about.

As a novel about the roles of mothers and daughters – and women in general this provided my book group with a lot to talk about. Tara wasn’t the only neglectful, selfish parent, yet all the blame is placed on her by her damaged daughter. In this way I think Doshi is telling us something about modern Indian society. Antara is expected to look after her mother – and so she does or attempts to. None of the men in the book are portrayed sympathetically at all.

“I wonder how I will love Ma when she is at the end. How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know as my mother is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she is and who I am, will it be possible for me to care for her the way I do now, or will I be negligent, the way we are with children who are not our own, or voiceless animals, or the mute, blind and deaf, believing we will get away with it, because decency is something we enact in public, with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?”

I was left ultimately unsatisfied, wondering what I was supposed to take from this novel – and thinking I had maybe missed something. Perhaps Avni Doshi is showing us that the complexities of the mother daughter relationship are never-ending.

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Many of us I think are finding ourselves in need of a comforting hug in book form every now and again, and the Mrs Tim books slide very nicely into that category. Hester Christie is delightful company for a few days, there is nothing too silly or fluffy here – she is instead sensible and nice and immensely likeable. Mrs Tim Flies Home is the fourth and sadly final book in the series – and time has marched forward. The war is over – though many service personnel like Colonel Tim are still stationed abroad.

It is always difficult to review books that are part of a series – as readers may not have read the others. However, for those of you who like these Furrowed Middlebrow type novels, and especially have enjoyed D E Stevenson’s Miss Buncle books, or the novels of O Douglas then I think the Mrs Tim books would suit you admirably. I think it is generally accepted that D E Stevenson’s novels vary a little in quality, but the Mrs Tim books are light without being silly, charming without being mawkish and have a gentle humour and warmth that make them just perfect for tired, lazy weekends.

All the novels take the form of a diary – and Hester’s voice is always a delight, while she is clearly and firmly middle class there is nothing snobbish or condescending about Hester, there is a lovely normalness about her. In the three previous novels we have followed Hester Christie through the war years and before – through several moves and promotions of her husband.

“In the course of my wanderings I have started life anew in many places, and in every place the same thing happens: at first there is little to do, one knows nobody and life passes by like a pageant, then gradually the world breaks in and one becomes a part of the pageant instead of a mere spectator.”

We have watched her throw herself at all those little domestic disasters that come along, child rearing, war work and a spell at a Scottish hotel. Through all those years Hester can’t help but be a good friend, she has even been known to try her hand at a little romantic match making.

Hester has spent a very happy eighteen months with her husband Tim stationed in Kenya, however as the novel opens she is heading home alone. While Tim stays in Kenya for a while Hester is heading back to England to be with their two now almost grown up children – who are both still nevertheless at school.

Hester has arranged to rent a house in the village of old Quinings close to the pub run by her faithful former maid Annie and her husband. She is planning a quiet summer with the children when they are home from school and looks forward to catching up with Annie too. 

Hester is flying home – which in itself is quite the thing for the early 1950s – but will be breaking her long journey by spending a couple of days in Rome. On the plane from Kenya Hester meets a woman called Rosa Alston – who she swerves spending any more time with in Rome, when an old friend turns up to surprise her.

A few days later settled back in England, and reunited with Annie, Hester is getting to know the charmingly named The Small House – where she looks forward to welcoming Bryan and Betty. Hester has almost forgotten all about Mrs Alston – but of course she turns up – having remembered Hester’s descriptions of the village and attracted by the sound of the place she arrives in Quinings with her son who needs plenty of quiet to complete his studies.

Soon enough Hester is dragged into the lives of others too. There are the usual curious neighbours as well as a dishonest landlady to be dealt with. As ever D E Stevenson gives us an enjoyable cast of characters, including an impoverished village librarian in need of some good fortune, young lovers and a nice chatty daily woman who advises everything should be done ‘straight off.’

“My life has made me what I am. It hasn’t been easy, sometimes I have found it almost unbearable, but suffering can be transmuted into strength-as a rod is tempered by passing through a furnace-and all my hard work, all my anxieties and failures and disappointments have made me what I am. When the rod is tempered it has to be polished and made fit for service…everything that happens as one goes through life helps to polish the rod. If I didn’t feel sure of that I couldn’t go on; I couldn’t face the future.”

The only cloud on the horizon for Hester is the knowledge that she has become the subject of some rather silly gossip – and Tim’s latest letters seem oddly abrupt.

This was a lovely conclusion to the Mrs Tim series – and of course there are lots and lots of D E Stevenson books still to read – she was nothing if not prolific. A lovely little nod to her Miss Buncle series of books can be spotted in a few mentions of the town of Wandlebury – where Hester has a pleasant lunch with family friend Tony Morley. It seems D E Stevenson often pops people and places from other books into her novels.

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I have now read a good number of Rose Macaulay’s novels – she was a very interesting and prolific writer whose career spanned something like fifty years. Non-Combatants and Others is one of her earlier works re-issued last year by Handheld Press who have reissued two of her other earlier novels – which I highly recommend. This volume consists of the novel Non Combatants and Others – first published in 1916 – some pieces of journalism, some essays, and a short story. Together these pieces make up an excellent collection of writings against war – Rose Macaulay was a committed pacifist in the years before the second world war.

The novel is remarkable for being the first anti-war novel to have been published during The First World War. Considering how jingoistic the country was at this time, it seems extraordinary that she should have published it at all during the war – it seems at the very least quite a brave step.

The novel Non Combatants and Others is the longest piece in this volume at a little more than two-hundred pages. The non-combatants of the title being those who do not go off to war, the women, the conscientious objectors, and those whose health precludes them from joining the fray. Alix Sandomir is the main focus of the novel – a young woman studying art, as the novel opens it is 1915 and Alix is living with her aunt and cousins in the country. Alix’s father is dead, a Polish liberationist who died in a Russian prison, her mother Daphne is a campaigner for peace, she travels widely and is currently abroad again. A childhood illness has left Alix with a limp – she walks with a stick and is very conscious of her disability. Her aunts and cousins are busy with various kinds of war work – all of which has left Alix feeling rather out of things, she is unable to fully engage with what is happening all around her and the changes that war has brought with it.

“For among them, the centre of the family, was John; John wounded and just out of hospital and home on a month’s sick-leave; John with a red scar from his square jaw to his square forehead, stammering as he talked because the nerves of his tongue had been damaged. Alix, watching from the garden, saw the queer way his throat worked, struggling with some word.”

Alix decides to move in with a distant cousin she barely knows in London. Her cousin is a middle aged woman with two grown up daughters, their house -Violette – is closer to her art school – but it is also away from all the talk of war and war work. At Violette there is little if any talk of war. Her cousin Mrs Frampton is a comfortable, conventional woman, her daughters each have their own concerns. Kate is very prim her life seems to revolve largely around her church – she has little time for any enjoyment. Evie is very beautiful and she is all about enjoying herself – she has lots of friends, and lots of admirers and will be the unwitting and unthinking cause of Alix’s heartbreak.

From Violette Alix is able to carry on the life she wants to live. She attends her art school – she visits her brother Nicolas in the rooms he shares with his friend Rev West – and when her friend Basil is sent home from the war injured she is able to visit him too.

“He talked nonsense, absurdly; they all did. They all laughed, but Basil laughed most; he laughed too much. He said it was a horrible bore out there; funny, of course, in parts, but for the most part irredeemably tedious. And no reason to think it would ever end, except by both sides just getting too tired to go on…Idiotic business, chucking bombs over into trenches full of chaps you had no grudge against and who wished you no ill …and they chucking bombs at you, much more idiotic still. The whole thing hopelessly silly…”

There are some days out to be enjoyed with friends, but everywhere there are reminders of the war, as the year goes on, Alix is forced to face some of what is happening across the channel. Tragedy is brought right to her door – and the experiences of those around her can’t be entirely ignored. To this point Alix has been quite selfish – concerning herself only with what she wants to be concerned with – keeping everything else at bay. This cannot be sustained.

Cleverly Rose Macaulay shows us the various points of view of all these characters – revealing how the war impacted on different people in different ways and how that manifested itself – with some people hiding quite well how they really were.

Alix’s mother Daphne arrives in London in time to help Alix re-evaluate the way she is living.

Following on from this excellent novel – are the non-fiction pieces written between 1936 and 1945 for Time and Tide, The Spectator and The Listener. These pieces are really well written – together they detail the rise of fascism abroad and in the UK and the response to war of ordinary people.

“Where an hour back two houses stood in this small street, there is a jumbled mountain of fallen masonry, rubble, the shattered debris of two crashed homes; beneath it lie jammed those who lived there; some of them call out, crying for rescue, others are dumb. Through the pits and craters in the rubbled mass the smell of gas seeps.”

(5 October 1940)

One piece I found fascinating and chilling was her report on a visit (in her role as a journalist) to one of Mosely’s rallies. Other pieces discuss such things as the differing attitudes to the death and destruction of war, pacifism, and post-war morality.

The final piece in the book is Miss Anstruther’s Letters – a wonderful short story from 1942 – which I have read twice before. It is beautifully rendered, memorable because of its simple poignancy and the fact it is based on an incident in Rose Macaulay’s own life.

Together this novel and the non-fiction pieces that follow it provide an extraordinary sense of the pain and anger that so many felt towards the suffering that war brought with it.

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I am as you are all probably aware a big fan of Elizabeth von Arnin and of course a big Persephone fan so a book combining the two felt like a real treat. This wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim novel was out of print for decades before Persephone brought it back. I can’t understand why it was out of print so long, perhaps the rather unexciting title is partly responsible. For me, Expiation felt like classic von Arnim.

This is a novel full to the brim of Elizabeth von Arnim’s delicious wit, a satirically humorous novel about middle class prudery and close-minded cruelty. Everything about this novel is perfect – each scene, each piece of dialogue is simply superb. Even the name chosen for our heroine’s in-laws is perfect – Bott – a word that can be spat out in exasperation and disgust as poor Milly might long to do. Oh, those Botts!

“That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, ordered. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it.”

As the novel opens Milly Bott is surrounded by her sorrowing in-laws – her husband died in a road accident a few days earlier, they have buried him and the solicitor is about to read the will. Everyone adores Milly, in her forties, she is soft and comforting and good – and never gave poor Ernest a moments trouble. Though the couple remained childless she was a good wife to Ernest. The Bott clan is a large one, an elderly mother-in-law and several sons and daughters each with their own wives and husbands and offspring. These people are drawn so well – they are hilariously infuriating, and while Milly may have committed adultery, our sympathies are one hundred per cent with her. There is something very lovable about Milly – perhaps because she isn’t perfect, and the Botts are so insufferable, pompous and rather absurd. We know how well von Arnim writes such absurd creatures, her portrayal of them is always wincingly accurate.

In the polite suburb of Titford the Bott family are well known and well thought off – the Botts are suitably proud of their position. They are respectable in every way – and consider themselves the leading lights of behaviour and morality.  However, the Botts are about to be shaken to the core. When the will is read, it is revealed that Ernest has left all his money to a charity for ‘fallen women’ – adding the dark rejoinder that his wife will know why. Milly will have just a £1000 of his large estate for herself. Speculation is immediate and not kind – by page 29 the reader knows that the Bott speculation is pretty spot on.

“It had begun quite by chance. And what a chance, thought Milly, looking back now with the horrified clear vision which is the portion of the found out, at the beginning. Such small things had made it begin. Five minutes earlier, five minutes later, and she never would have met Arthur. A missed train, a slower taxi, even just a pause to watch the pigeons in the courtyard, or, indeed, even a little decent reserve, and she would have been saved. But the train was caught, the taxi was swift, the pigeons didn’t interest her, and in she went; and there, in the British Museum, in the gallery where the busts of the Roman emperors are, she met Arthur Oswestry, and they sinned.”

For ten years Milly had been having an affair with a man she met in The British Museum – and now she realises, due to the date of the will, that Ernest had known for the last two. For readers of a novel first published in 1929, this was far more shocking than it would be today.

The novel is the story of Milly’s attempt at expiation, at atonement for her great sin. This involves her deciding to escape the Botts by fleeing to her sister who many years earlier disgraced the family – and who Ernest had barred Milly from contacting – yet in a wonderful bit of past defiance had continued to write to. Only, things don’t quite work out as Milly had planned. We follow Milly as she encounters the harsh world of disapproval in the guise of her sister changed by circumstance, a nosy landlady and the sneering, family lawyer. She even feels unworthy of her £1000, and the deep black of mourning that she is wearing. Poor Milly wears her shame heavily and is horribly hard on herself.  In time Milly must make her way back to Titford – and the world of the Botts – submitting meekly to their plans for her.  

Anyone worrying that this will all be horribly bleak and sad, fear not – in Elizabeth von Arnim’s hands it is anything but. Ultimately this is marvellously uplifting – and I defy anyone not to fall in love with dear Milly.

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Some books sit on our shelves unread and unloved for too long, The Living is Easy is certainly one of those. I can’t remember where or when I go this green vmc but it was long before I was sent the other two Dorothy West books, that I read in 2019. The Living is Easy was Dorothy West’s first novel – and for me it was the last one of her books I had to read. Sadly, she left us only three works – two novels and a collection of stories and essays I highly recommend them all.

Dorothy West was a member of the Harlem renaissance a friend of Zora Neale Hurston. A black American writer who like several other black women writers of her generation fell out of fashion and whose work didn’t always receive the recognition that it deserved. Dorothy West grew up in Boston, and her writing depicts the lives of middle and upper-class black society.

The Living is Easy is a brilliant novel – I loved it – but the central character is hard to like. There is a complexity to Cleo – while we understand why she acts like she does it is hard not to be appalled by the level of control she exerts over her family.

The novel opens in 1914, shortly before the First World War breaks out in Europe. Cleo is married to Bart Judson, a good, gentle man more than twenty yeas her senior. They have a young daughter Judy who is about six as the novel opens – a child with the dark skin of her father, as Cleo is very light skinned this is a constant irritation. This is a world in which skin tone is important, status very much dependent upon such things as skin pigmentation and which street in Boston you live on. The Judsons are fairly well off, Bart Judson is a self-made man originally from the south. He runs a fruit and vegetable business, specialising in bananas – there is nothing he doesn’t know about the storage and ripening of this exotic fruit. Cleo persuades Bart to rent a large ten roomed house on one of the most sort after streets in Boston. Right from the start we see how conniving Cleo can be – if she knows something is to be twenty-five dollars she tells her husband she needs almost double that – squirreling away the rest. Cleo doesn’t love her husband – she almost seems to despise him, though she likes his money – for Cleo love and tenderness are weaknesses she won’t allow in herself and she sneers at in others.

“Cleo, walking carefully over the cobblestones that tortured her toes in her stylish shoes, was jealous of all the free-striding life around her. She had nothing with which to match it but her wits. Her despotic nature found Mr Judson a rival. He ruled a store and the people in it. Her sphere was one untroublesome child, who gave insufficient scope for her tremendous vitality. She would show Mr Judson that she could take a house and be its heart. She would show him that she could bend a houseful of human souls to her will. It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.”

We get a glimpse into Cleo’s past – growing up in the south with her parents and sisters. Cleo was the eldest, she learned early about how life was different for black girls and white girls. By the time she is in her teens she is working as a kitchen help and must learn to call her childhood play mate Josie, Miss Josephine. She knew how hard life was for the women of the family – Cleo understood who really ran things in their home.

“Men just worked. That was easier than what women did. It was women who did the lying awake, the planning, the sorrowing, the scheming to stretch a dollar. That was the hardest part, the head part. A woman had to think all the time. A woman had to be smart.”

When the chance comes to go north, Cleo grabs it. While working in the home of another wealthy white woman, Cleo meets Bart. Bart represents security – as his wife she can achieve the status and social respectability she craves, for herself and for her sisters.

Now with the large house in the right part of the city secured – Cleo plans on getting her sisters to come and live with her. However, she has no time at all for their husbands. Cleo sets about bringing Lily, Serena and Charity to Boston, separating them from their husbands in the process with lies and misdirection. They each bring a child with them. Cleo rules the roost – everyone dances to her tune, but Cleo’s power comes from the weakness of others which she seeks to exploit. Her sisters are naïve, they haven’t Cleo’s sharpness of mind, they are easily manipulated and Cleo can only ever see the harm she is doing as good.

“It was a blessed morning, a morning a man could ease the worry on his mind and listen to the laughter of little children. And Cleo, God help her, was standing between himself and the sun. Peace was no part of her. She was born to bedevil. God pity her, she would cut off her arm for these sisters of hers with the same knife she held at the tenderest spot in their hearts.”

Cleo’s sisters and the children all love Bart, they recognise his goodness and hard work, Cleo sees this as just another weakness and it irritates her. She seems incapable of grasping that the war in Europe will have a severe effect on Bart’s business.

Alongside the story of Cleo, her sisters and their fortunes – we have the stories of some of their social circle. Cleo’s friend Thea Binney, who is waiting to marry her doctor fiancée, and her brother Simeon, who runs a newspaper for the black population of Boston. The Binneys are a family that have enjoyed great social respectability. This society is a finely balanced one it seems, the black middle class in Boston hold themselves apart from other poorer black people, and although not living in the segregated south, they are still completely insular – white Boston remaining another world entirely.

The Living is Easy is an absolutely brilliant novel – it depicts a society as the author must have known it. Cleo is a monstrous character, and yet we understand where it comes from, and towards the end of the novel I started to feel a little more sympathy for her – though not much.

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