Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

If nothing else, with a Margaret Kennedy novel you get a damn good read – although that is to undersell her a quite a bit. In April I reviewed Together and Apart, reading that – after quite a break from Margaret Kennedy – had served to remind me how good she is. She recreates a family perfectly – showing the modern reader how little has changed in families in seventy, eighty years or more. A Long Time Ago is another novel from the 1930s that Vintage reissued a few years ago.  It’s a really clever novel – showing how the same events can be interpreted differently by different people – how memories can’t always be relied upon, and neither can first-hand testimonies.

As the novel opens in the present time (1930s) Ellen Napier is flitting around her house, seeing to a few small household tasks. She has been a widow for seven years and still misses her husband Dick badly. Later her daughter Hope, and brother Kerran come to visit. Both Hope and Kerran are aware of and concerned with a new memoir that has just been published – in fact Hope is reading it. Ellen – not much of a reader – is as yet unaware of it – and her brother for one hopes to keep it that way. Kerran has been sent by the rest of the family, horrified by the memoir – indignant on Ellen’s behalf – that a family scandal is about to be shown to the world.

“Amid so much that was startling, where so many famous names were involved, it was likely that the chapter called A Summer in Ireland would be overlooked. But the family would never take that view of the matter. They talked about Ellen’s feelings and enjoyed themselves, just as they had enjoyed themselves twenty-five years ago, when it all happened. They had put up Ellen’s feelings as a kind of stalking horse for their own pleasure and excitement.”

The memoir is by Elissa Koebel – who had once been a celebrated singer – the memoir is said to be a scandalous record of her life. For Hope, and for her uncle one chapter stands out – ‘A Summer in Ireland.’ It is a time Hope remembers well – or thinks she does – for she was just a child, most of her time that summer spent with her siblings and cousins, strictly controlled by Muffy – the family nanny.

Elissa Koebel’s flowery account of that summer, when she, so young, beautiful, and rather infamous disrupted a family holiday – throws up a few surprises for Hope. As a child she had perhaps unsurprisingly been fascinated by the exciting, free spirited woman who was allowed to join their family party.

“Even now, when she thought of these things, Hope could not quite escape from an odd little pang of envy and regret. For as a child she had confidently expected to be just like Elissa when she grew up. She too had meant to be a great woman, ravishingly beautiful, to flout the world and to live a free, adventurous life. She had never asked herself how this was to be managed, and she never knew at what moment the fantastic expectation began to crumble.”

What Hope could not have possibly guessed at the time, was that others, including her own father – shared that fascination, and had acted upon it. Can Elissa’s account be entirely trusted? Hope can’t understand how her mother could have simply accepted such a betrayal and carried on afterwards as if nothing had happened.

The large family of adult siblings their husbands, wives and children had spent that summer in the early 1900s on Inishbar – a small island in rural Ireland. The family usually holidayed in Devon – but this holiday, in a castle on an island was dreamt up by Louise – Ellen’s sister. Married to an unexciting Oxford don, Louise was bored stiff of suburban North Oxford society. Louise’s enthusiasm for the project hadn’t been shared by everyone – but they all arrive, in dribs and drabs – with Ellen’s doctor husband, Dick one of the last to arrive – having had to stay behind in London to deal with a difficult case.

By the time Dick arrives with a family friend, Elissa Koebel – who no one had ever met before – is an established member of the party. Staying in a tiny cottage alone – to recover her strength, she had been intrigued by the island and the castle and rowed across the lake – whereupon she had met Louise and the children. Louise and her husband Gordon are instantly charmed by their unconventional visitor – and soon Elissa is spending every day at Inishbar – only returning to her cottage late each night.

In the present Hope’s uncle gives her access to a trove of letters, written at the time, mainly to his mother from various members of the house party. A picture of that summer emerges from this collection – a picture Hope attempts to complete. Which version of the past is the true one?

At the time Elissa was favourite with certain members of the party – others regarded her less favourably. Family gossip was rife – and it seemed everyone wanted to protect Ellen who was expecting a child from the possibility that her husband had been unfaithful. When Louise decides suddenly that Elissa is not to be trusted, she makes sure she is excluded from the party as soon as possible – but the damage may already have been done. There’s a lot of speculation about who knew what – assumptions are made about what people knew or didn’t know – and Kennedy presents this confusion very cleverly. How within a household everyone can be talking about one thing, quietly, but one person remain wholly ignorant of it – or can they?

As ever Kennedy’s family dynamic is perfect. Petty arguments and irritations are reproduced, children’s squabbles and long, lazy summer days. A large family house party in the early part of the twentieth century on an Island in Ireland – is a gorgeously evocative setting.

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Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

As Spanish lit month begins to draw to a close (I’m actually not sure when it ends) and my attention shifts to #Witmonth, I’m squeaking in with my review of Mexican novel Ramifications. My second book from Charco press this month – and I’m so glad I made time for it. I had seen a couple of reviews of this one, so was fairly sure I would like it, but it actually exceeded my expectations.

“The memories we return to most frequently are the most inaccurate, the least faithful to reality.”

I do love a coming of age type narrative – and in this novel the narrator looks back at his childhood – specifically the time around the disappearance of his mother Teresa when he was ten. It is also a novel of memory, and how our memories can torment us as well as comfort us. In the present, he is a thirty-two year old man, unable to leave his bed, trapped by the past, overwhelmed still by the single most defining moment of his life.

The story is told in two time periods. The first 1994, in the days and weeks after Teresa’s disappearance – a disappearance that has such a traumatic effect on her son. The second, more than twenty years later – when the adult narrator has retreated so far from the world he struggles to leave his bed, and his sister has been forced to send a regular cleaner to his apartment. What has led this man to retreat from the world so recently, more than two decades after his mother left, and two years after his father’s death?

In the Educación neighbourhood of Mexico City, in the summer of 1994, our unnamed narrator and his older teenage sister are on summer holidays from school, when their mother Teresa walks out of the family home. She goes to join the Zapatista uprising, and never returns. She leaves behind a letter for her husband which her young son longs to get a look at – hoping it will tell him when she is coming home or where she is.

“It’s commonly said that denial is the first phase of mourning, but for me, at the age of ten, it wasn’t just the first but, for a long time, the only phase. Through a process of highly complex mental gymnastics, I managed to convince myself that not only was Teresa still alive, but that she was more attentive to what was happening in my life than she’d ever been in the past. During the first two or three years, I used to imagine her reaction to anything I did. I could almost hear her robotic voice explaining why I didn’t need a certain toy, or why memorising dates was not the best way to study for my history class, why my sister’s life would be more difficult than mine because she was a woman.”

The woman he remembers and who remains a shadowy presence throughout the novel he describes as speaking in a flat monotone, an unemotional woman who leaves behind her just a handful of memories for her son to cling on to. In the wake of her disappearance the boy is left to make sense of this new world with his distant father, and teenage sister Mariana – who is naturally more interested in her teenage pursuits than her younger sibling.

For some time, the boy has been trying to teach himself the art of origami – with little success – but it becomes one of a number of obsessions, folding and refolding squares of paper, folding and refolding leaves into perfect halves – just as he will continue to unfold and refold the memories of that summer in 1994. He is a lonely, imaginative boy. Left alone in the house while his father is at work and his sister out with her friends, he builds himself a ‘zero luminosity capsule’ in his wardrobe to protect himself from the bogeyman, spending hours hidden inside – it quickly becomes a refuge. As the summer progresses he introduces more strange rituals into his days, favouring the left hand side of his body. He isolates himself from his peers, and falls out with his best friend at school.

With the encouragement of Rat – a teenage gang leader who’s been dating his sister, he undertakes a twelve hour journey by himself in search of Teresa. Inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure stories he has been reading, he imagines a future reconciliation, his quest a need to put everything back the way it was. A journey on which he meets frightening cruelty and unexpected kindness.

“Nowadays, I rarely remember my dreams. Although I spend many hours in bed, my waking and sleeping lives have turned their backs on one another. Nothing of what happens while I sleep filters into my waking existence, except for a sense of angst that seems to issue from that dark place to which I escape every so often on an unfixed schedule.”

What the author does so well here – and why I so enjoy these coming of age type narratives – is to recreate that confused, uncertainty that is a child’s view of a very adult situation.

This is such an impressive novel – it is easy to see why Daniel Saldaña Paris is such a highly regarded writer in Mexico.

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I hadn’t even heard of this novel – to my shame – until Virago selected it as their book club read for July. Despite reading a lot of VMC titles, I have probably only joined in with the book club once before, as they so often read things I have already read. I quickly bought a copy of Desert of the Heart so that I could join in – there’s an online discussion on FB that starts later this week.

The novel is described as ‘an undisputed lesbian classic’ which made me feel like I should have heard of it before – but neither it nor its author were previously known to me. Written in 1961 – published in 1964 after twenty-two rejections – it was the author’s first novel. This was a time when sex between people of the same sex was a criminal offence – the novel was a breakthrough piece of work, and caused quite the stir. This edition includes an excellent introduction by Jackie Kay – who really sets the novel in context.

It’s simply a wonderful novel – I was immediately drawn in by Rule’s warm and witty tone, her intelligence and her brilliantly drawn characters; fully authentic and real. Evelyn Hall is an English professor who has come to Reno – for the necessary period of six weeks – to obtain a divorce from her husband George. She has been married for sixteen years. The pair have been living incompatibly for years, the marriage has been childless – and it is finally time to bring it to an end.

From the opening lines, Rule sets out her stall – how only one way of life is considered conventional or ‘normal’ while those living outside of that are somehow other.

“Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life.”

Evelyn has come to stay at a B&B run by Frances Parker who lives there with her son Walter. Another woman seeking a divorce is also resident when Evelyn arrives, as well as long-time resident – the almost step-daughter of Frances, casino worker Ann Childs. When they first meet, Evelyn and Ann are struck by how similar in appearance they are – Ann though is fifteen years younger. The two are clearly very highly aware of one another right from the start – though it takes a few days, before they start to get to know one another.

Ann has a very different life, a world that is entirely alien to Evelyn. Working nights at the casino – she finishes in the early hours of the morning, often going straight to her friend – and sometime lover – Silver’s house before heading back to the boarding house. Silver is due to be married soon to Joe – after which Ann’s relationship with Silver will change. Silver is a brilliant creation, generous, tough talking, and no nonsense.  Rule reproduces the sights and sounds of the casino brilliantly – Ann one of a number of ‘change girls’ – who spend hours lugging around a heavy change apron. At the club, Bill is Ann’s boss – there is some residual bitterness between them, after their relationship was ended by Ann.

Soon though, Evelyn and Ann are drawn together – each of them attracted to some similarity in the other. Outside of the casino, Ann is a talented cartoonist – and her bedroom is lined with books, which Ann allows Evelyn to borrow. Despite their obvious differences these women share a not dissimilar intelligence. Ann introduces Evelyn to the incredible beauty of the Nevada desert – and to a sensuousness that is entirely new. The women begin a passionate affair.

“Evelyn wanted to be charming, provocative, desirable, attributes she had never aspired to before out of pride, perhaps, or fear of failure. Now they seemed most instinctive. She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lively thing it was to be, a woman.”

Although at this time a sexual relationship between two women was illegal and definitely seen as being outside the usual conventions, Rule doesn’t present these relationships in such a way. This is a positive relationship – and no spoilers – a hopeful one. Evelyn and Ann are two people who fall in love – in that way perhaps this novel feels like one written in a much later period than it was. What a very long way this is from the depressing rather negative relationships portrayed in The Well of Loneliness that the author discovered when she was fifteen.

“Because I can’t help loving you, your wild, inaccurate emotions, your bizarre innocence, your angry sense of responsibility, your wrong-headed wit, your cockeyed joy, your cowboy boots, your absolutely magnificent body, your incredible eyes. I can’t help it. I don’t know how anyone could.”

The relationship between Evelyn and Ann is complex – the age difference making Evelyn almost old enough to be the motherless Ann’s mother – their strikingly similar appearance underlying this point. Clearly both women have had relationships with men – and there are no real labels applied here – and it is obvious that Evelyn had never considered a relationship with a women in all her life. Ann has had a very cynical view to the accepted romantic ideas of love and marriage – but as she and Evelyn’s relationship develops she has to re-evaluate her prejudices. The story of these two women coming together so unexpectedly is beautifully understated. A wonderful book group choice – I wish I had suggested it to the book group I’m a member of.

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Oh, that feeling, when you experience a writer for the first time – and think ‘I want to read everything now.’ I had been dimly aware of A L Barker for some years, I have had her novel John Brown’s Body (1970) on my tbr shelves for years – and then I acquired Submerged a collection of short stories published by Virago in 2002. The stories themselves were all originally published much earlier in Barker’s career, between the 1940s and 1960s. All of but one of the seven stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere – five of them in collections published by A L Barker earlier in her career. I haven’t gone looking yet – I daren’t, but I can only assume those early collections are hard to find now.

According to the introduction by Jane Gardam, Barker far preferred the short story form to that of novel writing, and this collection shows she was certainly adept at it. She was a prolific writer though, publishing eleven novels and eleven collections of stories (including this one) between 1947 and 2002. There is a seam of darkness running through these stories – for me it never goes too far – but then I love short stories like this – Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson – though their writing styles were different, did that so well too. As Jane Gardam says in her introductions:

“Evil throbs through A. L Barker’s world and is left unacknowledged and unexplained.”

(Jane Gardam – Introduction)

I can’t say too much about these stories for fear of spoilers – but I shall attempt to give a slight flavour of them all

The collection opens with Submerged – the title story. A young boy delights in his secret, underwater world, as he swims in the stream he has been banned from going to by his mother. He is alone here, and he relishes in his isolation. The silence and isolation are disrupted suddenly when two people appear – a man and a woman, in obvious conflict. The boy feels threatened so hides. He is witness to all that transpires – but it is his continuing silence in the wake of the events he witnessed that is shocking, and has terrible consequences for somebody else.

Perhaps the most frightening story in the collection is Someone at the Door for it plays right into the kinds of fear that many people have. That someone threatening might come into out home, and we find ourselves unable to get rid of them. A woman arrives from London at her brother’s cottage in the country to spend Christmas alone. Her brother and his family have gone away, and won’t be back for several days. Rain is falling very heavily, when a stranger arrives at the door, asking to use the phone as his car has broken down. It’s the feeling of not being totally in control of a situation that Barker recreates so well – she stops far short of anything really unpleasant – but the fear is enough, and we all recognise that.

In Men, Those Fabulous Creatures – a woman goes to talk to the residents at a residential home for the elderly. Having sat for a while talking to one resident, she gets something of a surprise later – just as the story she was listening to is reaching its conclusion.

The Iconoclasts – was one of my favourite stories, a story I read before in Wave me Goodbye – a wonderful anthology of wartime stories. There comes a point when the reader watches with horror – we know it won’t end well. It’s a fantastic story of childhood – which I could quite easily say too much about. A young boy plays happily, wrapped up in his own little word of childish superstitions and stories. When an older boy comes to play – he is thrust uneasily into the more knowing world of his exacting playmate. The day will end on a tragedy – that some readers may find upsetting. Barker’s depiction of childhood though is brilliant – despite the fact that she is apparently quoted as having not liked children.

“The visitor put his hands in his pocket, rocked to and fro on his heels and spoke with absolute authority. ‘It’s a twin-engined Blenheim bomber with “mercury” engines and five machine-guns – one in the port wing, two in the turret and two in the blister under the nose. It can carry a thousand pounds of bombs, but I expect it’s on a training trip now.’

Marcus looked sulky, yet he was impressed. Under his breath he muttered, ‘it’s not.’ Just once, without conviction.”

(The Iconoclasts)

Jane Dore – Dear Childe is a rather grim little historical story. Jane is an innocent, loving young girl, a healer. In the seventeenth century she is damned and accused of witchcraft by the local hellfire priest and sentenced to drown.

In A Chapter in the Life of Henry Subito Barker gives us another memorable child with a fierce and fanciful imagination. When his parents leave the stolid, unremarkable Henry on the beach by himself for a while with his comic – Henry decides to turn the time by himself to his own advantage. He wanders off toward one of the local hotels where becoming a little con artist he regales respectable residents with the stories of his life as an Arabian Prince, consuming vast quantities of afternoon tea in the process.

Novellette is one of those very long short stories you can really sink into. At around a hundred pages it is almost novella length. It is the story of a bad marriage, disrupted by a young soldier back from the war. William Felice is just nineteen, back from Dunkirk and injured. After release from hospital, he is billeted temporarily in the country with a draper and his wife Edward and Luise Mallory. William doesn’t think he will care much for the countryside, and goes rather unwillingly to his new billet. The Mallorys are middle aged – Edward concerned more with his little drapers shop than anything else – a little in awe of William’s war experiences. An unlikely affair begins between Luise Mallory and young William. None of these people seem well matched – and Barker shows us the grubby, pointlessness of this relationship – which no doubt young William will shrug off without a backward glance.

This was really a superb collection, which makes me wonder why I have left it so long to read A. L Barker, the introduction does suggest that she never really achieved the recognition and success that she deserved. How true that is of so many women writers of the twentieth century.

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At my suggestion, my book group chose to read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, in July. This is only the second novel by this acclaimed author that I have read – the first being The Bastard of Istanbul, last year. Now I am left wondering why I waited so long to acquaint myself with this wonderful writer. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, it may well have won in any other year, but had the misfortune to be up against Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood.

Told in three sections; Mind, Body, Soul – the novel takes its premise from the idea, that there have been recorded instances of the brain continuing to show activity for up to 10 minutes 38 seconds.

“Grief is a swallow,’ he said. ‘One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.”

By rights, I suppose this should be a deeply depressing book, unbearably sad – and yet it isn’t at all – and considering the very dark themes that is some achievement. It is testament to the author’s skill that, while sometimes very poignant, this is a novel that is surprisingly uplifting in places. Elif Shafak breathes such life into her characters, that she makes them, for the reader, as real as the people next door. Each character finely drawn, distinct and vivid. I loved this book so much it will definitely be a contender for my end of year list. It is extraordinarily well written, tender, and unforgettable. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The novel opens with the main characters death – Tequila Leila as she is known – killed, shoved into a metal bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. After Leila’s death each minute – for precisely 10 minutes 38 seconds – her consciousness recalls a sensuous memory. Memories of her childhood, and of the life she lived in the street of brothels where she worked.  

“In the sky high above, a sliver of yesterday’s moon was visible, bright and unreachable, like the vestige of a happy memory. She was still part of this world, and there was still life inside her, so how could she be gone? How could she be no more, as though she were a dream that fades at the first hint of daylight?”

Leila was born in 1947 in the city of Van, the daughter of a man with two wives. She died in Istanbul in 1990 – fiercely loved by five amazing friends, the custodian of a deaf cat called Mr Chaplin. The life she lived in-between those two events is bittersweet, sometimes enraging, but often, and surprisingly full of love.

As Leila’s life ebbs away, her five friends, are desperately trying to find her. Their loyalty to her and love for her was ultimately what makes this book such a delightful experience.

The city where Leila was born and raised is a long way from Istanbul, she grew up in a house of secrets. Her young mother having suffered many miscarriages before she came along, was fragile, dominated by her husband and his first wife. Leila’s brother born some years later; has Downs Syndrome – Leila adores him.

“Her mother had once told her that childhood was a big, blue wave that lifted you up, carried you forth and, just when you thought it would last forever, vanished from sight. You could neither run after it nor bring it back. But the wave, before it disappeared, left a gift behind – a conch shell on the shore. Inside the seashell were stored all the sounds of childhood.”

As she grows up, her father becomes more and more religious, her life narrows, he places strictures on her life outside of the home, and she struggles to spend time with even her best friend. She is sexually abused by an uncle – the first step on the road which leads her to the street of brothels in Istanbul.

Leila recalls her optimistic running away to Istanbul – and how things didn’t work out as she had hoped, but how she couldn’t go back. She remembers smells, sounds, tastes and emotions from various parts of her forty three years on earth, she remembers, falling in love, her great happiness. Her mind travels back to how she met her five great friends; Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameela, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra, outsiders like Leila they exist on the fringes of Istanbul society. Only Sinan, Leila’s childhood friend, who followed her to Istanbul leads a conventional life – though it is a life of two halves – his family, knowing nothing of his friends and how very much they mean to him. Leila, Nalan, Sinan, Jameela, Zaynab and Humeyra are stronger than family – the best part of the book – and I don’t want to give spoilers, is what these five people do for Leila after she has died.

In many ways a difficult book to write about without some mild spoilers, but reading it is a whole different experience – such a good choice for our book group, if I do say so myself. A novel full of feminist themes – it made for a brilliant discussion.

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Two reviews today both of which are for Spanish lit month. The first, a modern novel from a Colombian writer published by Charco Press, the second, a novel from 1940s Spain.

Holiday Heart

Translated by Charlotte Coombe

In Holiday Heart we have the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Robayo shows us that distance that opens up between people who know each other well, but now are almost like strangers.

Pablo and Lucia are Colombian immigrants living in the US, they are both writers – and Pablo teaches at a high school. They have six year old twins, Tomas and Rosá born after Lucia underwent fertility treatment. Conflicts that started after the twins were born have intensified, and as the novel opens Lucia has taken the children to her parents’ apartment in a hotel in Miami, while Pablo remains at home. It begins to look increasingly, that their marriage has reached its conclusion.

Before setting off for Miami, Lucia had been made aware of her husband’s infidelity, and some trouble at the school where he works has resulted in a warning letter. Pablo has also been diagnosed with a syndrome called Holiday Heart – the result of too much drinking and drug use. Lucia therefore has decided that she needs time away from her husband, a chance to reflect on their relationship.

“The strange thing is not the infidelities, thinks Lucia. The really bizarre thing is to look at the other person and wonder who they are, what they’re doing there next to you, when it was that their facial features changed so much. The accumulation of time makes strangers of us; nobody can say precisely when the seed is planted.”

After the twins were born, Pablo had felt excluded from Lucia’s life with the twins. It has always been Lucia who directed this area of family life – making all the decisions around the children. That isn’t the only conflict that has arisen in their marriage, however. The couple have always had rather different attitudes to their homeland – Pablo seeing the past and the place they grew up with more nostalgia and patriotism than Lucia. Pablo has been writing an epic novel about his beloved homeland when he isn’t teaching, it’s a piece of work he seems bogged down by and completley consumed by. Lucia has made a name for herself writing a feminist magazine column, a vehicle she has used to express her general dissatisfaction.

In Miami while the children play on the beach and soak up the sun, Lucia has a lot of reflecting to do. Her parents American maid Cindy – who also helps to look after the children is a bubbly, friendly presence, but her friendliness feels inappropriate to Lucia who wants to maintain a distance while needing her to look after the children sometimes. Lucia floats around somewhat listlessly, flirting with a celebrity football player – ending skype calls with her husband abruptly and watching her children jealously as they get closer to Cindy.

The story of a disintegrating marriage is hardly a new one – but here Robayo weaves this familiar story around the story of privileged immigrants. Showing that there is a degree of racism and snobbery present within their own communities which is perhaps not often spoken about or acknowledged.


Translated by Edith Grossman

A modern classic of Spanish literature Nada was first published in 1944 the debut novel of the then twenty-three year old author. Set just after the Spanish Civil war, we must see this novel as being in some part autobiographical as this was also the period when the author herself left her home to study in Barcelona.

The novel’s opening is wonderfully memorable, eighteen year old Andrea arrives very late at night in Barcelona. Here she is to stay with her relations while she attends the university. Her late arrival obliges her to knock up the inhabitants of the house on Calle de Aribau where she will be staying – both her and our first impressions of the apartment and its inhabitants are vivid indeed.

“I hesitated for a while before I gave the bell a timid ring that no one responded to. My heart began to beat faster, and I rang the bell again. I heard a quavering voice: ‘Coming! Coming!’ Shuffling feet and clumsy hands sliding bolts open. Then it all seemed like a nightmare. In front of me was a foyer illuminated by a single weak light bulb in one of the arms of the magnificent lamp, dirty with cobwebs, that hung from the ceiling. A dark background of articles of furniture piled one on top of the other as if the household were in the middle of moving. And in the foreground the black-white blotch of a decrepit little old woman in a nightgown, a shawl thrown around her shoulders.”

This is the home of her grandmother, an aunt, and uncles. Standing around her and emerging from the shadows are a group of people she doesn’t know it is not an auspicious start. The atmosphere surrounding this house and its inhabitants is not a comfortable one, there is a feeling of tension, conflict never seems very far away. There are definite signs of poverty and she soon sees that anger and violence simmer beneath the surface of this claustrophobic household. It is a rude awakening for Andrea who had had such dreams of what the city would be like, ready as was to embark on a new chapter in her young life. She will be sharing her new home with her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Juan, his brother Román, Juan’s wife Gloria and their baby, and the sinister seeming housemaid Antonia and her dog.

There are secrets to be revealed within this family, in which Andrea’s uncle Juan is given to sudden and violent rages, his beautiful mysterious wife slips out at night to gamble, and Román is a gifted musician and the religious Angustias can be rather overbearing.

“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”

Running counterpoint to the family on the Calle de Aribau are the new experiences Andrea has through her time at the university. The people she meets open up new ideas to her and she finds friendship with the sophisticated Ena. Later Ena’s apparent fascination with Andrea’s Uncle Román puzzles and upsets Andrea – and she constantly has the feeling there are things she either doesn’t know or understand.

Nada is a beautifully written little novel; it capture the mood of a time and place perfectly. Aspects that are dark and disturbing increase the feeling of suffocation – things left unsaid, left over from the war, all seem to play a part in shaping the people who reside in the house on the Calle de Aribau.

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Barbara Comyns has become one of my favourite writers, although picking favourites is always rather hard. Having read nine of her eleven novels, I feared I may never be able to get hold of the last two – Birds in Tiny Cages (1964) and Out of the Red, into the Blue (1960) – well never count against the determination of a seasoned book buyer. Sometimes copies come up at rather insane prices – so I just had to keep searching, and relying on other people alerting me to copies when they spotted them. My copy of Birds in Tiny Cages is a neat little facsimile edition with a ribbon – nice clear print and just a few of the sort of black marks and printing errors you get when a text has been copied from an old book. While I was reading Birds in Tiny Cages I started a conversation about it on a bookish FB group I am in, and was alerted to a copy of Out of the Red, Into the Blue – I swooped and it is now mine! Both of these are very autobiographical in fact although Out of the Red.. is generally listed as a novel it looks to be more of a memoir – I had to have a good old flick through it when it came, though I am going to save reading it properly for a little while. Like that hard to get memoir – Birds in Tiny Cages is set in Spain; inspired by the author’s time living there.

I knew before I started reading that Birds in Tiny Cages was not in the classic Comyns tradition of The Vet’s Daughter, Who was Changed and who Was Dead etc – and so my expectations were not overly high. Yet, there was a lot about this book I really loved, and quite a bit that I thought was recognisably Comyns. What we don’t have in this novel is that strange, altered world feel that some of her novels have, or that slightly macabre undercurrent that runs through novels like The Skin Chairs and The Juniper Tree. However, Flora is a recognisable Comyns character – and there were other characters who felt recognisable too.

Flora and her husband Leo have been living in Barcelona for three months as the novel opens. Flora is the youngest of four sisters, Leo’s health has forced them to come to Spain – and Flora is already lonely in the stuffy attic flat where they are living. Leo teaches English, and works long hours and Flora spends those hours alone, with only the goings on she can see across the rooftops from her window to keep her company.

“Fortunately the roofs were Spanish and consequently extremely busy, with women hanging out their perpetual laundry, children riding scooters and tricycles, barking dogs, mattress-making, old ladies sleeping in rocking chairs, cars being sprayed, carpets being cleaned, boys sparring, roof gardens, hens in boxes, cats, and birds in tiny cages.”

Flora is a typical Comyns character – she seems quite childlike at times, it’s easy to forget she isn’t a teenager – she seems naïve and easily manipulated. She becomes rather afraid of the apartment building’s portero – and starts to see him as the enemy she must try and get past when coming in and out. There is a passiveness about Flora – she has little to do, her idleness and isolation seeming to go hand in hand.

Flora is therefore delighted to meet John an English artist who shares a studio nearby. Through John, Flora is introduced to Parker, a sculptor friend – who Flora is at once both repelled by and oddly drawn to. Parker has that sort of confidence and magnetic personality that means he is never without female company for long – and Flora finds herself agreeing to visit him at his studio – with the inevitable results. Parker is another recognisable Comyns character, a kind of Mr Fox type – Flora is drawn back to him again and again despite herself, concerned that Leo will find out, but unable to stop herself, she becomes oddly guiltless moving dreamlike through her days that are all so alike.

 “All she wanted was the two stolen hours she managed about five evenings a week and the rest of the time she lived in a kind of listless suspension. She prepared Leo’s meals and showed him a vague affection, chattering inconsequently to him if he appeared to expect it, otherwise remaining in a silent dream. He, poor man, was so exhausted by spending an average of nine hours a day giving English lessons, combined with travelling to and from the school and his private pupils’ homes, that he hardly noticed his wife’s changing attitude towards him.”

This group of artists become Flora and Leo’s social circle – although Leo doesn’t like Parker at all. The dynamic is all set to change however, when John goes home to England to marry his fiancé, returning to Barcelona with his new wife Meg.

I realise that I have become such a Comyns fan that I am no longer very objective, but I really enjoyed this, more than I had thought I would – I suppose I feared disappointment. I loved the Spanish setting and so I’m looking forward to more Comyns in Spain with Out of the Red, Into the Blue

See below, the very plain looking, unexciting ex-library edition which I was so excited to buy – well it takes all sorts!

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For me, this is the hardest type of book to review. A fairly complex novel, light on plot that is the second in a trilogy, by an author perhaps not many people read anymore. I ask myself – who will be interested? – ha! Oh well, years ago I made a rule to review everything I read – and so here we are.

Love in Winter is the second novel in The Mirror in Darkness trilogy by Storm Jameson, rather absurdly I read the first book Company Parade seven years ago. It would be fair to say my memory of it was practically nil. Yet that didn’t really spoil my reading of this one – thankfully, I had my own old review to look back at as a slight memory refresher. This trilogy is only a part of a series of interconnected novels written over a period of about twenty years.  

Margaret Storm Jameson was born in 1891 the daughter of a sea captain and former ship builder in Whitby North Yorkshire. She was very political, involved in the suffrage movement, taking part in the women’s pilgrimage march in 1913 she was a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union, and a supporter of the Labour Party. These influences are present throughout this novel – and much of her other work I suspect.

There is a strong autobiographical element to this novel too – the relationship at the heart of this novel between Hervey Russell and Nicholas Roxby representing that of Storm Jameson and her husband Guy Chapman. Storm Jameson like her heroine Hervey Russell, also a writer, preferring to keep her own name for work.

This novel takes place six years after the end of the Great War. Yorkshire woman Hervey Russell is living in London, she is still only about thirty, though she has been married for some years and has an eight year old son. After the war, Hervey’s husband Penn Vane decided that despite being well past the usual age he would take up a place at university. Their marriage has not been a happy one, with Penn’s decision to go to Oxford leaves Hervey having to support herself and her son alone. She has already published two novels but her foray into the literary world has not been quite the success she had hoped. Working on her next novel which will be part of a trilogy, she also works for the Literary Review – run by the wife of one of her great friends. With her career proving unsatisfying and existing within an unhappy marriage Hervey is longing for a new beginning.

Hervey’s cousin Nicholas Roxby (who due to complicated family conflicts Hervey hasn’t met in years) has been terribly affected by the war. He has turned his back on the family money – separated from his wife he sees his life as being over. Meeting Hervey changes all that. Nicholas has been managing an antique shop and is about to set up his own house as a showroom for antique furniture. Theirs is meeting of minds, but it is also the start of a love story.

“‘…do you know that for a fortnight I have gone about saying to myself “Hervey”, and carrying your letters.

In silence she showed him his own five or six, worn from being rubbed together in her pocket with keys and pencils and a provident knot of string. Nicholas reddened as though he had been much younger, and said: ‘Oh my dear Hervey.’”

Hervey and Nicholas are immediately drawn to one another but their burgeoning relationship is complicated by the fact they are both married and Hervey has a child to think about. The two of them have a lot of soul searching to do, decisions about divorces will need to be made, the path before them does not run smooth.

The war still casts a long shadow, it changed so much, men and women have been changed by it – some physically many emotionally. There are several men, damaged in various ways by the war in this novel – and we meet the women who have to live with those effects.

“With despair she understood that the War had taken the fullness of his life and energy. Less than a whole man survived. She saw that women have more than one reason to fear war.”

Outside of the story of Hervey and Nicholas we have the stories of the wider society that surround them and to which they are each connected in some tenuous way. There is Thomas Harben the industrialist, Marcel Cohen a newspaper magnate, Louis Earlham, a former soldier and now Labour MP – a man who has known poverty, and whose life is still far from easy. The working class ex-soldier Frank Rigden a trade unionist and his wife, living in the new cheap housing that has sprung up to accommodate families after the war. There are others – there is a large, complex cast of characters, Jameson does give us a brilliant sense of this shifting society, those looking towards politics to change things and those trying to make money. At the centre of all these people is William Gary, another war damaged man, a man of wealth who pulls the strings of many men of business and politics.

Love in Winter was an enjoyable read, but not a quick read, a novel of some ambition it feels very much like a middle novel in a trilogy – a novel perhaps building up to something. I know the third novel None Turn Back centres around the General strike of 1926. It’s a book I have had for years, but I felt I had to read this one first, and I am glad I did.

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Translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter

My first review for this year’s Spanish lit month is of The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade. The writer was a completley new name to me when I added this one to my tbr about two years ago – but I see she is described on the cover as ‘one of the most powerful female voices in Spanish literature.’

In a sense perhaps, this is not my usual kind of novel – and yet I find myself, increasingly stepping away from my comfort zone when reading things in translation. I think that can be a good thing. I certainly enjoyed this one very much. This is a slightly unusual book, it is beautifully written, the language is very lyrical, touched with an odd, quirky humour. There is a slight gothic, fairy-tale element to the narrative in places, with larger than life characters who appear almost like the human exhibits in a peculiar fair ground side show. There’s the obese, donkey riding priest, the cross dressing dentist who steals the teeth of the dead, Meis’ Widow, now married again, but still known by the name of her first husband, and the ancient old woman up the mountain who can’t seem to die.

The Winterlings of the title (I never did understand why they were called that) are two sisters. In the 1950s they return to the small village of Tierra de Chá in Galicia after an absence of very many years. They have come back to the former home of their grandfather, from where they fled during the Spanish Civil war when they were children.

“They came past one morning like the thrumming of a hornet, swifter than an instant.

The women.

The Winterlings.

The men bent over the earth straightened up to watch. The women stilled their brooms. The children stopped playing; two women with big, tired bones, as though worn down by life, were crossing the town square.”

Their return seems to open up a lot of old wounds, for them, and for the people in this small community. In Tierra de Chá time has moved on naturally, and yet many things have stayed the same. Many of the people the sisters remembered from childhood are still around – the same traditions and superstitions remain – and everyone has their memories of the past. The village retains the secret of what happened to their grandfather after he had told his granddaughters to run – and the sisters themselves have a few secrets of their own. After all they have been away a long time, sent as refugees to England as children, they later retuned to Spain together. Dolores is the attractive sister who once, very briefly married, Saladina is the plain sister. They seem totally reliant on one another while squabbling almost constantly.

Bit by bit the sisters begin to venture out into this community – they are objects of interest and gossip, with people wondering why they have come. The priest Don Manuel persuades them to accompany him on a visit to the old woman up the mountain. It seems the old woman is unable to die, because of an agreement she entered into with their grandfather Don Reinaldo many years earlier.

“And then the old lady spoke at length about the piece of paper she had signed for their grandfather, Don Reinaldo, which was now the only thing holding her back from dying. One day, when she was sweeping the doorway to the hut, Don Reinaldo came past on the way back from visiting a neighbour. ‘Good day, old lady, how are we?’ he said ‘Terrible’ I answered. ‘How so?’ he asked. ‘I’m so hungry I can’t even think,’ I told him. And then he kept on staring at me, and finally he said: ‘Well, you do have a brain, old maid’ And skipping around, first behind me, then in front of me to get a better look at it, he said ‘You’ve got a brain like the Cathedral of Santiago.’ But of course I didn’t understand him. ‘How would you like to leave hunger behind?’ he asked suddenly. ‘That wouldn’t be bad,’ I answered. And then he made me an offer that I happily accepted: he wanted to buy my brain to study it. He would pay me, in advance, and I just had to give it over when I died.”

In time it transpires that most of the village signed similar agreements and now everyone wants these old contracts found – bizarre, it certainly is. What with contracts for the sale of brains and the dental treatment Saladina undergoes at the hands of Mr Tenderlove in hopes of improving her appearance – Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s storytelling is richly imaginative and just a little macabre.

Then news arrives that the famous actress Ava Gardner will be coming to Spain to make a film and that lookalikes are wanted. The sisters had learned to love the movies while they were in England – and now they have a chance to make their dreams come true.

Of course, secrets can’t stay secrets for long – and in such a small community the past starts to catch up.

An odd novel, but a very enjoyable one – and a great start for me to Spanish lit month.

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After I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with my book group – I decided to go on and read the rest of Maya Angelou’s autobiography – and Liz and our friend Meg decided to join me. There isn’t any particular time scale for this – so it’s been a couple of months since I read book one which takes us up to when Maya is seventeen and has just given birth to her son.

Gather Together in My Name picks up there, with Maya Angelou a new, young mum, living with her mother. Maya’s mother offers to look after the baby so Maya can return to school, but this she refuses, wanting to stand on her own two feet. She manages to get a job as a creole cook – having never cooked creole in her life – she learns fast. Her son is taken care of while she works, six days a week. She rents her own room for her and her son, moving out of her mother’s house – she never seemed to take the easy route.

This volume is slimmer than I know Why… but every bit as engaging and honest. Its structure is quite fragmentary. However, these short chapters actually seem to make this even more of a quick read – as we follow the young Maya Angelou through a relatively short period of time in mid to late 1940s California. There are a host of memorable and colourful characters who we meet along the way. The people Maya befriend and work alongside – funny old women who care for her son, pimps, prostitutes, and taxi drivers. This is a world that could easily seem bleak – and yet while Angelou never seeks to glamourise the life she led then, neither is it a grim or mournful story. What comes across again, very strongly, is the determination and resilience of this young woman – who with every step she took, was committed to doing the very best she could for herself and her son. At home, in her rented room she revels in the literature of Dostoevsky.

While working in the restaurant Maya meets Johnnie Mae and Beatrice – a lesbian couple who work as Prostitutes. Maya is just eighteen, and the story of how, with some conniving she ends up running a brothel with these two women working for her is told with some humour – she’s totally out of her depth, but at great pains not to show it – earning good money too for a short time.

“Upon reflection, I marvel that no one saw through me enough to bundle me off to the nearest mental institution. The fact that it didn’t happen depended less on my being a good actress than the fact that I was surrounded, as I had been all my life, by strangers.”

When things get a little too hot in California – fearing exposure and the police, Maya runs off to her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas – and I was delighted to meet up with her and Uncle Willy again – albeit very briefly.

“There is a much-loved region in the American fantasy where pale white women float eternally under black magnolia trees, and white men with soft hands brush wisps of wisteria from the creamy shoulders of their lady loves. Harmonious black music drifts like perfume through this precious air, and nothing of a threatening nature intrudes.

The South I returned to, however, was flesh-real and swollen-belly poor.”

Only Maya carries too much of her Californian confidence with her than is tolerated in the South of the 1940s – and her grandmother shoos her off again quite quickly for her own safety as much as anything. A stark reminder for us, how dangerous parts of the US still were for black people at this time.

Of course, as Maya is a young single woman, she embarks on a series of relationships. Despite having had a child, the Maya that is out in the world working in a restaurant is not really very experienced. She finds out the hard way that not all men will tell the truth or have her best interests at heart. She is clearly a young woman who believes in love – and wants to find it.

Back in California Maya again finds herself back in the world of prostitution – only this time she is the prostitute – a sleazy older boyfriend who wants her to call him daddy persuading her he needs her to earn him money for just a few weeks. Time and again fate intervenes – and as Maya starts out on a dark road something brings her back. Her beloved brother Bailey in the midst of a terrible grief giving her the kind of talking to the reader might want to. Her brush with the evils of drug taking shocking her into a stark realisation, a case in point.

I have read somewhere that this is the darkest volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, and I can see why – I wonder if this wasn’t a very painful period in her life to write about. She acknowledges her mistakes and we should remember how very young she was.

Not sure when exactly I will be reading book three – but it won’t be too long. Maya Angelou is such a wonderful writer to spend time with – there is something inspirational about the way she approaches life always stepping out and moving forward, shrugging off what’s gone before. What a woman!

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