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Reading in Reykjavik

fromharbour-reykjavik

Well a few hours ago, I got back home after five wonderful days in Reykjavik a place I had wanted to visit for a long time. This isn’t a travel blog so I don’t intend to give a detailed account of my holiday – I just wanted to share a few experiences and pictures. As you will see – in five days we had every kind of weather, conditions change very quickly in Reykjavik.

 

hallsgrimkirkMy friends and I stayed in a lovely residence hotel that is right in the centre of Reykjavik, and was perfect for getting around. The city is very pretty, quirky – and really rather cool – the view across the harbour is spectacular – as is the view from the top of Hallsgrimskira – the stunning white church that is such a focal point in the city – a place I loved so much I bought a little snow globe of it. The day we went up the tower it was snowing – blizzarding rather – the pictures we took from the top are of a very snowy Reykjavik – we certainly got a little taste of Icelandic weather.

One thing I saw plenty of as I wandered around Reykjavik – was readers – I saw lots of people reading. Some of them sat in the windows of Harpa – the stunning concert hall and conference centre – another place I rather fell in love with, others sat in cafes and coffee shops – there are lots of those. I particularly liked the Te og Kaffi chain some of which incorporate books shops. I am a big tea drinker, and in Iceland the tea came hot, black and strong – just as I like it. Books are very expensive in Iceland – so I didn’t buy any – although there were both English and Icelandic books for sale.reading-in-rejkavik

Many of you will know I have been involved in Bookcrossing for over a decade. One of the friends I went with had already been to Iceland four times, and introduced the rest of us (we all originally met through Bookcrossing) to an Icelandic bookcrosser she has known for a few years. We swapped some books, and chatted about Iceland over Icelandic fish and chips.

I took The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West and my kindle to Iceland. As I boarded the plane on Monday, I was only thirty pages into Rebecca West, and I didn’t finish it until about an hour after I got home. Busyness and a fairly dense almost 400 pages meant I was forced to read quite slowly. Two very late evenings of our five nights were spent Northern Lights hunting rather than curled up with books. We got lucky on our second attempt – a wonderful experience seeing those elusive streaks of green lurking behind the cloud, fading and coming back, fading and coming back. I didn’t get pictures, photographing the Northern lights is a real skill. Even the first attempt where we didn’t see the Northern lights was wonderful – we stood in snowy darkness at Thingvellir National Park – with the most extraordinary blanket of stars above us. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life – in some ways more spectacular than the Northern lights we saw on Thursday. So, the lights came out for us – though cloud meant we weren’t treated to the most spectacular showing – but we saw them!

snowy-reykjavik

I will review The Fountain Overflows in a day or two – but I really, really enjoyed it. Rather slow to get going, I ended up really taking to the narrator Rose, her mother, brother and sisters. It is the first novel in a trilogy – and I can’t remember ever reading anything much about the other two books, The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund – so I will have to look out for them now too. I hope they live up to the first book.

The one small disappointment came on our last day, the weather closed in all over Iceland – and roads were closed all over the Island. Our big trip The Golden Circle Tour was cancelled – which gives me a perfect excuse to go back to Iceland one day – and I got the chance to spend one last afternoon in Te og Kaffi with Rebecca West and several cups of tea.

 

reykavikstreet

Takk fryir, Iceland – see you again one day.

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wisechildrenn

In November I read The Magic Toyshop, shockingly it was my first Angela Carter novel (I had read The Bloody Chamber stories several years earlier). It was a glorious reading experience and I was determined to read more, and soon. Since reading that, I added two more novels to my ever growing tbr as well as the new biography by Edmund Gordon (which looks utterly brilliant) and upgraded my film tie-in edition of The Magic Toyshop, to a beautiful vmc designer edition. In the comments on my review of The Magic Toyshop a couple of people recommended I read Wise Children next. I’m so glad they did, I loved it too.

Wise Children was Angela Carter’s final novel. It is a glorious, bawdy extravagant novel, hilariously irreverent with more than a nod to Shakespeare. In this comic celebration of a century of show business, Carter weaves a magical story around the tangled fortunes of two theatrical families; the Hazards and the Chances. Their connections to one another are wonderfully convoluted and unreliable, their relationships frequently improbable. It is a novel of pairs, there are several sets of twins, one twin of each pair, being more extravagant than the other. Much of the action takes place in London, a city divided by a river. This duality is one of the main themes of the novel.

The novel is narrated by Dora Chance, one of a pair of identical twins, she and her sister Nora were The Lucky Chances, born on the wrong side of the tracks – they have spent their whole lives in the theatre, song and dance girls, and their legs are still pretty good – for their age.

“Yes, indeed; I have my memories but I prefer to keep them to myself, thank you very much. Though there are some things I never can forget. The cock that used to crow, early in the morning, in Bond Street. And I saw a zebra once, he was galloping down Camden High street, his stripes fluoresced. I was in some garret with a free Norwegian. And the purple flowers that would pop up on the bomb-sites almost before the ruins stopped smoking, as if to say, life goes on, even if you don’t.”

The sisters are devoted to one another, though Nora always wanted a child, they take some comfort in their goddaughter Tiffany, who now appears on a trashy TV game show.

wisechildrenThe novel opens in Brixton, South London, where Dora and Nora were born, and lived with their grandmother after their mother’s death. It is their seventy-fifth birthday – it is also Shakespeare’s birthday, and it is the birthday of their one-hundred-year-old father – a giant of the theatre himself – who has never publicly acknowledged his daughters. Melchior Hazard is their famous father (although paternity is never certain in this novel) whose first wife, Lady A – now called Wheelchair by Dora and her sister – live with the Chance sisters. A Shakespearean actor, Melchior often sports a gilded cardboard crown. Melchior is himself a twin – his brother Perry adored by his nieces and assumed by many to be their father – vanished abroad many years earlier. There are two other pairs of twins, and in true Shakespearen fashion, confusions over paternity and identity abound. Dora and Nora have been told they are the product of a brief encounter between their mother Pretty Kitty and Melchior Hazard. Their grandmother wastes no time in pointing out their absent father, on their seventh birthday, during their first visit to the theatre. 

Neither sister ever marries, although they both come close. Nora is the one who falls in love all the time, even sharing her boyfriend with her sister on their seventeenth birthday, but at the end of the day, the sisters can’t be separated.

“Nora was always free with it and threw her heart away as if it were a used bus ticket. Either she was head over heels in love or else she was broken-hearted. She had it off first with the pantomime goose, when we were Mother Goose’s goslings that year in Newcastle upon Tyne. The goose was old enough to be her father and Grandma would have plucked him, stuck an apple up his bum and roasted him if she’d found out and so would the goose’s wife, who happened to be principle boy.”

On this, their seventy-fifth birthday an invitation arrives for Melchior’s birthday party later that day. It is the first of a number of surprises that day. In the hours before the party, Dora tells the story of their life, a life in the theatre, a life which takes them to Hollywood with their father to make a film based on A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  Her stories of love affairs and theatrical characters are told from a distance of decades. Dora is a real character, a rambling old woman who says it just like it is, a lovable teller of tales, she’s not an entirely reliable narrator. The life she describes is one of bed hopping, theatricals, long lived relatives and the great joy that it is to sing and dance.

The novel ends where it starts on the day of Dora and Nora’s seventy-fifth birthday. They get ready for the party – plenty of makeup and star spangled stockings, and they and Wheelchair arrive at the party, to be greeted by the flash of paparazzi cameras – and where they find Melchior enthroned on a great chair, wearing a purple kaftan. Dora had known it would be an eventful day, and as the party progresses there are more surprises and revelations – not to mention one more inappropriate bunk up.

Wise Children was a big success with me, thank you those people who suggested I read it – you were quite right. 

angela-carter

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birds-on-the-trees

Following on from my reading of In my Own Time by Nina Bawden – I was anxious to read the novel she wrote based upon her experiences as mother to a son later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In life, of course, Nina Bawden’s son Niki killed himself in 1981, so for me there was added poignancy to a novel only published in 1970 – a time when perhaps she believed the worst of his problems were behind him. Some of the stories about this fictional son I recognised from In My Own Time as being stories of Niki.

The Birds in the Trees is beautifully observed with great insight and honesty, it is a novel about parents and children and family life with all its complexities. In 2010 The Birds on the Trees was nominated for The Lost Booker – voted for by readers, Bawden lost out to Troubles by J G Farrell (another excellent novel). The Lost Booker was for books published in 1970 – as changing Booker rules that year meant many novels lost out on being considered.

Toby Flowers is the boy/young man at the centre of this novel – which is told in the varying voices of his family – his mother and father, younger sister and grandmother. These first-person narratives dropped into what is largely a third person narrative, works so well – giving the novel an added intimacy.

“Mummy and Daddy are dead,’ the child said, softly but distinctly, so that Mr Tilney could not pretend he hadn’t heard. Not that he wished to: after the first chill, the sad little statement opened doors in his mind that had been closed for a long time.”

The novel opens with a prologue – in which we meet Toby as a young boy. Toby arrives at a neighbour’s house – late on Christmas Eve saying no one is at home. The neighbours are naturally concerned, have had experience of a hungry Toby turning up in their kitchen before – of course none of it is true. Yet Toby is a lovable little chap – he doesn’t seem to know he’s lying and causing acute embarrassment for his young parents.

Toby’s mother is Maggie, a writer, his father Charlie a journalist. Since early childhood Toby; the eldest of three siblings, has been self-absorbed and awkward, but as he gets older his behaviour gives his family even more cause for concern, when there is a suggestion of drug use. Toby’s ideas for his future differ from those of his mother, when he is expelled from school in his A level year – it highlights the fact that Toby is unlikely to fulfil the expectations his parents once had for him. Toby refuses to discuss his obvious unhappiness and Maggie and Charlie struggle to understand and support the son who they love so much. As Charlie says:

“”All generations face, on the surface, much the same problems; each knows its situation to be unique. Ours, for example. Children before the war, emerged through it into parenthood, Freud in one hand, Spock in the other, into a world where truth is relative, uncertainty a virtue, nothing known… Except guilt, possibly. That is our hall-mark. Out parents did their duty, knew what was right; our sins were original, no fault of theirs.”

Maggie’s mother gives her advice from a distance – which infuriatingly is of the ‘he should cut his hair and knuckle under’ variety. Aunt Phoebe – Charlie’s wealthy, widowed sister, is unhelpful too when she visits – incurring the wrath of twelve-year-old Lucy, who adores Toby and is quick to defend him. Toby has taken to wearing a burnouse pulled up over his head – in which he seems to shield himself from the world. Later, Lucy becomes convinced – following a throw away remark from her younger brother Greg, that the two of them must be adopted – Toby so much the focus in their young minds for all the love affection, worry and attention in the Flowers household. Lucy is a fabulous character, she’s observant, yet only partly knowing, she is rather afraid to fully understand the things she only has an inkling about, the things she overhears. She is often isolated from everyone else, the middle child, the only girl, she is anxious and lonely. The fragility of the relationships within the family are exposed by everyone’s concerns over Toby, memories of former times triggered in Sara (Toby’s grandmother) and Maggie. We get a glimpse of Sara long married to a wildly eccentric, difficult man, Maggie thinks she should leave him, carve out a few years of happiness for herself, yet here too we see one family member not fully understanding the point of view of another. Bawden is brilliant at recreating these family dynamics.

Maggie and Charlie’s friends are drawn into the drama too, Including Elsa; the promiscuous widow of Charlie’s best friend and Angus a psychiatrist friend – married to an old school friend of Maggie’s who Maggie and Charlie decide to consult professionally about Toby. At a party hosted by Elsa, for her son’s twenty-first Maggie and Charlie, are accompanied by Toby (wearing his burnouse) – who having grown up with Hugh is a good friend. Elsa is all bright, unconcern about Toby, while Maggie tries hard to like her.

“’Darlings…’ Her cool cheek touched theirs, her lips sucked air. She took Toby in her arms and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Sweet Toby, you look marvellous in that get up. The girls will go down like ninepins. Go and take your pick – they’re all down in the boat house.’
Bright red and breathing hard, Toby retreated backwards, as if leaving a royal presence. ‘That is the most super boy,’ Elsa said. ‘I wish I were younger.’ She sighed, put her hand on Maggie’s arm. ‘It really is the most frightful thing about the school. I’m so terribly sorry.’”

In this novel Bawden is particularly adept at portraying the truth of a family in crisis, the self-recrimination which goes on, the guilt, arguments, grief the small (and not so small) betrayals which come out of dysfunctional family life. Maggie and Charlie can’t help but project their own wishes for Toby on to him, this is difficult for Toby to cope with, he is very clear about what he does and doesn’t want. Bawden doesn’t give us a nice and tidy resolution, there are none in such cases – although there is definite hope. Reading, The Birds on the Trees with the benefit of hindsight I am struck by how even that small amount of hope was denied her in the end.

nina bawden

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My love of all things VMC is probably very well known by now. Old green VMCs with reproductions of beautiful pieces of artwork as their covers are still very collectable, and many of us rue the day that they stopped being produced. I have a bookcase full that I have already read, lots more waiting in the wings. A few months ago, there was a wonderful documentary on TV about the women who started Virago Press – I watched it avidly – it was so inspiring, but I also recorded it, keeping it so that I can watch it again.

Following on from my Persephone top ten, I had originally wanted to do something similar. So many wonderful women writers, voices which would have been silenced had it not been for Virago. Books which surprise, confound and delight, some who have stood the test of time, remaining in print even after the green spines have long disappeared from high street bookshelves. For me, the names that adorn the spines of my green VMCs are like a who’s who of twentieth century women writers. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Taylor, E H Young, Willa Cather, Elizabeth von Arnim, Rosamond Lehmann, the list is almost endless. I realised there were definite highlights, but I couldn’t pick a top ten, probably not a top twenty.

Some of my highlights from the last few years would include; The Willow Cabin (I have mentioned before how it is one of my favourite VMCs) – Antonia White’s wonderful Frost in May quartet of novels, everything written by Elizabeth Taylor, discovering Sylvia Townsend Warner and of course finding Mary Hocking in the back of another green VMC. There have been wonderful surprises, like A Pin to see the Peepshow, The Squire and Crossriggs – books I hadn’t known I would love as much as I did. Poignant reminders of difficult times with We that Were Young and One of Ours. American classics like The House of Mirth and A Lost Lady. Coming of Age stories such as The Lying Days, My Brilliant Career and Painted Clay. Books of pure joy, humour and charm like The Enchanted April, A Provincial Lady or Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women. Really VMC has something for everyone. And behind every single one of them, is a remarkable woman whose voice still deserves to be heard.

So instead of compiling a top ten of VMCs, I decided to share my other VMC collection with you – it’s much smaller – but I am very proud of it. The VMC designer collection – the books are really very delicious, beautiful to hold, gorgeous little hardbacks, clearly printed on quality creamy paper.2017-02-17_19-58-56

I suppose I am a bit of a sucker for beautifully produced books – I love just seeing them on the shelf. Several of these I first read in other editions, and have purchased in these editions since – so I shall have to find time to re-read them in these gorgeous editions. Two are waiting to be read; The Talented Mr Ripley and Frenchman’s Creek. My most recent acquisitions the aforementioned Mr Ripley and replacements for The Magic Toyshop and Excellent Women.

Virago have chosen some outstanding titles, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, classic novels from Daphne Du Maurier – and her short stories Don’t Look Now, one of my stand out reads of last year. The Enchanted April is a favourite of many people I know, and one I have meant to re-read for ages. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour with its brilliantly memorable opening, and Elizabeth Jenkin’s The Tortoise and the Hare with its unlikely other woman. Barbara Pym’s comedy Excellent Women, anthropologists, clergymen and the excellent women who support them. The Magic Toyshop – such a good novel which I only read recently – quirky and brilliantly imagined. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God – an American classic, richly poetic, evocative and vibrant in which the characters speak with such authenticity they are instantly real. I am very much looking forward to The Talented Mr Ripley and I couldn’t help but notice that Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is also available in this edition. Oh, and yes I do know there are several others I don’t have yet (though I can’t say I have ever wanted to read The Valley of the Dolls – and I don’t buy books I don’t want to read).

So naturally with a slowly growing VMC designer collection, I had to start collecting the mugs too. I just have the four so far – I do use them from time to time, but I take extra care of them naturally.

So, although I couldn’t quite pick a top ten from all the VMCs I have read, I would love to know if you have any favourites – and are you as much as a sucker for pretty books as I am?

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namesfotthesea

Soon, I will be boarding a plane to Iceland with three friends, and Names for the Sea; strangers in Iceland, was the book I decided to read in preparation. It’s the kind of book I don’t often read, but it does me good to step outside my comfort zone. A friend of mine who has visited Iceland three times and has also read this book warned me that there were some negative points which didn’t match her experience, so I was ready to be not put off Iceland by those parts. Names for the Sea relates the experience of author and university  teacher Sarah Moss; who takes a job at the university of Reykjavik and moves herself, her husband and two young sons to the Icelandic capital for an entire year. Naturally someone spending a year in Reykjavik, with young children, a job, financial concerns etc. will face entirely different experiences to those of us just visiting.

This is not Sarah’s first visit to Iceland, in 1995 when they were nineteen, she and her friend Kathy spent six wonderful summer weeks in Iceland. Sarah feels like she has always been drawn northward.

“The Arctic is just over the horizon, the six months’ darkness always at the back of the mind, the summer-long day impossible to believe in winter and impossible to doubt when it comes. Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology. I keep going back to the North Atlantic, working my way north and west as the Celts and Vikings did, as if I’m heading for the Vikings’ westernmost point at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.”

It was 2009 when Sarah Moss took a job at Reykjavik university and she and her family left their home in Canterbury for a year in Iceland. Between accepting the job and moving to Iceland, beginning the search for an apartment and all the rest that goes along with moving a family from one country to another, the financial crisis hits Iceland, and the value of her salary is practically halved. The (some would say bad) timing of Sarah’s year in Iceland is quite key – because the financial crisis affects the kinds of goods readily available in the Icelandic supermarkets – and has Sarah soon yearning after the plentiful fruits of Kent.

reyjavikMoving to another country will always be something of a culture shock – I don’t think it is ever something I could do. Sarah is very aware of her ‘foreignness’ finding her few words of Icelandic stick in her throat – it’s that acute embarrassment thing, isn’t it? – but mortified to be continually expecting people to speak English to her. Customs, everyday practices which Icelanders takes for granted must be explained. Living in a new (not yet finished) apartment complex out in the suburbs Sarah learns that just like in California – everybody drives – almost no one of driving age gets the bus, but for the first few months Sarah’s family resist getting a car because they have so little money. It can be quite an operation preparing herself and the children to walk to school from their apartment once the winter begins, and it is at this point a car becomes a necessity. The financial crisis hit Iceland hard, and Sarah and her family – living with very sparse, basic furnishings (sitting on garden chairs in their living room as they were cheaper) – feel very poor. Sarah begins to look for that poverty in Icelanders – and is unable to find it easily – though she knows it must exist. She also discovers that there is practically no such thing as second hand in Iceland – people having a cultural reticence to using other people’s things.

The weather is another key feature – probably unsurprisingly – and again Moss can appear a bit negative, again, I find that totally understandable. Working with children as I do, I know how staff feel when the children haven’t been able to go out to play two days on the trot – it drives us all demented – imagine having two young lively boys effectively cooped up in an apartment for months. She does however find moments within those long winter months that charm and delight her.

“The aurora are unsettling partly because they show the depth of the space, the falsity of our illusion that the sky is two-dimensional, and partly because it’s hard to convince your instincts that something bigger than you and grabbing at the sky isn’t out to get you.”

Overall Sarah’s experiences are fascinating, I was particularly interested in the details of schooling and nursery provision which she had to access for her sons – children start school at six and continue until they are twenty! There is good, full time nursery provision in Reykjavik which it seems everybody takes advantage of. Sarah’s youngest son, picks up Icelandic with impressive speed, young children often do in these situations, while her elder son settles happily at an international school. Sarah is drawn to the Icelandic landscape, the volcanic craters, the scattered farmhouses and isolated communities, she drives at speed along unsurfaced roads as she explores her unique environment.iceland1

During her year in Iceland, Sarah makes a lot of friends and connections among the people she lives and works among. She works hard to learn more about the country and its people. She learns about the elves and the hidden people, who play an important part in the oral histories of the country. Sarah meets Þórunn at her remote house, a house for which Sarah feels immediate envy, Þórunn claims that she is never alone in her isolated summer home, she is surrounded by hidden people.

“Þórunn gestures, and I gaze at the space she’s pointing to. I can see my own reflection, out there under the tree, and I can see the table on the veranda Þórunn a, and the wind stirring the rowan trees, and the ash cloud rising into the blue sky. ‘She’s from the hidden people, and she lives in the lava field with her family. I used to go and visit her, but about three years ago she started to come and see me, just for a visit. And there are tree elves that I can see out there, small tree elves, and the flower elves, which are even smaller’ – Þórunn holds her hand about a foot above the coffee table – ‘but usually elves are very delicate creatures, with a very fine bone structure.”

At the end of the year, Sarah and her family return to England, to Cornwall this time, but a year or so later return to Iceland for a holiday. On this return trip, she notes how the availability of some goods she had so missed while she lived in Reykjavik had improved quite a lot.

I’m glad I read this book, I feel as if I have learnt a lot about a country I have wanted to visit for years. I am only visiting Iceland for a few days, but a whole year – that is an entirely different kettle of fish. The one thing I don’t think I would do very well with however – is that six-month winter, though the long bright days at the other end of the year sound wonderful. As I get older I appreciate the light more and more. I am still, naturally really looking forward to my holiday. Iceland sounds like it is a fascinating country.

sarahmoss

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love-on-the-supertax

I’m sure that it is only because of Persephone books that Marghanita Laski is remembered now at all. Born into a family of intellectuals in Manchester in 1915, Marghanita Laski went on to become a journalist, novelist and radio panellist. During her lifetime, she produced several novels, biographies, satires and plays, and edited some works of stories and poems. In 1999, Persephone re-issued The Victorian Chaise Longue, following it with Little Boy Lost, The Village and To Bed with Grand Music. Without Persephone books, I wonder how many people would have heard of Marghanita Laski? So many great writers lost to the vagaries of literary fashion, and so many of them women.

I have read all four of those novels – they are each quite different – and in their way, each quite brilliant. I was looking round for more Laski – and I remembered reading reviews by other bloggers of another Laski novel – not re-issued by Persephone – with a quite memorable title. Love on the Supertax.

“This is a story of the spring of 1944. But it does not tell of that jocund season as you know it in Finsbury and Hoxton, where, after their day’s work is done, clear-eyed, confident men and women meet to discuss the Trades Disputes Act or to visit the latest exhibition of paintings by Left-Wing artists at the Klassical Kinema; nor of spring where the first warm rays of sun strike down on the bountiful barrows of Bermondsey, the colourful backyards of Shoreditch. This is not a story of that spring of 1944 as it came to strong vigorous citizens with an ample present and an assurance of the future, but of spring as it came to the needy and the dispirited, to the fallen and the dispossessed, spring as it came to Mayfair.”

My fragile 1940s edition, came courtesy of eBay, and as I now realise it was Laski’s first novel (Wikepedia describes it as a comic novel – I would say it is more satire) I’m very glad I have read it. I certainly liked it, although it wouldn’t be my favourite of hers, and I think, I can understand why this one has not been re-issued. Whether it will be of course in time, I don’t know, but I somehow doubt it (she says sticking her neck out). That isn’t to say I was disappointed, I wasn’t at all. I thought there was a lot in the novel that is in fact quite clever, savagely witty. There were moments when it felt a little Mitfordesque. Characters and the society in which they live, examined with Laski’s critically observing eye. I can’t help but wonder whether modern readers would entirely ‘get it.’ Laski uses language very cleverly in this novel – her characters are from two different and distinct backgrounds, the upper classes and the working classes. However, Laski uses the language we more usually associate with the description of poorer working class households to describe her upper-class characters’ lives.

“Shivering with cold, Clarissa pulled on her scanty ragged underclothes, her laddered stockings and her last tweed suit that she would have sent to the cleaners weeks ago if they wouldn’t have kept it for months. She splashed her face with cold water and, with a final look of disgust at the grubby untidy bedroom, dragged herself down to the basement.”

Upper class Clarissa and her parents, the Duke and Duchess are portrayed as ill-prepared, for the world they find themselves in. Struggling valiantly to hold on to their world and its values – they are figures to be pitied.

Her working-class characters, are intelligent, worldly, have opportunities to earn wartime wages that are denied the struggling, upper classes. Social mores were changing in the 1940s and Marghanita Laski’s first readers must have read her novel with a wry smile, and a good deal of understanding for what she was saying.

The plot itself – is simply told. Clarissa and her parents are impoverished aristocracy. One son is serving abroad, the other involved in shadowy exploits of the black-market kind. Their country home has been requisitioned by the army, and they live in a kind of genteel squalor in their London home, with no servants, they are frequently hungry and cold. Their fortune; mismanaged by the Duke has disappeared and the Duchess has taken to selling some of her clothes to a dress agency. Clarissa and her parents, struggle to make ends meet, juggling shillings and coupons, and trying to save face with the traders who make their living off the backs of their upper crust customers. They find themselves rather envying the working classes who can take advantage of ‘war wages’ and who are all doing rather well.

Around the same time that Clarissa’s brother introduces her to handsome (and rather slimy) Sir Hubert Porkington, Clarissa meets Sid. Sid is from an altogether different background, he is highly politicised a member of the communist party, and Clarissa has her head turned immediately. Sid sets out to teach Clarissa a thing or two about the world, and Clarissa is enchanted, desperate to prove herself worthy of becoming part of his world. Sid takes her to parties, to lectures, she meets people, with something to say, who open her eyes, and Clarissa convinces herself she can become part of this world, throwing off the inconvenience of her embarrassing background.

It is, perhaps inevitably Sir Hubert (who never gets any nicer to my mind) who tells Clarissa how she can’t just throw off her class like she can her clothing, insisting she should be working to save her class, not working against it. Clarissa has fallen in love with Sid, but when he takes her to tea with his family, she begins, sadly to see, how difficult it will be to convince Sid’s friends and family that she is worthy of a place in their world. But is she? Could Clarissa work in a factory, join the communist party and forget her upbringing?

I really enjoyed Laski’s witty social commentary in this short novel – it lacks the brilliance of To Bed with Grand Music or Little Boy Lost, and she is not quite as funny or as sharp as Nancy Mitford, but still this is an enjoyable little read which fans of Laski’s other books might enjoy.

marghanitalaski

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deep-water

Deep Water was Virago Press’ pick for their February book club. I had wanted to join in with the book club at least once – so was delighted they picked a book I hadn’t read and one by an author I have wanted to read for a long time. Patricia Highsmith is probably best known for the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train, this novel perhaps one that is less well known. Based solely upon the evidence of reading this, I will be reading a lot more novels by Patricia Highsmith.

Deep Water isn’t a typical mystery/thriller, it is deeply psychological, suspenseful and subtle. Highsmith forces us to side with a murderer, against all his potential victims. Somehow, we see their faults before his, feel his frustration, wanting him to succeed, against our reason.

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reason that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.”

At the centre of this novel are married couple Melinda and Vic Van Allen, a couple whose marriage has descended to one of mutual destruction. Neither of them seem to wish to end the marriage, each completely caught up in their peculiar brand of domestic misery. They have one young daughter Trixie, who is six, and since her birth Melinda has had no interest in her husband. Vic now sleeps in another wing of the house on the other side of the garage. He has his own interests outside his small printing press business, including the breeding of snails. He is an affable, likeable man, intelligent and studious, a good friend, neighbour and father. The Van Allens live in the quiet, affluent, town of Little Wesley, where Vic is highly regarded by his friends and neighbours.

Although Melinda has no interest in her husband, she does have quite a lot of interest in other men. Vic now finds himself in a rather embarrassing position. Melinda entertains her series of male conquests at their house, evening drinks, turn into very, very late nights. Vic, happily stays up to thwart Melinda’s plans. She insists that these men accompany her and Vic when they are invited to friends’ houses, where she dances with them, not her husband. It is a world of cocktail parties, pool parties, barbecues, and practically all day drinking. Vic and Melinda are invited everywhere, and wherever they go, Melinda brings a third guest.

Every few months, Melinda seems to have a new friend – and Vic is never quite sure just how far things go, though it is generally assumed these men are Melinda’s lovers. Everyone in their social circle sees how Melinda acts, and what Vic must put up with, and how it appears he is doing nothing about it. With Vic out each day at the Greenspur Press of which he is justly proud – employing two other equally enthusiastic local men – Melinda is free to please herself. She takes very little interest in her young daughter, and is drinking more and more. Her misery is evident, and yet cleverly, Highsmith makes her anything but sympathetic. Melinda is unfaithful, an inattentive, uncaring mother, she drinks heavily – so naturally the reader has little sympathy for her. Highsmith understands exactly how her readers will react to her characters – we fall into her trap and it is quite brilliantly done.

A few months before the novel opens, one of Melinda’s previous conquests was murdered in New York, the culprit not yet found. As Melinda continues to flaunt her affairs right under Vic’s nose, Vic decides to try and frighten the most recent off. He hints that he was responsible for the murder – and that if he ever had a problem with one of Melinda’s friends he would just kill him. The man concerned is seriously rattled, and gossip begins to seep through Little Wesley. Many of Vic’s friends immediately suspect the truth of what Vic was doing in saying what he did. There are other people, who know Vic less well, who seem to take it seriously. Melinda thinks the whole story is ridiculous, it gives her just one more reason to scoff.

However, Vic hadn’t counted on the real murderer being unearthed and splashed all over the newspaper. Vic is right back in the embarrassing position he was in before, and Melinda has a new man on the go. The lines between Vic’s real self and the one he has pretended to, blur, and it isn’t too long before Vic really does have blood on his hands.

“Vic watched the next few seconds with a strange detachment. Melinda half standing up now, shouting her opinions at the coroner – and Vic felt a certain admiration for her courage and her honesty that he hadn’t known she possessed as he saw her frowning profile, her clenched hands – Mary Meller rising and taking a few hesitant steps towards Melinda before Horace gently drew her back to her seat.”

Wilson, a local resident and part of the same social circle as the Van Allens, though not really a friend, watches Vic closely – joining forces with Melinda against him, Wilson becomes a thorn in Vic’s side.

“Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking that it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.”

Highsmith is apparently known for writing charming, likeable psychopaths and villains and in Deep Water she does just this.

This was an excellent read, intelligent and compelling, it is also very hard to put down. I am looking forward to exploring more by Patricia Highsmith.

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