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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

The new Zora Neale Hurston editions from Virago are utterly beautiful, stunning cover designs, that made me actually ‘oooh’ when I opened the envelope. I read Their Eyes were Watching God a few years ago, a fantastic depression era set novel, it’s the story of Janie and her great love for Tea-Cake. Dust Tracks on a Road is the autobiography of the woman who wrote that great modern classic, beautifully written, it is an extraordinarily intimate and revealing portrait with hundreds of quotable passages. There is such wisdom and inspiration in this book, better than that, I found I really liked Zora from the first page.

“I am not tragically coloured. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

Recounting her rise from a Southern childhood lived in poverty, to when she was taking her place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston is never less than entertaining and honest.

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

Born in Florida in the 1890s, she was the fifth of eight children. Reliving her childhood memories here, little Zora comes across as a bright, inquisitive child with lots of spirit. She fell foul of her father – a baptist preacher – early on, he favoured the boys and her sister Sarah, her mother frequently having to get between them. It’s clear that her upbringing was central to creating the woman she became. She writes wonderfully about the town of Eatonville where she grew up, describing the people and what it was like to grow up there, it’s a vivid picture of a unique black community, the first all-black town in America.  

Zora was only in her teens when her mother died, and life started to change. When her father re-marries, Zora’s stepmother is a woman keen to establish herself in her new home, she bullies her way into position, leaving Zora no choice but to leave. Zora travels, she works where she can, doing what she has to, including working for and travelling with an actress and her theatrical group – often meeting people who help and support her, recognising her great potential.

“I had hundreds of books under my skin already. Not selected reading, all of it. Some of it could be called trashy. I had been through Nick Carter, Horatio Alger, Bertha M. Clay and the whole slew of dime novelists in addition to some really constructive reading. I do not regret the trash. It has harmed me in no way. It was a help, because acquiring the reading habit early is the important thing. Taste and natural development will take care of the rest later on.”

Her dream is to continue her education, to go to college. It was the philanthropy of others that helped her on her way, and she put it to good use.

She studies anthropology – travelling around the US to research folklore and anthropology. Later chapters of the book read more like essays, and in these essays, Hurston discusses the lives of black people in America, religion and love. The chapter entitled ‘My People! My People’ is particularly powerful, in this chapter she discusses her race, and the experiences of black Americans in the period before the war. She is thoroughly thought provoking and wise, she has an acute understanding of people and society.

“It seems to me to be true that heavens are placed in the sky because it is the unreachable. The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seems divine–hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds. It gives them a feeling of security.”

I loved Zora Neale Hurston’s spirit, her intelligence and her way of looking at all sorts of things. Strangely perhaps she discusses her writing quite lightly, it is of less focus than other things in the book, though it’s clear it was important to her. Zora Neale Hurston lived until 1960, and it is sad to remember she died in relative obscurity, her place of rest an unmarked grave until the 1970s.

I am now looking forward to reading Jacob’s Gourd Vine (1934), Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, the story of John Buddy Pearson, who discovers a talent for preaching. A novel which is also apparently highly autobiographical, based on the life of her father.

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Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Well here I am reviewing things out of order – so that I can properly join in with #Fitzcarraldofortnight. I have wanted to read Olga Tokarczuk’s work for a while and have had two novels by the 2019 Nobel winner for some time. Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was the one that appealed most as a place to start. The title comes from William Blake’s Proverb’s of Hell. It’s a literary novel presented as a kind of mystery – although it is much more than that.

“The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.”

In this extraordinary, and endlessly readable novel Olga Tokarczuk is exploring lots of things at once. Examining traditional ideas of ‘madness,’ animal rights and the hypocrisy of religion Drive your Plow… is also a wonderful portrayal of the lives of those living in isolation who don’t conform to everyone else’s way of thinking. These are big themes, and they are presented in a very thought provoking, intelligent way, wrapped around a mystery, this can’t be seen as a traditional crime story.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

Janina Duszejko is an eccentric, aging woman living alone in a remote Polish village close to the Czech boarder, which during winter gets completely snowed in. As the novel opens, it’s deep into the winter and Mrs Duszejko (she hates her first name) is one of three people who choose to remain in this community while other residents return to the city for the winter. During the winter months Mrs Duszejko acts as a caretaker for the empty properties in this tiny community – tramping over the snow to check on the homes that lie empty for months.

One night, one of her two neighbours; Oddball comes over to ask for Mrs D’s help, he has found their other neighbour Big Foot dead on the floor of his house. These names are the ones Janina has given to her neighbours – she ascribes everyone names, and not just people, many things are given the status of proper nouns reflecting the importance they have for Janina Duszejko, who sees the world a little differently to other people. Mrs D and Oddball discover that Big Foot might have choked on an animal bone, he was one of a number of local hunters and the bone he choked on was from one of the animals he had killed. While Mrs D and Oddball wait for the authorities, she takes the opportunity to find out a little more about a man she never really liked. So starts the beginning of a theory, about the animals that the hunters killed, taking revenge on the hunters of the district.

It isn’t long before other local men – members of the same hunting club start to die in rather peculiar ways. Animal tracks found close to each victim only strengthens Mrs D’s insistence in her own bizarre theory. Bit by bit she becomes something of a thorn in the side of the local authorities, as she insists on presenting them with her theories, asking to be kept updated, and several times writing long and involved letters, to which she never gets replies.

As the novel progresses, we begin to learn a bit more about Janina Duszejko, who suffers from unnamed illnesses, translates William Blake and studies Astrology with great conviction in its ability to prophesy everything. She is a great believer in predestination. A conservationist and animal lover, we learn that she lost her dogs, her Little Girls sometime earlier, was once a bridge engineer in Syria before returning to Poland to work as an English teacher.

Often in the company of her friends; her neighbour Oddball, Good News (the woman from the local shop) and Dizzy; a former pupil, Mrs D gets drawn into an unofficial investigation into what happened to the men, as she becomes frustrated with the direction the official investigation has taken. Spring comes to the area, and some of Mrs D’s neighbours start to return, the natural world, life, death and the changing of the seasons are always present in the narrative, as Mrs D watches closely the people and the animals with whom she shares her world.

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish”

This was such a brilliant novel, a richly rewarding reading experience, in which while the reader may well work out the truth of ‘whodunnit’ that in no way detracts from what is a suspenseful, noir with superb characterisation and a lovely little twist in the tale.

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Unusually I’m reviewing two books in one post – something I don’t think I have ever done before. Partly, this is an attempt to catch up at least a tiny bit and partly, because the second of the books is poetry – which I find so much harder to write about. Thematically the books work together well, focussing as they do, though in different ways on WW2 and I was actually reading them side by side for at least part of the time.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald is the seventh of her nine novels that I have read – though it is seven years since I last read her at all. I’ve no idea why I had waited so long – this novel must surely be one of her best. Atmospheric, funny and hugely readable, due in no small part to the wonderfully vivid characters, Fitzgerald’s world is immediately relatable.

“As an institution that could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi. As office managers, they were no more than adequate, but now, as autumn approached, with the exiles crowded awkwardly into their new sections, they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

London during the early years of World War two – and the men and women who make their living in Broadcasting House are committed to recording and sharing the voices and experiences of wartime Britain. Their mission always to tell the truth on air. The war has brought changes for all of them, with blackouts, bombs falling, and a dormitory set up in the concert hall for those working late. As the war progresses, little anxieties creep in, as the professional interests of different departments clash. The BBC have decided that truth must never be sacrificed for the sake of consolation – that people must know exactly what is happening in the war, must have all the information they require. There is a fabulous set piece when a French general arrives at Broadcasting House to address Britain – it very nearly leads to disaster.

Sam Brooks the RPD spends very long hours at Broadcasting House, barely leaving it. He likes to confide his worries to the young female assistants he surrounds himself with, pushing plates of cheese sandwiches under their noses as he talks. Annie and Lise are two recent recruits finding their way in the confusing world of broadcasting. Lise spends a lot of time talking about her French boyfriend. Needing somewhere to live she is briefly befriended by Vi – a more experienced member of the team and is taken home to lodge with Vi’s family. Lise seems like a troubled young woman, and drifts in and out of BH, appearing and disappearing without word.

“‘All my energies are concentrated, and always have been, and always will be, on one thing, the recording of sound and of the human voice. That doesn’t make for an easy life, you understand.’”

There is no doubt that Sam is a perfectionist, his work an obsession. Jeff Haggard is the DPP – he and Sam have been working together for more than a decade. Whenever Sam gets himself into a bit of a fix it’s generally Jeff who has to sort him out – they make a pretty good team. Both men have marital difficulties in their fairly recent past – acknowledged briefly though not talked about. Sam takes new girl Annie under his wing, the daughter of a piano tuner from Birmingham, Sam wants to teach her all he knows about sound and is more than a bit non plussed when she corrects him on a matter of pitch.

Fitzgerald was writing from her own experience of working for the BBC during the war, and that comes across strongly in the atmosphere she reproduces here.

Virginia Graham’s volume of world war two poems Consider the Years turned out to be a wonderful companion to Human Voices. Originally, I began reading it for the Persephone readathon a few weeks ago – only reading half of it during that weekend, I continued to dip in and out throughout the following week.

These war poems are thoroughly delightful, many of them loosely structured they are in fact written in a variety of styles. Arranged chronologically by the year they were written; they allow us to see the changing nature of war. Virginia Graham uses her poetry to chronicle her war – and her poetry is, suggests Anne Harvey, writing the preface to this edition, quite close to that of Betjeman.

There is a narrative to many of the poems which one could quite easily see as mini short stories. We have debutantes at a country hunt ball, air raids over Bristol, wartime food, soldiers on leave, the changed atmosphere of everyday life, so many aspects in fact of life during wartime.

One of my favourite poems from 1939 is Somewhere in England – in which I can really imagine people harking back to happier times, when there was less urgency in their daily routines.

“Somewhere there must be women reading books,
and talking of chicken rissoles to their cooks;

But every time I try to read The Grapes of Wrath

I am sent forth

On some occupation

Apparently immensely vital to the nation.

(‘Somewhere in England’)”

I don’t read much poetry these days, but this one was a real treat. Virginia Graham is warm and humorous, her social commentary witty and well observed. A truly fabulous little collection.

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Monica Dickens is a writer I was first introduced to as a teenager through her books One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet and My Turn to Make the Tea. They remain favourites with many readers I’m sure. Many children read the Follyfoot books, but they passed me by I’m afraid. It was Persephone books of course who were responsible for me reading her again, many decades later with their re-issues of Mariana and The Winds of Heaven. She was of course a fairly prolific writer – but as with so many women writers of this period most of her work remains out of print. I was pleased therefore to happen across this pretty book club edition in a second-hand book shop last year. No More Meadows is an excellent study of a disastrously unhappy marriage, but what I really liked is how the novel builds slowly – and Dicken’s allows us to really get to know the central character through her family.

It’s 1950 and Christine Cope is in her thirties, unmarried, working in a large London store where she is relied upon and useful. At home a little outside of London, she lives with her father and aunt, rather a lot of dogs a cat and a pair of love birds. Her father can be a bit difficult; her Aunt Josephine is an absolute darling, forgetful, romantic and a little eccentric, she is the person who keeps Christine sane. Near by lives her cousin Geoffrey (and his mother, a less cosy aunt) and when he doesn’t have a better offer, he sometimes deigns to take Christine out with him in the evening – though neither of them seem to enjoy themselves that much. During their most recent excursion Geoffrey is injured and forced to stay in Christine’s house, where Christine must help her aunt minister to him. Geoffrey proves a pretty grumpy patient.

“Christine had wanted to continue the conversation where she was, with the unappetising tray of dressings balanced on her hip. The most interesting things never cropped up when you were sitting comfortably in chairs. It was always in transient places like halls or staircases or bathroom doorways that the really important things started to be said and you had to discuss them then and there, because the mood was lost if you moved away to a more suitable place.”

Monica Dickens’ portrait of this family – which include Christine’s absurd brother and his wife and children who come every Sunday for lunch – was one of the things I liked best about this novel.

One day in a London square Christine meets an American naval officer – Commander Vinson Gaegler. They just exchange a few polite words and move on – but a couple of weeks later, Christine finds herself serving him in the book department where she works. There are soon more meetings, dinner at the American naval headquarters – which seem unaffected by the rationing still in place elsewhere. In time Vinson is introduced to the family, and they become used to seeing Vinson’s large, sleek American car parked outside the family home.  

With Vinson soon to return to Washington, Christine is somewhat surprised by his proposal. The reader is perhaps already wondering if this can work, Vinson has clearly set ideas about what a woman is and isn’t, he’s quite traditional and takes offence easily. Christine will be leaving so much behind her, she has no idea what the life of a naval officer’s wife might be like, has of course never been to America. A family crisis and domestic upheavals at home almost thwart the engagement – but eventually Christine decides to throw her lot in with Vinson, and a few weeks after he leaves for Washington – she is setting sail to start her new life.

“Christine was about to say that she did not see that it mattered, but fortunately, before they could start another of those small dissensions that crept upon them sometimes out of their different points of view, Vinson turned down a side street and said: ‘I’m going to take you past the church where we’re going to be married tomorrow. That’s why I brought you this way, though it’s not the quickest route to the hotel.’ He was always much exercised about knowing the shortest way from place to place.”  

As she soon finds out being the wife of a naval officer comes with all kinds of rules. Then there is the social side – which quickly starts to pall – and means she has to be very nice to people she really doesn’t like and isn’t allowed to be friends with those she finds more interesting. Christine’s life starts to become a little bit suffocating; Vinson begins to control more and more of her life – and though Christine insists to herself that she loves her husband, it becomes clear that she isn’t really happy.

This is probably the kind of novel where the reader never really expects a perfectly happy ending, there is a kind of sad inevitability to the bleak picture Dickens leaves us with. While I dislike giving spoilers, I know other readers might appreciate knowing in advance that this isn’t all crumpets by the fire at the end. Having said all that, I really enjoyed the novel – it’s a fabulous portrait of post war life on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a sobering exploration of an unhappy marriage.

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With thanks to Handheld Press for the review copy

Business as Usual is an early work from the formidably productive writing partnership of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (both pseudonyms) – and it is utterly delightful. A novel about women, work and society it is full of delightful period detail, humour and spirit. Ann Stafford’s charming, line drawings are reproduced alongside the text as they were originally in 1933.

Written in letters it tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who having finished with university wishes to spend a year earning her living in London before returning home to be married. The novel faithfully recreates the reality of work, shopping and conventional society while also acknowledging the poverty and even illegitimacy that existed alongside it. In no way a novel that preaches however, it is instead a novel of light, bright intelligence, deeply charming and ultimately heart-warming.

When Hilary leaves her parents’ home for London – still with a job to find – they are bemused but supportive. Her fiancé Basil however is clearly disapproving, not really understanding why Hilary needs to do this. Basil is an up and coming surgeon, and through Hilary’s affectionate letters that travel to Edinburgh full of life, chatty and loving we begin to sense that Basil is just a little bit pompous.

“Basil Dear

I meant to write to you last night, but I waited, because I thought there might be a letter. And there was – a very sweet one. Bless you! But I don’t think one enjoys: ‘I told you so’ however beautifully it’s put. It isn’t true either I’VE GOT A JOB. So I won’t be coming to heel just yet.”

Alone in London Hilary rents a room and sets about trying to find a job. She is determined to succeed, keen not to have to go home with her tail between her legs. As she begins to apply for jobs, Hilary nervously watches her savings diminish, as the realities of living independently bite. Every step of the way she writes to her family and to Basil, recounting her ups and downs, successes and failures.

After a shaky start job hunting, Hilary finally lands a job as a typist in the famous London department store of Everyman’s (clearly a thinly disguised Selfridges). Hilary’s typing skills aren’t quite the thing however, which actually allows her to move out of the secretarial department, onwards and upwards to the library – which is much more suited to her abilities.

“I wrote labels till eleven, with interruptions from people called Packers, who seemed short-tempered. At least they brought back several of my labels and pointed out that I had forgotten part of the address.”

Hilary’s organisational skills, and ability to help people bring her to the attention of the manager Mr Grant, who is clearly impressed. The life of a large department store is brought further to life in the inter-departmental memos between the staff supervisor and Mr Grant – Hilary is often the subject. Promoted first to the book sales department Hilary enjoys helping people make purchases but gets into some trouble with her arithmetic, the library suits her much better and the increase in salary is very helpful. Bit by bit Hilary learns to negotiate her way through the difficulties of working with other people – and managing her life as an independent working woman.

“The worst of earning one’s living is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”

Hilary is able to move into her own small flat, furnished with the help of an aunt – who ambushes her in the department store, to some embarrassment. Hilary meets an old friend, who is also living an independent life in London, and gradually she starts to learn all the ways an independent young woman is able to live in London – and Hilary enjoys it. She’s busy and doing well, and she likes the feeling of being successful. Hilary even finds herself having to help out a young woman who finds herself ‘in trouble’ as they used to say

“And then in my official capacity I have to take the pulse of at least a dozen departments daily, and decide whether their buyers are really overdriven and under-staffed as well as proclaiming to heaven that life is intolerable and their one desire a decently quiet grave. I settle disputes, administer sal volatile and good advice, placate and guide any customers I may meet clamouring for mechanical toys among the ironmongery.”

In the depiction of Hilary’s colleagues and the department store’s customers we get a wonderful portrait of 1930s retail, which included the important lending library that so many people of this period relied upon. It feels like a very realistic, faithful portrait – humorously depicted.

This story of a year in Hilary’s life is absolutely delightful, Hilary’s voice is so warm, witty and bright she is immediately engaging. Striding out on her own for the first time, Hilary has to negotiate all the pitfalls of working in retail and living independently away from her family.

Business is Usual is Published by Handheld Press on March 23rd – and I’m sure you will all find it worth the wait.

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Olivia Manning is definitely one of those writers whose books I always feel confident of enjoying. I don’t think I had known that she had published short stories, until I came across this collection in a charity shop. There are fourteen stories in A Romantic Hero – also the title of the penultimate story.

In these stories Olivia Manning explores lonely childhoods and complex adult relationships. Her stories, just like her wonderful novels are shot through with her precise understanding of people, their domestic dramas, their sadness and their humour. Arranged chronologically (I like that way of putting story collections together) these stories represent a period of almost thirty years of Manning’s creative life, with the first two stories dating from 1938 and the final story from 1966.

Rather than try and talk about all fourteen stories in this collection, I will give just a flavour of some of them. One thing I really liked was how Olivia Manning takes to so many different locations, from coastal Ireland to Cairo, to Jerusalem and a snowy wartime Romania. Many of the locations I have encountered in her novels.

“There, clutching the tufts of hard grass, they could look down into the crevices where they believed the strong-smelling weed hid giant octopi and other secret, colourless monsters.

They came to the leap.

Mrs Clandavy, on the other side of the wall, started calling them again.

‘We’re coming,’ Joseph answered as he took the leap without pausing to measure it or glance down. He went over with this bone-thin legs bent. His knickers, his ragged jersey and his socks were all too short, and his limbs stuck out from them like sticks. His neck, like a thin stalk, held precariously the weight of his large head with its thick, untidy, fawn-coloured hair. Van, a year older, taller and even thinner, followed him easily.”  

(Childhood – 1938)

The collection opens with Childhood a story paired with the one that comes after it, The Two Birthdays. Both stories are about the Clandavy children and their difficult emotional mother. In the first story Van and her younger brother Joseph are exploring the beach near their Irish home. Picking up bits of debris from the beach, checking on Mr Congo the crab they have adopted and been finding food for. Hearing their mother calling, they are forced to leave the beach and return to the house, and the difficult, confusing atmosphere, where their parents are frequently waging war, and playing the children off on one another. In the second of these, time has moved on a little, and Mrs Clandavy has separated from her husband. There is a day out with neighbours planned on the river, which Joseph has been looking forward to. These stories are slow and meandering, and I love that kind of storytelling and there is a deliciously strong sense of time and place too.

Other Irish families appear in this collection, like in The Visit, in which the narrator remembers a visit to a Lady Moxton when she was a child. She hadn’t really wanted to go and had been relying on her brother to be with her, but at the last minute he was ill in bed with a cold. She travels by tram with her bossy, ambitious mother and must face the strange old woman without her brother.

I was reminded strongly of The Balkan Trilogy in In A Winter Landscape in which we follow a British couple as they travel across Romania by train. They meet a Polish soldier and get into conversation, spending a couple of days in one another’s company on the train and overnight at a hotel. Manning’s descriptions of the landscape are lovely, her eye for detail as good as ever.

“The damp in the air had covered the carriage windows with long ferns of frost. One could scrape off the frost and see through the glass the white landscape going past. This was wheat-growing country, treeless, the fields repeating themselves in hills and hollows that looked barren, as though made of salt.”

(In a Winter Landscape – 1941)

In The Man who Stole a Tiger, we meet Tandy, a survivor of a lost troopship, he was brought back to health in a Jerusalem sanatorium. The story is narrated by a Padre who spends time with Tandy before and after the events related in the story, the Padre never really liked Tandy, who he describes as an ex-borstal boy. While recovering in Jerusalem, Tandy found himself visiting the zoo – and it was there he decided to free the tiger who he seemed to connect with and feel needed rescuing. Tandy steals the tiger and then embarks on an absurdly long journey by road. I won’t spoil the ending – which most readers will see coming – but it’s wonderfully subtle and desperately poignant.

In Twilight of the Gods Elizabeth goes on holiday to Ireland just after the war. Here she meets again a woman she knew years earlier and had once thought rather glamourous. She finds a woman greatly changed and living in the middle of an uncomfortable domestic situation which Elizabeth is keen not to get drawn into.

In the title story; A Romantic Hero, we meet Harold, living (kind of) with Angela – who he doesn’t love. One day he meets a good looking young man called David, and Harold is smitten – and imagines David feels as he does. He arranges to meet the young man the following day, and of course nothing goes quite as Harold imagines.

All in all this was a lovely collection, reminding me – had I needed it, what a great writer Olivia Manning is. When I finished the Levant trilogy around Christmas, I felt quite bereft, so I was in need of another Olivia Manning book I think.

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I don’t generally indulge in fictional fantasy or whimsy, I tend to need my fiction to be firmly rooted in the possible, even if the possible is cosy and unlikely. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a novel which I already knew would make me suspend my disbelief, in the same way I did when reading novels like The Love Child, Miss Hargreaves and of course Lolly Willowes. I mention those novels because the fantasy element in this one is of the same type, existing lightly within a very realistic world – in this case London in WW2.

“To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit.”

Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. Her life is one of fairly dull, predictable routine, she feels like she has rather missed out on life, nothing of any interest could possibly happen to her now, she believes. This is London of the later war years, people are tired, there are bombed out buildings all over the city, food shortages have become gruelling. It’s ages since Georgina has heard from her brother Robert or nephew Henry, and she can’t help but feel rather old.

When Georgina buys some blocks of wood for her fire that have come from a blitzed roadway, she can have no idea what adventures will result. With a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope to read, she is looking forward to a cosy evening by a good fire. Throwing one of the blocks onto the fire later she is more than a little surprised to find that the acting of burning releases a very long-imprisoned Ifrit (similar it seems to a genie). His name is Abu Shiháb, and he declares himself to be Miss Carter’s slave – a word Georgina passionately objects to, but he is childishly excited to do all he can for her, joyfully producing dishes of food for her, not seen in London in years. His joy in serving is quite irrepressible and while she doesn’t really believe that any of it is real, Georgina enjoys an evening in the company of Abu Shiháb and everything he is able to bestow on her. Assuming it all to be a dream she is astounded to find him waiting for her in the living room the next morning (when not wanted he disappears into a small bottle on the mantlepiece or makes himself invisible).

“Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!”

Once she is convinced that her Ifrit is a permanent fixture, Georgina bestows the name Joe Carter on her new friend, Joe is deeply honoured to be sharing in her family name. Joe is keen to help Georgina in every way he can, and he suggests spiriting her away to wherever she wants to go – he can take her anywhere. Her first magical outing is just to Brighton, where she meets an old friend; Richard a Major who had previously been living in America. Joe is a hopeless romantic and in Richard he sees lots of possibilities for Miss Carter. There’s a wonderful evening out, a beautiful new outfit provided by Joe for the occasion, and Miss Carter’s head is in a whirl. Meeting up with Richard again has taken Georgina right back to her youth, she can’t help but start to daydream a bit, especially when encouraged by Joe. When Richard is posted to Africa, Joe disappears off to provide regular updates, and when he is taken ill, suggests a little trip. With Joe around, a flying visit to an army hospital in Africa is no problem, neither would be a visit to her beloved nephew Henry in Canada.

With her life so full and unusual it’s no wonder that Georgina’s good friend Margaret notices her friend is behaving a little strangely. Margaret works with Georgina at the censorship office, and they usually enjoy tea together on a Sunday afternoon. Margaret thinks she knows Georgina well, and she begins to worry that her old friend might even have turned to drink, there’s some amusing misunderstandings between the two old friends, as Georgina desperately tries to shield Margaret from the truth. It becomes harder for Georgina to hide her secret – and she starts to wonder whether, keeping Joe all to herself isn’t just a little bit selfish.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a delicious little bit of whimsy from Dean Street Press. The relationship between Miss Carter and Joe is wonderfully observed, as we watch Joe grow from a kind of simple childishness to a rounder more mature individual as in Miss Carter’s company, he learns about this strange new world he finds himself in.

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