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A Persephone readathon

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With several posts popping up over the last forty-eight hours about this – I am sure everyone knows about this by now – but Jessie who blogs at Dwell in Possibility is having a Persephone readathon. Between the 1st and 11th those of us who love Persephone have the chance to brighten up our social media with photos of our Persephone books, talk about all things Persephone and of course indulge ourselves in a bit of Persephone reading. happytree

I only found out about this readathon two days ago – so I wasn’t sure I could join in, but I really wanted to. So, I have re-thought my reading schedule (which is always fairly elastic anyway) and decided to try and squeeze one – perhaps even two Persephone volumes into the next ten days. I’m not sure if any reviews will get written in time for the end of the readathon though – that might be tight, as I still have two of January’s books to review.

mdeI’m finishing a novel in translation today – as well as meeting my mother for lunch and going to the cinema – but sometime today I aim to get properly stuck into The Journey Home and other Stories by Malachi Whitaker; Persephone book number 124 – which I got for Christmas from Liz, I read the first two very short stories the night before last. This collection was first published by Persephone in 2017 though the stories themselves date from mainly the 1930s – which is very much my reading comfort zone. I have five others Persephone titles tbr – and now 97 titles altogether.

I have a couple of links to old posts for those of you who might have missed them.

Last January I wrote a post called Perfect Persephones – it was my top ten Persephone titles – as they were then. Already I feel if I were to edit it, I might have to change it to include Earth and High Heaven – one of my best books of 2017.

In 2015 I wrote about the children in Persephone books in a post called The Lost Children of Persephone.

All my Persephone reviews are tagged Persephone – so if you’re looking for recommendations – click away ;)I like to encourage others in the Persephone habit.

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Everyone discovers Persephone at different times, I first heard about Persephone books from Liz, that was at least twelve years ago. I have visited the shop a few times, it is always an exciting trip, and of course the train journey back always includes an extra bag. The shop is so beautiful, even the outside is wonderfully photogenic.

So I am looking forward to seeing lots of Persephone love around in the next week or so, reviews and pretty pictures.

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January has been a good bookish month for me – I struggle a little with the post-Christmas grumps and the dark featureless days. I don’t mind cold days or cosy evenings, but I hate the grey skies and the feeling that all the things I have to look forward to are a long way off. Still it was a good month for books – and the start of a couple of reading challenges.

#ReadingMuriel2018 got underway, and so beginning the year as I mean to go on I started with The Comforters; Muriel Spark’s first novel. While it won’t be my favourite Spark, it was an excellent debut. I have seen it described as a comedy of errors, and it is certainly quirky and engaging. A fabulous start, which I have seen lots of others reading.

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray was the book chosen for January by my very small book group. A very personal selection by the author it was an interesting read, which I enjoyed overall, I did have a couple of issues with it – but they didn’t ruin the book for me. It gave us some great discussion points too.

I seem to have had several Stella Gibbons novels for ages, and before I swept all my tbr books to the floor and began going through them, I had got myself very confused about which I had read, and which I hadn’t. The Bachelor, first published in 1944 really is a rollicking good read. A large house in the country – not far from London, gradually fills up with a variety of people seeking shelter. A refugee, an old flame and the disreputable old father of the middle-aged siblings that own the house – it is surprising sometimes, where and when some people find love.

Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge turned out to be a bit of an odd novel – though interesting in its way. A middle-aged man travels to Moscow as the official companion to an artist with whom he has been having an affair. Several peculiar incidents lead to paranoia as his lover Nina seems to disappear from the hotel.

Pink Sugar by O Douglas was an absolute joy of a book, a reminder that I had been wanting to read more by O Douglas for ages. Our heroine is Kirsty, thirty and returned home to Scotland, free for the first time in her life. She wants only to do good and decides to take on three children for the summer who have recently lost their mother. Poor clergymen, grumpy landlords, a pretty governess all need to be paired up – but this is a novel far less frothy than the title might suggest.

Robinson by Muriel Spark, my second read for #ReadingMuriel2018 – back in December I went mad and bought four of the new Polygon centenary editions – well I couldn’t resist. Robinson is an extraordinary novel – some themes already familiar from The Comforters, yet again however Spark surprises.

Having decided I wanted to read a little more fiction in translation, I chose Katalin Street by Magda Szabo who I have read twice before. It’s a novel with a more complex structure than those other two – but beautifully written. It tells the story of three families uprooted by the regime following the end of the Second World War.

The other reading challenge I started this month is ACOB – (more of that later) Mary Olivier: a life by May Sinclair ticked off the first year. It is a novel which charts a woman’s life from infancy to middle-age – it is a deeply personal novel, one of the best novels examining a complex mother daughter relationship I have read.

N or M? by Agatha Christie – I have always been a big Poirot fan – but I also have a very soft spot for Tommy and Tuppence – and so wish there had been more of them written. N or M? is set towards the beginning of the second world war and T&T are involved in fighting fifth columnists in a south coast boarding house. Thoroughly enjoyable -full review in a few days.

Three things about Elsie is Joanna Cannon’s second novel – following on from the great success of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I pre-ordered it about three months before it came out – and despite its four hundred and fifty odd pages flew through it in two days. Despite the fact it presents a rather depressing view of some aspects of old age – it is a quite unputdownable read.

So, with ten books read in January – each of them published in a different year – I have managed to tick off ten years on my ACOB – which I am pretty pleased with. You can see my progress here – though there isn’t too much to see yet.

Yesterday I started what will be my first read of February – a book in translation from the Asymptote book club for which I took out a three-month subscription. It’s my second read with the club, it’s a book called Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay translated from Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya.

February will see me reading Memento Mori for #ReadingMuriel2018 and The Wife by Meg Wolitzer for my very small book club the week after next. I haven’t planned more than that as yet – as I like to suit my mood where possible. The Librarything Virago group are reading Dorothy Canfield Fisher during February and so I may try to get to The Brimming Cup – although it won’t tick off an ACOB year for me as it was published the same year as Mary Olivier *sigh*.

So, how was your January for books?

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mary oliver

Two or three months ago there was a lot of talk on Twitter and elsewhere about #Neglectedladynovelists (not my hashtag or definition) which I wrote about here. There were many people who named May Sinclair as being one of their number. So neglected, is May Sinclair that she didn’t manage to win much support in a Twitter vote either. I wondered if that was because people didn’t know much about her or her work.

May Sinclair wrote widely, both fiction and non-fiction – though the majority of her work is out of print now. The Life and Death of Harriet Frean is possibly her best-known work, and along with this novel the easiest to find. Though I believe some print on demand versions of some of May Sinclair’s other books are also available. She was a modernist writer, who – it is said – was the first to use the term stream of consciousness in a review she wrote about Dorothy Richardson.

“If you looked back on any perfect happiness you saw that it had not come from the people or the things you thought it had come from, but from somewhere inside yourself.”

Mary Olivier: a life is a novel – though one can’t help but take the name May Sinclair and put it in the place of Mary Olivier. The novel is enormously autobiographical and tells the deeply personal story of a woman’s life from the time of infancy to middle-age.

Mary Olivier is born into a middle-class Victorian family in the 1860s, the fourth child and the only girl. The novel opens while Mary is a young infant – and the viewpoint is that of a very young child –even the language is more childlike. Time passes quite quickly in the early sections of the novel, and as she grows up we begin to see a young girl eager to learn, with a keen interest (like Sinclair herself) in literature, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Mary is not a girl to merely believe what her elders tell her, she is questioning and thoughtful – her beliefs not always fitting in with those of her conservatively religious family.

The house hold is ruled over by Mamma – little Mamma as she is often called by her sons. She is very much a typical Victorian wife and mother, her strength existing in her apparent weakness. As Mary turns from a very little girl into an older child and then an adolescent, her relationship with her mother becomes ever more difficult. Mary comes to realise her mother doesn’t love her – not in the way she does her brothers, especially the eldest Mark, the brother Mary loves with a fierce, loyal adoration. Mary comes to believe that if only she could have remained a tiny little child her mother would have loved her more.

“Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.”

As Mary comes to the end of her schooling, the family suddenly leave Ilford, moving North to Greffington Edge, where her father begins his descent into Alcoholism. Back in Essex are Mary’s aunts Charlotte and Lavvy and Uncle Victor, and bit by bit we start to see something of their lives. The narrowness and fear that stopped them from moving forward – a fear that briefly transfers itself to Mary – a fear of madness.

Years pass with terrifying speed, men come along who Mary might be able to love – but they don’t stay around – and gradually Mary’s life becomes one of sad routine and sacrifice. Her brothers go off to see something of the world – her adored bother Mark away for several years – and when he returns they are both changed – and Mary starts to see something of their little Mamma in her brother.

“Mark turned in the path and looked at her; his tight, firm face tighter and firmer. She thought: “He doesn’t know. He’s like Mamma. He won’t see. It would be kinder not to tell him. But I can’t be kind. He’s joined with Mamma against me. They’re two to one. Mamma must have said something to make him hate me.”

Persuaded by her brothers, that their mother is a poor weak little woman, Mary comes to understand that she cannot leave her mother and live her own life as her brothers have– and so she stays.

As she gets older Mary longs for an identity of her own, she wants to know love, and begins to think differently about the drawer full of writing she has amassed over the years. She starts to send things she has written, out into the world, to magazines, and meets a man who will be her greatest love – and her greatest sacrifice.

Although there is a sadness in this novel – Mary is a woman who discovers an inner freedom, and despite everything her own perfect happiness.

This is a brilliant exploration of a mother, daughter relationship, and May Sinclair is a writer who deserves to be more widely read.

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katalin street

Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (2017)

A few months ago. I said I intended to read more books in translation, I’m aiming for one book a month, that didn’t seem too ambitious. This is a book I bought a few months ago, a literary novel by an author I have read twice before, I didn’t feel it would take me too far outside my comfort zone. Having already greatly enjoyed The Door and Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó I was really looking forward to Katalin Street, recently reissued by the gorgeous nryb classics. In many ways this novel is every bit as good as both those – though it is a more nuanced, complex novel.

Moving back and forth across more than three decades, it tells the powerful story of Hungarian middle-class families before and after The Second World War. The writing is brilliant, recalling in unsentimental prose, events viewed from a position of nostalgia by those unable to free themselves of their past. The opening section of the book is rather slow, but worth sticking with – the middle section of the book quite extraordinary, beautifully written.

“In everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death.”

The novel opens to the world of a concrete apartment block, from where the residents are able to look out across the Danube to a place where they lived in former, better days.

“The apartment was on the sixth floor of a relatively new block on the left bank of the Danube, with views across the river. From its windows they could see their old house. Its façade had been covered in scaffolding for several months now, undergoing redevelopment along with its immediate neighbours. It looked like a childhood friend who, either in anger or a spirit of fun, had put on a mask and forgotten to take it off long after the party had ended.”

A Soviet style block, in a world of social and political change. Here Szabó conveys with chilling perfection the stark, depressing, hopelessness of a place with which you feel no connection. This is a novel about hauntings, the past, people and places – the memories which we are unable to shake.

Katalin Street in Budapest; a street of gracious family homes before the Second World War. Here three families lived side by side, the Elekes, Helds and Birós whose lives are naturally intertwined. The children of these families grow up together, playing games, running in and out of each other’s homes. Sisters; Irén and Blanka, vie for the attentions of Bálint the son of the Major. Henrietta Held the little daughter of the Jewish dentist is adored and petted by them all.

The war brings terrible change to these families, torn apart by the German occupation, the Elekes are the only family to survive intact. The Elekes family struggle with the new reality, and with their feelings of guilt over the deportation of the Held parents during the war, and the terrible senseless death of Henriette who they had been supposed to be caring for.

“Mrs. Held came toward them, then suddenly stopped, leaned over to inhale the scent of a crimson rose, and declared, “We shall live here till the day we die.” That was the one sentence spoken on that day that had stayed in Henriette’s memory. She had no idea what it meant. She had no idea what life was, or death.”

Henriette watches them from her place in the afterlife – that she shares with her parents, the man who killed her and others from her too brief life. Bearing witness to the changes that have taken place and the impact her death has had on those left behind.

After the war, as young adults; Blanka lives in exile, while Irén and Bálint are promised to one another, he’s a doctor now. Homeless under the new regime – he comes to live in the tiny apartment with the Elekes and he and Irén enter into a lengthy and ultimately unsatisfying engagement. Bálint is changed by the past, haunted by Henriette – his life spirals out of control and he is transported by the regime to the countryside for several years. Irén and Bálint are stuck in the past, unable to move forward with their lives, they are rooted in the past more than the older generation appear to be.

“But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement or tranquillity. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.”

Bit by bit, the truth of exactly what happened and why is revealed as the further forward in time the narrative moves, the more the characters appear to look back.

Katalin Street is a more challenging work by Szabó than either The Door or Iza’s Ballad. The opening section is a little confusing, several characters introduced across a couple of pages with no explanation of the connections they each have to one another. Two, first person narrators and a third person narrative with shifting viewpoints make for a complex structure. Still, for those who like me loved those other two novels available in English translations, Katalin Street must be essential reading.

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robinson

Well. #ReadingMuriel2018 continues apace and although there is no need to read more than one book every two months I shall be reading more than that, during this first phase certainly.

With The Comforters, I felt that Muriel Spark really set out her stall so to speak, her debut novel giving us a real taste of what was to come. However, with her second novel Robinson, she shows we might not want to be too quick to pigeon hole her work. As if a writer like Muriel Spark could ever be accurately pigeon holed anyway.

There are layers to Robinson, which make the whole – reasonably slight – novel, deceptively complex. However, it is very readable and gloriously compelling. In this novel, Spark plays homage to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often said to have been the first novel. However, as Candia McWilliam points out in her introduction to my Polygon edition, we can also be reminded of another island Robinson – the Swiss Family Robinson (they made me want a tree house). Muriel Spark’s son was called Robin – he lived with her parents and the two appear to have spent most of his life estranged. Layers, of fascinating possibilities to what might have inspired or driven Muriel Spark to write this extraordinary novel.

Religion plays a big part, Spark’s conversion to Catholicism which was in such evidence in The Comforters is present here too in the character of January Marlow, and in the arguments and discussions between her and other characters.
The plot premise is what made me want to read the book – which of us hasn’t wondered about being marooned on a remote island? (ok just me then).

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January Marlow, a young widow, has been sent to research a group of islands, and on a flight from the Azores the plane she is on crashes on a tiny, isolated island in the North Atlantic. January is one of just three survivors; Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, are her fellow survivors.

“We were a thousand miles from anywhere. I think the effects of the concussion were still upon me when I got up, the fourth morning after the crash. It was some time before I took in the details of Robinson’s establishment, and not till a week later that I began to wonder at his curious isolation.”

January comes to, finding herself attended by a man named Miles Mary Robinson, on a remote island also called Robinson after its owner – with a ping-pong playing cat, and a young boy named Miguel. Miguel is Robinson’s adopted son, the offspring of one of the pomegranate men who come to the island every few months, who Robinson took on after his natural father died. January has a young son at home, who she realises, will believe her to be dead. She records her experiences in a note book journal given to her by Robinson, with the instruction to write the facts.

“To teach a cat to play ping-pong you have first to win the confidence and approval of the cat. Bluebell was the second cat I had undertaken to teach; I found her more amenable than the first, which had been a male.
Ping-pong with a cat is a simplified and more individualistic form of the proper game. You play it close to the ground, and you imagine the net.”

Soon January meets Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, the latter a man still recovering from his injuries, she takes an instant dislike to, Jimmie she recognises from the plane. Robinson tells them they have no way of communicating with the rest of the world, and they will have to sit tight till the pomegranate men arrive in three months’ time. Robinson advises January not to waste time staring out to sea hoping to see a boat – that there won’t be any boats coming their way. In flashback we start to learn something of January and her past, she has begun to see parallels in the personalities of her fellow island inhabitants and her two brothers-in-law back in London.

Robinson has a nineteenth century house in a Spanish style, within sight of a lake. He boasts a well-stocked library – containing many uncut first editions – and has provisions to last till his friends the pomegranate men come again. He and Miguel know the small, man shaped island inside and out – and Miguel particularly proves himself a useful guide. However, Robinson strongly objects to January’s Catholicism and it soon becomes a point of conflict between them as he forbids her from teaching Miguel about the rosary.

Dutchman; Jimmie Waterford, with whom January allies herself – turns out to be related to Robinson, he was on his way to the island anyway – sent by members of the family to persuade him home, to take charge of the family business. Tom Wells is a bit of dubious character, a seller of charms, he runs a funny little magazine, and avoids helping around the island whenever he can. Quick to dish out the snide remarks, which make January feel uncomfortable, there is something quite unlikable about him. While the talkative, Jimmie with his eccentric way of speaking, is a breath of fresh air by comparison.

“In the evenings, however, we did not bicker quite so much. The evening after turning out the storehouse, when we were settled in Robinson’s room, some drinking rum, some brandy, we were tired and relaxed with each other so far as to speculate how it would be when were rescued, how surprised everyone would be.”

Tensions rise between the inhabitants, the weeks before that expected boat stretch out before them. Things take a darker turn when Robinson disappears, no trace of him can be found, but there is a trail of blood all over the island, and poor Miguel is utterly inconsolable. Each of the plane survivors begin to suspect one of the others of being a murderer. With everyone wondering about everybody else’s motivations, the pomegranate men and their boat seem further away than ever. Who – if anyone – can be trusted – and what happened to Robinson?

This is a rollicking good read, proof should it be needed (it isn’t) that a page turner and a literary novel are not mutually exclusive. Honestly, I am going to enjoy reading more by Muriel Spark this year. There is something about her quirkiness and slight darkness that appeals to me.

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pink sugar

A few years ago, I read The Setons by O Douglas an author I had heard about from other bloggers. It has taken me a long time to get around to another. Pink Sugar was a delightful read, my little 1940 hardback (no pretty dust jacket alas) is quite fragile, and just about survived my reading it as I carried it around with me last weekend, including a train journey to London.

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O Douglas was born Anna Buchan in Pathhead, Scotland, the younger sister of John Buchan and I understand that most if not all her novels are set in her native Scotland. Pink Sugar takes place in the fictional Scottish locations of Muirburn, Priorsford, and the delicious sounding house of Little Phantasy. O Douglas books are of a domestic type, vintage escapism, where nice things largely happen to nice people in nice places – and virtually nothing of the reality of the outside world is allowed in. However, do not let the title fool you, although an unashamed feel good read, this is not as syrupy and sweet as the title may lead you to think.

Our heroine is Kirsty Gilmour a young woman of thirty (though she fears she is now dreadfully old) returned at last to her beloved Scotland after years abroad with her manipulative step-mother. Kirsty had hated the endless round of society that hotel life abroad had brought her, a life her step-mother had revelled in. Now returning to the Scottish Borders of her birth, she is free for the first time in her life, with a good income to live on, and no one to tell her what to do. Kirsty is determined to ‘live for others’ her good and charitable personality making her long to bring happiness to others – or at least release them from trouble or unhappiness. Her attitude to life is the Pink Sugar of the title – an attitude so called by her landlord – the apparently grumpy Colonel Home.

“Surely we want every crumb of pink sugar that we can get in this world. I do hate people who sneer at sentiment. What is sentiment after all? It’s only a word, for all that is decent and kind and loving in these warped little lives of ours.”

Kirsty is perfectly genuine and nothing like as irritating that truly good people can sometimes be. Kirsty runs her new home with the help of Nellie and Miss Wotherspoon a housemaid who insists on being called ‘Miss.’

In time we meet Kirsty’s neighbours, a society which includes two vicars; one rich with a wife given to hosting elaborate garden parties, the other poor, living with his sister Rebecca; whose narrow, disappointing life has left a mark of bitterness. Lady novelist, Merren Strang is a delightfully independent woman, who befriends Kirsty. The society is made up of far more women than men, and so it is the women who drive the society. Naturally, there are a couple of terrifying society types – and as the local habit seems to be for calling regularly on one another in time for tea, we soon get to know them all.

Kirsty has taken the house of Little Phantasy – in the grounds of Colonel Archie Home’s estate. The Colonel is only recently returned himself, carrying an injury from the First World War, he lives a largely reclusive life – to the irritation of some of the local society ladies. Kirsty invites an elderly aunt to come and live with her. Aunt Fanny is a comfortable, traditional old lady, quite happy to sit by the fire knitting, she very much enjoys the companionship of her niece.

As the novel opens Kirsty is chatting happily to her older, married friend Blanche – who herself is about to set off abroad with her husband. Blanche tells Kirsty about the sad fate of her niece and two young nephews following her sister’s tragic death in India. The children’s father – prostrated by grief have left the children with a relative in Clapham, though the Scottish born children would much prefer to be home in Scotland. Kirsty rashly says that she would love to have them stay for a few months while their father gets himself together. Soon it is all arranged – and Kirsty excitedly prepares the house for their arrival. The children’s father pays a flying visit to check Kirsty and her house out – and Aunt Fanny prepares to have her peace shattered.

“Then the door burst open and a tall young woman got out, hurriedly followed by a tall girl with two long plaits of shining hair, and a boy struggling with a fishing rod and basket and other impedimenta of the sportsman.
‘Come on, Bill’ she heard the tall young woman say, and she saw standing, half in and half out of the carriage, a small figure in a blue jersey and short blue trousers. It was a very small figure, but there was something oddly commanding about it.”

On the appointed day, Kirsty waits nervously at the station, terrified that they won’t turn up, but they do, Barbara (10) and boys Specky who loves nothing more than to fish, and Bad Bill (5). Kirsty is instantly smitten, as the children are with her. Miss Stella Carter; the children’s governess accompanies the children, and Carty becomes another very happy resident of Little Phantasy, destined to find romance – with a little help from Kirsty.

The children are a delight, and soon Kirsty can’t imagine the house without them. While not all her attempts at doing good yield the results she would like – or indeed the appreciation of the receiver, Kirsty is very happy in her Scottish Borders home, and starts to dread the day that their father will return to take the children away. Kirsty’s relationship with the children is quite adorable, the energetic trio managing even to get under Archie Home’s skin too.

There’s a particularly nice moment when Kirsty meets, and chats to an older unmarried woman, and the two talk quite happily about how an unmarried woman can be both happy and useful, enjoying a perfectly fulfilled life. O Douglas may well have believed that, but her novels are I suspect far more conventional than that – with everything and (nearly) everyone tidied up at the end.

O Douglas shows us an enviable world of old fashioned manners, great kindness, romance and friendship, though one where illness, poverty, grief and disappointment lies just beneath the surface. I really rather loved this book, and I am determined – when I am buying books again – to get myself a couple more by this author.

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winter garden

Beryl Bainbridge is always an interesting writer – she takes a slightly alternative view of working-class people, their habits and domesticity cast in a darker hue. In Winter Garden there is plenty that is odd, unexplained or ambiguous, though it is its setting of Moscow that sets it apart from other Bainbridge novels that I have read.

“If she had uttered one single word of reproach, Ashburner might have made a clean breast of things. Even now, when it was obviously too late, he longed to experience that same heady sensation of martyrdom which had prompted him as schoolboy, accused of some group misdemeanour, secretly to approach his housemaster and claim sole responsibility for a breach in the rules.”

Douglas Ashburner is an ordinary middle-aged man, little given to intrigue one would think, yet as the novel opens he leaves his wife comfortably tucked up in their bed and sets out on a peculiar journey. Ashburner’s wife – obviously little bothered that her husband is heading off on a trip without her – thinks he is going fishing in Scotland. However, soon after closing the front door of the home he shares with his wife, Ashburner is checking in for a flight to Moscow.

He is accompanying three artists, guests of the Soviet Artists’ Union, he is the official companion to Nina St Clair – with whom he has been conducting an affair. An affair we come to suspect is all on her terms, Ashburner little more than a devoted lap dog trailing along behind her. His adoration of Nina, verges on the obsessively paranoid – especially once they land in Moscow. The other two members of the party, Bernard and Enid, are friends of Nina’s rather than Ashburner, and so he is liable to feel threatened by them.

“Bernard had never known anyone like Ashburner – not to spend time with. The man looked and spoke like a civil servant; yet he was obviously insanely romantic. It wasn’t so extraordinary after all that Nina had taken up with him, She was basically a rather bossy girl who should have married somebody inadequate and produced a crop of children. Art didn’t do anything for her. She only mucked about with it because the brain specialist was a total egotist and she was left too much on her own. Perhaps Ashburner was made for her.”

With Winter Garden being published in 1980, we know that the Moscow visited by Nina, Ashburner, Bernard and Enid is the Moscow of the cold war. That adds a little frisson of mystery to the novel – as neither we nor the characters themselves never entirely know what is going on.

Ashburner’s luggage goes missing upon arrival in Moscow – and he can’t help but worry that the airport will contact his wife should it turn up – the wife who believes he is fishing in Scotland. In the company of their interpreter – whose side they are never able to leave – the party are conducted to their hotel where afternoon tea comprises vodka and caviar.

In the coming days odd things seem to happen – although things always seem to happen just to Ashburner, and we begin to wonder what is real and what the paranoia of a man out of his depth and obsessively smitten. Alone in his hotel room late that night, Ashburner receives a peculiar phone call:

“‘I am your brother.’ Shouted the voice. ‘It is Boris. Listen to me please. Tomorrow night there is an exhibition of Zamyotov’s work in the people’s Institute behind Bolotnaya Square. You will go there. I have fixed it all. Do not listen to them when they tell you something else is specified. Tell them to jump in the lake, yes? Beforehand there will be a lecture. Unfortunately I myself cannot be there until later. You will like the etchings, I think. Have you understood?’”

Minutes later Ashburner has convinced himself he had received a message in code – and when at four o’clock in the morning he tries to confide his worries to Bernard he is given short shrift. Bernard sensibly suggesting it was a wrong number.

Within forty-eight hours of the group’s arrival in Moscow, Nina has apparently vanished and Ashburner is beside himself with concern. Olga, their interpreter has a perfectly rational explanation for Nina having left – which is happily accepted by Bernard and Enid – but with no one else to corroborate Olga’s story Ashburner is not entirely convinced.

As the official itinerary of events continue – more peculiar things happen – as the depleted group pay visits to other artists. Ashburner’s luggage re-appears though it appears to have been rifled – heightening Ashburner’s sense of things not being quite right. There’s a disturbing and unsolicited sexual encounter on a train bound for Leningrad – which Bernard laughingly declares must have been a dream. Though Ashburner is particularly upset when he is taken to watch an operation. It’s at this point that Ashburner begins to imagine he sees Nina – on the operating table – in the audience at the theatre – all of which adds to the surreal atmosphere of the novel.

The reader can never really be sure what is real and what a figment of Ashburner’s over active imagination. There is an atmosphere of fear tinged with absurdity about the whole novel – and we can never entirely trust Asburner’s point of view which is hysterically overwrought at times.

I can’t say this will ever be my favourite Bainbridge novel that I have read, but it is certainly one of the most intriguing. I’m still not entirely certain I know what on earth was going on.

berylbainbridge

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