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cof

So that was May! A strange mix of my fiftieth birthday (which was a joy) and a horrible chest infection. Being ill for the last ten days has meant extra reading time though – and looking down the list of things I read, it was a pretty good month.

The month started really well with Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty, my second try at Welty which was much more successful. A slow, evocative read with a stunning sense of place.

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark for #ReadingMuriel2018 was a strange surreal little book, but one I really enjoyed. Set in New York in the late 60s/early 70s it really shows Spark’s inventiveness.

Having loved the Durrell TV series, I was eager to read Whatever happened to Margo by Margaret Durrell, it underwhelmed a little to be honest, and certainly it lacks the humorous brilliance of Gerald Durrell’s books, but it was entertaining enough.

The Cat’s Cradle Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a gorgeous little collection of unusual stories, telling us the traditional stories passed on by adult cats to their kittens. Perhaps only STW could write in such a way, and make it work like she does.

I always enjoy finding a new to me author, and Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons’ debut novel was my first by an author I knew nothing about. I have another of her books to look forward to and a couple of commenters filled me in about her and her other books.

The Honours Board by Patricia Hansford Johnson is a school set book for adults, and I know there are a lot of readers who enjoy those. This is another excellent novel from PHJ, who deftly weaves together the various stories of the men and women who live and work at an English preparatory school.

Writers as Readers the anthology of VMC introductions is a book I am sure I shall return to again, a wonderful collection of VMC voices I very much enjoyed dipping in and out.

My fifth book from the Asymptote book club was Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf one of several books I still have to review. It is a book I wasn’t sure I would like, but I did. It is a difficult book to describe, genre defying, it is part novel, part travelogue part research notes. Using stories of polar exploration, it is also the coming of age story of a young woman concerned about her older autistic brother.

Book two of the MaddAddam trilogy The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood kept me fabulous company as my chest infection really hit. The story in this book runs parallel to that of the one in Oryx and Crake, and in it we see again Atwood’s astonishing imagination.

Next, I read The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens for Shiny new books Golden Booker celebration, so the review will most likely appear there first – though not for a few weeks. I loved it, isn’t it wonderful when a book you have had tbr for an absolute age turn out to be so brilliant you wonder why it took you so long?

On a whim really, I chose to read My Wife Melissa by Frances Durbridge on my kindle – one of a number of Bello books I splurged out on a couple of years ago. I quite enjoyed it – though it did seem to be over almost as soon as it had begun. The story itself is entertaining, but for me there is nothing in the way of character development or setting description to lift it above the ordinary.

Yesterday afternoon I finished Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski, which I only began on Wednesday evening. The mini Persephone readathon begins today, so despite having other things waiting to review, I shall review out of order and try and get this one reviewed by the end of the weekend. It is a sharply observed satire and a scathing indictment on the social hierarchy of the class system.

As well as all the above, I have read some of Grace Paley’s short stories in the new VMC edition of the Collected Stories. More about that in the coming weeks, as I continue to dip in and out.

Looking ahead to June…
I have just started The Carlyles At Home by Thea Holm – Persephone book 32 – it is about the lives of Jane and Thomas Carlyle when they lived at Cheyne row, Chelsea. I may stray away from my ACOB to read another Persephone book this weekend too, I shall see how I feel and what time I have. I shall of course continue with those Grace Paley stories and I am looking forward to The Takeover by Muriel Spark for #ReadingMuriel2018.

Whatever you’re reading in June I hope you enjoy it, and as always I would love to know about the best things you read during May.

cof

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writers as readers3

This gorgeous collection was gifted to me from Virago as part of their #VMC40 celebrations, and very grateful I am to have it. Writers as Readers contains a myriad of fascinating voices, writers talking about other writers.

With an introduction by Donna Coonan; Editorial director, Virago Modern Classics, this collection is a glorious anthology of VMC introductions from the past forty years. Forty of them, naturally. Some of these essays I had read before – it was no hardship to read them again, often years after I had first encountered them, others I hadn’t, either I hadn’t read the books they discussed, or I had read earlier or later editions. Shamefully, I didn’t always used to read introductions, I would find them too spoilery, for a number of years now though, I have taken to reading introductions after the novel – a practice I should have undertaken years earlier. In her introduction, Donna Coonan explains how the Virago Modern Classics redrew the literary map, many of these works had been out of print for years, and why giving those women writers a voice was so important.

“A platform that values the female experience as equal to that of the male is crucial; storytelling is central to what it is to be human, and giving a voice to generations of important but neglected women writers benefits everyone. History is incomplete without them, and readers miss out on the pleasure of discovering their female literary heritage.”

This is a rather difficult book to review – there is so much in it that it is difficult to know what to talk about. Here, there is affection, spirited defence, and true admiration from one writer to another – some tell of their first encounters with a particular work, and the impact it had upon them and their own writing. These personal testimonials are wonderfully readable, intelligent and perceptive, as they discuss some of the greatest titles that VMC have reissued over the last forty years.

There are so many pieces I could pick out for special mention. Mark Bostridge discusses Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, how for years she has attempted again and again to write about her experiences as a VAD nurse, and the personal terrible loses she endured. It’s extraordinary success upon publication took the author by surprise. It is an extraordinary work, powerful in it’s descriptions of nursing and war, it also a book about loss, and how that loss affects a life and a writer.

Anita Desai writes with obvious affection about Rumer Godden, primarily about her novella The River – (such a glorious little book) as well as some of her other India set novels. She describes Godden’s life in India, the drab years she spent in England, before going back and shows how these experiences shaped her writing.

“…The River was born: she had discovered how to capture time, space and experience in exquisite miniature, no more than a dewdrop reflecting light.”

Zadie Smith recalls how her mother forced Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God into her fourteen-year-old hands. At fourteen Zadie hadn’t thought she wanted to read it – refusing to choose books for socio-cultural reasons. She had refused to like The Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye. She was hooked however from the first paragraph, as I was when I read it – I was a lot older than fourteen though. Zora Neale Hurston ended her life penniless, living in obscurity. Of Hurston Zadie Smith says…

“Better to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: she is my sister and I love her.”

Hilary Mantel writes passionately about Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel – I personally only realised its utter brilliance on my second reading of it. Mantel claims that she became dangerously close to writing novels like those of Taylor’s fictional authoress Angelica Deverell. In this novel Mantel asserts, Elizabeth Taylor shows us writers as monsters. She certainly does it is a wonderful character study as well as a brilliantly compelling novel.

Elizabeth Taylor also writes her own piece – about setting the scene as a writer. She describes precisely how she came to write the setting of A View of the Harbour – one of several Taylor novels I want to re-read.

There really are far too many pieces in this collection to talk about individually – and there were so many pieces that stood out to me; Marian Keyes writing about Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen on Antonia White, Jilly Cooper joyfully about E M Delafield’s The Provincial Lady. There is a lot to love here – forty exceptional pieces to be precise.

As a reader, if you already know these novels then these essays are wonderful memory joggers for old favourites, reminding us why we loved these books to begin with, perhaps giving us a nudge toward re-reading them. I have also been introduced to a few books that I have yet to read, but I have so far only bought one on the strength of it. This may not be the kind of book to read straight through one piece after another after another, it can be read like that of course. I dipped in and out of it for something like three weeks, until I had read the lot. Either way, this collection becomes a wonderful resource to some of the most important voices in the VMC list.

VMC40

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burst

Pamela Hansford Johnson was such a gifted, prolific writer, The Honours Board comes something like two thirds of the way through her writing life. Not quite as compelling as the novels of The Helena trilogy – the third of which I have still to read, but she recreates this small, vanished world with absolute authenticity. A boarding school is such a great setting for a novel, and here in this ordered, closed little world, Pamela Hansford Johnson, shows us the lives of the men and women who work and live there. The boys themselves are rather secondary to the narrative, and we only get to know one boy well.

Downs Park is an English, boys preparatory school not too far away from Eastbourne. A school for boys expected to move on to several years at a traditional public school. Ably and sensitively run by owner/headmaster Mr Annick, loyally assisted by his wife Grace, Downs Park retains the ethos that Annick has created during his years at the school. However, the school has been losing money, and the honours board doesn’t show any scholarships to the very great English public schools. Deep down Annick knows that the school is ripe for takeover – but he is resisting. He doesn’t want to see his beloved Downs Park change at all.

“English turf, barbered, emerald, springy, diamond-chipped with dew, is difficult to maintain: but Annick had put in a good many years on his. At the end of September the weather was still dry, and all the sprinklers were playing over the grass. These were just another of the multiple reasons why the school did not pay its way but he couldn’t see how they could be dispensed with.
He looked across the three conjoined houses rosy in the evening light. How much longer could these schools exist economically, or be regarded still as social and academic necessities?”

Annick’s second master – Rupert Massinger is a different kind of man; younger, wealthy, sexually manipulative and a little predatory, he is also ambitious and longs to takeover Downs Park. Massinger lives in a cottage in the grounds with his active, bouncy wife Blossom, who assists with teaching games. There is a great and polite pretence kept up between these two couples, that they are friends, and enjoy spending time together. The Annick’s however, rather dislike the Massingers, the harried Headmaster fearing what would happen to his beloved Downs Park under Massinger’s control.

There are a host of well-drawn peripheral characters; including the rather tragic, lonely Mrs Murray, shocked when she begins to have unrequited feelings for the school’s lesbian teacher Betty Cope. Secretary, Helen Queen is unwillingly drawn into an affair with Massinger, who doesn’t pretend he is using her for anything other than sex. Annick’s adult widowed daughter Penelope, comes to stay for a while, and becomes involved with science master Leo Canning.

Suddenly, the Massingers leave Downs Park, taking up residence in a flat in the nearby seaside town of Eastbourne. They keep in regular touch with various members of the school community, Rupert just waiting for the right time to make his move, he wants to know exactly how things stand, with the finances.

In their place come Norman and Delia Pool, Norman is enchanted by Downs Park, and wants nothing more than to be allowed to stay for years. Norman, however is a sad, troubled man, forever watchful of his pretty younger wife, around whom there seems to be a secret, he is terrified she will spoil it all for him, yet his love for his wife means he only wants to protect her – largely from herself.

Headmaster Cyril Annick puts his faith in a couple of clever boys, who should he feels, get scholarships. One boy in particular; Peter Quillan becomes important to the Annicks. When Peter first starts at Downs Park, he is about eight years old, as the novel closes he is thirteen, and it’s time to sit the scholarship exams. Annick is not the kind of headmaster to put his academic ambitions ahead of the welfare of his boys, he runs his school with both intelligence and love, and the boys and the staff hold him high esteem.

Peter is quickly identified as a very clever boy, and Mr Annick so longs to see the name of a great public school listed on the honours board, and Peter might just be the boy to do it. So, Mr Annick is concerned when Peter’s parents say they shall take him away with them to America. Mr Annick persuades them to let Peter stay, promising that he and Grace will care for Peter during the holidays, and take him away with them on their summer travels. The arrangement works admirably, and Peter is happy with the Annicks and although the formality between them is never done away with, Peter does enjoy something of a privileged position, while remaining popular with his school fellows. As Peter grows up he develops a great fondness for the headmaster and his wife and wants badly to repay their faith in him. Peter and Annick travel to perhaps the greatest of all those public schools for Peter to sit the scholarship exams, Annick is touchingly nervous for his favourite pupil.

“When they had unpacked, Peter and Annick went for a stroll through Eton. It was a little after six o’clock and a fair evening. Penguin boys in black tail and white ties were hurrying back from class through the pastel High Street, young ankle bones protruding from trousers too short, faces burnished by the rose of the sun, The Chestnut trees were in flower, pink and white on red brick. ‘It’s the uniforms that make it really.’ Said Peter, ‘it would be a pity to change.’ My mother says a picture’s made effective by its use of blacks and whites. She says Boudin shows how. My aunt’s got a Boudin, a real one.’
Annick sick with nervousness, longed to get back to the hotel for a drink, but Peter was pleasantly lingering. They went into School Yard, and stood before the green statue of Henry VI.”

Pamela Hansford Johnson ably weaves together the stories of her various characters, their preoccupations, relationships and ambitions, against a backdrop of a traditional, though minor preparatory school. During these years, there is sexual intrigue, petty theft, suicide, and drunkenness at Downs Park. All of which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read, which has reminded me I must get back to that Helena trilogy, the first two books of which were utterly superb.

 

 

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cof

I am finding that I rather enjoy having a tbr spreadsheet, it doesn’t stop me buying/acquiring books and adding to it, but it has until now stopped me going mad. Don’t let the moderately modest book pile in the picture fool you – it is only a part of the story.

So, in January when I began doing A Century of Books which I am happily obsessed by – I had 280 books on my spreadsheet once I had added in all those pesky kindle books. I am currently reading book 51 of the year – which is ok for me at this point in the year – however … as of a few minutes ago when I updated it – the spreadsheet stands at 261 (there are several books I am eyeing up to cull – random kindle buys particularly but they still stand for now). Oopsy, so I have been clearly buying books. Now you can all see what a hopeless book buyer I am, and there was me blithely thinking I had done better this year.

As for A Century of Books –I do love this challenge and can imagine doing it again too. I had said I was trying to do it in two years – though completing it in a year would be amazing and I am now wondering if I can manage it. However, I think I am reading too many duplicates (with several more lined up that I have to get to) that I suspect I will get to December and find myself frustratingly close but just out of reach. Currently I have got 43 years ticked off, as long as I don’t duplicate too many years I could just do it – but I think it will be tight.

cof

So, the books above are some of my recent acquisitions – four Persephone books are ordered and winging their way to me, I assume they will arrive Tuesday because of the bank holiday. Did I need four more Persephone books right now? No, to be frank I didn’t, I already have five tbr, but what has need ever had to do with it? There is a  Mini Persephone readathon coming up next weekend, hosted by Jessie, but I may well extend that to most of next week, and several of my Persephone tbr – are annoying duplicate years in my ACOB (I know, I did say I was obsessed!).

My new lovelies are:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron – which I am looking forward to – I have heard very good reports of it. These VMC40 editions are so pretty.

The Collected stories by Grace Paley (huge admission, I arrived home with this to discover I already had a copy. I hadn’t realised because the other book had been missed off my spreadsheet and was physically so different it didn’t ring a bell).

The Takeover by Muriel Spark, the Spark I will be reading in June for Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The book underneath that is the latest arrival from the Asymptote book club, book six for me. It looks brilliant, but not everyone who subscribes will have received it yet – so I can’t reveal it. Some of you may remember I expressed doubts about book five when it arrived. Well I finished it a few days ago, and really enjoyed it – so sometimes first impressions are entirely wrong.

The book at the bottom of the pile was what I spent a left-over book voucher on, The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall. A Birmingham set book by a Birmingham author, I haven’t actually read that many books by Clare Morrall, and not all her books are set in Birmingham. Having loved Astonishing Splashes of Colour, I was so disappointed by The Man Who Disappeared that it put me off her other novels, until I read When the Floods Came, which I thought was fantastic.

The four Persephone books I have ordered are: Consequences by E M Delafield (1919) The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme (1965), The Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (1918) and Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski (1948). Those are added to my Persephone page (you knew I had a Persephone page, didn’t you?) – where I keep track of what I own, and I now have over 100. I shall probably try and read two back to back this next week – I have nine to choose from. This pleases me.

So, the numbers may not be moving by much, but I am having fun! Is anyone else joining in the mini Persephone readathon?

minipersephone readalong

 

 

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ellen foster

Kaye Gibbons is not a writer I have read before, but last year I spotted two of her books in a second-hand book shop and took a chance. Ellen Foster; was her first novel and it tells the poignant story of a precocious eleven-year-old. Hers, is an unforgettable voice, and through her eyes we witness a world of broken family, neglect and poverty, as she experiences casual violence and fear, things no child her age should live with.

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.

The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he’d be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something’s the matter with my daddy.”

Ellen is the child of a sick mother and a drunk, abusive father. Ellen is around nine as the novel opens, though the story is told from a distance of a couple of years later, when Ellen’s life has changed, and she is living with her ‘new mama’. The family she was born into, live in the rural south, it is somewhere around the late seventies – though I often felt it could have easily been twenty years earlier. There is still a lot of unofficial white/black segregation in the community. Though Ellen’s father has a group of black, drinking buddies, Ellen has been brought up believing she mustn’t stay overnight at her friend Starletta’s house or eat or drink anything while there. Starletta’s family are poor but kind, and it becomes a place where Ellen seeks refuge, a place where she can feel safe.

“I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think. You just let the motion in your head wear you out. Never think about it. You just make a bigger mess that way.”

Ellen’s mother is fragile, she cannot cope with the world in which she lives, and so one day as Ellen lays resting next to her she overdoses. With her mother dead, Ellen finds it wiser to stay as far away from her father as she can. Deciding she doesn’t want to live with him any longer she packs a bag and calls her Aunt Betsy and invites herself to stay. Betsy is one of Ellen’s mother’s sisters. At the end of a happy weekend with Betsy, it is revealed that Betsy had only expected her niece to stay for the weekend – not for good! Ellen is on her own again, forced to return to her father.

When the school spot bruises on Ellen’s body, she embarks on a series of temporary solutions. First, she stays with one of her school teachers, Julia and her husband Roy. Here Ellen feels cared for although she doesn’t always understand their way of life. Her time with Julia is short – and her grandmother – her ‘mama’s mama’ is awarded custody.

Mama’s Mama is a truly awful woman, mean and desperately cruel – she hates Ellen’s father and takes her hatred out on Ellen in the most dreadful ways. Ellen is tough little cookie, when she is put to work in the cotton fields under the scorching summer sun, she gets on with it, making friends with her fellow workers. When her vile grandmother falls ill, she takes care of her, the best way this poor, almost broken child can.

“She died in spite of me.
I tried to make her keep breathing and she stopped I blew air in her like I should have. She did not live but at least I did not slip into a dream beside her. I just stood by the bed and looked at her dead with her face pleasant now to trick Jesus. I said to her the score is two to one now. I might have my mama’s soul to worry over but you’ve got my daddy’s and your own. The score is two to one but I win.
I stood over her hoping she was the last dead person I knew for a while.”

Next to take Ellen in, is Aunt Nadine, her mother’s other sister – who Betsy has been fighting with since the funeral. Life at Nadine’s house is not happy either. Nadine’s daughter Dora is a spoilt, spiteful little madame who instantly makes Ellen feel out of place. On Christmas day things come to a head, and Ellen walks out – heading for the house of the lady with the nice calm, well behaved children who she had spotted at church. She had heard the woman referred to as the Foster woman who will take anyone in. So, Ellen knocks at her door on Christmas day – and is taken in. Ellen has misunderstood the Foster part – assuming it is her new mama’s name she starts calling herself Ellen Foster.

Ellen finds life at her new mama’s house to suit her just right, there’s a pony to ride and a large family who are immediately welcoming. From the way this novel is structured we know from the beginning that Ellen has a new life – a life she is happy in finally. I think it is that knowledge that makes this novel easier to read, as the reader knows that we won’t be left feeling hopeless at the end. In fact, there is a lot that is joyful and life affirming in how Ellen emerges at the end of this slight novel, and I had high hopes for her going forward. She reconnects with her friend Starletta, making the necessary readjustments to her racial attitudes.

The other novel I have by Kaye Gibbons is Sights Unseen – which I believe has a similarly rural setting. Based upon this powerful little novel, I have reason to look forward to it.

kaye gibbons

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thecatscradle book

What a fabulous quirky constantly inventive writer Sylvia Townsend Warner was! I am already a massive fan of her writing, and The Cat’s Cradle Book collection is really something quite different.

The premise essentially is to tell us the stories, that have been passed down from cats to their kittens for generations. Fairy-tales from cats, giving us, an unusual cat’s eye view of the world. It isn’t a perspective we are used to – and the cynical reader may need to suspend belief and just enjoy the ride. These stories are joyfully different, tapping into our long-held love of traditional stories.

“For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”

It is a shame that this collection remains out of print, although this pretty 1960s edition of a collection first published in 1940 seems widely available from the usual places, a perfect gift for a fairy-tale loving cat person. A little warning though cat lovers, a few of the cats in this book don’t survive – but you would probably expect that.

The collection begins with an introduction from the editor of these special tales. This forty-four page ‘introduction’ was my favourite part of the whole book, in which STW describes perfectly, a house, its feline inhabitants in fine and glorious prose. The ‘editor’ comes upon a house, nestled deep in the countryside, here she meets a particularly handsome man, living alongside many cats and kittens. The young man is astounded to find the author can understand the language of cat – far better than she can speak it. The cats have plenty to tell her, introducing her to their kittens, they rub against her in welcome. Our narrator stays to tea, and the remarkably handsome young man begins to tell his own story. Having finished Oxford, the young man embarked upon a diplomatic career, while in Turkey he fell hopelessly in love; with a Siamese cat called Haru. Look, these things happen! Haru is technically the property of the naval attaché’s wife, though Haru soon makes her feelings perfectly clear. Haru captivates the young man; William with her stories. The young man is destined for heartbreak, and thereafter dedicates himself to re-telling the traditional stories of cats.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editor’s.”

The stories which follow tell a variety of tales, and not all of them are about cats. Like Odin’s Birds in which we have a couple of ravens competing over the eyes of a corpse; the body a man they have just witnessed two women fighting over. In another we find ourselves among the marquisate of The Castle of Carabas who for generations have been born with a cat’s paw shaped birthmark and a natural horror for cats. Virtue and the Tiger tells the story of a hermit a man of great learning and holiness, and his strange meeting with a tiger, a meeting that will have a profound effect on them both. The Fox Pope tells the story of a fox unwillingly named as the next pope – who enlists the help of a stable-boy to free him from the papacy. The Phoenix; tells the story of the legendary bird acquired by Lord Strawberry a big collector of birds, after his death The Strawberry Phoenix fund is launched, and the bird acquired to be shown – at a price – to the marvelling public. In Bread for the Castle, the lives of a baker and his daughter are changed when a great family comes to the neighbourhood and takes up residence in the castle. The man and his daughter bake night and day to fulfil the order from the castle.

“ ‘Surely she has grown smaller,’ thought the baker. ‘Or do my eyes deceive me?’
Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.
‘But this is frightful,’ thought the baker. ‘My poor girl, with such brilliant prospects, and such a good daughter into the bargain, so handy and willing! What shall I do without her?’
He opened the oven-door and turned the bread. The bread was alright: nothing untoward had happened to the bread.”

The final story in this collection is Bluebeard’s Daughter, Djamileh is the daughter in question. Her father had been adoring and kind, none of her step-mothers lived long enough to cause her any problems. She had however, inherited her father’s colouring which causes the girl to not want to look at herself in the mirror. Her father dies, and Djamileh guardianship is undertaken by her father’s solicitor, she will inherit everything, and grows up to be very wealthy young woman. In time she marries Kayel, and the couple return to Shady Transports – where as a child Djamileh had lived with her father. The palace still has secrets to reveal.

The Cat’s Cradle Book is a lovely collection, at turns dark and humorous Sylvia Townsend Warner understands perfectly the tradition of old tales passed on, and these stories are wonderfully inventive.

sylvia-sitting-in-garden

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whateverhappenedto margo

Like so many readers before me I simply adored Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals (I read it twice) – and loved one of the books that followed, for some reason never managed to get around to the third. The more recent tv series – based very loosely it has to be said on the Corfu Trilogy – has made for delightfully cosy Sunday evening TV. I remember Margo as being a pretty minor character in those wonderful books, but in that TV series she is a wonderfully exuberant character – slightly bonkers, but very warm. While watching that series I had wondered about her, whether she was anything like the young woman portrayed so wonderfully by Daisy Waterstone. So, when I saw a review of this book (first published in 1995) reviewed by Joulesbarham Northern Reader, I couldn’t help but buy it almost immediately. I had been going to add it to my wish list, but oops – and there it was a day or two later.

An enticing, though brief preface by her brother Gerald Durrell – informs us that …

“Margo displayed an appreciation of the comic side of life and an ability to observe the foibles of people and places. Like us, she is sometimes prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, but I think this is no bad thing when it comes to telling one’s stories in an entertaining way.”
(Gerald Durrell 1994 – in his Preface to Whatever Happened to Margo)

So, yes in Whatever Happened to Margo? there is a sense of things being a little exaggerated in order to entertain, and Margaret Durrell is both charming and entertaining. For those who love Gerald Durrell best – he appears here too – as does Leslie and the long-suffering Mrs Durrell.

It was 1947, Margo a divorcee with two young sons, the Durrell family were living in suburban Bournmouth, and Margo had little idea what she would do next. It was her formidable Aunt Patience who started it all. Her aunt; anxious that Margo should do something both useful and profitable – and ladylike – suggests that Margo open a boarding house. Margo is immediately taken with the idea. The search for a suitable house begins, and ends, oddly enough where it started, at a house across the road from the Durrell family home. Margo begins to prepare her new house to receive lodgers. Aunt Patience’s idea had been a home for genteel spinsters, retired clergymen and respectable colonels – and Margo tries hard to keep in mind the kind of establishment her aunt had envisaged for her.

Needless to say, things don’t quite work out like that. Margo is destined to gather around her a collection of eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells, starting with her first boarder Edward Feather, a painter of nudes.

“My sanctuary was heading straight for trouble, before I was even established.
‘I am sorry, you cannot paint nudes all over the place,’ I was desperately apologetic, feeling that I placed myself in the category of the mundane landlady.
‘Not all over the place,’ Edward Feather assured me soothingly, giving me a fleeting look of amusement from soft hazel eyes, a coaxing gentleness creeping in to battle my feeble defences. ‘Only in one room.’”

Other lodgers soon follow, almost all of whom would be despaired of by Aunt Patience. A very loud husband and his wife – who it soon transpires is heavily pregnant. A woman and her enormous son Nelson, a boy who at first appears hideously obnoxious, but his never diminishing enthusiasm and simple joy for everything means both Margo and the reader become strangely fond of this breeder of mice. A retired nurse, two glamorous young ladies and a couple of jazz musicians move in too, and it isn’t long before the house is almost bursting at the seams. In the midst of this, Margo does find time for a little romance with one of her boarders.

At this time, Margo would have been just twenty-seven, and she shows herself to be endlessly optimistic, warm and energetic, she and her lodgers are pretty well suited to each other. Margot and her sons acquire a huge dog that relieves itself wherever it pleases, and all is nicely set for chaos as rumours that Margo is running a brothel scandalise the neighbours.

Of course, there come the inevitable visits from family, first Gerald who had been working away at a zoo somewhere appears with a python and a box of monkeys. Of course, there is an escape, and much fuss ensues. When the inevitable visit from Aunt Patience happens, Margo spends most of her time hiding the worst of her boarders from her aunt.

“ ‘Being good boys and helping your mother?’ Aunt Patience suggested lovingly. They nodded together shyly, ignoring the open sweet-scented arms waiting to engulf them. ‘And doing well at school?’ she asked brightly, dropping her outstretched arms. Two heads nodded again. Aunt Patience, working on the assumption that children can be bought, took two dim pennies out of her giant handbag and gave them one each. ‘There, darling boys, buy yourselves something nice – but not dangerous, mind,’ she added, playful as a young kitten.
There was a curious glint in both eyes as they took the small offering; I noticed it with increasing alarm.
‘Ma’s got a pansy in the house – so Uncle Leslie said,’ Gerry remarked suddenly, softening towards his aunt, examining the penny carefully for fraud.
‘A pansy, how lovely, my favourite flower,’ Aunt Patience beamed ‘That’s one thing I must say in Leslie’s favour, he’s got green fingers.’ ”

Whatever Happened to Margo is an entertaining, engaging memoir. It lacks the classic brilliance of My Family and Other Animals but is very definitely worth seeking out if you are a Durrell fan suffering withdrawal.

 

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