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A few books have come into the house just lately – I have a habit of idly ordering books while I sit watching TV, or when I’m eating my lunch at work. It’s almost as if I do it without thinking – no, I actually do do it without thinking. As if my book buying habit weren’t bad enough, my good friend, and book enabler extraordinaire Liz from Adventures in reading, writing and working from home – passed on to me four books she had promised me, note how two of them are quite fat books!

2017-04-08_12.43.26Liz passed on two Edith Wharton novels Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods arrive, Chatterton Square by E H Young and High Table by Joanna Cannan – author of one my favourite Persephone books Princes in the Land. What you all don’t know is that poor Liz loaned me two other books over a year ago and they remain unread – though as one fits in with the 1951 club I might read it next.

2017-04-08_12.42.33Following on from my lovely read of Elizabeth Fair’s A Winter Away – a Furrowed Middle brow title from Dean Street Press, and Liz’s review of Seaview House – I found myself ordering two more titles, Seaview House was at the top of my list and I ordered Landscape in Sunlight. There are times when I unashamedly crave these kinds of books.

Many of you will know BuriedinPrint’s blog – and recently she has been blogging about Margaret Millar, particularly her short stories which are also published in one huge volume. The short stories sound fabulous, but I decided to try her novels of suspense – this large volume contain four separate novels, each sound absolutely gripping. MM

My last book review was of A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau, and while reading that, and despite having two other Frankau titles unread on my shelf I ordered two more old volumes from an eBay seller. The Bridge, and I Find Four People. That latter title is an autobiography, and a quick flick through caused me some puzzlement. It seems from my cursory inspection that throughout the book Pamela Frankau writes in the third person, referring to herself as P. Frankau or Miss Frankau – I’m not sure what I think of that – though it does seem odd.

PFbooks

In other news – after my visit to the Hay Festival last May, I loved it so much that I immediately booked accommodation at a different hotel for this year. Suddenly it is almost here (joy!) and the tickets for events across the festival went on sale yesterday. As I have accommodation arranged for four days this year – I went mad and have booked eleven events. Colm Tóibín, Elizabeth Strout – something with Sheila Hancock on the panel (has anyone read her novel? – it seems to have mixed reviews) Charlotte Rampling, Paddy Ashdown – someone talking about rescuing books from Timbuktu – Lucy Worsely discussing Jane Austen – I can’t even remember everything I have booked. Lots to look forward to and I am sure you’ll hear all about it.

So what have you been buying lately? 🙂

hay

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Some of you may remember reading my previous reviews of Pamela Frankau novels, for me she became one of those novelists you discover by chance and then want to read everything they wrote. I was given The Willow Cabin as part of a gift – the author was a new name to me – but The Willow Cabin become one of my favourite Virago titles ever. A Wreath for the Enemy is the fourth Pamela Frankau that I have read, prompted by Simon’s recent post about it.

It is a novel told in three sections, characters moving in and out of view – with some brilliantly plotted connections which make this a wonderfully clever novel. The opening is immediately captivating – Pamela Frankau knows how to get her readers hooked.

“There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook. The stove caught fire in my presence; the postman had fallen off his bicycle at the gate and been bitten by Charlemagne, our sheepdog, whose policy it was to attack people only when they were down.
Whenever there were two crises my stepmother Jeanne said ‘Jamais deux sans trois.’ This morning she and Francis (my father) had debated whether the two things happening to the postman could be counted as two separate crises and might therefore be said to have cleared matters up. I thought that they were wasting their time. In our household things went on and on happening. It was an hotel, which made the doom worse: it would have been remarkable to have two days without a crisis and even if we did, I doubted whether the rule would apply in reverse, so that we could augur a third. I was very fond of the word augur.”

Our narrator is Penelope Wells, one of several voices that tell this story of non-conformity, friendship and family. As the novel opens Penelope is a precocious fourteen-year-old compiling an anthology of hates (this alone made me love her). She lives in a small hotel on the French Riviera with her poet, father and her stepmother. The hotel is often empty, Francis Wells having a somewhat relaxed attitude to business he is as likely to refuse entry to his establishment as he is to welcome visitors. The walls of the bar are adorned with the photographs of famous guests, and those guests who do arrive are generally eccentric, bohemian types.

Penelope; who calls her father and stepmother by their first name, – has this wonderfully unique way of speaking – her conversation is a delight. Quite obviously, a child who grew up surrounded by adults and her nose in a book – she speaks like the characters she has come up against in fiction. With her powers of imagination and observation, Penelope is ripe to be swept up in a childish infatuation for an English family staying next door to the hotel. The Bradleys are middle-class well behaved, conventional, their meal times run to a predictable timetable – their lives are ordered, unlike Penelope’s life at the hotel. It seems – from a distance to be an ideal life. Francis – much to Penelope’s irritation calls them The Smugs – it’s a pretty perfect name.

“They laughed when I shook hands with them, and Don made me an elaborate bow after the handshake. Then they laughed again.
‘Are you French or English?’
That saddened me. I said, ‘I am English, but I live here because my stepmother is a Frenchwoman and my father likes the Riviera.’
‘We know that,’ said Don quickly. ‘He was shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans and escaped and fought with the Resistance, didn’t he?’
‘Yes. That is how he met Jeanne.’
‘And he’s Francis Wells, the poet?’
‘Yes’
‘And the hotel is quite mad, isn’t it?’
‘Indubitably,’ I said. It was another of my favourite words. Eva doubled up with laughter. ‘Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m always going to say indubitably.’

It is the Bradley children; Don and his sister Eva, thirteen, who Penelope is particularly charmed by. Their lives are so well ordered that Penelope is able to predict exactly when they will appear in the garden. It isn’t long before the three meet – and Penelope delights Don and Eva with her unusual conversation, and tantalising tales of the hotel. Just as Penelope starts to get to know her new friends, the hotel welcomes one of its most colourful and frequent guests; the Duchess – who Penelope doesn’t much like – though the Duchess seems to adore her.

French riverieraHowever, childhood, as we know is full of small betrayals, and Penelope’s fledgling friendship is doomed when the Bradley parents declare the hotel to be an unsuitable place for Don and Eva – who are not so used to such grown up surroundings. The disappointments and betrayals of childhood and adolescence are so formative, they direct so much of what comes next – and how we build relationships.

In the second and third parts of the novel we move forward four and five years respectively, and hear from Don Bradley in England, and other characters. At seventeen, at boarding school, Don is straining against his father’s rigid conventionality – his greatest friend a middle-aged man in a wheelchair who owns the estate where Don goes to ride and mess around happily with horses. Deeply affected by events in France four years earlier, Don is in need of counsel, and in this most unlikely of friends Don had found the friend he lacks in his own father. Crusoe is a straight-talking breath of fresh air to Don – his easy unconventional way of life is attractive. Crusoe challenges Don’s way of thinking – and so there’s bound to be tensions when Don’s parents meet Crusoe.

In the final section of the novel, another year has passed, and we’re are back with Penelope – among others. I’m certainly not going to say too much about this section – but here we meet Cara – another superb creation from Pamela Frankau, brittle, damaged and potentially damaging – whose life is destined to collide with that of Penelope’s.

I still have two other Pamela Frankau novels waiting to be read – but she was pretty prolific – and although out of print – some of her books are available – and I have two more winging their way to me from a rash ebay purchase the other day.

pamela frankau

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arrest the bishop

I have been fortunate enough to receive a few Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press for review. A couple of those I still have unread, but Arrest the Bishop? is the first I have gone off and bought for myself having read a persuasive review of it.

I first became familiar with Winifred Peck through Persephone books and her 1942 novel House-Bound – which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I can’t say I had thought any more about this writer – who wrote twenty-six books, more than twenty of them novels. I wonder now, where all those other titles went to – and why they dropped out of print? Her other mystery novel The Warrielaw Jewel is also re-issued by Dean Street Press – and I am keen to read it too, and I also have another of her novels Bewildering Cares on my kindle to look forward to.

In his introduction to this new Furrowed Middlebrow edition, crime fiction expert Martin Edwards acknowledges how her two mystery novels show real accomplishment, but she was overshadowed by her talented family – namely her brother Ronald Knox a leading light of the ‘Golden Age of Murder.’ Peck’s two mystery novels were published a decade apart and don’t share a detective or form part of a series, and so has been discounted as a mystery writer since. A writer who began publishing before the First World War, Winifred Peck came from a fascinating family; who included  writers, a bishop, and the editor of Punch among them. Winifred (later Lady) Peck was also the aunt of author Penelope Fitzgerald.

Arrest the Bishop? – first published in 1949 is set in 1920 – the unlikely scene of a murder a bishop’s palace. Winifred Peck; the daughter of a bishop – no doubt had great fun playing around with this idea. Set around Christmas it is another book to add to the list of Christmas books we all like to compile in December – however the season is very much a backdrop – and there is nothing remotely Christmassy about this particular story.

Dr Broome; Bishop of Evelake and his family are preparing for an important house party just before Christmas, an ordination weekend for a small group of young men starting out on their clerical careers. The Bishop and his wife and their youngest daughter Sue are expecting a large party. Chancellor Chailly, Canon Wye, and the young clerics themselves of course as well as two other young parsons already known to the family; Robert Boarder (known as Bobs) – who works as the Bishop’s secretary – as he recovers from injuries obtained in the Great War, and Dick Marlin, who was in military intelligence during the war.

Snow is falling heavily (of course it is, it only ever snows at Christmas in books) the palace is enormous and there is a shortage of coal. Servants have also been difficult to get, Moira who has worked faithfully for the family for many years is laid up in bed, waiting transfer to the hospital for an urgent cancer operation. Mrs Broome has therefore been recently obliged to employ Soames as butler, who listens at doors, and is generally sly and inefficient.

As the house party start to gather in time for the ordination celebrations there are two more unexpected guests. Judith is the first – the Bishops elder daughter – she is a frivolous beauty – who blithely lives a life at odds with that of a bishop’s palace. She has separated from her husband, and desperate for a divorce is already involved with another man. Judith has recently telephoned her mother hinting at great trouble – trouble she thinks nothing of bringing to her father’s door when he least needs it. The Bishop is a former school headmaster, where he was seen as rather weak, lacking discipline and authority, and as Bishop he rather fears a scandal. Soon after Judith’s arrival – another far less welcome gate crasher arrives. The Rev Ulder, a local parish priest, a man universally loathed. There have been previous stories of drunkenness and embezzlement, but now the rotten priest is adding blackmail to his portfolio of wrong doings. Ulder has a knowledge of certain things various members of the house party would rather keep quiet, and he is determined to use this knowledge to his advantage. Ulder arrives the worse for drink, and having issued his threats collapses in front of the Bishop and his guests.

“He caught the back of a chair, staggered and groaned. There was a heavy crash and fall, and the parson lay motionless and livid, while lilies from a vase fell, like a wreath, across his chest.”

Put to bed in the Bishop’s palace, a doctor is called, who leaves six morphia tablets with Mrs Broome with strict instructions of administration. He further stipulates that Ulder should be given no strong drink, and left as quietly as possible, until an ambulance can come and collect him and Moira (the faithful servant) and take them to hospital. Despite these instructions several people tiptoe into Ulder’s room, to check on him. The following morning – Ulder is dead – of morphia poisoning, one of his bags is missing – and there is a whole host of suspects – many of them clergy, one of them a bishop.

“‘To give light to them which sit in darkness’ were the words which echoed oddly in Dick’s mind as he entered the shadowy study. It was an absurd and topsy-turvy idea for a humble candidate for the priesthood to entertain of his fathers in God, but under the low hand lamp by the dismal fire the Bishop, more like a death mask of St. Joseph than ever, the saturnine stillness of Canon Wye and the obvious perturbation in Chancellor Chailly’s rubicund face, suggested a huddled party of alarmed pilgrims in the Valley of the Shadow of disgrace. If only Dick were a Greatheart instead of his very everyday self!
“We have sent for you, Dick because we feel the need of advice, and you have been in our dealings with Ulder from the first.”

Chief Constable Mack decides to investigate this particular crime himself – a man deeply suspicious of the clergy he is determined there will not be any kind of church cover up here. Rev. Dick Marlin, church deacon, finds himself assisting Mack in the investigation.

This is a really good mystery, lots of suspects, twists and turns and I loved the setting of a bishop’s palace in the 1920s.

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Spring does feel like it’s finally arrived, the weather is still typically unpredictable but things to do seem milder, and daffodils are out in lots of parks and gardens around here. I am looking forward to the two-week Easter holidays – I’m definitely in need of a break, and I hope for a good bit of reading time, as well as having plenty of other things pencilled in. Nine and a half books read, which these days is pretty good – I managed two books for #ReadIreland17 hosted by Cathy and stepped royally out of my comfort zone with not one but two of the books I chose.

I began March reading The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning, the first book in her Balkan Trilogy, events take place in Romania during the first year of the Second World War. It brilliantly recreates a city living in fear of invasion, and the atmosphere that exists there for a group of ex-pats. I am looking forward to the next two books in the series, I should get around to the next one soon. I have found that I love Olivia Manning’s writing, and have a few books tbr.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair was a review copy sent by Dean Street Press – who publish the Furrowed Middlebrow novels, it made for perfect, lazy weekend reading. A Winter Away takes us to a small English village, and introduces us to twenty-year-old Maud Ansdell, who has come to stay with her father’s cousin Alice and her companion Miss Conway. She starts work as secretary to a local, wealthy eccentric, and becomes involved in the lives and loves of several village neighbours.

My local MP is Jess Philips who has recently published Everywoman, part memoir part feminist manifesto – it is perhaps not my usual reading fare – but I was convinced to read it after attending a talk with Jess Philips at Waterstone’s here in Birmingham. I recommend it heartily to everyone.

The Librarything Virago group are choosing a different Virago author for each month this year – Edith Wharton was our author for March and I had had Roman Fever a fabulous collection of stories tbr for ages. It is one of those collections where every story is quite honestly superb.

Molly Keane’s Conversation Piece was the first of my two reads for #ReadIreland17 and although it won’t be my favourite Keane, it was a good read despite rather too much racing/hunting stuff. Set amongst the shabby, gentility of rural Ireland; the world Molly Keane knew from the inside.

One of my favourite reads of the month was Every Eye by Isobel English – a Persephone novella, with a brilliant final line (that alone should make you want to read it).

The second book which took me outside my comfort zone was Hisham Matar’s brilliantly poignant memoir The Return – it is the story of his father’s disappearance at the hands of the Libyan regime and of his own return to Libya more than thirty years after he left it as a child. It has recently been longlisted for the Orwell prize; awarded for political writing.

Friends and Relations; Elizabeth Bowen’s third novel was my second read for #ReadIreland17 – Elizabeth Bowen qualifies as she was born in Dublin though most of her books are not set in Ireland. This one like several others set in London, where we meet four families linked by two couples who marry a few months apart in the early part of the novel.

My second Dean Street Press book of the month was, Arrest the Bishop by Winifred Peck, one I bought after reading a great review of it somewhere. Review still to come, but I did enjoy this Golden Age crime story set in a Bishop’s palace.

I am now reading A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau – which Simon reviewed recently – it was the nudge I needed. I love Pamela Frankau – well I have loved the three I have read to date, and about half way through this one I can say I am enjoying it hugely.

EVASo, April is here with the #1951club on the horizon, hosted again by Karen and Simon. I have three or four books which were first published in 1951 – so just need to decide which I will read. The LT Virago group are reading Elizabeth von Arnim in April, and although I am tempted to re-read The Enchanted April – I have three or four other von Arnims tbr which I will select from instead. I recently bought my mum a copy of The Enchanted April – she’s never read EvA – and I really hope she likes it.

On the subject of reading weeks,someone recently asked me if I was going to be hosting a Mary Hocking week again this year. The obvious time to do it is around her birthday which is April 8th – but I had already decided to not host anything this year – so, sorry, no Mary Hocking week this year.

What have you been reading in March? Anything I should know about?

1951-club

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friends and relations

My second read for #readIreland17, Friends and Relations was Elizabeth Bowen’s third novel. Elizabeth Bowen is a writer I have come to admire so much, becoming one of my favourites. She does take slow, considered reading however, but I find the effort is rewarded. Her writing is elegant, subtle and delicately evocative. She explores the relationships between her characters with astute understanding. She reproduces their conversations and awkward silences with perfection. Bowen’s storytelling only takes us so far – the reader has to do a little work too, to fully understand what is happening.

ireland-month-17The novel concerns two sisters, two weddings – a few months apart, and the complicated web of friends and relations that unite the families. Ten years after these two weddings, tensions held politely at bay start to unravel over the course of one fraught week. Four families: the Studdarts, Tilneys, Meggatts and Thirdmans are connected by their relationships to the two couples who marry in the early part of the novel.

Laurel and Janet Studdart are the sisters, Laurel marries first, Edward Tilney – a fine upstanding young man. He is slightly anxious, worries about the scandal in his mother’s past, which blighted his childhood. Edward’s mother; Lady Elfrida had an adulterous relationship and left Edward’s father for a man who then didn’t marry her. Having gained her divorce, Lady Elfrida, glamourous, beautiful and dissolute – in not having remarried has retained the taint of scandal and impropriety which poor Edward remains ever conscious of.

When Janet announces her engagement to Rodney Meggatt it causes some surprise and no little comment, there is a sense that Janet is viewed as rather less conventional than Laurel, and yet here she is making a very conventional marriage. In typical Bowen fashion, both sisters are a little hard to get a handle on, but Janet seems rather different to her sister, hers is a darker, more sophisticated beauty, Laurel is a conventional young woman, the daughter of respectable people. There is a strange awkwardness between the sisters, times when they seem unsure how to deal with each other, so many things go unsaid. Rodney is a man of large fortune, his uncle’s heir and Janet is perfect for the role of his wife, mistress of the ancestral home Batts and organiser of ladies’ committees. We sense that Janet isn’t deeply in love with Rodney, and have to wonder whether there isn’t some feeling between her and Edward that there shouldn’t be. As Janet settles into a passionless but perfectly contended country marriage, her husband it seems genuinely adores her – Laurel and Edward living in London, are rather less comfortably off. Their marriage too is happy, there is more passion here perhaps. Edward (who I couldn’t quite like) has great need of Laurel, keeping his life on an even keel – here we have Edward musing on the nature of their marriage.

“But apart from this necessity of never being divided, Laurel remained delicious. She made of every failure in peace, every break in their confidence a small burlesque. She despised balance, but her very wildness of thought, behind the propriety of her manner, seemed to insure them against catastrophe. There was nothing she could not bring to harmless light by exaggeration. When her accounts did not balance she said ‘you must marry Janet.’ She reproached him for not going into business when he reproached her for wearing artificial pearls, wished that he had a mistress when love was not mutual, scrapped with Anna when she should have controlled her, exclaiming: ‘I cannot think who can have had this impossible child!’ She woke him at three in the morning to assure her her hair was not fading. Still, she would not condone his mother’s infidelity to his childhood; they went to sleep hand in hand, she made up arears of nonsense right back to his infancy and, though she frequently wept or was difficult, never turned an obdurate face away. If she was not serene she was gay and professed to find in Edward the spring of her comfort. Her solicitude reached him almost before he suffered, fostering sensibility.”

One of the greatest areas of conflict exists because of Considine Meggatt, Rodney’s uncle, he was the man who Lady Elfrida had a relationship with and ended her marriage for. Edward is outraged that his sister in law should be marrying the nephew of this renowned rake. Considine is merely an older version of his younger scandalous self – hardly changed – Edward insists his mother and the children he and Laurel have, should have nothing to do with him. In practise this means that Janet’s daughter Hermione, at Batts sees little of her cousins Anna and Simon, until the inevitable coming together again of Elfrida and Considine at Batts with Janet, Rodney and all three children in attendance.

One of the most memorable characters in this novel is that of Theodora Thirdman, an awkward teenager as the novel opens. She is the kind of socially unaware girl that Bowen writes so well – Theodora is keen to ally herself socially to Studdart sisters and their families. Theodora thrives on gossip and drama and having been discovered making prank phone calls after Laurel’s wedding she finds herself shipped off to boarding school in the summer term. Here she meets the young woman – sister of Edward’s best man – who ten years later she has set up home with. There is a wonderful section early in the novel – with Theodora newly arrived at her boarding school – keen to impress and make connections.

“Theodora put some interesting photographs on her dressing-table, but for some days no one looked at them. She put out silver brushes, but Marise said she must keep those in a bag. By day, Theodora was not overlooked. She broke her glasses at once and had to be moved to the front row, in algebra, to see the blackboard. She talked so much French in French class that Mademoiselle, unused for years to the language, was confused and became annoyed. In mid-morning break she played the Rachmaninoff prelude in C sharp minor loudly on the gymnasium piano till a mistress looked in to say it was break now she had better go out and run about.”

Theodora is a quite brilliant creation – in fact it is she and Lady Elfrida who are the most memorable characters in this novel – and certainly the most interesting. Ten years later, Theodora plays a small but important role in the upsetting of the apple cart, in a letter she writes to Laurel.

This is a beautiful novel by Elizabeth Bowen, exploring the passions and secrets that are concealed beneath the surface of this very proper English upper class society.

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the return

Hisham Matar is a gifted novelist, his novels In the Country of Men and Anatomy of Disappearance captivated me, his writing is beautiful and the stories he tells in those novels unforgettable, and I already knew they were inspired on some level at least, by true events. This book, The Return: fathers, sons and the land in between is the story at the centre of Hisham Matar’s life, the story of his father, of exile a disappearance, and finally a return.

“There is a moment when you realise that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar passion.”

Hisham Matar’s memoir is the story of a family, and a meditation on the history and politics of a land beset by conflict and dictatorship. It is also the story of a man’s love for his father. In 2012 with the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Hisham Matar embarks on a journey back to Libya – after an absence of more than thirty years. It is a journey that is both physical and emotional, a return to a land that robbed him of his father – where many family members who he hasn’t seen since childhood are waiting to meet him.

“There it was, the land. Rust and yellow. The colour of newly healed skin. Perhaps I will finally be released. The land got darker. Green sprouting, thinly covering hills. And, suddenly, my childhood sea. How often exiles romanticize the landscape of the homeland. I have cautioned myself against that. Nothing used to irritate me more than a Libyan waxing lyrical about ‘our sea’, ‘our land’, ‘the breeze of the homeland’. Privately, though, I continued to believe that the light back home was unmatched. I continued to think of every sea, no matter how beautiful, as an imposter. Now, catching these first glimpses of the country, I thought that if anything, it was more luminous than I remembered. The fact that it had existed all this time, that it remained as it was all these years, that I was able to recognize it, felt like an exchange, a call and its echo, a mutual expression of recognition.”

Hisham Matar, born in New York to Libyan parents is the youngest son of Jaballa Matar, one of the chief opponents to the Gaddafi (spelled Qaddafi in the book) regime. In 1973 the family returned to Libya – where Hisham is surrounded by a large and loving extended family. Jaballa continued to speak out against the regime though, so in 1979 the family had to flee Libya, finally settling in Egypt. The regime keep tabs on the family over the years, and Matar relates a terrifying story of his older brother’s narrow escape, pursued by agents on his way home from school in Switzerland. Hisham elects to go to boarding school in England, a country that is to become his home for many years to come.

In 1990, while nineteen-year-old Hisham and his brother are in London, Egyptian agents take Jaballa Matar off the streets of Cairo and hand him over to the Libyans. Jaballa Matar is never seen again. Over the first few years a few letters are smuggled out of the notorious Abu Salim Prison, eventually making their way to Jaballa’s family in Cairo – after that there is silence. Other family members still living in Libya are also imprisoned by the regime – and Hisham his mother and brother begin a long, sad, tireless journey toward the truth.

The Return is also about Hisham Matar’s life as an artist, his relationship with literature and art, his writing and how he uses his words to help his family discover the truth of what happened to Jaballa Matar and other family members in Libya.

There is so much raw emotion in this memoir – sections that tell of deeds of such horrific brutality and loss that is quite mind numbing. To have to sit back and imagine your beloved father reduced to incarceration in a tiny cell, no contact with the outside world, no kindness or basic humanity, even enduring tortures, knowing perhaps he has even already died, and you didn’t know the moment when, because you were not there to watch the life go out of him. Hisham Matar writes of these things with poignant honesty.

“I heard the stories and registered them perhaps the way we all, from within our detailed lives, perceive facts–that is, we do not perceive them at all until they have been repeated countless times and, even then, understand them only partially. So much information is lost that every small loss provokes inexplicable grief. Power must know this. Power must know how fatigued human nature is, and how unready we are to listen, and how willing we are to settle for lies. Power must know that, ultimately, we would rather not know.”

Recently longlisted for this year’s Orwell prize, which is awarded for political writing, The Return is every bit as readable as a fast-paced novel – as Hisham Matar tells of even finding himself negotiating with Gaddafi’s brother in law for information. The Return is an intimate portrayal of the Matars exile, the raised hopes, rumour and despair that accompanies the disappeared. It is also the story of a return from exile exploring the two sides of one coin, the joy of reuniting with family, reconnecting with a land and its people and the grief that exists when someone is missing.

hisham matar2

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“I don’t believe you ever see anything dead on, only at a peculiar angle through the corner of your eye”

Given to me by a good friend; Every Eye has been on my tbr for a long time. A slim novella at around 120 pages, I was prompted to read it following a conversation on the Libraything Virago group. A couple of members were discussing the equal brilliance of the last lines of the title story in Roman Fever and the final line of this Persephone novella. Well as I was already reading one I absolutely had to read the other too.

Isobel English is best known for Every Eye, her second novel, she wrote a couple more novels some stories and a play, but as far as I can see none of those are currently available. Isobel English was a pseudonym, her real name was June Braybrooke, and the prologue of this Persephone edition is written by her husband.

“Nothing is ever lost that is begun, no word spoken that can ever be broken down to unco-ordinated syllables, no tear shed that will leave only a powdering of white salt. Everything must go on, and on, and on, repeating itself and gathering force for the ever that is still only the bright whiteness of eternity meditated on by mystics and recluses.”

Every Eye is the story of a young woman whose life could have been made unhappier than it eventually turned out. There is however, a quiet sadness in the midst of what we are supposed to see as her final, recent happiness. We meet Hatty, when she is in her thirties, not long married to a younger man, and anticipating a holiday with her husband Stephen to Ibiza, a delayed honeymoon. On the eve of their departure Hatty hears that Cynthia has died (a few pages later we learn Cynthia had married her uncle 19 years earlier). It is six years since Hatty cut herself free of Cynthia – the novel is an exploration of this relationship – and others – and the impact these relationships have upon her.

As Hatty and Stephen travel by train through Europe toward their holiday destination, Hatty reflects on her relationship with Hatty, her Uncle Otway who Cynthia married, and the relationship she had in her twenties with a much older man. The story switches back and forth between the present and the past, Isobel English’s writing is superb. Hatty is a pianist, and it is around the time that Cynthia came into her life, when she was fourteen, that Hatty began to realise she wouldn’t make her living from playing piano on stage – she does instead become a piano teacher. Uncle Otway is a large presence in her life, a big handsome blustering man, a little interfering in the fatherless girl’s life. Hatty, who always feels like a stranger in her family, doesn’t care much for him, though she likes the small, blue eyed woman, Cynthia; who he brings to the house one day. Cynthia has been married before and has a son the same age as Hatty, she has spent time living in Ibiza – a place the fourteen-year-old Hatty can have no idea she too will one day travel.

Hatty has a problem with one eye, a squint or lazy eye, giving her eye the appearance of looking into the side of her nose, Hatty’s mother encourages her to have an operation to fix it, though it is a very expensive proposition – Hatty is not easily persuaded as she is a little squeamish at the thought. Years later when Hatty begins again to consider it, her mother works hard to dissuade her. Hatty has grown up being advised not to draw attention to it, wear broad brimmed hats to help disguise it.

Sight, as perhaps the title refers to in a way, is a recurring theme, clear-sightedness, the eye of the beholder, the way we see others, the way others see us. Hatty sees her eye as being a deformity, it affects her self-esteem, and impacts on the first proper relationship she has, with an older man. Hatty doesn’t believe he can find her attractive, she is charmed and attracted by his interest in her, his affection and kindness but she can’t help but notice his wrinkled sagging skin, his age. Similarly, as she now journeys with Stephen on their late, long looked forward to honeymoon, she can’t help but notice the disparity in their ages – wondering how others see them. Another theme is age, there is a discernible difference in age in three important relationships within the novel.

Cynthia of course we only see through Hatty’s reminiscence, a woman liked by the fourteen-year-old Hatty, but things change – and gradually Cynthia becomes a more negative presence in her life. Sharp, critical, she subverts Hatty’s first relationship – has Hatty doubting herself. Within a few years of marrying Otway, Cynthia has certainly altered physically, a baby born to her in middle age has played a part in that, as has the reduction of her husband’s army pension. She appears changed in other ways too, more cynical and brittle. When their money no longer stretches as far as it used to, Cynthia takes cleaning jobs behind her husband’s back. Cynthia is a survivor.

“ ‘I don’t know why people have their photographs taken,’ I say. ‘Cynthia altered so much in appearance that strangers used to ask who it was in the place of honour on the piano. She used to laugh; obviously she got a kick in keeping the record of the person she had once been always before her eyes.’
‘It must have been her peak period,’ Stephen smiles. ‘People sometimes go through their whole lives without ever reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.’ “

The sense of place in the novel is wonderful too – France, Spain and Ibiza by train and boat – places evoked beautifully by Isobel English, although Hatty’s view of them is warped by her view of herself and her memories of the past. The one person we never see clearly however is Stephen – I wonder if this is deliberate – I can only assume it is. Stephen is a bit of a mystery remaining an enigma for the reader as the novel comes to its brilliant end. The ending brings the past and present together in such a way the reader almost wants to go back and start all over again, it is the kind of ending you remember, but also makes you want to re-read – well I’m sure I will one day.

isobel English

 

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