Feeds:
Posts
Comments

August in review

cof

It’s September already – well August always does fly by.

It’s been a lovely summer, but Monday sees a return to work, and a return to less reading time and blogging time. I always take a couple of weeks to settle back into the routine.

I have read a fair bit during August, the number of books is perhaps not much greater than usual, but I feel as if I have read a few fatter books. The Muriel Spark Complete stories of course was in last month’s photo too, I read almost half of it during July, and in August read the second half.

August is both Women in Translation month and All Virago all August, and so I was happily juggling books for both challenges.

Open the Door by Catherine Carswell was my first VMC of the month, I read while I was on a short break in Belgium. Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

New Islands by Maria Luisa Bombal is a small collection of stories from the most creative period of the Chilean author. A couple of the stories are rather strange, but I still enjoyed them.

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers is a novel about a man who escapes from a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s. However, it is also about a lot more than that, showing us exactly what life in Germany was like for ordinary people. It seems timely indeed that this German classic has been reissued now.

Sisters by a River was Barbara Comyns first novel, one which gave me a lot to think about, as Comyns light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes, that rather belie some of the content.

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart is a novel about mothers and daughter and the legacy of slavery, set on the lush island of Guadeloupe. It was chosen by my book group (my suggestion) and we will meet to discuss the week after next.

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell – is an enjoyable social comedy written in that last year of peace. It was a deliciously witty bit of escapism.

I found David Golder by Irène Némirovsky to be fascinating – it has been viewed as quite a controversial novel – which now having read it I understand. I enjoyed it though, and the novel gave me a lot to think about, Irène Némirovsky was an interesting and complex woman.

My kindle which is peeping out from among the real books above I took on a trip to the Isle of Wight, having been reminded of poor hotel lighting when I was in Belgium. I read The Night Watch by Sarah Waters – a novel of considerably more than 500 pages – it zips along art a cracking pace and is so well written with excellent period detail. I am reminded I must read more by her.

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim is the follow up to her first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden and is really every bit as wonderful and life affirming.

Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet is a Haitian triptych. Three novellas, which I still have to review, which were powerful, disturbing and quite compelling.

cofI have started reading a book I bought ages ago from a charity shop (I think) called Summers Day by Mary Bell (1951) – a book published by Greyladies. I really could find virtually no information about either the novel or the author (the name being shared by a notorious British child killer). I came across this piece on Furrowed Middlebrow’s site about the author – which interested me.

September is the start of phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 – and I have three Spark novels to read over the next two months. Apart from that I haven’t made any reading plans, although I need to concentrate on my ACOB – I have precisely thirty years to go. I may just do it! Though a couple of recent purchases might distract me from that, two beautiful looking new books that I really want to read.

cof

I read some excellent things in August, and as always would love to hear what you read.

Happy September reading.

mde

Today has been declared Elizabeth von Arnim day by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock in her year long celebration of underappreciated lady authors. I have read quite a number of von Arnim novels, I love her voice so much. One of her most famous books of course is Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was published anonymously in 1898. EvA went on to write two more ‘Elizabeth’ books – The Solitary Summer and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904). I don’t suppose it matters which order one reads these books, and in fact I read The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen a couple of years ago.

In many ways there is very little to say about The Solitary Summer – so you may be glad to hear that this post is likely to be fairly short.

“What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.”

The Solitary Summer was a delightful little read, in the company of Elizabeth, The Man of Wrath, the April, May and June babies we spend the summer in the German countryside. Here, Elizabeth assures her doubting husband that she wants nothing more than to spend a summer alone – alone meaning no visitors, her husband and children will have to be present. Yet, Elizabeth longs to be free from the constant whirl of polite society.

“May 2nd. Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.”

However, Elizabeth’s alone – is not quite my alone – and neither is it quite what she had envisaged. Aside from The Man of Wrath and the April, May and June babies, there is the governess, the gardener and a new parson to be appointed to her husband’s living. Toward the end of the summer – much to poor Elizabeth’s exasperation, there is a soldier, a lieutenant staying in her house – a man she exhausts herself just trying to avoid.

Elizabeth glories in her garden, realising she has made mistakes in the past – she takes her husband’s advice and employs a new gardener – and soon she is glorying in her larkspurs and roses. She sneaks out of the house early before anyone is awake, and glories in her garden as it wakes.

“Here was the world wide-awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me.”

the solitart summer

When the children don’t need occupying, or even when they do, there are forest walks to be enjoyed and mud banks to be scrambled down. When it is raining, Elizabeth has her books, her wants are really very simple, and very restful. Her joy in the simple things is really quite infectious. Unfortunately, my garden doesn’t inspire quite the same feelings in me and would take precisely 37 seconds to walk around.

In the company of Elizabeth, we meet the poor women of the village who are too afraid of cold/dirt to let their babies go out of doors. This allows us a (not entirely comfortable) glimpse of the different levels of German society. However, Elizabeth von Arnim is a wonderful observer of people, as always, she is warm, witty and wise – and I continue to love her writing very much.

“If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind.”

We realise in time, that Elizabeth does indeed love her Man of Wrath, he is even more affectionately portrayed in this book than in German Garden. Elizabeth seems happiest in her garden with her babies under the summer sunshine, and soldiers, parsons, husbands and babies apart – she did manage to get a more or less solitary summer.

cof

(Posting this a day or two early as I had to make way for my Elizabeth von Arnim day post tomorrow.)

Phase 4 of #readingMuriel2018 is drawing to a close, and this phase has been about the short stories, poetry and essays of Muriel Spark. Not surprisingly, I think there has been a little bit of a dropping off now we have reached this point of the year. I know not everyone likes poetry, short stories and essays, and have concentrated on reading some more of the novels from previous phases of #Reading Muriel2018. So, I don’t have any other blogs to link to, because I think all the readers who have joined in this time have been non-bloggers from Facebook/Twitter/Librarything – and I do have some of their thoughts to share with you. Though if I have missed your review/blog post – please let me know.

I had originally planned to read just a few of Spark’s short stories and a few essays. However, that big book of complete stories was just so readable that I really couldn’t help but keep reading it – and over the course of the two months read the whole thing. With everything else I have had to read over the summer, I haven’t managed to get around to any essays or poetry.

The stories were great however, as with any large collection there were some I liked better than others, a few are pretty bizarre – many are just wonderful. My favourites were The Go Away Bird, Snobs, The Girl I left Behind Me and Come Along Marjorie. I ended up writing two reviews for this collection.

IMG_20180722_170142Mary also read The Complete Stories, tweeting that they were “original, crackling sharp wit. Preferred the older stories. Some-very odd.” Jennifer had the Complete stories to keep her company too. Sian read The Go Away Bird and other stories – a lovely old orange penguin edition. For Sian, The Go Away Bird was the stand out story too, calling it beautiful and shocking. I know Chrys is planning to start the stories soon, she has a lot to look forward to I think.

Chrys did read the collected poems, and I was looking forward to her thoughts on them as I have never read any of Spark’s poetry. Chrys decided she liked the older poetry best. These were two of her favourite lines.

“The cat subsiding down a basement
Leaves a catlessness behind it.”
(from Elementary 1951)

Michael from the Virago group – who is reading all of Muriel Sparks books this year – read The Golden Fleece essays – which is the book I have. He gave them 3.5 stars saying some pieces are outstanding while others are humdrum. He also advised that it would probably be best to not read them before having read Muriel Spark’s autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Useful to know, I have Curriculum Vitae lined up for phase 6 (Nov/Dec).

So, Phase 5 starts any day now – and I have a mighty three Spark novels lined up. This time we are back to novels – the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
The Only Problem (l984)
Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
Symposium (1990)
Reality and dreams (1996)

If you’re looking for a recommendation – I read A Far Cry from Kensington last year – and it will almost certainly remain one of my favourite Spark novels.

I have got Loitering with Intent, The only Problem and Symposium in the lovely Polygon editions. Somehow, without planning it all these three all fit into unticked off years in my centenary of books. For those following my ACOB progress I am acutely aware that I have used quite a number of Spark novels in my ACOB – but it was inevitable in a year when I am reading a lot by Muriel Spark.

cof

So, then – are you planning in reading along with me? If so what will you be reading?

cofA shout out to Chrys – who has been reading along with us all year – who today sent me a lovely little volume, The Muriel Spark society lecture by Ali Smith in a sweet little volume. I intend to read it on the bus on the way to the theatre tonight, thank you Chrys very much.

 

the night watch

Liking a WW2 novel as I do, I chose The Night Watch for my 2006 slot of A Century of Books. I have only read one other Sarah Waters novel – Fingersmith, but that was ten years ago. The Night Watch is very different to that novel – but just as compelling. So often I seem drawn to small novels and this was quite a chunky book at something like 500 pages– though I read it on my kindle. I really enjoyed the way Sarah Waters writes, characters are well drawn, and the period detail is spot on. I shall certainly read more; The Paying Guests has been recommended to me by several people.

“The best thing to do was to brazen it out, throw your head back, walk with a swagger, make a ‘character’ of yourself. It was tiring, sometimes, when you hadn’t the energy for it; that’s all.”

The narrative is told backwards, beginning in 1947 and moving back to 1941 – the beginning of the story. If that sounds confusing – fear not – it isn’t – everything holds together really well. I found myself compelled to read on quickly, to find out what significance things referred to in 1947 had in the past, it’s a very clever and effective way of telling a story.

It is the story of four women, and one young man, their war, their loves and griefs. Sarah Waters tells a story of dark, wartime nights, as bombs rain down on London. It is a story of a time when all the rules changed – for a while at least – a time when women who looked a bit like men and drove ambulances or carried stretchers were not so remarked upon. A time of prejudice and illicit love affairs. It was a time of death, destruction and fear in the long watches of the night. Everyone was changed, war left a terrible legacy all over the world.

“There was still murder, starvation, unrest, in Poland, Palestine, India—God knew where else. Britain itself was sliding into bankruptcy and decay. Was it a kind of idiocy or selfishness, to want to be able to give yourself over to trifles: to the parp of the Regent’s Park Band; to the sun on your face, the prickle of grass beneath your heels, the movement of cloudy beer in your veins, the secret closeness of your lover? Or were those trifles all you had? Oughtn’t you, precisely, to preserve them? To make little crystal drops of them, that you could keep, like charms on a bracelet, to tell against danger when next it came?”

Kay is in her late thirties, she drove ambulances during the war, now she watches out the window of her room or walks miles around London, nursing her own sadness. She dresses in mannish clothes, walking with a swagger that belies her inner turmoil. With the war over and obviously alone, it seems Kay no longer has a place in the world, as she walks the war-scarred streets she seems to be searching. Those around her watch her with concern, like Mr Leonard her landlord.

“He must have supposed she haunted the attic floor like a ghost or a lunatic. He was right, in a way. For sometimes she walked restlessly about, just as lunatics were said to. And other times she’d sit still, for hours at a time—stiller than a shadow, because she’d watch the shadows creeping across the rug. And then it seemed to her that she really might be a ghost, that she might be becoming part of the faded fabric of the house, dissolving into the gloom which gathered, like dust, in its crazy angles. A train ran by, two streets away, heading into Clapham Junction; she felt the thrill and shudder of it in the sill beneath her arms.”

Helen, pretty and liked it seems by everyone is nursing a personal secret. Now she is living with mystery writer Julia, who she is in love with, but Helen’s love is infused with jealousy. During the war Julia sorted through the rubble of destroyed homes, picking over the debris of shattered lives. Helen and Viv work in a match making agency, for people who have lost their loves during the war and want to start again. Needy and insecure, Helen considers confiding in Viv while at work, but can’t quite manage to do so.

Viv is the youngest of the three women, she lives with her father, and remains stubbornly loyal to her married, soldier lover. One day she spots someone she met during the war – and sets out to bump into her again, carrying a small gold ring in her pocket.

Duncan, Viv’s brother – carries his own peculiar scars from the war, but they aren’t from battle. He is living in digs in the house of Mr Mundy and working in a candle factory. One day Robert Fraser, a face from Duncan’s past pays a visit to the candle factory. He is clearly shocked at the way Duncan has chosen to live, little realising how damaged by the past Duncan is.

As the story moves back to the beginning – the lives of these characters weave together in often surprising ways. There are tantalizing little hints throughout the novel to what has gone before – as Water’s cleverly, and subtly peels back the layers of her each of her characters – so that as the novel ends, we meet them all for the first time, and know them fully.

cof

Translated from French by Sandra Smith

I have been wondering how I would review David Golder for several days. I enjoyed this novel – but it was an enjoyment that felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Irène Némirovsky has become better known in recent years due to the publication of her lost novel Suite Francaise, and the story surrounding its recovery. However, at the time Irène Némirovsky began to write Suite Francaise she was already a well-known writer. David Golder was her second novel, first published in 1929 when its author was just 26, it was a big success. In more recent years the novel has been viewed quite controversially, due its depiction of Jewish characters, some of who could be said to be caricatures. Here we have wealthy Jewish businessmen sacrificing everything in the pursuit of more money, and an elderly Jewish man who walks on tip-toe to save shoe leather. It is such portrayals that have led many people to accuse Irène Némirovsky of anti-Semitism. Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine, she lived most of her life in France, she wrote in French and had converted to Catholicism. None of this was enough to save her under the race laws imposed by the Nazis who occupied France in 1940. Many people seem to believe – and this seems likely to me – that Némirovsky’s antipathy towards Jewishness was turned more inwards than outwards. She did have a famously terrible relationship with her mother. None of that makes reading David Golder any less uncomfortable – and yet, as I said I enjoyed it.

Némirovsky’s characters are so well crafted, that they become far more than caricatures, she is writing about capitalism, the reckless pursuit of money that was so prevalent in the twenties. Despite identifying as a Frenchwoman first and foremost, throughout her writing Némirovsky returns to her roots in the communities and people she portrays. Perhaps in this we see something of the complexity of the woman she was.

David Golder is an ageing businessman – born into poverty in Russia, he has amassed a great fortune. The days of easy money are numbered, and the financial markets of the world are starting to crumble, business is bad. As the novel opens Golder is refusing to help Marcus; his partner of twenty-six years, who is facing bankruptcy.

Days later Marcus is dead, having killed himself – and Golder visits his widow – who he can’t help but notice is wearing an enormous pearl necklace wound three times around her neck. Golder is a hard man; his success has been at the expense of others. Golder gets a train to travel to Biarritz where his wife Gloria and daughter Joyce live in luxurious splendour.

“ ‘Oh!’ Joyce said suddenly, ‘it’s just that I have to have everything on earth otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. ‘I don’t know how others do it! Daphne sleeps with old Behring for his money, but I need love, youth, everything the world has to offer…’”

Joyce is Golder’s one Achilles heel – he adores her, and Joyce uses that. Like her mother, Joyce is only interested in the money that her father can give her – and he gives her thousands. Joyce runs around with her boyfriends spending money like water – careless and superficial. Gloria is particularly dreadful, she cares only for the money her husband brings in, she has her own life, her own friends and lovers and no relationship with her husband.

Golder’s health is failing – as he travels through the night to Biarritz – he experiences chest pain. In the loneliness of the long dark night, Golder is briefly afraid – vulnerable, feeling his increasing age.

“The thick darkness flowed into his throat with soft, insistent pressure, as if earth was being pushed into his mouth, as it was into his… the dead man’s…Marcus…And when he thought finally of Marcus, when he finally allowed himself to be taken over by the image, the memory of death, the cemetery, the yellow clay soaked with rain, the long roots clinging like serpents deep inside the grave, he suddenly felt such a tremendous need, such a desperate desire for light, to see familiar, ordinary things round him… his clothing swaying from the hook on the door… the newspapers on the little table…the bottle of mineral water… that he forgot about everything else.”

In Biarritz, in the sumptuous apartment he owns there, Golder is taken ill again. Fearing that her pot of gold may run dry Gloria takes steps to ensure her husband is not persuaded to stop work – for as soon as he does – the money will stop. It is for Joyce though, ultimately that Golder continues to chase money – during days of increasing financial insecurity.

Némirovsky shines a light on a world she would have seen something of through her father – a wealthy businessman in Russia – he had started again as a banker when the family fled the revolution for France in 1917.

There is a chilling atmosphere of dark, claustrophobia throughout the novel. As Golder recalls incidents from his past he travels through Europe, retracing in part the steps he took as a young man setting out to make his fortune. He revisits an old Jewish neighbourhood with an old friend, and finally nearing the end of his life, meets a poor young man, who like he himself once did, is setting out in hopes of a better life.

davidgolder

Némirovsky’s portrait of Golder is not without sympathy, in his ageing ill health – as he struggles to make money for the daughter he loves but who cares not one jot for him, he is vulnerable and rather tragic. However, in her portrayal of Gloria and Joyce – she is merciless.

This became a short though hugely thought-provoking novel for me during this #Witmonth – Némirovsky is a woman I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by.

cof

I have now read several Angela Thirkell novels, and it would be fair to say I have had an on and off relationship with them. True, I have criticised her a bit – I not keen on her class consciousness, and I do think she infantilises her working-class characters especially domestic servants. However, even in those novels I have criticised in the past, there were things I really enjoyed too. I like her humour very much, her world (did it ever exist? – I think probably not in quite this way) is one it is rather comforting to spend a little time. We are always pretty much assured of a happy ending – and there are moments when we need such assurances.

Before Lunch was included in a marvellous and hugely generous Librarything Virago group secret Santa parcel last Christmas, and it has also served to nicely tick off 1939 in my A Century of Books. Before Lunch joins that group of Angela Thirkell novels I can honestly say I enjoyed. The class stuff is still present – I’ve come to expect it – though I don’t believe there is anything cruel behind it. I think Angela Thirkell must have been a product of her own upbringing and class – and isn’t it nicer to believe that all domestic staff are slavishly devoted to their masters than the reverse?

Anyhow – on with the book. It has a quite unashamedly nostalgic feel, English rural life, where everyone knew their place in the world. Published of course during that last year of peace, Before Lunch reflects a time of small worries and long summer days.

Jack Middleton is a difficult man, rather garrulous and fussy and a little too fond of his dog Flora, he has lots of funny little ways. Luckily his wife Catherine Middleton is able to put up him with quite easily and adores him.

“‘I am glad you can tolerate me as I am,’ said Mr Middleton, still suspicious, ‘for at my age it is very improbable that I shall change. Had I been a younger man when you married me, Catherine, a man more suited to you in age, you might have remoulded my life, shaped me again to your liking. But you took pity on an ageing wreck, your young life twined itself round the rugged roots of a storm-shattered tree, and I cannot alter my way of living, I cannot change my spots.’
‘I do love the way you say everything twice over,’ said Mrs Middleton, ‘and I would hate you to change your spots. What were you calling me for?’
Mr Middleton’s impressive face dissolved in a flash and became as formless as water.
‘I called you because I needed you,’ he said suddenly becoming a heartbroken child. ‘I called you once and you did not come.”

The Middletons rent their very comfortable country home from Lord Bond, the White House next door forms part of the estate and is currently unoccupied. Jack Middleton’s widowed sister; Lilian Stonor, intends to spend the summer at the White House, bringing her grown up stepchildren Denis and Daphne with her. Jack’s equilibrium is somewhat shaken at this news, remembering only too well Daphne’s lively enthusiasm and Denis’s apparent sickliness, which depressed him a bit.

When the three arrive, they soon make themselves at home, quickly becoming a part of local village life. Jack’s business partner Alister Cameron is another frequent guest, charmed especially by the presence of the Stonors, he finds Daphne to be delightful company – though he is closer to Lilian in age. Denis is pale and tired, but the good country air does him the world of good, and allow him to get on with his music, he is writing a ballet – and forms a tender friendship with Catherine, which threatens to leave them both a little heartsore.

Lady Bond gives Daphne a little bit of work typing her correspondence, and this brings her into contact with Cedric – aka C W; Lord and Lady Bond’s son and heir. So, Daphne likes C W, Alister likes Daphne, Lilian is starting to see Alister Cameron in a new light but wants her adored step children to be happy. Daphne hears lots of talk about C W and a certain Betty Dean. Catherine loves her husband and is a little shaken by dear Denis, who is so sympathetic towards her. Cue lots of misunderstandings, tears and sulks before everybody gets together with the right person.

Denis delights old Lord Bond by playing Gilbert and Sullivan for him, and Daphne deals rather well with Spencer the butler who Lord Bond is rather bullied by. Lady Bond is hilarious in a managing kind of way, enjoying calling village meetings to fight against the scandalous intention of Sir Ogilvy Hibberd to build a garage on Pooker’s Piece. A meeting is held to discuss the meeting they will hold to discuss the proposal, and nothing whatever is achieved. Jack Middleton talks a lot about cows, and Lady Bond’s brother Lord Stoke, irritates his sister to distraction, taking the chair without asking and leaving suddenly. It is all very funny and sharply observed.

Before Lunch is a delightful social comedy, which zips along at a cracking pace. It was a perfect quick, comfort read which gave me quite a lot to chuckle over.

the bridge of beyond

Translated from French by Barbara Bray

I bought The Bridge of Beyond on something of a whim, while looking for interesting things to read for Women in translation month that would fill gaps in my A century of Books. I then persuaded my very small book group to read it, we meet early in September to discuss it. I am so looking forward to hearing what they all thought. It’s an extraordinary novel – I loved it. In her introduction to this edition, Jamaica Kincaid calls it…

“a seminal work of literature that cannot be contained within the usual confines of ‘the novel’ or ‘a work of fiction.’”
(Jamaica Kincaid)

It is a novel of mothers and daughters, of love and the legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Telumee narrates the story of her life, paying tribute to the strong line of wonderful Lougandor women who came before her. It is a narration rich in description, slow rhythmic prose which I found completely hypnotic.

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country to be too small. Though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept mosquito-ridden, nasty minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

Telumee is the granddaughter of Toussine, a woman who became known in her village of Fond-Zombi as Queen without a Name. The stories of her life in L’Abandonnee, where she lived with her great love have reached legendary status even during her life time. In her heart, Toussine still carries Jeremiah with her through to old age. With the memory of her one great love – she carries the knowledge of pain, the ability to survive and the wisdom imparted by her old friend Ma Cia.

Toussine’s daughter Victory is Telumee’s mother, Telumee the second of her daughters. Victory; a laundress, is abandoned by one man and bereaved of another. So, when she has the chance of a new life with a man from Dominica she sends the ten-year-old Toussine to her grandmother who lives across the Bridge of Beyond in the village of Fond-Zombi. The bridge is very much a symbol, crossing it brings change – things not yet known, a different world.

“Life at Fond-Zombi was lived with doors and windows open: night had eyes, and the wind long ears, and no one could ever have enough of other people. As soon as I arrived in the village I knew who was aggressor and who was victim, who still held his soul high and who was on the road to ruin, who poached in waters belonging to his friend or brother, who was suffering, who was dying. But the more I learned the more it seemed that the main thing escaped me, slipped between my fingers like an eel.”

Telumee grows up sheltered and tutored by the love and wisdom of Queen without a Name. There are many things she needs to learn, including matters of the heart. Elie comes into her life, the son of Old Abel who keeps a shop and bar in a shack in the village. She crosses the bridge of beyond to go and work at Belle-Feuille, for Madame Desaragne, but returns to set up home with her love. Elie turns out to be not such a catch after all – and Queen is ageing and needing care in her final years. Telumee begins spending more and more time with Ma Cia. Telumee, like her mother and grandmother before lives in a patriarchal society, yet here, it is the women who shine. Their strength is so empowering they never allow themselves to be oppressed by the difficulties of their community.

Simone Schwatz-Bart’s novel is full of long, hot, slow days, superstition and the cruel, gruelling work of the canefields. Telumee is born into a peasant tradition; tough lives in tiny dwellings on the edge of the forest. Often repeated stories, and long memories, nestle alongside magic and romance on the lush island of Guadeloupe so deliciously described by Schwartz-Bart.

This is a wonderfully tender novel, suffused with hope and the inspiration of three generations of women.