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stone mattress

I love short stories, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood short stories since I read Bluebeard’s Egg at least twenty-five years ago. I also hadn’t realised that there were a few collections out there that I could have been reading. At the same time that I bought this collection, I bought Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel Hag-seed – and was really debating which to read first. I am so glad I chose this collection because it so completely captivated me – and made me realise I really haven’t read enough Atwood the last few years. My re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale  a few months ago was immensely positive of course – but something about The Heart Goes Last didn’t completely work for me (I’m sure it’s just me) – so to be so blown away by another Atwood book felt quite exciting.

Stone Mattress nine wicked tales is highly addictive, sharply observed and brilliantly imagined, I gobbled them up in two days. These are the sort of stories I don’t want to say too much about – you will all just have to read them.

The first three stories; Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady are connected, Atwood considers matters of ageing in the stories of a group of people who first knew each other back in the 1960s.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlights it looks so beautiful, like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment.”

We begin with Constance, in Alphinland – a renowned fantasy writer – who created the fictional world of Alphinland many, many years earlier while she lived with Gavin an aspiring, serious poet. Now she is an old woman, mourning her husband in the midst of an ice storm, trying to look after herself the best she can, she still talks to her husband Ewan, it keeps him close. Constance makes a hazardous journey to the nearby shop, scatters cat litter on the steps outside – all the time remembering Gavin, who cheated on her with Marjorie, and laughed at her work. Constance was probably my favourite character in the whole book.

In Revenant we meet Gavin, a pretentious, revered poet, now living with his third wife Reynold, thirty years his junior. He remembers Constance as the one that got away, about who he wrote some of his best-known poems. Gavin; pretending great nonchalance – thrives on a bit of attention, so is ready to really enjoy himself when a student turns up to interview him.

“Why couldn’t the two of them have gone on and on forever? Himself and Constance, sun and moon, each one of them shining, though in different ways. Instead of which he’s here, forsaken by her, abandoned. In time, which fails to sustain him. In space, which fails to cradle him.”

In Dark Lady, Constance, Marjorie and Reynolds are reunited at Gavin’s funeral. There are of course truths to be told, and memories of the past re-examined. Atwood’s depiction of the funeral, with its folk singers and poetry is pure gold.

The stories in this collection vary in length, but they have a delicate, dark heart. Lusus Naturae is the shortest, a modern take on the vampire stories of the past, innocence and superstition and misunderstanding clash, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

“Now I was dead, I was freer. No one but my mother wa allowed into my room, my former room as they called it. They told the neighbours they were keepimg it as a shrine to my memory. They hung a picture of me on the door, a picture made when I still looked human. I didn’t know what I looked like now, I avoided mirrors.”

The Freeze-dried groom, is darkly humorous – and if you ever watch that TV programme from the US; Storage Wars (I can’t say I have ever understood the appeal)– you will never look at those storage units in the same light. A man who the reader has reason to distrust for other reasons, buys several container units – and is quite unprepared for what he finds inside.

I dream of Zenia with the bright red teeth reintroduces us to Charis, Ros and Tony from The Robber Bride – a book I know I enjoyed very much, but I’m embarrassed to admit I can remember nothing about – though it is a while since I read it.

We meet another writer in The dead hand loves you, a man who years earlier, as a young, penniless student, wrote a horror story which became a huge bestseller – now considered a gothic classic. However, the writer entered into a profit sharing deal at the time with his three housemates, a deal he has had cause to regret for years.

The title story of the collection; Stone mattress was one of my favourites, it concerns an act of terrible (but rather perfect) revenge, when a woman meets the man who raped in in high school – on an arctic cruise.

The premise of Torching the dusties is rather disturbing – nursing homes find themselves under siege as society outside starts to break down. An elderly couple, one a woman with Charles Bonnet syndrome, come together to do all they can to survive.

Throughout this collection Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply wonderful, gorgeous description, dark humour and complex characters explored with feeling.

A few days after finishing this amazing collection of short stories, the BBC broadcast a wonderful programme in which Alan Yentob talks to Margaret Atwood – it was an extraordinarily lovely programme which I have recorded to keep and watch again. It certainly made me want to read the books of Margaret Atwood that I haven’t managed to get around to (perhaps not the Maddaddam trilogy as I am not great with Sci-fi – those who know better tell me if I am wrong), and re-read all those I read twenty five/thirty years ago. I still have Hag-Seed to read and have now ordered Wilderness Tips.

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August in review

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August is over already and I am anticipating going back to work next week. August is usually a pretty good reading month for me, and this August was certainly good, seeing me juggle books for the librarything Virago group’s annual All Virago All August, and Women in Translation month. I didn’t just read for those two challenges though, there were three books not for either challenge.

August began with me reading This Real Night by Rebecca West, sequel to The Fountain overflows. Carrying on the story of the Aubrey family it takes us from before the First World War until the time when that terrible conflict touches them personally.

The Power by Naomi Alderman was my very small book group’s August read, proving hugely popular with the whole group, it gave us a lot to talk about. The novel packs a punch – imaging a world turned on its head – where women have all power.

The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey set on the island of Domenica, as the daughters of a privileged white creole family return from America and the UK. The story narrated by Lally the old Dominican nurse who has worked for the family for years.

A World Gone Mad the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939 – 1945 – the author of the famous Pippi Longstocking stories kept a war journal throughout the war. From her own neutral country of Sweden Astrid Lindgren was able to observe the terrifying situation as it unfolded in the Scandinavian region – as well as keeping a record of the war in Europe as a whole.

One of my favourite reads of the month was Chatterton Square by E H Young, E H Young is one of those Virago authors I particularly love – and Chatterton Square was her final novel. It tells the story of two rather different families living in Upper Radstowe – Young’s fictionalised version of Clifton in Bristol. (In case you missed it I also wrote a short introduction to E H Young here).

As soon as the new novel from Kamila Shamsie arrived I had to start it right away. Home Fire has been longlisted for this year’s Booker prize, and for one will be very disappointed if it doesn’t make the shortlist. It a novel which I think is essential reading for the world we live in, raising so many pertinent issues. It is an extraordinary novel, powerful, perhaps controversial and enormously readable, I urge everyone to read it.

My second read for Women in Translation month was slight little book containing two longish short stories; La Bal and Snow in Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky. These two stories are quite different, one the story of family of nouveau riche and the revenge taken by an unhappy teenage girl on her nasty, selfish mother. The second tale tells the story of a faithful Russian family servant, who in her advancing years follows the family she has served, as they emigrate to Paris.

Another lovely Virago read for AV/AA was Saraband by Eliot Bliss, a beautifully written coming of age story set just before and after the First World War. Thanks to Karen – I have now a copy of Luminous Isle the only other novel published by Eliot Bliss, both novels are said to be highly autobiographical.

Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabo, was my third read for Women in Translation month. I read The Door by Magda Szabo this time last year, and had been looking forward to reading more. It tells the poignant story of an elderly mother and her modern city living daughter – and the devastating changes that are brought to her life following the death of her husband.

Stone Mattress nine wicked Tales by Margaret Atwood, was up next (it is one of three books that I still have to review. I love short stories and this collection really is superb.

My very small book group chose The Summer Book by Tove Jansson for our September read, and I decided to pick it up a couple of weeks early. I have reviewed it already because I wanted to get in before the end of Women in Translation month. It proved to be a charming little book, full of wisdom, portraying the relationship between a six-year-old girl and her grandmother during a summer spent on an Island in the Gulf of Finland.

Another collection of short stories came my way with An Unrestored Woman –by Shobha Rao a collection either set during or inspired in some way by the upheaval surrounding Partition in 1947 – with the seventy-year commemorations of Partition having taken place a couple of weeks ago – it felt like a very timely read. It is a powerful collection, and I like the Atwood stories I couldn’t help but gobble it up.

My final read of the month was another Virago book; The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. It is a brilliant little novel, unusual a little twisted perhaps but I loved it – and I hadn’t been sure that I would.

So three August books still to review – I am sure I shall get around to them soon, work permitting.

Thirteen books read is very good for me these days – and as I head back to work on Monday I can predict that September’s total will be nothing like that. I always struggle with my reading when I get back to work in September. August was an outstanding month quality wise too – Home Fire, Chatterton Square, Stone Mattress and Iza’s Ballad my stand out reads – though it is hard to separate them from the rest.

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(Teignmouth seafront from the pier)

cofSo that’s it, Summer is over – as far as I’m concerned, my holiday at the seaside which I came back from last weekend already seems long over. *sigh* (roll on the next holiday). I haven’t made any particular plans for September – except to read pretty much only what I can cope with. The Librarything Virago group’s author of month is Nina Bawden, who many of you will know I like very much, and as I have three or four of her books waiting I am fairly sure to join in. (I failed miserably with Christina Stead in August – she and I are not destined to be friends). I suspect I will be leaning towards easier comfort reads – especially the beginning of the month and I have set aside a couple of Golden age mysteries and an Angela Thirkell in possible preparation as well as a super looking review copy. I am currently reading Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter – which a little over a hundred pages in, I’m enjoying it hugely.

What have you been reading during August? Is there something you feel I must read?

the summer book

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

witmonth2017As August draws to a close, I am sneaking in under the wire with my final read for Women in Translation month – and reviewing very slightly out of order to do so.

“Wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they’re eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.”

The Summer Book, is a book much loved by many people, and has been chosen by my very small book group as our September read. It’s a slight book, of apparent simplicity, its charm however is in that deceptive simplicity. There is a delicious clarity to Jansson’s prose – which beautifully mirrors (I can only imagine) the clean air of the Island in the Gulf of Finland of which she is writing. It is a book full of quiet wisdom, humour and love. There is a brusqueness to Jansson’s storytelling, a subtle tenderness which is never sentimental or overblown. I can see why it is so greatly loved by people whose opinions I trust.

“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Shockingly this was my first ever experience of Tove Jansson, I didn’t even read the Moomins as a child – and only became aware of them as an adult. Thanks are due to Karen, who sent me this book an absolute age ago. Books have a tendency to disappear into the depths of the tbr bookcase never to be heard of again. So, while it might have taken a while for this book to float to the surface, it did so at a perfect moment – and I read it over one long, lazy Sunday, transported to a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

summerhouse2The Summer Book tells the story of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia as they spend a summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Tove Jansson, wrote The Summer Book shortly after losing her mother – the character of the grandmother was based on her, the character of Sophia based on her own beloved niece, also called Sophia. In the foreword to this edition Esther Freud tells of her visit to the Island and her meeting with the now adult, real life Sophia.

It is spring as the novel opens, and little Sophia wakes up in the small, island cottage to the knowledge that she has the bed to herself because her mother has died recently. Sophia’s grandmother is never far away, who despite her advancing years is a lively, imaginative companion, full of fun, as well as the wisdom brought by great age. Sophia’s father is also present on the island, but he remains very much in the background throughout the novel. The story of their summer is told through a series of vignettes, with titles like; The Cat, The Tent and The Enormous Plastic sausage.

Over the course of the summer, Sophia and her grandmother explore the island’s flora and fauna, spending hours in the ‘magic forest.’ They discuss what heaven might be – the subject of loss and death ever present. We see Sophia unable to cope with the loss of a palace she and her grandmother have made – so her grandmother stays up all night to make a replacement.

“She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.”

Sophia is encouraged to explore the simple joy of sleeping in a tent, and must learn something about how the reality of something she wants does not always match the dream in a chapter about a cat that is given to her.

“It’s funny about love’, Sophia said. ‘The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.’
‘That’s very true,’ Grandmother observed. ‘And so what do you do?’
‘You go on loving,’ said Sophia threateningly. ‘You love harder and harder.”

There are so many lovely little stories within this book, including an episode of house breaking, that the grandmother drew Sophia into when another house on a neighbouring island shows signs of being got ready for occupation.

In grandmother and Sophia’s company we meet visitors and neighbours, suffer disappointment and delight, and experience the unpredictability of the surrounding seas.

This was a lovely little read, and I’m sure I will read more Tove Jansson now – having read The Summer book I really should go for The Winter Book next I suppose.

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izas ballad

 Translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

Last year for Women in translation month I read The Door by Magda Szabó – I hadn’t meant to leave it so long until I read Iza’s Ballad, which I already owned when I read The Door. I’m not sure if there are any more works by Magda Szabo available in English, though I am sure there is someone who can tell me.

witmonth2017This translation by George Szirtes is from 2014, but the novel first appeared in Hungary in 1963, and is set in around 1960. The novel opens in a traditional small town in Hungary, later moving to the rapidly changing city of Budapest. For people of the older generation, the war and earlier government oppressions live long in their memory – their world was shaped by such events. So many of these past events are shrouded in silence – and the reader only gradually pieces together the history of these characters – very ordinary people, who we find have done small extraordinary things.

The novel begins with a death, Ettie’s husband Vince dies from cancer in a clinic, the news brought to Ettie by Antal her former son-in-law. Szabó portrays Ettie’s bewildered grief with utter perfection, she expects nothing more from life now – and in her weary sadness is relieved by the arrival of Iza – her capable, doctor daughter from the city – where she moved following her divorce from Antal.

“Everything has changed,’ the old woman thought. ‘I can’t tell what is what any more, only that nothing is as it was.”

Iza is a very managing type of person, Ettie may not have any vision of her own future – but Iza does. She tells her mother that she will come and live with her in Budapest – and Ettie is overwhelmingly grateful that she won’t be alone, proud to be going to live in her doctor daughter’s city apartment. Following Vince’s funeral, Iza packs Ettie of for a week’s holiday while she organises everything. Wearily Ettie agrees to leaving the packing up of her things to Iza, and prepares to endure a week’s holiday she doesn’t want. She keeps herself from complete despair by imagining how she will look after her busy daughter’s city apartment, cook for her, place all her lovely things in the apartment to make it look like home.

Upon her arrival in Budapest, nothing is as she had imagined it, only a few possessions have made it to the city – everything else has been disposed of by Iza. The dog Captain, who had lived with Ettie and Vince for years, has stayed with Antal who has bought Ettie’s old house – and Ettie misses his reliable presence. The grief stricken old woman doesn’t want to blame Iza for anything, she feels she must be grateful, unable to speak of her grief and bewilderment.

“She sat in the armchair and tried to cry silently, afraid that Iza would hear her through the thin walls and come in and accuse her of being ungrateful. As indeed she was. The girl had told her she would sell the house and anything inessential, and it was her fault for not thinking it through, not including everything that would make a dwelling look harmonious, comfortable and attractive.”

Ettie finds herself unwittingly annoying Iza when she tries to help – poor Ettie gets everything wrong. Iza has a daily housekeeper – Teréz, and Ettie is soon made aware that her help isn’t wanted – she isn’t allowed to cook, she makes coffee the wrong way. Iza tells her mother with great patience that this is her time to rest – she hasn’t brought her to Budapest to work. So, the old woman sits in her room, looks out the window and tries not to get in Teréz’s way. In time, she starts to venture out into the city – so unrecognisable from the days of her one visit on her honeymoon – riding the trams and sitting in the park. Slowly, Ettie becomes more and more diminished with this new life she is unprepared for. Iza is enraged when in her desperate loneliness Ettie invites an ageing prostitute to tea who she meets in the park, as delighted as a child to have made a new friend. Iza’s world is a very tightly controlled one, and Ettie can’t adjust to it – married for fifty years to Vince their life in rural Hungary has been all Ettie has known, every shabby item in their home had a story – Ettie’s life had always been one of physical work and support.

In a later part of the novel we have some of Antal and Iza’s story – another story of things unsaid – shaped by Hungary’s history. It’s an extraordinary story, one of hardship, determination and political activism. As a student during the war, Iza had smuggled grenades in her bag. Antal, educated thanks to a scholarship, had been befriended by Vince – Iza’s father – a judge who had once had his job taken from him after he refused to convict a group of peasants.

“She didn’t stay a word until they reached the edge of the wood, then stopped and looked at him again and spoke very clearly as if she wanted to emphasize every word to him. ‘Politics will be my life as long as I live, she said.
He knew it was crazy but at that moment he was sure he would marry her.”

Iza’s Ballad is a sad, deeply poignant novel, there is an inevitability to the ending – and like The Door, the characters will live long in my memory.

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saraband

Saraband was one of those chance Virago finds. I knew nothing about the book, and nothing about the author. Now all I know about the author is the small amount gleaned from Wikipedia and the introduction to my VMC edition can tell me.

Sadly, Eliot Bliss published only two novels – her second novel Luminous Isle is described as extraordinary by Paul Bailey in his introduction. Her poetry was discovered after her death, and Wikipedia cites the possibility of a third novel which can now not be traced. Eliot Bliss was born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss at a Jamaican army garrison, later she changed her name to Eliot out of respect for George Eliot and T.S Eliot. Both her novels are said to be heavily autobiographical.

 “There was a long mirror in the room, and she went to it. Stood in front of it. And very slowly she saw her soul emerge out of the flesh. Smiling; more so. A truer edition of herself. A light, intensely delicate thing.”

Saraband is the coming of age story of Louie Burnett, who grows up with her mother, younger brother and adored grandmother Lulu, surrounded by a confusing number of aunts and uncles. She acknowledges to herself that she loves her mother less than her grandmother, her father Byng is another adored figure, though largely absent due to the First World War. She is a sensitive, thoughtful young girl, so much goes on in her mind, she’s imaginative and inventive.

‘Whenever she went out for a walk by herself, smelling the cold air all along the road, with the trees stark and white on either side, the exciting feeling took hold of her, the feeling that at any moment she was going to meet somebody or something. She had had it for years ….’

Upstairs in her grandmother’s house there’s a spare room, which Louie has had exclusive use of, here she can explore her magical kingdom, Pomoroyal; a private world of her own invention. She has already decided she loathes boys, following an unfortunate incident with a boy at her day school who smashed her much loved doll. So, the news that a boy cousin will be coming to live with them – following his mother’s death – is very unwelcome. Particularly as Tim will have to be given the room that to her is Pomoroyal.

Tim, is not the boy that Louie had imagined, instead of a rough, bully Tim turns out to be a finely dressed polite boy and about as unlike the horrid boy who broke her doll as can be imagined. Tim, is musical, his talent impresses Louie, and saddens her too, as she imagines she will never be able to do anything so wonderful herself. Louie and Tim become great friends, it is a relationship that will teach Louie a lot about friendship, one that will last the changing years that lie ahead.

Louie is sent to a convent school, here she meets the fabulous spirited Zara, who breaks the rules. Zara is the first of three important female friends, each of them unusual, who help Louie see the world differently. It is while she is at school, that Tim brings her news of her father’s death in the war. It is a wonderfully poignant scene, Eliot Bliss depicting an overwhelming grief perfectly.

“In that moment she was swung out into space and the world seemed to cease to exist. She was leaning against iron-grey railings on the deck of a man-of-war in mid ocean. There was a high wind blowing and a grey swell on the sea and the ship pitched. There was nothing at all in sight but sea, the grey sea it was. Byng had told her to stay there and he would come to her in a minute, and so she would stay, although it was extremely cold. The wind seemed to scrape one’s cheeks. She moved her knee against something and found it to be the hard, raised pattern of the piano seat, and that she was looking at the picture of the Vatican which hung inside its velvet frame over the piano. Tim came across the room to her and put his hands on her shoulders.”

Following her father’s death, the family finances have changed to the point that Louie knows she may have to earn her own living. So, she enrols at a secretarial college – the college is portrayed brilliantly by Bliss, with it’s terrifying sounding exercises. One had to work one’s way from the top floor to the bottom in order to finally graduate. And while Louie is still very much coming to terms with the strictures of room one, she meets Jonquil, another interesting, free spirited young woman.

Another dear friend is Barty, a woman who lives in a house near Lulu’s summer country home. Barty, Miss Berringer lives alone with a lady-housekeeper – of whom the village postmistress certainly doesn’t approve. Neither does Louie, recognising her to be a very unpleasant woman. Barty lives under this woman’s quiet tyranny, and there comes a day when Louie feels she must stage a very crucial intervention.

Saraband is a lovely, slow-moving novel, there is frequently a dreamlike quality to it, the prose poetic and emotional.

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Recently I read and reviewed Chatterton Square by E H Young – and judging from some of the comments I got on that post, it seems she isn’t an author who is very well known these days. So, allow me to introduce you to Edith Hilda Young.

I often marvel at the unexpectedness of the lives which lie behind the politely composed, conventional black and white photographs of the writers I love to read. I think Emily Hilda was a little unconventional, she was it appears careful not to flaunt her unconventional lifestyle, and having worked as both a stable groom and a munitions worker, I imagine a woman who never shied away from hard work either.

old bristol

Emily Hilda Young was born in Northumberland in 1880, but upon her marriage in the early 1900s she moved to the Clifton area of Bristol. This was a very fashionable area – it is still an area dominated by rows of gracious residences often with white or cream facades, I am reminded Bristol is a city I have never visited.

E H YoungAlthough Emily was to leave the Clifton area after her husband’s death – to live in a ménage a trois with her lover and his wife in London – it was Clifton that she recreated in almost all her books. Thinly disguised as Upper Radstowe – she used the provincial world of Clifton as her canvases which are generally small – exploring themes of marriage and women’s place in society. Her heroines are often outspoken, unconventional, raising the collective eyebrows of the conventional, pompous members of their community. Church plays a part in many of her stories too – with several vicars among her characters.

E H Young wrote eleven novels for adults and two for children, and during her lifetime she was very successful. It is sad that her novels are read so much less now, surely her wonderful books are ripe for re-issuing? I have read seven out of those eleven adult novels, I have an eighth waiting tbr. The first three novels that E H Young published are much harder to come by, although I think I have a kindle copy of Moor Fires (1916) her third novel, which I have heard is not as strong as her later work. Still, I suspect any E H Young novel is worth reading, I have hugely enjoyed all those I have encountered so far – and would love to see more people reading her books, which are quite widely available second hand from all the usual places online – and are worth looking out for in second hand bookshops.

Here are a list of her adult books, with some brief details about the books (barring the first three which I don’t know anything about)– I would love to see some of you reading her soon.

A Corn of Wheat (1910) and Yonder (1912) I haven’t any information about either of these.

Moor Fires (1916 – another early novel I have no information about but I am keeping an eye out for a  hardcopy – though I have a kindle copy.

A Bridge Dividing (1922) (republished as The Misses Mallett) my VMC edition has the later title – The narrative of the enormously charming novel, concerns aging spinster sisters Caroline and Sophia, and their younger half sister Rose, and their niece, the young Henrietta. Henrietta comes to live with the sisters upon the death of her mother, and is immediately drawn into their beautiful genteel world.

William (1925) William of the title is William Nesbitt, an ageing successful business man, happily married to Kate for many years, they have five grown up children. Mable married to John, Walter married to Violet, Dora married to Herbert, Lydia living in London and married to Oliver, while Janet the youngest remains unmarried and living at home. Kate Nesbitt has her own idea of how her children should live their lives, how they should behave toward their husbands and children; they often unsettle and worry her. William however is a remarkable father, he tries hard to understand his children, but more than that he seems to properly understand that they need to make their own way in the world. That all he can do is support them.

The Vicar’s Daughter (1927) – I sadly don’t own a copy of this, I think I read Liz’s copy – so it is another one I need to look out for. The story of Maurice Roper, who having been care taking his cousin’s parish awaits his return, and that of Margaret, the woman he once loved and his cousin married.

Miss Mole (1930) I think this was my first E H Young, again I borrowed my copy from Liz, but have since replaced it with a pretty hardback. It’s a book I really want to re-read, although there are other novels I have to read for the first time. Miss Hannah Mole is a forty-year-old spinster who earns her living as a companion/housekeeper. She is unconventional; outspoken, a bit of a fibber. When Miss Mole becomes housekeeper to a widowed minister and has an impact upon everyone she meets.

Jenny Wren (1932) tells the story of two sisters, concentrating on the younger sister. Jenny and her older sister Dahlia Rendall have recently moved from their old home at the white farm, in the countryside to a house in Upper Radstowe. Here their mother has installed the first of her lodgers, young Mr Cummings, who knows about antique furniture and has ambitions for a shop of his own. Jenny and Dahlia are socially superior to their mother, taking after their gentleman father who had previously protected them from their mother’s common ways and the gossip surrounding some supposed affair years earlier. Now Jenny and Dahlia feel the sharp glances of their neighbours who see the still beautiful Louisa as not respectable and assume her daughters are no better. Dahlia’s story is told in a later novel.

Celia (1937) – I have waiting tbr – it is a satisfyingly fat book, which focus on the marriages of three couples.

The Curate’s Wife (1934) Sequel to Jenny Wren Tells the story of Dahlia Rendell. The Curate’s Wife of the title is Dahlia – who has just arrived back to Upper Radstowe from her honeymoon. She has married the rather serious, very conventional, curate Rev. Cecil Sproat. Dahlia is anything but conventional; beautiful, irreverent she sees Cecil’s vocation as rather old womanish – and ridiculous, seeing humour in things that leave poor Cecil a little puzzled.

Chatterton Square (1947) I read most recently, and it is almost certainly her best novel.

clifton bridge

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Translated from the French by Sandra Smith (2007)

Women in translation month continues apace, and I am always amazed by the array of books and writers that I have never heard of popping up particularly in my Twitter timeline. Just the sheer number of people joining in with this event is impressive.

witmonth2017My second read for #witmonth was a very slender little book I found in a charity shop while out with my sister. Irène Némirovsky the author of the acclaimed posthumously published Suite Française and many other novels and short stories died in Auschwitz in 1942, already a successful author, the two stories contained in this volume were published in 1930 and 1931 respectively.

These two stories are quite different, one the story of family of nouveau riche and the revenge taken by an unhappy teenage girl on her nasty, selfish mother. The second tale tells the story of a faithful Russian family servant, who in her advancing years follows the family she has served, as they emigrate to Paris.

In La Bal, we meet the Kampf family. The Kampfs have recently become very wealthy, and Madame Kampf in particular is keen to join the ranks of Parisian society. She is very aware of her working-class background, eager to shake off the taint of these roots she is very sensitive about her past. Madame Kampf plans to throw a sumptuous ball, to which she will invite all of society, the wealthy and the titled in order to gain the acceptance she craves.

“A ball… My God, was it possible that there could take place – here, right under her nose – this splendid thing she vaguely imagined as a mixture of wild music, intoxicating perfumes, dazzling evening gowns, words of love whispered in some isolated alcove, as dark and cool as a hidden chamber… and that she could be sent to bed that night, like any other night, at nine o’clock, like a baby?”

Antoinette is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Kampfs, there is little, if any love in her life, her father concerned with business and keeping his fractious wife happy, while her mother; Rosine’s unpredictable moods and obsession with society blind her to her daughter’s unhappiness. Antoinette is desperate to go to the ball, knowing other girls are sometimes presented to society at around her age, but her mother scoffs at the very idea. Antoinette has little joy in her life – daily, hated music lessons with the dreadful Mademoiselle Isabelle – a cousin of the Kampfs, to which she is accompanied by her governess Miss Betty. While Antoinette endures her lesson, Miss Betty goes off to meet her young lover. Antoinette is lonely and bitter and in a fit of teenage pique decides to exact her own terrible revenge.

I have read other mother daughter stories by Némirovsky especially in the collection Dimanche and other stories, and although I rather loved the story and thought it very compelling, it is not the best example of the type from this writer. Antoinette is not explored as well as I would have liked, she is also rather unsympathetic, which I don’t personally mind, but a little more sympathy might have made the conflict work better.

Snow in Autumn transports us to Russia, and the home of the Karine family around the time of the Russian Revolution. Tatiana Ivanovna is the ageing faithful servant who has served the family since the time Nicolas Alexandrovitch was a baby. After fifty-one years, she has seen two generations of the family grow up, watched her beloved Nicolas Alexandrovitch marry Hélène (after she cheated on her first husband with him), and dearly loved the four children born to them.

The revolution brings great change, hardship, tragedy and flight. Tatiana guards the family home alone, while revolutionaries rampage through the countryside, one member of the family is shot, and life changes forever. The family flee to Paris, and despite her years, Tatiana follows them. The life the family lead now is a long way from the life they lived in Russia, poverty is an accepted part of their lives now. As time goes on, the situation begins to take quite a toll on Tatiana, who longs for the snows of her homeland, seeing the landscapes that she loves in her mind, she longs for a time when she will be able to return.

“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them”

This second story is probably the better of the two, certainly it is more nuanced and the character of Tatiana as well as being more likeable than Antoinette, is particularly well explored. However, I enjoyed both very much, and yet again am reminded how much of Némirovsky’s work I have yet to explore.

Currently reading my third Witmonth book Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó which is brilliant.

irenenemirovsky