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Elif Shafak is an author who has been publishing for years, who I was aware of, even went to an author event where she was speaking – but who I didn’t get around to reading until the end of 2020. I first read The Bastard of Istanbul which I was hugely impressed by and a few months later I read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. That novel became one of my favourite reads of last year, the kind of book I still find myself thinking about and have recommended to people lots of times. So, of course I was looking forward to The Island of Missing Trees and delighted when my friend Meg passed her beautiful hardback copy on to me. It didn’t disappoint, I loved it – although it perhaps didn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of absolute perfection that 10 Minutes…. was for me, it didn’t fall far short. 

The book is dedicated:  

“To immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless,  

and to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories.” 

Divided into three time periods – the late 2010s the early 2000s and 1974 – The Island of Missing Trees tells a story of belonging and identity, a poignant story of love and trauma. It is beautifully written, compelling and thought provoking.  

The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Ada, in her Year 11 history class at her secondary school in north London, shortly before the Christmas holidays begin. Her mother died about a year before and she is struggling – she finds herself standing up in class and screaming, just screaming while everyone around her looks on bemused and disturbed. The video of her screaming goes viral – well of course it does.  

Ada’s father Kostas is a middle-aged botanist a Greek Cypriot who first left the island of his birth during the turmoil that divided it in two. On the day of Ada’s screaming, he is burying his beloved fig tree in the garden – to protect it from the English winter. The fig tree is important, in fact the fig tree narrates parts of the story, becoming a character in itself, and one the reader can’t help but love too. The fig tree that Kostas tends so faithfully is a cutting from a tree that grew in Cyprus, it had grown through the cavity in the roof of a tavern – witness to everything that occurred there.  

In 1974 on the beautiful island of Cyprus two teenagers fell in love. They were from opposite sides of that divided island; Kostas a Christian is Greek, and Defne is Turkish and Muslim. None of that matters to them, they only want to be together but that isn’t very easy at all, there are eyes everywhere.

“Love is the bold affirmation of hope. You don’t embrace hope when death and destruction are in command. You don’t put on your best dress and tuck a flower in your hair when you are surrounded by ruins and shards. You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974. Not here, not now. And yet there they were, the two of them.” 

The two young lovers take to meeting at a tavern where the owners will help keep their secret, a place where they can be private and out of the sight of unwelcome eyes. The tavern is run by Yusuf and Yiorgos, two men living outside the conventions of the times too. The tavern is known for the fig tree growing through the centre of it. The story of Kostas, Defne and all of Cyprus is rooted in that place and the people who met there.  

“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. in life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.”  

When violence and unrest erupt on the island between Greeks and Turks Kostas is forced by his family to go to England where he has an uncle who can give him a start there. He has to leave Defne behind, not knowing when or if he will see her again. She is devastated by his desertion and refuses to write back to him. It is a silence that will last decades. Many years later, Kostas returns to Cyprus for the first time since he left in 1974 – he knows that Defne never married, neither did he. So, although officially he is there to seek out certain plant species, he is really looking for much more than that. Ada is the result of their reconciliation and late marriage. However, the years have taken their toll. The years of trauma, the realities for those who stayed in Cyprus are ever present, the losses that were suffered, the people who went missing and have never been found. Defne is one of those who still searches. Her work has been to reunite people with the bodies of their dead – she carries all of this with her to her new life in England. It is something she will never rid herself of. 

In the late 2010s Ada only knows the outline of her parents’ story. When her father tells her that her mother’s sister Meryem is coming to visit she is unimpressed. She can’t forgive Meryem for never having visited before – not even for her mother’s funeral. Meryem arrives with a bagful of colourful clothes she hasn’t yet found the confidence to wear, and bit by bit she gains her niece’s trust while cooking up a storm of Turkish dishes in the kitchen.  

I really must read more by Elif Shafak – this was another beautiful read.  

One of the things I still like about Facebook (and FB continues to be problematic in many ways) is the myriad groups that exist there. Groups which I continue to use much more than my own news feed. It was through one of the bookish groups that I am a member of that I ‘met’ Betsy Hanson – in fact through a mutual appreciation for Barbara Pym, on a group I first started for Barbara Pym’s centenary. Fast forward several years and Betsy has written and self-published her own novel – Always Gardenia, and very kindly sent me this attractive hardback edition for review.

Always Gardenia is an engaging novel centred around an American university, the University of the Northwest. Here Gardenia Pitkin gets a new job as an administrative assistant in the English department. Gardenia is fifty-six, two years earlier her beloved husband Torre died, and she has had a difficult time adjusting to life as a widow, she is struggling financially but not letting on to anyone, and is lonely. Her son Hans, at twenty four is already married with a baby son, Milo, Milo is the great joy in Gardenia’s life. Her friend Sylvie is nearby, but Sylvie still has her husband and has no idea how Gardenia feels.

At the university Gardenia’s boss is the Chaucer specialist Arnold Wiggins, a slightly eccentric, middle aged man a few years younger than Gardenia, as devoted to his pet dachshund as Gardenia is to her own. He is a kindly, gentle man, with a sparky, elderly mother he sees frequently, who hasn’t quite given up hope that her son will settle down one day.

“He could be from central casting for English professors, Gardenia thought, with his baggy khakis and rumpled curly hair and soft-soled oxfords. Even the dachshund, trotting along tetherless and veering from the path with his nose to the ground, was an appropriately eccentric accessory.”

Bonded by their love of dachshunds Arnold and Gardenia become good friends, enjoying working together. Into the department comes Dr Laurel DuBarr a new adjunct English professor. Laurel is ambitious, successfully published, while Arnold’s book remains languishing on the desks of publishers that haven’t got back to him yet. Laurel is looking for tenure, so she doesn’t have to continue going from academic institution to academic institution. Arnold becomes infatuated with Laurel almost as soon as she arrives, enormously impressed by her, and wanting to impress her equally.

“Oh please don’t fall for her, Gardenia wanted to whisper to Arnold. She’s hanging out with you because she wants you to put in a good word about the tenure-track job. Yes, she’s got those long legs and that blonde hair and all those publications, but you deserve someone better.

Or maybe you’re better off on your own, so you don’t have to worry about the person you care about sleeping around – like Princess Margaret’s dachshund.

Or my son’s wife.”

Out of the blue, while having a coffee one day, Gardenia meets Lex Ohashi who seems very interested in seeing Gardenia again, and talks about the two of them going dancing. Gardenia doesn’t really know if she is ready for that, but she does love to dance. She still feels she wants to talk about Torre, but it seems as if no one around her will let her, as if she needs protecting from the name of her dead husband.

Meanwhile Gardenia is very concerned about her son’s marriage. Hans has had to give up his music studies, passionate though he was about music, in order to support his wife as she continues to study, and take care of their son. He now works part time at a health food shop. Gardenia is also convinced that her daughter-in-law Caitlin is playing away – Gardenia is asked to babysit a lot, which she loves, but suddenly at the last minute Caitlin has to stay over at her friend’s house. Is Caitlin selfishly making use of her mother in law’s love of Milo? When out for the evening one day, Gardenia sees Caitlin with another man, and they don’t look like study partners. Gardenia has no idea what to do – should she tell Hans what she suspects, and what she saw – or let it work itself out? Will Hans want to hear what she has to say? and then the fall out could affect her access to her beloved grandson.

Gardenia has lots of things to weigh up, including whether she really wants to entertain the idea of a relationship with Lex, charming though he seems. Then there is her growing friendship with Arnold, and his feelings for Laurel – not to mention the pressures that are being put on him from his boss, and the suggestion that his Chaucer classes may just not be attracting enough students to make it viable.

Gardenia is a very sympathetic character, and particularly pleasing to have her reading Pym’s Excellent Women during the course of the book. Her grief is well portrayed, that sense that everyone else moves on far quicker than she is able to, that sense of missing someone very badly, and wanting still to say their name is really poignant. There are some lovely reflections on friendship, and the complex relationships between mothers and their adult sons.

June in review

Is it just me or did June just fly by? No sooner did it begin than it was over, the longest day been and gone and the first day of July today.

During June, as in the past few months I have just been reading fiction – though within that there is a range, with a mix of modern, vintage and translated books. Seven books finished and another started – five physical books, two kindle books.  

I began the month reading O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991) a novel that has been receiving a bit of attention from bloggers and readers of late – and it’s easy to see why. It is a darkly, strange coming of age novel set in a draughty Scottish castle. As others have said previously, this is a novel with shades of Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns and Shirley Jackson. It is a wonderfully imaginative novel, slightly gothic in tone, it is rich in vivid imagery, and beautifully written. The novel looks back on the sad, lonely life of sixteen year old Janet who as the novel opens lies dead at the bottom of the staircase in the castle where she lived. It’s a fantastic novel – I’ve not heard of anyone who doesn’t love it. Funnily enough my book group has chosen this for our August read and it wasn’t even my suggestion.

The Braid by Laetitia Colombani (2017) translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie was my book group’s selection for this month. The story of three different women, from different countries who each face unique challenges. These women’s lives are destined to be intertwined by a single object. The stories of the three women are told in alternating chapters, taking us from India to Sicily to Canada in the company of three very different but equally determined women.

Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson (1952) was a delightful read at the end of my half term holiday. A book that the reader is sad to finish, such is the pleasure of spending time with the characters. Set in the Scottish Highlands three years after the end of the war, featuring a large lovable family, their optimism, love and humour set against the ups and downs of normal (sometimes chaotic) family life is absolutely irresistible. Adventurous children, a little romance visitors, picnics and highland walks are the order of the day here, and though in some ways not a lot happens, it is a joy to read.

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad (2022) was the second of my two kindle reads. An incredibly impressive debut novel set in Lahore, Dacca and London in the late 1960s and 1970s. Faraz Ali is a police inspector, in late 1960’s Pakistan. In 1968, Faraz has been dispatched to a police station in Lahore’s red light district tasked by his cold, biological father, with whitewashing the murder of a young girl. The child has been killed by a man of great power, though no one seems to know who. Faraz’s return to Lahore’s red light district, to the place where he was taken from his mother as a young child open ups a lot of old wounds for Faraz and impacts the next few years of his life.

His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov (1930) was read for the Librarything monthly themed read – only now I don’t know if it really qualified *sigh* but I tried. My first book by Litvinov, but not my last as I have her collection of short stories tbr. A detective novel set in Moscow, with a beautifully evocative opening, a young ballet dancer from the famous Bolshoi theatre finds herself accused of murder.

Always Gardenia by Betsy Hanson (2018) the author kindly sent me this attractive hardback copy of her self-published novel set in an American university. An enjoyable, wryly humorous novel about academic colleagues, the trivialities in everyday life, coping with the challenges of widowhood and the complex relationships between mothers and sons. There are also a couple of lovely little dachshunds.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021) only my third novel by this writer but she is clearly an exceptional writer. While this didn’t quite reach the heights of utter perfection that 10 minutes, 38 seconds in this Strange World did, it didn’t fall far short. Moving between 1970s Cyprus and modern day England, this novel explores the terrible realities of the conflict that divided the island in two. Part of the novel is narrated by a fig tree – I came to love that tree – I have always had a thing about trees, and I knew I was right, they are pretty special. Still thinking about this one.

As July begins I am reading the book I began on June 28th – it will go into July’s final total. It is an old original green vmc Women Against Men by Storm Jameson first published in 1933. It is three novellas in one volume telling the stories of three women and their relationships with men. I have started the second novella now and again I’m enjoying Jameson’s writing very much.

In July my book group will be reading Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, one of my favourite writers, it was of course my suggestion. This is both exciting and nerve wracking, but gives me the excuse to re-read the novel which first introduced me to Comyns in 2012. That will doubtless be my next read. The Librarything virago group are reading Irish writers of VMCs – and I have a few Kate O’Brien and a Mary Lavin at least – but I will see what my mood dictates and act accordingly. So it could end up being a fairly VMC inspired month of reading, except I am reading quite fickly these days.

What brilliant things did you read in June and what’s on your tbr for July? I always like to know 😊

This plain little red hardback volume has been sat on my tbr pretty much forgotten for a few years now. His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov a detective novel set in Moscow. It was the Librarything monthly themed read that made me take it off the shelves. I have been pretty useless with this challenge this year, only having joined in with January and February’s challenges so far. I was initially keen to join in most months but this has been my worst reading year ever, so it’s probably not surprising I’ve failed here too. For June’s challenge we had to read a book by a VMC author but that hadn’t been published as a VMC. I knew Ivy Litvinov’s collection of stories She Knew She was Right was an original VMC green spine – it’s one I have tbr – but was pretty sure this novel was never published as a VMC, so hopefully it does qualify.

I really enjoyed my first experience of Ivy Litvinov, I happened to start reading this on a very slow reading week (I think they are all pretty slow though at the moment) so it felt like a bit of a slow burn at the start, but once I got going with it I liked it a lot. The thing that pulled me in immediately was the stunning prose with which this novel opens – Litvinov introduces us to Moscow, on a bitterly cold night in February – and the sense of place is just incredible. It was enough for me to say, yes I really want to read this.

“The town seemed not so much asleep as strangled, locked in frost. The Kremlin palace and its numerous churches and spires looked down over toothed walls on silent squares, empty bridges, and abandoned streets. On summer evenings it looks down on its own reflection in the water, regally quiescent; on this bitter night in February,1926, when the frozen river refused to mirror its crude walls and fantastic buildings, it was more like a picture in a book for children than anything that had ever answered to the requirements of human beings.”

The novel doesn’t continue in quite such descriptive terms as the business of the story takes over, but Litvinov is a gifted writer, nevertheless. On this cold night a man is murdered. The dead man a resident of one of the countless yards in Moscow – the night watchman witness to the comings and goings, before in the early hours he too goes inside to his family to sleep.  It is the night watchman’s wife who discovers the dead man, early next morning, when taking him his breakfast. Arkady Petrovich Pavlov sat at his table, with a dagger sticking out of his neck, his head dropped forward on to his gramophone.

It falls to District Procurator Nikulin to investigate the crime – called to the telephone on a Sunday morning when he had been hoping for a lie in and time with the papers. He is aided by Detective Yanovitsky. Several items are recovered from the scene, including the dagger, a couple of gilded coins of tinfoil as if off some sort of garment or costume, a programme for the Bolshoi theatre dated the day of the murder, and a note signed with a letter s.

Investigations soon take the Procurator to the Bolshoi theatre and suspicion quickly falls on one of the ballerinas Tamara Geyorgyevna Dolidzey, who had been with the dead man on the evening he died, and whose dagger was found sticking out of his neck. 

“‘Well now Tamara, I have something to say to you. This morning Pavlov was found dead with this dagger – your dagger, Tamara – in his neck. Nobody is known to have come to him but yourself and nobody was there but yourself, Tamara. Nobody played your accompaniments on a piano because there was no piano in the room. There were no other guests. You were alone with Pavlov between twelve and one, and between twelve and three Pavlov was killed – with your dagger Tamara’

The girl listened to him with distended eyes and rapidly paling cheeks. She became so ashen white that the procurator looked around for a glass of water…”

The young dancer is locked up while investigations continue – protesting her innocence, horrified at what has befallen her. The reader is sure of course that Tamara is innocent – and soon enough the Procurator begins to have some doubts himself. Everything points to Tamara and yet there is the possibility that she is innocent. The Procurator begins getting manicures from a woman who did Pavlov’s nails, in a bid to know his victim a little better but more and more all roads seem to lead to the theatre.

As investigations continue there is the suggestion that Pavlov was really someone else, someone who had belonged to a secret political society – who might have an enemy still out there looking for him. Another dancer from the Bolshoi is brought in for questioning, a young man who has been harbouring tender feelings for Tamara and may have acted out of jealousy. As the conflicting evidence and testimonies mount, a journalist Julius Caesarovich Itkin (a somewhat improbable name) begins to interest himself in the case – and he doesn’t believe in Tamara’s guilt at all.

This was a really clever mystery which really did keep me guessing – lots of little twists along the way, meant I couldn’t possibly guess the outcome. I must make time to read that collection of stories by Ivy Litvinov, clearly a sadly neglected writer.

This was a kindle book purchase that I made on a whim, after hearing about the book on the BBC’s Between the Covers programme. I started reading it a day or two later. The Return of Faraz Ali is Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel – and an excellent one at that. There are more layers to this novel than I had initially expected, the premise I saw online making it sound a little like something else. It was such a pleasant surprise that there was so much more to this novel.

Faraz Ali is a police inspector, in late 1960’s Pakistan. In 1968, Faraz has been dispatched to a police station in Lahore’s red light district tasked with whitewashing the murder of a young girl. The child has been killed by a man of great power, though no one seems to know who. Faraz must make it all go away. The man responsible for Faraz’s new assignment is Wajid, Faraz’s biological father.

“He waited for his mother and his sister, who had followed them downstairs, to wave good-bye, but they didn’t. His mother went back inside the kotha and called for Rozina to follow her. She didn’t watch as he disappeared around the corner. He knew then they would not bring him back, just as he knew his amma’s sorrow had not made her powerful. It had not, he realized, made her remarkable in any way at all.”

Unknown to anyone in his life, Faraz was born into the Mahalla, the red light district of Lahore. He began his life growing up alongside his older sister, living with their mother, one of the district’s courtesans within a tradition where a mother would raise her daughters to follow in her footsteps – and her sons would grow up to act as pimps. Wajid had initially left his son to grow up in the Mahalla with the woman who he had had a secret relationship with – only later he stole him back. Ripping the young boy from his mother and sister and everything he knew, and giving him into the care of relatives.

Faraz, has his own family now, married to the woman he chose, a woman who married him because he was the sensible choice, they have a baby daughter. His new status as a family man and father, making him question his past, and wonder about this mother and sister – he has virtually no memory of his early life – a few images remain, haunting him. Now he is back, and he can’t stop himself looking for the family he lost.

“…since the arrival of his daughter, Faraz had thought constantly of going back. Nazia was of him now; who else was? He longed for the family he scarcely remembered, his mother and sister, to know Nazia, who ought to be known, and to understand the legacy—however poor—he’d given her.”

The Mohalla comes to life in Ahmad’s descriptions of it and the lives of the people who live here, she doesn’t sugar coat it – this is very much the short straw of life. This is a period of political upheaval – there is plenty of talk of riots and elections, corruption and power. Yet the lives of the women in Lahore’s red light district continue as they have for generations. Women are exploited and tossed aside here – their lives have little value – except perhaps to one another.

“When they turned into Heera Mandi Bazaar, he scoured the doorways, the open apartment windows above the stores, searching for something—anything—he might recognize, his body stiffening in anticipation. But the bazaar looked familiar only in that it looked like most others in the city. He tried to temper his disappointment; he’d always known he’d need another way to find his people—his memories, which were vague, fragments at best, wouldn’t lead him to them. They passed a line of shops that sold handmade instruments, dholkis, tablas, sitars, and then a stretch of function rooms where audiences came for dance, song, and, Faraz knew, the other things you could buy here.”

Faraz is not happy with his assignment, he doesn’t want the man who killed that young girl to get away with it, he looks into the eyes of the girl’s mother and see her pain. He understands the loss suffered by the girl’s mother and brother; he recognises her as a person. However, he quickly comes to see he is fairly powerless. His actions make some of his new colleagues suspicious, he knows he doesn’t have much time, so quickly begins making rather more enquiries than anyone is expecting him to. A visit to his father Wajid, at his comfortable home, where Wajid’s wife and Faraz’s half siblings live in some luxury underlines further, how little he can actually do. Wajid is not ready for Faraz to disobey orders.

Meanwhile Faraz’s mother Firdous is still in the Mohalla, she is bringing up her grandchild as her own daughter. Faraz’s sister Rozina has made it out of the Mohalla – her beauty and talent allowing her to raise her status to that of a minor celebrity. Her daughter Mina is growing up with Firdous, she only knows Rozina as her sister. Only, age is starting to catch up with Rozina, the married man who pays for her lifestyle, is already looking elsewhere – and Rozina knows it’s only a matter of time until she is back where she started in the Mohalla.

Having seriously angered Wajid, and asked too many of the wrong questions, Faraz is sent to Dacca –in what at this time was still called East Pakistan. The political backdrop to this novel is fascinating, the dictatorship of Ayub, and the rise of Bhutto as well as the start of Bangladesh’s independence all come into play. Ahmad doesn’t over explain things – which I am always glad of – she trusts in her reader’s intelligence (and Google) and so there are no awkward explanations of cultural terms, swear words or political figures shoe-horned in. Throughout the novel are little flashbacks to Eton educated Wajid’s time as a POW during the Second World War in the desert of North Africa – where he talks of his baby son for the first time. Years later, that son will also find himself a POW during the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence.

The Return of Faraz Ali is such a good debut novel – deeply poignant, in its exploration of what family means. It spans several years and takes us from Lahore to Dacca to London and back. A beautiful novel of love, identity and loss – and how we can’t help but carry those things with us.

We come to books in a variety of ways, I find. I came to this one through a Twitter conversation – the subject of which I can’t remember now, but two people mentioned having absolutely loved this book and I soon found myself buying it. I don’t need much convincing where Dean Street Press books are concerned. I later discovered I already had an e-book version on my kindle – sent to me by the publisher, but I am glad I have the real book version to keep.

Ruby Ferguson was a prolific writer, Apricot Sky was her sixth novel under the name Ruby Fergusson, although she had also published several mystery novels under the name of R C Ashby between 1926 and 1934. Additionally she published a series of children’s pony books – the Jill series during the 1940s and 50s. The only book by her I had read was Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary which Persephone has reissued, though it is some years since I read it.  

Apricot Sky is one of those wonderful middlebrow titles that is a sheer joy to read. I read the majority of it during the last few days of my half term holiday, it was perfect company. Set in the Scottish Highlands three years after the end of the war, featuring a large lovable family, their optimism, love, humour set against the ups and downs of normal (sometimes chaotic) family life is absolutely irresistible. There are all the usual deprivations left over from the war, in terms of food shortages etc – but they aren’t dwelt upon and the characters seem capable of rising above such petty concerns.  

Mr and Mrs MacAlvey are a generally loving and cheerful middle aged couple, despite having lost two sons during the war. They are however, still surrounded by the remainder of their large family. There is Raine, newly engaged to Ian Garvine, the younger brother of the laird of Larrich, the sprawling old farm where Raine and her sister spent much of their time growing up. Cleo is just returned from three years in America – everyone excited at her coming home and wondering if she will have become all American. She still harbours a secret love for Neil Garvine, laird, older brother and everyone thinks confirmed bachelor. Raine and Cleo’s brother James lives not too far away with his neurotic wife Trina – who utterly smothers their two slightly nervous children. The housekeeper is Vannah – who after many years is really just another member of the family, and loved by all.

Three MacAlvey grandchildren live in the MacAlvey homestead too – orphaned during the war they slightly wild and adventurous – spending hours out of the house messing around in boats and delighting in the long summer holidays. These three, Primrose, Gavin and Archie keep everyone on their toes with their summer exploits. When the children hear that their English cousins are coming to visit – they are dismayed – fearing an end to their holiday adventures. The beginning of the stay is certainly not auspicious.

“It was a relief when the dinner gong sounded. The children made their way to the bottom of the table, where they usually sat in unobtrusive silence, avoiding any awkward questions from their elders, but this did not suit Cecil and Elinore, who waited to be given places by Mrs MacAlvey. Very soon Cecil was intelligently discussing the shooting prospects with Mr MacAlvey, while Elinore chatted in a sophisticated way with Cleo and Raine and was obviously making a big hit.”

Clearly, Elinore and Cecil are nothing like the MacAlvey children, Elinore in her silk stockings and court shoes at fourteen and sixteen year old Cecil in a tie and smart tweed sports jacket seem very buttoned up and prim. Soon enough, Elinore and Cecil get drawn into their cousins’ adventures which aren’t without risk.

Cleo quickly settles back into her old home with relief – planning on going to Edinburgh to find a new job after the summer. She is delighted to see her sister so happy, and throws herself into the wedding planning, and helping Raine and Ian decide what alterations need to be made to the old house before it welcomes its new mistress. Cleo proves to have a good eye for this kind of thing.

“I’m haunted by an awful dread,” said Raine. “It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar.”
“Have you practised swooning?”

As happy as she is for her sister, Cleo is saddened to see that Neil seems barely to notice her, while every time he is anywhere near her, she can barely concentrate. She tries hard to reacquaint herself with Neil, but is distressed by how stilted and strained their conversations seem to be. It doesn’t help that a glamourous young widow, Inga Duthie has moved into the area, a tenant of Neil’s, at ease with everyone, who in turn think she is wonderful. Cleo decides she can’t stand her. So, she is less than delighted to have to go and take tea with her.

“‘Of course I am a fool’ thought Cleo joylessly applying lipstick, ‘and I have a diseased mind. No wonder nobody likes me.’

In this low-spirited mood she found herself putting on a green linen coat and skirt which did not suit her and an organdie blouse which was wilted from having been worn before.

‘As if I cared’ she told her unpromising reflection in the mirror. I’m not competing.’”

There are visitors galore – one of whom talks endlessly about her operation, a garden party, visits to the neighbours, hikes, picnics and lots of wedding talk. So in a sense there isn’t really much plot – but who cares? It’s a simply charming story of a lovely family, everyday life, adventurous child exploits and romance set against the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Its definitely the kind of book I am always sad to finish, it was such a pleasure spending time with this family. It is also a novel which is frequently delightfully funny.

Translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

My book group chose to read The Braid by Laetitia Colombani in June, it was a novel I hadn’t heard of. Suggested by one of our two book group members who live in Bordeaux.

It is the story of three different women, from different countries who each face unique challenges. These women’s lives are destined to be intertwined by a single object. The stories of the three women are told in alternating chapters, and this way of telling their stories made this a really quick and involving read.

I suppose with a premise like that, the reader is always going to be looking for the connection – and I have to say I worked out very early what the connection was likely to be. In fact I was irritated by how obvious I thought it was – though overall I enjoyed the novel immensely. However, talking to the book group on Monday night’s zoom get together, two of the group said they hadn’t work out the connection at all – so perhaps it isn’t that obvious after all and just my brain racing ahead. The wonderful thing about book groups is hearing how other people experience and respond to the same book. Incidentally, our book group has become fairly international now. Due to the pandemic we went over to zoom, and are still meeting that way. So while five of us are from here in Birmingham UK, we have two member in Bordeaux and two in Canada. I must say I think I prefer book group by zoom – but I digress.

Bradlapur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Smita is a Dalit woman (a so called Untouchable) she has spent her life from childhood clearing out the village latrines by hand, it’s horrific, degrading work, which she has never got used to. This is the life she was born to, and is expected to pass on to her daughter.

“Smita wakes with a strange feeling. Urgent, gentle, new; butterflies in her stomach. Today is a day she will remember her whole life. Today, her daughter will go to school. School, where Smita has never set foot. Here in Badlapur, people like her don’t go to school. Smita is a Dalit. Of those whom Mahatma Gandhi called Harijan, the Children of God. ‘The oppressed.’ Untouchable. Unworthy. A species apart, judged too impure to mix with others, rejected and separated, like the chaff from the wheat. Millions like Smita live outside the villages, outside society; on the margins of humanity.”

However, Smita is determined her daughter won’t have the life she has had. She wants her to go to school, to escape the humiliation of her caste and live an entirely different life. Her husband agrees to pay the schoolteacher to take their daughter into school – but when the child is treated badly by the teacher, made to sweep the classroom, Smita insists it is time for them to leave the village and make their way to the city where there will be more chance to escape the traditional rules laid down for their caste. This carries great risk, for if they are discovered trying to run, the consequences for Smita and her daughter especially would be horrific. Smita is brave, and has great determination, she won’t allow her daughter to live as she has.

In Sicily, Giulia works with her father at his wig factory, once part of a thriving industry it is the last of its kind. Giulia has learned the trade from her father and the other women he employs, washing, dyeing and bleaching the hair they buy from regular customers and hairdressers. When Giulia’s father is seriously hurt in an accident, Giulia uncovers the truth about the business’s financial situation and it begins to look like the factory’s days are numbered. However, Giulia is not ready to give up her father’s beloved business, she can’t bear to be the one that sounds its death nell. When she meets a man who is an outsider within the Sicilian community he tuns out to be her potential saviour – in more ways than one. She will need to overcome her family’s fierce hold on the traditional way the business has been run, and convince them to adapt their ways in order to survive.

In Montreal, Canada Sarah is a very successful lawyer. Twice divorced, with two children and a male nanny, she has sacrificed a lot to get where she is. She works in a very competitive environment, she has no personal relationships among her colleagues, many of whom are just waiting to jump into her shoes whenever the chance may come.

“Untouchable: that was what Sarah had become. Relegated to the margins of society. And so no, she would not go back there, to the arena that had condemned her to death. They wouldn’t see her fall. She wouldn’t make a spectacle of herself, offer herself up to the lions. She still had one thing – her dignity.”

Any sign of weakness, Sarah knows would be the end for her. When Sarah faces a personal health crisis, she decides to soldier on, no one will know what she is going through, she will not allow her career and the position she has worked hard to achieve to be compromised. Only, as Sarah finds, this is easier said than done.

Each of these woman though living very different lives are each incredibly determined, showing great fortitude and resilience. Sarah is possibly the hardest one to sympathise with, though her story is just as fascinating as the other two. Aside from these three strong, interesting women, it was really nice to see a couple of lovely positive male characters too.

Next month I have persuaded my book group to read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns and I am equal parts excited and terrified. I love Barbara Comyns so much, what if everyone else doesn’t?

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker was a novel I hadn’t even heard of until very recently. With W&N Essentials reissuing it last year this 1991 novel has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Several other bloggers, including Jacqui had been very enthusiastic about it, and I bought it following those reviews, knowing it would be right up my street.

It is a darkly, strange coming of age novel set in a draughty Scottish castle. As others have said previously, this is a novel with shades of Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns and Shirley Jackson. It is a wonderfully imaginative novel, slightly gothic in tone, it is rich in vivid imagery, and beautifully written.

“Vera was painting the pony’s hooves gold in the dining room; Janet said this was bad for him; poison would seep into his bloodstream.”

The novel starts with a death, a murder in fact. Sixteen year old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black, lace evening gown lies at the bottom of a stone staircase in the Scottish castle where she had grown up. However, this is not a crime novel or a mystery to be solved, it is revealed almost at once that Janet’s murderer has been caught and locked up. Instead this is the story of Janet’s too short life. After her death, there seems to be little or no regret, she is dispensed with in the usual way, and then forgotten about. It’s a cold, tragic way for a young life to end.

“After that, only the speywives, the fishwives, the midwives, the ill-wishers spoke of her, endlessly rehearsing a litany of blame; for blame there must be, and no one could blame the murderer. Their voices whined and droned, spiteful as the sleety wind which slashed their headscarves across their faces as they huddled by the village bus stop, dreary as the wind which spat hail down the chimney as they took Sunday afternoon tea in the cold parlours of outlying crofts, where the Bible was open beside a ticking clock and rock buns were assembled on snowy doilies, malignly aglitter with the menace of carbonised currants. So they blamed the mother for giving the child all those books to read.”

The first few years of Janet’s life, during the War, are spent in Glasgow, with her mother Vera, and her grandfather in a manse by the sea while her father Hector is away fighting. On his return the family move to the remote castle, where roses refuse to grow. Four more siblings quickly follow. Janet’s life here is one full of misunderstanding. The oldest of five siblings, she is always at odds with the adults in her life. Janet is not like her siblings, they are more conventional, smooth haired and more attractive – her whole life, Janet was the outsider within her own family.

Cousin Lila – a cousin by marriage really – also lives in the castle, an arrangement under the terms of Hector’s inheritance. The Russian born, whisky drinking Lila is also an outsider, so it’s probably not surprising that Janet is drawn to her. Poor Janet is always getting into trouble, sometimes because she makes a mistake or doesn’t quite understand – yet everyone around her seems convinced that she is naughty, wilful and doing things deliberately. Janet withdraws more and more into her own world. She loves the wild landscape around the castle, she is at one with the natural world, her own fantastic imagination, and her love of books. She has a pet jackdaw, Claws who takes up residence in the doll’s house that was bought for her but she never played with.

“He was free to range wherever he wished; always he came back to her and at night they repaired to her room, where he roosted like a guardian spirit on the Iron rail of her bed. He was a magic bird. She loved him more than she had loved anything, anything or anyone.”

During her teenage years Janet is packed off to a boarding school, miles away. Being away from the landscape she so loves is hard on this lonely girl, who even at school makes no real friends. She finds her own way to survive it, books and her imagination her saving grace. It turns out that sport is very important at this school, but Janet loathes sport, and doesn’t do well when she tries, so she throws herself into her schoolwork, much to the disgust of her peers.

The older Janet gets, the nearer the end we get. Barker has created a wonderfully memorable character in Janet, she has a rich, creative inner life and we wonder what she might have become. There is a terrible sadness in the fact Janet never finds the tenderness and understanding that she should have had.

“And there had been the occasion when a friend of her parents had told them she thought Janet had a lovely face. Vera had reported this in accents of astonishment. Janet’s delight had rapidly turned to fear. She must never again meet this woman in case she changed her mind.”

We know of course from the first page how this story will end, and there is a dark poignancy to this lonely, life, but Barker’ storytelling is perfectly balanced. So, in the same way the reader accepts the darkness at the heart of the stories of Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge so we accept this one. Perhaps it helps to know right from the start where we are going, there’s no point lying awake worrying about this character.

Well everyone who said I would love this novel was right, I did. Barker’s descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, shot through with little nuggets of surrealism and gothic imagery – and it seems I never tire of coming of age tales.

Pamela Hansford Johnson I think is probably still a much neglected writer. That is a real shame however, as she was a very good writer indeed, and a very prolific one. Hodder and Stoughton have re-issued some of her titles (including this one) though I have had a lovely first edition of it waiting on my tbr for some time. Very pleased that I finally pulled it from the shelf.

The Unspeakable Skipton is the first book in a trilogy which is completed by the books Night and Silence Who is Here? And Cork Street, Next to the Hatters – Pamela Hansford Johnson was good at titles. Since finishing this book, I have tracked down old copies of those, and snapped them up on ebay – just waiting for them to arrive now.

This is a wryly satirical novel which I thought was very enjoyable, though not an enormous amount happens. Daniel Skipton, the unspeakable one of the title is an English ex pat living in Bruges in some poverty. He is a writer, utterly convinced of his own genius and fairly disparaging of pretty much everyone else around him. His room is sparsely and poorly furnished, he is frequently hungry and there are many days when he takes steps to avoid meeting his landlady in the hallway. He spends a lot of time writing rude letters to Willy; his publisher regarding his manuscripts which are clearly unpublishable, or to his elderly aunt “Flabby Anne”, who he is convinced keeps peacocks, is rolling in money and conspiring to keep it from him. He is forever looking for ways to raise some money, totting up what he has spent and how much is left and despairing at the figures before him. Skipton is a well-drawn character, not especially likeable, though no one in this novel is. The one thing he does seem to appreciate is Bruges – a place where he has lived for some time, and knows well.

“A miraculous evening. The sky broke like an egg into full sunset and the water caught fire. He held his breath: an angel could appear in full dress with insignia, he would not be surprised. It was a wretched thing, on an evening like this, he had to turn away from such majestic sweetness to write to such a swine as Willy”

In the evening Daniel ventures forth watching out for likely looking tourists who he can con out of some much needed money. Offering various services to mainly English tourists, the sourcing and procuring of works of art (some of which may or may not be what they are hoped to be) he can strike a mean little deal with the Flemish seller who has clearly had dealings with Daniel Skipton before.

Towards the beginning of this novel, Skipton comes across a peculiar little party of English tourists in a café terrace opposite the Cloth Hall. Dorothy Merlin, a verse-dramatist, her bookseller husband Cosmo Hines, and their friends Duncan Moss and Matthew Pryar.

“Daniel was not one to peer round and about him. He sat proudly aloof, his profile raised, his mouth sternly set. He could see who was behind him in the pocket mirror concealed in his cupped hands.

Just behind him was a party of four people, English, one woman and three men. The woman was short and meagre, perhaps at the beginning of her forties. She was dark-skinned, and the hair wrenched back from her box-like forehead into a bun had a surface fuzz which the violence used upon it had been unable to repress. Her eyes were prominent, her nose was small and hooked. She looked like some distraught bird chained by one claw to a perch.”

He woos them very cleverly by promising access to a strange little spectacle that he pretends to be rather a little shocked by, and so piques their interest beautifully. In this way, he brings himself into their orbit and earns himself a fee. Skipton is quick to judge Dorothy and her companions, however, they turn out to be people to be reckoned with. Though, no matter the difficulties, no matter how much running around and conspiring he has to do, Skipton is never less than completley unshakable in his belief in himself.

Through this funny little band of friends, Skipton meets Querini, an Italian singer and apparently a count, and the mysterious, grand socialite Mrs Jones. Even these two in the end prove too much for Skipton, and the reader is unsurprised that not everything works out as he had planned.

There is a lot of dark humour in Hansford Johnson’s portrayal of Skipton, though in the end there is something rather tragic about him. The huge disconnect between how the world sees Skipton and how he sees himself is the beginning of it, his scathing opinion of everyone else, his desperation at trying to appear to be something he isn’t, and his own self-delusion is pathetically sad. However, Skipton is not the kind of character anyone will shed tears over.

1950s Bruges, with its old buildings, canals and ringing bells is beautifully recreated – this strong sense of place clearly written by someone who knew and loved the city. Bruges is a city I have encountered in PHJ’s fiction before. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable novel – and I am looking forward to reading the next two books, and will try not to leave it to long before I do.

One of the most recent publications to come from the British Library Women Writers series was Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes. Yet another gem within a collection that just keeps turning out absolute winners.

I feel that there should be a class of fiction that Strange Journey fits into – but I can’t really think of an accurate term. It isn’t science fiction or magical realism, and yet there is a slightly whimsical, fantastical element to it. Readers of books like The Love Child, Lolly Willowes and Miss Carter and the Ifrit – will thoroughly enjoy it though I’m sure. So, if this 1935 novel is a type – then it is a type I very much enjoy.

Have you ever, just for a moment wanted to change places with someone else? That idea is at the heart of this deliciously entertaining little novel. In this body swap comedy, the minds of two complete strangers, each from different social worlds randomly switch places. Polly Wilkinson and Lady Elizabeth have never met, never heard of one another. When middle class housewife Polly, sees the smart, sleek car in which Lady Elizabeth is being driven, she wishes just for a moment to swap places with whoever is inside, to experience the leisured ease that they must surely enjoy.

“Suddenly I felt a longing to change places with her, to get into that big, comfortable looking car, lean back in the soft cushions I felt sure that it contained, while the chauffeur made it glide away through the dusk to some pleasant house where there would be efficient servants and tea waiting, with a silver teapot, thin china, and perhaps hot scones, nice deep arm chairs to sit in, and magazines lying on the table.”

 So, when a little later, following a moment’s dizziness, Polly finds herself in the body of another woman, in a large country house, she is utterly bewildered.

How Polly (as Lady Elizabeth) copes with not knowing who anyone is, where her bedroom is and what just happened a few minutes earlier is hilarious. Those around her seem to pick up on moments when Elizabeth is just being a little odd – saying strange things, reacting to things in a way in which she wouldn’t usually, and think no more of it. The dogs however know something’s up and growl and bare their teeth at Polly. Maud Cairnes has a lot of fun with this story, Lady Elizabeth – who never plays bridge, suddenly and surprisingly trouncing everyone only never to sit down to bridge again, the accomplished horsewoman falling screeching from her mount, and screaming the place down, as the birds shot down on a shoot, rain down around her head. Meanwhile Polly is suddenly a wonderful pianist, and a huge social success at dinner with her husband’s boss. There’s a lovely moment when Polly overwhelmed by the choice of jewels in Lady Elizabeth’s jewellery box just puts it all on. Later someone, thinking she has done it as a joke calls her a Christmas tree.

“She then opened a big jewel case in which there were several tiers. I thought it looked like a real treasure chest, when I saw brooches and necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings and rings, all in velvet compartments. I just stared. Late for dinner or not I had no intention of hurrying over my choice. I took a sort of collar of emeralds and diamonds, and put it round my neck; it looked wonderful. Then I found some emerald and diamond ear-rings, long ones, and some bangles; I put two or three of these and a big diamond brooch like a spray, that cheered up the dress a lot.

Then I saw the pearls — three long ropes of them — and one shorter one. I put the ropes on and looked happily at my reflection in the mirror.

“I think I want something on my head now,” said I, wondering if it was a grand enough party for a tiara.

Foley, who had been looking rather stunned, smiled respectfully as though I had made a joke. I gathered that it was not a tiara occasion.”

It takes Polly a while to realise that while she is being Lady Elizabeth, Lady Elizabeth is being her. Polly returns to herself, to find her living room furniture has been rearranged, dinner invitations accepted and the children told extraordinary tales – that she must now carry on with.  Polly realises that Elizabeth’s marriage isn’t very happy, but senses that Elizabeth wants it to be – can she help? Lady Elizabeth meanwhile is doing her own little bit of meddling – paving the way for two lonely people to make one another very happy. When the inevitable happens, and the two women meet – they decide to try and find a way to control the gift that has been thrust upon them.

Of course, class is a big part of this novel – and it helps if you understand all the subtle differences in Polly and Elizabeth’s worlds. Those subtleties would have been more apparent to contemporary readers than twenty-first century ones, though that whole fish out of water element still works, even if you aren’t. Polly and her husband are not exactly the Clampetts after all, they are a nice middle class couple with two children, on a reasonable, though not excessive income, living in a nice suburb, they can afford to pay a daily and Polly has no need to go out to work. Lady Elizbeth is from an entirely different world, a large country house, a home in London, with hunting and riding part of everyday life. As someone who reads a fair bit of fiction from between the wars the differences in class were perfectly evident. However, some of the greatest subtleties are in speech, and these are harder for the twenty-first century reader to pick up on. So I was very glad for Simon Thomas’s afterword in which he explained those very things I had been a little puzzled about. This story is perfect for lots of little social faux pas and so when Polly (in the body of Lady Elizabeth) asks a butler to announce her as Lady Forrester, I had a feeling it was wrong, though I didn’t know why it was wrong, again Simon helped me out.

This novel is an absolute hoot – thoroughly entertaining, light without being silly. I only wished it had been a little longer.