Following my read of the Booker winning Girl, Woman Other last year I was looking forward to reading more by Bernardine Evaristo – and it has certainly taken me long enough. Girl, Woman other was on my books of the year list last year – and when I read that, lots of people recommended Mr Loverman to me – once I had read a bit about it and seen some reviews, I knew it would be the next book by Evaristo I read.

In this novel we meet Barrington Jedidiah Walker, or Barry to his friends. His voice is immediately engaging, warm, funny, vulnerable a little defensive and often outrageous – he pulls us into his world. Barry is very loveable. The novel is narrated sometimes by Barry and sometimes his wife, but it is his voice and his personality that drive this brilliant novel.  

Barry is a seventy-four year old Antiguan with a big personality. A real London character, a very natty dresser, always kitted out in a retro suit from the period when he was in his prime. He came to London as a very young man, and is now a husband, father, and grandfather – with an impressive property portfolio. The narrative moves back and forth in time, showing us different periods in Barry’s life – we see him as an adolescent in Antigua, a young man in London, a father to teenagers. He recalls the island in the Caribbean that he left – and the promise that England held.

“We all thought England was goin’ be utopia. This country has over fifty million citizens, whereas we didn’t even have fifty thousand in the whole of Antigua and Barbuda. Folk could get lost here, be anonymous, lead they own quiet lives. In this city you can live on the same street as your neighbours for eighty years and not even say good morning unless there’s a war on and you forced to share a bomb shelter. Back home everybody kept their eye on everything and everyone.”

However, for sixty years Barry has been in a relationship with his boyhood friend and soul mate Morris. Everyone in the area is used to seeing them around together – partners in crime, like an old married couple – well exactly.

Morris came to England first, and Barry followed with his new wife. He created a life, had two daughters, worked – began buying old derelict properties and doing them up. Through all the years – there was always Morris. Life with Carmel – his wife – was often hard – it was never really a happy union – and Barry has given Carmel plenty of cause to be angry. She has always assumed he was off with other women on the nights he came home late. Carmel is a committed Christian, for her marriage is a lifelong commitment – no matter what – but this marriage has stifled Carmel – stopped from being really happy. Though even for Carmel there is the memory of a happier time in her past, a secret she carries.

Now, with his long marriage in full meltdown – and his eldest daughter siding with her mother as usual – Barry has some very difficult decisions to make.

“The whole point of a midlife crisis is to start living the life you want instead of tolerating the life you have.”

With things between Barry and Carmel at an all-time low – she travels back to Antigua to see her dying father (who is almost a hundred). When she returns will Barry finally have the courage to tell her the truth – end his marriage and set up home with the man he has loved for a lifetime?

In this wonderful novel – which is teeming with faithfully drawn characters, Evaristo successfully explodes several myths about culture and sexuality. She examines the fear that surrounds prejudice, the difficulty people may have even just with certain words, certain labels. It is also a big hearted exploration of the older Caribbean community, that generation who came to Britain after WW2.  

Evaristo explores Barry’s tentative steps toward a new life with comedy and deep affection. Many of these characters are flawed – but aren’t we all – and there is a wonderful honesty here in their portrayal.

“All of my life I’ve watched couples holding hands, kissing in the street, on the bus, in pubs. I’ve watched couples walking arm in arm, ruffling each other’s hair, sitting on each other’s laps, dancing closely, romantically, jazzily, funkily, badly, bawdily. And never, not once, have I felt able even to link arms with the man I love. Me and Morris exchange sidelong glances, and flicker. He grabs my hand and squeezes it for a few seconds. It is our first public display of physical affection in sixty years.”

I absolutely loved Barry and Morris – Mr Loverman is an absolute joy of a book, thank you to everyone who recommended I read it.

Despite there being several Edith Wharton novels that I have to read for the first time – this was my third reading of The House of Mirth. It was picked as our December read by my book group – and it was a pleasure to re-read it – even though there was a tiny bit of my brain that hoped it would end differently this time. Certainly, this re-read reminded me how much I like Edith Wharton’s writing, I really must get to those unread Whartons that I have tbr.

One of Edith Wharton’s most famous novels, The House of Mirth is a brilliant portrayal of early twentieth century New York society – with its own peculiar rules and privileges. Lily Bart is the beautiful, spirited unconventional heroine, surrounded by a set of superficial society friends. Lily is someone who breaks these unwritten rules, she is judged – talked about and suffers in a way no man of her social standing would have done, as a woman there were certain expectations placed upon her – and in this world of wealthy alliances and marriages of convenience there are few choices for a woman like Lily.

Lily is beautiful, sophisticated, and witty, born into the upper echelons of American society she is however impoverished, living on the charity of her wealthy aunt and her friends. She is also twenty nine and unmarried – what Lily needs is a wealthy husband, of the right background – in order to continue living the life she was born into. She has a terrible fear of poverty – and is always in want of more money.

“Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury. It was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in.”

Yet this is something Lily has struggled to execute – never fully committed to the final, calculated act of marrying simply for money – though she won’t marry without it either. Lily is accepted by the old money of her ‘set’ as well as being courted by those of the nouveaux riches.

As the novel opens Lily bumps into a friend Lawrence Selden – and before heading off to a house party to which Selden says he won’t be going – agrees to have tea with him in his flat. Shocking behaviour for a single woman in these times. As Lily leaves Lawrence’s flat, she runs into businessman Mr Rosedale – who sees through her hurried, clumsy lie – that she was visiting her dressmaker – rather putting Lily at an unpleasant disadvantage. At the house party hosted by her friend Judy Trenor – Lily sets about the unpleasant business of snaring herself a wealthy husband in the shape of the rather dull Percy Gryce – though her heart isn’t really in it. When Lawrence Selden arrives for the weekend after all – Lily’s obvious preference for him upsets more than one member of the house party. Any advantage she had with Percy Gryce is lost – but Lily does not seem to mind much – her friend Judy is beside herself with frustration determined to see her friend well and safely married if she can. Lawrence Selden and Lily are clearly attracted to one another – but Selden is as impoverished as Lily – and they are well aware they cannot marry each other and remain in the society they are so much a part of.

“There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you – we are sure to see each other again – but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you – I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you.”

Lily is hopeless with money – is in debt because of the gambling that is so big a part of the circles she moves in (where everyone else seems to have pots of money) – and does not understand very much about investments and the like. Foolishly she allows Judy Trenor’s husband Gus to give her financial advice – allowing him to take over her investments in order to increase her paltry income at a much needed time. She allows him to flirt with her and is quite blind to where her extra income is coming from really and what Trenor might expect in return.

Lily seems to lurch from one mistake to another – as a woman in this society she isn’t allowed such mistakes – and she finds herself talked about viciously. Finding herself more and more on the outside of the social circle she had been so much a part of before. She finds herself in an increasingly worse position, friendless and desperate with less and less money, determined to repay the money Trenor gave her though with little hope of being able to do so. Ostracised and cruelly whispered about by her former friends in a society that cares more about how things appear than the truth of the matter – Lily’s fears of poverty seem about to be realised – and she finds herself horribly alone.

“As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.”

Wharton is clearly critical of this society which she knew so well from the inside. She shows us it from the woman’s perspective, with all its cruelties and inconsistences its absurd rules and petty conventions. The House of Mirth remains as readable as ever it was, a novel with a lot to say it is wonderfully compelling with a truly unforgettable heroine at its heart.

My Life in Books 2020

Popping up with an unexpected lunchtime post – because everyone seems to be having so much fun with this meme – and so I couldn’t not have a go.

Clicking on links will take you to the original review.

In high school I was: Don’t Look at me Like That” (Diana Athill)

People might be surprised by: The Murder of my Aunt (Richard Hull) 😉

I will never be: The Scapegoat (Daphne du Maurier)

My life in lockdown was like: The Slaves of Solitude (Patrick Hamilton)

My fantasy job is (at):  The Finishing School (Muriel Spark)

At the end of a long day I need: Tea is so Intoxicating (Mary Essex)

I hate being: The Matchmaker (Stella Gibbons)

Wish I had: A House in the Country (Ruth Adam)

My family reunions are: Loving without Tears (Molly Keane)

At a party you’d find me with:  Two Serious Ladies (Jane Bowles)

I’ve never been to: Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)

A happy day includes: Buttercups and Daisies (Compton Mackenzie)

Motto I live by: Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Olga Tokarczuk)

On my bucket list is: (developing a): Moral Disorder (Margaret Atwood)

In my next life, I want to have: The Adventures of China Iron (Gabriela Cabezón Cámera)

*disclaimer – some of these answers may not be entirely autobiographical*

I am so enjoying seeing people’s answers in these posts – which in turn shows me some of what everyone has been reading during this very peculiar year. If you haven’t had a go at this one yet please do – I had so much fun filling in my answers.

With thanks to Dean street press for the review ebook

Rhododendrom Pie was Margery Sharp’s first novel – it is famously hard to find and generally expensive when a copy comes up for sale. Therefore, there was great excitement among Margery Sharp fans when Dean Street Press announced it as one of the titles in their next batch of releases which are out at the beginning of January. I actually read this at the end of October – but have held my review back for a few weeks – it didn’t really seem quite fair to dangle a book in front of your noses when you couldn’t buy it for another two months – now at least you don’t have long to wait.

The story concerns Ann Laventie and her family. The Laventies are a family of social snobs, they see themselves as intellectual or artistic, they are cool and composed. The beauty of their surroundings matters to them enormously – an ugly chair for example is just not to be born no matter how comfortable it might be. Living at Whitenights in the Sussex countryside, they keep at arm’s length people they find dull or ordinary – and are known for not being very sociable locally. Ann however is rather different to her parents, her brother Dick and sister Elizabeth – she gets a lot of pleasure out of the ordinary things in life – and though she is proud of her family, and loves them, she feels unable to admit always to how she really feels about things.

One of the things Ann keeps quiet about is the odd family birthday tradition of presenting whoever’s birthday it is with a floral pie – a thing of beauty which naturally can’t actually be eaten.

“Every year she had hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place, Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.”

Dick is a sculptor, Elizabeth has become a writer of rather fine essays, Ann does not really have a talent – she is more down to earth, kind, practical and a good friend. Mrs Laventie had some kind of accident years earlier and is now disabled, and we get the impression that Mr Laventie takes himself off to Paris whenever it suits him to do so. The family have what they clearly all see as a more intelligent and progressive attitude to life. While the Laventies generally rather approve of the bohemian lifestyle of Elizabeth and Dick’s London friends and of people living together rather than marrying – Ann rather likes the idea of a white wedding with orange blossom and living happily ever after. She loves the garden at the family home in Sussex and enjoys living in the country. She does not entirely fit in with her sister’s friends in London, although on a visit to London, Ann easily makes friends and is found by everyone around her to be very likeable indeed.

“Ann settled down on the grass again with her chin on her fists and one shoe waving in the air. She wasn’t reading really, only pretending to, so that the others wouldn’t talk to her. It was too nice in the garden to talk. How queer to think she was lying on the surface of the world…an enormous warm green ball spinning slowly through space somewhere, under a lime tree like a sliver of grass, a minute pink dot.”

Ann is good friends with the Gayford family from next door – they are a large, noisy, loving family – a little chaotic, relaxed, and unpretentious and really quite different to the Laventie family. She is particularly fond of John Gayford, a gloriously ordinary young man, who works in the nearby town as a bank clerk. The Laventies sneer just a little at the Gayfords, react to a picnic invitation with eye rolling irritation and are certain that they are on a higher plane altogether.

“Ann reflected with pleasure that she was always known for English at sight – like Dr Gayford, who was invariably answered in his mother tongue whenever he tried to order a meal in French. They were English too – more than that, Sussex – and – well, Ann liked the Gayfords. And she liked Jimmy and James and Delia, and the next time an opportunity occurred she would say so. The flags of Ann’s rebellion swept on unchecked…”

When Gilbert, a handsome screenwriter comes to Whitenights from London to visit – he rather turns Ann’s head. Gilbert’s view of the future though would be totally different to Ann’s dreams – after a whirlwind visit to London, Ann is rather glad to get back home and happy to see stolid, sensible John Gayford again. John Gayford would not be the Laventie choice of suitor for their daughter however, John challenges Ann’s assumptions about him and his family – and while Ann has to find her way to her own happiness she must also find a way of reconciling her family to what she wants. 

Rhododendron Pie is a lovely book, in this first novel by Margery Sharp we can see something of the writer she was to become, as a debut it is excellent. A charming, whimsical novel which I am delighted to see back in print.

I hadn’t even heard of Plum Bun a few weeks ago, then I read a review of it on Julianna’s The Blank Garden blog. I knew instantly I wanted to read it and read it soon – recognising that it would make an interesting companion novel with Passing and The Vanishing Half which I read earlier this year.

The author Jessie Redmon Fauset was a contributor to the Harlem renaissance with her editorship of The Crisis, a NAACP magazine. In her own work she focused on themes such as racial discrimination, ‘passing’ and feminism. During the 1920s and 30s she published four novels – Plum Bun was the second of them, she also published some poetry, short stories and essays.

Plum Bun tells the story of Angela Murray – a young very light skinned African American woman who leaving her home in Philadelphia heads to New York where she intends to pass for white.

The novel starts with Angela in her mid-teens living happily with her family in a small house in Philadelphia. She has a younger sister Virginia (Jinny) – and parents; Mattie and Junius are simply devoted to one another. It is a happy, united family – though as she has grown up, Angela has begun to associate all the things she sees as worth having in life with being white. Like her mother Mattie, Angela has the pale skin inherited from her white ancestors – both Mattie and Angela are able to pass for white – sometimes deliberately – sometimes quite by accident. Virginia by contrast has a brown skin like her darker skinned father. Mattie sometimes chooses to ‘pass’ for convenience, and because she despises the stupid, prejudicial rules of the society in which they live. Mattie’s ability to ‘pass’ has quite an effect on her daughter Angela and unwittingly a seed is sown.

“…it seemed to Angela that all the things which she most wanted were wrapped up with white people. All the good things were theirs. Not, some coldly reasoning instinct within was saying, because they were white. But because for the present they had power and the badge of that power was whiteness…”

Angela is mistaken for white by a new girl at school – and the reaction of her new friend when she discovers her error – is profound. As she and Jinny get older the race question is one often discussed and argued over in their group of friends.

“We’ve all of us got to make up our minds to the sacrifice of some thing. I mean something more than just the ordinary sacrifices in life, not so much for the sake of the next generation as for the sake of some principle, for the sake of some immaterial quality like pride or intense self-respect or even a saving complacency; a spiritual tonic which the race needs perhaps just as much as the body might need iron or whatever it does need to give the proper kind of resistance. There are some things which an individual might want, but which he’d just have to give up forever for the sake of the more important whole.”

As young women of colour, when Angela and Jinny leave school and go out into the world to earn their own living their options are few. Angela attends an arts academy after leaving school but for both sisters the best option open to them is to be teachers. They are only permitted to work in certain schools – and both sisters start out on this path. However, Angela does not really want to be a teacher – as an artist her ambitions lie elsewhere – and she resents how much of the world is closed to her – how few chances there are because of her racial identity.

Angela finds the society of Philadelphia just too narrow for her – and she longs to break away. One of the young men in Angela and Jinny’s circle of friends has rather fallen for her – but Angela is unable to return his feelings.

In her early twenties, Angela makes the decision to go to New York city – where she intends to continue her art studies – and live her life passing as white. Once in New York she enters the bohemian, artistic scene of Greenwich Village and begins a passionate relationship with Roger; a wealthy young man, who she quickly learns is horribly bigoted.

“Angela was visual minded. She saw the days of the week, the months of the year in little narrow divisions of space. She saw the past years of her life falling into separate, uneven compartments whose ensemble made up her existence. Whenever she looked back on this period from Christmas to Easter she saw a bluish haze beginning in a white mist and flaming into something red and terrible; and across the bluish haze stretched the name: Roger.”

Her romance puts her relationship with her sister in jeopardy as Jinny comes to New York to be near her sister – and Angela is forced to make some difficult decisions. Roger represents freedom and possibilities that have been so far barred to Angela, but at what cost? Over the course of the next year – Angela comes to learn a lot about herself, and about race in the United States in the late 1920s. Jessie Fauset shows us that the issue of ‘passing’ was a complex one, one that threw up all kinds of dilemma’s about family and identity.

Plum Bun is a fascinating and hugely readable novel, which despite its subtitle I do not think is entirely without moral. I found myself fully involved in the lives of these sisters, Angela is a flawed woman, but still so likeable – she acknowledges her errors and learns from them. It is a shame that this novel is not better known.

I have lost count of the number of people who have written enthusiastically about A Month in the Country. It is a book I have had on my shelf for several years – but it was Novellas in November that finally got me to ferret it out and read it.

As I had been told, it really is a beautiful novella – a short work that lingers long in the memory I am sure. There is a beautiful elegiac quality to the story – which is told with a deep sigh for a time that is long past – narrated by a man in old age looking back to one, long perfect summer that was never to be repeated. The memory of which he has carried with him ever since through a long life – which we judge to have been rather less perfect. There is an obvious sadness in that – that yearning for a moment that passed too quickly – the acknowledgement that the time for such moments has almost certainly come and gone.

“And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart—knowing a precious moment had gone and we not there. We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.”

In the company of Tom Birkin, we return to the summer of 1920, as he, a young, damaged survivor of the First World War arrives in the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. Here he will spend the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting in the church – sleeping in the bell chamber, immersing himself in the peace and beauty of the local countryside. Glad of the work, Tom is in search of more than just employment – a Southerner – he has come North in search of something to soothe his soul, a healing of sorts for the dreadful emotional scars, facial tics and stammer he carries with him from that most awful of conflicts. Additionally, he is coming to terms with the almost certain break down of his marriage.

The vicar of the church, Rev Keach is not an enthusiast of the work Tom has been commissioned to carry out. He is rather dour and unwelcoming forced by circumstance to allow this stranger into his church. Tom’s work is the result of a bequest to the church – contingent on the work to uncover the wall painting being carried out. The same parishioner had requested that the resting place of an excommunicated ancestor also be located. So, while Tom begins work on uncovering the medieval artwork inside the church, a young archaeologist Charles Moon is busy in the grounds of the church. Tom and Moon are men who have both come out of the war having had similar experiences – there is an obvious bond there of shared experience.

As the peace and solitude of his surroundings begin to work their gentle magic on Tom, he discovers a joy in the work he is undertaking. He and Moon become friends, eating together in the churchyard, drinking together in the local hostelry. Soon enough Tom is drawn into the life of the village. Alice Keach becomes a regular visitor to the church while Tom is up on the scaffolding working away at the wall painting. The young, beautiful wife of the Rev Keach, sits in the seats below him, talking to him from a distance. Alice is nothing like her husband, the reader – along with Tom – wonder how this partnership was ever made.

He becomes very friendly with the Ellerbeck family, the young daughter Kathy cheerfully keeping him organised and bossing him about – ensuring he comes to dinner, her mother keeping him very well fed. Mr Ellerbeck is a Wesleyan pastor – run ragged trying to be in more than one place at a time – Tom finds himself helping out – deputising for the man who has shown him so much kindness – despite having no religious faith himself. He even becomes involved in the search for a new organ. Tom begins to know happiness, he is part of a community – he has valuable, careful work to complete, he has new friends.

“Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.
If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”

Throughout this slight novella, Carr’s prose has the ability to soothe the reader in the recreation of an almost perfect summer. The descriptions of Tom’s surroundings are as perfect as the world he is recreating – and for anyone who has spent any time in the English countryside – particularly the Yorkshire countryside it is quite possible to see it laid out before our eyes.

“There was so much time that marvellous summer. Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic”

A Month in the Country is an extraordinarily tender, bittersweet story of a perfect moment in time, a vanished place in an idyllic summer. So pleased I finally read this exquisite little novella – I am sure it is one I will read again one day.

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

My first review for #DiverseDecember is The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga it is the story of the author’s mother, Stefania; a Tutsi woman – telling the story of how she raised her children and protected her family during the Rwandan genocide. It is a poignant gentle memoir.

There are times when a book comes in our way, and we think I cannot read that now – it will be too hard, too harrowing, too sad etc. I admit that was something like my reaction when I first received The Barefoot Woman with my Asymptote book subscription (which I have let lapse but may go back to). There is clearly a privilege in being able to choose to look away – while not overwhelming ourselves with things we are not in the right place for. So, I am very glad I held on to this – and I need not have feared the story would overwhelm me either – because it does not. It is very clear – poignantly so – early on what happened to the author’s mother and other members of her family: –   

“Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.”

Yet the majority of the book – does not concern itself with violence and horror – although we know they are not far away. Instead this is a story of memory, of love – bringing back to life a woman who did all she possibly could to keep her family safe. This story is a testament of a mother’s love and determination – a very personal memorial to a woman whose story stands for so many others, who despite everything, through this book cannot be erased from history.

Stefania’s family – like so many other Tutsi families spent several years living in exile – in villages away from the majority Hutu population. For the author and her siblings as they grew up, this place was more of a home than it ever could be for their mother who felt her displacement intensely. Mukasonga recalls the constant fear they all lived with, of the soldiers who might suddenly come through the door – and her mother’s ingenious ways of creating escape routes and hiding places for her children.

“But we had to be ready for anything: sometimes the soldiers were too quick even for my mother’s sharp ear. And so, for those times when we wouldn’t be able to reach the brush, she left armloads of wild grass in the middle of the field, mounds just big enough for her three little girls to slip into when the alarm was sounded. She kept a mental catalogue of what she thought would be the safest hiding places in the bush. She discovered the deep burrows dug by the anteaters. She was convinced we could slither into them, and so with Antoine’s help she widened the tunnels and camouflaged the entrances under piles of grasses and branches.”

However, this is also – and mainly – a book about a way of life, a childhood. It is the story of the sorghum harvest, the ceremony involved in the planting, harvesting, and eating of sorghum – the hope for rain at just the right time. Mukasonga recalls in some detail the rites and traditions of a Rwandan village – which knowing so little about Rwanda (aside from the news headlines) I found particularly fascinating. It is a warm, affectionate portrait of a village in exile – where the village ‘doctor’ a former nurse only has two medicines he can prescribe – cough syrup and aspirin – but Stefania created her own botanical pharmacy with which to treat her children and others. Marriages are arranged for local women and the author’s brother – in which Stefania plays her part. Rwandan ideas of beauty are fixed and hard to live up to – but how does a young woman know what she might look like to others living in a village with no mirrors?

“If you wanted to be elegant and refined, you had only to follow Mama’s advice and example: imitate the village ladies’ lazy, swaying walk (with every step they took they seemed to be standing in place), let a slightly vacant gaze drift over the people around you, and above all, when someone speaks to you, always keep your eyes lowered…”

This novella sized memoir published by Archipelago books is a beautifully lyrical tribute, revealing and personal telling an important story from recent history. Scholastique Mukasonga has written another memoir and a novel both published in English which also portray childhood and schooling in Rwanda in the years before the genocide of the Tutsi people. I am keen to read them both.

November in review

November has whizzed by for me – perhaps because I have been working from home, it has become so hard to tell one day from the next.

November is a month of reading challenges, there are a good number around to join in with – and I did fairly well with #MARM and Novellas in November and even got one in for Nonfiction November. Ten books read – which would have been more if I had stuck to my plan of just reading novellas – but of course I didn’t.

I started the month with the first of three books by Margaret Atwood. Surfacing was a re-read for me, though I remembered nothing about it.  This is a novel about human behaviour, identity, personal and national, grief, loss and memory. I’m convinced that I appreciated this one so much more this time around.

The progress of a Crime by Julian Symons – a fireworks crime story sent to me by the British Library. I read it during the week of Fireworks night. There is little work for the armchair detective to do – but in the atmosphere of the early 1960s the conflict between different generations and its portrayal of police methods The Progress of a Crime paints a vivid picture.

My nod to Non-fiction November came in the shape of Popcorn by Cornelia Otis Skinner – a collection of autobiographical essays from the American actress and writer written during the Second Word War. A really enjoyable collection.

My first of two novellas in translation was A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, a novel that is both heart-rending and brilliantly compelling at the same time. It is a novel about mothers and daughters, family secrets and the nature of belonging.

Turnpike books kindly sent me copies of the two Barbara Comyns books they have brought out. The House of Dolls – a more minor Comyns perhaps but I loved it. The setting is a small boarding house in Kensington, the house is run by Amy Doll – who lives in the basement of the house with her daughter Hetty. Upstairs reside four middle aged or elderly ladies who between them and under the direction of two; Berti and Evelyn have established an eccentric kind of bordello for elderly gentlemen – finding a little prostitution on the side really helps to pay the rent.

My second read for this year’s MARM was Moral Disorder – a collection of linked short stories – which could almost be read as a novel. The stories are of one woman told in non-chronological order the ups and downs of family life – from childhood through to late middle age. Through these stories it feels like Atwood is recounting the stories of a generation – her generation.

MaddAddam is a very different novel to the first two Atwood books I read this month, showing what huge versatility she has as a writer. The third in the trilogy of the same name – its conclusion gave me reason to hope.

I have had A Month in the Country by J L Carr tbr for a ridiculously long time. Novella November provided me with the perfect occasion to read it. It is, of course every bit as lovely as everyone said – review to come.

I read the The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga translated from French by Jordan Stump for Novellas in November but also with #DiverseDecember in Mind (see below) – as I knew I wouldn’t have time to review it in November. I was very aware I had been skirting around this Rwandan novella for ages – having received it as part of the Asymptote book club when I was subscribing to that. There is a privilege in that choice to look away – which I am aware of – so decided to take a deep breath and get reading. It’s a poignant novel certainly, but nothing like as harrowing as I had feared. I hope to revie this later this week.

My second re-read of the month – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, my book group’s December pick, and it’s been quite a while since I read it so read it again so I could talk about it. I am remined that there are quite a number of Edith Wharton books I haven’t even read for the first time.

So, that was November – a good month all in all.

Yet another reading challenge caught my eye last week. Naomi from The Writes of Womxn is hosting #DiverseDecember – and I probably had intended to read more diversely than I have managed this year so it struck a chord. As Naomi explains…

“#DiverseDecember is a month of reading and recommending books by Black, brown and indigenous writers. It is an opportunity to discover new books, to consider our reading habits and to make a permanent change in what we choose to read.”

Already this year I have encountered some wonderful books that would fit into the category above. Titles like The Vanishing Half, Queenie, Such a Fun Age, Quicksand & Passing, Brown Girl, Brownstones, Celestial Bodies and Dust Tracks on a Road – any of which I would recommend if you’re looking for #DiverseDecember inspiration. So, scanning my shelves (and my kindle) I realised I had quite a pile of really marvellous looking books – and quite a diverse group in themselves.

The problem I shall have is in choosing which to read – as I can’t possibly read them all. Here’s my pile (in addition my kindle contains The Distant Traveller by Attia Hosain, Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo and The Enlightenment of the Greenage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar)

Do you have any recommendations from the pile?

As always I would love to know what you have been reading in November and what if any plans you have for December.

My third read for this year’s #MARM was MaddAddam the final book in the trilogy of the same name. I have spaced out the three volumes quite widely – so I was pleased to see a little rounding up of the main points of each of the first two books in the front of this. It helped to refresh my memory a bit – although I have to say Year of the Flood has really stayed with me and remains my favourite of the three books.

While the events in Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood run parallel to each other – MaddAddam moves the story of characters like Jimmy, Toby and Zeb forward.

It’s really hard to review the final book in a trilogy that other people may not have read – as a whole it’s a trilogy that is extraordinary in its scope and imagination. Saying that though – in her acknowledgements Margaret Atwood states that…

“Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.”

I think that gives us much food for thought – Margaret Atwood is often lauded for her astute, keen eyed view of the world – she seems to have her finger on the pulse of the world and its myriad issues. In this trilogy – she shows us how we could end up – reminding us, should we need it – what destruction we have wrought on our planet.

The ‘waterless flood’ (a plague) has swept the earth – there are a few ragged human survivors – and the children of Crake – the perfect, innocent species he created to take the place of human beings. Jimmy (or Snowman) befriended the Crakers – telling them stories of Oryx and Crake. Meanwhile, Toby, Adam One and the God’s Gardeners who we met in The Year of the Flood were scattered by the plague – prey to the evil Painballers – who attack, abuse, kill and rape with impunity. The Year of the Flood ends with Amanda being rescued from the Painballers and Toby observing the Gardener forgiveness feast. This novel picks up exactly where that one ends.

The Children of Crake move toward the group of human survivors, singing their endless song. The Painballers are tied up, but Toby hesitates to kill – and they escape – to pretty much everyone’s dismay. For me Toby is a recognisable Atwood heroine – she cares for others, has a powerful connection to the natural world, feeling things deeply – she harbours a secret love for Zeb and is jealous of one of the younger women who she thinks might cast her eye at Zeb. As Toby and the MaddAddamites settle themselves into the cob-house enclave – the Children of Crake – settle themselves nearby. Jimmy-the-snowman is in a Coma and the Crakers await his recovery by finding a new hero in Zeb.

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

Toby starts to tell stories – stories of the world before – the chaos – and stories that will help move this new world forward. The Crakers – are innocents – they love the stories Toby tells – they ask questions continually – like children – why, how – tell it again. One of the most attentive listeners is Blackbeard a young Craker – keen to learn it’s to him that Toby reveals the secret of writing when he catches her writing in her journal.

“It had helped to keep her sane, that writing. Then, when time had begun again and real people had entered it, she’d abandoned it here. Now it’s a whisper from the past.”

Through Toby’s stories – we finally learn about Zeb and Adam and how they came to the God’s Gardeners. Zeb tells the stories to Toby and Toby relates them to the Crakers in a way they can understand. Atwood has always been a wonderful weaver of tales – stories within stories.

However, this new world is a difficult often hostile place. As the clever, wild pigoons attack the precious garden that Toby and the others tend with care – and with the lingering threat of the Painballers return – it’s clear that this small band of survivors will need much more than mere stories.

“Glenn used to say the reason you can’t really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, “I’ll be dead,” you’ve said the word I, and so you’re still alive inside the sentence. And that’s how people got the idea of immortality of the soul – it was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there’s a past tense, there has to be a past before the past, and you keep going back in time until you get to I don’t know, and that’s what God is. It’s what you don’t know – the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar …”

I hope it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that there isn’t a big cymbals crashing kind of finale to this book – which I found especially fitting. There is a sense of things carrying on in this new world that humans have created – which for me was a little more comforting than a big drama. That said – there is a poignancy to the ending too for those of us who have followed certain characters through three instalments. There is also hope – which as a species we are clearly in need of.  

With thanks to Virago for this stunning review copy.

I don’t often re-post old (slightly edited) reviews – but I felt compelled to do so when Virago sent me this simply delicious new hardback edition of Black Narcissus. This sumptuous new edition is released to coincide with the new BBC adaptation. I read it a little too recently to re-read it just yet – plus you know – too many books! However, I do love Rumer Godden’s writing and this one is rightly judged to be a classic. This new edition comes with a lovely new introduction by Amanda Coe – which I really enjoyed reading. Coe’s introduction sets Godden’s novel in context – exploring the complexities in it. She reveals how when she was adapting the novel for the new BBC miniseries she was able to be more faithful to the context of the book than that classic 1947 film.

“Godden’s wonderful book sets out a complex vision of the variety, necessity and danger of desire, rendered into a story that is completely pleasurable. I envy anyone reading for the first time.”

(Amanda Coe – Introduction)

The film of Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It was quite the melodrama starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

This is a novel of unsettling passions that have been repressed set against an extraordinary landscape.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

 The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.

He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than that old film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am looking forward to the new adaptation – which I believe airs next month. Will you be watching?