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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook.

If your idea of hell is an unwelcome house guest/tenant who upsets the rhythm of your home and spoils your most loved possessions, then this is a book that will resonate strongly. As someone who has lived alone a long time, and despite having lots of great family and friends who I love spending time with, appreciates my own company, this novel played into all my anxieties. Within a few pages I found myself shuddering at the predicament the central character of Not at Home finds herself in.

Elinor MacFarren is a middle aged single woman, and in the summer of 1945, finds herself obliged to enter into a house share with another woman. She is living in what has been the family home, where she lived once with her brothers, and where she helped to raise her nephew. Now she is alone, and money is tight. Miss MacFarren has spent her adult life writing about botany, publishing several books, and has something of a reputation in the field. She also has a wonderful collection of old botanical prints and some beautiful, antique pieces of furniture in the house of which she is very proud. Two china cats are her particular pride and joy, and their welfare the reader can’t help but fear for throughout the book. From the first page I was #teamMacFarren all the way – even though Elinor is a bit stuck in her ways (who isn’t).

Elinor has one live in servant – who may not like the idea of two people to run after in the house – so that is the first problem to be faced.

“On the step was a woman laden with flowers, a wonderfully smart woman with a white cloth coat, a yellow taffeta turban draped in the newest style, and white wedge-heeled shoes as complex as a Chinese puzzle. Her hair was pale gold and her ivory-coloured face suggested rather than achieved the most extraordinary beauty. With a smile of such radiance as lies only in the consciousness of flawless teeth, she extended from amongst the flowers a lemon-coloured suede glove.”

When Mrs Antonia Bankes comes to discuss the prospect of a house share she assures Elinor – that she is quiet – has few guests – will help with the domestic duties around the house etc. Having been recommended to Elinor through a mutual friend Mrs Bankes – whose American correspondent husband is still in Europe – seems like the perfect tenant. Elinor divides the rooms in the house between them – giving all the best rooms – as her nephew Mory declares in amazement – to Antonia. Mory works in film – and lives a pretty rackety life- especially compared to his aunt – she is frequently ready to be shocked by his exploits.

“It was not that she was ignorant of young men and their ways; she had read books, she had grown up with two brothers. But Mory sowed wild oats as systematically as if he were bedding out some useful vegetable for the kitchen garden, He seemed to invite one to approve of his crop.”

Naturally, things don’t turn out quite as poor Elinor MacFarren has expected. Antonia Bankes we quickly learn is quite able to present to the world which ever face is most advantageous to her – even when that is about as far from the truth as you can get. She is quite simply an appalling tenant. Soon the ‘shared’ spare room is constantly filled with Antonia’s friends – they troop in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night – dropping cigarette ash all over the carpets in the sitting room that has been given over to Antonia. The china cats are in daily peril, often used – to Miss MacFarren’s horror – as doorstops. The house soon starts to suffer, Antonia never lifts a finger – the servant Manders does her best – but in time she predictably leaves them to it.

Whenever Antonia breaks something or Miss McFarren has to politely remind her about something she behaves as if poor Elinor is being ever so fussy and silly – poor Elinor is constantly on edge and is unable to do a stroke of work. Antonia, Elinor realises is like a spoilt child, incapable of seeing the consequences of her actions or having any conscience at all. Some domestic pets unfortunately come in for poor treatment by Antonia Bankes too – a cageful of birds bought on a whim and later a fox terrier that she is supposed to be looking after for a friend. Animal lovers – I’m afraid the dog doesn’t last long – but is thankfully not dwelt upon or described in too upsetting a way.

Time moves on and Elinor finds herself unable to evict her nightmare tenant – the thought of living with her for a month under such conditions simply horrifies her. When Antonia’s husband Joss arrives home on leaves he loves the house, and Miss MacFarren realises he is much better than his wife, but his visits are short lived. Elinor’s adored nephew Mory introduces her to the beautiful Maxine Albert – a young actress, of whom, Miss MacFarren isn’t sure she approves at first – but the two soon become unlikely friends and co-conspirators in the fight to rid the house of Mrs Bankes. Others are brought into Miss MacFarren’s plans too – Harriet – who first introduced Mrs Bankes – has to finally admit that Antonia isn’t at all what she thought, and Dr Wilmot who Elinor always saw as a rival – soon shows himself to be a friend too. Poor Elinor is desperate to have the house back to herself.

Not at Home is the first novel by Doris Langley Moore that I have read – it won’t be last I am sure, Dean Street have re-issued a few. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of domestic disharmony – and enjoyed absolutely loathing Antonia Bankes.

Translated from Danish by Toby Bainton

I tend to think of Handheld press as publishing classics and forgotten works by once popular authors, I thoroughly enjoyed, What Not, Blitz Writing, Business as Usual and The Caravaners and have a couple more tbr. While perusing their website a few months ago however, I came across this novel – After the Death of Ellen Keldberg a modern Danish novel in translation. The cover – depicting a naked man standing alone in a snowy landscape is certainly arresting. So, I discovered that alongside their wonderful classics Handheld have published a couple of modern novels – and this was the first of them.

The novel is set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which in summer is an artists’ paradise, frequented by regular summer visitors and second homeowners. In winter though, only the locals remain, as temperatures plummet and snow piles up. There are some incredible descriptions of snow, especially right at the beginning of the novel. There’s a clear sense of place immediately, and it was somewhat oddly refreshing to be reading this novel in my garden, on a very hot day.

The artist Ellen Keldberg has recently been found dead, frozen on a bench in the street without her coat. Now, she has been laid out on her bed in her apartment, awaiting a post-mortem. Everyone in the town knew Ellen, who they called Krille, apparently a derivative of her middle name Kristine. Everyone knows she had been drinking with her friend Poul – it’s a simple enough case, so everyone believes.

“The boys almost fall through the doorway looking like inflated fledglings in their thick quilted jackets.

‘There’s a man with no clothes on lying on the beach’ cries the elder brother.

‘A what?’ asks Zeppo.

‘A man. A man with no clothes on,’ blurts out the younger brother with a troubled look. ‘Down near the Sunset snack bar.’”

The novel opens a week later from the main events in the novel, when the sons of a local Polish chef find a naked man lying on the frozen beach. They assume he is dead, but on investigation, their father sees he isn’t – quite. How did he come to be there? – and why? We return to the events of a week earlier.

Ellen Keldberg’s death brings two young people to Skagen from Copenhagen. The first is Mikkel, her nephew who only met her once when he was a child – there is a photograph proving the meeting, but Mikkel has no real memory of their encounter. With his parents out of the country on holiday it has fallen to Mikkel, an economics student – to travel to Skagen in the depths of winter to organise his aunt’s funeral. The second is twenty year old Anne Sofie who comes to find a gallery to show her photographs, but also to pursue her own interest in Ellen, and what happened to her, what was it that led her to that bench in the first place?

Anne Sofie is a strange young woman, her behaviour is erratic and often troubling she frequently tells lies, yet she is determined to learn all she can about Krille and the truth about her life in Skagen. Anne Sofie is a brilliantly drawn, enigmatic character, often infuriating yet as we get to know her, we begin to understand some of her odd behaviours, and see in her a young woman in need of some support.

“Howling and gusting, quite a wind has got up, and the snow begins to build up in drifts along the street. She takes a deep breath and shuts the gate behind her, enchanted by the light from the moon sailing at full speed across the breaks in the cloud. She runs with the wind at her back, does a quick sprint and then slides down to the main road and walks briskly along beside the whitened fences. By the time she’s got to Brøndums Hotel she feels hot and breathless. The lights are on in the dining-room, and she sees a lonely party of guests behind the thin curtains.”

Mikkel is soon drawn into Anne Sofie’s world and her preoccupation with death, which she is keen to photograph. Anne Sofie knows the town much better than Mikkel her parents have a holiday home there where Anne Sofie is staying – she spends a lot of time with a local young man Sonny, who like herself is something of an outsider in the town. Mikkel finds himself getting on the wrong side of Sonny. Other people from the town clearly know more about Ellen Keldberg’s past than they are saying but Anne Sofie is unstoppable in her search for answers, even when it becomes clear that there is someone who doesn’t want the past to be raked up.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg is a wonderfully compelling novel, both a revealing family saga and a mystery. It is also an atmospheric portrait of Skagen in winter, weaving together stories of old and new alliances, secrets, and art.  

Known to Persephone readers as the author of There were No Windows, which I read a very long time ago – Norah Hoult was actually a fairly prolific writer. Though it would appear that most of her work is out of print – a couple of titles have been brought back by Irish publishers New Island books.  That much I found out after having read and very much enjoyed Cocktail Bar – a collection of short stories. I have now added that other title – Farewell Happy Fields to my tbr – buying from the publisher’s website – I shall keep my eyes peeled for more Norah Hoult coming out in the future.

I was alerted to this collection – as so often happens – by another blogger. Cathy at 746 books, reviewed this book during read Ireland month and I bought it soon after. It appears that Norah Hoult may have been largely forgotten because her work was so often banned in Ireland – according to the introduction by Sinéad Gleeson – more often than Edna O’Brien.

Cocktail Bar is a superb collection of twelve stories, I couldn’t find a poor one among them, though naturally some stories stand out more than others. In these stories Norah Hoult reveals the realities of life of the period (published 1950) for women, Irish Immigrants, the disabled and both upper and working class people. The stories set in Ireland or among Irish people are for me the best in the collection. Hoult examines the delicacies in human relationships, those things that go unspoken. The stories take us to Hoult’s native Ireland as well as England, and Italy.  Frequently, characters in these stories come up against the reality of life – life not always what was expected or dreamed of, small disappointments a feature of their existence.

The first story in the book was one of my favourites, Irish Wedding –   a group if Irish immigrants gather to celebrate the marriage of two young people.

“There were a lot of shoes to be cleaned. He was doing his father-in-law’s shoes, and Joe put an extra bit of polish on them just for the reason that his feelings toward old Johnny Larkin were mixed up, because the old man could be an awful trial and no mistake. The bridegroom’s, of course, had to be cleaned and shined to the heights, and he handled them with a sort of reverence, for since marriage was a Sacrament, these were the shoes of a man about to partake of the holy mysteries.”

(Irish Wedding)

Johnny Mullen is being married from the home of Joe Maginnis where he lodges, his brothers have come over from Ireland especially for the day and have been squeezed into the house for a couple of nights. Joe who will serve as best man, his wife and father in law make up the rest of the household. Joe is hardworking, worried about money and determined everything will run to time and go just right. Johnny and his brothers are of a different personality – more relaxed, carefree, and fond of a drink or two. It is a wonderful examination of expectation and the traditions of the ceremony.

Other stories set in Ireland include: The Rich Man, Which Bright Cup and The Holy Picture. In the first of these, a man’s wealth is the talk and speculation of his small Irish town and the surrounding area. He is prevented from moving forward by the thought of what others might say – in this story Hoult portrays that small town envy that must exist all over the world. In Which Bright Cup a young woman has to choose between the lure of America and staying in her small town and marrying her long time boyfriend. She is a vain, ambitious girl a little afraid of being ordinary.

“Her heart was heavy and it was also excited as she contemplated this possible vision of her future. Life was deeper, and it was also a more dangerous business, than she’d ever imagined. Even someone as smart as herself might easily do the wrong thing.”

(Which Bright Cup)

In The Holy Picture, an unnamed child living with her mother in their small guest house is impressed with a glamorous visitor. The woman is English, with a couple of handsome looking bags, it’s her Englishness that lends her a special kind of glamour.

Hoult’s observations of type extend just as well to her English characters. In the wonderful Three People and Jane a dreadfully bossy suburban housewife runs her polite neighbourhood with an iron fist, managing to extract money from those who can barely afford it, for her latest project, and inflicting her harsh opinions on others. In When Miss Coles Made the Tea a young deaf girl – the pride of her family, gets a job in book shop. She is bullied by a colleague who claims she is acting above her station; she is also teased cruelly about her deafness. In Observation, the snobby Mrs Cook-Burton observes the people around her as she journeys across London. Her opinions of those she encounters are thinly veiled xenophobic, as she sounds off to herself about ‘foreigners.’ Certainly, Norah Hoult is good and portraying ‘type’ and she does so with precision and a keen ear for their voices.

Throughout this collection, it is Hoult’s female characters that are the most successful – women of all ages and types are observed in all their absurdities and weaknesses.

The title story Cocktail Bar closes the collection, and for me it is possibly one of the least memorable. In it, Gus a young man and two women sit in a Mayfair bar, they have all drunk a lot – one woman calls the other a bitch – without explanation. A discussion of the word follows. Gus gets talking to the Irish barmaid, asking her why she degrades herself by serving drinks in a bar.

All in all, this was a wonderful collection of stories, and I am looking forward now to reading that other Hoult title I have acquired.

I have been inside my house – except for a couple of necessary medical appointments for almost four months. I have got quite used to it – and really I am quite happy for everyone else to be going out and about, but I have to shield until the end of July. I wasn’t too well at the beginning of lockdown – my RA was particularly bad – and to cheer myself up I started buying books – well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Admittedly I have been a lot better the last few weeks – but the buying has continued. Despite all this – lockdown has saved me money – somehow – so I can’t even feel that guilty.

I shop in a variety of places online, I do use Amazon I’m afraid – mainly for kindle, many of the non-kindle books came from small independent sellers I follow on Twitter or direct from publishers, and I recently used Hive for the first time – a bit late to the party there – it’s great. I like to spread the book buying love – and not just buy from one obvious source. My go to place for old/out of print books is usually ebay.

So, here’s what I bought in lockdown – some of these books have already been read – I am a fickle reader, and never read in order of acquisition. If you’re tempted to think the pile of books in the picture doesn’t look too bad – you must take into account the books bought on kindle – and the two on order yet to arrive!

Some of the print on demand VMCs that I seem only to be able to find brand new on the dreaded Amazon – I snap them up when I see them. It’s frustrating that there isn’t a list of what’s available anywhere – and I find I have to search Virago Modern Classics – and trawl through pages on the site before I come across them.

Old New York Stories by Edith Wharton

The Last of Summer by Kate O’Brien

Walking Naked by Nina Bawden

As Once in May by Antonia White – already read.

With birthday money I bought a lovely edition of A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen – and read it straight away.

Cocktail Bar by Norah Hoult – a wonderful collection of stories, which I shall review next week.

Submerged by A L Barker – short stories, never read her before, though I have her novel John Brown’s Body tbr too.

The Machine Stops and other stories – E M Forster – more stories, I saw an article about The Machine Stops and was so intrigued I had to buy the book.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara a book for Spanish Lit month also shortlisted for the International booker – which I have read, and just reviewed.

The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez for Spanish lit month – note the tell tale bookmark, I’m currently reading this short novel.

Hurricane season by Fernanda Melchor will tick off Spanish Lit month and Women in Translation month, and it’s shortlisted for this year’s International Booker prize.

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – another for Women in translation month, last year I read Liar by her.

Farewell Happy Fields – by Norah Hoult – following my read of Cocktail Bar, I discovered that New Island books also published one of Hoult’s novels. I am hoping they will bring out more – she was quite a prolific writer.

Two more books are on order – one is a pre-order; the paperback of The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa. The other is I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – I have been itching to re-read it for years. I think they’ll arrive together in a few weeks from a lovely independent online retailer I found via Twitter.

Phew… Except then there is the kindle. I buy on kindle because sometimes my hands can’t cope with holding books – and it makes life easier, and also modern books and some translated fiction books I often choose to buy on kindle because, well frankly I already have rather a lot of books in the house. Sometimes the kindle version is a lot cheaper. So not counting the three review copies that have landed in my kindle recently I have bought…

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – already read – such a good book.

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – well everyone else has been reading it.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides reviewed so enthusiastically by Jacqui – and it has a Birmingham connection.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree – by Shokoofeh Azar – shortlisted for this year’s International Booker – I had no intention of trying to read the whole shortlist, but I seem to have acquired most of them. It’s also a book I could read for Women in translation month.

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld another for Women in Translation month and on the Internation Booker shortlist – and yes I have far too many books for this year’s #WITmonth.

So that’s it – and really, I think it could have been a lot worse – some might say I’ve been quite restrained.

So, buy any good books lately?

Translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre

Spanishlit month is underway, and I don’t think I have ever joined in with it before, but this time I am planning on reading two or three titles – and The Adventures of China Iron is the first of them. Here I am reviewing out of order again – I’ll be back on track with my next post.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara is an Argentinian writer whose debut novel Slum Virgin is also published by Charco Press. The Adventures of China Iron is shortlisted for this year’s International booker prize. I have acquired three more of this year’s shortlist, and I wasn’t deliberately trying to read the short list – they just all sounded so good.

I have seen this described on Goodreads as a riotous romp – and really I can think of no better description. It is a colourful, subversive re-telling of the epic poem Martin Fierro from a feminist, LBGT perspective. In this novel, Cámara tells a story of freedom, love and sex against a backdrop of the Argentinian pampas. In the poem Martin Fierro – which I had never heard of – China is very much a peripheral character, here Cámara gives her a voice and a story of her own – bringing her to life. China’s voice is naïve – but as the novel progresses she grows, in knowledge, understanding and sensuality.

It is 1872, and China (pronounced Cheena) is a very young woman living in a gaucho encampment. Having been forced into marriage at a very tender age, China takes her chance to run, when her husband is conscripted into the army. Leaving her two tiny boys in the care of an older woman. China sets off on a journey by wagon through the pampas, in the company of Liz, a woman from Scotland in search of her husband. China is accompanied by a puppy, Estreya.

Liz teaches China some of her language, the ways of the British Empire and about love.

“I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to take the scissors and cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad. Good boy she said to me, then pulled my face towards her and kissed me on the mouth, It surprised me, I didn’t understand, I didn’t know you could do that and it was revealed to me so naturally: why wouldn’t you be able to do that? Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth, her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.”

As they travel they meet Rosario – a gaucho carrying a lamb on his saddle, driving his cattle toward Indian territory. Rosario – or Rosa as he comes to be called – accompanies them on their journey, glad of some company after miles of wilderness.

The novel is divided into three parts; The Pampas, The Fort and Indian Territory – within each part chapters are short. Part one, beautifully describes the landscape of the Pampas, China’s eyes are opened to the beauty of the world. This strange little group of travellers are soon a family.  

“It only took a few days of wagon, dust and stories for us to become a family. Entwined in our burgeoning love we laughed at old fears of being abandoned, of being defeated, of falling to the ground without the strength to get up, of lying there at the mercy of the caranchos, of being reduced to what we are: a structure of bones and minerals, like stones.”

In part two the travellers reach the fort, presided over by Colonel Hernández. Hernández is courteous and welcoming, keen to tell them of the progress he is bringing to Argentina. However, this world is tightly controlled by Hernández and there is little freedom for those living within the walls of the fort – they hear stories of terrible violence and punishment – this is not somewhere China, Liz and Rosario want to stay. While at the fort, China and Liz enter into a heady, sexual relationship – it seems they can barely keep their hands of each other.

“The air in Las Hortensias you could see through, but it made you choke and splutter. It was suffocating: hard to breathe in or out. It must have been because of Campo Malo, the sound of the gauchos groaning as they were punished, or the repressed desires of the others for all the things they’d been denied. Yes, freedom is the best air my darling.”

Part three – Indian Territory – the party finally arrive in the Indian territory.  I won’t say too much about what they find here, but the Indians are fully in tune with the natural world, and there is a sense of the travellers having found a utopia. The ending is really rather joyous!

I enjoyed this novel – though I much preferred parts one and three – I found part two – especially the stories of punishment and violence less appealing. China is a wonderful character though, I found her very engaging, watching her grow almost from child to woman, her gradual understanding of the world and that which lies beyond the pampas is well done. Her voice is quirky and humorous, she is wonderfully accepting of everything new she sees and experiences. Throughout the novel landscape is important and there are some lovely descriptions of the land and its animals, it’s a very visual novel, which is always helpful when reading about somewhere you have never been, and unlike your normal environment.

June in review

July! I can’t quite believe that it’s July already, for me the year is speeding along like a runaway train, perhaps for others it’s dragging. While others are starting to venture out into the world again, I am still shielding – till August. I am doing some work from home too. The danger of course that this has all started to feel quite normal.

June was the first month since lockdown – and possibly this year when I feel as if I have started to read a little more. I’m about fifty pages shy of having read twelve books in June – two of them secreted away on my kindle. I have also read a little more widely and diversely this month, with a couple of non-fiction (although they weren’t what I think of as proper non-fiction) and a couple of novels in translation and some new fiction.

I began June with A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen, a lovely first edition I bought with birthday money from ebay – it was quite reasonable and in very good condition. It was also the last of her novels I had to read. It is a novel of great subtlety, focussing on the lives of a group of people in a large house in Ireland.

Following a conversation with Karen from Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings during our weekly lockdown Zoom call I picked up The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin. I gulped it down, I thoroughly enjoyed the subtlety of this one, the fact it wasn’t too heavy on the action, is why I especially liked it. Fremlin is an excellent writer of suspense fiction, in which she weaves a psychological mystery around a domestic setting.

Journal by Katherine Mansfield was the first of those non-fiction books I read. I have struggled more than usual to read non-fiction – so this seemed a good one to try, as journals, biography, memoirs are more narrative driven than other kinds of non-fiction. I did enjoy this book – perhaps my review made it sound like I didn’t – but I was definitely not in the right mood after all – and that spoiled my experience of it. Katherine Mansfield remains a big favourite with me though. There are many beautiful moments throughout however, and the reader does get a real sense of who Katherine Mansfield was.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley is a late Victorian novel that is satisfyingly many things at once. A novel of what was then termed ‘the New Woman’ while also having something of the sensation novel about it. It is a novel that satirises the smug, complacency of the middle classes and some aspects of the clergy – demonstrating how women needed independence. Here is a story of a close female friendship, romance, adultery, a suicide pact and the search for fulfilment. It zips along at a marvellous pace, becoming hard to put down. 

There has been a lot of talk on social media about The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (which I read on kindle.) Very recently published I think it deserves all the attention it is getting. The Vanishing Half is a brilliantly compelling read – it’s a story of race, of colour, exploring the American history of ‘passing.’ It is also a story of belonging – of finding your place in the world.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi is the first book in translation I had read for about three months. Winner of the Man Booker International prize 2019, it is a novel of Omani society through the lives, loves and losses of one family. It has really whetted my appetite for more in translation, and since reading it I have pulled two more books in translation from the shelves.

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols is technically non-fiction but as I said not what I think of proper non-fiction. This is the first book in Beverley Nichols’ second garden trilogy. After the Second World War Beverley Nichols decided he wished to buy a large country house with extensive gardens. Early in the book Nichols finds his perfect house, a large Georgian house in five acres of grounds. It is delightful and thoroughly entertaining.

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall had me going off and researching a little about the author – who I knew nothing about. I definitely now want to read more by her. It is a coming of age story; Selina Boyce is the younger daughter of Barbadian immigrants living in Brooklyn, New York during the Depression and Second World War. It is very evocative of a time and place and of a community. Marshall shows us with some poignancy what it was to grow up black and female. 

In the mood for some short stories, and with plenty to choose from I picked up Cocktail Bar by Norah Hoult which I first saw reviewed by Cathy at 746 books during read Ireland month. It is a wonderful collection, which I will review soon. I discovered, what a prolific writer Norah Hoult was, and I am pleased that New Island books have re-issued this collection and one of Hoult’s novels. Many of you will be familiar with her novel There Were No Windows published by Persephone books.

My second novel in translation read in June was After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen published by Handheld Press. A modern Danish novel which I must say I enjoyed a lot – it is set in Skagen a seaside fishing town in winter. Not wanting to pre-empt my review too much but I found it quirky, atmospheric and very compelling.

Dean street press books do make for great weekend reading I find. Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore (another kindle read) was no exception. A novel of domestic disharmony set just after the end of WW2 – there is a character I loathed so much – but quite enjoyed loathing and I longed to see what would happen to her.

At the time of writing I am close to the end of The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara is an Argentinian novel shortlisted for this year’s International Booker prize, that I am reading for Spanishlit month (which seems to be July and part of August).

Gosh this post is already rather long – so I will just say that my plans for July include at least one more book for Spanishlit month and my book group read of Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. Other than that, I shall see where my mood takes me.

Happy reading everyone – tell me what brilliant things did you read in June?

I have had Brown Girl, Brownstones among my stack of unread Viragos for some time and when I was looking for a virago to read recently it caught my eye. I realised I knew nothing at all about the author – and went off in search of a little information. Oh, what did we all do before the internet?

Like the heroine in her debut novel – Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn, New York her parents having emigrated from Barbados some years before. She is the author of several works of fiction, short stories and an autobiography, all published between 1959 and 2009. I really felt I should have heard more about this writer, who I discovered only died last year. I was pleased to see though that some of her work seems to be still in print. I believe it is this novel – her debut that is her best known book – but I am now keen to read more by her.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a coming of age story; Selina Boyce is the younger daughter of Barbadian immigrants living in Brooklyn, New York during the Depression and Second World War. It is very evocative of a time and place and of a community. Marshall shows us with some poignancy what it was to grow up black and female. Mark Twain reputedly said – ‘history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes’ – and I think there is a lot that rhymes here. Selina wants her own identity, born in the US, she wishes to go her own way, a different generation to her parents she doesn’t want to be just like them and their friends at the Barbadian Association.

“‘I don’t care, I won’t be like them!’ she replied as savagely, and angrily struck the water with her foot so that the spray burst in a white design before them and then dropped. ‘I won’t be cut out of the same piece of cloth.’

As the novel opens it is 1939 and Selina is ten years old. Her ambitious mother Silla is a factory worker, who has leased the brownstone where the family live – other parts of the house are rented out to tenants about whom she complains loudly. Selina’s father Deighton is lazy and unreliable but very charming and Selina adores him. While Silla works hard in order to achieve her objective of buying the house where they live – her husband has a head full of fantasies and half formed plans.  Selina’s older sister Ina is already becoming something of a mysterious figure for Selina as the older girl walks that path between adolescence and womanhood. One of the tenants of the house is Suggie Skeete – a woman who Selina’s mother disapproves of deeply – as she trails a succession of men upstairs to her room. She is one of a number of people who Selina befriends and takes an interest in – as she tries to make sense of the world around her. Selina desperately tries to reconcile the loyalty due to her mother with the world her father reveals to her through his dreams of building a house back in Barbados. She is constantly caught up in the battle between them. In time we come see that Selina is rather more her mother’s daughter than we might think at first.

Mothers and daughters is a strong theme here and I was struck by this speech by Selina’s boyfriend later in the novel, another character with a difficult controlling mother.

“‘Mothers? Hell, they seldom say die! Fathers perhaps. Like my poor father. He just acts like I don’t exist. But not mothers. They form you in that dark place inside them and you’re theirs. For giving life they exact life. The cord remains uncut, the blood joined and all that that implies. They hold you by their weakness, their whining, their sickness, their long-suffering, their tears and their money…We’re all caught within a circle of women, I’m afraid, and we move from one to the next in a kind of blind dance.’”

The novel is written in the third person, but the viewpoint is always that of Selina – from the beginning we see this difficult relationship with her mother. Cleverly, and rather tellingly Marshall refers to Silla through Selina’s eyes as the mother, not her mother. Silla is a dominating figure, an important member of the local Barbadian community. Often gathered around her in the kitchen are other women from the community, listening almost wordlessly as Silla expounds her views on all sorts of issues in her broad Barbadian dialect. The Barbadian Association is nearby, through which much of what happens within the community passes and with which she wishes Selina would become involved as she grows up. As the novel progresses Silla becomes an ever more tragic figure – her drive and her ambition sees her lie, cheat and betray in the name of improving the family fortunes.

As Selina grows up, she becomes interested in dance – she joins a dance class and is befriended by some white girls. Her mother wants her to go to medical school, but Selina has no desire to do that. Her experience of the Association is not a positive one, and she can see her older sister edging nearer and nearer the settled conventional life that their mother approves of. She meets a young artist in the doorway of the association and takes to meeting him behind her mother’s back.

Selina has many things to learn about her own culture and what it is she really wants. Now older, Selina must also face up to the reality of the racism that is everywhere around her – there is a sense that her childhood had protected her from this to a degree, but there comes a time when she is a child no longer and her eyes are fully opened. It is a brilliantly written scene – deeply poignant and very affecting and will shape the decisions Selina makes next.

“The woman there must have carefully arranged her smile before Selina had entered. While she had been dancing down the hall perhaps or finishing her punch with Rachel, the woman’s mouth, eyes the muscles under her pale powdered skin must have been shaping that courteous, curious and appraising smile. Months, years later Selina was to remember it, since it became the one vivid memory of that evening, and to wonder why it had not unsettled her even then. Whenever she remembered it – all down the long years to her death – she was to start helplessly, and every white face would be suspect for that moment.”

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a quite brilliant novel – a novel full of extraordinarily well drawn characters, rich voices written with honesty and anger.

Whenever I hear the name of Beverley Nichols I can’t help but think of one of my favourite books of childhood – The Tree that Sat Down. I was considerably past childhood when I learnt who Beverley Nichols was, and more interestingly how many books for grown ups he had written – and how beloved his books are by his legion of fans. His writing covered a multitude of subjects, including journalism, religion and politics. He wrote plays, many works of autobiography and novels and his books on garden and house restoration have proved an absolute delight to many who don’t consider themselves gardeners. I have to say that as someone who enjoys her garden but is absolutely not a gardener I found Merry Hall a delight from beginning to end, if you are a gardener – then there is a lot in it to inspire.

Beverley Nichols is very readable – these books are not dry, dusty tomes about when you should plant what and where – although gardeners should probably have a notebook to hand, there are tips aplenty. Nichols writes with great humour, his tone is deliciously irreverent, his passion for what he loves infectious.

“For a garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised.”

Two years ago, I read Down the Garden Path (1932) in which Beverley Nichols tells us about the time he took on an old Tudor cottage and set about restoring it and the garden. He was passionate about gardens and gardening – and Down the Garden Path is the first book in a trilogy about that property – most especially the garden. Somewhere, buried in the tbr where I can’t lay my hands on it very easily is the second volume A Thatched Roof – however I had heard that Merry Hall was even better so I decided to read that instead – and it was within easy reach. Merry Hall is the first book in a second trilogy, and I fear books two and three may be a lot harder to find.  

“Every leaf that taps against the attic window, every thorn that nestles against the bricks, is part of a barrier that keeps the twentieth century at bay. I have always taken a dim view of the twentieth century, so that I consider this to be a laudable ambition.”

After the Second World War Beverley Nichols decided he wished to buy a large country house with extensive gardens. Early in the book Nichols finds his perfect house, a large Georgian house in five acres of grounds. House and garden are in need of much restoration, but this is exactly what he wanted – and he throws himself into the project with gusto and not a little obsession. With him to the country go his wonderfully capable servant Gaskin and his two cats One and Four. The garden has been tended for decades by Oldfield – a man of around seventy who worked for the last two of the house’s owners and knows the garden inside and out. Nichols naturally takes on Oldfield too – finding they don’t agree on everything – Oldfield’s silences speaking volumes.

Throughout the book Nichols recounts the slow transformation of the gardens, he definitely gets his hands dirty – not one to merely give orders – although Oldfield is indefatigably spritely. He waxes lyrical about flowers, trees, garden urns and the simple joy of watching things ‘come up.’ His descriptions of flora and fauna are really delicious and whether you are a frequent visitor to the garden centre of not, he will undoubtedly make you want to plant flowers immediately. One of the garden’s previous owners Mr Stebbing for whom Oldfield worked for many years, has in Nichols opinion committed some quite unpardonable crimes. The ghost of Stebbing is everywhere – and Nichols takes a quite violent dislike to everything about him. Beverley Nichols it must be said has pretty firm opinions on everything and leaves virtually no room at all for a differing one, still when you have splashed out on a Georgian manor I suppose you should be allowed to have it how you want it.

The other two thorns in Beverley Nichols’s side are two nosy near neighbours Miss Emily and ‘Our Rose’ the battles with whom are quite hilariously recounted. These include finding a good excuse for not selling any of his vegetables from his extensive vegetable garden to Miss Emily, who does little to disguise her desire to buy them. Throughout his writing Nichols is really quite arch and often decidedly wicked – a man of his class and time, there is not a whiff of PC about him, and he is definitely a bit of a snob. Still, I do think he writes deliberately outrageously, and while his pronouncements on women are pretty terrible – I suspect he liked to be provocative, it is clear most of his friends are women.

“To own a plot of land – to have enough money to plant that land with lilacs and maples and pines and pears, and not to do so, but to spend the money on something horrible like a mink coat …it is indecent. Who wants to see you in a mink coat? Nobody. You look repulsive in it, and if you had ever met a mink – which I have – you would be ashamed to be seen in such a garment, for minks are the most amiable and intelligent little creatures, whose morals compare very favourably with those of the women for whom they are slaughtered. Women who wear mink coats are only one degree better than the fiendish Frau Koch, who made lampshades out of the skins of the Nazis’ victims.”

I find him more funny than offensive – though I admit had he been writing now; I might think differently.

I found it an absolute delight to spend a few sunny days recently reading this in my poor little garden which is rather overgrown and in need of a little TLC. I have been inspired to plant some more flowers for next year, but really I was reminded how fortunate I am in having outside space – and this was the perfect book to read out there.

Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Over the last few years, I have slowly been increasing the amount of translated fiction I read – (mainly fiction, because I read so little non-fiction). However, during this whole lockdown period I haven’t read anything in translation – it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s just the way my reading mood and the books I read fell. The last time I read anything in translation was the beginning of March – so over the next couple of months I would like to try and redress the balance a bit. It isn’t as if I don’t have any lovely books in translation waiting tbr – I do. With Spanish lit month starting in July and women in translation month in August I hope to get inspired and get back to reading some fascinating works that take me away from my own little world. Celestial Bodies was a good place to start – thrusting me straight into a world I knew practically nothing about. I bought it last year, intending to read it for #WITmonth but didn’t manage to fit it in.

Winner of the Man Booker International prize 2019 – Celestial Bodies is the second of three novels by Jokha Alharthi (though the only one made available in English) who has also published three collections of short stories and some children’s books. Working as a professor in Oman Alharthi’s was the first Arabic novel to win the International Booker, and she was also the first Omani woman writer to be published in English.  

Celestial Bodies is a beautifully layered novel – told from several viewpoints and with a fairly large cast of characters readers may find the family tree in the front useful – though I didn’t find myself referring to it that often. The story of a well to do Omani family and the society within which they live is told in alternating chapters, an omniscient third person narrator and Abdallah the husband of one of the sisters at the heart of this novel. The narrative moves back and forth in time, using the memory of various characters to reveal the story of three sisters, their parents, and in time their husbands.

Woven through the story of this traditional Omani family is the story of another family – a family descended from slaves, for this is a traditional slave owning community. While the practise of slave owning has been outlawed – old traditions hold firm, and the children of those once bought in slavery still remain in service to the descendants of the slave owners.

In the village of al-Awafi, three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, live with their parents Salima and Azzan. The eldest sister Mayya; silently consents to marriage with Abdallah the son of a rich merchant. Asma wishes to be educated – and marries a relative, an artist. She looks forward to the status and freedom marriage will give her.

“She’d be one of the women now, and finally she would have the right to come and go, to mix freely with the older women and listen to their talk, to attend weddings, all of them, near and far, and funerals too. Now she would be one of the women who sat around their coffee in the late mornings and then again at the end of the day. She would be invited to lunch and dinner, and she would issue her own invitations, since she was no longer merely a girl. Marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home.”

Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who throughout their childhood spoke of the two of them being promised to one another. He has gone to Canada and the family want her to marry the brother of Asma’s future husband – but Khawla stands firm. Khawla waits for her cousin to return from Canada for her.

Abdallah is a sensitively portrayed man, in love with his wife, sadly though his feelings are not returned. He allowed Mayya to give their daughter a name that causes much comment and disapproval in the village. His life has been overshadowed by his mother’s death – and the question of what really happened to her. His father was a man whose wealth came largely from the slave trade, and it was his slave Zarifa who was the maternal figure in Abdallah’s life. His father was a hard man, a man whose punishment he still recalls, dished out because he was shooting magpies with the other boys.

“The clouds fold up. Suddenly through the small airplane window the sky is clear. Abdallah, son of Merchant Sulayman, dozes off for a few moments. As he wakes up he is still half-talking in his sleep. Don’t hang me upside down in the well, don’t. Please, no! Don’t!”

The stories of these people are told through one family’s loves and losses – those who have died remaining very much a part of the present for those who loved them. They all walk a fragile line between Oman’s past and present – a line separating the superstitions of a previous generation with the modern world, the slave owners and the free.

“She received the news of his death in silent submission. She arranged the funeral rites as well as she could in her modest circumstances, for his uncle refused to offer the slightest help or to mourn. She died, though no one knew she was dead. Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead. Only much later did her body give up its already-deceased spirit, its dead spirit, no longer forced to pretend, to play at being alive.”

Throughout the novel there is a strong sense of the past, a feeling of time moving on while still connected to everything that has gone before. In moving forward there are challenges for this most traditional of communities’ things the younger generation must reconcile and accept.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – and it has really whetted my appetite for more fiction in translation soon.

If you have spent any time at all on Twitter during the last couple of weeks, then it is probable that you have seen discussion and pictures popping up of The Vanishing Half, recently published it has already become a New York Times bestseller. I suppose there is a danger of that dreaded word hype being bandied about – well sometimes a hype is created for a reason. In the current climate of the #Blacklivesmatter protests and the continuing and very vital conversation about what it is to be black in this country and in the US – it is a book which is being read far and wide. As a novel though it is very far from just being a book we should read, an issues book to be discussed in book groups – The Vanishing Half is a brilliantly compelling read – it’s a story of race, of colour, exploring the American history of ‘passing.’ However, it is also a story of belonging – of finding your place in the world. Moving from the 1950s to the 1990s – from Louisiana to California and New York – it is a pacey, thought provoking novel that becomes increasingly hard to put down. 

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes grew up in the (fictional) town of Mallard in Louisiana – a town of very light skinned black people. The town appeared on no maps – outside of the immediate area it might well not exist. Marrying only from within the town, the people have kept their colour light – and are proud to have done so – looking down on those with darker skins. In the mid-1950s, the sixteen year old sisters decide to run away together to New Orleans away from the colour conscious atmosphere they grew up in.

“It was a strange town. Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that, like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.”

As the novel opens fourteen years have passed since Desiree and Stella disappeared – and Desiree is back. With her she brings her daughter Jude – a dark skinned little girl who takes after her father. Desiree has lost sight of her sister, left her abusive husband, and come home. She moves in with her mother – enrols her daughter in school and takes a job at the local diner. Jude suffers from being the only really dark skinned child at school – no birthday party invites – no friends. Despite the town thinking Desiree won’t stay, she does – taking up with Early Jones; a man she knew in her teens – who works away a lot, finding people. However, there is one person Early seems unable to find – Stella – because years earlier, when she was living with her sister in New Orleans Stella made the decision to ‘pass over’ to live the rest of her life as a white woman. There are some sharp reminders of why Stella made the decision that she did. Memories of violence, of terrible things done when she and her sister were small and hid in a cupboard.

“You were supposed to be safe in Mallard—that strange, separate town—hidden amongst your own. But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die. The Vignes twins were reminders of this, tiny girls in funeral dresses who grew up without a daddy because white men decided that it would be so.”

Jude grows up – and goes to college in California – it is 1978 – and here she meets Reese – a trans man – who she comes to love for himself, and Barry a drag queen two nights a month. With these beautifully portrayed characters the author explores how it feels to live outside of the role assigned to you at birth. It adds another layer to an already wonderful story of family and relationships.

Stella’s life in the meantime has been very different. Married to a man whose secretary she was – and who is not aware of her true heritage – she lives in a gracious white neighbourhood that have risen up in horror that a black family are buying a house on the street.

Stella is terrified the new neighbours will see in her everything she has been trying to hide. Her relationship with this neighbour becomes complex and fraught with emotional difficulties. Stella has a daughter, Kennedy, who she is very ambitious for – but whose only wish is to be an actress. There is a terrible, poignant sense that Stella has never been really happy, really comfortable in the life that she chose – yet there are some lies I suppose which have to be told forever – certainly, that is what Stella feels. Despite the success that comes to her in middle age – she is lonely, without her sister, her mother, and the world she grew up in – Stella lives in a place she feels isn’t hers.

“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett weaves together the stories of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Kennedy in a brilliantly compelling way. In order for the narrative to work there are a few quite big coincidences, but amazing things can happen!

I hope you can tell, I really loved this book the characters are drawn so well – and there are some gorgeous tender moments between several of them. Bennett clearly understands mothers and daughters well too – another strand to the narrative I enjoyed. All in all – utterly compelling and completely immersive – I defy anyone not to read this quickly – perhaps staying up late in the process.

Reading this novel, I couldn’t help but remember the novella Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen – written and set in a much earlier period – which I am tempted to dig out and re-read.