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A couple of weeks ago two books came through my letter box from Virago that I hadn’t been expecting and what a lovely surprise they were. Two works by Dorothy West; a book of essays and short stories and this novel. Dorothy West is probably best known for her first novel The Living is Easy first published in 1948, (a book I have had for some years) – this novel; The Wedding wasn’t published until almost fifty years later. Dorothy West was a friend of Zora Neale Hurston, part of the Harlem resistance of the 1930s, though she apparently didn’t see herself as a political writer. As Diana Evans explains in her excellent introduction to this new edition, West was never involved in the civil rights movement and yet her work is “infused with the insidious and warped permeations of race into everyday lives.”

Dorothy West wrote about the community that she came from – not the stories of the African-American working class, being published by other black writers – hers; the privileged world of Boston’s black middle class.

In August 1953 the Coles family gather for the wedding of their youngest and loveliest daughter; Shelby. The Oval on Martha’s Vineyard is a proud community made up of Boston’s black middle classes. Although the story in the present takes place over one weekend – it also tells the story of five generations of a family, dipping back into the past exploring the lives of the earlier generations, showing how they came to be where they are as the novel opens.

We have the stories of Preacher – who set out to find the land that would be his home – and his son Isaac, who leaves home as a boy to further his education setting out on a path that will trickle down to the next generation. The story of Josephine who is so afraid of being an old maid she marries the cook’s son and breaks her mother’s heart. The stories of all these people and more are a part of the Coles family.

This is a novel of colourism, and the psychological impact of slavery, and how colour and society’s reactions to it, can become confused with people’s view of themselves.

“Because if you don’t know someone all that well, you react to their surface qualities, the superficial stereotypes they throw off like sparks… But once you fight through the sparks and get to the person, you find just that, a person, a big jumble of likes, dislikes, fears, and desires.”

Shelby Coles like most of the Coles family is very light skinned – fair haired and blue eyed – and has chosen to marry a white jazz musician. Her great grandmother is delighted – Gram; now in her nineties, was a white southern belle, her father had been a slave owner. When her daughter married a black man – it had broken her heart. Now she sees Shelby’s marriage as a chance to free her from what she sees as the burden of living within a ‘coloured family’.

“Like most children, Shelby spent her days and hours trying on the most transparent parts of other personalities, gradually growing aware of their insufficiencies. Then slowly, at a snail’s pace, and with a snail’s patience, she would thread her frailties and fears, her courage and strength, her hopes and doubts, into the warp and woof that would cloak her naked innocence in a soul of her own.”

Gram’s grandson, Shelby’s father married a light-skinned woman as he knew he was required to do – but their marriage has never been happy – and for years Clark has had a mistress, just waiting for the right time to go away with her. Shelby’s sister Liz married a darker skinned man, her baby daughter has been rejected by Gram because of her browner skin.  

“The Clark Coleses came closest to being as real as their counterparts. They had money, enough not only to spend but to save. They were college-bred, of good background. They lived graciously. Two respectful maids had served them for years, living proof that they were used to servants. If Clark and Corinne had not slept with each other for years, even their daughters could not have demanded more discretion in their outward behaviour.”

One of the most memorable stories, relates what happened one summer when Shelby was little – she wandered off and got lost. A search was taken up – but it was many hours before the child was found, because everyone thought they knew what kind of child they were searching for and Shelby didn’t look like that. Shelby later asks Gram ‘am I coloured?”

As Shelby prepares to marry – some people question why it is that of all the men that have paid attention to Shelby she has chosen to marry this white man. Everyone seems to think it’s all about colour. Close to the Coles house in the Oval lives Lute McNeil a black man with three young light skinned daughters – each the result of a disastrous marriage with different white women. The poor little girls having witnessed rather too much emotional turmoil, think white mummies cry, and Lute has got an eye on another new mummy; Shelby Coles.

Ultimately this is a shattering novel of great subtlety, cinematic in scope and richly descriptive.

(This was my fourteenth book in my #20booksofsummer – swapped for The Reading Party – which I still intend to read, eventually.)

July in review

July has been a funny old month- it seems to have raced by in some ways, and I have now been on holiday from work for a week. However, I have only read seven and a half books during July – which is a little below my average. I have been utterly exhausted for weeks – and I still am, (living with and working with an autoimmune disease taking its toll I think). In fact, this year I am at least a month’s worth of reading behind where I was this time last year. Thankfully, the quality of what I read this month has been very high, and that is definitely more important. Anyway, I now have a few weeks recovery before I am back at work – time for some quality reading too, I hope.

I am currently away for a few days, which is why you have the rather odd pic-collage image above rather than the photo of book spines I usually do. Instead you have a couple of holiday pictures from Teignmouth – my very happy place (although it’s raining this Tuesday morning, hence me rattling away on my laptop). My reading mood has become very fickle in the last two weeks – and that is interfering with my #20booksofsummer (more of that later).

I began July reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones which recently won the Women’s Prize. An American Marriage tells the story of Roy Hamilton and his wife Celestial. He has a good job and has married into a wealthy family. Then Roy is arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. It’s an honest portrayal of American injustice an exploration of gender roles, as well as being a moving and compelling story of a family.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouhxe is a novella a novel about love, sensuality and passion. Depicting the internal life of a married woman who despite loving her husband has a heady affair with a young man she meets at the beach. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

Next was Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R Lorac – another excellent mystery from the British Library. Set in Devon Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife Anne; tired of the depressing slums, preventable disease and dirt of Northern city life, take the opportunity to swap life in a Staffordshire mill town for that of a Devonshire village on Exmoor. Here they encounter a surprising amount of malice and hatred in the small community they are living in. Soon the warden of a local children’s home is found drowned.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje was my top read of the month, beautifully written and evocatively memorable. 1945 the war has ended, and the London landscape is changed almost beyond recognition. In Putney fifteen year old Nathanial and his sister Rachel have been abandoned by their parents and left in the family home in the care of a couple of strange guardians. Initially the bemused siblings rather assume their guardians are criminals of some sort – though in time, they worry about this far less than one might imagine.

Persephone book, Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini is a remarkable novel, first published in 1918 it was definitely ahead of its time. Subject to a trial and a fine for the publisher it disappeared for many years. The novel’s attitudes to pacifism and homosexuality as well as its clear desire to see the continent of Europe united was contrary to popular opinion at the time. It is a bravely honest novel, that exposes the terrifying jingoism of a country obsessed with war.

Beneath the Visiting Moon by Romilly Cavan was another big hit for me from Dean Street Press, their Furrowed Middlebrow series is becoming a favourite. Likened by some to Guard your Daughters, it features an impoverished blended family and a large cast of supporting eccentric characters, romance, family and coming of age in the last summer before WW2.  

The Wedding by Dorothy West – recently sent to me by the lovely Virago – it is the second novel from the author of The Living is Easy (a book I own but haven’t read). I have yet to review it – but I thought it was a wonderful book. I am very grateful to Virago for the sending me two Dorothy West books out of the blue, which inspired me to read an author I had meant to read for ages.

I am now a good way into Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – which I will include in next month’s roundup.

August for me will be about recharging my batteries. I am going to be joining in Women in Translation Month and All Virago All August. I should be finishing #20booksofsummer – but I might be failing with that. I had read twelve books – than I decided to swap Beneath the Visiting Moon for Girl, woman, Other (which I hope to go back to but couldn’t get into) which made thirteen and now I seem to be set on a path of reading only books not on my original pile. Swapping all seven remaining books seems like a cheat – and a couple of those virago and Persephone books I might still read – I am in a mood of not knowing what I will read next until I pick it up. When I came away, I had to bring several books with me to pick from. So, apologies to Cathy, I knew I was rubbish at #20booksofsummer – I knew I shouldn’t have signed up – let’s just wait and see just how many I end up managing. My book group have picked Educated by Tara Westover for our August book – but I haven’t even bought it yet, and in fact I’m reading our September read first because I fancied it more.

So, let me know what your best books of July were – and what you have planned for August. Whatever it is – I hope you enjoy it.

Meytal who is the inspiration behind Women in Translation month has been trying to compile a top 100 women in translation titles and so has been asking for us to each nominate ten.

I originally posted my choices on Twitter -but not everyone uses Twitter. So for those who like lists (and I know you’re out there) in no particular order, here are my top ten titles. Click on the titles to take you to my review.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum – (German – translated by Basil Creighton)

Set in the post World-War One world of the Weimar era. Berlin of the 1920’s, and here we meet a host of remarkably well drawn characters, who are explored in astute and searching detail. The lives and various concerns of these characters are woven together brilliantly by Vicki Baum, exploring their hopes, fears, secrets and regrets. There are shades of light and dark in this novel, moments of black comedy, and others of great poignancy. The life, atmosphere of a German hotel in the late 1920’s is brought to life with breath-taking clarity.

Into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzburg – (Russian – translated by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari )

An extraordinary memoir. In the 1930s Ginzburg was a loyal communist party member, a university teacher and journalist. A wife and mother, living a life surrounded by people who thought as she did, Eugenia (Jenny) found herself caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, accused on trumped up charges.

My Mother’s House (Claudine’s House) – Colette (French – translated by Enid Mcleod and Una Troubridge

A novella/memoir of childhood, delightful and exquisitely written. The childhood recounted here was one of country wisdom and good food, wild flowers and animals. A childhood of games with village children who enjoy more freedom than modern children. Colette writes in a series of delightfully vivid vignettes – stories of villagers, siblings, politics and her parents’ marriage, but above all of a place, the place of her childhood – where she was loved.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (Italian – translated by Ann Goldstein)

My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels – I loved them all, and this is where it all began. This is a novel of friendship and discovery, a coming of age novel in which two girls grow up to young womanhood with an ever gradually expanding realisation of their potentialities.

Dimanche and other stories – Irène Némirovsky ( French – translated by Bridget Patterson)

Dimanche and other stories were all written in the 1930’s and 40’s but not published in English until 2000. This is a truly wonderful collection, beautifully written, atmospheric stories, breathtakingly observed, some are almost like short novels in themselves, and peopled with memorably complex but very real characters.

The Door – Magda Szabó  (Hungarian – translated by Len Rix)

The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.

TheDays of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (Italian – translated by Ann Goldstein)

The Days of Abandonment is on the face of it the story of a woman’s descent into despair following the ending of her marriage; however it is much more the portrayal of her actual breakdown, in all its ugliness and misery. I was ill prepared for the anger and gut wrenching raw intimacy of this novel – at times that anger is almost visceral – and there are moments when the reader really would rather look away. It is brilliant though, and very memorable.

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó (Hungarian – translated by George Szirtes)

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

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwaz-Bart (French – translated by Barbara Bray)

A novel of mothers and daughters, of love and the legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Telumee narrates the story of her life, paying tribute to the strong line of wonderful Lougandor women who came before her. It is a narration rich in description, slow rhythmic prose which I found completely hypnotic. Simone Schwatz-Bart’s novel is full of long, hot, slow days, superstition and the cruel, gruelling work of the canefields. Telumee is born into a peasant tradition; tough lives in tiny dwellings on the edge of the forest. Often repeated stories, and long memories, nestle alongside magic and romance on the lush island of Guadeloupe so deliciously described by Schwartz-Bart.

Farewell, My Orange – Iwaki Kei (Japanese – translated by Meredith McKinney)

Set in a small Australian, coastal town the novel concerns two immigrant women, their journey with language, and their struggle to make a home in a strange land. The sunrise is a constant for Salimah, something familiar among all that is strange.

So those are my top ten – it was difficult to choose, there were several books vying for those last couple of places. If you’re joining in with #Witmonth during August I hope you read some wonderful books, I will be following the reviews with interest.

The Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street Press are turning out to be books that I can pretty much guarantee to love. There is another batch due out very soon and they look amazing. I was lucky enough to receive a couple of them in the post recently – and Beneath the Visiting Moon was one I decided I had to read almost straight away.

Romilly Cavan was a new name to me – but Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow was able to fill in a little background. Beneath the Visiting Moon was her final novel – and it would seem as if at least one of her other novels is certainly not as good. Never mind, this one is excellent I am so pleased it is being brought back for a new audience.

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

What we do have though is a genteelly impoverished family living in a large house in a typical English village – characters are wonderfully well drawn, their voices distinct. There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface.

It is 1939, and beneath the cosy domestic surface there is the threat of impending war – a subject mentioned several times. Bracken; an American explorer and long-time friend of the Fontayne family, reminds us that the world might end soon.  Aristocratic Mrs Oxford cares very much that everyone should stay in their rightful place in society, and yet is cruelly dismissive of her own young orphaned granddaughter, a working class woman whose absurdly beautiful triplets win a beautiful baby competition, a gossipy seamstress and a couple of spiteful office girls. Cavan’s writing is very good, there is some wonderfully humorous dialogue and her descriptions are lovely too. Here her description of the village.

“The place often had a satisfactory depthless look, with light and shadow lying in neat lozenges of effectively thought-out patterns. Times when window boxes, slung casually from the second-story windows of houses that were shops on their ground floors and residences above, were not the mere artistic whims of nature-loving dwellers, but the very expression of a street made from a child’s single-minded design and carried out with the expert aid of scissors and paint-box and glue.”

As the novel opens the Fontayne children are peering over the banisters as yet another prospective buyer is shown into the flower room. Their widowed mother Elisabeth has been trying without success to sell the house, also called Fontayne – the children have little hopes of her success. The eldest is Sarah – at seventeen she is practically grown up, she is beautiful and restless, longing for change. Twins Philly and Christopher are nearly sixteen, and the youngest is Tom, nine years old with a rather delicious turn of phrase and the ability to pretty much run around as he pleases. The only one of them who goes away to school is Christopher – the others educated by a governess – who is never a presence in the novel – and one suspects not in their lives either.

When the siblings hear of the family of a composer renting a nearby property – the hatch a plan to call – and get them to buy their house. The result is that their mother – after just four meetings, decides to get engaged to Julian Jones. Their step-father to be has two children of his own, Peter at eighteen is already very grown up – admitting to a shockingly romantic liaison in America to Sarah, and Bronwen who at thirteen is just about to publish her first book.

“When Elisabeth unexpectedly came in, the scene was one of suspended yet vigorous animation. Enthralled, Bronwen turned the pages of an immaculate copy of her book and masticated sausage with solid but abstracted determination. Peter’s face advanced and retreated in an olive pallor behind a mug of beer. Tom groaned pensively, placidly, swiping at his food with misdirected and eccentric implements. Philly, her back to the evening sunlight, her pale brown hair threading out to a haze of gold, was lost over the mysteries of a knitting pattern that Mrs Moody had given her. Sarah ate in a dream, fork hovering between plate and mouth. Ernest lay stretched at his ease, nicely poised between Philly’s elbow and the loaf; occasionally he lifted a moist pink nose and sniffed delicately at the flowers that overwhelmed a thin vase rocking drunkenly on its foundations.”

The blending of these two families is politely uncomfortable. Poor Bronwen, who hates her own plumpness and envies her step-sisters’ their slim attractiveness, rather annoys everyone with talk of her publisher. The piano playing Peter rather goes his own way, while the slightly dizzy Elisabeth – happiest tinkering about in the garden, and Julian are clearly quite happy. Philly is happiest with her cat Ernest, she is less confident than Sarah, dreads having to dance with people, and finds herself having to sit for a dull local painter.

“Long-threatened calamity had come to be. Philly was sitting for her portrait to Mr Lupin. Outdoors; in tribute to the golden-child-of-the-morning subject. She sat in a pose of unnatural naturalness beneath a meagre sapling of an apple tree, the only one in Mr Lupin’s cottage yard-cum-garden. She leaned lightly back on her arms, her head raised. At least, the ‘lean’ had been light at first, but was now tearing the muscles in her forearms. If she could have kept silent, it might have been bearable, but Mr Lupin expected to keep up a running, not to say leaping, conversation.”

At a local dance, Sarah meet Sir Giles Merrick, a thirty something diplomat who has to dash off across Europe from time to time to deal with the unfolding crisis. Sarah is instantly smitten – and works very hard to throw herself in his way ever afterwards, writing little notes – that aren’t strictly necessary – and trying to persuade her mother to hold a weekend party. Giles is charming and very kind, but the reader is never sure whether this potential romance is a good idea. Eventually, Sarah decides to leave home, getting a rather menial office job in London – and finding that two pounds a week really isn’t enough to live on.

The novel ends in August 1939 – as Sarah turns eighteen – and the ballroom of Fontyane has been spruced up – and the longed for dance/weekend party finally takes place. There is an added poignancy to the novel ending then – just weeks before the outbreak of war – we can’t help but wonder what the future has in store for these characters. First published in 1940 the author must have been wondering the same thing.

This lovely novel was a wonderful companion during a fairly slow reading week, characters who are a pleasure to spend time with.

This was my 13th book in #20booksofsummer, swapped for Girl, Woman other.

First published in 1918, Despised and Rejected was published under the pseudonym A T Fitzroy, given the book’s themes it is perhaps unsurprising that it was subject to a trial, consigned to the list of forgotten novels by women when it was banned under the Defence of the Realm Act. Published by a committed pacifist, the book was reviewed poorly, later put on trial and the publisher fined. One hundred years after its publication it was brought back by Persephone books, now re-issued under the author’s true name.

“ ‘…one can’t say that it is all for nothing: those train-loads and boat-loads of cheery boys taken from the land, the workshops, the universities, who go out singing and joking to their death; who never did anything remarkable in their life before, and yet who do incredible plucky things on the battlefield; the patient heroes on both sides who do their bit and much more than their bit, because it’s been instilled into their faithful hearts that it’s right that should do…”

The novel’s opening belies the strong themes present in the rest of the book; it has the feel of a light social comedy – perhaps this makes what comes next all the more powerful. July 1914 and the Blackwood family are enjoying a holiday at a hotel in Devon, they have been joined by Ottilie; a young German woman who has been staying with them at their home in Eastwold on the outskirts of London.  Also present is Antoinette de Courcy, Mr Griggs and a young woman called Hester Cawthorn. Mrs Blackwood is a socially ambitious mother of two sons and a daughter Doreen, her husband is traditionally dominant. Mrs Blackwood adores her eldest son Dennis – whose arrival is imminent; he has been studying music much to the disapproval and disgust of his father. Dennis arrives with fellow musician Crispin, and they are coerced into joining in with an evening of dramatic and musical entertainment.

It is fairly obvious to the reader why it is Dennis doesn’t entirely fit in with his staunchly conventional family – and it isn’t anything to do with his artistic nature. Dennis befriends Antoinette – recognising in her what she doesn’t even know about herself. Antoinette has developed a devastating crush for Hester, and she isn’t the first woman Antoinette has felt like that about. Dennis is desperate to hide his own homosexual nature – he sees it as a terrible affliction.

“The secret terror, that had beset him ever since he was a boy, was upon him, urging him to flight; secret terror, unavowed, unshared, upon which even in thought he had scarcely allowed himself to dwell… terror that nevertheless had been part and parcel of his being, since the first dawn of adolescence.

Different from the others, even in his schooldays; different, not only by reason of his music. He must befor ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them. He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.”

Freed of her infatuation of Hester – following an awkward visit to her in Birmingham, Antoinette becomes much closer to Dennis. He starts to court her – desperate for a cover – but Dennis cares too much for Antoinette to deceive her and he tells her about himself – about his love for a young man called Alan and tries to get Antoinette to recognise her own true nature. However, Dennis is the one man that Antoinette is able to love – and while she accepts Dennis for who he is – she is hurt very deeply. To have this kind of acceptance in a novel written in 1918 is extraordinary – Antoinette is jealous of Alan – but unable to hate him.

The outbreak of war changes the tone of the novel – Dennis is also a pacifist – as are many of his friends and acquaintances. England at this time was very pro-war – and Allatini brilliantly portrays the almost religious like fervour of the times – with everyone keen to send their sons, brothers and lovers off to fight. Dennis’s friends are people Antoinette begins spending time with, in the company of Dennis, she listens to their arguments and impassioned objections to the war. She becomes a supporter of their cause; Dennis and his friends are conscientious Objectors – passionately against the killing of other human beings, having no wish to kill other young men like themselves they have no argument with. In the first year of the war they are constantly asked why they aren’t in khaki. The Blackwoods are embarrassed by Dennis – his brother is in the army – as is his sister’s fiancé – and Eastwold society don’t quite know how to treat Mrs Blackwood now her son is such a disgrace.  

In 1915 conscription comes in, and the COs as they are called are subject to highly prejudicial tribunals – arrested and put into prison when they fail to comply with their tribunal. Antoinette watches the proceedings with increasing horror – the tribunals judged by men well past fighting age.

“…they all looked pompous, comfortable, overfed; and at the present moment, righteously indignant. These old men had lived their lives; they would neither be called upon to shed their blood for their country, nor to go to prison if they upheld opposing views; they had probably sent their sons to the war, but of themselves no personal sacrifice would be demanded. They were old- they were safe – and what right had they to send out the young men to kill each other.”

Dennis is terrified more for Alan than for himself – and Antoinette is terrified for Dennis – feeling she has no right to be. Everywhere, there are people saying – those in prison are at least safe – they have no idea of the horrors these men were subjected to.

We know all too well what a toll, the First World War had on the young fighting men of Europe. Despised and Rejected reminds us what a devastating toll it took on those who felt themselves unable to fight because their consciences wouldn’t let them – branded as cowards and traitors by the people who were supposed to understand them best. It is a novel well ahead of its time in its attitudes to pacifism and homosexuality as well as its clear desire to see the continent of Europe united. It is a bravely honest novel, that exposes the terrifying jingoism of a country obsessed with war.

Sometimes it is difficult to properly convey the beautiful nature of a book, however,  Warlight captivated me from the first page – and never let me go. It’s a gloriously literary novel – but one full of intrigue and captivating characters, exploring tenderly the question of memory.

I can’t remember when it was, I read The English Patient – it must have been more than twenty years ago though – oh my goodness I loved it. I went on to see the film a couple of times. I think I have remembered almost all that novel ever since – (seeing the film will have helped my memory, I know) it simply has a very special quality about it. In his 1992 Booker prize winning novel Ondaatje’s characters take on an almost legendary quality.  De Almásy a Hungarian count, declared to be an Englishman, a Sikh sapper, a Canadian thief called Caravaggio – a tragic love story in a world gone mad. I read Anil’s Ghost too – but I can’t remember anything about that one at all.

Warlight has a similar quality to The English Patient – the stories are very different, but again we have characters so brilliantly drawn, that they too could take on a similar legendary status. Here we have the Moth and the Pimlico Darter – men who live in the shadows, two abandoned teenagers, and a thatcher who later reinvents himself as a BBC naturalist and who gathers young men and women to work in the secret service. They feel very much like the kind of characters only Ondaatje could have created.

1945 the war has ended, and the London landscape is changed almost beyond recognition. In Putney fifteen year old Nathanial and his sister Rachel have been abandoned by their parents and left in the family home in the care of a couple of strange guardians. Initially the bemused siblings rather assume their guardians are criminals of some sort – though in time, they worry about this far less than one might imagine.

“Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning “difficult.” “Heavy.” We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. “ ‘Schwer,’ ” he’d say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we’d mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other—“schwer.” 

The Moth and the Darter are a couple of shadowy characters who smuggle munitions across London and greyhounds from France using the extensive network of rivers and canals. Having run away from their new boarding schools, Nathanial and Rachel now living full time with the eccentric pair are drawn into this oddly attractive lifestyle. The portrayal of those canal trips with the Darter and some French Greyhounds are extraordinarily vivid and memorable – the atmosphere of the night-time canals perfectly captured by Ondaatje.

Throughout the novel the point of view is entirely that of Nathanial who is the first person narrator – Rachel is viewed only by her brother. Nathanial and Rachel become used to the collection of people who move in and out of their family home, and on some level realise that all these people are there to protect them. One of the Darter’s girlfriends is Olive Lawrence a woman who Nathanial is particularly drawn to – something about her reminding him a little of his mother who has so completely disappeared from his life. From time to time the teenagers wonder at their parents whereabouts – they had been told they were going to Singapore – but one day the two discover the trunk they had watched their mother pack for Singapore hidden away in the house.

“We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here.” 

During this time of adventurous escapades, part-time jobs and first love Nathanial is far too occupied to notice the first signs of danger. Suddenly he and Rachel are thrust into a world of peril.

Twelve years later Nathanial buys a cottage in Suffolk near to where he once lived briefly with his mother. From here Nathanial uses his recollections to help uncover all that he didn’t understand at the time. In time he gets to know the woman his mother really was, what she did to protect him and Rachel and what part those people who surrounded him during his adolescence played.

I absolutely loved this novel – every bit of it – I can understand those who say they preferred the first part of the novel – it is the most memorable. Though I loved the later section just as much for different reasons.

“You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.” 

 I loved the way Ondaatje played with memory and investigation, gradually revealing parts of the backstory. Warlight is a captivating novel – and like The English Patient before it, it would make a wonderful film.

Women in Translation month is fast approaching, and just as with the last few years, as soon as I see people on Twitter talking about what they might read I get totally over-excited.

My problem is having too many challenges – and not having planned properly. I am currently doing #20booksofsummer, and the LT Virago group have our All/Virago/All August during the same month. I can’t do everything – and yet I want to try.

My dilemma with 20 books is that I might have put the wrong books on my pile. I’m currently reading my twelfth book off the pile – so I definitely won’t have finished my 20 books by August, but I would like to be at about fifteen. One of them I tried starting a few days ago but couldn’t get into at all, the others I do want to read – and some will fit with All Virago/All August. So, I might have to swap one or two of my #20books – I’ll decide later, because, despite all the other challenges I am juggling, I really do want to read some books for #witmonth. Now, I won’t get as many read as some #witmonth readers, because I will be reading other things too – but you might be able to help me pick which ones I try and go for. Here are some of what I have to choose from.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (original language French) A collection of short stories by the Belgian author of La Femme de Gilles and Marie.

“Muslim” A novel by Zahia Rahmani (original language French) A meditation on identity, violence, persecution and loneliness.

The Listener by Tove Jansson (original language Swedish) A story collection from the author of The Summer Book and Winter Book which I so loved.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (original language Polish) winner of the Man Booker International prize 2018, I have heard this is challenging. A novel about travel and human anatomy, life, death, motion and migration.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk  (original language Polish) An eccentric woman recounts the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. Then members of the local hunting club are murdered.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (original language Hebrew) I suggested this to my book group and it’s our September read. A teenage girl who feels invisible, tells a terrible lie.

Thirteen months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (original language Arabic) A collection of short stories about the human experience in urban life.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (original language Icelandic). The story of a free spirited woman who reaches a life changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical road trip.

Night School by Zsófia Bán (original language Hungarian) A short story collection masquerading as an encyclopaedia on life.

They all look totally fantastic to me – and I plan to read them all eventually, though I will probably only get to perhaps five of them during #Witmonth  – which five should that be?

Are you joining in with #Witmonth? What are you planning on reading?