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Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

I started my WIT reading early, so that I could get some reviews out at the beginning of the month. My first read for WIT is a VMC, ticking off All Virago All August too. Deborah is a highly autobiographical novel by Esther Kreitman the sister of two more famous younger brothers;  Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of them writers, Isaac was the writer of Yentil and won the Nobel prize in literature.

Born Hinde Esther Singer into a rabbinical Jewish family in Poland in 1891. She apparently had an unhappy childhood; her mother disappointed her first child was a girl handed her over to a wet nurse for three years. Like her heroine Deborah she submitted to an arranged marriage and moved to Antwerp. Sadly, there appears to have been some division between Esther and her brothers, they decided not to offer help when she needed it and played no part in getting her work published in Yiddish journals. Her life, and that of her brothers seems to have been quite different. Having read the introduction by Clive Sinclair – it is possible to see a lot of Esther in Deborah.

The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century (the novel ends around the start of WW1) – as the novel opens Deborah is fourteen. She is living with her parents; the unworldly, rather feckless rabbi Reb Avram Ber, his wife Raizela who is often sickly and her brother Michael. The family are living in a small Jewish village in Poland – the community here speak Yiddish rather than Polish, Reb Avram Ber is the rabbi – the family are poor, and life is very hard. The novel gets off to a pretty slow start – but the portrait of this community is instantly vivid – and I sensed this would be worth sticking with and it is, I was soon drawn into a novel in which in some ways little happens. Deborah is a bright girl, imaginative and romantic she longs for the kind of education preserved for boys, but her fate is to stay at home, to help her mother in domestic tasks, and be content with that.

In a bid for a better life – the family move twice, Reb Avram Ber taking up new appointments that he believes will enhance his family’s fortunes. The first takes them to R- (that’s as close we get to a name) – where Reb Avram Ber takes up a position in a school that is part of a Tsadik’s (spiritual leader) court.

“Deborah found more variety in life than ever she had done in Jelhitz. There the days used to pass with a great sense of security, with no expectancy of strange things to come; from morning to night and from night to morning time used to go its irksome way with unbroken monotony. Now life was unsettled, harsh circumstances played havoc with it. Trouble and cares descended on the family from all quarters, came swarming in like vermin from the walls of a rotten building creeping forth from every chink, and each time one chink as stopped up, two others appeared in its place…”

Life here is not any easier – the Tsadik’s promises seem empty ones, and often the family are left with no money. When freed from her duties, Deborah watches the students hurry across the courtyard coming to and from the school where her father is employed, and it is in this way she first catches sight of Simon – whose name she will not learn for some time. Disillusioned by their experiences in R- they family move again – this time to Warsaw.

Deborah has begun to grow up – she sees the world differently; her brother is allowed all the freedoms denied to her – and she longs to better get to know this city she is living in the midst of. Her father is asked to pass judgement on all kinds of spiritual and family difficulties that are brought to his door – including divorcing a gangster’s wayward daughter from her furious young husband. It is in Warsaw that Deborah begins to understand more about the inequalities in her world – she finds socialism and a group of young radicals, who inspire her. Amazingly, she meets again that student from R- Simon, with whom she falls hopelessly and silently in love with. It is not to be however, and Deborah is heartbroken. Numbed and hardly knowing what she is doing, she agrees to an arranged marriage to a young man in Antwerp – we sense that this will not be the happy ever after that Deborah deserves.

“When they presented Deborah with a long, golden chain and hung it round her neck, she shivered at the touch of the cold metal and at the thought that the most vicious of dogs might safely be tied up with a chain such as this.”

I can’t say too much more about what happens to Deborah from here – but the ending of the novel is powerful – heralding the horrors that were already unfolding in Europe when Esther Kreitman was writing and that would get worse.

Deborah is a vivid and poignant story of a world which we might not see very often in literature, her characters are real – and we know they came from life. Esther Kreitman writes with an unsurprising anger for the wasted lives and the horrifying fate that awaited so many of her community. It is a book that deserves to be better known than I believe it is.

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cof

It’s September already – well August always does fly by.

It’s been a lovely summer, but Monday sees a return to work, and a return to less reading time and blogging time. I always take a couple of weeks to settle back into the routine.

I have read a fair bit during August, the number of books is perhaps not much greater than usual, but I feel as if I have read a few fatter books. The Muriel Spark Complete stories of course was in last month’s photo too, I read almost half of it during July, and in August read the second half.

August is both Women in Translation month and All Virago all August, and so I was happily juggling books for both challenges.

Open the Door by Catherine Carswell was my first VMC of the month, I read while I was on a short break in Belgium. Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

New Islands by Maria Luisa Bombal is a small collection of stories from the most creative period of the Chilean author. A couple of the stories are rather strange, but I still enjoyed them.

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers is a novel about a man who escapes from a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s. However, it is also about a lot more than that, showing us exactly what life in Germany was like for ordinary people. It seems timely indeed that this German classic has been reissued now.

Sisters by a River was Barbara Comyns first novel, one which gave me a lot to think about, as Comyns light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes, that rather belie some of the content.

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart is a novel about mothers and daughter and the legacy of slavery, set on the lush island of Guadeloupe. It was chosen by my book group (my suggestion) and we will meet to discuss the week after next.

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell – is an enjoyable social comedy written in that last year of peace. It was a deliciously witty bit of escapism.

I found David Golder by Irène Némirovsky to be fascinating – it has been viewed as quite a controversial novel – which now having read it I understand. I enjoyed it though, and the novel gave me a lot to think about, Irène Némirovsky was an interesting and complex woman.

My kindle which is peeping out from among the real books above I took on a trip to the Isle of Wight, having been reminded of poor hotel lighting when I was in Belgium. I read The Night Watch by Sarah Waters – a novel of considerably more than 500 pages – it zips along art a cracking pace and is so well written with excellent period detail. I am reminded I must read more by her.

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim is the follow up to her first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden and is really every bit as wonderful and life affirming.

Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet is a Haitian triptych. Three novellas, which I still have to review, which were powerful, disturbing and quite compelling.

cofI have started reading a book I bought ages ago from a charity shop (I think) called Summers Day by Mary Bell (1951) – a book published by Greyladies. I really could find virtually no information about either the novel or the author (the name being shared by a notorious British child killer). I came across this piece on Furrowed Middlebrow’s site about the author – which interested me.

September is the start of phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 – and I have three Spark novels to read over the next two months. Apart from that I haven’t made any reading plans, although I need to concentrate on my ACOB – I have precisely thirty years to go. I may just do it! Though a couple of recent purchases might distract me from that, two beautiful looking new books that I really want to read.

cof

I read some excellent things in August, and as always would love to hear what you read.

Happy September reading.

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mde

Today has been declared Elizabeth von Arnim day by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock in her year long celebration of underappreciated lady authors. I have read quite a number of von Arnim novels, I love her voice so much. One of her most famous books of course is Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was published anonymously in 1898. EvA went on to write two more ‘Elizabeth’ books – The Solitary Summer and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904). I don’t suppose it matters which order one reads these books, and in fact I read The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen a couple of years ago.

In many ways there is very little to say about The Solitary Summer – so you may be glad to hear that this post is likely to be fairly short.

“What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.”

The Solitary Summer was a delightful little read, in the company of Elizabeth, The Man of Wrath, the April, May and June babies we spend the summer in the German countryside. Here, Elizabeth assures her doubting husband that she wants nothing more than to spend a summer alone – alone meaning no visitors, her husband and children will have to be present. Yet, Elizabeth longs to be free from the constant whirl of polite society.

“May 2nd. Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.”

However, Elizabeth’s alone – is not quite my alone – and neither is it quite what she had envisaged. Aside from The Man of Wrath and the April, May and June babies, there is the governess, the gardener and a new parson to be appointed to her husband’s living. Toward the end of the summer – much to poor Elizabeth’s exasperation, there is a soldier, a lieutenant staying in her house – a man she exhausts herself just trying to avoid.

Elizabeth glories in her garden, realising she has made mistakes in the past – she takes her husband’s advice and employs a new gardener – and soon she is glorying in her larkspurs and roses. She sneaks out of the house early before anyone is awake, and glories in her garden as it wakes.

“Here was the world wide-awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me.”

the solitart summer

When the children don’t need occupying, or even when they do, there are forest walks to be enjoyed and mud banks to be scrambled down. When it is raining, Elizabeth has her books, her wants are really very simple, and very restful. Her joy in the simple things is really quite infectious. Unfortunately, my garden doesn’t inspire quite the same feelings in me and would take precisely 37 seconds to walk around.

In the company of Elizabeth, we meet the poor women of the village who are too afraid of cold/dirt to let their babies go out of doors. This allows us a (not entirely comfortable) glimpse of the different levels of German society. However, Elizabeth von Arnim is a wonderful observer of people, as always, she is warm, witty and wise – and I continue to love her writing very much.

“If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind.”

We realise in time, that Elizabeth does indeed love her Man of Wrath, he is even more affectionately portrayed in this book than in German Garden. Elizabeth seems happiest in her garden with her babies under the summer sunshine, and soldiers, parsons, husbands and babies apart – she did manage to get a more or less solitary summer.

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cof

I have now read several Angela Thirkell novels, and it would be fair to say I have had an on and off relationship with them. True, I have criticised her a bit – I not keen on her class consciousness, and I do think she infantilises her working-class characters especially domestic servants. However, even in those novels I have criticised in the past, there were things I really enjoyed too. I like her humour very much, her world (did it ever exist? – I think probably not in quite this way) is one it is rather comforting to spend a little time. We are always pretty much assured of a happy ending – and there are moments when we need such assurances.

Before Lunch was included in a marvellous and hugely generous Librarything Virago group secret Santa parcel last Christmas, and it has also served to nicely tick off 1939 in my A Century of Books. Before Lunch joins that group of Angela Thirkell novels I can honestly say I enjoyed. The class stuff is still present – I’ve come to expect it – though I don’t believe there is anything cruel behind it. I think Angela Thirkell must have been a product of her own upbringing and class – and isn’t it nicer to believe that all domestic staff are slavishly devoted to their masters than the reverse?

Anyhow – on with the book. It has a quite unashamedly nostalgic feel, English rural life, where everyone knew their place in the world. Published of course during that last year of peace, Before Lunch reflects a time of small worries and long summer days.

Jack Middleton is a difficult man, rather garrulous and fussy and a little too fond of his dog Flora, he has lots of funny little ways. Luckily his wife Catherine Middleton is able to put up him with quite easily and adores him.

“‘I am glad you can tolerate me as I am,’ said Mr Middleton, still suspicious, ‘for at my age it is very improbable that I shall change. Had I been a younger man when you married me, Catherine, a man more suited to you in age, you might have remoulded my life, shaped me again to your liking. But you took pity on an ageing wreck, your young life twined itself round the rugged roots of a storm-shattered tree, and I cannot alter my way of living, I cannot change my spots.’
‘I do love the way you say everything twice over,’ said Mrs Middleton, ‘and I would hate you to change your spots. What were you calling me for?’
Mr Middleton’s impressive face dissolved in a flash and became as formless as water.
‘I called you because I needed you,’ he said suddenly becoming a heartbroken child. ‘I called you once and you did not come.”

The Middletons rent their very comfortable country home from Lord Bond, the White House next door forms part of the estate and is currently unoccupied. Jack Middleton’s widowed sister; Lilian Stonor, intends to spend the summer at the White House, bringing her grown up stepchildren Denis and Daphne with her. Jack’s equilibrium is somewhat shaken at this news, remembering only too well Daphne’s lively enthusiasm and Denis’s apparent sickliness, which depressed him a bit.

When the three arrive, they soon make themselves at home, quickly becoming a part of local village life. Jack’s business partner Alister Cameron is another frequent guest, charmed especially by the presence of the Stonors, he finds Daphne to be delightful company – though he is closer to Lilian in age. Denis is pale and tired, but the good country air does him the world of good, and allow him to get on with his music, he is writing a ballet – and forms a tender friendship with Catherine, which threatens to leave them both a little heartsore.

Lady Bond gives Daphne a little bit of work typing her correspondence, and this brings her into contact with Cedric – aka C W; Lord and Lady Bond’s son and heir. So, Daphne likes C W, Alister likes Daphne, Lilian is starting to see Alister Cameron in a new light but wants her adored step children to be happy. Daphne hears lots of talk about C W and a certain Betty Dean. Catherine loves her husband and is a little shaken by dear Denis, who is so sympathetic towards her. Cue lots of misunderstandings, tears and sulks before everybody gets together with the right person.

Denis delights old Lord Bond by playing Gilbert and Sullivan for him, and Daphne deals rather well with Spencer the butler who Lord Bond is rather bullied by. Lady Bond is hilarious in a managing kind of way, enjoying calling village meetings to fight against the scandalous intention of Sir Ogilvy Hibberd to build a garage on Pooker’s Piece. A meeting is held to discuss the meeting they will hold to discuss the proposal, and nothing whatever is achieved. Jack Middleton talks a lot about cows, and Lady Bond’s brother Lord Stoke, irritates his sister to distraction, taking the chair without asking and leaving suddenly. It is all very funny and sharply observed.

Before Lunch is a delightful social comedy, which zips along at a cracking pace. It was a perfect quick, comfort read which gave me quite a lot to chuckle over.

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I love Barbara Comyns writing, her way of looking at the world, is deliciously eccentric. My favourite to date is probably The Juniper Tree – a book I couldn’t stop thinking about. When reading Comyns – one can’t help but wonder where her rather skewed view of the world came from. Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ debut novel gives us something of an idea. Although described as a novel, Sister by a River has the taint of memoir about it as Comyns used her first novel to tell the story of her childhood.

It is a story of chaos, genteel poverty, sibling squabbles, unsuitable governesses and antics on the river running past the family home. Her childhood was obviously quite extraordinary. It’s hard to know if Comyns viewed any part of it as happy – but it quite clearly informed her writing and ignited her imagination.

“When we were very young people would sometimes forbid us to play on the path that ran by the river, but it didn’t make any difference, we always did. We used to fall in but were never completely drowned, the village children often were though. There was a family called Drinkwater and no less than five of them were drowned, they were a very poor family, the mother was very handsome and fierce looking, with a figure rather like a withie, which was quite suitable because she stripped the withies on the river bank as her living, most of the village women did and after they were stripped they were made into baskets and cradels.”

(NB spelling errors in quotes entirely deliberate)

The novel is narrated by young Barbara – we see the world through her eyes, and in her words and with her own sometimes eccentric spelling. This narration is odd at times, it is much more like that of an adult recalling childhood than a child themselves.

Barbara is one of six sisters – though one doesn’t appear in the story, as she wouldn’t like it. Told in a series of usually short chapters and vignettes, with titles like – Aunts Arriving, God in the Billiard Room, It wasn’t Nice in the Dressing Room and Mice and Owls, Comyns recreates a childhood full of unreliable adults and the animals that fall foul of them. It is a story that is colourful and strange, told with humour and some affection.

“Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsofilia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression.”

However, Comyns’ light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes but that is her way of talking about times which must have been frequently alarming, unpredictable and sometimes violent, which she is oddly matter of fact about, it’s her way of highlighting an upbringing that must have at times taken its toll.

Barbara’s parents were generally responsible for the violence – towards one another or unwanted animals, they are neglectful and inconsistent allowing the children to run pretty wild. There are plenty of disturbing events, her father threatens to shoot himself, a local child drowns in the river. Barbara’s mother, who went deaf following the birth of her sixth daughter, is vague, their father frequently bad tempered and beset by money worries.

“One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick.”

sistersby a riverThe household reminded me of the Mitfords, though maybe the Mitfords were less dysfunctional. There are unattractive aunts, a messy grandmother whose bedroom smelt of vinegar. None of the adults seem to have much going for them. The elder sister Mary bullies the other sisters badly and Barbara grows up closest to her sister Beatrix. Childhood ends as it must, crashing to a sudden halt when tragedy strikes.

Comyns storytelling is much more than her quirky, humorous anecdotes might have us believe. This is a quick engaging read, not my favourite Comyns but one I couldn’t help thinking a lot about. What, strange and frightening days of childhood lie behind this novel?

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open the door

My first book for August and the Virago group’s All Virago all August was Open the Door! By Catherine Carswell. It accompanied me on a short trip to Belgium – which was lovely – but during which I didn’t get a huge amount of reading time. Another thing about travelling – and why do I always forget this – but the ‘mood’ lighting in hotels is not good for readers. I really should always take my kindle which at least has its own back light.

Anyway, on with the book – which I thoroughly enjoyed – the kind of novel I think of being ‘a proper Virgo book.’

The author of Open the Door! published only one other novel, like the heroine of this novel she was born in Glasgow. This her first novel is apparently very autobiographical. In the company of Joanna Bannerman – who we follow from childhood to when she is thirty years old – we visit, Edinburgh, London and Italy. Joanna is a brilliantly drawn character, I have seen a couple of reviews of this book, saying she was an unsympathetic character, I didn’t think so. Joanna is flawed – she makes some selfish decisions, but she is warm – craves love and is capable of great kindness. Aren’t we all capable of small acts of selfishness? We all hide from the world our little vanities and caprices, but they make us human, and Catherine Carswell shows us the truth of this in her character of Joanna Bannerman particularly, but in all her characters.

“She was poised and keen, a hawk in mid-air, a speck of perfect bliss upheld in perfection of readiness for the predatory swoop”

As the novel opens it is 1896, Joanna her older sister Georgie, and younger brothers Linnet and Sholto are accompanying their mother Juley on a dreaded visit to their Edinburgh relatives. Juley is a little vague and a little disorganised, even then, she relies on her children to help her organise themselves. As the years pass she will come to lean on her children more and more, while also wanting to retain some control of the household affairs. Juley is another wonderfully drawn, complex character.

This Edinburgh visit is especially memorable, for it is here that the family first learn that the children’s father has died suddenly of pneumonia. The Bannerman children have been brought up within a religious evangelical environment, and the children’s mother Juley – is a particularly strident believer – though she changes churches regularly. There is one last family holiday at their holiday cottage in Duntarvie a place of rural perfection and happiness for Joanna that she is destined to carry with her through life.

As she grows older, the artistic Joanna begins to pull against the conventionalities of this evangelical Glasgow life. She seeks life with a great energy and passion – longs to free herself of the restrictions of her background. Her studies at the School of Art open new horizons for Joanna – she is ready to grab at life and eager for love. She enters into a sudden failed engagement, and then shortly afterwards marries a man she barely knows, an Italian, Mario. She leaves everything she knows and travels to Italy, with her new husband, experiencing sex for the first time, and is less than impressed.

‘This droll device, this astonishing, grotesque experience was what the poets had sung of since the beginning’.

Mario seeks to control her, imprisoning her within the walls of his home, with his own personal wardress watching Joanna – Maddalena his devoted sister.
Thankfully, it isn’t long before Joanna is free again, and back in Glasgow, living again with her mother and siblings. Her dream though is to go to London. She surrounds herself with artistic, interesting friends and lovers including Phemie, Lawrence and the much older, married Louis Pender.

“Ah, how remorselessly the stream swept away all the debris of winter it could reach! As Joanna watched it in fascination she was one with it, and she rejoiced. Her life – was it not as that flood? Was it not muddy, littered, unlike the life she have imagined or chosen? But it was a life. It moved.”

mdeJoanna finds employment and happiness in London, living in two small rooms in the home of a family whose disabled children she becomes particularly fond of. Holidays are spent in Scotland with the family, but in London there is always Louis Pender – her married lover. Louis will never leave his wife, they will always be subject to the little lies and intrigues of an affair – and in time these begin to tell on both of them. Will Joanna ever find the loving fulfilment she craves?

Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

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It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

barbara comyns

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mde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Teignmouth seafront from the pier)

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

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

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saraband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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cof

E.H Young is a fabulous Virago author – and Chatterton Square – her final novel proved to be a fantastic pick for my third All Virago/All August read of the month. Although I have still to read a few of her novels – especially those early hard to find ones – I feel confident in saying that Chatterton Square is almost certainly her best novel. It is complex, multi-layered and fantastically readable.

The setting is Upper Radstowe – the setting of the majority of E H Young’s novels, a thinly disguised Clifton – the genteel, prosperous suburb of Bristol where she herself lived for a time. However, the canvas of this novel like many of her others is far smaller than that, almost the entire story taking place at the titular address.

We are in familiar territory with many of the themes of this novel, those of marriage, provincial life and morality. However, the novel also explores pre-war attitudes, it is the late 1930s and the prospect of another war is at the back of everyone’s mind. Naturally, the possibility of war is contemplated with some pain by those who lived through one war and still bear the scars – either physical or mental. Meanwhile the next generation, face the possibility of having the best years of their lives stolen – and well they know it.

Chatterton Square – not really a square is more of an oblong – has seen better days. Still although fashion has deserted this small corner of Upper Radstowe, these are houses with small gardens, basement kitchens and some – like the Frasers – have balconies. The Frasers occupy a corner of Chatterton square – here live – Rosamund Fraser, her childhood friend Agnes Spanner and Rosamund’s five almost adult children. Agnes, we learn lived a sad, small diminished life with her controlling parents. So, with Rosamund’s husband; Fergus, choosing to live abroad, away from his family – Rosamund took the opportunity to save her friend – bringing her in to the warm, lively family she has never had for herself.

Sitting at right angles to the Fraser household, live the Blacketts; Herbert and Bertha – and their three daughters, Flora, Rhoda and Mary. Herbert Blackett is one of the most pompous, self-obsessed, self-deluded men I have come across in fiction, I could cheerfully have throttled him. He is however, a brilliantly complex character deftly explored. It is testament to Young’s extraordinary skill, that towards the end of the novel, when the reader has spent almost 400 pages loathing him, she allows us to see him defeated, and it is a surprisingly poignant moment.

Mr Blackett is proud of his quiet little submissive wife, in his eyes she is perfectly proper, conventional and loyal. He loves to see her blush if he mentions their honeymoon in Florence almost twenty years earlier. Yet, unknown to him, Bertha loathes him, she suffers his embraces, quietly despising him. Her one consolation that he has no idea what goes on in her mind, mocking him silently keeps her sane – but the reader longs for her to tell him exactly what she thinks – as surely must at some point. There is breath-taking complexity in the characters of the Blackett household, Flora so like her father that her mother can criticise him, through her irritation with a daughter she is unable to like. Rhoda so like her mother – more and more so as the novel progresses. Her father simply cannot understand his middle daughter – and she in turn doesn’t like him at all, and doesn’t really try to hide it. There is a wonderful moment when Rhoda catches a cold, angry look on her mother’s face directed at her unseeing husband, and understands all.

“He pitied widows but he distrusted them. They knew too much. As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, and air of well-being, a gaiety which, in women over forty had an unsuitable hint of mischief in it, he felt that in this easy conquest over, or incapacity for grief, all manhood was insulted, while all manhood, including his own, was probably viewed by that woman as a likely prey.”

Of course, Herbert Blackett does not approve of the Fraser household. Suspicious of Rosamund as she is without a husband, he is appalled when he discovers she is not, as he had assumed a widow, declaring that her husband must have found himself obliged to leave her. Rosamund, manages her family very differently to Mr Blackett, she doesn’t interfere in her children’s lives, they enjoy an enormous amount of freedom, but come to her often nevertheless. Late at night as the household settles down, Miss Spanner or one or other of the children visit Rosamund in her bedroom, where confidences are shared, worries discussed, minds put at rest.

The two households are brought together partly by their proximity to one another and by the friendships which begin to develop between some members of the two houses. Piers Lindsay, disfigured by his injures picked up in the First World War, is Bertha Blackett’s cousin, we sense that there were some tenderer feelings between them once – but Piers returned just too late from the war, which Herbert had not fought in. Now Piers has returned unexpectedly to the area. Herbert Blackett is deeply resentful of Piers and his war wounds he considers an easy way of eliciting sympathy. Rosamund Fraser is drawn to Piers, recognising the goodness in him, his companionship is easy and comforting. Bertha is also fond of Piers, noticing of course, his visits to her neighbour.

“She blushed to remember how once, and for a short time, she had listened for certain tones of Mr Blackett’s voice and watched for certain movements of his long hands and found delight in what was only endurable now because she had learnt to enjoy disliking it. And he did not know, he had not the slightest suspicion, that was the best of it, and suddenly, when she and Piers were sitting in the twilight as Rosamund had pictured them and while Rhoda had left them for a few minutes, Mrs Blackett laughed aloud, a rare occurrence, and it was yet another kind of laughter which Mr Blackett had never heard.”

Alongside the anxieties of a possible war – are the burgeoning friendships and romances between various characters from the two households. However, it is the depiction of the Blackett marriage that will live long in my mind, Rosamund Fraser is a fabulous character, wise, warm unconventional and loving, but for me it is Bertha Blackett (what a name!) who is the real heroine of Chatterton Square.

E H Young

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