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Posts Tagged ‘All Virago all august’

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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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the orchid house

I like to try and read a variety of VMC books during the annual Librarything All Virago/All August. The Orchid House is a novel quite different in tone to my last Virago read – This Real Night. Slightly reminiscent of The Wide Sargasso Sea, (although that novel is vastly superior) The Orchid House is set on the island of Dominica (although the exact location is only really implied). The novel is far more character than plot driven, written with a strong sense of place, and told with great subtlety. The novel was made into a TV series for channel 4 here in the UK, as can be seen by my TV tie-in cover – I will be going in search of the series now.

Phyllis Shand Allfey was born on the island of Domenica and this novel is said to have been based on her own early life. Born into an elite white family she nevertheless saw herself as a West Indian, and was a socialist activist, journalist and Dominican politician. She also wrote several collections of poetry and a collection of short stories.

The story is largely narrated by Lally, the ageing Dominican nurse who supervised the growing up of three white, Creole sisters at Maison Rose with their mother and war damaged father, in the years following the First World War. Maison Rose is a house is full of characters, Christophine the cook, her son Baptiste, her daughter Olivet and Buffon the boatman – who have all been around the family for years. The house is steeped in memories for Lally, memories of when Miss Stella, Miss Joan and Miss Natalie were children, waiting their father’s return from the war, playing with their childhood friend Andrew. Now Lally’s working days should be at an end, but she can’t resist one last return to Maison Rose when she hears the young ladies she cared for in their infancy are returning.

“Madam sat down in my one room house and told me why she was happy. ‘Lally, the children are coming home to visit us,’ she said. ‘Imagine, Lally, after all this while we shall see the children again. For many weeks we have been making plans, and letters have been passing between us. And now, it seems to be coming true.’
‘It’s a long while,’ I said.
‘But you know the reasons,’ Madam said. ‘You know the reasons, Lally.’
Madam was right. I knew all the reasons; for she had never kept anything from me. I knew that Miss Stella and Miss Joan had married poor men and had babies, and Miss Natalie had married rich old Sir Godfrey, but before she could even have a baby the awful thing had happened, the car had gone over the cliff and Sir Godfrey had died. ‘And how are you feeling, Lally?’ asked Madam. ‘A little stronger?’
‘I never felt better,’ I told her. For I guessed what she was going to ask of me, and joy took away the ache in my stomach and the stiffness in my legs. I would nurse Madam’s grandchildren before I died. I would see Miss Stella, Miss Joan and Miss Natalie again.”

In the past, Lally watched her precious girls grow up amid the lush vegetation of their island home – running in and out of the Orchid house at their grandfather’s home L’Aromatique nearby. As young women, each of them left for England or America, married men Lally can’t quite envisage, the youngest sister now a widow, bringing much needed money into the family. Now Lally awaits their return, each sister expected on long awaited visits, two of them with young sons in tow – their husbands left behind. Lally is a wise, watchful old woman, not much gets past her – it never did. In the days before Miss Stella arrives – the eldest of the sisters, and also Lally’s favourite – she remembers fondly those far off days when the house rang with the voices of the three young sisters. She remembers the return of the master from the war – damaged, clearly suffering from shell shock, he came to rely heavily upon the wares peddled by the sinister Mr Lilipoulala who arrives from Port au Prince with the mail boat. The master is still in thrall to Mr Lilipoulala – of whom Miss Stella was always so afraid – he too is expected in the coming days.

The sisters each still love the same man, Andrew, the friend of their childhood, who stayed on the island, and now lives at Petit Cul-de-Sac, with Cornélie the sisters’ mixed-race cousin, and their child. Andrew, sick with TB does little but lie around the garden of their tiny home. Once the sisters whispered to Cornélie through the railings of her convent school, now Cornélie regards each of them with some suspicion.

“The house was empty of men. It was a house of women, like Maison Rouge in the old days. Madam had said to me that the girls would bring life to the place. They had brought more than that – they had brought sons and torment and love complications beyond the endurance of an old dark-skinned Methodist like me.”

Stella arrives first with her son Hel – beautiful, romantic and nostalgic for the days of her girlhood, Stella wastes no time in seeking out Andrew. Back in America, her German husband and his family await her return at the farm where she has been living a not very easy life. Now, returning to the place where she could always find solace she reflects on her marriage, and whether she wants to return to the farm. Joan arrives next from England, bringing her young son Ned with her. Ned, wakens something in his war damaged grandfather – making a touching connection which surprises everyone. Joan, brings her political activism with her – desperate to bring unions into the lives of local workers. Natalie arrives last, by sea plane, a very wealthy young widow, she brings Eric – her Canadian pilot lover with her. The island works its magic on each of the sisters in turn, leaving something of themselves behind them.

pshandallfrey

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this real night

As many of you will know, August is All Virago/All August over on the Librarything Virago group. I can’t manage to commit to just reading Virago all of August but I love the excuse to read some of my Virago volumes.

This Real Night is the second book in Rebecca West’s Aubrey family trilogy; A Saga of the Century (there are editions which publish all three books together). The trilogy begins with The Fountain Overflows . I read that wonderful book back at the end of February while I was on holiday with friends in Iceland, I hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long before catching up with these characters again. This Real Night and Cousin Rosamond were published in the 1980s following Rebecca West’s death, from the manuscripts that she left behind. The third book I know is unfinished – and while part of me does still want to read it – I can’t get excited about an unfinished novel.

This Real Night starts a few years after the events of The Fountain Overflows, we find ourselves in the 1900s, in those days before the First World War so changed the world for a generation of young people. Cornelia, Mary and our narrator Rose are now grown up, they discover a freedom to being grown up, happy to throw of the bonds of childhood.

“A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness. When one is quite little one labours under just such physical and mental disabilities as might be inflicted by some dreadful accident or disease; but while the maimed and paralysed are pitied because they cannot walk and have to be carried about and cannot explain their needs or think clearly, nobody is sorry for babies, though they are always crying aloud their frustration and hurt pride.”

In the wake of Piers Aubrey’s disappearance, the family fortunes have improved. Clare has a good grip on the purse strings for the first time ever, and the family enjoy the friendship and support of Mr Morpurgo, their father’s friend. The sisters’ beloved younger brother Richard Quin is still at school, he too growing up fast – and considering Oxford in the not too distant future. Cornelia, following the devastation of having to accept that she doesn’t possess the fine musical ability of her mother and two sisters, has become an art dealer’s assistant. Mary and Rose are at music college, desperately trying for artistic perfection.

“Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven.”

Cordelia marries early – and everyone seems to think it for the best. Cordelia is the odd one out in the family, she is rather spikey and can be difficult, though it is sad that she always seems to fall foul of her mother and sisters. Cousin Rosamond decides to train as a nurse, striding out towards independence she remains close to the Aubreys and is especially adored by everyone’s favourite Richard Quin. Rose and Mary begins to notice a little change in Cordelia after her marriage – although their relationship remains strained.

“Our enemy had gone away, had not just left our house, but had vanished. Someone whom, it often seemed, we did not love enough.”

One of the things the Aubrey siblings still enjoy more than anything is their visits to Aunt Lily, who they first knew as children, when her sister was convicted of the murder of her husband. Lily’s daughter was a school friend of Mary and Rose, and although she now lives with her dead father’s family (who prevent her from seeing Aunt Lily) the Aubrey’s retain their old affection for the unfortunate woman. Lily works in The Dog and Duck a small inn on the Thames, taken in by her old friends Aunt Milly and Uncle Len. It is a rough, colourful environment – quite at odds with their more genteel, artistic upbringing, but Mary and Rose particularly love their visits. Here they are exposed to all kinds of new experiences. I love this collection of characters, who Rebecca West portrays realistically but with affection, resisting I felt, the trap of caricature that some writers of a certain class have been known to fall into.

As the world descends into war, change comes to the Aubrey household, there is probably an inevitability to the ending – and Rebecca West’s depiction is delicately poignant.

If I am honest, I think, that The Fountain Overflows is a rather better novel, although I enjoyed this enormously – a chance to meet again familiar old friends. This Real Night probably could be read as a standalone novel but if you did, you would miss an enormous treat.

rebecca west

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blueskies jack and jill

I came to these two short novels by Scottish born, Australian writer Helen Hodgman with no expectations at all. At first I found the voice a little unusual, but certainly intriguing and very readable. Blue Skies is a novella of post-natal depression and domestic stagnation which results in suicide and murder.

“The beach waited in its early-morning perfection just for me and the odd dog-exerciser. When the sun rose higher, the pale yellow sand became an almost desert blaze. The black rocks crouched like primitive worship stones, antipodean Stonehenges.
Later, when the noon blaze subsided, the local women came down. Those nearest could walk laden with bright beach-bags and babies, carting the many necessities for enjoying an hour in the open. Those from further up the road would drive, the wheels of their small economical second-cars spurting up dust sprays and rutting the sand at the edge. Most people gathered together towards the end of the beach. The hitherto mysterious rocks were then pressed into domestic service, their flat tops used as tables, their crevices as storage spaces for cold drinks and for keeping bits of clothing out of the sand.”

Finding Blue Skies to be very well written, with its atmosphere of unsettling claustrophobia, that unusual voice pulled me right in. In the first novel of the two we find ourselves in Tasmania – where a young wife and mother finds the empty afternoons hang heavily, the clock always reading three o’clock. She watches her new next door neighbour Olive mow the grass, with indifference, take the baby down to the beach where she listens to the chatter of the other young mums who gather by the sea.

“I stopped going to the beach.
I concentrated my efforts not on airing the baby but on abandoning it. By being polite and behaving well, I could buy myself bits of free time. The person I had mostly to be nice to was my husband’s mother. This was because she lived at a pram-pushable distance and loved looking after the baby. Not every day: that wouldn’t have been right. But she was good for two days a week.
Tuesdays and Thursdays. On these days I could take off and forget the street, the beach and three o’clock in the afternoon.”

Two days a week the narrator travels by bus to the local town, where she shakes off the mantle of married young mother, for clandestine meetings, lunch, drinking and posing for photographs she stumbles through her life with seeming unconcern. On Tuesdays she sees Jonathon, who she used to work for, on Thursdays it’s Ben the photographer – married to her best friend Gloria. Hodgman brilliantly recreates a sun drenched sensuality and domestic danger. There is a pervading sense of impending disaster, as this troubled young mother lives only for Tuesdays and Thursdays, encountering a predatory bus driver along the way.

beach - tasmaniaAt home, the young mother plays the part of dull James’s wife and Angelica’s mum to the best of her ability, but she views her little family as belonging more to her mother-in-law than to her. Next door Olive continues to cut the grass; the clock still says three o’clock.

Blue Skies runs to only about 105 pages, and so it’s quite possible for me to say too much, it is perhaps obvious that the young woman at the centre of this memorable novella is suffering from post-natal depression, although this term is never used. All I will say is that the ending is bizarrely shocking – and memorable.

Jack and Jill is just a few pages longer than Blue Skies, and its themes are as equally unsettling. Hodgman won the Somerset Maugham prize for this short novel in 1978.

“…the advantage would be all on her side. Jack had done her so much harm already. She could draw on the credit for a lifetime.”

It opens with a shocking scene; a small child left alone with her dying mother, is found several days later by her father, in a terrible state while her mother lies now dead in another room. The child is Jill, her father Douggie, after the death of his wife, the two live a hand to mouth sort of existence on their New South Wales outback property. The time scale of this novel is something like thirty years, taking us from the depression ridden era to the changing times of the 1960’s.

When Jill is still an adolescent Jack arrives looking for work, and Douggie takes him on. From here on in, begin all of Jill’s problems. It is the start of an uncomfortable relationship, certainly it’s no boy meets girl romance. Jill is attracted and repelled by Jack – horrified by her first violent sexual experience when she is too young, and Jack is selfish, predatory and obsessive – she naturally turns away from him. As Jack goes off to war he says –

“You’ll be sorry you treated me this way when I’m dead.’ He flung her aside and marched away, vowing to love her forever.
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ he yelled back at her. ‘So there.’
Jill picked up her book and thoughtfully squashed a line of ants that had strayed between the pages.”

Jill finds herself influenced hugely by Miss Thomas, a teacher who sees a lot of potential in Jill, and so while Jack is off at the war, Jill is at university. Jack returns from the war, confined to a wheelchair – still crazy about Jill. Jill runs away to England, where she discovers Barnaby – the child hero of the series of successful children’s books she writes. She sails home, writing to Jack from aboard ship.

“She was writing to Jack, telling him how she was coming back to him after all because – east, west, home’s best, and better the devil you know. Keep it simple she thought.

She airmailed the letter in Bombay, which seemed a suitably overwrought and exotic place from which to seal her fate, and settled down to enjoy the trip.”

Back in Australia Jill enters into a sexless marriage – where she holds the balance of power, writing her Barnaby books while Jack lives in hope, carving wooden crucifixes. The Raelene arrives, a fan of Jill’s books she offers to help with some secretarial tasks – and stays – her presence threatening to change everything.

The ending of Jack and Jill is also a surprise – but for different reasons to Blue Skies – but it is every bit as memorable.

When I looked this book up on Goodreads – before starting to read it – I was nearly put off reading it by the lacklustre responses it seemed to have collected from other readers. I wonder why that is – because I think Helen Hodgman is a very good writer, she surprises her reader’s and that is something I appreciate. True, her characters are not very likeable – that never really bothers me, I actually often find that a reason for really liking a novel or story – unlikeable characters so often much more believable and certainly more interesting than likeable ones. I’ve done a bit of online searching, and found very little about Helen Hodgman, though it does appear she wrote a few other novels. They will quite definitely be worth checking out. Hogdman’s landscape is recognisably Australian, and that from someone who has never been there, and stopped watching neighbours in the 1990s – but I am a sucker for a strong sense of place. Perhaps some of you will know something more about Helen Hodgman and fill me in – but for me she appears to be a really very good writer who has been forgotten. Perhaps she is better known down under – I hope so.

helen hodgman

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