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Translated from Danish by Toby Bainton

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

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

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

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

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

‘A what?’ asks Zeppo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red Pottage is a late Victorian novel that is satisfyingly many things at once. A novel of what was then termed ‘the New Woman’ while also having something of the sensation novel about it. It is a novel that satirises the smug, complacency of the middle classes and some aspects of the clergy – demonstrating how women needed independence. Here is a story of a close female friendship, romance, adultery, a suicide pact and the search for fulfilment. It zips along at a marvellous pace, becoming hard to put down. There are times when only a really good late Victorian novel will do for full immersive absorption – and this novel ticked so many boxes for me that I was genuinely sad to finish it.

Mary Cholmondeley became almost an overnight celebrity upon the publication of Red Pottage – it was a huge best seller. Her previous novels had met with only quite modest success. She was hugely influenced by the novelist George Eliot – she is also the aunt of the novelist Stella Benson (who I have yet to read).

“Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence which will risk nothing, and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well.”

As the novel opens we meet Hugh Scarlett – a man trapped in an affair with an unhappily married woman. His infatuation with her is over – but her husband Lord Newhaven has discovered their relationship and insists that Hugh enter into a pact with him – they draw lots – he who draws the shortest will be duty bound to die by their own hand within five months. Listening on the other side of the door – Lady Newhaven is desperate to find out who drew the shortest.

Earlier that evening Hugh was introduced to Rachel West – a young woman who everyone knows for her sudden and unexpected inheritance. The daughter of a self-made man who later lost everything, Rachel has not had an easy life. Having lived independently and in quite severe poverty for some years in the East End of London making her living as a typist – Rachel has come into an enormous fortune. She has had her heart broken by a man who was clearly not worthy of her – and now she is a very eligible prospect indeed. Hugh Scarlett finds himself drawn to Rachel with very genuine feelings – but his entanglement with the Newhavens hardly makes him a fitting suitor.

Rachel’s great friend since childhood is Hester Gresley – she had previously lived with her aunt Lady Susan Gresley with whom she enjoyed a life of great sympathy, patronage, and society. However, upon her aunt’s death Hester was obliged to go to live in the country with her clergyman brother and his wife.

“Life had not spoilt Rachel. Lady Susan Gresley had done her best to spoil Hester. The one had lived the unprotected life and showed it in her bearing. The other had lived the sheltered life, and bore its mark upon her pure forehead and youthful face.”

The Rev Mr Gresley is pious and serious clergyman – fond of his sister, he disapproved of the life she lived in London before coming to live with him. Many of the things Hester does or doesn’t do fills him with despair – and Hester’s life is narrowing because of it. Hester is a writer – she has published to some great acclaim a novel about the East End of London. She is now writing her second novel.

Rachel is invited to stay at the country home of the Newhavens – which isn’t far from where Hester is now living. Lady Newhaven is miserable, unable to get in touch with her former lover – she is casting round for a confidante unaware that Rachel has recently got to know Hugh Scarlett quite well. As Rachel’s friendship with Hugh begins to look like something more – it becomes clear that Lady Newhaven is not ready to let him go – is desperate to speak to him, sending him letters which Hugh burns unopened.

Mary Cholmondeley presents us with a marvellous cast of characters; Richard Vernon, a business acquaintance of Lord Newhaven and cousin to Hester and her brother – he is a no nonsense straight talking breath of fresh air recently arrived home from Australia where he made his fortune. Here is another man who recognises in Rachel a woman of strength and intelligence – and with whom he wouldn’t mind throwing in his lot. The kindly, moderate and very sensible bishop who provides something of a foil to Hester’s brother, the socially ambitious Pratt sisters and their brother – and the wonderfully well drawn society wife Sybell Loftus.

“People, like Sybell, believe one can only sympathize with what one has experienced. That is why they are always saying, ‘as a mother,’ or ‘as a wife.’ If that were true the world would have to get on without sympathy, for no two people have the same experience. Only a shallow nature believes that a resemblance in two cups means that they both contain the same wine.”

Hester pours all her energies into finishing her new novel. As her previous novel told a great truth about the East End of London, this novel will seek to tell the truth about the clergy – in a way that many of the clergy will object to. To Hester her book is her child – it is everything to her. Recovering from a bout of illness at the home of her friend the bishop – Hester can little imagine what terrible consequences her absence from home will have on her literary ambitions. It is easy to see in Hester something of Mary Cholmondeley herself who knew first-hand the creative struggle for women writers and the need for independence.

This was such a great read – and yet another novel that should be back in print. Some second-hand copies can be found – although how easily I’m not sure – and for kindle users it is available free.

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I adore Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – some of which I swear I could happily read over and over. Therefore, I had been looking forward to Journal which I have had waiting for the perfect moment for some time. Unfortunately, I don’t think I did necessarily choose the right moment, I think my mood wasn’t quite right for this book – which has so many beautiful, wonderful nuggets within it that I can’t possibly take anything away from it – I just wasn’t as delighted by it as perhaps I had assumed I would be. That said, there is always lots to love about Mansfield’s writing – and I learned more about her the woman, reading this, than I knew before – so all in all it was a positive read – I just wish I had felt more enthusiastic at the time. Definitely a case of right book, not quite right time.  

A few years before this Journal begins, Katherine Mansfield has left her native New Zealand for Europe – where she remained – living at multiple addresses throughout the period- until her death. London, Cornwall, France, Italy, and Switzerland it appears that Katherine was for ever packing up and travelling from one place to another. We see these places through her wonderful eye – and experience her delight in often the simplest things – her wants seem to have been few – she took joy from the smallest of things.

“The heavens opened for the sunset to-night. When I had thought the day folded and sealed, came a burst of heavenly bright petals.”

Various friends and acquaintances flit in and out of these pieces, referred to by their initials – there is an explanation of who each set of initials refers to in the front of the book. Her one constant companion – aside from John, who sometimes stayed in London when Katherine went abroad – is LM – Ida Baker who Katherine called Lesley Moore who was a loyal and constant presence in her life until she died.

Compiled by her husband John Middleton; after Katherine Mansfield’s death it is a uniquely personal and revealing book. I know John Middleton has come in for criticism in the past – accused perhaps of benefitting too greatly from his wife’s legacy and making decisions to publish things that Katherine would rather he hadn’t. I think perhaps that is why I often feel a little uncomfortable reading collections like this – I can never quite escape the little voice in my head whispering – ‘would she want me to read this?’ Still, I do love Katherine Mansfield – not just her writing – but her – the person she was, complex, creative, flawed and often a little sad. One day I will read this Journal again – because it is wonderful, and next time, I will be in a better mood – and appreciate it even more.

Journal is a book of many kinds of writing, there are diary entries, unposted letters, writing drafts and reminiscences. One of the things that certainly struck me early on is the honesty with which Katherine wrote here – she is hugely self-critical and always observant. Chronicling the last twelve years of her life we see her in every kind of mood – in love, in happiness in delight in the world around her but also in grief, despair and of course in illness.

“By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love — the earth and the wonders thereof — the sea — the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. A want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good — there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun. About helping others, about carrying a light and so on, it seems false to say a single word. Let it be at that. A child of the sun.”

Her creativity is in evidence throughout – her stories never very far from her mind – her battles to perfect her writing – and her great desire to see her work in print. She would read her stories to John and when he pronounced them good she would be pleased, but later self -doubt would creep in and unsettle her again, this is so often the case with those writers we later declare genius!

“Saw the sun rise. A lovely apricot sky with flames in it and then solemn pink. Heavens, how beautiful…I feel so full of love to-day after having seen the sun rise.”

Often writing in reflective mood, Katherine writes about her childhood – memories of New Zealand would swamp her. She writes about her mother from whom she never felt love – and her adored grandmother for who she still felt a great loss. Her beloved brother is killed almost as soon as he stepped on to French soil during the First World War, and a note from Middleton tells us sadly, that of all her friends who went to war, none came home. Yet, despite this we get little sense at all of the war – even though the war years make up a large part of this Journal. In a sense the world she writes about is fairly narrow – but it is all her own.

Journal is a book full of beautiful, tender moments – written by a woman who must have known her time was limited – and who strove to leave something of herself behind through her writing.

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A couple of years ago I read my first novel by Celia Fremlin – it was her second novel Uncle Paul I was captivated by her taut storytelling and the way the tension built slowly. I hadn’t meant to leave it so long before reading her best known novel The Hours Before Dawn of which I had heard such good things. I now want to read more by this author – who has been called the British Patricia Highsmith (I haven’t read that much Highsmith, but I’m not convinced that is entirely accurate.) Still, Fremlin is an excellent writer of suspense fiction, in which she weaves a psychological mystery around a domestic setting. This was such an enjoyable read, I began it one evening and finished it by the following afternoon, Fremlin certainly knows how to reel in her readers. Published in 1958, this novel went on to win the Edgar award in 1960.

Louise is a typical middle class 1950s housewife, she stays at home with the baby, delivers her other children to school, attends mother and baby clinics, and sometimes chats to the other neighbouring housewives. Her husband Mark is out at work all day, arriving home in time for dinner before depositing himself behind a newspaper – the children settled upstairs out of sight. However, Louise’s domestic life is not running as smoothly as everybody else’s seems to. Her youngest child, seven month old Michael barely stops crying, she is desperate to get some sleep. With two lively, chatty little girls also taking up her time and energy, Louise is exhausted, and she can expect little if any help from her husband.

“If you went on neglecting your own tastes like this, did you, in the end, cease to have any tastes? Cease, in fact, to be a person at all, and become merely a labour-saving gadget around the house?”

At night Michael screams for hours, Mark has complained of being disturbed and so Louise takes her inconsolable son into the scullery – the furthest away from her sleeping husband she can get – to try to soothe him, where she sits uncomfortably with her feet propped up on the mangle, her poor head lolling against the draining board.

Another member of the household who Louise feels must not be disturbed is Miss Brandon. Miss Brandon has recently taken the attic room the couple advertised in the newspaper. Mark and Louise know little about her, save that she is a teacher at the grammar school with an interest in classical studies. There is something a little mysterious about her, Mark feels he might have seen her somewhere before – and Louise feels she recognises the large blue suitcase that sits on top of the wardrobe.

“Louise was aware of a queer, lurching giddiness. When – where – had she thought these things before? Where had she seen that suitcase – or one the very double of it – and had found herself thinking, exactly as she was thinking now: How out of place that is! Fancy seeing a suitcase like that here, of all places.”

One day, Louise and her mother in law Mrs Henderson go into Miss Brandon’s room to retrieve some books, having been told earlier that Miss Brandon would be out all day, find her sat silently by the window – watching. Louise starts to have vague unspecified doubts about her lodger, Mark dismisses her worries, he shares some of Miss Brandon’s interests and Louise has noticed they seem to get on quite well.

Harried daily by the needs of her children, exhausted beyond all bearing – Louise fears she may not be thinking entirely rationally, but she can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right at all about Miss Brandon. Louise’s friend from the baby clinic Mrs Hooper has taken to off loading her children on to Louise whenever she needs, Louise is hopeless at saying no. Mrs Hooper rarely returns the favour. Mrs Hooper’s son Tony is fascinated by spies – and having been left in charge of Louise’s children for a while by his negligently casual mother – later chats innocently to Louise about the spy in her house, revealing that he spotted the lodger going through Mark’s desk. Is it just a case of a nosy lodger – or is there really something more sinister going on – and will anyone believe her? Between them all the children notice other things, and their chatter feeds into Louise’s doubts. A terrifying incident late one night, with Michael screaming the house down, shakes Louise’s confidence in herself – and seems to convince Mark – and her curtain twitching neighbours that there is something wrong with Louise’s nerves.  

There are several things that Fremlin does really well. We see everything from Louise’s perspective, and the reader is never sure how reliable her view of things is. She portrays the world of an exhausted young mother to perfection, this is no advertisement for 1950s domestic harmony, and the reader feels Louise’s frustrated exhaustion as her baby continues to scream throughout the night. Gradually, Fremlin winds up the tension creating a wonderfully suspenseful atmosphere throughout the novel. None of this detracts from some excellent characterisation – from the annoying Mrs Hooper and her spy obsessed son to Louise’s perfectly groomed mother-in-law – who prefers to keep her grandchildren at a distance, Fremlin uses a sharp and observant eye.

The Hours Before Dawn is a hugely compelling psychological mystery that becomes increasing difficult to put down. I have discovered that some of her novels and story collections are available in paperback and e-book from Faber and Faber. I shall certainly be investigating some of these at a later date.

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Elizabeth Bowen’s eighth novel A World of Love – the last one I had left to read – is a novel of great subtlety, focussing on the lives of a group of people in a large house in Ireland. The decaying mansion of Montefort is the setting for this novel – a house steeped in the past, Bowen’s opening is glorious, her prose perfectly capturing the atmosphere that persists throughout the novel.

“The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before. There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river. The river gorge cut deep through the uplands. The light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense. The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late wakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast. At all times open and great with distance, the land this morning seemed to enlarge again, throwing the mountains back almost out of view in the south of Ireland’s amazement at being cloudless.”

The house of Montefort is owned by Antonia and presided over mainly by Lilia. The house was originally owned by Guy, Antonia’s cousin who when he was killed in the First World War had been engaged to Lilia. Antonia who inherited the house, had taken the bereaved girl under her wing, later marrying her to Fred, a local farm worker who manages the estate for Antonia. The house is infused with the spirit of Guy, still haunting the place he lived and the two women in his life. Lilia and Fred have two daughters; Jane and Maud – twenty year old Jane is the eldest a young woman keen to enter into a world of love and romance. The younger daughter Maud is just thirteen, she roams the house and grounds in the company of her familiar Gay-David.  As the novel opens Jane is floating around the grounds of Montefort in an Edwardian gown that she found in the attics. It wasn’t the only thing that she found, in the same trunk she found old letters written by Guy years earlier. There’s a dreaminess about Jane, a ripeness for romance that sometimes makes her seem younger than her years, she has a great and romantic imagination.

We never get to read any of the letters, yet their presence begins to affect everyone in the house. It is quickly apparent that while it’s clear that Guy was the author of the letters, it is much less clear who the letters were to. Jane takes the letters and hides them away where she can spend time with them in private.

“The letters, all in the same hand, were headed by day-names only – Tuesday, Saturday, and so on. They had been removed from their envelopes; nothing showed where they had been written or when posted. The writing-paper varied in kind, and, though not yet so aged as to be discoloured, was soiled at the edges, rubbed at the folds. The rubber band round the packet survived the fall from the trunk only to snap, unresilient, at the first pull from Jane – how many years does it take for rubber to rot? The ink, sharp in the candle-light, had not faded. She could not fail, however, when first she handled them, to connect these letters with that long-settled dust: her sense of their remoteness from her entitled her to feel they belonged to history. Honour therefore allowed her to make free of them.”

However, she lets everyone know that she has found these old forgotten letters, and immediately the household is thrown into a strange emotional turmoil, the past rising up around everyone. This group of oddly connected people are held together by fragile bonds, brought together in a sense by a man killed years earlier.

The emotional tension between these characters as they explore the past is exquisitely examined by Bowen. Antonia is a strange character, having brought Lilia and Fred together rather against their will, her life since seems to have had little purpose. There seems to be an unspoken jealousy that still exists between Antonia and Lilia. Lilia runs the house, but it belongs to Antonia who flits in and out of the lives of the family at Montefort and retains the best room for her own use. Lilia and Fred’s marriage has not been easy – the age gap between their daughters telling only part of the story of their uneasy alliance. Past and present relationships are re-examined, even Guy, the man who both Lilia and Antonia have put on a pedestal since his death has to be looked at in a new light.

Nearby in another grand house lives Englishwoman Lady Latterly, an outsider from a different world, she is wealthy, surrounded by interesting and exciting people. Jane is invited to an evening at her house – an event that further ignites her imagination. By the end of the novel Jane is poised to enter fully into her own world of love.

A World of Love is a beautifully written novel, it’s very much a character driven piece and not a great deal happens, but it is delicately evocative and the interplay between characters is brilliant.

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