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birds-on-the-trees

Following on from my reading of In my Own Time by Nina Bawden – I was anxious to read the novel she wrote based upon her experiences as mother to a son later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In life, of course, Nina Bawden’s son Niki killed himself in 1981, so for me there was added poignancy to a novel only published in 1970 – a time when perhaps she believed the worst of his problems were behind him. Some of the stories about this fictional son I recognised from In My Own Time as being stories of Niki.

The Birds in the Trees is beautifully observed with great insight and honesty, it is a novel about parents and children and family life with all its complexities. In 2010 The Birds on the Trees was nominated for The Lost Booker – voted for by readers, Bawden lost out to Troubles by J G Farrell (another excellent novel). The Lost Booker was for books published in 1970 – as changing Booker rules that year meant many novels lost out on being considered.

Toby Flowers is the boy/young man at the centre of this novel – which is told in the varying voices of his family – his mother and father, younger sister and grandmother. These first-person narratives dropped into what is largely a third person narrative, works so well – giving the novel an added intimacy.

“Mummy and Daddy are dead,’ the child said, softly but distinctly, so that Mr Tilney could not pretend he hadn’t heard. Not that he wished to: after the first chill, the sad little statement opened doors in his mind that had been closed for a long time.”

The novel opens with a prologue – in which we meet Toby as a young boy. Toby arrives at a neighbour’s house – late on Christmas Eve saying no one is at home. The neighbours are naturally concerned, have had experience of a hungry Toby turning up in their kitchen before – of course none of it is true. Yet Toby is a lovable little chap – he doesn’t seem to know he’s lying and causing acute embarrassment for his young parents.

Toby’s mother is Maggie, a writer, his father Charlie a journalist. Since early childhood Toby; the eldest of three siblings, has been self-absorbed and awkward, but as he gets older his behaviour gives his family even more cause for concern, when there is a suggestion of drug use. Toby’s ideas for his future differ from those of his mother, when he is expelled from school in his A level year – it highlights the fact that Toby is unlikely to fulfil the expectations his parents once had for him. Toby refuses to discuss his obvious unhappiness and Maggie and Charlie struggle to understand and support the son who they love so much. As Charlie says:

“”All generations face, on the surface, much the same problems; each knows its situation to be unique. Ours, for example. Children before the war, emerged through it into parenthood, Freud in one hand, Spock in the other, into a world where truth is relative, uncertainty a virtue, nothing known… Except guilt, possibly. That is our hall-mark. Out parents did their duty, knew what was right; our sins were original, no fault of theirs.”

Maggie’s mother gives her advice from a distance – which infuriatingly is of the ‘he should cut his hair and knuckle under’ variety. Aunt Phoebe – Charlie’s wealthy, widowed sister, is unhelpful too when she visits – incurring the wrath of twelve-year-old Lucy, who adores Toby and is quick to defend him. Toby has taken to wearing a burnouse pulled up over his head – in which he seems to shield himself from the world. Later, Lucy becomes convinced – following a throw away remark from her younger brother Greg, that the two of them must be adopted – Toby so much the focus in their young minds for all the love affection, worry and attention in the Flowers household. Lucy is a fabulous character, she’s observant, yet only partly knowing, she is rather afraid to fully understand the things she only has an inkling about, the things she overhears. She is often isolated from everyone else, the middle child, the only girl, she is anxious and lonely. The fragility of the relationships within the family are exposed by everyone’s concerns over Toby, memories of former times triggered in Sara (Toby’s grandmother) and Maggie. We get a glimpse of Sara long married to a wildly eccentric, difficult man, Maggie thinks she should leave him, carve out a few years of happiness for herself, yet here too we see one family member not fully understanding the point of view of another. Bawden is brilliant at recreating these family dynamics.

Maggie and Charlie’s friends are drawn into the drama too, Including Elsa; the promiscuous widow of Charlie’s best friend and Angus a psychiatrist friend – married to an old school friend of Maggie’s who Maggie and Charlie decide to consult professionally about Toby. At a party hosted by Elsa, for her son’s twenty-first Maggie and Charlie, are accompanied by Toby (wearing his burnouse) – who having grown up with Hugh is a good friend. Elsa is all bright, unconcern about Toby, while Maggie tries hard to like her.

“’Darlings…’ Her cool cheek touched theirs, her lips sucked air. She took Toby in her arms and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Sweet Toby, you look marvellous in that get up. The girls will go down like ninepins. Go and take your pick – they’re all down in the boat house.’
Bright red and breathing hard, Toby retreated backwards, as if leaving a royal presence. ‘That is the most super boy,’ Elsa said. ‘I wish I were younger.’ She sighed, put her hand on Maggie’s arm. ‘It really is the most frightful thing about the school. I’m so terribly sorry.’”

In this novel Bawden is particularly adept at portraying the truth of a family in crisis, the self-recrimination which goes on, the guilt, arguments, grief the small (and not so small) betrayals which come out of dysfunctional family life. Maggie and Charlie can’t help but project their own wishes for Toby on to him, this is difficult for Toby to cope with, he is very clear about what he does and doesn’t want. Bawden doesn’t give us a nice and tidy resolution, there are none in such cases – although there is definite hope. Reading, The Birds on the Trees with the benefit of hindsight I am struck by how even that small amount of hope was denied her in the end.

nina bawden

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namesfotthesea

Soon, I will be boarding a plane to Iceland with three friends, and Names for the Sea; strangers in Iceland, was the book I decided to read in preparation. It’s the kind of book I don’t often read, but it does me good to step outside my comfort zone. A friend of mine who has visited Iceland three times and has also read this book warned me that there were some negative points which didn’t match her experience, so I was ready to be not put off Iceland by those parts. Names for the Sea relates the experience of author and university  teacher Sarah Moss; who takes a job at the university of Reykjavik and moves herself, her husband and two young sons to the Icelandic capital for an entire year. Naturally someone spending a year in Reykjavik, with young children, a job, financial concerns etc. will face entirely different experiences to those of us just visiting.

This is not Sarah’s first visit to Iceland, in 1995 when they were nineteen, she and her friend Kathy spent six wonderful summer weeks in Iceland. Sarah feels like she has always been drawn northward.

“The Arctic is just over the horizon, the six months’ darkness always at the back of the mind, the summer-long day impossible to believe in winter and impossible to doubt when it comes. Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology. I keep going back to the North Atlantic, working my way north and west as the Celts and Vikings did, as if I’m heading for the Vikings’ westernmost point at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.”

It was 2009 when Sarah Moss took a job at Reykjavik university and she and her family left their home in Canterbury for a year in Iceland. Between accepting the job and moving to Iceland, beginning the search for an apartment and all the rest that goes along with moving a family from one country to another, the financial crisis hits Iceland, and the value of her salary is practically halved. The (some would say bad) timing of Sarah’s year in Iceland is quite key – because the financial crisis affects the kinds of goods readily available in the Icelandic supermarkets – and has Sarah soon yearning after the plentiful fruits of Kent.

reyjavikMoving to another country will always be something of a culture shock – I don’t think it is ever something I could do. Sarah is very aware of her ‘foreignness’ finding her few words of Icelandic stick in her throat – it’s that acute embarrassment thing, isn’t it? – but mortified to be continually expecting people to speak English to her. Customs, everyday practices which Icelanders takes for granted must be explained. Living in a new (not yet finished) apartment complex out in the suburbs Sarah learns that just like in California – everybody drives – almost no one of driving age gets the bus, but for the first few months Sarah’s family resist getting a car because they have so little money. It can be quite an operation preparing herself and the children to walk to school from their apartment once the winter begins, and it is at this point a car becomes a necessity. The financial crisis hit Iceland hard, and Sarah and her family – living with very sparse, basic furnishings (sitting on garden chairs in their living room as they were cheaper) – feel very poor. Sarah begins to look for that poverty in Icelanders – and is unable to find it easily – though she knows it must exist. She also discovers that there is practically no such thing as second hand in Iceland – people having a cultural reticence to using other people’s things.

The weather is another key feature – probably unsurprisingly – and again Moss can appear a bit negative, again, I find that totally understandable. Working with children as I do, I know how staff feel when the children haven’t been able to go out to play two days on the trot – it drives us all demented – imagine having two young lively boys effectively cooped up in an apartment for months. She does however find moments within those long winter months that charm and delight her.

“The aurora are unsettling partly because they show the depth of the space, the falsity of our illusion that the sky is two-dimensional, and partly because it’s hard to convince your instincts that something bigger than you and grabbing at the sky isn’t out to get you.”

Overall Sarah’s experiences are fascinating, I was particularly interested in the details of schooling and nursery provision which she had to access for her sons – children start school at six and continue until they are twenty! There is good, full time nursery provision in Reykjavik which it seems everybody takes advantage of. Sarah’s youngest son, picks up Icelandic with impressive speed, young children often do in these situations, while her elder son settles happily at an international school. Sarah is drawn to the Icelandic landscape, the volcanic craters, the scattered farmhouses and isolated communities, she drives at speed along unsurfaced roads as she explores her unique environment.iceland1

During her year in Iceland, Sarah makes a lot of friends and connections among the people she lives and works among. She works hard to learn more about the country and its people. She learns about the elves and the hidden people, who play an important part in the oral histories of the country. Sarah meets Þórunn at her remote house, a house for which Sarah feels immediate envy, Þórunn claims that she is never alone in her isolated summer home, she is surrounded by hidden people.

“Þórunn gestures, and I gaze at the space she’s pointing to. I can see my own reflection, out there under the tree, and I can see the table on the veranda Þórunn a, and the wind stirring the rowan trees, and the ash cloud rising into the blue sky. ‘She’s from the hidden people, and she lives in the lava field with her family. I used to go and visit her, but about three years ago she started to come and see me, just for a visit. And there are tree elves that I can see out there, small tree elves, and the flower elves, which are even smaller’ – Þórunn holds her hand about a foot above the coffee table – ‘but usually elves are very delicate creatures, with a very fine bone structure.”

At the end of the year, Sarah and her family return to England, to Cornwall this time, but a year or so later return to Iceland for a holiday. On this return trip, she notes how the availability of some goods she had so missed while she lived in Reykjavik had improved quite a lot.

I’m glad I read this book, I feel as if I have learnt a lot about a country I have wanted to visit for years. I am only visiting Iceland for a few days, but a whole year – that is an entirely different kettle of fish. The one thing I don’t think I would do very well with however – is that six-month winter, though the long bright days at the other end of the year sound wonderful. As I get older I appreciate the light more and more. I am still, naturally really looking forward to my holiday. Iceland sounds like it is a fascinating country.

sarahmoss

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love-on-the-supertax

I’m sure that it is only because of Persephone books that Marghanita Laski is remembered now at all. Born into a family of intellectuals in Manchester in 1915, Marghanita Laski went on to become a journalist, novelist and radio panellist. During her lifetime, she produced several novels, biographies, satires and plays, and edited some works of stories and poems. In 1999, Persephone re-issued The Victorian Chaise Longue, following it with Little Boy Lost, The Village and To Bed with Grand Music. Without Persephone books, I wonder how many people would have heard of Marghanita Laski? So many great writers lost to the vagaries of literary fashion, and so many of them women.

I have read all four of those novels – they are each quite different – and in their way, each quite brilliant. I was looking round for more Laski – and I remembered reading reviews by other bloggers of another Laski novel – not re-issued by Persephone – with a quite memorable title. Love on the Supertax.

“This is a story of the spring of 1944. But it does not tell of that jocund season as you know it in Finsbury and Hoxton, where, after their day’s work is done, clear-eyed, confident men and women meet to discuss the Trades Disputes Act or to visit the latest exhibition of paintings by Left-Wing artists at the Klassical Kinema; nor of spring where the first warm rays of sun strike down on the bountiful barrows of Bermondsey, the colourful backyards of Shoreditch. This is not a story of that spring of 1944 as it came to strong vigorous citizens with an ample present and an assurance of the future, but of spring as it came to the needy and the dispirited, to the fallen and the dispossessed, spring as it came to Mayfair.”

My fragile 1940s edition, came courtesy of eBay, and as I now realise it was Laski’s first novel (Wikepedia describes it as a comic novel – I would say it is more satire) I’m very glad I have read it. I certainly liked it, although it wouldn’t be my favourite of hers, and I think, I can understand why this one has not been re-issued. Whether it will be of course in time, I don’t know, but I somehow doubt it (she says sticking her neck out). That isn’t to say I was disappointed, I wasn’t at all. I thought there was a lot in the novel that is in fact quite clever, savagely witty. There were moments when it felt a little Mitfordesque. Characters and the society in which they live, examined with Laski’s critically observing eye. I can’t help but wonder whether modern readers would entirely ‘get it.’ Laski uses language very cleverly in this novel – her characters are from two different and distinct backgrounds, the upper classes and the working classes. However, Laski uses the language we more usually associate with the description of poorer working class households to describe her upper-class characters’ lives.

“Shivering with cold, Clarissa pulled on her scanty ragged underclothes, her laddered stockings and her last tweed suit that she would have sent to the cleaners weeks ago if they wouldn’t have kept it for months. She splashed her face with cold water and, with a final look of disgust at the grubby untidy bedroom, dragged herself down to the basement.”

Upper class Clarissa and her parents, the Duke and Duchess are portrayed as ill-prepared, for the world they find themselves in. Struggling valiantly to hold on to their world and its values – they are figures to be pitied.

Her working-class characters, are intelligent, worldly, have opportunities to earn wartime wages that are denied the struggling, upper classes. Social mores were changing in the 1940s and Marghanita Laski’s first readers must have read her novel with a wry smile, and a good deal of understanding for what she was saying.

The plot itself – is simply told. Clarissa and her parents are impoverished aristocracy. One son is serving abroad, the other involved in shadowy exploits of the black-market kind. Their country home has been requisitioned by the army, and they live in a kind of genteel squalor in their London home, with no servants, they are frequently hungry and cold. Their fortune; mismanaged by the Duke has disappeared and the Duchess has taken to selling some of her clothes to a dress agency. Clarissa and her parents, struggle to make ends meet, juggling shillings and coupons, and trying to save face with the traders who make their living off the backs of their upper crust customers. They find themselves rather envying the working classes who can take advantage of ‘war wages’ and who are all doing rather well.

Around the same time that Clarissa’s brother introduces her to handsome (and rather slimy) Sir Hubert Porkington, Clarissa meets Sid. Sid is from an altogether different background, he is highly politicised a member of the communist party, and Clarissa has her head turned immediately. Sid sets out to teach Clarissa a thing or two about the world, and Clarissa is enchanted, desperate to prove herself worthy of becoming part of his world. Sid takes her to parties, to lectures, she meets people, with something to say, who open her eyes, and Clarissa convinces herself she can become part of this world, throwing off the inconvenience of her embarrassing background.

It is, perhaps inevitably Sir Hubert (who never gets any nicer to my mind) who tells Clarissa how she can’t just throw off her class like she can her clothing, insisting she should be working to save her class, not working against it. Clarissa has fallen in love with Sid, but when he takes her to tea with his family, she begins, sadly to see, how difficult it will be to convince Sid’s friends and family that she is worthy of a place in their world. But is she? Could Clarissa work in a factory, join the communist party and forget her upbringing?

I really enjoyed Laski’s witty social commentary in this short novel – it lacks the brilliance of To Bed with Grand Music or Little Boy Lost, and she is not quite as funny or as sharp as Nancy Mitford, but still this is an enjoyable little read which fans of Laski’s other books might enjoy.

marghanitalaski

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deep-water

Deep Water was Virago Press’ pick for their February book club. I had wanted to join in with the book club at least once – so was delighted they picked a book I hadn’t read and one by an author I have wanted to read for a long time. Patricia Highsmith is probably best known for the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train, this novel perhaps one that is less well known. Based solely upon the evidence of reading this, I will be reading a lot more novels by Patricia Highsmith.

Deep Water isn’t a typical mystery/thriller, it is deeply psychological, suspenseful and subtle. Highsmith forces us to side with a murderer, against all his potential victims. Somehow, we see their faults before his, feel his frustration, wanting him to succeed, against our reason.

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reason that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.”

At the centre of this novel are married couple Melinda and Vic Van Allen, a couple whose marriage has descended to one of mutual destruction. Neither of them seem to wish to end the marriage, each completely caught up in their peculiar brand of domestic misery. They have one young daughter Trixie, who is six, and since her birth Melinda has had no interest in her husband. Vic now sleeps in another wing of the house on the other side of the garage. He has his own interests outside his small printing press business, including the breeding of snails. He is an affable, likeable man, intelligent and studious, a good friend, neighbour and father. The Van Allens live in the quiet, affluent, town of Little Wesley, where Vic is highly regarded by his friends and neighbours.

Although Melinda has no interest in her husband, she does have quite a lot of interest in other men. Vic now finds himself in a rather embarrassing position. Melinda entertains her series of male conquests at their house, evening drinks, turn into very, very late nights. Vic, happily stays up to thwart Melinda’s plans. She insists that these men accompany her and Vic when they are invited to friends’ houses, where she dances with them, not her husband. It is a world of cocktail parties, pool parties, barbecues, and practically all day drinking. Vic and Melinda are invited everywhere, and wherever they go, Melinda brings a third guest.

Every few months, Melinda seems to have a new friend – and Vic is never quite sure just how far things go, though it is generally assumed these men are Melinda’s lovers. Everyone in their social circle sees how Melinda acts, and what Vic must put up with, and how it appears he is doing nothing about it. With Vic out each day at the Greenspur Press of which he is justly proud – employing two other equally enthusiastic local men – Melinda is free to please herself. She takes very little interest in her young daughter, and is drinking more and more. Her misery is evident, and yet cleverly, Highsmith makes her anything but sympathetic. Melinda is unfaithful, an inattentive, uncaring mother, she drinks heavily – so naturally the reader has little sympathy for her. Highsmith understands exactly how her readers will react to her characters – we fall into her trap and it is quite brilliantly done.

A few months before the novel opens, one of Melinda’s previous conquests was murdered in New York, the culprit not yet found. As Melinda continues to flaunt her affairs right under Vic’s nose, Vic decides to try and frighten the most recent off. He hints that he was responsible for the murder – and that if he ever had a problem with one of Melinda’s friends he would just kill him. The man concerned is seriously rattled, and gossip begins to seep through Little Wesley. Many of Vic’s friends immediately suspect the truth of what Vic was doing in saying what he did. There are other people, who know Vic less well, who seem to take it seriously. Melinda thinks the whole story is ridiculous, it gives her just one more reason to scoff.

However, Vic hadn’t counted on the real murderer being unearthed and splashed all over the newspaper. Vic is right back in the embarrassing position he was in before, and Melinda has a new man on the go. The lines between Vic’s real self and the one he has pretended to, blur, and it isn’t too long before Vic really does have blood on his hands.

“Vic watched the next few seconds with a strange detachment. Melinda half standing up now, shouting her opinions at the coroner – and Vic felt a certain admiration for her courage and her honesty that he hadn’t known she possessed as he saw her frowning profile, her clenched hands – Mary Meller rising and taking a few hesitant steps towards Melinda before Horace gently drew her back to her seat.”

Wilson, a local resident and part of the same social circle as the Van Allens, though not really a friend, watches Vic closely – joining forces with Melinda against him, Wilson becomes a thorn in Vic’s side.

“Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking that it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.”

Highsmith is apparently known for writing charming, likeable psychopaths and villains and in Deep Water she does just this.

This was an excellent read, intelligent and compelling, it is also very hard to put down. I am looking forward to exploring more by Patricia Highsmith.

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in-my-own-time

Carrie’s War was one of the books of my childhood, I think I have carried the memory of that book and the 1970s TV adaptation of it with me ever since. I rediscovered Nina Bawden as an adult, and it was like re-connecting with an old friend. I’ve come to believe that not everyone enjoys Nina Bawden’s writing as much as I do. Naturally – as with many prolific writers – her novels do vary a little in quality. Although I have read only about eight of her twenty adult novels, I have found her to be a writer of great insight and a superb storyteller.

With In My Own Time , Bawden tells her own story – in a series of, frequently very honest – vignettes starting naturally enough with her childhood. I loved every word of this book, and was rather bereft when it was over, not only did I love the stories of Nina Bawden’s life, I realised as I neared the end – that I really liked her.

Nina Bawden was born in 1925 in London, this collection of memoirs opens with memories of her family, aunts, uncles, grandparents and her own parents. Family stories of a ship’s cook, and an old tramp – the memory of whom, Nina’s mother would rather have had erased completely.

In the years before the war, the child Nina always made up stories to amuse herself and her younger brother. Showing an early aptitude for art, which Nina’s mother was keen to encourage, Nina was sent for extra art tuition, which she hated, and from which whooping cough delivered her. During the war, Nina was evacuated, an experience she used later for her famous children’s novel Carrie’s War – though Bawden, stresses that story was not her own. Nina was moved between foster families several times, the families she stayed with all rather different to her own, though she recalls them here with some affection and gratitude. Relating the time when her mother came to visit, and Nina worked hard to protect her latest ‘auntie’ from her mother’s probable scorn, if she realised what a hopeless housekeeper Nina was staying with. When in the first year of sixth form, Nina, along with many of the other girls billeted nearby returned to London. Nina stayed with her friend Jean for a while. The Blitz was over, but flying bombs and land mines were common.

“I was curiously unafraid. There was even an exquisite excitement sometimes, listening to the engines of death above me. If I were to write about living in a city under siege, I would be able to describe the sharpened sense of that danger gave to ordinary life, the exhilaration of having survived the night, the bomb, the mine, but it would seem crudely insensitive to write about someone who was not in the least afraid. I was afraid of lots of things; the dentist, being alone in a house (listening for a clicking latch, a creaking stair) but I was not afraid of bombs. Of course emotions fade from memory, or sometimes, if remembered, seem unbelievable after a lapse of years.”

Soon Nina joined her mother in the country, a farmhouse in the Welsh Marches. In 1943 Nina went to Oxford. She had been going to read French, but soon transferred to Modern Greats. While at Oxford, Nina met Margaret Thatcher (though she wasn’t yet Mrs Thatcher) and Richard Burton, who she hadn’t found especially attractive. She recalls fire watching in the university buildings, playing planchette on the roof of the Bodleian library, and sleeping on a camp bed in the museum, it was undoubtedly a happy time.

nina-and-austenIn 1946 Nina married her first husband, Harry Bawden, with whom she had two sons. Later Nina met Austen Kark on a bus, and left her husband for him, she is pretty matter of fact about this, and there isn’t a word of criticism for her first husband whose name she kept for her books. Having published some short stories her first novel came out in 1953. Who Calls the Tune, came out to very good reviews. A mistake Bawden made over the naming of one particularly unpleasant character, lead to a letter, very nearly making it her last novel – it taught her a valuable lesson – to thoroughly ensure her character names weren’t names of people she had once known. Bawden describes how she wrote, an adult’s novel one year, a children’s novel the next. Admitting that some autobiographical material seeps in, Bawden considers central characters to be generally too complex, needing to be known by their creator too thoroughly to be completely taken from life. She was fortunate in her publisher; sticking faithfully to George Hardinge as he moved from one publishing house to another from 1954 until 1987.

The most moving section of this book however is in Bawden’s descriptions of her family – their life together, their trials and tribulations. Nina’s sons Niki and Robert were young enough to accept their stepfather Austen quite happily, though their own father was still involved in their lives too. Later Nina had a daughter; Perdita with Austen, Austen had two daughters from his first marriage, with whom Nina seems to have had a good relationship when they visited. However, it was Nina’s eldest son who was to give her the greatest worry and heartache. Niki’s problems began to surface when he was just a boy, and Nina and Austen did all they could to find the help Niki needed. Later he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and here Nina remembers him with honesty and sadness but overwhelmingly with great love.

“He was a loving, valiant child. Once, when he overheard us groaning about some alarming and unexpected bill, he packed up his best toys, weeping, and gave them to us to sell. And one summer holiday, when he jumped off a breakwater and landed on a nail and the matron at the cottage hospital stitched up his foot without an anaesthetic, he sat quite still on Austen’s lap and made no sound. But my mother had been right when she had called him vulnerable. He was more fragile than his brother and sister, more unsure of himself, more easily upset, and as he grew older, in his teens, his fragility became more apparent. Sometimes you could see his face betraying inner terror, as if he were shivering inside his skin.”

Niki’s story is a sad one, and his mother fights hard for him, she writes about him with striking honesty – and I really felt for a woman who I knew went on to face other tragedies after this book was written. Austen was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash of 2002 – and (herself injured) Nina Bawden’s own evidence formed a vital part of the investigation and she later appeared as a character in David Hare’s play about the crash. Her final published book was Dear Austen (2005) a letter she wrote to her dead husband about that crash and all that followed. Nina Bawden died in 2012, a few months after her daughter Perdita’s death.

In My Own Time is a wonderful memoir, and it has convinced me to read more Nina Bawden novels this year.

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2017-02-02_21-17-37

On my last trip to the Persephone shop in November the one book I absolutely knew I was going to buy for myself was Every Good Deed and other stories. It is the most recent Dorothy Whipple book to be published by Persephone –  with stories first published in literary journals and other collections mainly in the 1940s.

What I hadn’t realised until I opened it to peruse the contents was that the first story Every Good Deed is a novella at 120 pages, I was excited at the idea of a really long story I could sink my teeth into. Every Good Deed spans a period of around twenty-five years, in the lives of two gentle, innocent sisters. The period is difficult to work out – perhaps it doesn’t matter much, though one sister does already own a car at the beginning of the novel and wears a mushroom hat. Neither of the world wars are mentioned, but I assumed the story to take place in the twenty five years before the second world war – the story first appeared in 1944.

The sisters at the centre of Every Good Deed are the Miss Tophams, Miss Emily and Miss Susan, already in their forties when the story opens. Left quite comfortable by their parents, the sisters live at The Willows together, getting along wonderfully well, each of them living their life according to their talents. Miss Susan manages the house and all domestic matters alongside their faithful cook while the elder sister Emily has her committees and public affairs. Miss Emily is capable and caring and the work she likes best is her involvement with the children’s home. It is the children’s home which indirectly changes their lives forever. The lives of the sisters have slipped along in the same quiet stream for years, they are very content with their lives, their friendship with Cook making her into more of a third member of the family. Their only brother James lives in London, keeping a distanced though not a too interfering eye on his sisters’ affairs.

On one visit to the Children’s home, Miss Emily meets a new arrival (the home has had dealings with this girl before) Gwen Dobson who is thirteen. The matron and her staff find her difficult to deal with, know her to be sly, manipulative little madam, wilful and disobedient. Miss Emily believes that the dear child merely needs kindness – and to diffuse a rapidly escalating situation late one evening Miss Emily takes the girl home to The Willows for the night.

“Before she disappeared round the corner, Gwen, clinging closely to Miss Emily’s silken waist, turned and put out her tongue.”

Gwen stays five years, and the sister’s lives are changed forever. Gwen is difficult, selfish and unappreciative, she rules the roost and the gentle loving sisters whom she now calls Aunt Susan and Aunt Emily continually find excuses for her. They arrange for her to be educated, but Gwen is eventually asked to leave. Gwen always knows how to find her way round the sisters, how best to take full advantage of their gentle, innocent natures. Their dear Cook, more of a friend than a servant, leaves in tears, promising to return if Gwen ever leaves them. The house, once a place of gentle, ordered calm, suffers in Cooks absence, as the sisters struggle to cope with Gwen. One day Gwen does leave, running off with a jazz musician when she is eighteen.

For a while everything returns to the way it was before Gwen arrived five years earlier, even their beloved Cook returns to The Willows. For a year, the sisters and cook live happily, shrugging off the previous five years, blissfully glad to have their old lives back. Then, Gwen returns, and this time she is heavily pregnant, producing a son within hours of her arrival.

“I’d no idea newborn babies looked like this,’ said Susan with awe and delight as she washed the child. ‘Why, he’s a person already. See the way he turns his head to look at us. We’re the first things he has seen in his life, Emily.’”

I won’t reveal any more of the story, but I found it hard to put down. One small criticism; the story could perhaps have done with a little pruning, but it’s a small point, and doesn’t detract from what is a very enjoyable novella.

The other stories in this collection – nine of them, are to my mind outstanding. I am not going to talk about all nine however. Miss Pratt Disappears is probably my favourite. The eponymous Miss Pratt is a downtrodden woman whose capabilities have never been acknowledged by the two sets of selfish relatives with whom she divides her time. Creeping apologetically around their houses, going to bed early, eating like a bird. One night she finds herself locked out of both houses on her change over day – and so Miss Pratt in desperation and with only a small amount of money – catches a bus to a place she was once happy.

In ‘Boarding House’, we see the happiness of several people at a small hotel in its first season, completely destroyed by one selfish woman. A woman, whose loneliness and boredom changes the mood of everyone and the atmosphere of the house.It is a superbly observed little story.

The shortest story is The Swan, just a few pages long, it portrays a single swan, whose mate has been killed. The narrator is desperate to save the swan from spiralling further into madness and grief. It is an unusual story to come from the pen of Dorothy Whipple. And I found it delicately moving.

“Then far away, down one of the waterways, I would see her coming, small in the distance, growing larger and lovelier as she came, swimming strongly towards me. When she reached me, she made little hoarse sounds of pleasure and ate bread from my hand. I had to be careful she didn’t take my fingers with it in her eager beak. I was proud to have made friends with her and naively thought I had consoled her for the loss of her mate.
I was wrong.”

One Dark Night is set during the wartime blackout. A woman who has so far avoided being out in the blackout emerges from a cinema, to find herself in complete and absolute darkness. She steps out in fear, alone, ruminating on the argument which has separated her from her sister, to whom she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Looking desperately for a chink of light by which to find her way, the woman stumbles along a street with shops hiding behind blackout shutters, and desperately opens a door.

This is a quite delicious collection for all Dorothy Whipple fans, and suited my mood perfectly in the dark days of late January when I so needed an escape.

Dorothy whipple

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Published in the year before her death No Signposts in the Sea is perhaps Vita Sackville West’s most haunting novel. Written at a time when Vita was suffering from the (still undiagnosed) cancer that would end her life, it was also her last.

vita-and-haroldVita  and her husband; Harold Nicolson and their friend Edie Lamont – to whom the novel is dedicated, set sail on a cruise of the West Indies and South America in 1959. Vita and Harold had enjoyed cruise life before, yet on this last, sad voyage Vita began writing No Signposts… a novel about dying, unrequited love and how life should be grabbed at with both hands. The novel feels beautifully intimate, bound up as it is life, love, death and travel.

The novel  is also shot through with extracts of poetry, reflecting the thoughts of the central characters Edmund and Laura. There is a delicate, elegiac quality to the narrative – which I really enjoyed. I can only assume that Vita was (on some level at least) aware that she perhaps – like Edmund in her story – would not be around for long.

“I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”

During a week when I felt increasingly hopeless and helpless I felt very much like sailing away on a calm sea, this book felt like perfect reading. I picked it up for the Librarything Virago Group’s author of the month – which in January is Vita Sackville West. Although I enjoyed this little novel enormously, there were a couple of moments when I was brought up sharply – almost back to the mad reality of 2017, with – what was for me – some unexpected, racially offensive attitudes. I know to expect it of novels from the 1930s and 40s – I read a lot of books from that period, stupidly I had not expected the same in a novel from 1961. It was naïve of me, I suppose. Still, the 1960s were still a different time, I understand that, and VSW of a very different class, that shows too, but none of this was enough to prevent me from enjoying this novel.

The story is told by Edmund Carr, the novel is his journal, discovered after his eventual death. We know from the beginning that Edmund is on borrowed time.

Fifty-year old Edmund Carr is an eminent journalist, who came from humble beginnings, and now counts members of an entirely different social class among his friends. One of those friends is Laura Drysdale, an attractive widow of forty. Edmund nurses a secret tenderness for Laura, and so when his doctor tells him he has just a few months to live, Edmund decides to spend his last weeks with Laura. Laura has booked herself passage on a cruise ship. Edmund hurriedly leaves his job in Fleet Street, and books passage on the same ship.

Delighting in having the sun on his face, Edmund settles into a lovely on board routine, frequently in the company of Laura. Keeping both his illness and the truth of his feelings a secret, Edmund is content just to be in Laura’s company, terrified of ruining the relationship they already have by looking for more. He is unable, however to free himself of his feelings, now so much in the company of Laura they are, if anything strengthened.

“And sometimes I suddenly hear her voice. This is a queer experience. I know her voice so well in the ordinary way of things, and then suddenly and unexpectedly I hear it as though I had never heard it before. It may be only six words, of no especial significance. Thus, I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund my darling, I love you.
Love does play queer tricks,”

Together they watch the sunset from the deck, share dinner on a beautiful island, watch a magnificent lightning storm from Laura’s private balcony, all while observing their fellow cruisers with wry humour. Laura is presented as perhaps being a little unconventional – she discusses her views on marriage quite candidly and relates the touching story of a lesbian couple she knows. In these sections, we can presumably see, Vita’s own attitude to love and relationships.

Fellow passenger Colonel Dalrymple adds a little complication to Edmund’s contentedness. At first Edmund is happy with the colonel’s company, he, along with another passenger make up a four with Edmund and Laura, for bridge. In time, though Edmund imagines the Colonel has romantic interests of his own toward Laura, and his own jealous paranoia begins to threaten his enjoyment in Laura’s company. He watches the colonel, listens for footsteps between cabins at night, makes an uncharacteristically snide remark, and then worries that in doing so he has given himself away.

“Then come mysterious currents which rock the ship from below without much visible convulsion. Where do they come from, these secret arteries of the sea, tropical or polar? They are as inexplicable to me as the emotions which rock my own heart. I do not let them appear on the surface but am terribly aware of them beneath. Sometimes, churned by a gale, the waters grow angry and the blue expanse turns black and white, tossing us remorselessly, the waves crashing with a sound as of breaking biscuits, the rain hissing as it obliterates all vision, and again I draw the parallel between the elements and the surprising violence I have discovered in myself.”

Despite a couple of small jarring moments, this is a lovely, thought provoking novel – VSW re-creates her own love of cruising, her enjoyment becomes our own, the expanse of sea, the warmth of sun, a night-time, moon bathed deck, her writing is gloriously evocative.

Next month the librarything Virago group will be reading the work of Rebecca West – I have two (at least) VMC West novels tbr – so I may join in that too.

NPG x14197; Vita Sackville-West by Cecil Beaton

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