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the return

Hisham Matar is a gifted novelist, his novels In the Country of Men and Anatomy of Disappearance captivated me, his writing is beautiful and the stories he tells in those novels unforgettable, and I already knew they were inspired on some level at least, by true events. This book, The Return: fathers, sons and the land in between is the story at the centre of Hisham Matar’s life, the story of his father, of exile a disappearance, and finally a return.

“There is a moment when you realise that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar passion.”

Hisham Matar’s memoir is the story of a family, and a meditation on the history and politics of a land beset by conflict and dictatorship. It is also the story of a man’s love for his father. In 2012 with the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Hisham Matar embarks on a journey back to Libya – after an absence of more than thirty years. It is a journey that is both physical and emotional, a return to a land that robbed him of his father – where many family members who he hasn’t seen since childhood are waiting to meet him.

“There it was, the land. Rust and yellow. The colour of newly healed skin. Perhaps I will finally be released. The land got darker. Green sprouting, thinly covering hills. And, suddenly, my childhood sea. How often exiles romanticize the landscape of the homeland. I have cautioned myself against that. Nothing used to irritate me more than a Libyan waxing lyrical about ‘our sea’, ‘our land’, ‘the breeze of the homeland’. Privately, though, I continued to believe that the light back home was unmatched. I continued to think of every sea, no matter how beautiful, as an imposter. Now, catching these first glimpses of the country, I thought that if anything, it was more luminous than I remembered. The fact that it had existed all this time, that it remained as it was all these years, that I was able to recognize it, felt like an exchange, a call and its echo, a mutual expression of recognition.”

Hisham Matar, born in New York to Libyan parents is the youngest son of Jaballa Matar, one of the chief opponents to the Gaddafi (spelled Qaddafi in the book) regime. In 1973 the family returned to Libya – where Hisham is surrounded by a large and loving extended family. Jaballa continued to speak out against the regime though, so in 1979 the family had to flee Libya, finally settling in Egypt. The regime keep tabs on the family over the years, and Matar relates a terrifying story of his older brother’s narrow escape, pursued by agents on his way home from school in Switzerland. Hisham elects to go to boarding school in England, a country that is to become his home for many years to come.

In 1990, while nineteen-year-old Hisham and his brother are in London, Egyptian agents take Jaballa Matar off the streets of Cairo and hand him over to the Libyans. Jaballa Matar is never seen again. Over the first few years a few letters are smuggled out of the notorious Abu Salim Prison, eventually making their way to Jaballa’s family in Cairo – after that there is silence. Other family members still living in Libya are also imprisoned by the regime – and Hisham his mother and brother begin a long, sad, tireless journey toward the truth.

The Return is also about Hisham Matar’s life as an artist, his relationship with literature and art, his writing and how he uses his words to help his family discover the truth of what happened to Jaballa Matar and other family members in Libya.

There is so much raw emotion in this memoir – sections that tell of deeds of such horrific brutality and loss that is quite mind numbing. To have to sit back and imagine your beloved father reduced to incarceration in a tiny cell, no contact with the outside world, no kindness or basic humanity, even enduring tortures, knowing perhaps he has even already died, and you didn’t know the moment when, because you were not there to watch the life go out of him. Hisham Matar writes of these things with poignant honesty.

“I heard the stories and registered them perhaps the way we all, from within our detailed lives, perceive facts–that is, we do not perceive them at all until they have been repeated countless times and, even then, understand them only partially. So much information is lost that every small loss provokes inexplicable grief. Power must know this. Power must know how fatigued human nature is, and how unready we are to listen, and how willing we are to settle for lies. Power must know that, ultimately, we would rather not know.”

Recently longlisted for this year’s Orwell prize, which is awarded for political writing, The Return is every bit as readable as a fast-paced novel – as Hisham Matar tells of even finding himself negotiating with Gaddafi’s brother in law for information. The Return is an intimate portrayal of the Matars exile, the raised hopes, rumour and despair that accompanies the disappeared. It is also the story of a return from exile exploring the two sides of one coin, the joy of reuniting with family, reconnecting with a land and its people and the grief that exists when someone is missing.

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“I don’t believe you ever see anything dead on, only at a peculiar angle through the corner of your eye”

Given to me by a good friend; Every Eye has been on my tbr for a long time. A slim novella at around 120 pages, I was prompted to read it following a conversation on the Libraything Virago group. A couple of members were discussing the equal brilliance of the last lines of the title story in Roman Fever and the final line of this Persephone novella. Well as I was already reading one I absolutely had to read the other too.

Isobel English is best known for Every Eye, her second novel, she wrote a couple more novels some stories and a play, but as far as I can see none of those are currently available. Isobel English was a pseudonym, her real name was June Braybrooke, and the prologue of this Persephone edition is written by her husband.

“Nothing is ever lost that is begun, no word spoken that can ever be broken down to unco-ordinated syllables, no tear shed that will leave only a powdering of white salt. Everything must go on, and on, and on, repeating itself and gathering force for the ever that is still only the bright whiteness of eternity meditated on by mystics and recluses.”

Every Eye is the story of a young woman whose life could have been made unhappier than it eventually turned out. There is however, a quiet sadness in the midst of what we are supposed to see as her final, recent happiness. We meet Hatty, when she is in her thirties, not long married to a younger man, and anticipating a holiday with her husband Stephen to Ibiza, a delayed honeymoon. On the eve of their departure Hatty hears that Cynthia has died (a few pages later we learn Cynthia had married her uncle 19 years earlier). It is six years since Hatty cut herself free of Cynthia – the novel is an exploration of this relationship – and others – and the impact these relationships have upon her.

As Hatty and Stephen travel by train through Europe toward their holiday destination, Hatty reflects on her relationship with Hatty, her Uncle Otway who Cynthia married, and the relationship she had in her twenties with a much older man. The story switches back and forth between the present and the past, Isobel English’s writing is superb. Hatty is a pianist, and it is around the time that Cynthia came into her life, when she was fourteen, that Hatty began to realise she wouldn’t make her living from playing piano on stage – she does instead become a piano teacher. Uncle Otway is a large presence in her life, a big handsome blustering man, a little interfering in the fatherless girl’s life. Hatty, who always feels like a stranger in her family, doesn’t care much for him, though she likes the small, blue eyed woman, Cynthia; who he brings to the house one day. Cynthia has been married before and has a son the same age as Hatty, she has spent time living in Ibiza – a place the fourteen-year-old Hatty can have no idea she too will one day travel.

Hatty has a problem with one eye, a squint or lazy eye, giving her eye the appearance of looking into the side of her nose, Hatty’s mother encourages her to have an operation to fix it, though it is a very expensive proposition – Hatty is not easily persuaded as she is a little squeamish at the thought. Years later when Hatty begins again to consider it, her mother works hard to dissuade her. Hatty has grown up being advised not to draw attention to it, wear broad brimmed hats to help disguise it.

Sight, as perhaps the title refers to in a way, is a recurring theme, clear-sightedness, the eye of the beholder, the way we see others, the way others see us. Hatty sees her eye as being a deformity, it affects her self-esteem, and impacts on the first proper relationship she has, with an older man. Hatty doesn’t believe he can find her attractive, she is charmed and attracted by his interest in her, his affection and kindness but she can’t help but notice his wrinkled sagging skin, his age. Similarly, as she now journeys with Stephen on their late, long looked forward to honeymoon, she can’t help but notice the disparity in their ages – wondering how others see them. Another theme is age, there is a discernible difference in age in three important relationships within the novel.

Cynthia of course we only see through Hatty’s reminiscence, a woman liked by the fourteen-year-old Hatty, but things change – and gradually Cynthia becomes a more negative presence in her life. Sharp, critical, she subverts Hatty’s first relationship – has Hatty doubting herself. Within a few years of marrying Otway, Cynthia has certainly altered physically, a baby born to her in middle age has played a part in that, as has the reduction of her husband’s army pension. She appears changed in other ways too, more cynical and brittle. When their money no longer stretches as far as it used to, Cynthia takes cleaning jobs behind her husband’s back. Cynthia is a survivor.

“ ‘I don’t know why people have their photographs taken,’ I say. ‘Cynthia altered so much in appearance that strangers used to ask who it was in the place of honour on the piano. She used to laugh; obviously she got a kick in keeping the record of the person she had once been always before her eyes.’
‘It must have been her peak period,’ Stephen smiles. ‘People sometimes go through their whole lives without ever reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.’ “

The sense of place in the novel is wonderful too – France, Spain and Ibiza by train and boat – places evoked beautifully by Isobel English, although Hatty’s view of them is warped by her view of herself and her memories of the past. The one person we never see clearly however is Stephen – I wonder if this is deliberate – I can only assume it is. Stephen is a bit of a mystery remaining an enigma for the reader as the novel comes to its brilliant end. The ending brings the past and present together in such a way the reader almost wants to go back and start all over again, it is the kind of ending you remember, but also makes you want to re-read – well I’m sure I will one day.

isobel English

 

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conversation piece

It’s #readIreland month again – hosted by Cathy – but despite having several qualifying books tbr – I wasn’t sure if I would be joining in. Last year I read a Molly Keane and an Elizabeth Bowen The Little Girls – which ended up being one of my tops reads for last year. I’m not yet sure whether I will get anything else squeezed in for Read Ireland month – I’m still reading very much according to mood – but I like the idea of getting back to Elizabeth Bowen soon.  ireland-month-17

Then writing as M J Farrell, Conversation Piece was Molly Keane’s fourth novel. Like many of her novels – it’s very horsey – if you hate all things fox hunting then it is probably not for you. Oddly enough (and I think I have said this before) although I detest the very thought of fox hunting I don’t mind reading about it when it’s written by Molly Keane. I can’t help but think that the kind of eccentricity one finds among Keane’s characters can’t possibly exist anymore – although I really hope it does. It is these eccentric characters that I read Molly Keane novels for – it is all a world away from twenty first century Birmingham that’s for sure.

Conversation Piece – is perhaps not a very well-known Molly Keane novel, it is also not going to be my favourite – although I certainly enjoyed it. There isn’t a huge amount of plot – not something that ever bothers me – it is much more an evocation of a time, a way of life – and the people who lived it. It is the world that Molly Keane herself grew up in – the sporting calendar running to the seasons of the year with people’s lives completely tied up in it.

Set among the impoverished gentry of rural Ireland, Conversation Piece is narrated by Oliver who – throughout the unspecified time period of the novel – makes regular lengthy visits to his uncle and cousins at Pullinstown. His Uncle is Sir Richard Pulleyns, his cousins Dick and Willow, a little younger than Oliver, they are extremely close – each of them madly passionate about horses. They are also masters of trickery – loving nothing more than to completely outsmart their latest adversary. Gradually Oliver is accepted by them, and drawn into their world – their pranks, their hunts and horse races. Sir Richard is getting on – but he is no push over – quite a match for his difficult children, who generally call him (with affectionate mockery) Sir Richard or the Sir. The house is a shabby riot of confusion, containing almost as many animals as people.

“ ‘ Oh God help me!’ Sir Richard rose to his feet in a sudden helpless early morning spasm of complete and unavailing fury. ‘Put that dog down, sir; do you hear me, put it down. I’ll not have it. Do you know where your nasty ass was this morning, Willow? In the hot-air press! Yes in my own bottom shelf lying on my own bath-towel. What between dogs and donkeys, I can’t call my house my own; I can’t eat my breakfast without being disgusted by you children and your antics…”

The other – important member of the Pullinstown household is James, the butler. An old family retainer – who is very much a part of the family – the house is likely to go ‘all to blazes’ without his competent management. So when, James is laid up ill, a highly irritated Sir Richard – sends his children upstairs to minister to their butler. While James is out of action, the housemaids run amok, and all Sir Richard wants is for things to be back to normal. Willow is followed up the stairs by her baby donkey – who when not munching on James’s discarded poultices is generally found lying by the fire. In their absence one day, James has been ministered to by the slightly disreputable Pheelan, whose remedies consist of smouldering rags, and threaten to set James and the whole house alight. It is in these scenes of absurd comedy that Molly Keane so excels.

“Half-way down the long, scarcely lighted passages to James’s door, a curious and then, all in a trice, a terrifying smell assailed us – a smell of burning. Willow ran. I fell over the donkey, then, recovering myself and a measure of sense, hurried back to where I had seen a Minimax fire extinguisher (ruthlessly bracketed to an Elizabethan chest, that was why I had remembered). When I reached James’s door, the fumes of burning cloth that filled the room choked for a moment all my powers of observation. All I saw was Willow standing dangerously still, one hand on the door-knob, and with his back to her Pheelan bent over James’s bed, from which the fearful smell of burning came with sickening insistence.”

Of course, the majority of Dick and Willow’s energies and time are taken up with hunting, racing and horse buying – some of their antics incurring the grim displeasure of their father. In their company, Oliver becomes almost childlike again – as the three plot against (an appropriately named) Reverend Fox (amongst others) – who’s a bit of a trickster himself. Some of the stories of hunting and horse racing get a bit much if you’re not massively into horses (and I’m not) but there is a lovely appreciation of landscape, Molly Keane’s a very good writer – her descriptions are frequently lovely.

“The demesne walls and big fields of Pullinstown give way to farms fenced with smaller and more intricate carefulness; banks were wreathed and blind in briars or faced up tall and solid with stones; and scarcely a strand of wire did I see, even on the fences that bounded the road. We passed several coverts, gorse growing strong down the length of a wet bog, and a steep hill led us over the curving back of a wood that smelt bitter and shrill as wet woods do smell. The road ran its narrow stony shelf under the shoulder of a rock-strewn hill, darkly crowned with heather, and rich in the dead brown of bracken. Below us a fair hunting country dropped to a vale of grass and grass again, its miles across lost in the mist and shine of the day and the farther mountains were worlds away in faery.”

Sir Richard has his own adversaries among his neighbours – namely Lady Honour – who is not above siding with Oliver Willow, and Dick behind the old man’s back. The disparity between generations is a key theme of this novel, the world is changing and life for houses like Pullinstown must change too in time. Molly Keane paints a portrait of a vanished world. I like escaping into these vanished worlds, one reason I suppose I enjoy reading Molly Keane, I still have several of her novels unread – and I have been contemplating the new biography, written by her daughter. However, I need to clear some space before I buy any more books.

molly keane

 

 

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everywoman

 

(Yes, yes I know, rather stepping out of my comfort zone with this one – it does me good to do so from time to time.)

Just over a week ago, I went to an event at Birmingham Waterstone’s in which my local MP Jess Phillips was appearing to talk about her book Everywoman. It was a brilliant evening, I was massively impressed with everything Jess said – and how later she took the time to have a short conversation with everyone in the queue (it was a long queue) waiting for signings. Note the inscription in my edition below  – I was very chuffed with it. During the conversation, which preceded that signing, Jess had talked politics of course, she also spoke about her work with Women’s Aid (she was a business development manager) and her passion to change things for women suffering abuse, and inequality. She spoke passionately too about how anyone can and should get involved with politics if they feel strongly about changing things. It is, I know, an overused phrase, but- she was very inspiring. She was also, delightfully funny – she has a true Brummie sense of humour, it became a hugely entertaining evening.  20170304_204916

Everywoman is part memoir, part feminist manifesto. I generally don’t talk politics on here – I am kind of loathe to do so now, but I feel I need to state my position. I didn’t vote for Jess Philips – I had lost confidence in the Labour Party – and loathed her predecessor (a Lib Dem MP) and so having decamped to the Greens, I knew nothing about Jess Phillips until after she was elected. She’s a kick ass feminist, who wears her heart on her sleeve, she spends her life fighting for women who have no voice – or feel like they have no voice – she’s heroically fierce, and very funny – she’s a normal woman, who has a demanding full time job, and two kids I really liked her. However, normal women, with full time demanding jobs and two kids don’t generally have to run a sickening gauntlet of daily, vile rape threats and online abuse – Jess Philips does. Why? Because she’s a woman, she says just what she thinks, she isn’t a Corbyn supporter and she has been marked out as an angry feminist (*sigh*) – that is basically all it takes to be so abused. Jess has been criticised for the silliest things; showing too much cleavage on channel 4, and writing the word Mom, rather than mum – yeah well, we say mom in Birmingham so get over it – I’m with Jess on that one, though I tend to write mum (I don’t know why) I know when I speak it comes out mom.

There is a wonderful honesty in this book, she really does tell the truth, about pretty much everything that matters. Jess Philips admits to her own mistakes, those gaffs – which when you’re in the public eye stay with you for ever (haven’t we all opened our mouths at work before fully engaging our brain?). Her detractors are pretty unforgiving, leaping on any little error with whooping glee – it’s all depressingly nasty. It is a wonder to me that anyone sticks their head above the parapet – thank goodness however for the rest of us, that they do. In this book, Jess tells us just what it is like to win an election, and then find herself having to report for duty (in Parliament!) just seventy-two hours later. Four months later she was told by Rt Hon. Harriet Harman MP that she would never be popular – blimey!

“Being told that you’ll never be popular might seem harsh. Especially when it was said to me by the woman who, aside from my mother, had probably had the greatest effect on my life. This is the woman who fought for women like me to get where I am. She was elected around the same time I was born. Every moment she has spent in our democratic palace has been to make sure that girls like me from outside the Establishment can have a couple of kids, make some monumental mistakes and still stumble upon success and, in my case, one of the most powerful jobs in the land.”

Today, even in 2017 there are those (frequently, lets be honest they are men)  who seek to silence those who speak out against violence and inequality – they attach labels to them – angry feminist being one. It’s a dangerous world out there, and the abuse that Jess Phillips is subject to would have me hiding under my bed with a baseball bat. Jess, is braver than me. Going on to tell us about her own self-doubts, not always as confident as she may appear she must often force herself out the door to attend whatever meeting she has lined up. Motherhood and politics are not an easy mix – (and she doesn’t claim that male MPs’ family lives are not affected) but she doesn’t see her kids everyday – and she knows she couldn’t do her job without the support of her husband and her mother-in-law. There are plenty of people who don’t think Jess Phillips should be an MP – I rather love her response.

“I have made no secret of the fact that I was selected on an all-woman shortlist (AWS). People often use this to assert that I was not the best person for the job, merely the best woman. Because, you know, women aren’t people apparently. I wonder if Jessica Ennis-Hill was ever told this? ‘Er, sorry, Jess, your Olympic gold medal isn’t a real one because you only competed against other women; instead we’ve given you this medal we call girlie gold.’”

She pays homage to her mother, who died a few years ago – a woman who was a fearless campaigner herself, she helped make Jess the woman she is today. A woman who continues to fight for the women who have had all the fight (literally) knocked out of them, who gives an empowering voice to those whose voices can’t be heard. She is a proponent of the Universal Basic Income, and is the chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, and has (two years on the trot) read out the names of all the women murdered by men in the previous year. One of the names she read out this year was that of Labour MP Jo Cox (one of the people to whom this book is dedicated) a colleague of Jess’s she was also a friend. What happened to Jo Cox was so dreadful it gave us all pause for thought in June of last year– and yet a few days later the madness continued, and we all know what happened then.

I could probably say a lot more about this book, (but I have gone on long enough) empowering, honest, illuminating and funny – it is as the title suggests, a book for every woman, and I would suggest every man.

So, Jess Phillips in the very unlikely event that you are reading this – I may not have voted for you myself – but I am very proud to have you as my MP – thank you. If anyone can persuade me to re-join the Labour party – it might just be you.

jess phillips

 

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a winter away

With thanks to Dean Street Press for the lovely review copy.

I’m sure you all know about the books now being produced by Dean Street Press –who are working with Scott at the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow blog to bring us works by forgotten writers championed by Scott on his blog. There are a lot of new titles and I have previously only read one of the previous batch; A Chelsea Concerto. Recently I bought Arrest the Bishop (a golden age style mystery) after reading a great review of it – and then I was offered even more by Dean Street Press and I couldn’t resist.

I chose A Winter Away, Fear by Night and Bewildering Cares all of which look great, but it was A Winter Away I decided to pick up first. Elizabeth Fair (lovely name) is a new voice to me. I had to look to Furrowed Middlebrow to provide me with some information about this writer who died in 1997. Dean Street Press are re-issuing all six of Elizabeth Fair’s comedies of domestic life.

Elizabeth Fair appears to be likened to Angela Thirkell – I was a tad worried by that – I don’t dislike Angela Thirkell I enjoy her books when in the right frame of mind – and I think some of the ones I have yet to read are stronger than the few I have read. However, having finished A Winter Away I think I like the voice of Elizabeth Fair much more – she isn’t quite so silly, there is a lightness of touch, the humour is not over-done.

A Winter Away takes us to a small English village, and introduces us to twenty-year-old Maud Ansdell, who has come to stay with her father’s cousin Alice and her companion Miss Conway – generally referred to as Con. The two have been sharing Combe Cottage for years, settling into a well-practised routine, they also have a spoiled dog called Wilbraham. Maud is not very impressed with the room in which she will be staying when she first sees it – but at least staying with Cousin Alice will get Maud away from her overbearing Stepmother.

“ ‘I am small and insignificant’ said Maud ‘but this room is going to make me feel much more so.’
She gazed at herself in the speckled looking glass which hung on the wall. A giant’s wardrobe near the window cut off daylight and the single electric light was behind her at the other end of the room. As well as the wardrobe the room contained a white-painted iron bed, a chest of drawers, a chair and a carpet. The carpet had once been crimson with green and yellow flowers. The wallpaper, as faded as the carpet, had been striped brown and beige, with blue flowers on the beige part. The bedspread had never been anything but cochineal pink.”

Alice and Con keep chickens, and eat a largely vegetarian diet – Con is generally in charge of catering – but her menu is somewhat limited. She knows two-hundred and eighty-three ways of cooking eggs – and in the time, she lives with Alice and Con, Maud probably tries them all. Con, rather resents the presence of Alice’s relative, and longs to rid herself of the nuisance. We can’t help, however be enormously entertained when Con succumbs to a little mishap while out searching for Maud one night. (Maud had been drawn into another little mishap involving a couple of friends).

“Explanations must wait till the morning, Cousin Alice had insisted. As it was they had been up half the night, calming Miss Conway, removing thorns from her person and sponging her scratches, and persuading her to accept a hot-water bottle, a glass of hot milk, and three biscuits.
‘I’m perfectly all right.’ Miss Conway had repeated frequently, though even to Maud’s eyes she looked all wrong.”

Alice and Con have arranged a job for young Maud, as secretary to Mr Feniston at Glaine, called old M by almost everyone – although not to his face. Maud is to act as his secretary and help him catalogue his library. Unfortunately, it looks very much as if Mr Feniston drove his previous secretary to the point of a breakdown. Maud is naturally nervous. Mr Feniston is an irascible old so and so – his son Oliver a teacher at a midlands University – visits from time to time, and Maud sees how fond and proud the old man is of Oliver but how the two quarrel terribly – both are stuck in their own ways. While Mr Fenistone wants to preserve his library even amid its chaos, while Oliver rages at what he sees as its impracticality. The Library was inherited by old M from his three aunts. (Maud, and we assume Elizabeth herself – seems to have her own opinion of aunts – especially those who seem to assume one is interested in every young man who crosses one’s path).

“ ‘There they are. Painted in the drawing room here, when they were girls. Feller from Exeter did it. Looked like owls even then.’ They did look like owls. The Exeter painter had given them fixed stares, and they were perched in a row on a spindly sofa with a trail of greenery hiding their knees. Three dear little owls. And old M was an eagle; and Charles was an eagle too, when he was offended. She wondered whether Oliver would be an eagle or an owl.”

Maud is introduced to the three owlish aunts by old M in the family portrait gallery – and later Maud thinks she can detect traces of owlish-ness in Oliver.

The third Feniston in the story; Charles Feniston, is old M’s nephew. Charles leases a piece of land from his uncle for his market garden business and Maud runs into trouble on her first day, getting locked inside his garden and picking his daisies. Maud discovers there is some little mystery or other surrounding Charles, who is completely estranged from his uncle, and about whom Con has hinted at some disgrace.

On her walk to Glaine each day, Maud must pass Pixie Cot with its blue paintwork and bright purple water butt. Here live Ensie Martin and her father, a retired clergyman, who has become very used to being looked after by his daughter. Ensie fusses a little over her father and their cat, but discovering she has developed an affection for a young clergyman, Maud allows herself to be drawn into their lives, determined to help.

Maud gets drawn further into the lives of her new friends and neighbours, she wants to sort out their arguments, or smooth the way for greater harmony, and naturally aid their romances.

A Winter Away is deeply charming, a real cosy, feel good read, with a dash of humour, I look forward to more by Elizabeth Fair in the not too distant future.

elizabeth fair

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(At this time and in this novel – Romania was spelt as Rumania – and as either is deemed correct even now I have stuck to the spelling used in the novel).

The Great Fortune is the first book in Olivia Manning’s autobiographical Balkan trilogy – which I first read many moons ago and have been wanting to re-read for ages. Naturally I had forgotten a lot of the details of the novel, and so it was like coming to it afresh.

What Manning captures perfectly is the ex-pat community clustered together in city beset by rumour and the ever-present threat of invasion. It is clear she knew just how it felt to live in such circumstances. Rumanian officials, poverty stricken aristocrats, University teachers and tetchy landladies – are portrayed with realistic authenticity. Manning’s Rumanian characters are not always portrayed sympathetically – there is frequently an air of irritation surrounding them, but what Manning also recreates so well is the awkwardness of different nationalities coming together, and living in difficult times fraught with tension.

Rumania at this time had declared itself to be neutral – but how long it would be able to remain unaffected remains to be seen.

It is 1939, and Guy Pringle brings Harriet; his new young wife back from England with him to Bucharest, Rumania. He and Harriet have not known each other all that long, and Harriett must adjust herself to both married life, and being a member of an ex-pat community in war time. Guy has a job teaching English, he slips easily back into the life he knows – having already spent some time in Bucharest before returning to England where he met, fell in love with and married Harriet.

“She was a pretty enough girl, dark like many Rumanian, too full in the cheeks. Her chief beauty was her figure. Looking at Sophie’s well developed bosom, Harriet felt at a disadvantage. Perhaps Sophie’s shape would not last, but it was enviable with it lasted.”

Guy has friends and acquaintances unknown to Harriet, one of whom, Sophie, a Rumanian beauty who has quite obviously set her cap at Guy, and is bitterly resentful of Harriet’s presence. Harriet is alarmed to hear that Guy had once idly considered marrying Sophie to give her a British passport in case of German invasion. Harriet shows everyone her nervousness about the war, England feels like a long way away – and yet none of Guy’s colleagues seem very concerned at all.

“Where is the war now?” Harriet asked.
“As the crow flies, about three hundred miles away. When we go home for Christmas…”
“Do you really think we will?” She could not believe it. Christmas brought to her mind a scene, tiny and far away like a snowstorm in a globe. Somewhere within it was ‘home’ – anyway, England. Home for her was no more defined than that. The aunt who had brought her up was dead.”

Bucharest is a city where the ex-pat community have its regular haunts, places like The Athenee Palace hotel and The English Bar where Guy is already a regular. In these places, we see various members of this wartime Bucharest society gathering to buy drinks, discuss the news and attempt to predict what will happen next. One of the most colourful characters is Prince Yakimov, a White Russian émigré who is practically penniless.

“Yakimov, in his long full-skirted greatcoat, an astrakhan cap on top of his head, his reed of a body almost overblown by the wind, looked like a phantom from the First World War–a member of some seedy royal family put into military uniform for the purposes of a parade.”

Yakimov – or ‘your poor old Yaki’ as he generally refers to himself – exists largely by scrounging off his friends, he is a man used to exquisitely rich food – and he is frequently very hungry. When his credit is exhausted at the hotel, he removes himself to some lodgings, soon falling foul of his landlady to whom he inevitably owes money. As Yaki borrows more and more money off various friends, he finds his friends diminishing, and Harriet is particularly annoyed by him after he insults Guy (an insult Guy doesn’t even notice). However, Guy likes to take people under his wing, and he takes pity on Yakimov, eventually moving him into the small spare room in the flat he and Harriet have moved into. Whenever Yaki gets some money for rent or clothing he generally splashes out on restaurant food, and copious amounts of wine, he is hopes with money – and everyone knows it.

With Guy, so often busy with his own concerns, Harriet can be a little lonely, she finds herself thrown together with a colleague of Guy’s; Clarence – separated from his fiancé, it is obvious he really admires Harriet. Guy seems oblivious to any potential risk, and is not a bit jealous, unlike poor Harriet who practically boils with rage whenever Sophie is present.

As everyone keeps a careful eye on what is happening with the war, and in which direction the Germans are moving – they take heart from the news that the troops are sweeping West – well away from Rumania. Still rumour is rife – and foreign nationals need to secure visas for neighbouring countries to use in the event of a German invasion. The Drucker family (wealthy Jewish bankers – whose son is one of Guy’s students) have been arrested on some apparently trumped up charges and are discussed and speculated over at some length. In the meantime, Guy decides to produce a play – a project which does an excellent job of distracting many of the participants from the gathering storm. Troilus and Cressida is the play – and Guy has the perfect role for everyone – especially Yaki. Harriet is originally supposed to play Cressida – however Guy knows she doesn’t take the project quite as seriously as he does, and so recasts the part – giving it to Sophie.

I loved every bit of this novel it’s wonderfully evocative and though there is not a tremendous amount of plot – the characterisation and evocation of a city under threat of invasion is fantastic. I can’t wait to read The Spoilt City – book two of the trilogy – in fact I see Olivia Manning could become a writer I start reading a lot of.

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Alys, Always was chosen by my very small book group, and on the surface at least it promised much. I reached a point, however, when the big moment was long overdue and I had to accept there is no big surprise, no major twist. So, everything fell a little flat, and what I was left with was an unreliable narrator, and some oddly manipulative behaviour from a central character I was probably supposed to get chills about – but didn’t. It all felt a bit thin and insubstantial. I appreciated the subtlety of Harriet Lane’s storytelling, and the writing is good too – however as this is purported to be a psychological thriller (I know, why do I read them I never get on with them do I? – two words book group) it needed one killer punch – and we don’t get it. Actually, I think calling Alys, Always a psychological thriller is very mis-leading.

The beginning is definitely the best part – as I said it promises so much, and I settled in for a good bit of escapist reading, I knew so many other people had enjoyed it.

“I’ve taken the right fork out of Imberly, past the white rectory with the stile. The road opens up briefly between wide exposed fields before it enters the forest. In summer, I always like this part of the drive: the sudden, almost aquatic chill of the green tunnel, the sense of shade and stillness. It makes me think of Milton’s water nymph, combing her hair beneath the glassy cool translucent wave. But at this time of year, at this time of day, it’s just another sort of darkness. Tree trunks flash by monotonously. The road slides a little under my tyres so I cut my speed right back, glancing down to check on the instrument panel, the bright red and green and gold dials that tell me everything’s fine; and then I look back up and I see it, just for a second, caught in the moving cone of light. It’s nothing, but it’s something. A shape through the trees, a sort of strange illumination up ahead on the left, a little way off the road.”

Frances is a thirty-something editor on the books pages of The Questioner – the kind of person others don’t much notice. One winter evening while driving back from a visit to her parents, Frances comes upon the aftermath of a car accident, and Frances hears the last words of the lone driver. The victim of the accident was Alys Kyte, and just her voice is enough to tell Frances what kind of world she is a part of. Following the accident, Alys’ family make contact with Frances in a bid to find closure, two adult children, the youngest recently started at university, and a well-known novelist husband Laurence. Theirs is a world of graceful privilege, the Kytes are at the centre of a world Frances is very aware of being outside of. Meeting the Kytes opens up a world of tantalising possibilities for Frances.

Slowly Frances begins to build relationships with the Kyte family, beginning with Polly, the daughter who is having problems at college. Frances manipulates Polly first, acting as confidant and offering advice, before later and yes inevitably moving in on her bereaved father.

Soon Frances’s life begins to change, both personally and professionally – the more she sees of the Kytes the more she changes and she rather like it. She has no intention of letting it go – why shouldn’t she be as big a part of this world as Alys was? Frances, watches, she gets to know the Kyte family and their hangers on – she sees where their weaknesses are and where she can wheedle her way in. To be honest aspects of Frances’s manipulation are well done. She takes her time, nothing is rushed – and that felt realistic  I liked the sense of time plodding on, things changing slowly, almost imperceptibly, Frances altering under the very noses of those around her.

“I listen to Catriona making a joke about the host of a reality TV show, the line of her asymmetric bob swinging against her jaw as she turns her head to monitor our responses, and I think, We’re all pretending. The room is full of constructs and inventions. People are experimenting, trying out lines, seeing what goes down best and takes them farthest. I watch the ways they betray themselves and their intentions, the way they draw closer to and turn away from each other. I hear the things that they say and the things that they leave unsaid.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything very remarkable in the story – well that’s fine – I’m not a reader known for my love of plot driven narratives, so that in itself need not be a problem for me. However, the characters are not explored as deftly as I would have liked and Frances’s motivations don’t feel entirely authentic. She is anxious to escape the narrowness of her parents lives, which are portrayed well.

“This is the house where I grew up, and it means nothing to me, just as I mean nothing to it. There’s no sense when I’m here of being safe or understood. If anything, this is the place where I feel most alone, most unlike everyone else. I learned to talk and walk here; I sat at the dining-room table painstakingly crayoning letters on sugar paper; I sowed mustard and cress upon thick wet layers of kitchen roll; I came down on Christmas mornings and received dolls and roller skates and bikes and, as time went on, book tokens and jeans that I’d picked out myself; and I lay on my stomach on the lawn underneath the elder tree, reading and reading; and then I moved away, and it was as if I’d never lived here at all.”

Visiting her parents in their slightly suffocating home, she is irritated by her mother’s anxious need to impress the neighbours – and yet she hasn’t really anything to escape from. Frances has her independence, her own flat, a job, she admires the money and easy luxury of the Kyte family – of course their world is attractive. However, Frances’s character isn’t revealed in enough detail to make her behaviour believable.

Oh dear, I really didn’t set out to write this kind of review – and then this happened. Perhaps I missed something, it’s a book a lot of other people have really enjoyed, and so I am very disappointed, I had expected to really like it. Harriet Lane’s writing is good, which is why I have included the quotes that I have – I liked the tone and subtlety, the observational nature of Lane’s writing – the novel is very readable – and I can understand why so many people have liked it so much, it just didn’t quite work for me.

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