Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’


Radclyffe Hall became famous – perhaps infamous in her day – for her novel The Well of Loneliness a ground-breaking novel in lesbian literature. I loved that novel – although it gets increasingly bleak and is not terribly positive. I was compelled to keep reading and didn’t at all mind Hall’s rather flowery writing style. Before writing that novel Hall was already a published novelist and poet. The obscenity trial that followed the publication of The Well of Loneliness resulted in an order for all copies to be destroyed. A Saturday Life was published three years before that book which was to cause such an unwarranted furore. It is an altogether lighter book, a comic novel about a precocious child, artistic experience and the possibility of reincarnation.

Sidonia Shore is the only daughter of the gently vague Lady Prudence Shore, a woman whose head is generally somewhere in Ancient Egypt. Her husband, himself a great Egyptologist has died, and she is determined to carry on his life’s work and ensure his name is not forgotten. Her daughter Sidonia is only seven years old as the novel opens, when the child’s nurse finds her dancing naked in the drawing room. When challenged, Sidonia bites the nurse and the shocked woman has no choice but to rouse Lady Shore from her Egyptian ruminations. Sidonia’s mother is rather at a loss as how to deal with her eccentric child – and enlists the help of her friend Lady Frances Reide who lives nearby and is a frequent visitor.

Sidonia is clearly a precocious child – and Frances suggests that her mother enrol her in the Rose Valery dance school in Fulham. Here the pupils – under the tutelage of their teacher, endeavour to recapture the soul of Ancient Greece.

“Sidonia’s first appearance at the Rose Valery School was positively melodramatic. To begin with, she looked so extremely unusual, with her pale face and shock of auburn curls. She was little and quiet and immensely self-possessed, not at all put out by the groups of gaping students. The moment Rose Valery set eyes on the child she had, or so she said afterwards, great difficulty in stifling a scream of pleasure.”

Prudence and Frances can only hope that Sidonia is able to express herself artistically at the school, while keeping her clothes on. Sidonia behaves impeccably to begin with – but she finds clothes so restrictive for dance – and soon removes them, dancing naked before her classmates in the cloakroom. Frances has some work to do in persuading Rose Valery to allow Sidonia back after this – she has been receiving letters from uncles after all. For a few years Sidonia is happy dancing at the school – but the strictures of the school and clothing begin to take their toll on her talent, and her dancing changes. Soon Sidonia finds she no longer loves dance – and completely gives it up.

Over the next twenty years, Frances continues to support and counsel Sidonia and her mother. Sidonia changes artistic discipline every few years. With extraordinary enthusiasm she takes up each new interest, perfecting and obsessing over each new talent as it crops up. Sidonia appears to have the most extraordinary talent for everything she takes up. Piano, wax modelling, sculpture and singing are each taken up fully embraced and then discarded. Lady Shore can barely keep up, so lost in her own world is she, that her daughter’s artistic developments are a constant confusion.

a saturday life2When she is in her sculpture phase, Sidonia is working under the tutelage of Einar Jensen alongside a roomful of other students who she never really gets to know. She is determined to be awarded the travelling scholarship, and to go to Italy and continue her studies there. Once Sidonia is set on something it’s sure to happen – and she does win the scholarship and persuades Frances to accompany her to Italy. Frances is a wonderful foil to Sidonia’s wild enthusiasm, wryly sardonic, sensible and practical – she’s not keen to go to Italy – she is far more at home, spending time in the predictable though vague company of her old friend. However, Sidonia gets her own way as usual.

It is in Italy, that Frances first learns about a Saturday Life in an old book she buys. It provides one explanation for Sidonia’s taking up and throwing off of artistic disciplines. A theory requiring a belief in reincarnation.

“People who are living a ‘Saturday life’ are said to have no new experiences, but to spend it entirely in a last rehearsal of experiences previously gained. They are said to exhibit remarkable talent for a number of different things; but since they have many memories to revive, they can never concentrate for long on one. This also applies to their relationships with people, which are generally unsatisfactory.”

In Italy Sidonia is introduced to the Ferraris, a family of singing teachers – old friends of Frances’. Soon, Sidonia has lost all interest in sculpture and taken up singing as if she was born to it. Frances is furious at her wasting the scholarship and its not long before she returns to England – happy to be more and more in the company of her old friend Prudence. When Sidonia returns to London, she meets David, falling hopelessly in love. David is quite a contrast to the rest of the book, and like Frances I had my doubts about him. He is a traditional type with fixed ideas about women.

“‘I think that you ought to have married. Why haven’t you married, my dear?’ He stood surveying her critically, but his eyes were not altogether unsympathetic. She thought: ‘Supposing I tried to explain? And began to laugh softly to herself. ‘Bless you!’ she said, ‘I’ve never wanted to marry.’
‘All women do,’ he told her.
‘Not being a woman, how can you know?’
‘Because I’m a man, I suppose.’

The reader of course understands early on that Frances is a lesbian, Hall gives us plenty of clues. Living alone, wearing rather masculine clothes, quietly devoted to Prudence. She is easily the most interesting character in the book.
The ending is enigmatic – has Sidonia found her last great fulfilment in life – will it be a happy ending?

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the birthday boys

For my 1993 (bear with me) slot of A Century of Books I chose my second Beryl Bainbridge of the year; The Birthday Boys, which is Bainbridge’s take on Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. It was a book I was a little uncertain about before I began. I knew that is was a very different Bainbridge to those of hers I have read before. Also, a novel about people who really lived – and are already widely written about – can be problematic. However, this is a novel reviewed very positively by lots of people – and it was my only book for 1993 so it was worth taking a chance on. Then!! While writing this review – I discovered it was first published in 1991! So not only needn’t I have read it – but now I have slid back one year in my race to the end – so, so massively depressed by this I can’t tell you. How did I manage to make such a mistake? Just realised it wasn’t the only book I had for ‘1993’ either – I checked my trusty spreadsheet and there was another. Absolutely fuming with myself.

I have always been strangely fascinated by the men who chose to set off on such perilous and uncertain expeditions, in times when they could only rely on themselves. To set off for years, journeying into such inhospitable environments with no guarantee of return, what drives people to do that? I am similarly fascinated by the men who tried and then succeeded to conquer Everest.

In five chronological first-person narratives, Bainbridge tells the story of Captain Scott and the four other men who set out to conquer the South Pole with the Terra Nova expedition. Bainbridge gives each of the doomed men a voice, Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Scott himself, Henry Robertson Bowers and Capt. Titus Oates, relate their experiences, thoughts and feelings. Through good and bad, arguments, relationship breakdowns, thoughts of home and frostbite.

“It wasn’t all misery. On one of our halts we lay spreadeagled on the ice and stared up at a sky blazing with the glory of the most wonderful aurora I’d ever witnessed. I groaned beneath the splendour of those silken curtains, yellow, green, and orange, billowing at the window of the heavens.”

The novel opens in 1910, before the Terra Nova sets sail, with the testimony of Petty Officer Taff Evans – a large Welshman, who isn’t always popular with his colleagues, but who ‘The Owner’ Capt. Scott has a particular liking for. Taff has a wife and children, he is a proper sailor with a love of the sea, and a hatred of being too hemmed in. He is ready to give up the sea however after this two-year expedition, when his dream is to open a pub in Wales.

“I left him and went up on deck to look out at the slithering city, its glitter of street lamps fizzy under the rain. There’s something wrong about a ship in dock, something pathetic, like a bird fluttering in a spill of oil. The Nova was tethered to her berth by ropes and chains, caught in a pool of greasy water. I could feel her shifting under my feet, tugging to be free.”

In Taff’s company we first meet the other men who – in 1912 – Scott will select for the final push to the pole. He shares his thoughts about his colleagues, Scott’s wife and the terrible state of the Terra Nova. Taff’s account was my favourite, so much so, I was rather sorry to move away from him, and it took me a while to settle into the other narratives. When Taff, the most physically strong of the men, finally begins to break down it makes for hard reading.

Throughout the other narratives Bainbridge shows the heroism and patriotism that drove these men on. We see Scott’s rage when letters arrive informing him that Amundsen’s expedition is headed for the pole too – it is known that the Norwegian has a large number of dogs to assist the men – something which Scott had chosen not to have on his expedition. The psychology of these men is deftly explored – the delicately balanced relationships, jealousies and terrible hardships as the conditions inevitably begin to take their toll. All Bainbridge’s descriptions of landscape are glorious, you really feel the bitterness of the cold – the dreadful blizzards that almost halt their progress.

We know of course what happens before we start the book, yet Bainbridge does manage to tell the story of these men as if we don’t. There is a real poignancy to their fate – their efforts were heroic, their fate so horribly tragic – we can picture those families waiting two years for them to come home. We have witnessed their dreams, imagined along with them the glory of their successful home coming. It all went so horribly wrong – their dejection when they see the Norwegian flag ahead of them at the pole – is gut wrenching. In, The Birthday Boys Bainbridge writes sensitively and with an obvious fascination and understanding for these men. What she has produced is probably as close as a novel can get to a biographical account. This is not my favourite Bainbridge novel, but I enjoyed it, well written and researched with this novel she really showed her versatility.

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Philip Larkin well known for his poetry, wrote just two novels, I read the second of them, The Girl in Winter (1947), last year, and it made my books of the year list. Jill was published a year earlier, and although it is not quite so pitch perfect as that later novel it is still hugely satisfying, written with great insight and delicacy. It is an extraordinary character study, shot through, with lyricism and subtle social commentary.

The narrative takes place during one term at Oxford university – in an unnamed college. In the autumn of 1940 John Kemp, a desperately shy eighteen-year-old undergraduate arrives in Oxford on a scholarship from his home in Huddersfield. I imagine this is probably the best evocation of Oxford in 1940 as it is possible to get. Cake gets stolen from other student’s rooms, essays are prepared at the last minute, rules always there to be broken.

John arrives, and is directed to his room, finding it already occupied with an unknown roommate – who has opened all his preciously collected crockery and used it to entertain his friends.

“‘Do you know – er – rather a funny thing, I think we’ve both brought the same kind of china –’
He was interrupted by a howl of laughter so sudden and boisterous that he jumped and looked round him in alarm. Everyone was wildly amused. Elizabeth snatched her tiny handkerchief again and holding it to her eyes, shook with merriment. Eddy Makepeace gave short barks of laughter, that were irritating because they sounded forced: Hugh Stanning-Smith chuckling in a well-bred way, and Patrick Dowling looked sideways up at him with a foxy jeer.
‘What – what’s wrong? He exclaimed, startled for once into natural behaviour.
More laughter. His bewilderment caused a second, cruder burst, as if a comedian, having told a funny story, had proceeded to sit on his hat.
‘Oh God.’ Gasped Christopher Warner at last, taking his handkerchief from around the teapot handle and mopping his eyes with it. ‘Oh, dear! My dear fellow, these are your crocks…”

Oh – the awkwardness of that scene – you can’t help but feel for John here. It is a brilliantly written scene.

His roommate is Christopher Warner – an upper middle-class student fresh from a minor public school. He is lazy, self-absorbed, arrogant and overly confident. Surrounding himself with people of a similar type, he lurches from one drunken social engagement to another, borrowing money with little sign of repaying it. John is rather dismayed to find he has to share, it was not the experience he had dreamed of – and in meeting Christopher and his set he is immediately on the outside. Larkin depicts beautifully that isolation within a crowd – everything John thought he would have, had to be quickly reassessed.

“He had hoped that at least there would always be his own room, with a fire and the curtains drawn, where he could arrange his few books neatly, fill a drawer with his notes and essays (in black ink with red corrections, held together by brass pins), and live undisturbed through the autumn into the winter. This was apparently not to be.”

Christopher is unlike anyone John has met before – John comes from a proud working-class background – his success in getting into Oxford the pride of his parents’ lives. Christopher a boarding school pupil from London, fits in, feels at home with everything around him. It’s as if everything is merely his due – and his air of entitlement is palpable.

John tries desperately to find a way of fitting in to Christopher’s crowd, only he isn’t of their world. When his home town comes under heavy bombardment – not one of these people ask him if he has heard from his family, and poor John must make a terrified overnight dash to see if he still has a family.

John finds himself telling Christopher about his younger sister Jill – only in actual fact he just has an older sister; Edith, no sister called Jill at all – yet for one glorious moment Christopher seems interested. John imagines his roommate rather envies his story of an ordinary, happy family life. Jill was a total invention made in a mad moment – but from here John begins inventing a whole life for this imaginary sister. Writing letters and diaries from her to him, madly embellishing the lives they lived, a closeness between siblings sharing happy holiday memories. He leaves a letter from Jill lying around hoping that Christopher will read it and develop a greater interest in him. Of course, Christopher is far too self-absorbed to do anything of the sort.

At this point, John’s creativity takes hold – and in writing the letters from Jill – he conjures up an entire person, helping assuage his own loneliness.
However, things are further complicated when John sees a girl in a bookshop who looks just as he has imagined Jill. She turns out to be the fifteen-year-old cousin of Elizabeth, one of Christopher’s friends, and bizarrely she is called Gillian. The lines between reality and fantasy quickly get blurred, and John is not really equipped to deal with everything that’s going on in his head, and he has nobody looking out for him.

“He wished he was rich enough to give a party, a party for Jill, with the furniture pushed back, a while cloth on the table and barrels and clean glasses making the room like a bar. A fire of logs roared. There was gin the colour of morning mist and whiskey like fairy gold. He wore a ten-guinea suit and smoked with an amber cigarette-holder. Everyone came.”

For me the strongest section of the book is the beginning – and it picks up again at the end – when the novel ends with searing poignancy. However, there is a small section in the middle of the novel that I felt was less successful. It loses a little direction for a while, when we have some of John’s fictional writings about Jill – none of which seem to go anywhere.

There is far more that is really good than isn’t – so don’t be put off. The characterisation is superb, and Larkin uses this to show the stark differences in the experiences of those from different social classes. Larkin’s portrayal of a shy, awkward young man, a little out of his depth is brilliant and necessarily rather sad.

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asualties of peace

(My 1980s edition had another – frankly horrible cover – see below, so I picked this one to head up the post. I have a thing about photographs of real but completely unknown people on book jackets – yuk!).

Edna O’Brien is such a familiar name – and yet I have only read about five of her novels. In 2015 I read her most recent novel The Little Red Chairs – a searingly powerful book. Casualties of Peace is a much earlier novel, and for the most part I really enjoyed it.

“Why did her body desert her so? Why had she let doom take charge of her? She lay back and stretched to try and unwind the coil of pain in her stomach.”

It is a novel that is fairly bleak, from the moment I started it I had a bad feeling about how this would go. There are, I should warn future readers, some fairly unpleasant scenes of domestic violence.

Set in the London of the 1960s, the novel centres on Willa, Patsy and Tom. Willa is fragile, a dreamer and still recovering from a failed love affair. She is an innocent, embarking on a relationship with a married Jamaican man Auro. While she longs for him, fantasising about him when he isn’t with her – she seems stuck – unable to move forward with the next stage of their relationship.

Patsy and Tom live with Willa – providing basic housekeeping duties and companionship to the isolated, nervy Willa. Patsy and Tom are loud, passionate and seem odd companions to Willa, an artist in glass – herself, delicate and virginal bruised from her first experience of love. She wants to sleep with Auro, who seems to genuinely care for Willa, unaware perhaps of just how vulnerable she is. He, himself is unhappily married, and will soon be leaving London.

“There is no panic, I am not a child, I am not with Herod, I am not afraid. I am not a child, I am not imprisoned, I am not afraid, I am not dead, I am not dying, I am not being followed, I am not in the wrong, I am not afraid.
She said the words quickly, unthinkingly as if they were a prayer or a set of multiplication tables. As indeed they had become. Old words often said. She reached through the brass rungs of the bed-end and lifted the curtain to see the hour. Daylight. Dawn-red ridges in the sky. She almost wept with relief.”

Patsy and Tom’s marriage has been successful, and now Patsy has realised her mistake. She has been having an affair with another man Ron. Ron is leaving for Ireland and has asked Patsy to go with him. Patsy has some idea of Willa’s need of her – and so as she is planning to leave Tom, she confides in Willa first. Willa pleads with Patsy to talk to Tom, not to just disappear – this delay and the resulting furore prevents Patsy from leaving with Ron. With Patsy delayed in following her lover, Ron just glancing over the unwelcome telegram, chooses to believe she has totally changed her mind – and sends all her letters back to her.

cofTom is already violently angry with Patsy – he is a dark presence throughout the novel, crude, violent and rather dull witted. Patsy’s letters to Ron arrive while Patsy is at the doctor having her pregnancy confirmed. Willa acts to intercept Patsy from the bus, the reader already knows what Tom is capable of – a thoroughly nasty, violent man – we know none of this will end well. Tom’s love is the obsessive, possessing kind – no one else will have his wife if he can’t.

The ending is a shock – yet there is a horrible inevitability to it. I say ending – actually, that is a bit odd. The ‘end’ – the moment the reader realises what all this has led up to – is then, in my opinion spoiled. Following the dramatic and gut-wrenching fate of one character – we are regaled with more letters, letters which tell the backstory of that character. I thought that this rather detracted from what had come before, and for me diluted it rather. The backstory is important – but I would have welcomed it earlier. Edna O Brien may have been experimenting a bit with her storytelling – it was the 60s – and it might work for other readers, it just lost me a bit.

I really enjoyed the majority of book, Edna O’Brien’s writing is beautiful – I loved the way she gets right into her characters heads, we see their frailties and weaknesses, I was quickly drawn into the story of these tragic characters. I know Edna O’Brien stories are unlikely to be warm and fuzzy – she tends to write about conflict and women’s difficult relationships with men.

I recently bought a book of short stories by Edna O’Brien so I may be reading her again before too long – though knowing my tbr – no promises. She remains an excellent writer, and one I must read more of.

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home life

Several years ago, when I was looking for seasonal reads in the run up to Christmas, I happened across a novel called The Inn at the Edge of the World. I hadn’t heard of Alice Thomas Ellis, to my shame. So, perhaps hadn’t expected much – well I loved it – and ever since have meant to read more by her. Last Christmas my Librarything secret Santa gift included this delightful collection. I had meant to read it much sooner – but the year has just got away from me. What a delight, this gave me so many reasons to smile.

“The other night the bath plug was missing. For a theft so inexplicable no solution is too bizarre, and I immediately suspected Russians, since I don’t think even that cat would nick the bath plug.”

In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first – and I really will have to collect the other three (not sure how easy they are to get hold of though). This book was an absolute joy – and I would happily have read on and on had there been more. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps. She is also very honest, blithely referring to visiting her son’s grave almost in passing – you begin to feel very much one of the crowd.

“I vividly recall an occasion when the oldest son was starting to crawl. We were sitting in a garden in the country with acres of velvet lawn and I picked him up and ran with him, dropped him on the touch line and flew back to sip a drink in comparative peace before he could get at me again. He came thundering over the lawn on his hands and knees and peed on Randolph Churchill who had ill-advisedly taken him on to his lap. I can’t imagine why. It was a most uncharacteristic gesture – on the part of R. Churchill, I mean, not of the son.”

Dividing her time between her family home in London and her holiday home in wales, Ellis writes about her home life, her life as a prolific writer is only referenced a few times. Her husband, five children, Janet who comes every day to help – the cats and all manner of domestic woes and disasters. Things we can all relate to on some level are at the heart of these pieces. There is I suppose a very slightly snobbish tone to some of her pieces – Alice Thomas Ellis is no doubt a product of her environment and circumstances, but she is warm, charming and very funny.

Whether it be frozen pipes, Brazilian soap operas, weddings to dress for, letters from bailiffs or burglars who become part of the family, Ellis is never less than enormously entertaining. We catch tantalising glimpses of her neighbours, one of whom is Alan Bennett, and witness her frustration over the occasional tramps coming into her garden. She is always a superb observer of all kinds of people.

“Many years ago I caught a burglar. He was only seven and when I collared him he burst into tears, so I wiped his nose and gave him a marmite sandwich, and ever since them he’s been one of the family, working in the office, standing godfather to the daughter and bringing the house back into shape when it gets right out of control.”

Never more at home than when she is in the country – Wales, and following breaks here, Ellis bemoans disconnected telephones and the necessity to shout her copy over the phone from the post office. There are hedgehogs in the drains and beetles to be dealt with. Town life is perhaps rather more predictable, though it is clear where her heart lies.

“When the children were very small I spent weeks alone with them high up in the Welsh hills and I used to lose the power of speech. I would return to London bereft of all vocabulary, communicating in grunts and diddums talk. You feel a fool asking, for instance, Professor Sir Alfred Ayer if he would care for an icky bitty more soup in his ickle bowl.”

Throughout the articles Ellis’ husband is only ever referred to as Someone – rather like Elizabeth von Arnim’s Man of Wrath – although milder and less cross. I get the impression that he is rather long suffering and fairly stoic – that might just be how I saw him, he is very much a shadowy presence. It is difficult to go into much detail about a collection like this – each piece runs to three pages, and there are forty-eight pieces in this first volume.

Alice Thomas Ellis’ family, the children and their faithful Janet soon become to feel like old friends. I will definitely have to catch up with them again in those later volumes.

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This last phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 is a kind of – sweeping up all that is left phase. Those following my original schedule can choose between the final two novels that Spark published, her autobiography Curriculum Vitae or other biographies written about her. I chose her autobiography, because having read so much by Muriel Spark this year, I really wanted to understand a bit about who she was.

I certainly enjoyed Curriculum Vitae, it is a short, though thoroughly readable autobiography, although I can’t say I really got to know Muriel Spark herself – for me she remains rather elusive. Though Muriel the child, is perhaps a little clearer than Muriel the grown woman, the writer, the mother – it is that later Muriel who I founder harder to really envisage. Young Muriel; a child who took simple joy in a bicycle, who loved visiting her grandparents at their shop in Watford.

“It was an exceptional bike. I found I could make up poetry and stories in my head as I whizzed along, ringing my bell to scatter such of the sauntering population, with their little dogs, as were in my way.”

Born to a Jewish father and an English, Presbyterian mother Muriel Spark does paint a touching, colourful portrait of her Edinburgh childhood. Butter came from the Buttercup Dairy Company, bread rolls bought from the baker, fresh and warm from the oven. Through a variety of anecdotes, we see young Muriel grow up in an environment where her mother just doesn’t sound the same as the other mothers. School was James Gillespie’s High school for girls, and here Muriel was to be taught by Miss Christina Kay. This section of Curriculum Vitae concerning Muriel’s childhood and schooldays was my favourite part of the book.

“I fell into Miss Kay’s hands at the age of eleven. It might well be said that she fell into my hands. Little did she know, little did I know, that she bore within her the seeds of the future Miss Jean Brodie, the main character in my novel, in a play on the West End of London and on Broadway, in a film and a television series.”

Muriel Spark doesn’t ignore the difficult or painful aspects of her life, but neither does she go into great detail – certainly her account is unsentimental which may be a good thing. However, it feels as if she really wasn’t comfortable revealing too much. At just nineteen, Muriel Camberg as she was then, married S.O.S as he was often called, Sydney Oswald Spark, who was thirty-seven. Muriel followed him to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where she was soon to regret her marriage. Muriel didn’t see herself staying long in Africa, she disliked the attitude of the white community toward the black people who they so clearly looked down on. Her marriage didn’t really last very long, long enough for a son Robin to be born, by which time the war in Europe prevented Muriel returning to England very soon. S.O Spark is presented as having had mental health problems and had tried to persuade his wife to have an abortion. Muriel refused, and their son Robin was born in Bulawayo in 1938.


With her marriage over, Muriel embarked on the lengthy process of obtaining a divorce but decided to keep her husband’s name. In 1944 she was able to get a passage from South Africa to England, but she left Robin behind for the time being. He was still a little boy and it was probably safer that way – there was no knowing if Muriel’s ship would make it home in one piece. Her son arrived some time later – by which time Muriel had settled in London and begun work of some secrecy, with the Foreign Office which brought her into contact with POWs. When Robin arrives, he is installed with Muriel’s parents in Edinburgh where she visits him from time to time. This peculiar arrangement continued, and Robin was effectively brought up by his grandparents, a fact Muriel Spark herself rather glosses over in her autobiography.

Later she begins work as editor for the Poetry Review – an experience she was to use in her novel Loitering with Intent, and it is in this later section of Curriculum Vitae that we see some of Spark’s bite. The people she worked alongside here and knew through the Poetry Society are portrayed as a bunch of petty individuals – the relationships between who got to be rather toxic. There are those who clearly annoyed her, and she uses her book to totally dismiss them.

“Perhaps my most annoying contestant was a banker and amateur literary man of sixty, William Kean Seymour, a born mediocrity. He told me he had himself very much wanted the job of editor and had been disappointed when it came to me. I had occasion to remind him of this in later letters, fortunately salvaged by me.”

She relates a particularly unpleasant exchange by letter with birth control campaigner Dr Marie Stopes, who is not shown here in a very good light. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder at what Muriel Spark’s treatment of these people was – why did she provoke them quite as much as she seems to have done? Those who come in for a bit of a roasting are the former friends who she finds have sold her letters to an American university. Muriel Spark leaves us in no doubt about what she thinks about those by whom she feels let down and betrayed, though there is just a hint of vitriol in her account.

All in all, I found this a very readable and quite fascinating little book though not as revealing as I had hoped. The book ends with the beginnings of Muriel Spark’s writing success – and I wonder if she had meant to write another volume of autobiography and never quite got around to it.

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life before an

I was delighted that one of the Margaret Atwood novels I had tbr fitted snugly into one of the last years of my A Century of Books and I could join in with Margaret Atwood reading month, hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink.

Life Before Man is a fairly early Atwood novel, one I had missed in the late eighties when I first began reading her novels. In this novel, Atwood’s characters are not always very likeable – but I really don’t think that matters. The novel’s three main characters are deftly explored, people trapped in damaging relationships, in thrall to their various love affairs. I found Life Before Man immensely readable and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The stories of these three people are told in alternate chapters with events told from each character’s perspective.

Elizabeth is a woman struggling with grief – her lover Chris has recently taken his own life, and she can barely function for the silent rage inside her. Unhappily married to Nate, the two have lived separate lives from within the same house for a while. Her two little girls are oblivious to their mother’s turmoil, though even they sense something is wrong. They plan joyfully for Halloween, lighting jack-o-lanterns while it is still light. Elizabeth lies on her bed listening from a faraway place inside her.

“It used to touch her, that excitement, that fierce joy, the planning that would go on for weeks behind the closed door of their room. It used to twist something in her, some key. This year they are remote from her. The soundless glass panel of the hospital nursery where she would stand in her housecoat for each of them in turn, watching the pink mouths open and close, the faces contort.
She can see them, they can see her. They know something is wrong. Their politeness, their evasion, is chilling because it’s so perfectly done.”

Elizabeth’s husband Nate is a gentle, weak soul, but his relationship with his wife is in the past. Once Nate was a lawyer, but he gave that up to make bespoke wooden rocking horses in his basement. Nate knew all about Chris, everyone at the Museum where Elizabeth and Chris worked knew about them, there were no secrets, no sneaking about, just a strange chilly kind of politeness. All the time Elizabeth was seeing Chris, Nate had been seeing Martha. Nate and Elizabeth had an agreed timetable as to who was out when, and Elizabeth would meet up with Martha for a drink from time to time, to gauge how things stood. With Chris dead, Nate feels there is something of an imbalance – and with his relationship with Martha pretty much having run its course he ends his affair. Now though, he has his eye on a replacement.

Lesje is the innocent,and the young woman who Nate is interested in, though she seems far fonder of dinosaurs than men. Lesje, a young woman of Jewish/Ukrainian parentage works in the museum’s palaeontology department, her mind is never far from her favourite subject. However, soon enough the two are entering into an affair, despite the fact that Lesje is already living with William.

“Copulating with William was not unpleasant she thinks, but neither was it memorable. It was like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese. Emulsified.”

life before man]Lesje soon realises that in taking on Nate – she is also taking on his daughters, and Elizabeth is always in the background – or on the phone, not to mention around at work. Nate is finding things financially very tight – and his wooden horses are no longer selling very well. Everything becomes rather fraught.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel – aside from the wonderful writing – is the story of Elizabeth growing up, told in flashback. Elizabeth and her sister were taken into their Auntie Muriel’s house as young girls – the reasons become sadly apparent as the novel progresses. Auntie Muriel’s house was a joyless place of rules and embroidery.

“It’s the third of January. Elizabeth is sitting on the slippery rose-colored chesterfield in her Auntie Muriel’s parlor, which is truly a parlor and not a living room. It’s a parlor because of the spider and the fly. It isn’t a living room, because Auntie Muriel cannot be said to live.

Auntie Muriel is both the spider and the fly, the sucker-out of life juice and the empty husk. Once she was just the spider and Uncle Teddy was the fly, but ever since Uncle Teddy’s death Auntie Muriel has taken over both roles.”

Elizabeth’s life with Auntie Muriel and the fate suffered by her sister has blighted her life – and Elizabeth has never really recovered from it or forgiven her Aunt. This aspect of Elizabeth’s story is much easier to sympathise with, and in Auntie Muriel – who we mainly she through the filter of Elizabeth’s memory – Atwood has created a marvellously horrible character.

Hanging over the heads of all these people is the ghost of Elizabeth’s dead lover. Atwood’s characters are wonderfully realistic and she has a great ear for dialogue. As much as the story of these people has tragic undertones, Life Before Man is also frequently funny.

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