Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

With thanks for the review copy

I was interested in reading The Stranger from the Sea because the premise just sounded so good. In this novel Paul Binding has created a dramatic re-imagining of characters from Ibsen’s play The Lady from the Sea. I wasn’t familiar with the play and decided not to look it up beforehand – which was the right decision as a chapter two thirds of the way through the novel, provides more details of the play. To be honest my knowledge of Ibsen is sketchy – if I was required to do so I could probably only name three Ibsen plays before reading this book, and The Lady from the Sea wasn’t one of them. In 2003 I went to see a production of Ibsen’s Brand at Stratford-upon-Avon starring a favourite actor – Ralph Fiennes, I remember it as dark, powerful, brooding stuff.

The Stranger from the Sea is set in the 1880s in the English coastal town of Dengate in Kent. Following a powerful storm in the English Channel a young Norwegian Sailor; Hans Lyngstrand is washed up of the shore of the Kent coast, and is recovering in hospital. Hans is among just a few survivors, and the incident has ignited the interest of the townspeople.

“I saw again, as in actuality I had not, the unbeatable viciousness of the Channel at the spring equinox, wind bullying water into ferocious waves curling upwards only to crash punitively down, destroying whatever was vulnerable in their course. For hour after hour these had been this youth’s only physical reality.”

Around the same time, a young journalist; Martin Bridges arrives from London to take up a position at the town’s newspaper. Martin is the narrator of this involved story, and the voice of an ambitious young Victorian is well done. The editor of the paper; Edmund Hough arranges for Martin to take up residence at a boarding house called Castelaniene, presided over by Mrs Fuller. Mrs Fuller is immediately a somewhat strange woman, insisting as Mr Hough had that Martin should be of a cheerful nature – and speaking rather oddly of her departed husband. Mrs Fuller is helped in the house by Sarah and a young daily; Mary, who she describes as being a ‘delightful little vehicle’. Initially, Martin is the only boarder at the house, but opposite his room is the Mercy room, a room kept ready for anyone who should need it. There is also a trio of cats – treated very much like honoured members of the household.

“The cats too, were a daily source of delight. Mrs Noah – the last of the house trio I met – kept a certain aloofness from everybody except Sarah. She’d been given her name, I was told, by Mr Fuller himself, who, out for a stroll one evening, had spotted her, alone and bewildered, on a small abandoned boat right in the middle of Dengate harbour.”

Martin has barely settled in before the Mercy room has a new resident – Hans Lyngstrand, released from hospital – but still recovering from his ordeal. Martin’s editor wants Martin to interview Hans about what happened the night of the storm, to take advantage of the townspeople’s fascination in the survivors. As Hans lies recovering in the Mercy room, Martin takes the chance to introduce himself – and the two become immediate friends. Hans tells Martin all about his life at sea, about the storm and particularly about the boatswain, who so savagely swore revenge against the woman he thought betrayed him, a man Hans believes could still be alive. The two young men start to draw closer together and as Hans recovers, the two find themselves invited to some local society events.

The first of these events is a meeting of the Gateway – a society about which Mrs Fuller is very evangelical but whose purpose neither Martin nor Hans have any idea. Following this somewhat surprising evening, in which Mary plays a rather unexpected role – and after talking to other newspaper colleagues – Martin begins to wonder about the truth of Mrs Fuller’s absent husband and son.

Martin’s complex friendship with Hans causes him to re-examine his previous experiences and future relationships. Will, an old friend from London turns up, who charms just about everyone with ease – and then Martin meets his editor’s daughter and she catches Will’s eye too.

Paul Binding’s writing is certainly good, I engaged with the voice and the literary style immediately, and in fact enjoyed the first part of the book. The peculiar Mrs Fuller is a well written character and Hans’s story is a fascinating one. However, somewhere along the line, I got a bit bogged down. The parts of the story I was engaged by got swamped by other parts of the story – and I found that a bit frustrating – I also thought the novel would have benefited from being shorter. There was a section in the second half of the book I was rather bored by – and although I thought the ending was very good, it felt like it took a while to get there. Well, we can’t all like everything we read now can we – but I had expected to like this rather more than I did.

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Some of you may remember that a few months ago I somewhat rashly decided on a long lasting reading project, to read all the winners and shortlisted books of the women’s prize. I knew it would be a challenge but since then I have read precisely nothing new for it until I picked A Spell of Winter off my #20booksofsummer pile. It was, appropriately enough the book that won the first ever prize in 1996.

It is an absolutely stunning piece of writing – and has served to remind me how I haven’t read nearly enough Helen Dunmore.

“I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone is gone.”

The novel opens in the early twentieth century, some years before the First World War. Narrated by Catherine, the youngest of two siblings. Young siblings Rob and Catherine don’t understand why they have been abandoned by their parents while they are living in their grandfather’s house. Their grandfather; the man from nowhere – is a remote, closed off figure – who won’t have the children’s mother so much as mentioned. All they know is that she left.

“You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.”

Catherine grows up knowing her grandfather dislikes her because she is so like her mother. The children visit their father in a sanatorium of some kind, just once, a rather distressing visit – which sees Rob having to protect his sister from their father’s rather strange behaviour.

In the early part of the book – there are glimpses of an older Catherine – living alone in winter, in the same house, emptied of everyone – haunted by the past. Dumore’s writing in these sections is exquisite – creating a wonderful sense of aloneness and extreme cold.

“It is winter, my season. Rob’s was summer. He was born in June, and I was born in the middle of the night, on the 21st of December. My winter excitement quickened each year with the approach of darkness. I wanted the thermometer to drop lower and lower until not even a trace of mercury showed against the figures. I wanted us to wake to a kingdom of ice where our breath would turn to icicles as it left our lips, and we would walk through tunnels of snow to the outhouses and find birds fallen dead from the air. I willed the snow to lie for ever, and I turned over and buried my head under the pillow so as not to hear the chuckle and drip of thaw.”

The one constant presence in the lives of Catherine and Rob is Kate – the household servant – once there had been Eileen too, but she left after a few years, Kate stayed. Kate is only a few years older than Rob really, despite her status in the house – but to Catherine and Rob she is the care giver – it is Kate who makes their grandfather’s house a home.

Another regular is Miss Gallagher, who comes to the house to teach Catherine. Miss Gallagher who can ‘make a sunny day look like a funeral’ – who is watchful and secretive, she fawns over Catherine who she loves and ignores Rob who she hates. The children play a point scoring game in which Catherine must try and make Miss Gallagher speak to Rob – something she generally avoids. The siblings are close – they rely on one another, grow up knowing each other better than anyone else does.

Mr Bullivant; a wealthy man comes to the area – a well-travelled man with a home in Italy. He befriends Rob and Catherine, despite being quite a lot older. He is building a fountain in the grounds of his home and owns a billiard table. He gives them food the like of which they have never tasted and talks to them about his lemon house in his villa in Italy. He loans Rob his expensive new horse and talks to Catherine tentatively of her mother – who he knew socially in France. Despite Mr Bullivant opening up the world a little to the siblings, they remain as close as they ever were in childhood.

In time, Catherine and Rob’s sibling love enters new and forbidden territory – the two of them carve out a world that is just theirs. However, someone is watching. The consequences of their forbidden passions will be far reaching and dangerous. As the world creeps closer to war, change comes to the household and it seems as if nothing will ever be the same again.

In the years after the war, Catherine remains held in the grip of this spell of winter, as if frozen herself – rooted to a place and what happened there. Will Catherine escape the dark secrets of her family and the tragedy of her own young life? In A Spell of Winter Helen Dunmore has created a beautifully nuanced, lyrical novel that is also enormously compelling. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

With so many books out there being publicised all over the place by big publishing houses, there are some truly excellent novels that must get lost amongst them all. I suspect Life in Translation is a literary novel a lot of people won’t have heard of. Published by Holland Park Press, it is a novel about that curious creature the literary translator, spanning more than three decades, taking in London, Paris, Lima and San Sebastian along the way. Beautifully written, engaging and intelligent, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed the Peruvian section – a country I may not have read about before.

“The first thing that strikes you about Lima in winter is the greyness, everything muted under the low cloud layer. It’s something to do with the city’s location trapped between the Andes and the cold Humboldt current. For a few short months there’s a kind of summer. The first patches of blue appear in the sky around late November, and people’s spirits rise.”

The narrator is a man making his living as a translator, dreaming of literary fame he has spent years working on his translation of an important Peruvian novel that maybe no one will want to read. He seems destined to never complete the work, the manuscript lying untidily in a box for years. Sometimes struggling to make ends meet, a series of dead end jobs and a strange period working in a huge multinational company whose policies infuriate him, he finally settles into the translation of Latin-American fiction.

Beginning with his time as a postgraduate in Lima, Peru, the narrator charts the progress of his career and his relationships with the various people who float in and out of his life over the years. Friends and enemies, lovers, family and colleagues appear, disappear and reappear as our unnamed narrator often struggles to maintain relationships, repeating the mistakes of the past, choosing the wrong partners, often misunderstanding both himself and the people around him.

In 1980s Lima, he is an ambitious young man, socially unsure of himself, smitten by a fellow student Gabi, a Peruvian girl who is all confidence and sensuality. While in Lima he works on the translation of a short story, meets the extraordinary Julia Pinto Hughes – a particularly well written character – and experiences an earthquake.

“Julia Pinto Hughes was, of course, an old adversary. A woman so ruthlessly self-serving that powerful men were said to climb out of ground-floor office windows to avoid her. A woman who had almost sunk our edited collection of essays, and who’d tried to destroy the career of a colleague who’d dared to help us. And, as it happened, a woman with whom I’d only just failed to have a one-night stand a quarter of a century earlier.”

In the 1990s he lived in Paris, working as a translator for a large company whose hierarchy and policies on the future of translation leaves him tearing his hair out.

In later years he meets up with old friends at conferences, contributes to a book of essays that descends into controversy when Julia Pinto Hughes finds reason to feel affronted at the editing of her piece.

The narrator’s story is told through a series of inter-linked episodes – which create a wonderful picture of a life a career and a man’s rather circuitous route to maturity and hopefully happiness.

“I make sure people know I’m a translator, not an interpreter. Interpreters are the flashy ones at conferences, who translate on the hoof: the adrenaline junkies, high-wire artists, prima donnas. The larger the auditorium the better they like it. Whereas the translators are the backroom boys and girls of the language world.”

What Anthony Ferner does so well with this novel is to portray a community of translators with their ambitions, frustrations, arguments and petty jealousies. He also acknowledges brilliantly what a difficult and unglamorous career it is too, with the translator so rarely in receipt of the praise they are due.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Translated from the Japanese by Meredith McKinney

I was sent Farewell, My Orange months ago – and there really is no reason why I haven’t read it before. It’s a beautifully layered little novella, thought provoking and poignant. It’s a book about language, loss, home and the pull towards a place you have left behind.

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

Set in a small Australian, coastal town the novel concerns two immigrant women, their journey with language, and their struggle to make a home in a strange land. The sunrise is a constant for Salimah, something familiar among all that is strange.

“These voiceless screams clung to the windowsills of the work place, seeking a way out. They beat against the windowpanes like little trapped birds, hushed but fierce. Whenever Salimah saw the sunrise outside, the one colour that was no different from her old home, she longed to free these shadows into that fresh bright orange.”

Salimah is from Nigeria, a mother with two sons, she was abandoned by her husband almost as soon as they arrived. Now she is working the night shift at a supermarket – cutting up the meat and fish and putting it in the plastic trays ready for the customers to buy. She goes home, stands under the shower and cries. Her sons have already passed her by in their acquisition of language – Salimah is barely literate in English and the boys mock her, the way children do. She decides to enrol in a local ESL class. The ESL class contains people of all abilities – and Salimah knows she is near the bottom of the class. She takes in the people around her.  

“No one from her own country went to the language school. All the students in the class were women. There were a number of blondes – not the pale blonde hair you saw in the local women, but Scandinavians whose silky golden hair framed their faces smooth as new-made porcelain. There was also a healthy-looking olive-skinned woman, apparently Italian, and an Asian with hair as black as Salimah’s but hard and straight as an echidna’s quills.”

Olive the middle aged Italian woman; married to an Australian for years – has never quite settled completely. Salimah nicknames the young Japanese woman Echidna to herself – but is fated not to get to know her yet.

The Japanese woman is Sayuri, she had taken a break from her university education when her daughter was born. Her husband is a teacher at the university and his job is the reason the family are in Australia. Sayuri’s story is told through the letters she writes back to her old English teacher. The Australian ESL teacher encourages her to return to the university – she is too far ahead for the ESL class – and so for a while Sayuri disappears from Salimah’s life. Sayuri lives in a small flat, taking care of her daughter. She is driven to distraction by the incessant drumming from a neighbouring flat – and finds herself sat on the stairs reading Charlotte’s Web to another neighbour; a truckie who can’t read. Sometimes she’s alone when her husband has to travel. Sayuri’s life then takes a different turn, following a devastating loss.

Meanwhile, Salimah – who confusingly Sayuri thinks of as Nakichi – works hard at her English. Once, she was only ever asked to read out the weather reports in her awkward, halting English, now she is given new, ever harder tasks to complete at home, bit by bit things start to make sense.

“Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.” 

She is promoted at work too, good at showing new members of staff what to do. At home things are not so easy, Salimah is facing the loss of her sons, when her husband finally gets in touch.

One day Sayuri turns up at Salimah’s place of work – and she must show her what to do. The two women begin to bond through a language that belongs to neither of them, forming a lasting friendship.

I absolutely loved this little novella – it’s only 135 pages, and a quick read at that. I found myself instantly drawn to both these characters, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous. Farewell, My Orange won both the Dazai and the Ōe Kenzaburō prizes and is published by Europa Editions in the UK.

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My second book of June was Transcription and also my first book for #20booksofsummer (just starting my fourth as books two and three were quite small) it was my book group’s choice too, my suggestion.

Overall, I would say it’s ok, it’s readable enough – but oh my goodness it should have been better. I remember seeing lots of enthusiasm when it was first published – but that might have been the excitement of people buying it, being sent copies not having read it yet. It was that enthusiasm I remembered when I bought the book, and then suggested it to my book group (who meet tonight). Typically, of course since buying it I have seen a couple of very lukewarm reviews, I still had hopes – on paper this book, should have ticked lots of boxes for me. The premise is wonderful – wartime Britain, a young woman is recruited to be a spy – ten years later the past rears up to confront her. I mean really, right up my alley, and my book group loved the idea of women spies.

“Do not equate nationalism with patriotism… Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.” 

I need to make it clear; I didn’t totally hate it – there’s enough going on to keep you reading – well to keep me reading – there’s a breezy, light-hearted tone, a young woman’s weary cynical view of a world that had already let her down.

“As the first clod of earth hit her mother’s coffin, Juliet could barely catch a breath. Her mother would suffocate beneath all that earth, she thought, but Juliet was suffocating too. An image came to her mind—the martyrs who were pressed to death by stones piled on top of them. That is me, she thought, I am crushed by loss. “Don’t seek out elaborate metaphors,” her English teacher had said of her school essays, but her mother’s death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief. It was a terrible thing and demanded embellishment.”

My paperback copy is just under 400 pages, and for me the last hundred pages or so were by far the best – the story really picked up and there were a couple of surprises I really hadn’t expected. Actually, I think it might be a bit long – the middle of the book certainly sags. Unfortunately, the storytelling is a bit flat too, and none of the characters really leap from the pages – several had the potential to be brilliant creations but didn’t quite hit the spot, some slightly merging into one, so it becomes hard to see where one starts and the other finishes.

The novel opens in the early 1980s with sixty year old Miss Armstrong being hit by a car – and carried off to hospital.

In 1940 the same Juliet Armstrong had been recruited by an obscure secret wartime department. She is introduced to Perry Gibbons and Godfrey Toby. Juliet becomes one of Perry’s girls – her job to sit in a flat transcribing the conversations from the flat next door.

“The future was coming nearer, one relentless goose step after the next. Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones,” Perry said.)” 

The flat next door is fitted with listening devices and here agent Godfrey Toby plays host to a group of Nazi sympathisers, as he plays the part of a Gestapo agent – giving them all just enough rope to hang themselves. It’s an interesting life, though there’s plenty of dull routine that goes along with it. Juliet quickly makes new friends, Clarissa and Hartley in particular and eventually gets drawn into more interesting work. Perry Gibbons begins to take an emotional interest in Juliet – though his behaviour towards her is a bit odd, he isn’t exactly passionate – and his idea of a day out together isn’t quite the same as Juliet’s. As her work gets more involved, Juliet becomes very adept at lying and passing herself off as other people. A few scenes and situations have a less than plausible feel to them – the disposal of a body for instance almost becomes farcical with the old rolled up carpet routine. It may be that Atkinson had intended this to be something of a farce – the tone would work well with that – but I don’t really know if that was deliberate or not.

In 1950 – Juliet is working for the BBC, in the schools’ programmes department. One day, she bumps into a well-known face from the past who claims to have never seen Juliet before. It is the beginning of the unravelling of things she doesn’t understand – while facing up to what happened during the war – some of which still haunts Juliet a decade later. Not everyone it seems is who or what they seem – and Juliet starts to believe she is being followed.

Since finishing the book, I have realised that quite a lot of readers were let down a bit by this one – so not just me. Although I haven’t read Life After Life and its sequel – I very much enjoyed Behind the Scenes at the Museum many moons ago and the four Jackson Brodie novels I have read, so I won’t let this one put me off completely – I have heard good things already about the latest Jackson Brodie novel recently out in hardback.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

Regular readers will know how much I enjoy reading these British Library Crime Classics, and I how I also enjoy novels set or (better still) written during thee Second World War. Death in Captivity is a little different to many of the vintage crime novels getting re-issued – I do love those country house/society murder mysteries, but it’s so interesting to have something completely different. Perhaps I don’t read enough of these kinds of novels to say for sure, but there can’t be many vintage mystery novels set in a prisoner of war camp.

Death in Captivity is set in an Italian prisoner of war camp, among the mainly British officers and men held there in 1943. While their treatment is not exactly kindly, neither is it quite as bad as it could be – though the men are on a constant high alert – and we soon get to know of some recent shootings in the camp, reminding us of the perilous situation. They are watched over by Captain Benucci of the Carabineri, who really is a nasty piece of work.

Several British officers live in slightly less crowded conditions than many of the other men and it is these men who make up the escape committee. They are all notorious escapers and have all already had several adventures. The majority of the camp take their duty to escape the enemy very seriously, and so there is always at least one tunnel under construction at any one time. The most likely tunnel to succeed is the one under hut C, entered through a trap door under the cooking stove in the hut kitchen.

“One only had to see it in operation to realize why it had escaped all searches. Like the African elephant in its native jungle, it defied detection by its immensity. The Italian Security Police, as they probed and searched with ant-like zeal each night, running steel spikes between bricks and tapping on floors with leather hammers, were looking for something altogether different – something smaller and slighter. A trap-door which consisted of a single slab of concrete, six feet by six feet and over two feet deep; a trap door which weighed nearly half a ton and needed four men, assisted by double-pulleys to lift it was something outside their ambit. It evaded search by being too big to see.”

The men go down to the tunnel to work in teams, the entrance closed up after they finish, ready for the next team the following day. So, when the body of a fellow camp mate is found in the tunnel, after it is opened up for the first time on a particular day – no one can work out how he got there. It is a classic locked room mystery – but with a big difference.

The dead man is a Greek soldier; Cyriakos Coutoules a man who had become very unpopular among the men following rumours that he was spying for Benucci. I couldn’t help but think how typical it was that the foreign Ally was the one singled out for blame – but probably exactly what would happen too. In fact, Michael Gilbert is very balanced in his portrayal of heroes and villains – not all the British are seen as heroes and not all the Italians are evildoers.

The first problem facing the men is how on earth to get Coutoules out of the tunnel – without attracting the notice of the Italian guards – the second problem what to do with him afterwards, he’ll be missed at the next roll call after all. Their solution is ingenious. Of course, the Italians have to know about the death – but the escape committee try to stage manage the whole thing under the watchful eye of Colonels Lavery and Baird, and Captain ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles is put in charge of discovering who killed Coutoules, for no other reason, it seems, than his penchant for detective fiction. None of this prevents another member of the escape committee being marched off to solitary confinement by the Italians, under threat of firing squad.

Meanwhile, the digging of the tunnel must continue in earnest – as rumours reach them that the Allies are drawing closer all the time, and it is starting to look as if the Italians will surrender. If that happens, the general belief is that the prisoners will be handed over to the Germans. Goyles tries to find out more about the dead man’s movements on the day he died, with nothing much at his disposal, interviewing other prisoners is about all he can do. While gossip of the dead man’s betrayal persists, it begins to seem likely there is another spy in camp – a German agent, passing information back to the Italians.

As the day when all the prisoners could find themselves handed over to the Germans approaches, the escape committee put together an extraordinary plan – to save everyone. The battle for escape takes precedence over the solving of the mystery – though the reader has no doubt that at some point Goyles will solve the riddle.

The ending is full of adventure, and fully satisfying– but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it. Death in Captivity really is a page turner – very hard to put down. The only other Michael Gilbert book I have read – another BLCC reissue – was Death has Deep Roots, also taking the Second World War as its theme, for those liking wartime stories and mysteries, they make a great pairing.

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Translated from the French by Francine Yorke

Maman, What are we Called Now? Is Persephone book number 115, first published in French in 1957, it was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. It is the diary of a few weeks in 1944, after the author’s husband was arrested. It depicts the last weeks of the German occupation of Paris.

In July 1944 Jacqueline began her diary, the allies had landed in June – there was the feeling the nightmare could end. Then, Jaqueline’s beloved Andre disappeared. Jacqueline began her diary to record her hopes and fears as well as her memories. Alongside these are her descriptions of Paris in these last tense weeks of occupation, as the Germans start to pull out and de Gaulle’s Free French arrive.

Andre and Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar were a French Jewish couple who had enjoyed a privileged lifestyle before the war. They believed themselves to have fully assimilated, they were French first, Jewish second. Andre was from an old banking family; he had initially joined the French army as a lieutenant but had found his way back to Paris after his demobilisation following the occupation. Before the war, Jaqueline had written articles and sketches of French society for magazines. By the summer of 1944, the couple and their nine year old daughter were living hidden lives, living under assumed identities, Andre working as a liaison officer for London. I can only imagine, the fear that went along with living in such a way, forged papers that would barely stand up to scrutiny, relying on the loyalties of others.

The title of the book is taken from the question that young Sylvie Mesnil-Amar asked her mother one day in a crowded railway station – no doubt keen not to make a mistake. The question, of course could have had catastrophic consequences had anyone been paying attention to them. During these weeks Jaqueline is still surrounded by friends, those sympathetic to the cause of the resistance and who from time to time get to hear snippets of important information about who has been taken where.

The diary ends in August 1944, Paris is liberated, and there is suddenly a happy, if unexpected ending for the Mesnil-Amars.

“The bells of Paris are ringing and ringing. And I am crying for my prisoners, my pale prisoners, out there on the far side of the world. I am crying for those who have fallen in the last battle, those who died yesterday, this morning, all those who will never know that Paris is free, that France will be free. I am crying for my absent friends, I am crying for my absent husband.”

After the diary we have several pages of photographs from the American photographer Thérèse Bonney, taken in Paris in 1943. They are powerful images.

The second part of the book are a series of short essays and reminiscences by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar written between 1945-1946.

“Now, once more, on clear summer mornings in the countryside, we’ll hear the clack of the gardener’s shears as he cuts the grass, the distant sound of trotting horses and cart-wheels on the road, the toot of a car horn, the spinning garden-sprinkler with its little hail of rain, and the postman’s step on the gravel. In Paris we’ll hear the wonderful, deafening roar of cars on the boulevards, impatient horns hooting along the length of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré at 5 o’clock in the evening, and we’ll hear the traditional cries of Paris, in quiet old, out of the way streets, ‘Rabbit skins! Skins!’; and the rag and bone men calling out ‘any ol’ clothes?’; and we’ll hear shouts of ‘Lovely cherries, ladies, buy my sweet cherries,’ followed in the winter by cries of ‘hot chestnuts, hot chestnuts…’ around glowing braziers on street corners.”

In these pieces she asks some fairly difficult, but understandable, questions. Time and again she comes back to children and what they really knew or understood and what the impact upon them might have been. By this time, she was feeling very angry about the people around her – those people who once she would have associated with in those heady pre-war days. These were the people who collaborated with the Germans, or who apathetically carried on with their nice lives. She asks questions about the future and the past.

Both parts of this book are beautifully written, powerfully poignant and endlessly quotable. Maman, What are we Called Now? Is a fantastic companion to other war books – both fiction and non-fiction, books like Little Boy Lost, Few Eggs and No Oranges, A Letter to my Children and others.

I wonder though, at Persephone’s choice of title; the original title was “Ceux qui ne dormaient pas” which I believe translates as something like; Those who did not sleep – which I think is a much better title.

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