Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

I had been wanting for a while to read Kate O’Brien and Read Ireland month is of course the perfect opportunity. I had three O’Brien to choose from and of the three it was The Ante-Room which appealed the most.

Set in a large country home; Roseholm in rural Ireland in 1880 – it is an intense family drama of repressed emotions.

“Roseholm, the white house where the Mulqueens lived, stood amid trees and lawns on the west side of the river. Viewed from the town in fine weather, it could often seem to blaze like a small sun, but it lay this morning as blurred as its surroundings. It neither received nor wanted noise or light, for its preoccupation now was to keep these two subdued. And this morning that was easy; there was no wind about to rattle doors or tear through dying leaves, but only an air that moved elegiacally and carried a shroud of mist.”

In some respects, it is a rather bleak novel – there is no real joy in this story or in any of the characters, the house is one expecting death to come to it at any moment – and indeed death is a recurring theme. The novel is set over three days of the Catholic calendar: The Eve of All Saints, The Feast of All Saints and The Feast of All Souls. However, O’Brien makes her story and these characters very readable – and while not a happy novel – the ending is rather shocking, it is beautifully written and perfectly balanced – it never descends into misery.

The Mulqueens are respectable, wealthy Catholic merchants, a conventional nineteenth century provincial family. Teresa Mulqueen lies dying from cancer – she is keen to try anything to live a little longer – believing herself to be needed by members of her family. Her husband Danny Mulqueen is devoted to her but bewildered and helpless by Teresa’s condition. At night Teresa is nursed by the Blue Nun, a quiet calm restful presence through the dark hours of the night. During the day nursing duties are undertaken by Nurse Cunningham, an attractive, efficient woman whose life hasn’t always been easy, and who very much appreciates living in this gracious home, where she is treated with respect, often invited into the drawing room in the evenings.

Agnes is the unmarried daughter of the household, an intelligent, religiously devout young woman, who is being seen more and more as the mistress of the house. Dr William Curran who comes to the house daily to see Teresa, has started to fall in love with Agnes, and would like to marry her. Another member of the household is Reggie – the second eldest son of the Mulqueens (his elder brother is a priest, so Reggie stands as heir in his stead). Reggie is a recovering syphilitic, and so barred from marrying under normal circumstances. He is his mother’s favourite; she worries about who will care for Reggie when she is gone. Reggie is a former playboy, idle and cowardly – Nurse Cunningham’s attractiveness has not gone unnoticed by Reggie – and Agnes wonders whether the nurse has guessed about the nature of Reggie’s previous illness.

As the novel opens Agnes is awaiting the arrival of her married sister Marie-Rose and brother-in-law Vincent. Teresa’s imminent death is the real reason for the couple’s arrival from Dublin, though there is to be a family dinner to mark the Eve of All Saints to which Dr Curran will also be invited. Agnes is only a couple of years younger than Marie-Rose, and the two have always been close, but Agnes is suffering terrible emotional turmoil over her sister’s arrival. For, Agnes secretly but passionately loves Vincent – she knows the marriage is in some trouble too. The situation would be difficult and emotional enough, but for a woman who adores her sister and who holds the strong religious convictions that she does it is even worse. She believes she is risking the death of her soul. Agnes is made aware that Willian Curran loves her, marriage to him would be conventional and provide her with children and things to do – but Vincent has her heart – and we soon see he feels just the same. Agnes is ridden with guilt, and her emotional turmoil is palpable.

“She was grateful for the activity because in its pauses she realised that in spite of confession, in spite of communion, she was intensely worried and unhappy. And looking at Marie-Rose, who followed her about like a tamed and sad gazelle and sought in vain for occupation, looking at Vincent, looming proudly, silently in and out of the garden, his face a sulky mask, she felt that her advantage over them, in being in her own house amounted to an insult. At last, to her relief, Marie-Rose, making herself look delicious in sables, got into the carriage and drove away to make a round of calls on aunts and uncles.”

Meanwhile Nurse Cunningham is taking a more pragmatic approach to potential marriage. Having begun to draw closer to Reggie Mulqueen their flirting not gone unnoticed by his concerned sister – Nurse Cunningham sees a way to secure her future. Reggie needs someone to care for him, and though not able to enter into a conventional marriage – a marriage of convenience and companionship would ensure he has the care that Teresa so fears he will lack with her passing.

There is a lot that goes unspoken in this novel, a lot of emotion that exists beneath the surface of this conventional family. Agnes faces a terrible battle between her heart and her soul. This family drama is compelling and beautifully told, a perfect read for Read Ireland month.

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Mrs Martell is the third of Elizabeth Eliot’s novels that I have read, one of authors Dean Street Press have brought back to us. Like her other novels this one is titled with the name of her central character, written in the third person, whereas in other Eliot novels we see the eponymous character through the eyes of somebody close to them.

Mrs Martell is a character none of us are supposed to like, in her Elizabeth Eliot has created a marvellous character, selfish, self-serving and always set on getting just what she wants.

As the novel opens, Mrs Martell, Cathie is a divorcee in her late thirties, who is satisfied that she can often pass for just thirty. Exploring her character fully, with both honesty and wit, Eliot charts the life of this woman from her teenage years through to a time not long after her second marriage. Though Cathie Martell is a monstrous woman, who it is impossible to sympathise with, Elizabeth Eliot makes her reader want to read about her. Cleverly, Eliot does give us a character who we care about, who we root for – and provides some balance.

Born into genteel poverty and reliant on her Aunt Violet to pay her school bills the young Cathie had her sights set considerably higher. Cathie’s mother was clearly ruled by her daughter, allowing her to have everything too much her own way.

“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”

Disliking being told what to do, Cathie resented her aunt’s interest in her – and was anxious to cut ties with her when she could. At school Cathie was at the centre of her own world, her beauty making her a figure of some interest to the other girls. On leaving school she took up a profession at a Madame Sondheim’s beauty parlour, something her aunt strongly disapproved of and married her first husband as soon as she could. However, the death of a couple of male cousins in the war means it is Cathie who inherited her aunt’s money after all.

Now she is divorced, living in a flat at the top of a house in Baker Street, on the ground floor is an antique shop where a murder was recently committed. When a handsome young journalist comes to her door looking for a human interest story, Cathie can’t help flirting terribly with him. Richard Hardy is a pleasant distraction for Cathie Martell – and a possible fall back – but he isn’t who she really has her sights set on for her second husband. However, Cathie is not a woman to ever let an opportunity for male attention to pass her by, she is always on the alert – even when just catching a train.

“Even so, an encounter with a tall and handsome stranger would have been a pleasant interlude, but alas, he did not appear. Once, in the corridor, and right at the beginning of the journey, she thought she had found him; but later when he came into the dining-car he was surrounded by a gaggle of five or six bright adolescents all of whom addressed him as ‘Daddy’; and they were accompanied by a depressed middle-aged woman who inevitably was Mother; impossible to imagine her as having ever been anything else.”

Laura West is a distant cousin of Cathie’s, she is married to Edward, Edward’s beautiful family home Abbotsmere, lies outside of London in the countryside, where the staff gossip about their employers.  Laura is the innocent in the tale, a kindly, sometimes nervous young woman, who has been disappointed in her ability to have a child. She buys two small dogs and takes them home much to her husband’s irritation – the staff like Laura – and can see the trouble that lies ahead. The trouble that Laura is incapable of seeing, and which comes in the shape of her cousin Cathie Martell. Cathie and Edward are already betraying Laura with secret meetings and late night phone calls – and Cathie is not one to just settle for that. Cathie has her sights firmly set on being ‘the beautiful Mrs West’ and while it isn’t obvious to poor Laura, others have certainly worked out what she is up to.

“Laura was heartbreakingly beautiful and yet she could be quite maddening. It seemed to Edward that she made no effort at all to please him. She was pathologically inconsiderate and there were times when she looked quite ugly.”

What Elizabeth Eliot does quite cleverly I think, is make us care for Laura, it becomes obvious that Edward is unworthy of Laura, that in fact he and Cathie are of a type. Laura doesn’t always know how to behave when in society and hates to irritate Edward, she rather enjoys sitting in the kitchen chatting to the servants, and she adores her two little dogs. The reader can’t help but want Laura to be free of Edward.

This was another very enjoyable read from Dean Street Press, Elizabeth Eliot’s voice is witty and sharp, she understands the motivations of people – both good and bad. Throughout the novel Eliot’s observations are deliciously sharp – a shooting party in Scotland, a ski resort in Switzerland to which she takes her characters gives her ample opportunity for exploring several ‘types’ and she does so brilliantly.

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So, I have finally read my first Marilynne Robinson novel. I had already bought Home for my kindle for my Women’s Prize project – but following a discussion on Twitter I decided it would be best to read the Gilead novels in chronological order. I’m glad I decided to do that, having read Gilead now it felt like the right place to start – a beautiful, spare novel that won its author the Pulitzer prize.

Written in a kind of stream of consciousness, Gilead introduces us to three generations of a family through the voice of the Reverend John Ames a Congregationalist minister from Gilead, Iowa. This is not a plot driven novel – it’s a novel in which little happens – and yet within it there are decades of American history, humanity, love and faith. It is a stunning novel – and I am now looking forward to the rest of the Gilead novels.

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.” 

In the mid-1950s, John Ames is in his seventies, he knows he is nearing the end of his life – and he wishes to leave something for his young son to remember him by and which will teach him about his history. The novel is essentially Ames’ letter to his son. Having married as a young man, Ames lost his wife and child and spent the next several decades ministering to his church and the community. He re-married very late in life to a woman of only about forty – and their son is just seven years old. His overwhelming love and wonder in this child – and in the woman who came into his life and told him to marry her is instantly touching.

“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

Ames talks to his son about his life, his faith his hopes for him (the son) and introduces him to his own father and grandfather who the little boy will never know. The stories aren’t told chronologically but meander back and forth across the decades as Ames’ memories drift back to him, recalling incidents from the past.

John Ames comes from a line of preachers, men with the same calling. Ames’ grandfather had been a rabble rousing abolitionist who had gone off on guerrilla type activities before the civil war. He returned from the war, wounded and already legendary – just one eye remaining, which he was known to fix on people balefully. His other eccentricities included giving away possessions randomly to people who he thought should have them.

Ames’ father is recalled through the memory of a journey the young John Ames took with his father to find the grave of his grandfather. This is very much a novel of fathers and sons. There is a beautiful feeling of connectedness between and across generations a sense of belonging to a tradition.

“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.”

There is another son, Jack Broughton, the son of Ames’ best friend, another old man nearing the end of his life. Jack is Ames’ god son, and his arrival causes much disquiet in Ames. He remembers how as a teenager Jack would take things from Ames’ house – trying to provoke a reaction. He recalls the scandal of Jack’s relationship with a girl who ended up pregnant – and Jack’s reneging of all responsibility. Now seeing Jack talking with his wife, playing with his young son, he feels jealous, wants to warn them about Jack, fears that Jack will move in on them after he has gone. Only Jack finally reveals a secret at the heart of his own life to Ames, a secret which reveals the sad state of race relations in America in the mid-1950s.

This really is a beautiful novel – reflective and poignant and while I was worried the theological aspect would leave me cold – heathen that I am – I actually found Ames’ musings on faith and theology just as beautiful and thought provoking.  

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Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford

My book group chose Sworn Virgin as our March read, the premise is instantly fascinating I thought, and it is certainly a good compelling read. It also provided some interesting discussion points about gender for our little feminist book group.

“There’s something heroic about running away: you lose yourself, you fade away, you turn into a cloud, or maybe a man.”

In this novel the author (Albanian by birth but living in Italy) explores a little known tradition, still practised, in remote northern Albanian villages. Here, women who have no wish to marry, and with no male heirs, can declare themselves to be a ‘sworn virgin,’ thereafter, living their lives as men. Adopting a man’s name, clothing and undertaking the work that in these regions are traditionally male. From then on everyone in the community recognises them as male.

“If you don’t look pain straight in the face, it will take you over. It will inhabit you, a grubby black mass, a messy bundle. If you deal with it full on, on the other hand, there’s a chance that it will leave you alone.”

The novel opens in the US in 2001, Hana has arrived from Albania at the invitation of her cousin Lila who has been nagging her for years to join her family in America. On the plane she finds herself sat next to Patrick, a journalist with an interest in Albania. Only Hana arrives in America as Mark – she has been living as Mark in her remote Albanian village for the past fourteen years, after deciding to become a sworn virgin when she was nineteen. Now in America she can become Hana again – though it’s a process that will have its challenges after fourteen years in baggy male clothing. Initially Hana settles into the home Lila shares with her husband Shtjefën and their thirteen year old daughter Jonida. Shtjefën has only known Hana as Mark, Jonida has never been told the truth about her Uncle Mark, but now Hana has arrived in the US she has to be told.

The narrative then takes us back to 1986, Hana is studying in Tirana – where life is very different to the mountainous village of Rrnaje in the north where she grew up. She loves Tirana and it is here she meets Ben, another student who seems attracted to her too. However, before anything can progress between them, Hana is forced to give up her studies and return home. Since childhood Hana has lived with Uncle Gjergj and Aunt Katrina who took her in when her parents died. They have been as parents to her ever since. She loves them and knows what she owes them, though she has so much she wants from life that they can’t give her. Hana loves poetry, has a copy of Walt Whitman poems that she carries with her, she loves language.

“Albanians write a lot of poetry, they’re crazy about poems, but they’re scared of telling stories. You need persistence to narrate a story, as well as discipline. Full sentences don’t allow you to cheat or be lazy. Poetry does: it’s more worldly-wise, more fleeting, more musical. Narration is for monks, inscribing manuscripts all day until they’re hunchbacks.”

When her aunt dies suddenly, Uncle Gjergj is left alone, his health is poor, and Hana is obliged to return home to help him. As her uncle’s health worsens and knowing he won’t be around for long, Uncle Gjergj begins to talk of Hana’s marriage, desperate to have his adopted daughter settled before he goes. It is at this point that Hana makes her extraordinary decision and becomes Mark.

Buried in a remote mountainous region of Albania Hana begins to change, the way she dresses, the way she walks, she takes up smoking like the other village men, and works alongside the men of the village. As the years pass, she hears from Lila in America and meets a former classmate from Tirana, who is making a documentary. The real world though seems to be a long way away.

“All of us women back there in the mountains were basically workers and available bodies for our husbands; no one ever asked us our opinion, and we always obeyed. You hid yourself away instead of fighting for your cause. You became a man. Surprise, surprise, you took the easy choice! It’s easy to be a man! The real problem out there was being a woman, not being the usual jackass who kills himself with alcohol and tobacco.”

In October 2001, Hana finally makes the journey to America, to live with the only family she has left. Now Hana must negotiate a new way of living, shrugging off a male persona and becoming the young woman she was born to be is only part of it. She needs to get her driving licence, find a job, improve her English and eventually strike out on her own and get her own place. However, she is also a woman in her thirties who has never had a boyfriend, has no idea how to go about dating – and she feels rather ridiculous about it.

I did find this a fascinating and involving read, well written certainly, though I do think it lacked a little depth. The sections set in Albania were my favourite parts of the book, as I love reading about different societies. I was really drawn to Hana as a character, the relationships between her and Lila and also with her niece Jonida are really well captured though I would have liked the characters in these sections of the novel to be more deeply explored. Overall, Sworn Virgin is an engaging quick read (I read on kindle, which seems to make me read faster) about an unusual tradition that I was completely unaware even existed.

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I found this little collection of short stories by Edna O’Brien in a charity shop several months ago. Read Ireland month gave me the perfect excuse to read it. I enjoy short stories, and not having read O’Brien’s short stories before I was interested to see what they were like. Mrs Reinhardt and other stories is one of nine story collections published by this hugely prolific writer, whose latest novel has just been longlisted for this year’s women’s prize. Based on this collection, I would definitely be up for reading more story collections by Edna O’Brien.

In these stories, as elsewhere in her fiction, Edna O’Brien writes with honesty and great perception. Her settings vary, although Ireland appears in several of them. Edna O’Brien successfully portrays the emotion surrounding loves and longings, sexual repression and betrayal. Twelve beautifully written stories, I didn’t think there was a dud among them.

The Mrs Reinhardt of the title is a memorable character who appears in two stories, Number Ten, which is the first story in the collection and Mrs Reinhardt which is the final story. In that opening story, Mrs Reinhardt is plagued by a series of dreams/sleepwalking events, that take her to a particular house – that she has no previous knowledge of. The house contains within it, everything she has ever dreamed of having.

“She sat on the edge of the bed, marvelling, and saw the other things that she had always wanted. She saw, for instance, the photo of a little girl in First Communion attire; she saw the paperweight that when shaken yielded a miniature snowstorm; she saw the mother-of-pearl tray with the two champagne glasses – and all of a sudden she began to cry because her happiness was so immense. Perhaps, she thought, he will come to me here, he will visit, and it will be like the old days and he won’t be irritable and he won’t be tapping with his fingers or fiddling with the lever of his fountain pen. He will smother me with hugs and kisses and we will tumble about on the big foamy bed.”

She imagines it will only be a matter of time before Mr Reinhardt follows, and finds her there. However, she is soon to discover, in her waking life, the real connection she and her husband have to this house. It is a revelation that will rock her marriage, as we see in the later story. In this second story Mrs Reinhardt and her husband have clearly separated following the events in the earlier story. Mrs Reinhardt has brought her hurt to Brittany where she has a chalet rented in the grounds of a hotel. She dines in the hotel and enjoys the local countryside. In her possession is a valuable necklace which belongs by right to her husband, as it had come to him from his mother, she took in a fit of pique, seeing it as a talisman of their time together. She meets a younger man, from Iowa, and their passionate encounter yields perhaps predictable results, and Mrs Reinhardt is forced to contact her husband and admit her folly. These were definitely among my favourite in the collection, and Mrs Reinhardt would, I decided, have been an excellent subject for a full length novel.

In The Small Town Lovers, an odd couple; the Donnellys are remembered by the daughter of a woman who once befriended the wife Hilda. The setting is rural Ireland, and Jack and Hilda who met in America while working in an asylum, came home to Ireland and opened a little grocery shop. They are viewed with some derision, but on a visit to their home the narrator makes a chilling discovery, that she finds impossible to forget in the wake some years later of Hilda’s death.

Another memorable character is Miss Hawkins in Christmas Roses. Miss Hawkins is that dread thing a middle-aged spinster (laughs) – who in her younger years toured Europe leading a cabaret life, then lived in Baghdad the favourite of a wealthy man. It was in Baghdad she had learned to love gardening. Now in London she takes it upon herself to care for the communal garden in the square where she lives, seeing it as a kind of civic responsibility. One day Miss Hawkins finds a young man camping in the middle of the garden. After the initial surprise, the two strike up a friendship and the young man begins to help Miss Hawkins in the garden, he later invites her to accompany him to a concert. Miss Hawkins starts to wonder if she shouldn’t invite him to share her flat.

“At the supper afterwards they discussed jealousy, and Miss Hawkins was able to assure him that she no longer suffered from that ghastly complaint. He did. He was a positive pickle of jealously. ‘Teach me not to be,’ he said. He almost touched her when she drew back alarmed and offended, apparently, by the indiscretion. He retrieved things by offering to pick up her plastic lighter and light her cigarette. Miss Hawkins was enjoying herself. She ate a lot, smoked a lot, drank a lot, but at no time did she lose her composure. In fact she was mirth personified, and after he had dropped her at her front door she sauntered down the steps to her basement, then waved her beaded purse at him and said as English workmen say. ‘Mind how you go.’”

Ways is set in a snowy Vermont. Two women; Jane and Nell meet for just a day, Nell a visiting speaker arranged by Jane. From the moment Nell sees a photograph of Jane’s husband she is drawn to him with a passionate longing. Then Jane invites Nell to stay for one more night so she can get to know them all a bit better.

There are a few stories that appear to be set in Ireland, although we don’t always get place names, A Rose in the Heart – portrays the lifelong relationship between a mother and daughter. In A Woman by the Seaside, a woman has persuaded her doctor husband to come to rural Ireland on holiday. Here she plans to encounter her lost love of years earlier, who she guesses will also be visiting for the summer. Clara is set in what appears to be a small town in Ireland, where a visiting foreign engineer Jan, becomes involved and then obsessed with the fate of a local young woman, Clara. Clara has been in a local asylum type of hospital – but Jan quickly realises that innocent though she is, she should not be there. He learns that Clara’s brother and his wife have their own reason for wanting Clara to stay where she is.

Goodness, this has ended up much longer than I intended, but this was a really excellent collection of stories, and while I couldn’t write about all the stories, several have really stayed with me since I finished.

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My second read for Read Ireland month was the keenly anticipated new novel by Anne Enright. Soon after finishing it I was delighted to see it appear on the Women’s Prize longlist – it is, I believe, fully deserving of its place. Actress is a novel of literary subtlety; Enright’s writing is quite wonderful.

The novel is narrated by Norah, a middle aged novelist, the actress of the title her mother Katherine O’Dell, a star, Irish theatre legend and one time Hollywood actress. Norah explores the nature of her relationship with her mother, while recounting the story of her mother’s life – a kind of fictional biography in which the subject emerges as a very real person. Norah is writing from some distance, her mother died a few years earlier, now there are things that Norah wishes to understand about her mother and herself. Throughout the novel Norah addresses an unseen ‘you,’ she is speaking to her gentle loving husband of many years, the man who anchored her to the world after years of chaos.

The book starts with a series of snapshots, remembrances from Norah’s childhood and adolescence, in which she begins to give us a flavour of the woman Katherine was.

 “People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what she was like as an actress – we did not use the word star.”

In her Dublin home as Norah was growing up, there were always men fluttering around her mother – clearly predatory in their attentions – and here we see the start of one of the novel’s major themes. Power, particularly sexual power, what is bestowed or stolen. There is a clear #Metoo element to Katherine’s story emerging as Norah later begins to delve into her mother’s past. As a child, Norah remembers sitting in the wings watching her mother perform, the star, an introduction to whom was a gift she could bestow on a favoured friend. Katherine O’Dell was the great Irish actress who had a brief great success in Hollywood and then returned to Ireland a single mother. She was also the fading actress who suddenly went crazy and committed an act of bizarre violence, before dying in only her late fifties. These aren’t spoilers; we know all of this very early on in the novel.

In an attempt to understand her mother, Norah returns to the beginning, and the story of Katherine’s own parents and to the secrets at the heart of Katherine’s life. Katherine’s rise to stardom began in the glamorous post-war days of Hollywood’s film industry. Her defining role on the silver screen, that of a nurse in a field hospital. Fame is such an elusive, easily lost thing – and despite her early success, Katherine finds herself back in Dublin, the glitter of Hollywood behind her, a single mother of a baby daughter. She finds success on the Irish stage, her stardom a little diminished but still shining.

“It must have been a tender time. She did not speak much about the public aspects of success as they are usually portrayed: applause, flashbulbs popping, stage-door johnnies and white flowers scenting her dressing room. Instead, she spoke about the mighty and heroic sleeping she did in her beautiful new sheets of imported American cotton.”

In the Dublin of the 1970s, Norah comes of age, goes to university, experiences her own sexual awakening and the predatory advances of one of her mother’s friends. It’s a scene that is uncomfortable perhaps, yet young Norah seems to see it as just par for the course, in this we see how attitudes and expectations have altered. Throughout her life is the ghost of Norah’s father – a figure she saw as a potentially glamourous hero in childhood – Norah could never understand why she wasn’t allowed to know who he was.

In middle age Katherine becomes the star of a TV advert for butter – her line ‘sure ‘tis only butter’ becoming a household catchphrase.

“The ad became instantly iconic. There was a surge in the electricity grid any time it was shown, as half the population went to the kitchen for immediate tea and toast. Katherine could not have foreseen the consequences. The refrain ‘Sure, tis only butter,’ became part of the national conversation, it followed her wherever she went.”

However, there is always a price to be paid for fame, and for the years of dancing to the tune of the men who call the shots, and Katherine’s mental health and her one mad act seems to be that price.

In trying to get to know and understand her mother better Norah begins to learn something about herself. Despite its moments of darkness this is not a depressing novel, it is a beautifully reflective novel, charting the changing nature of a mother and daughter’s relationship. There are things Norah must think about differently, examine from a different angle. There is a delicate melancholy in Norah’s reminiscences rather than a deep sadness, and in this Enright gets the balance just right. Actress is a really beautiful novel.

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy

This was a lovely satisfyingly thick book, and while I got this as a review copy if I had bought it I would have considered it very good value for money. Two very compelling full length mystery novels for the price of one, both novels running to around 220 pages. I was definitely in the mood for a bit of murder and mayhem, so I read both mysteries back to back. I knew I was in the hands of a really good mystery writer; I have read John Bude before – he is a favourite among readers of BLCC readers, a good writer who creates fully involving mystery stories.

Death in White Pyjamas is set in a country house among theatrical people- all great golden age ingredients. Theatre owner and millionaire Sam Richardson is a kindly, enthusiastic theatre owner, he made his money in business and is now enjoying himself indulging a new passion. His theatre is the Beaumont and the company are about to start preparing for a new production – if they can decide on a play. Young playwright Rudolph Millar has a play he is hoping that Sam will want to put it on at the Beaumont, his aunt Clara is part of the company and they and the rest of the company are invited to Sam’s house in the country. Basil is the producer, slightly sinister and something of a lady killer in the past, he now finds himself falling for Angela, the beautiful young actress, who has also caught young Rudolph’s eye. Willy Farnham is the ageing character actor, Deirdre is one of Basil’s great discoveries, she’s cynical, icy cold and always very sure of herself.  

Almost in the grounds of Sam’s large country home is a small cottage that Basil has bought as his own country escape, when the rest of the company meet at Sam’s house Basil is able to stay in his own home. Basil is drawing closer to the wide eyed innocent that is Angela, Rudolph and Deirdre watching on with some jealousy, Willy is in need of some cash and quickly, and there is some disagreement about which play should be chosen. In charge of Sam’s house is Mrs Dreed, a minor character yet John Bude writes all his characters so well that even she is given proper attention.

“Mrs Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving.”

One night someone is killed, found in the grounds near the lake, wearing white pyjamas. Soon, Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane arrive to investigate the murder. However, first they have to sort out exactly who was where at the time of the victim’s death. Admittedly, it isn’t hard to guess whodunnit – but the other whys and hows are less easily unravelled. All in all, a really engaging well-paced mystery with well written characters.

Death Knows no Calendar is just as well written, and also set in a country house, though the action moves away from the house and the nearby village later in the novel. Mr and Mrs Arundel are holding a little party to open the bar that John Arundel has created in the grounds of their home. It is Lydia Arundel who has all the money, her husband a former actor who never really made it – she is an artist, who inspires very strong feelings in others. The Rev Peter Swain, local rector is haunted by the memory of a moment they shared some years earlier, and farmer Stanley Hawkinge has been mooning over her for years too. However, at the party Stanley meets Honoria; the niece of Lady Dingle (the subject of Lydia’s latest portrait) and is instantly smitten. Their burgeoning romance is overshadowed by the presence of Lydia Arundel, and the rector is overheard praying in his garden about the sins of the flesh in such a way that quite upsets the local postmistress who is walking nearby.

When Lydia is found shot dead in her studio which was locked from the inside – it is judged to be an apparent suicide. Detective fiction enthusiast Major Tom Boddy is not convinced – and with the help of his manservant (and former bat man) Syd Gammon sets out to investigate. The two old soldiers seem to enjoy looking back to their glory days of action – and still converse with one another in a kind of stilted military style (which does become a little ridiculous). Boddy soon discovers he has four realistic suspects, one of whom has completely disappeared and yet the whole thing seems impossible, and Major Boddy is afraid that someone is about to get away with murder.

“A few rooks were wheeling lazily over the elms in the churchyard and an old man came out of the lych-gate with a scythe over his shoulder. As the air cooled, the scents of the countryside grew more heady, wafting in through the open window of the car. The harsh and littered streets of Ilford seemed a long way off, like the dusty memory of an old nightmare.”

Major Boddy’s investigations take him right away from the village, on the trail of someone who isn’t all they appear to be. I found this hugely engaging and very compelling. Like Death in White pyjamas I could guess the who easily enough, but the whys and wherefores are much harder to unravel, and it is here where the cleverness in this mystery really lies. Major Boddy and Syd Gammon are a really very entertaining duo – Bude injects some humour into his portrait of these old soldiers, who turn out to be very good investigators.

These two mysteries make a great pairing and kudos to the British Library for bringing them back.

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