Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

a little love a little learning#

Nina Bawden writes families particularly well. She understands the dynamics and difficulties, and here she brings her knowledge of step-families to this revealing portrait, which shows just how fragile happiness can be. A Little Love, A Little Learning was published more than ten years into Nina Bawden’s long publishing career – it is a great example of all she does well.

People have asked me before which Nina Bawden novel they should start with, well this wouldn’t be a bad place to start – although I could also recommend Devil by the Sea, The Birds on the Trees and Circles of Deceit and Ruffian on the Stairs. Certainly these novels of family are all faithful recreations of domestic life and its complexities.

It is the year of the coronation, and Joanna, 18, our narrator Kate 12 and seven-year-old Poll are living happily in Monks Ford – a suburban commuter town on the banks of the Thames – with their mother Ellen and their adored step-father Boyd. The children play in their garden, building a camp under the trees, walk to and from school, part of a friendly suburban community who all think the world of Boyd – the local doctor. Boyd has surrounded his step-daughters with wise, unquestioning love, he and Ellen always answer their questions with honesty – the children have grown up with a strange encyclopaedic medical knowledge, quite matter of fact about all kinds of things their peers have no idea about. Ellen and Boyd are very modern parents allowing the girls to develop understanding about things other 1950s parents are still shielding their daughters from. While Boyd is attentive and loving, Ellen is sterner, finding it much harder to show her feelings.

Kate, is fascinated by Boyd’s patients, so proud of the only father she has ever known, she is resentful of Poll’s teacher and their neighbour Miss Carter whose devotion to Boyd verges on the embarrassing. Joanna has reached the brink of adulthood, about to finish school forever, concerned about getting old she has her sights set on local swain Will. Often full of complaint about her younger sisters, she is allowed to have the bedroom she shared with Kate to herself, Kate is therefore forced to share with Poll. Poll loves to play make believe games, and sometimes Kate plays with her, although the games seem a little old for her now. Kate is very impressionable, imaginative with a wonderful sense of the dramatic, she is also prone to telling the odd lie – and digs herself into all sorts of uncomfortable holes. Like so many other great child narrators, Kate is growing up and struggling to understand everything around her – she simply doesn’t grasp the possible consequences of her lies and interference.

“The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pay for.”

Everything starts to change when Aunt Hat comes to stay. Aunt Hat isn’t a relative, she was a good friend of Ellen in the days before Boyd came into her life. It was a different time that the younger girls can only remember dimly if at all, and Aunt Hat was Ellen’s only friend. Aunt Hat is very different to Ellen, working class, gossipy and a little indiscreet she hints at problems in the past, and helps to evoke the memory of the girls’ absent father – who they have been oddly incurious about thus far.

“She sat with her skirts lifted to the flames and looking quite ordinary. I felt a slight disappointment – only slight, because Lady Macbeth would really have been rather difficult to live up to – and then shyness. She was a complete stranger to me. She said, ‘I don’t suppose you remember your funny old Aunt Hat, do you? Well, here she is, turned up like the proverbial bad penny.
For a moment I had the queer feeling that there was someone else in the room. It was a feeling that was distantly familiar, a faint echo in my mind. Then I remembered slices of fresh bread, buttered, and stuck with brightly coloured hundreds and thousands. I could almost taste the grittiness of the sweets on my tongue: it went with grazed knees, consolation, and a strange habit of talking about oneself in the third person.”

Though Kate is almost disappointed in her first sight of Aunt Hat – having imagined her to be some kind of Lady Macbeth character she is quickly won over. Aunt Hat’s background seems wonderfully colourful to the three sisters, her husband imprisoned for beating her and her son. Temporarily homeless, Hat brings her noisy, chaotic world to the polite, ordered world of suburban Monks Ford. Aunt Hat is a fabulous character, though as it turns out it may not be Hat’s indiscretions that turn everything upside down, but the girls themselves.

Boyd’s medical practises are brought into question through local gossip, when he inherits some money from a neighbour and old friend. Miss Fantom has been living in reclusive disharmony with her brother who has never got over having to leave India. The two live in separate parts of the house, and Boyd and the children some of their only visitors. The children have often played in the Fantoms’ garden. Many years earlier, when Miss Fantom was about thirty, she befriended the lonely teenage Boyd – an innocent friendship which was naturally gossiped about. When Miss Fantom dies, Kate’s silly lies look like they could cause trouble for her step-father who has been left a sizeable amount of money by his patient.

This is one of those novel where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families. Bawden manages to make this both poignant and funny – she strikes the balance just perfectly.


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I recently reacquainted myself with Muriel Spark, aware that I hadn’t really given her much of a chance only reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie some years ago. Last month I read and rather loved The Driver’s Seat, I already had several other Muriel Spark books tbr – but succumbed to buying this pretty VMC designer edition of A Far Cry from Kensington a book I had wanted to read for some time.

The novel is narrated by Mrs Hawkins (Agnes – sometimes, though rarely called Nancy). Thirty years in the future from the main events in the novel – Mrs Hawkins, lying sleepless in another part of London, recalls the time she was a publisher’s assistant in the mid-1950s. Rationing is still in place, and Mrs Hawkins a young war widow goes to live in a rooming house in Kensington. Here live an odd set of characters, they move in and out of each other’s lives and each other’s rooms, it is largely a happy, harmonious household, presided over by kindly Irish landlady Milly. There are the Carlin’s a quiet, middle-aged couple, a young district nurse, Kate, young secretary Isobel; fresh from the countryside who every day checks in by phone with her daddy – medical student William and the most memorable, colourful character Wanda – a Polish seamstress. Milly and Mrs Hawkins crouch together on the half landing watching through the communal window into the house next door as the Cypriot couple who live there conduct a late-night row. It is a very companionable existence, but by all these people she is always called Mrs Hawkins, her large, matronly appearance giving her an air of capability.

At this period, Mrs Hawkins had begun to make her way in the publishing world. Working in offices in a Queen Anne house for Ullswater and York Press, in days when jobs in publishing are highly sought after. The firm are already in some financial trouble and their final days aren’t too far off. It is through her work here that Mrs Hawkins first comes into contact with Hector Bartlett a writer who Mrs Hawkins scathingly labels a ‘pisseur de copie’ meaning that he urinates dreadful prose. It is a phrase she returns to time and again – one which doesn’t always go down very well with others. It is as if she can’t help herself – for the repetition is rather overdone and starts to pall, and as Hector is involved with successful novelist Emma Loy who is very influential in the publishing world, Mrs Hawkins’ days are numbered at Ullswater and York. Mrs Hawkins is really very unpleasant to Hector – but quite frankly he deserves it – I liked Mrs Hawkins, though, from other reviews I have seen, perhaps not all readers do.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.”

The satirical portrait of the London publishing scene is brilliant, jobs in the industry seen practically as the holy grail of a professional life. Though it is Milly’s rooming house and the peculiar mystery surrounding the anonymous letter sent to Wanda that makes this novel so good. Wanda reacts to the letter with hysterical wailings, and her terror at the implied threat from ‘the organisation’ who accuse her of tax evasion.

“I took Wanda up a cup of tea at about five o’clock. She was awake and crying. She had got right into bed and unloosed her hair. It was the first time I had seen her with this quantity of natural corn-coloured hair about her face and shoulders. She made a very impressive sight. It occurred to me she might well have a lover, or at least an admirer, someone who courted her and who had a rival, a rejected vindictive somebody, or a jealous woman whose man Wanda had attracted. Perhaps we don’t observe each other well enough, I thought. Seeing a sex-potential, I could see the range of suspects was vastly increased. But I didn’t like to say, right away, ‘Wanda do you know of any man, woman, who could be sentimentally roused for you? – I didn’t say this because at that moment she would certainly have exploded with indignation. The image she showed to the world was that of a church-going seamstress and dedicated widow.”

The whole house become involved in Wanda’s distress, inevitably the residents looking to one another in the search for a culprit. Who could be responsible for such cruelty? The story of Wanda takes a rather darker turn than I had expected, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – I’m beginning to see, Muriel Spark doesn’t do conventional narratives. There is another peculiar sub-plot involving ‘the box’ a mysterious instrument, said to have incredible healing properties produced through radionics, did people in the 1950s believe in a such things? – I don’t know.

I enjoyed A Far Cry from Kensington as much as The Driver’s Seat, they are quite different novels. Compelling with vibrant characters and a wonderfully quirky narrator – it is actually really entertaining.


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olive kitteridge

There are books you want to buy for other people, thrust into their hands and await the exclamations of joy. This is such a book. In a way, I feel I could happily say ‘forget the premise, forget all the reviews – just sit down and read it.’

Olive Kitteridge is the second Elizabeth Strout novel I have read, My Name is Lucy Barton was the first, and while I enjoyed that novel, this one makes me want to read everything she has written.

Although described as a novel the structure of this book is more of a series of linked stories – Olive Kitteridge is at the heart of them. Still, it manages to have the feel of a novel, there is a lovely sense of a community we become a part of, a sense of time passing, things changing, of a relationship that spans decades.

“He wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.”

A retired schoolteacher from a small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, Olive is a no-nonsense woman whose moods are unpredictable. Opinionated; a big woman Olive is a truly larger than life character. We first meet her before she retires, a middle-aged woman with a sulky teenage son, married to Henry, the popular town pharmacist. Henry is a kindly, gentle man, quiet where Olive is voluble, easy going and ever patient with his wife. Both he and Olive we learn early on have been tempted to stray – but they remain an ever-constant pair.

“You couldn’t make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You had to just wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn’t go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind.”

We follow Olive from middle age to old age, we see her through the eyes of her husband, and the townspeople, some of whom Olive comes into but the briefest of contact – others who are more important. Olive has a knack of seeing right into the heart of the matter – so often in the right place at the right time, or the wrong time. Olive can be remarkably clear sighted about others at least, not always about her own life.

“Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

There are so many stories to be told, stories of ordinary people, stories that are captivating because they are real. We meet Kevin, back after several years away, he is depressed, haunted by a tragedy in his past. As he sits brooding in his car, Olive – who once taught Kevin – climbs into the car beside him and strikes up a conversation. There is a similar shadow in Olive’s past – and she recognises his pain. Many of Olive’s former students remember being a little afraid of her, but there is a good deal of respect too. Angela O’Meara is a piano player in the Warehouse Bar and Grill – her best years behind her – she never achieved her dreams, and is now trapped in a pointless relationship with a married man. Olive and a neighbour try to help a girl with an eating disorder, Olive as ever tells it like it is, but we see in her, her own brand of sympathy and she genuinely wants to help. Other townspeople we meet are unhappy, conducting affairs, grieving, shielding secrets. The Larkins are a couple shunned by everyone, they stay hidden behind the closed shutters of their home, close to Olive’s house – something terrible happened a few years earlier which it appears no one can forget.

When they are in their late sixties Olive and Henry undergo a terrible, frightening experience when coming home from dinner with friends. We feel the couple ageing rapidly. The experience changes them both. There are tensions with Christopher their only son, mostly between Olive and Christopher. So often surly and uncommunicative as a teenager and young adult, the relationship with the middle-aged man he becomes is no easier. Christopher is in his thirties when he marries, his parents build a lovely house for him nearby, Olive is delighted with the house, with the idea of her son having a family just around the corner, although she doesn’t much like the wife. Christopher’s wife persuades him to California, and Olive is wounded, when Christopher’s first marriage fails and he stays away – she is deeply hurt. For a long time, Olive can’t bear to drive past the house that she feels Christopher should still be living in. As the years go on, the gulf between them widens, Olive isn’t invited to his second wedding, and has little to do with her grandson. A visit she pays her son, his second wife and her children, is fraught with difficulties, bewildering misunderstandings and Olive goes home early. There is a sense that Olive and Christopher see their shared past differently. Olive can be defensive, easy to take umbrage – she buries her hurts inside her, and turns a stubborn face to the world.

“There were days – she could remember this – when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure.”

Elizabeth Strout gives us an unforgettable portrait of a complex character, Olive is flawed and yet we can sympathise with her – she is wonderfully real, and we get to know her thoroughly. I loved everything about this novel, the sense of place, the characterisation, the wisdom, humour and pathos. All of life is in this novel, and the writing is quite simply superb. I shouldn’t generalise – but in my opinion there aren’t many modern writers who write this well.


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During May, the Librarything Virago group are reading books by the wonderful Willa Cather. The Professor’s House was the last of her novels I had left to read. I had heard mixed reports of it, but I think it is a small masterpiece – although I would probably say the same about several of her other books.

A beautifully introspective little novel, in The Professor’s House Cather introduces us to Godfrey St. Peter a mid-western university professor. St Peter and his family have lived for many years in an ugly though rather loved house which they are finally moving out of – their two daughters married and off their hands, finally Mrs St Peter can have the house she has dreamed of. As the contents of the old house are moved into the new house, the Professor remains in his study in the old house – surrounded by the objects he has lived with for so long. Books, papers, his old couch, and the dress making forms left behind by Augusta with whom Professor St Peter has shared his study twice a year – and now feels oddly at home with.

“The low ceiling sloped down on three sides, the slant being interrupted on the east by a single square window, swinging outward on hinges and held ajar by a hook in the sill. Walls and ceiling alike were covered with a yellow paper which had once been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality. The matting on the floor was worn and scratchy. Against the wall stood an old walnut table, with one leaf up, holding piles of orderly papers. Before it was a cane-backed office chair that turned on a screw. This dark den had for many years been the Professor’s study.”

As the summer continues the Professor is less and less inclined to make that one last move – and relocate his attic study to the new house. Instead he keeps on the old house, making his way each day to his beloved study – surrounding himself with the objects with which he is most familiar. Here Professor St Peter recalls his life, and the people he has loved; his wife Lillian, his daughters; beautiful, pretentious Rosamond and Kathleen lost in her sister’s shadow, but the person he remembers most is Tom Outland.

“But now that the vivid consciousness of an earlier state had come back to him, the Professor felt that life with this Kansas boy, little as there had been of it, was the realest of his lives, and that all the years between had been accidental and ordered from the outside. His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning.”

Tom, a brilliant young pioneer, whose discoveries relating to a gas have brought about great engineering advances. Tom’s legacy is now quarrelled over, the subject of jealously and betrayal.

Rosamond was engaged to Tom before he went off to the First World War and is killed. Now Rosamond is married to prosperous engineer Louie Marsellus, as his heir Rosamond was able to pass on her former fiancé’s discoveries, and the couple have benefitted greatly. Meanwhile Kathleen is married to a less wealthy man, Scott McGregor a journalist – who was once also a friend of Tom Outland’s. So, when Louie waxes lyrical at dinner about Tom – a man he never met – and reveals the house he is building is to be called Outland – Scott and Kathleen are more than a little irritated.

The Professor is a tired man, torn between the past and the modern progresses he sees around him – like the new house, so much better appointed and convenient a real step up – he doesn’t really want to be there.

The book is told in three sections – of unequal length – the first section; ‘The Family’ being the longest, the middle section tells Tom Outlands story, taking us to the beautiful landscapes of New Mexico. Here a young Tom while exploring the mesas of New Mexico finds carved into the rock, long abandoned villages – evidences of an earlier civilisation. Learning more about these cliff dwellers becomes all consuming, and leaving his friend Rodney Blake behind to take care of things Tom sets out for Washington to find someone to take his finds seriously. The final section – just called ‘The Professor’ – sees Godfrey St Peter contemplating his own place in the world – as, with the rest of the family on holiday he spends all his time in his study.

“He could remember a time when the loneliness of death had terrified him, when the idea of it was insupportable. He used to feel that if his wife could but lie in the same coffin with him, his body would not be so insensible that the nearness of hers would not give it comfort. But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth.”

The Professor’s House is a quiet novel, a novel of memory, loss and which contrasts modern advances with more traditional living.

(Just a note to add – I am currently off work unwell – long story – so my reading and reviewing routine, such as it was, is completely up the spout. Which is why this post is appearing at a time I don’t usually post things.) Bear with me. 😊

willa cather

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Slaves to the Lamp is the sequel to Sing for your Supper the novel which begins the Clothes of the King’s son trilogy. The novel could be read as a standalone novel, as there is only passing reference to events in the first novel, though naturally I would recommend beginning with the first instalment.

The title; Slaves to the Lamp refers to those who take comfort in their belief in spiritualism, faith healing and other mysticisms. Faith healers and their followers form just one strand of this slightly unusual – though enjoyable – novel. In true Pamela Frankau style – the canvas here is large, set in both England and the South of France, Slaves to the Lamp follows the stories of several characters, which inevitably weave together.

At the end of Sing for Your Supper – Thomas Weston, the youngest of the Weston children, elected to stay in England as his older brother and sister, his Pierrot star father and new stepmother Paula set out for America. Despite only being ten, Thomas was allowed his own way, cared for by his grandmother, and his beloved nanny Blanche Briggs – Brigstock as the Weston children call her. Now it is 1937, Thomas is twenty-one – and is working for Romney Butler’s advertising agency. Romney Butler is a wealthy man, but he has been suffering badly from arthritis in his hip, and has only recently returned to London following treatment. Thomas is living in a small flat above a shop – though dear Brigstock still takes care of mending his clothes. Weekends are spent with Carola Toyne, the twenty-eight-year-old daughter of faith healer William Toyne. One of William Toyne’s greatest believers is Robert Macintyre, a wealthy, successful osteopath.

As a child, Thomas had begun to realise he had inherited his grandmother’s gift (or curse) of E.S.P, and – following an incident when his sister Sarah was unwell – of healing. Since that time, Thomas has vowed never to use these talents. So, when Romney Butler’s secretary Queenie, asks Thomas to attend a spiritualist meeting she can’t, to ask a question on behalf of her boss – who she is slavishly devoted to – Thomas is torn.

“ ‘My control,’ said Mrs Swinburne, ‘is a doctor and philosopher who lived in the reign of the first Pharaoh. He will probably begin by telling you something about yourself. Please ask him anything you like. People usually prefer to write down the more confidential questions and hand them to me.’ Here Thomas decided he had lost Queenie’s questions, and began to fish for it agitatedly. ‘If you are wondering how my guide can read English, you needn’t. You will find a full explanation in Harry Masterson’s Facts from the Unknown. You can buy a copy for a shilling at the desk downstairs…”

Thomas’s brother Gerald who has begun to make his name as an actor in America, his sister Sarah, twenty-five and a marriage already behind her their father Philip Weston and his wife Paula are on their way back to England. Sarah has decided to stop off in the South of France – in the place the entire family holidayed together eight years before. Thomas thinks fondly of this time, when he last spent time with the whole family – the twenty-nine summer – seems to exist in his mind as a time of absolute perfection. Thomas revisits this perfect summer when he takes a short break to join Sarah in France. Here he also reconnects with Rab – Paula’s daughter – with whom he was so close as a child in Devon before the Weston family left for America.

“Standing in front of him there was a girl; but a girl who looked more like a boy. She was wearing a blue-and-white striped singlet with blue trousers. He saw the short, silky hair, pale as his own; the tanned face; the wide blue eyes above the bumpy cheekbones, the square, smiling mouth. This catalogue seemed to take him a long time: Rab was exactly as he knew her to be; but he found it hard to understand that he was seeing her.”

When Sarah eventually arrives in London she meets Thomas’s now former boss Romney Butler who is instantly smitten – and soon Thomas finds himself connected with Romney in a way he wasn’t expecting. Gerald has a part in a play – he is surrounded by theatre people, juggling contracts, trying to make his way in a competitive world of easily hurt feelings.

The thing that drives this novel for me is Thomas’s voice – although a third person narrative, the majority of the novel is told from his viewpoint – and Thomas is a very lovable character. He is an unusual character, not least because of his supposed ‘gift’. There are times when the adult Thomas reminded me strongly of the child Thomas in the previous novel – but then in so many ways shows us he is anything but a child. While working for the advertising agency – Thomas find his conscience will not allow him to work on campaigns where he feels lies are being told – his colleagues are puzzled – but Thomas happily shrugs his shoulders and walks out. He takes a job in the shop beneath his flat – and seems very happy. Pamela Frankau’s characterisation is as good as ever in this novel, these people are all fully rounded and explored in depth. There are some unexpected moments, tragedies and dramas – in a novel a little more than 400 pages there is a lot going on.

There were moments when I was a bit discombobulated with these three worlds, spiritualism, the theatre and advertising. In the end, it does all work – everything comes together – and we begin to see the deceits that exist within these different – and yet oddly similar worlds.

Overall I enjoyed this novel – mainly because Frankau writes such compelling stories and her characters are people I like spending time with. This is not such a good novel as Sing for your Supper – but still a really good read, and as I have the third in the series I am looking forward to seeing where the Weston family takes me next.

If you haven’t read Pamela Frankau before I would recommend starting with either The Willow Cabin or A Wreath for the Enemy.

pamela frankau

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12.30 from croydon

I wonder how many British Library Crime Classics there are? There appears to be millions and I am constantly worried I will miss some especially brilliant ones – as I have so many unread books already. So, I may have only read a handful of these books so far (several more tbr of course) – but this one is probably my favourite to date. I had read one Freeman Wills Crofts mystery before – The Hogs Back Mystery – which is really good, but in my opinion The 12.30 from Croydon  is far superior.

Now don’t judge me – but I am a bit of a closet Columbo fan. I don’t watch them so often these days – mainly because I have seen them all more than once, but I still love that rumpled little detective. The thing with Columbo is that the viewer always knows who the murderer is – they are often a little too sure they have committed the perfect crime. Along comes Peter Falk in his creased raincoat and pieces it all together bit by bit – he is always courteous and happily lets the criminal think him a fool. With Columbo the reader is always sure the murderer will get his/her just desserts – with this novel, however the reader can’t be quite so certain. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you either. From about the second chapter – we know who the murderer is – but there are plenty of things we don’t know. The main thing being whether they get away with it or not.

It’s never all that easy to review mystery novels – but this one is particularly difficult. Freeman Wills Crofts however is a consummate storyteller – and this novel is so compelling it is impossible not to fly through it.

“How strange it was, Charles ruminated that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!”

As the novel opens, a retired, wealthy manufacturer Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley and Peter’s young daughter Rose are on their way to catch the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Peter’s wife Elsie has been involved in an accident in Paris – and although not too badly hurt her family are naturally anxious to be at her side. Young Rose’s worry about her mother is over-ridden by her excitement at flying for the first time. It is also her grandfather’s first time flying – having been given permission to fly by his doctor – Andrew Crowther is travelling with his manservant Weatherup. The family enjoy a simple in-flight meal – and then prepare to land. When the plane comes to a standstill Andrew Crowther is found to be dead in his seat.

So far, so conventional, an opening reminiscent of other Golden Age mysteries – gets the story off to an excellent start. Then, in a flashback starting a few weeks before the death of Andrew Crowther, the viewpoint switches to that of his eventual murderer. Crofts allows us into the mind of a murderer, from the conception of the idea through the battle with conscience, the ingenious preparation for the murder of Andrew Crowther, the covering of the tracks and of course the eventual crime itself. Money is of course at the root of everything – isn’t it always. The financial crisis has hit some people hard, and Andrew Crowther was scathing about business failures – declaring them, the result of laziness. Charles Swinburn is now the owner of the manufacturing business his uncle built up, now Andrew Crowther is reluctant to help, sneering at his nephew for taking his eye off the ball – completely misunderstanding the reality of the financial crisis. Charles is about to go bankrupt – although he has managed to disguise from most people just how bad the situation is – and to top it all he has fallen hopelessly in love with a society beauty who will not be interested in a poor man.

“Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who were doing great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Then comes the terrible fear of detection – so sure that they’ve thought of everything, that nothing can betray them – and yet what if… Murder isn’t easy to live with. There is an inquest to sit through, a will to be read, equanimity to be preserved. There are several unexpected shocks along the way – and naturally, policemen asking questions. Another murder proves necessary, the grizzly business carried out and dealt with – and suspicion seems to be falling on someone else entirely – could the wrong man be about to pay for Andrew Crowther’s murder?

Unlike most Golden Age mysteries, the policemen are not at the centre of the story – in fact they operate rather more off stage. Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is eventually brought in, when dissatisfaction with the inquest is expressed – and he quietly, and unobtrusively goes about his business.

It is the psychology of the criminal which is so well done here I thought – the self-delusion as well as self-justification, paranoia and simple connivance which drives the narrative and makes it so readable.


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effi briest

(translation by Walter Wallich 1962)

With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy.

I don’t think I had ever heard of Effi Briest as such – I think I saw it in a list of Oxford World’s Classics a couple of years ago, and having looked at the synopsis immediately put it on my Classics Club list. However, I never did manage to get around to buying a copy. When I heard Persephone Books were re-issuing it I decided to hold out for that edition.

Effi Briest is a nineteenth century German classic – that should really stand beside Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. A nineteenth century novel in translation written by a man, is not an obvious choice for publication by Persephone – although the themes of unequal marriage, society and the consequences of adultery make it a perfect match.

“ ‘Look, Mama: it doesn’t matter that he is older than me. Perhaps it’s even better that way. After all, he isn’t really old, and he’s healthy, vigorous, soldierly and dashing. I could almost say that everything about him was right if only… well if only he were a little different.’
‘In what way Effi?’
‘Well, you mustn’t laugh at me. It’s something that struck me only the other day, over at the parsonage. We were talking about Instetten and suddenly old Niemeyer’s eyebrows rose – in admiration and respect you see – and he said: “yes indeed, Baron Instetten is a man of character and of principles.”
‘And so he is Effi?’
‘Of course. And you see, Mama I don’t have principles. That’s what worries and frightens me. He is so good to me, so indulgent, and yet… I’m afraid of him.’

Effi Briest is a young girl – the much-loved daughter of conventional, though apparently loving parents in Hohen-Cremmen, a fictional region in Bismark’s Germany. Effi is just sixteen when we meet her – she is instantly endearing – exuberant and wonderfully full of life. She gallops around the gardens, happily gossiping with the daughters of the village schoolmaster and pastor who live nearby. In hindsight the reader can’t help but remember Effi before her marriage laughing with her friends, suffused with childlike enthusiasm, young, still so young.

Within a couple of pages of this novel, Effi is engaged to a man more than twice her age. Baron Geert von Instetten is thirty-eight – and was once in love with Effi’s mother. Effi the daughter of the one that got away. The engagement has been arranged by Effi’s parents – who it seems see nothing odd in the arrangement. Even more strangely perhaps – Effi seems perfectly happy too, although there is a sense that young Effi sees it as just one more happy incident in her golden childhood. Proud to be marrying such a handsome man, she and her mother begin buying the necessary clothes. In the first few chapters we see Effi’s life as one blessed by a happy home, Effi is still very childlike – yet even Effi’s mother notices that Effi is a little too matter of fact about her fiancé stuffing a letter which arrives from him in her pocket and only reading it much later.

“’Did you like the way Effi behaved? Did you like the whole affair? She was odd, sometimes completely naïve, and then again very self-assured and by no means as humble as she should have been towards a man of his standing. The only explanation surely, is that she is still quite unaware of how well she has done for herself. Or is it simply that she doesn’t love him properly?’
Frau von Briest was silent and counted the stitches on her embroidery. At last she said: ‘That is the shrewdest thing I have heard you say during these past three days, Briest. I have been having my doubts, too, but I don’t think there is any cause for anxiety.’”

Instetten is a high-ranking Prussian official –  from Eastern Pomerania, a coastal town; Kessin is a long way away from her childhood home. The marriage takes place and Effi has a lovely time on her honeymoon, writing to her parents of all the things she sees in the company of her handsome new husband. In time Effi is taken to what will be her new home, a house which itself seems to change the tone of the whole novel, the hallway is quite dark, lit by red lamps, a few unusual objects suspended from the beams; a crocodile, a shark and a ship in full sail. The upstairs rooms remain unfurnished, the sound of curtains swishing across the empty ballroom floor – upset Effi’s imagination – as does a picture of a little Chinese man, about which Instetten has told her a story. The house is at the far end of town, close to a small wood and the road to the beach. Effi has been told by her husband that there aren’t really people of their class in the town – and in time she is taken on a round of visits to the local aristocrats – which are not wholly successful. Instetten works long hours, is frequently away from home, and Effi is alone with Joanna the servant and Rollo the wolfhound who has become her almost constant companion. Frequently alarmed by the sounds she hears from the empty rooms above, Effi is also homesick for Hohen-Cremmen and the young girls she spent so much time with once. One good friend, aside from the faithful Rollo, however is Gieshübler the hunchbacked apothecary.

It isn’t long before Effi – hardly out of childhood herself is a mother, to a little girl, Anna. Effi engages Roswitha as a nurse – and in time Roswitha proves to be a stalwart of support to Effi as the years ahead alter her fortunes considerably. Effi is still alone too much, and is ripe for manipulation by a dashing Major who comes to live nearby. Fontane doesn’t dwell on the specifics of Effi’s relationship with Crampas, it’s all deeply shaded in suggestion. We realise however, that there will be consequences for Effi particularly. Instetten is a man of rigid principles – and society so very unforgiving.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot – as I suspect a lot of people will be reading this novel now – I certainly hope so. It is a wonderful novel, compelling and compassionate. Theodor Fontane seems only to be judging society – his sympathies I am sure, like the readers own are always with Effi. This is a novel which deserves to be widely read – I loved every word.

theodor fontane

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