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who was changed

Who was Changed and Who was Dead is a novel I have had for some time, and it was probably only because I read The Vet’s Daughter in August that I had even remembered I had it. There must be so many books at the back of the bookcase that I have forgotten about. So, I recently ferreted it out, putting it where I could see it on the bookcase next to my chair.

Comyns doesn’t shy away from dark, possibly unpleasant themes, and yet the execution is so quirky and readable that I can’t say I found it as upsetting as apparently some of the early reviewers did. In her introduction to my Virago edition Ursula Holden – explains how modern readers are perhaps not quite so shocked or squeamish as they once were. I may know some readers who really are a little squeamish, and certainly Barbara Comyns does paint some unpleasant images.

Warwickshire – a little before World War One, and swans swim through the drawing-room windows of Grandmother Willoweed’s house. The river has flooded badly with much of the village submerged, people shelter upstairs. Ebin Willoweed, once a journalist, now lives with his three children in his mother’s house. As the waters rise, he rows his daughters around the submerged garden. The river is a huge influence in the lives of the Willoweed family, and the rest of the village.

“She came to a little wrecked pleasure-steamer, which had become embedded in the mud several summers ago and which no one had bothered to remove. It had been a vulgar, tubby little boat when it used to steam through the water with its handful of holiday-makers, giving shrill whistles at every bend and causing a wash that disturbed the fishermen as they sat peacefully on the banks; but, now it lay sideways in the mud with its gaudy paint all bleached, it was almost beautiful.”

Comyns leaves little to our imaginations – her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. A squealing pig floats away, legs flailing in desperation – the peacocks are all drowned. The flooding of the river heralds far worse to come.

The grandmother rules the house with a fierce tyranny, a tyranny to tries to exert over the whole village – albeit from a distance. She has sworn not to set foot on land which she doesn’t own – she owns a lot of the surrounding farmland. On the rare occasions that the grandmother ventures forth – she is rowed down the river. Locked into a bitter contest with old Ives who works in the garden, over which of them will live longest – the grandmother enjoys the power she has over everyone at Willoweed House.

Ebin’s three children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis – are quite neglected by their father – consumed with this own bitterness – primarily the loss of his career and his resentment toward his mother, they are often left to their own devices. Emma is the eldest – quietly she combs out her long marmalade hair and keeps an eye on her younger siblings. She takes the younger children on picnics, giving them a little of the mothering and happy security she herself hasn’t had.

“After a time Emma opened the picnic basket and they ate honey sandwiches with ants on them and drank the queer tea that always comes from a thermos.”

Ebin is critical of Dennis – and fairly dismissive of Emma, who has little time for him – Hattie is his favourite child, although she isn’t his. Hattie is the child fathered by his late wife’s black lover – though neither her colour or her parentage is ever remarked upon.

Sisters; Eunice and Norah are the maids at Willoweed House, struck with a wicker carpet beater by the grandmother if she thinks they aren’t working. Norah has been helping local gardener Fig’s mother – and has developed a romantic interest in Fig in the process. Fig is taking his time to be convinced, at first resenting Norah’s interference, but Norah is persistent in her quiet, gentle way. Meanwhile, her sister Eunice has been seeing a married man, with the inevitable consequences.

In the days following the flood – death starts to stalk the village – when it seems to be hit by a kind of plague. The miller goes mad and drowns himself, the baker’s wife – who had been having an affair with Ebin, – runs screaming through the village – finally falling to the ground on top of the grandmother’s white cat. There are other cases – disturbing cases, Emma stands listening to the cries of a stricken child from inside a village house.

“Emma and Dennis cringed against a hedge. Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies. A man with his shirt all hanging out pushed past Emma, and in the moonlight she could see his face all terrible, with loose lips snarling and saliva pouring down his chin. Shrieks of laughter greeted him when he climbed on the thatched roof and shouted and swore down the chimney. Several men carried lanterns, which they wildly waved about their heads and which made a strange and dancing light. Emma and Dennis crept against the hedge, and although they were pushed and jostled, they clung to each other and were not parted.”

A cottage is set alight by frantic neighbours – a man burned to death – where will the madness/plague strike next?

Who was Changed and Who was dead is a little masterpiece. It is a work of a rare imagination, which could certainly be taken as an allegory of the extraordinary and violent madness which was about the sweep the globe in 1914. As well as death, madness and destruction in this novel there is also tenderness, innocence and love.

barbara comyns

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It doesn’t really seem all that long since I last read an Angela Thirkell novel, but a Facebook group I’m a member of was holding an Angela Thirkell reading week – which finished yesterday, so I am a tad behind in my review. When I read The Brandons – I finally felt as if I started to connect with Angela Thirkell. I have now read seven or eight Angela Thirkell novels – and I think I could honestly say that I like them – but with reservations. One or two have contained elements that were just a bit too silly – and I certainly need to be in the mood for Thirkell. However, The Brandons was my favourite to date. Whenever I have reviewed Angela Thirkell novels I have had people tell me that her 1940s novels are her best, so, I snapped up this ancient orange Penguin of The Headmistress when I saw it in a charity shop several months ago. It’s a slightly longer novel than some of the other novels, something I didn’t immediately appreciate as my copy has only 320 pages, but the print is small.

Mostly I enjoyed The Headmistress – I had a few reservations – more of that later – but Angela Thirkell’s voice though still recognisable, is very slightly more sombre – it all seems a little bit more grown up – a sign, perhaps of the times in which Thirkell was writing.

War has come to the world of Barsetshire, bringing great change. Financial difficulties have obliged the Belton’s to let their large country house to the Hosiers’ Girls’ Foundation School. The school; evacuated from London had been seeking a more happier arrangement than the one they have had on a temporary basis in Barchester. Miss Sparling; the headmistress of the school, superintends the move, relieved on a personal level having had to lodge with Miss Pettinger, of the Barchester school, for which she is pitied by everyone. So, while the school set up home at Harefield Park, the Belton’s take a very nice house in the village.

The Belton’s three young adult children are all involved in wartime service, the eldest, Freddy is a Commander in the Navy, youngest son Charles in the Army – training in various places he is yet to be posted abroad. While the middle child Elsa – is involved in what is commonly called hush hush work, in a place that no one is supposed to have heard of, but everyone has. Mrs Belton is fortunate that her three children are able to get home fairly frequently – Charles, a little irreverent, energetic and often wildly enthusiastic about something or other, he had for me a touch of the Tony Morelands about him, while older brother Commander Freddy Belton, is a more measured man, reflecting the experiences he has already had. Elsa, has a little growing up to do, despite engaging herself to a wealthy Captain, fifteen years her senior. She is deeply upset at the sight of school girls galloping all over her former home.

There are many changes to be got over. The Beltons find it very strange to see a school setting up in their family home, school girls sleeping in their old bedrooms. Mrs Belton, rather likes the house in the village, from where she attends wartime working parties, yet she also feels something of the strain of helping her family adjust to the changes. Meanwhile, Elsa is doing her spoilt daughter act – she so wants to help her father – but goes about it in the wrong way and embarrasses both him and her new fiancé. Mrs Belton has a lot to worry quietly about and putting a brave face on things all the time is so very hard.

“What she would really like, she thought, would be to throw every single thing in her wardrobe out of the window and have everything new and to stop feeling tired and looking her age and go somewhere warm, if there was any warm place left in this horrible world now…”

wartime schoolgirlsMiss Sparling, the headmistress, is dauntless and practical, ably steering her girls through the changes that coming to Harefield Park has brought them. She soon makes her own friends among the locals, Mrs Belton is just one of them, elderly Mr Oriel the vicar – who once knew her grandfather, and Mr Carton, a middle-aged Oxford don vie for her society. There are some wonderful peripheral characters in The Headmistress – one of my favourites is Mrs Updike, surely drawn from life. Mrs Updike, is fairly accident prone, scalding herself, or cutting herself almost on a daily basis, happily declaring that she has ‘a perfect thing about…’ whatever it might be and launching into a long, involved and usually slightly muddled explanation.

Shakespeare readings, servants gossip, and a little romance find their way into the lives of this community in wartime.

“I never did take sugar in my tea, or in coffee,’ said the Vicar. ‘I have always disliked it. But I understood that by taking saccharine, we were somehow assisting the war effort.”

Heather Adams is the only one of Miss Sparling’s school girls that we really get to know – who in her typical class-conscious way, Thirkell lets us know that these girls are very much not of the same class as the Belton family. Heather is an unappealing girl, the daughter of a self-made man, she develops a rather crippling crush on Commander Belton.

So yes, there is quite a lot to like in The Headmistress – about which I had heard generally very good reports from other readers. It is witty and engaging, a gentle comedy of wartime manners. However, as I hinted above – I did have one or two small reservations and irritations.

Firstly, I was annoyed by the portrayal of a woman doctor – Dr Morgan, a rather peculiar figure, who tries to analyse her patients – no one seems to have any confidence in her – and all are rather relieved when good old (male) Dr Perry is able to sweep in with his reliable good sense and there is a sense that everyone is smiling indulgently behind the eccentric lady doctor’s back. Miss Sparling the headmistress has the confidence and admiration of everybody, presumably a spinster headmistress is within the scope of woman but a doctor! I am aware I might be being a little over sensitive. Then there was this little exchange:

“ …It’s no good asking you not to worry, Mrs Belton, but I would like to say again that I have every intention of marrying Elsa whether she likes it or not.’
‘What she needs is a good beating,’ said her mother, much to Captain Hornby’s surprise. ‘I’m ashamed of her.’
‘And Christopher’s the man to do it.’ Said Commander Belton unexpectedly.
‘I would like to beat her; very much indeed,’ said Captain Hornby dispassionately. ‘But I can’t stop to do it now. I’ve got to get back early tomorrow morning…”

Sorry – but what absolute bloody nonsense. It might well be tongue in cheek – but I don’t like it. It may have been a different era however I would say – in defence of different eras – that there were plenty of women writers writing at this period who would never have penned such stuff.

I’m now wondering if my reaction to the book was in any way affected by the physical edition that I read. Last week felt like a very long week, I was absolutely exhausted I still am – I was out two evenings after work, and so it ended up being a pretty slow reading week. Added to that I was struggling with the print size in that orange Penguin – and I began to wonder whether I would have got as irritated with parts of the novel had I not been squinting so uncomfortably at it.

angela thirkell

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I was rather delighted when the librarything virago group, elected to read Margaret Atwood books during November. I recently read Stone Mattress a collection of superb stories that really put me in the mood for more Atwood.

I chose to read Oryx & Crake a work of dystopian, speculative fiction which imagines a world as it could so easily be given the right conditions. It is both a brilliant and terrifying vision, and possibly one that only works when it comes from the razor like imagination of Margaret Atwood.

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

We are introduced to Snowman; a post-apocalyptic character living in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets, alone in a strangely altered world. Nearby are a band of human-like creatures – who Snowman calls Crakes, – the children of Crake, who have developed their own rites and rituals and bring Snowman a fish once a week. The Crakers view Snowman as a teacher – looking to him for guidance and explanation for the things they don’t understand. Snowman is nearing starvation – the supplies he had previously provided himself with are running out – and he desperately needs to replenish them.

“Sometimes in the dusk he runs up and down on the sand, flinging stones at the ocean and screaming, Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! He feels better afterwards.”

Through a series of flashbacks, we see Snowman’s past, when he was Jimmy, and before the population had been seemingly wiped out. Jimmy had grown up in the privileged world of the scientific communities living inside enormous compounds. Outside these compounds – are the pleeblands – a chaotic, unregulated world where poverty and viruses run rife. When he is in high school Jimmy meets Glenn – and the two become good friends, playing online games and watching dodgy underground videos. Glenn’s online persona is Crake – a name which sticks, and it is while the boys are watching online videos that they first see the arresting face of Oryx in a piece of child pornography. We see clearly that Crake is ambitious, and he has some big ideas. Jimmy is still coping with the desertion of his mother, who left the compounds for the pleeblands – ensuring that Jimmy is always in the sights of the authorities, who call him in for questioning every now and then.

“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”

Ruminating on the past, his mother, his friendship with Crake– Snowman – as he is in the present – decides to take a perilous trip to the abandoned compound where he once lived in great comfort. He recalls the stories Oryx finally told him about her mysterious life which so disturbed him, including stories of sex trafficking. Wrapped in his old sheet to protect him from the cruelty of the sun – Snowman sets out for the compound, sheltering from the sun during the worst part of the day. The compound is not a nice place anymore – most of the supplies are long used up anyway – and retrieving whatever might be left means running a gauntlet of ferocious hybrid animals that now run wild, and picking his way through the remains of people who died when the plague-like catastrophe struck. The memory of Crake and all he said, has stayed with Snowman – as he recalls how Crake ended up working in one of the top compounds, involved in some pretty cutting-edge stuff. While Jimmy went to an inferior compound. Until, Crake stepped in, taking his old friend to work with him on a very special programme.

“We should think only beautiful things, as much as we can. There is so much beautiful in the world if you look around. You are only looking at the dirt under your feet, Jimmy. It’s not good for you.”

In flashback we learn eventually how and why the world has changed so frighteningly – though I think most readers will have worked at least part of that out by the time they get there. We learn why Snowman is haunted by the memory and the voice of Oryx, feeling his most terrible solitude as he struggles to survive. As the novel ends we discover that Snowman might not be quite so alone after all. This of course sets things up nicely for the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy – Year of the Flood – in which events run parallel to Oryx & Crake.

Oryx and Crake is a stunning novel – thought provoking and utterly compelling and I pretty much gulped it down as fast as I could.

margaretatwood3

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mde

So many people seem to love Ali Smith’s work, I have over the years seem numerous glowing reviews of her novels. I had often thought that perhaps I had missed something with Ali Smith – and should probably put that right – the moment never seemed to arrive, and then my very small book group picked Autumn as our November read. We meet to discuss it tomorrow evening – and I am sure we will have an interesting discussion. I tried to read The Accidental, some years ago, I didn’t get along with the style at all, although that isn’t usually enough to make me set a book aside – I didn’t finish The Accidental, although I can’t remember if there was anything else that made me not like it. I was a bit nervous therefore approaching this novel, for years I have had the idea that Ali Smith wasn’t for me. The good news is that I liked Autumn very much, parts of it I almost loved, but I certainly liked it enough I think, to try others of her books in the future.

There are some beautiful passages, sections I enjoyed reading over again, even parts that made me laugh. This section, I found particularly beautiful.

“November again. It’s more winter than autumn. That’s not mist. It’s fog. The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass. There’ve been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring. The furniture in the garden is rusting. They’ve forgotten to put it away for the winter. The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”

Autumn is the first book in a projected seasonal sequence of novels, Winter has been published, already creating quite a buzz.

In Autumn we have the story of a unique friendship, set against the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Elisabeth Demand is a thirty-two-year-old art historian, dismayed by what she sees happening around her in the wake of that vote, she turns to her friendship with Daniel Gluck and the memory of all he taught her growing up to try and make sense of it. Daniel is a hundred and one, lying in a coma like sleep, the staff at the care home don’t think he’ll last long now. His mind is still alive, and in between parts of the non-linear narrative, are some of Daniel’s dreams, confusing though they can be, he dreams of being young again.

There is a beautiful rhythm to parts of Smith’s narrative – which I really liked, I particularly liked three pages ruminating on the Brexit vote, which almost amount to a poem.

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish Passport Applications.”

As a child, Elisabeth and her single mother had lived next door to Daniel. When Elisabeth was asked by her teacher to write something about her neighbour, she chose to write about Daniel. After a bit of a false start and despite her mother’s unhelpful advice to just make it up, bit by bit a friendship was born. Elisabeth’s mother became quite happy to use Daniel for babysitting when it suited her, yet she was also rather quick to make assumptions about a man she barely knew then. Elisabeth’s mother is frequently absent – she appears uncaring, though there is also an anger in her that many might recognise.

“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

For several years, until Elisabeth is a teenager – she and Daniel take walks together – an elderly man, and a little girl, but the two have made a connection – and that is how a friendship starts. Daniel talks to her about art – he brings it alive for her with his description of colour, and collage – and starts Elisabeth off on a journey that will take her to study the work of British pop artist Pauline Boty. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, we get glimpses of Daniel and Elisabeth’s pasts – little pieces of a collage, like those Daniel so beautifully described to Elisabeth – and we see how important this old man was to a child whose only parent was so often not quite there. Now, Elisabeth sits at his bedside reading aloud to him, confident he can hear her.

During his long, long life Daniel has experienced many things, his sister for example – a young woman defying the Nazis. While in the 1960s- he along with the rest of the country watched the political fallout of the Christine Keeler affair. We are reminded how different the political world is now – I have to wonder – along with others I’m sure – what do people have to do now to be finished politically?

Autumn is definitely a novel that accurately depicts the UK as it is now – there are some hilarious Post Office scenes, when Elisabeth goes to try and renew her passport. Alongside which, the more sombre depiction of a nation in flux.

Very glad to have finally joined the Ali Smith party.

Ali Smith

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cof

My second pick for the 1968 club was Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of my Thumbs – the third of the four full length novels featuring Tommy and Tuppence. The couple also appear in a collection of short stories. Rather adorably Agatha Christie dedicated this late novel as follows;

“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and in other countries who write to me asking: ‘What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?’ My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!”

I completely love Tommy and Tuppence though I have largely neglected these novels, I am pretty sure I had read this one before, although I had forgotten almost all of it. I read The Secret Adversary – the first Tommy and Tuppence novel four years ago, (which is when I decided I loved T&T) and I have the final Tommy and Tuppence novel – and indeed the final ever Agatha Christie novel Postern of Fate tbr – I have had a first edition of it for years! and recently bought a copy of N or M? In The Secret Adversary Tommy and Tuppence are Bright Young things – the First World War had taken its toll on both of them. I can’t think why I have never got around to reading the other Tommy and Tuppence books so far – but I will and soon, and I so wish there were more of them. By the time of the events in By the Pricking of My Thumbs Tommy and Tuppence have been married for a long time, they are the parents of two adult children, and grandparents, and of course have lived through another war. The world has changed around them, their hair is showing signs of grey, yet Tommy and Tuppence are still recognisable as the enthusiastic young detectives Agatha Christie first wrote about in 1922. As a couple the Beresfords are still every bit as adoring of one another as they ever were – one really can’t imagine one without the other. 

“I don’t particularly want to think of your funeral because I’d much prefer to die before you do. But I mean, if I were going to your funeral, at any rate it would be an orgy of grief. I should take a lot of handkerchiefs.”

Tommy’s Aunt Ada has been residing in the Sunny Ridge care home for elderly ladies for some time, and every now and then her nephew and his wife pay the dutiful visit that is required of them. Aunt Ada is not the easiest of old ladies, she has never much liked Tuppence. When Tommy decides it’s time for them to visit his aunt again, he manages to persuade Tuppence to accompany him. When the couple arrive at Sunny Ridge, Aunt Ada quickly dispenses with Tuppence who wanders off while Tommy talks to his aunt. There are old ladies shouting they are dying, others who have forgotten whether they have had their hot chocolate or not, but Miss Packard who is in charge, takes it all in her stride, laughing off all the little eccentricities of her clients. Tommy doesn’t think too much of his aunt’s mistrust of the staff, taking her whispered assertion that ‘they’ could be about to rob and murder her in her bed with a pinch of salt. While Tommy talks to Aunt Ada, Tuppence is shown into a pleasant little sitting room, where another elderly lady is already sitting close to an imposing fireplace nursing a glass of milk. Tuppence engages Mrs Lancaster in conversation, the two of them getting on quite famously. However, when Mrs Lancaster suddenly asks Tuppence –

‘Was it your poor child’

– It can’t help, but send a slight shiver down our spines. The question certainly un-nerves Tuppence – the words resonating in her memory days after having left Sunny Ridge behind. Three weeks later Aunt Ada has died, and Tommy and Tuppence are back at Sunny Ridge to clear out her things. Tuppence is eager to visit Mrs Lancaster who she met before – even more so when she learns that the very attractive painting that is hanging in Aunt Ada’s room was a recent gift from Mrs Lancaster. Tuppence is concerned that Mrs Lancaster might want the painting back, rather than it going to strangers – but Mrs Lancaster is no longer at Sunny Ridge, having been taken away by relatives to a London hotel, on the way north. Tuppence – as poor old Tommy well knows is not one to let things drop, and she is determined to track Mrs Lancaster down and ask her about the picture. The picture shows an attractive house by a canal which Tuppence is convinced she has seen before. The hotel where Mrs Lancaster and her relatives are supposed to have gone have never heard of Mrs Lancaster. Where is the old lady that Tuppence met at Sunny Ridge? Tuppence is determined to find out, so while Tommy is off at a secret conference with government/secret service types – Tuppence decides to set out on a railway journey to find the house in the painting, and find out what (if anything) has happened to Mrs Lancaster. At the back of her mind too – those strange words spoken by the old lady in the sitting room at Sunny Ridge.

As the cover to my lovely old book club edition of the novel suggests – By the Pricking of my thumbs is quite a creepy story. Tuppence gets herself into all kinds of trouble and when Tommy returns from his secret pow-wow he wonders where she has got to, and is soon on her tail.

I completely loved this Tommy and Tuppence mystery, aspects of the plot are really clever – and Christie shows her ability to write a darn good mystery with few clues to go – no body or smoking gun – just a (possible) missing woman, a few odd words spoken by a confused old lady a pretty painting and a nagging doubt. Honestly, I couldn’t put it down. I must read some more Tommy and Tuppence soon.

Agathachristie

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eva trout

The 1968 club starts today, hosted again by Simon and Karen. I have done my homework well everybody, and have already read both books I had selected from the tottering piles I already own (note I did not buy anything specially).

Eva Trout was Elizabeth Bowen’s final novel, written when she was around seventy – it was nominated for the Booker prize – then in its second year, and which was finally won by Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member. I liked it very much, the eponymous character is particularly well drawn, reminding me of a slightly older Portia (Death of the Heart). While, Eva Trout is not my favourite Bowen novel, it is a very good, though occasionally challenging read. It is a novel of many themes, parenting, communication, innocence and betrayal among them.

“The way downhill, into the bottomless incredulity which is despair, was incandescent with flowering chestnut trees.”

Eva Trout herself is an enigmatic character, chaotic, often rather child- like, though she is in her twenties when we first meet her. A conspicuously large, awkward girl, unloved and alone. Eva was raised by a succession of nannies and governesses paid for by her wealthy father, following the death of her mother in a plane crash. Now, her father dead too, she awaits full control of her huge inheritance when she is twenty-five. Driving around the countryside in her Jaguar – Eva is a strange mix of vulnerable innocence and trouble.

Eva has difficulty interacting with the world around her, relationships are conducted with a certain amount of drama and misunderstanding. Her legal guardian is Constantine, a former lover of her father’s – who lives in London and dispenses with his duties concerning Eva from there. Eva craves acceptance, and freedom, and as the novel progresses we see Eva moving from place to place in her bid to find them.

Constantine was delighted to approve Eva’s present living arrangements; a paying guest at Larkins, the home of Iseult and Eric Arble, Iseult a former teacher of Eva’s at the second of only two schools she attended. When she was sixteen. Eva had insisted her father pay for her to go to school. The first school she attended was in a castle owned by her father, here her roommate Elsinore attempts suicide, and the school soon closes. Despite having been very fond of Iseult when she was at school, now Eva is less happy living with the Arbles than she had imagined she would be. Seeking refuge from the Arbles, she makes friends the Danceys who live nearby – a clergyman’s family, with whom she spends a lot of time. Their son Henry – several years younger than Eva is her most particular friend, who she involves in her bid for freedom. Unable to wait for her twenty-fifth birthday – just three months away – Eva decides to rent a house in Kent and live entirely by herself. Despite not even knowing how to boil a kettle. On the day she is to take over Cathay – the house she has selected – she is met by Mr Denge the agent, to whom Eva can’t help but display her absolute ignorance of all household matters.

“‘Must we go far? asked his client, as they drove off.
‘No distance!’ sang out the professional optimist. ‘You are not familiar with our part of the world, Miss Trout?’
‘No. That is why.’
‘I see,’ he said, accustomed to doing so. ‘you will find we are rich in associations, not to speak of celebrities past and present. Charles Dickens –’
‘- Yes. Where do I buy a bicycle?
‘Now, immediately?’
‘Yes.’
Mr Denge altered course. ‘And, Miss Trout, groceries? This is your opportunity. I take it you have brought with you your plate and linen? As we pointed out in ours of the 23rd, those you provide. We trust you understood?’
‘No. What are they?’
‘Ha-ha – sheets, and so on. Spoons and, ha-ha, forks.’
‘How should I possess those?’ asked Eva moodily. ‘Must I buy them? Are they very expensive?’”

Once she is installed at Cathay, Eva receives a letter from Henry – and is visited by Eric – whose visit is interrupted by Constantine. Meanwhile Iseult sits at home in the house vacated by Eva, worrying about Eric’s absence. When Eva and Iseult meet again, Eva helps her former teacher to a terrible misunderstanding, which will adversely affect her already fragile marriage.

From here events move forward eight years, years that Eva has spent in America where she bought/adopted a child, (we assume illegally) a boy – Jeremy who is transpires is a deaf mute. Jeremy is now eight years old, able only to understand Eva. Eva has decided to bring her adopted son back to England.

“The boredom, for Eva, of being a passenger was mitigated by showing Jeremy England. Lambs, elms, cottages, colleges (they passed through Oxford). He missed nothing. From time to time, dread of the impending day overcame her; the aware child, at such moments, went supine against her, shoulder to shoulder. They stopped for lunch at Evesham, roast beef, apple tart, afterwards walking some way along the river looking at boats. ‘You’d like a boat of your own?’ He certainly would. ‘A seagoing boat, with an outboard engine?’ Still better! … Just after three o’clock, the Daimler drew up outside Larkins.”

Living a transient hotel existence Eva begins finally to address Jeremy’s needs – and look around for someone to help him.

The ending is extraordinary – and I won’t say too much about it – except to say it is unforgettable and for me totally unexpected – and took the whole novel up a notch.

Elizabeth bowen2

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elmet

Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Elmet is Fiona Mozley’s debut novel. It has been enormously popular with ordinary readers and book bloggers, generally a sure sign it won’t win, and as we now know it didn’t.

Before the novel starts the reader is presented with an epigraph from Ted Hughes ‘The remains of Elmet’ – which describes Elmet as a Celtic kingdom, a region of northern England, that during the seventeenth century was known as the Badlands, secluded from the rest of the county, it was a sheltering place for fugitives.
Although the novel has modern perspective there is a timeless quality to it – an acknowledgement of traditional communities living in harmony with the land.

Man’s relationship with the land is at the heart of this novel – those pieces of land we call home, where we put down roots, raise families. It is, as it has been for generations, that struggle for somewhere to call our own. Many of the semi-rural people we meet in Elmet are struggling to exist on the fringes of society. People who are looking for work, or earning small amounts of money – in addition to their benefits – as fruit or vegetable pickers, in thrall to private landlords who can pull the rug out from under them at any time.

“I break all bonds. I step through the margins of fields. I scale barbed-wire fences and locked gates. I cut through industrial estates and private gardens. I pay no mind to the lines of counties and boroughs and parishes. I walk, whether paddock or pasture or park.”

As the novel opens, Daniel is walking north, searching for his sister – Daniel is the narrator of the novel, though we don’t know why he is heading north, or why he is searching for his sister. From here the narrative goes back, to tell us the story of Daniel’s family, his father John; a fighter, and his older sister Cathy.

Following the death of their grandmother, John had brought his children to the woods. Here he built them a house, eking out a simpler life – away from normal society – although the reason John choses this particular moment is not entirely clear. The house is built lovingly, a simple wooden structure, it is very much a home. It is where the little family are safe, they work perfectly as a unit.

“We arrived in summer when the landscape was in full bloom and the days were long and hot and the light was soft. I roamed shirtless and sweated cleanly and enjoyed the hug of the thick air. In those months I picked up freckles on my bony shoulders and the sun set slowly and the evenings were pewter before they were black, before the mornings seeped through again. Rabbits gambolled in the fields and when we were lucky, when the wind was still and veil settled on the hills, we saw a hare.”

To Daniel and Cathy, John is Daddy – a word which somehow speaks particularly of childhood – though at the time their house is first built Cathy is 15, Daniel almost 14.

“Waiting is what a true house is about. Making it ours, making it settle, pinning it and us to the seasons, to the months and to the years.”

John is a renowned fighter, a giant of a man – in the past he fought for Mr Price, a local man and landlord, whose businesses seem less than legitimate. Price is a hard man, a cruel man whose squeeze upon various sections of the local community makes him very powerful. Price considers the land that John has built his home on to belong to him, and so battle lines are drawn. Flanked by his two sons Charlie and Tom, Price pays the first of several visits to the house in the woods.

Daniel and Cathy have learned a lot from their father in the ways of living this life on the edges of society. Known especially for his strength, John is gentle with his children, using his strength when he needs to provide for them. Cathy takes after John, with her wiry strength and love of the outside, while Daniel is slightly happier inside, he delights in helping to make the house in the woods a home. For a while a local woman Vivien takes on the teaching of Cathy and Daniel at her home nearby, but Cathy needing the freedom of the outdoors takes her work and escapes to the fields, trees and hedgerows surrounding the house. Daniel is drawn to Vivien and her world – craving a mother figure – he is a sensitive boy, quite young for his age in some respects, he wears his hair long and hasn’t cut his finger nails in a long time, but then, nobody has told him to. Daniel spies on Vivien quite innocently through the crack in her bedroom door – drawn to her femininity. It is a scene beautifully drawn by Mozley, Daniel’s awkward innocence tenderly explored.

Conflict erupts between Price and John, with other local men joining an action against Price and the other landlords. As local tensions rise, John, Daniel and Cathy fight for one another, odds are stacked against them, and there is an inevitability I suppose, to just how grim things get. There are scenes of horrible brutality toward the end of the novel, which I hadn’t known to expect. Still, I very much enjoyed this novel, which is beautifully and sensitively written.

Combining a lyrical celebration of the natural world with a story exploring the bonds of parents and siblings, Elmet introduces us to a wonderful new voice in Fiona Mozley. It’s exciting to think that this is just her first novel.

fiona mozley

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