Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

winter garden

Beryl Bainbridge is always an interesting writer – she takes a slightly alternative view of working-class people, their habits and domesticity cast in a darker hue. In Winter Garden there is plenty that is odd, unexplained or ambiguous, though it is its setting of Moscow that sets it apart from other Bainbridge novels that I have read.

“If she had uttered one single word of reproach, Ashburner might have made a clean breast of things. Even now, when it was obviously too late, he longed to experience that same heady sensation of martyrdom which had prompted him as schoolboy, accused of some group misdemeanour, secretly to approach his housemaster and claim sole responsibility for a breach in the rules.”

Douglas Ashburner is an ordinary middle-aged man, little given to intrigue one would think, yet as the novel opens he leaves his wife comfortably tucked up in their bed and sets out on a peculiar journey. Ashburner’s wife – obviously little bothered that her husband is heading off on a trip without her – thinks he is going fishing in Scotland. However, soon after closing the front door of the home he shares with his wife, Ashburner is checking in for a flight to Moscow.

He is accompanying three artists, guests of the Soviet Artists’ Union, he is the official companion to Nina St Clair – with whom he has been conducting an affair. An affair we come to suspect is all on her terms, Ashburner little more than a devoted lap dog trailing along behind her. His adoration of Nina, verges on the obsessively paranoid – especially once they land in Moscow. The other two members of the party, Bernard and Enid, are friends of Nina’s rather than Ashburner, and so he is liable to feel threatened by them.

“Bernard had never known anyone like Ashburner – not to spend time with. The man looked and spoke like a civil servant; yet he was obviously insanely romantic. It wasn’t so extraordinary after all that Nina had taken up with him, She was basically a rather bossy girl who should have married somebody inadequate and produced a crop of children. Art didn’t do anything for her. She only mucked about with it because the brain specialist was a total egotist and she was left too much on her own. Perhaps Ashburner was made for her.”

With Winter Garden being published in 1980, we know that the Moscow visited by Nina, Ashburner, Bernard and Enid is the Moscow of the cold war. That adds a little frisson of mystery to the novel – as neither we nor the characters themselves never entirely know what is going on.

Ashburner’s luggage goes missing upon arrival in Moscow – and he can’t help but worry that the airport will contact his wife should it turn up – the wife who believes he is fishing in Scotland. In the company of their interpreter – whose side they are never able to leave – the party are conducted to their hotel where afternoon tea comprises vodka and caviar.

In the coming days odd things seem to happen – although things always seem to happen just to Ashburner, and we begin to wonder what is real and what the paranoia of a man out of his depth and obsessively smitten. Alone in his hotel room late that night, Ashburner receives a peculiar phone call:

“‘I am your brother.’ Shouted the voice. ‘It is Boris. Listen to me please. Tomorrow night there is an exhibition of Zamyotov’s work in the people’s Institute behind Bolotnaya Square. You will go there. I have fixed it all. Do not listen to them when they tell you something else is specified. Tell them to jump in the lake, yes? Beforehand there will be a lecture. Unfortunately I myself cannot be there until later. You will like the etchings, I think. Have you understood?’”

Minutes later Ashburner has convinced himself he had received a message in code – and when at four o’clock in the morning he tries to confide his worries to Bernard he is given short shrift. Bernard sensibly suggesting it was a wrong number.

Within forty-eight hours of the group’s arrival in Moscow, Nina has apparently vanished and Ashburner is beside himself with concern. Olga, their interpreter has a perfectly rational explanation for Nina having left – which is happily accepted by Bernard and Enid – but with no one else to corroborate Olga’s story Ashburner is not entirely convinced.

As the official itinerary of events continue – more peculiar things happen – as the depleted group pay visits to other artists. Ashburner’s luggage re-appears though it appears to have been rifled – heightening Ashburner’s sense of things not being quite right. There’s a disturbing and unsolicited sexual encounter on a train bound for Leningrad – which Bernard laughingly declares must have been a dream. Though Ashburner is particularly upset when he is taken to watch an operation. It’s at this point that Ashburner begins to imagine he sees Nina – on the operating table – in the audience at the theatre – all of which adds to the surreal atmosphere of the novel.

The reader can never really be sure what is real and what a figment of Ashburner’s over active imagination. There is an atmosphere of fear tinged with absurdity about the whole novel – and we can never entirely trust Asburner’s point of view which is hysterically overwrought at times.

I can’t say this will ever be my favourite Bainbridge novel that I have read, but it is certainly one of the most intriguing. I’m still not entirely certain I know what on earth was going on.


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What took me so long to get back to Stella Gibbons. I chose The Bachelor because I do love a World War two novel – especially when it was written during the war rather than after. It adds an extra dimension to know the author couldn’t know exactly what might happen or when, though perhaps by 1944 the writing was on the wall.

During the war owners of large homes in the country were obliged to take in lodgers from the bomb besieged towns and cities – putting the homeowners under some strain. The Bachelor of the title – Kenneth Fielding, and his sister Constance own Sunglades; a large seven-bedroom house not far from London, though far enough to protect them from the worst of the bombing. They are a middle-aged pair, Constance in her early fifties, Kenneth around forty-seven, a little set in their ways things have gone along unchanged for years. With them lives a spinster cousin Frankie Burton, who nurses the memory of her one romance when she was a young woman, as a woman once jilted, Frankie is the household expert on matters of the heart. Miss Burton has a little voice in her head – that she thinks of as The Usurper – who is sometimes responsible for a tart remark or a little mischief. Frankie was definitely my favourite character in the book, she often seems the kindest too. Kenneth too once had a romance, and Constance who considers her brother unsuited to marriage is thankful that nothing came of it.

Constance is a complex character; a woman of high ideals, known for filling the house with foreign lodgers and promoting international understanding. More recently the household had a small family evacuated from London – who had proved rather a trial – and it might not be long before another family take their place. Constance is also a pacifist, and disapproves strongly of the war, much to the disgust of her daily woman Mrs Archer.

“Miss Fielding, of course, would have preferred to take no notice of the raids. She was without imagination and was not afraid of bombs. She thought of the Luftwaffe as Misguided, like the rest of the German nation, but felt no personal rancour towards it: she ignored it; she mentally brushed it aside like a tiresome fly and looked vaguely forward to the day when English and Germans would enjoy a hearty laugh together over the time when they were silly enough to bomb each other’s towns.”

Kenneth is a rather lovely man, gentle, old fashioned and principled himself – his greatest happiness was when he was in the army, he served in the first war. Now a middle-aged solicitor, Kenneth serves with the Home Guard – one of many things pacifist Connie must ‘close her eyes to’. He is harried somewhat by his older sister, and when he can, he escapes to his little walled vegetable garden with its ancient greenhouse taking pleasure in his hard work.

To prevent being landed with more strangers from London, Constance decides to fill up her empty bedrooms with people of her own choosing.

The first of these is Vartouhi Annamatta, a refugee from the fictional country of Bairamia, who comes to Sunglades as a kind of ‘mother’s help’. She is a picture of pure youth, and goodness – smiling, capable and not afraid of hard work. Soon enough we see her differently, quick tempered and self-serving, she’s a bit of a minx – (her broken English becomes a bit wearisome – but it’s a small gripe). Stella Gibbons, however obviously thinks that Vartouhi’s faults (of youth, brought with her from another culture) can be tempered if she were only to settle down with the right person – hmm!

Betty Marten; an attractive widow in her mid-forties, an old family friend has written to Constance asking if she could possibly put her up. Betty, a widow since the First World War, is the old flame of Kenneth’s which worries Connie a little, still better an old friend than a stranger. Soon Betty is installed and soon after her son Richard joins the household, twenty-five, a handsome young actor ruled out of war service by his health. When local party girl and world weary cynic Alicia Arkwright accidently runs over Richard’s foot, he is obliged to take advantage of the Fielding’s hospitality for several weeks.

Richard takes one look at Vartouhi and falls head over heels. Alicia can’t help but cast her jaundiced eye over Richard – despite having been badly hurt following a scandalous affair with a married man. Vartouhi is more impressed with Kenneth’s medals than Richard’s handsome young face while Betty and Kenneth quickly re-establish their old easy friendship. Kenneth begins to find some solace in the company of Vartouhi, he appreciates her simple old-fashioned qualities, and is able to calm her rages with kindness, and enjoys indulging her with pretty gifts. Constance views all of this with great disapproval, while worrying over the non-appearance of letters from Gustave Stocke – who she has been writing to for over a decade. Suddenly into the household comes old Eustace Fielding, Constance and Kenneth’s disreputable old father. Seventy-six, and still involved in nightclubs, the man who left their mother years earlier, has a definite twinkle in his eye – a eye that comes to rest on Betty.

Miss Burton watches all these possible romantic machinations with amusement and understanding. She likes Vartouhi and defends her to Constance when the girl incurs her wrath, she also believes that Kenneth should start defying his domineering older sister. Kenneth is a quiet man, but he is just about ready to start doing just that.

We are reminded of the devastating impact upon London and other cities when Kenneth pays a visit to London.

“He walked quickly down the High Street, past the ruinous gaping spaces where houses had been and the little shops showing gaudy dresses in brief brilliant display of colour and light before the black-out came down. Low grey clouds scudded over the sky and the wind was freezing. It was a city of shabbiness and ruins, battered, scarred and dismal beyond belief; and he did not see the honour and pride and courage that covered it like the violet blue veil of the spring dusk. To Kenneth, cheap shops were cheap shops and ruins were ruins, and a beastly evening was a beastly evening. Except during the 1914 war, his life had been passed in pleasant places and he had never had to look for beauty in the heart of squalor.”

Despite its 420 pages The Bachelor is a really quick read, deeply engaging, with its wonderful cast of characters, it is a compelling read. I loved the wartime details – eating Maltesers in the shelter Kenneth had defied his sister to build, everyone wrestling with the blackout – Mrs Archer taking the day off work to celebrate her son’s medal.

I recently got very confused with which Stella Gibbons I had read and which I hadn’t (I got Westwood and Nightingale Wood mixed up). The recent examination of my tbr revealed I have Here be Dragons, The Matchmaker and Westwood tbr – I anticipate them eagerly.

stella gibbons

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Chosen by my very small book group as our January read, A History of Britain in 21 Women did seem very appropriate as the first book for a feminist book group to read at the start of 2018. The year which sees the centenary of some women getting the vote. We met to discuss it on Wednesday evening (there were a jaw dropping seven of us – almost a crowd) – but more of that later.

It is worth pointing out, author Jenni Murray is clear, that this is a very personal selection. I think if you asked any group of people who would make their list they would all look very different. I fully admit I raised an eye brow at the inclusion of one or two and wondered at the exclusion of others. In reality, the book is twenty-one chapters of short biographies, there is very little from one chapter that feeds into another. Still, it does provide some fascinating information, the stories of many of these women are quite extraordinary.

The book begins with Boadicea (she insists on Boadicea rather than the more accepted Boudicca) and ends with Nicola Sturgeon. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would be writing about a book. In between we have; Elizabeth I, Aphra Behn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstoncraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Quant. There were a few names there completely new to me – others who I had fully expected to be included in a book of this kind.

There is quite a lot to like in this book, which is remarkably readable. Two of my favourite chapters were the Fanny Burney and Mary Quant chapters, which were possibly not the chapters I had expected to like most. Fanny Burney who lived to her late nineties, despite having had to endure a mastectomy for breast cancer – without anaesthetic when she was in her late fifties. Extracts from Burney’s letters to her sister about the experience are produced and make for jaw dropping reading – not for the faint hearted. I already loved Fanny Burney as a writer but to have come through that horrific, traumatising experience and live a further forty years is surely testament to her strength as a woman. Fanny, I take my metaphorical hat off to you.

“Burney’s is the first example I have come across of a woman writing so intimate an event as a diagnosis of breast cancer and mastectomy.”

Mary Quant – not someone I had considered very much before – really gave women their freedom in clothes. Suddenly, it was ok to have fun with fashion, look good and feel good, she gave women the freedom of movement. She even had a massive effect on the cosmetic industry.

“Her impact on the cosmetic industry was huge, but men working in the industry often had difficulty in following her thinking. Why, they would ask, would women need a waterproof mascara? It seems so obvious, but it was Mary who told them that women swim and sometimes they cry.”

I also loved the chapters about Aphra Behn and the suffragists Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst – women whose influence is surely still felt today.

Margaret Thatcher – love or loathe her (I do still loathe her even though she is dead) had to be included – I would have been shocked had she not had a chapter. As one of the book group members said on Wednesday night – she is a pretty hard sell. However, Jenni Murray does a good job with Maggie – and it is very obvious in several places where Murray sits politically and it’s nowhere near Thatcherism. As a journalist, Murray met Thatcher a couple of times and it is from this position that she writes about her – and the chapter is short.

“At one point in the late afternoon the crowd trying to get close to her was so pressing she was surrounded by half a dozen huge, burly policeman. I had lost my cameraman and sound recordist in the melee, but I’d managed to stay close to the leading lady. I found myself being squeezed painfully between her fans and her police protectors. A hand popped out from behind the coppers. It grabbed mine and pulled me into the circle.
‘Come along, dear,’ she smiled ‘Stay by me. We don’t want a talented young journalist to be squashed to death, do we?’

So far so good, however, I did have a few small quibbles with the book that went beyond who was in and who was out. Firstly, there is no index, and in the Elizabeth I chapter, Murray makes reference to historical novels – particularly those of Philippa Gregory, I found that rather hard to forgive. In a world of well known, popular historians, I think referencing historical novels a bit lazy. The title is perhaps a little mis-leading, perhaps a better one as my book group discussed – would have been, a history of Jenni Murray’s Britain in 21 women.

This made for a great book group discussion. As a group of seven women – we certainly couldn’t have come up with a definitive list of who should or shouldn’t have been included. We all accepted that this is a very personal selection. Overall, we each enjoyed the book on some level – and I think we were all impressed by Fanny Burney. One member was particularly excited by the scientists who were included, for her the book really got going when she got to Ada Lovelace. Writers, scientists, artists and politicians, whatever your special interest there is probably a chapter in A History of Britain in 21 Women that you would find interesting.

jenni murray

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Choosing my first book of the year wasn’t too difficult. I was so keen to get started on my #ReadingMuriel2018 project that I began reading The Comforters over breakfast on January 1st.

The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel published when she was nearly forty, she had only begun writing seriously after the Second World War. Spark, had previously suffered from hallucinations, and she brings this experience and her recent conversion to Catholicism to her extraordinary debut. It is a debut that is remarkably assured, in this her first novel, Spark really has set out her stall, showing her readers that they are in the hands of a different kind of writer. While the book was still in proof it was read by Evelyn Waugh, who praised it, the novel’s success meant that Muriel Spark could then afford to write full time.

The central character in the novel is Caroline Rose, although it is with her boyfriend Laurence Manders that the novel opens. Laurence is staying with his part gypsy grandmother Louisa Jepp.

“On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.
‘I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the BBC. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his fads.’
Laurence shouted from the window, ‘Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.’
She puckered and beamed up at him.
‘Shouting from the window,’ she said to the baker.”

It is a wonderfully light comedic opening, and just the first of the ways in which Spark leads up the garden path. The Comforters is not strictly a comedy, though are plenty of flashes of humour in it. There are two plots in the novel – both involve the same characters, though there isn’t any other obvious overlap between the subplots. One of the stories is pretty much straightforward, though there is a delicious improbability in it; there is something going on with Louisa. While the second story, focusing largely on Caroline, is what I have seen others refer to as being typically Sparkian. As this is just the fourth Spark novel I have read, I’m not sure if I could fully appreciate these traits, yet I was able to recognise that oddness that I have found in those other novels. Muriel Spark takes the every day and twists it, so we are not altogether certain what is going on. However, the writing is glorious, and the storytelling such that the reader is compelled to read on.

While Laurence is staying in Louisa’s house, he discovers diamonds hidden in a loaf of bread. Louisa also seems to have a peculiar group of friends, who Laurence finds her closeted with one evening. Mr Webster; the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his disabled son. Laurence believes that grandma has a gang.

In a sense it is Caroline who joins the two narratives together because she is Laurence’s girlfriend. Laurence writes to Caroline at the Catholic retreat she has gone to but before the letter can reach her she has left. At the retreat Caroline had met Mrs Hogg, who she takes an immediate and deep dislike to. Mrs Hogg, formally a servant of the Manders family, is a disruptive, interfering personality, who Lady Manders always feels she should help find employment. Mrs Hogg is the most dominant personality in the novel – she is obsessively religious, and capable of great mischief.

The tone of the novel changes as we find Caroline back in her London flat alone. She is writing a book about form in the modern novel – and as she finds herself struggling with a chapter about realism, Caroline becomes aware of voices, and the sound of a typewriter. The voices and the typewriter are connected, the typewriter tapping out the words spoken, and in time Caroline becomes aware that the voice is echoing her own thoughts and actions. She attempts to flee the typewriting voices by going to the flat of a friend the Baron who owns a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Caroline comes to see herself as a character in a novel, and there is a palpable atmosphere of unease in the scenes where Caroline is alone with the sound of the typewriting voices.

“Through the darkness, from beside the fireplace, Caroline heard a sound. Tap. The typewriter. She sat up as the voices followed:
The Baron had seemed extraordinarily interested in Laurence’s grandmother, He was the person one would expect to have remembered – and by name – an undistinguished old lady to whom he had been introduced casually three years ago. Mrs Jepp was not immediately impressive to strangers.
Caroline yelled, ‘Willi! Oh, my God, the voices…Willi!’”

Laurence moves in with Caroline, keen to help her he suggests trying to record the voices on a dictaphone. Things don’t go quite to plan and later Caroline finds herself attempting to reconcile herself to the voices she hears, as Laurence tries to figure out what grandma is up to, is she really involved with diamond smuggling?

I don’t want to say too much more about this novel – which I am finding quite hard to write about anyway – as other people are or will be reading it during this first phase of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The Comforters was a great way to start the New Year, and although I only need to read one Muriel Spark novel every two months – I am pretty sure to be reading more than that. These Polygon editions (I bought four before Christmas) are gorgeous, and I have had to stop myself buying the lot.


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This was my final read of 2017, I never can manage to tidy things up satisfactorily. Chedsy Place was a marvellously compelling little read, unfortunately the last of the Richmal Crompton novels I had tbr, and I mustn’t buy more just at the moment (I am making an effort to manage my book buying, and so I’m attempting to not buy during January – I am waiting on a couple I ordered at the end of December, and one I have had on pre-order for months).

Richmal Crompton of course famous for her Just William stories for children, wrote quite a number of novels for adults and this is the fifth of them that I have read.

What I am finding with Richmal Crompton, who I am finding I very much enjoy – is that, beneath a veneer of cosy, middlebrow domesticity there lurks something rather less comfortable. In her novels The Old Man’s Birthday and Narcissa – particularly the latter – there are some wonderfully monstrous characters, complex relationships and family discord existing within a well ordered, conventional world. Chedsy Place has elements of both of those novels, as we find ourselves in the company of some rather unpleasant people – as well as those who are lovely. Characters imprisoned in their own lives by the tyranny of those around them or the quirks in their own personality. Some of these people may be about to break free, others will not, destined to remain in the state in which we first find them.

When Robert Beaton unexpectedly inherits Chedsy Place, he feels deeply nostalgic for the world of his childhood. Now happily married to Celia, Robert had shrugged off his painful longing for the place he had been so happy growing up. Instead, he has found a peace and contentment running a farm and making a reasonable living. Robert is a realist, he knows only too well that running a large country house like Chedsy Place is prohibitively expensive – and that the only thing he can do is to arrange for the place to be sold as quickly as possible. Every day the house is in their possession, it is costing them money. The only servant from the old days left in the house is Mrs Hubbard who shares Robert’s bittersweet nostalgia for former times.

“Mrs Hubbard stood watching them till they had disappeared round the house, then she went slowly back to the hall, through a green baize door, down a flight of stairs to the kitchen regions. The housekeeper’s room was the largest room in the basement except for the kitchen itself. In it was a square table covered with a red serge cloth, a comfortable basket chair, and a big old-fashioned fireplace. An enormous dresser took up one side of the room, and there was a sink, with taps and drying board, beneath the window. On the window-sill, catching what light there was, stood several bowls of lilies of the valley just coming into flower. Except near the window the room was so dark that, it had to be lighted artificially all day, but there was about it, when lighted, a cheerful cosy air. It had been Mrs Hubbard’s home for fifty years.”

Sad that her husband must sell a house so dear to him Celia comes up with what she considers a brilliant solution. Celia, bright, optimistic and forward looking is a marvel at organising and managing things – her help in running the farm has been invaluable. Now, Celia hits upon the idea of opening Chedsy Place up again – just as it would have been in former days, fill it with staff, a butler, footmen and maids and open it up to paying guests for Christmas. Her idea to produce something between a country house and an hotel, to advertise for quality people who will enjoy a traditional country house Christmas. Such is her enthusiasm, and her powers of persuasion, that she has no idea how abhorrent an idea all this is to Robert. To see his beloved family home turned into a glorified hotel full of strangers makes him shudder.

“He felt oddly ill at ease with Celia. He didn’t know what to say to her. He avoided being left alone with her. On the rare occasions when they were alone together, she would praise the house to him, remembering how in the old days he had loved to talk about it, not realising that to him Chedsy Place didn’t exist any longer.”

Celia, not one to shy away from hard work sets herself to her task, while Robert goes back to his farm, she works day and night with Mrs Hubbard’s help to get the place ready. A few days before Christmas she is ready to welcome a house full of guests, and Robert is also due to arrive and see for himself the extraordinary transformation.

Soon the house is filled with a mix of characters, not all of whom Celia is immediately taken with. A bitter young woman led into ‘bad ways’ by arrogant, selfish men. A middle aged academic stuck in a rut, trying before it is too late to socialise with new people. A cold, vicious beauty and her horribly bullied companion/secretary, who arrive driven by a handsome young chauffeur. A former soldier, blinded in the war and the wife he relies upon but regrets marrying. A devoted couple, with three of their four children who know their parents would rather be with their baby sister – the surprise child of their middle age – left at home with the nanny. A repressed and miserable young man bound for the church and his horribly eccentric aunt, who has been the bane and embarrassment of his life for years. A vicar recuperating from an illness and his garrulous wife. A selfish, cynical man, his sister and his wife; once a society beauty, now disfigured following an accident – he thinks he knows how to get what he wants from women, and has no respect for his poor wife.

While Celia runs around trying to keep everyone happy and ensuring everything runs to plan, Robert has to grit his teeth, as he finds himself treated like a member of staff by the guests paying to stay in his house.

Richmal Crompton manages to squeeze a lot of individual stories into this fairly short novel (my Bello edition is 220 pages) some stories take more prominence, but characters are well drawn and deftly explored, and all this makes for a book fairly hard to put down. I certainly enjoyed this novel, though it would be fair to say it is my least favourite of the five Crompton novels I have read.

richmal crompton

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the lime tree

This new translation by Chris Andrews 2017

The Lime Tree by César Aira is the first book I received as part of the Asymptote book club – which I subscribed to in December but which anyone can join at any time. I opted for a three-month subscription, and I am looking forward to the next two books – and who knows I may buy another subscription after that.

César Aira is a hugely prolific Argentinian writer – who in my ignorance was completely new to me. Born in 1949 in Coronel Pringles; Buenos Aires Province, where this novella takes place, he produces between two and four novella length books each year, and has previously been a Man Booker International finalist.

The Lime Tree is in some ways an ambiguous work, it could very well be a memoir of the author himself, certainly it feels very personal, the narrator is even the same age. A story of memory it also touches slightly on magical reality in a continuous narrative which Aira is sometimes hard to get a handle on.The Lime Tree is a novel which is hard to review – in that not a huge amount happens – it is highly nuanced and tenderly written.

The novel opens with a glorious image – that of ten thousand lime trees in a plaza in Coronel Pringles.

“My father, who suffered from chronic insomnia, would go to the Plaza with a bag at the beginning of summer to collect the lime’s little flowers, which he then dried and used to make tea that he drank at night, after dinner.”

One tree in particular has grown to monstrous size, and it is from this tree that the narrator remembers his father collecting fallen lime tree flowers to make tea to help with his insomnia. The monster tree is eventually cut down in a violent, political act.

The majority of this novella is a remembrance of childhood in the years just after the Peron regime ended. The father, a government electrician had been Peronist – believing in the middle-class dream it promised. After the regime was toppled the family are on the wrong side of Revolución Libertadora.

“The problem for my father was that after 1955 the march of history began, and he was left behind. Everyone remembered the good old days. What else could they do? Those good old days were all they had. But while they were remembering, things continued to happen, and next time they looked, everything had changed.”

They live simply in a single room in an enormous empty building on the edge of the town. It never occurs to them to make use of any of the other rooms – the little family stick to their small part of the world.

The portrait of both parents is quite extraordinary, the father whose dark skin is an enormous stigma in Coronel Pringles, married to a woman with a more acceptable pale skin, though her deformity makes her an outsider too. His father is quick-tempered his dramatic mother constantly talking, their son’s life is one where the boredom is relieved by gossip and unusual games.

“A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. more than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. a kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know. it’s hardly surprising that some parts don’t fit and the whole turns out to be rather mysterious. the father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are our instructions for living.”

This 106-page novella is surprisingly quite dense, there is an elegiac quality to the writing as the narrator recalls a time of social and political change in Coronel Pringles. I feel as if I must have missed some nuances in the text – though I really enjoyed the novel – it might well be a book that benefits from subsequent readings.

cesar aira

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The first of three books from the end of 2017 I still have to review – please bear with me while I catch up with myself.

I don’t read much non-fiction, I think that much is quite apparent, but Long Live Great Bardfield is the kind of non-fiction book I am most likely to read. An autobiography written in a very accessible chatty style, depicting the lives of writers (or in this case artists) living in the first half of the last century.

tG artI’ll be honest, I didn’t know the name Tirzah Garwood (though I certainly recognised her work) until Persephone books brought out this title last year. I had vaguely heard the name Eric Ravilious but couldn’t have told you anything about him, nor had I heard of the Great Bardfield artists colony. However, if you haven’t heard the name Tirzah Garwood, and you’re a Persephone fan, who has been enjoying the Persephone Quarterlies and now Biannually, you will, as I did, recognise her work. Many of the illustrations used in the Persephone magazine over several years are from the work of Tirzah Garwood. How fitting that they are now publishing her autobiography.

So, with the Christmas holidays giving me plenty of reading time – I settled in with this almost five-hundred-page autobiography and entered into the bohemian world of Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious.

Born into a family of five children, Tirzah (born Eileen Lucy – Tirzah was a nickname) and her siblings were obliged to move around quite a bit with their parents. Living in Glasgow, Croydon and Eastbourne Tirzah seems to have been surrounded by a lively, loving family who supported her artistic abilities.

When she was eighteen, Tirzah went to art college in Eastbourne, where she was taught by Eric Ravilious. Over the next few years, Tirzah produced dozens of remarkable woodcuts, many of which were highly praised and displayed at the Society of wood engravers. The work she has left behind her, is I think beautiful, so intricate, yet so bold.

“I had sent some of my wood engravings to the exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers and they had been liked by the committee of which Eric was a member and The Times had given them a kind mention; this more than anything convinced my parents that they ought to let me go, though they thought my subjects hideous and the Mr Ravilious was perverting a nice girl who used to draw fairies and flowers into a stranger who rounded on them and did drawings that were only too clearly caricatures of themselves.”

All of these wood engravings were completed before she was just twenty-two years old. When she was twenty-two she married Eric Ravilious, another wood engraver, book illustrator and water colourist. Early in their marriage, the Ravilious’ went to live in Great Bardfield – a village in Essex, where a number of Ravilious’s artist friends and associates either lived or frequently visited. I really could have done with an index to help with the all the names of artists, friends and lovers. I ended up doing a lot of googling and in the beginning, struggled to remember who everyone was.

tirzahSadly, from this point Tirzah’s time was taken up with domestic matters, and although she did help Eric with some of his artistic projects (a now lost mural in a Morecombe hotel for one) Tirzah’s own art took a back seat. Being married certainly didn’t stop either Eric or Tirzah from having other love affairs, all of which seemed perfectly normal to the people around them in Great Bardfield.

In 1935 Tirzah had the first of her three children (the youngest of whom has edited this autobiography and written the preface). Those years before the Second World War, were busy for Tirzah, as she struggled with a doomed love affair with another Great Bardfield artist, and cared for her children. Despite their involvement with other people, both Eric and Tirzah were generally devoted as a couple, in their own way. It was unconventional, but it seemed to work for them. During this time Tirzah spent some time designing marbled papers which she found herself able to sell.

Eric decided to volunteer as a war artist, and so in the early years of the war was away quite a lot. Tirzah was diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer – and it was following her recovery that she began to write her autobiography in the evenings while the children were asleep. Yet, it seems that art was never far from her mind.

‘I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.’

Tirzah emerges as a warm, modest woman, she had a lot to deal with – especially with her health, but her writing was obviously cathartic. Her writing style is particularly engaging and provides a compelling record of an extraordinary, colourful group of artists. Long Live Great Bardfield is a fabulous autobiography, well written and hugely compelling.

tirzah garwood

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