Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

With world events becoming ever more unbelievable – for some of us – there has been a temptation to turn to certain kinds of dystopian fiction. It is surprising perhaps that Daphne Du Maurier’s final novel is being seen by some as being strangely prescient for these troubling times in the UK. While not dystopian fiction of course, Rule Britannia feels like oddly appropriate reading material for the current chaos we find ourselves in.

I’m not certain that this novel was judged very well upon its publication in 1972 – people perhaps thinking the premise rather ridiculous then. Now of course we judge the ridiculous differently all sorts of absurd situations have become perfectly credible in the last few years. Suddenly, Du Maurier’s imagined political upheavals don’t seem so very ridiculous after all.

She set her final novel in the very near future (to 1972), the country divided along similar lines to today, and imagines a new and increasingly sinister alliance with the US.

“The entry into Europe was a flop, a disaster… So what happened? A general election with the country hopelessly divided, then a referendum, and finally the Coalition Government we have today, which has seized on the idea of USUK as a drowning man clutches at a straw.”

Twenty year old Emma lives in Cornwall with her grandmother; a famous retired actress – who in her retirement has adopted a brood of six unruly boys – aged from 3 to 19. It’s a far from conventional household. There’s Andy who climbs out on to the roof to shoot arrows, Sam who cares lovingly for a pet squirrel and an injured pigeon in his bedroom. Joe the eldest, who’s calm, good sense is so often relied upon but has been crippled by his inability to read and write. Terry; the first to have been adopted is a favourite with his benefactress and the housekeeper. Colin the white blond six year old – and his constant companion, three year old Ben, a small black child who has yet to learn to speak. The boys, naturally enough, try hard to teach him all the swear words they know, with rather obvious results. Du Maurier’s characterisation is fantastic, and it is partly what makes this book so hugely readable.

Emma calls her grandmother Mad – a name she once lisped in childhood but which no one else is permitted to call her, she is simply Madam to everyone else. Dottie – Mad’s dresser for forty years is the cook housekeeper for this huge and eccentric household. Emma; frequently frustrated by this house of indulged unruly boys and has been considering going to London to join her father – Pa, a banker with some influence with the government – when she wakes one morning to find the world has gone mad. A warship lies in the harbour – within sight of the house. There’s no TV, no radio and no post, American soldiers are advancing up the beach, and one trigger happy soldier shoots a dog from a neighbouring farm. The UK – having withdrawn from Europe are facing certain bankruptcy and have entered into a partnership with the US – the country now called USUK.

“Mad wasn’t in bed. She was sitting up in her chair by the open window that overlooked the bay, field-glasses to her eyes. She was fully dressed, if such a term could be used to describe her outfit, which was a combination of Robin Hood and the uniform worn by the late lamented Mao Tse-Tung. It was certainly practical for early November on the Cornish coast, if the person wearing it was about to engage in archery or clean a locomotive. Mad was destined to do neither, so far as her grand-daughter was aware, but then you never could be sure what the day would bring.”

This tiny corner of Cornwall becomes a microcosm for the whole country – a major American base – it also feels the brunt of this equal partnership – which very soon begins to look suspiciously like a takeover. Quickly, things begin to change for the residents of this small coastal community, there are road blocks set up along the lanes surrounding Mad’s house and residents are required to show passes to the soldiers who guard them. There is a definite air of tense suspicion and Mad and some of her neighbours are not about to just roll over. However, things are destined to get infinitely worse.

As she approaches her eightieth birthday, Mad enlists the help of her bunch of wonderful lost boys, like some kind of ageing Peter Pan, driving her granddaughter wild with worry in the process. A sudden shocking death brings a whole new level of seriousness to proceedings. Mad is desperate to protect her household, no matter what. With a local farmer, a Welsh beachcomber who lives in the woods, and her doctor as additional support Mad sets out to make things as difficult as possible for the Americans in their midst.

“There’s an expression for it, Emma thought, they call it snowballing. Someone starts something, and it gathers impetus, and more join in, and then there’s an avalanche, and people or property or causes are destroyed.”

This novel is marvellously compelling, Du Maurier’s last novel is a little anti-American I suppose – I wonder how American readers viewed it? – but her storytelling is as good as ever, and she does poke a little gentle fun at the Royal family along the way. I loved Mad and her boys plotting insurrection and rebellion. Du Maurier recreates the arrogant, swagger of the occupier and the divisions created in a community as some side with the occupier while others work to thwart them. It is a novel which is immediately hard to put down, and I devoured quite quickly.

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Translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson came into my life because of my very small book group, it was one I already had had tbr for a long time. Tove Jansson is beloved of many because of both her tales for children and her stories for adults. Somehow, I didn’t hear of the Moomins until I was an adult, they completely passed my childhood by. Yet, I was assured that I would love Tove Jansson, and I did, though of the two Jansson books I have read to date, A Winter Book is definitely my favourite.

Ali Smith writes a wonderful introduction to this edition. Her affection for Jansson’s storytelling is obvious.

“The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep.”

(from Snow)

I love short stories, and these are definitely the type one can read in great greedy gulps – there is a delicious calmness to Jansson’s prose. Heart-warming and vividly described – Tove Jansson brings the landscape and people of her childhood and old age to life, though largely autobiographical these pieces are stories not memoir. There is a lightness of touch here, a quiet wisdom and gentle humour – a real joy of a read.

Parts one and two of A Winter Book; Snow and Flotsam and Jetsam come originally from The Sculptor’s Daughter, stories inspired by Tove Jansson’s childhood in Helsinki. Her family part of the Swedish speaking minority in Helsinki. Beautifully, depicting the mind and imagination of a child, the collection opens with The Stone – in which a young girl finds what she believes to be an enormous rock of precious metal. With extraordinary strength and grim determination, she rolls the rock homeward.

We catch some tantalising glimpses of Tove Jansson’s bohemian household – the parents of her child characters here a sculptor and an illustrator like her own, clearly drawn from life. In Parties – a young girl delights in listening to her father’s parties from her bedroom.

“I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music, and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes.

It’s not worth looking, because if you do everything you’ve imagined disappears. It’s always the same. You can look down on them and there they are sitting on the sofa or the chairs or walking slowly up and down the room.”

(from Parties)

In other stories we meet Annie – who revers the work of Plato, and who helps the young narrator collect bird-cherry branches, as the gypsy had told her to. Poppolino, a family pet monkey, Albert a childhood friend, and Jeremiah a geologist, and an old fisherman Charlie.

There are stories of the sea, boats and flotsam and jetsam of the shore, and of course the island made famous in The Summer Book. In, The Boat and me, the girl describes the boat she was given when she was twelve, and the first solo trip she took in it.

In part three; Travelling Light, Jansson turns her attention to matters of maturity, ageing in particular. In probably the longest story in the collection; and one of my favourites, The Squirrel, an elderly woman living in isolation on an island, becomes obsessed with a squirrel who has most probably drifted over to the island on a piece of drift wood. The squirrel is not a reliable visitor – but the old woman watches out for him and discovering he has been nesting in the wood pile – divides it up between them.

“The logs must be carried, carefully, to the exact place where they were needed. The person carrying them must herself be like a log: heavy and ungainly but full of strength and potential. ‘Everything must find its place and one must try to understand what it can be used for…I carry more and more steadily now. I breathe in a new way, my sweat is salt.’”

(from The Squirrel)

Correspondence is told in letters, based on the real life correspondence of Tove Jansson with a young Japanese fan.  

These stories are pretty much little pieces of perfection, exquisitely told. I shall not wait too long before reading my other collection of Tove Jansson The Listener. I see from the contents, that the two collections have one story in common – but that doesn’t matter.

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Review copy from the publisher

In 1918, towards the end of The First World War Rose Macaulay began to write What Not. It was a world wearied by war, death and hunger. Many were already starting to wonder about the kind of world that would come out of the war. Rose Macaulay was then twenty-seven – and she had already been writing since 1906 and had published several novels. This, she would of course continue to do – though perhaps her two best known novels would not be published for more than thirty years. When the novel was ready for publication it was decided that part of it would not be suitable for publication as it could have led to legal action against the publishers. Now, that repressed section of the novel has been re-instated in this new edition from Handheld Press.

What Not is a lost feminist classic, of newspaper manipulation, First World War eugenics and that is said to have influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

“The Ministry of Brains, a vast organisation, had many sections. There was the Propaganda Section, which produced pamphlets and organised cinema shows (Miss Grammont had been lent temporarily to this section by her own branch); there was the Men’s Education Section, the Women’s, and the Children’s; the Section which dealt with brain-tests, examinations, certificates, and tribunals, and the Section which was concerned with the direction of the intellects of the Great Unborn.”

Kitty Grammont works for the Ministry of Brains, which seeks to prevent another World War by eradicating stupidity and ensuring that only people of like minds come together. With the passing of the Mental Progress Act everybody in the country has been categorised according to intelligence or their family history – and people are only supposed to marry and have children in line with the restrictions of the ministry. Brain training courses are encouraged for people of a lower rating.

In the village of Little Chantreys, at End House live Kitty Grammont (when not in London), her brother Anthony, Miss Pansy Ponsonby who he is co-habiting with (and their child; the Cheeper). Ivy Delmer daughter of the local vicar also works at the Ministry of Brains, and rather looks up to Kitty. Though of course those living at End House are rather shocking.

“Into this house, standing hospitably open-doored in the May evening, its owner and his friends entered. It affected them in various ways. Anthony Grammont was proud of his house and his garden, his Pansy and his Cheaper. He was young enough to be vain of being head of a household, even of an ambiguous household, and of course anyone would be proud of the dazzling and widely-known Pansy, whose name had always been one of two in large type in advertisements of the shows in which she figured (she was good as all that); and he was tired enough, mentally and physically, by his life of the last few years, its discomforts, its homelessness, its bondage, its painful unnaturalness, to sink with relief into Pansy’s exotic cushions and all they stood for.”

Kitty’s father has been worried by the new restrictions due to the distressingly large numbers of abandoned babies. He has naturally had to think very carefully about his sermons on Sunday, though he is very little altered in himself by the new laws. He has been forced to explain to Miss Pansy Ponsonby that her way of life is somewhat at odds with attending church.

The Minister of Brains himself is Nicholas Chester – who is passionate about what the Ministry are trying to achieve. However, Chester has been categorised as Uncertified because of his siblings’ mental disability – and so is not permitted to marry or have children. Kitty is certified A and so when she starts to feel an attraction for Nicky Chester, and he for her – they know there could be great difficulties. The popular press is determined to end the Brains regime – and any chance for a scandalous exposure will be exploited to the full.

Macaulay’s world is a little futuristic (for 1919) and although it is supposedly soon after the war – she has created a whole new transportation system (an aero bus). This little bit of whimsey surprised me a little – but it doesn’t intrude – and can be pretty much ignored. As the novel progresses, we see that this society is altered in many small but important ways, and it soon becomes apparent that many people believe it is far from perfect. It is a world where the state controls agriculture, where certain books are banned, babies are taxed, and censorship is everywhere. The Prime Minister has been replaced by a United Council and (rather disturbing to me) Jewish people repatriated to Jerusalem. There are certainly some very big, and pretty dark themes here.

I really enjoyed this rather satirical novel, it isn’t Macaulay’s best novel I don’t think, but it is one that deserves to be back in print. It is fascinating for the ideas that it suggests writers, and thinkers were toying with in those dark, weary days at the end of a brutal, world changing conflict.

Handheld Classics are rather attractive volumes with nice clear print, introductions and end notes – and my own personal favourite French Flaps – I do like a nice French flap! I also have Desire by Una L Silberrad tbr, which of course I bought a few months ago and have yet to read. It looks very good though.

What Not is published by Handheld Classics on March 25th

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Review e-book kindly sent by the publisher.

There’s nothing quite like spending the weekend with a good old murder mystery that becomes increasingly hard to put down. Dean Street Press – publisher of those lovely Furrowed Middlebrow titles – also publish a number of Golden age mysteries. One of their most recent titles to be released is The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton. The kindle edition is already available (here in the UK at least – with the paperback released at the beginning of March).

Moray Dalton I have since discovered was the pseudonym of Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir. She published twenty-nine mystery novels between 1924 and 1951 and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall was one of her fifteen Inspector Hugh Collier novels. It seems that Dean Street are currently re-issuing five of her novels. I shall probably want to read them all.

In his introduction to this edition Curtis Evans calls The Strange Case of Harriet Hall ‘one of the finest detective novels from the Golden Age of mystery.’ That is quite a claim – whether it deserves such an accolade I shall leave to others to decide – but it really is very good – with a couple of big surprises (I guessed one of them- but that didn’t spoil it).

Amy Steer is a young woman living alone and quite friendless in London, constantly doing the round of employment agencies – and coming away with nothing. Her landlady wants her out – and she has no money left. Glancing through the advertisements in a national newspaper in some desperation Amy comes across a personal ad – someone enquiring for relatives of Julius Horace Steer – who could discover something to their advantage. Amy recognises the name of her father who died when she was two. She answers the advert immediately and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall in the station first-class ladies waiting room.

“As she turned away a tall woman came quickly through the swing doors, and after a swift appraising look round, moved towards her. She was well dressed in black with a long silk coat with a collar of fox furs, and her hard handsome face was heavily made up.

‘You are Amy Steer? My dear child – come and sit down.”

Mrs Hall tells Amy she is her father’s sister – and that the advert had been in the paper everyday for a fortnight. She tells Amy she lives quietly in the country – supported by the kindness of friends.  Having fallen out with her nephew Mrs Hall wants to reconnect with her brother’s child – and asks Amy to go and live with her in Larnwood. She gives Amy £100 to buy clothes she says she will need for meeting new people.

Things seem to be looking up for Amy – and despite the suddenness of the whole thing, Amy is excited to have money and the ability to buy new clothes. A few days later with her trunk full of new clothes she is on the train for Larnwood. During her journey she strikes up a friendly conversation with a young man sharing her compartment Tony Dene – he is going to the same station as Amy and offers her a lift at the other end. Only just before the train gets in Tony learns that Amy is the niece of Harriet Hall and his whole demeanour changes. When the train pulls in young Mr Dene rushes off – leaving poor Amy to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage.

When Amy arrives, the cottage is deserted – but the door open and the kitchen stove is warm. Thinking Mrs Hall must have just slipped out – Amy settles down to wait – but her aunt never appears. The next day – it is Tony -whose family live in the Dower house a short walk away – who makes a very grim discovery in the well at the bottom of the garden.

Mrs Hall might not have been to everyone’s liking, even poor Amy had tried not to think of her as a little vulgar with her costume jewellery and bright make up – but why would anyone kill her? Just why had the apparently respectable, likeable Dene family at the Dower house been in such thrall to Mrs Hall? Mrs Dene seems nervous whenever her old friend Harriet is mentioned, Tony and younger sister Mollie clearly hated the woman they considered grasping and impossible – their elder sister the rather brittle Lavvy, the beauty and their mother’s favourite, hated her too, though is mostly concerned with her society engagement. Lavvy’s a selfish snob, desperately clinging to her brilliant engagement, terrified his awful mother will whisk him away as the scandal of a murder hits the press.

“We’ve managed to head off the Press men so far. But that won’t last. We can’t escape publicity, and the reading public enjoys murders.”

The local police get the investigation underway and seems hardly anyone has an alibi. It isn’t long, however, before Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard has been called in. Collier is a man of calm, good sense, empathetic and fair. I really liked Collier – he was such a nice, gentle man, sensible and kind. Dalton’s characters are all excellent actually, she slowly reveals the characters of the Dene family – and we soon see perhaps not everyone is telling the truth.

Some big surprises and another death – soon have everyone talking, the press is very excited – and all the circumstantial evidence seem to be pointing in one direction. However, Collier is not a man to rush into things.

I loved this excellent Golden Age mystery – a couple of unexpected revelations make this a memorable mystery – and one that will make you want to read more by this writer soon.

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Translated by Enid Mcleod and Una Troubridge

I bought this volume just last weekend at Second Shelf books while paying a quick visit to London to see friends. This American first edition from 1953 contains La Maison de Claudine and Sido – with former translated as My Mother’s House.

It isn’t often that I read a new book so soon after buying it, but this one called out to be read straight away. I had seen a few things just before this about Colette – and been reminded that I had only read one book by her, which I had loved. So, knowing I was overdue reacquainting myself with Colette – I dived in just the day after I bought it. It kept me company during some difficult days this past week, it was somehow great comfort – good writing often is, I find.

My Mother’s House and Sido – two, novellas? memoirs? I’m not sure how to refer to them – Colette seems to have styled them as novels and yet we know they are very biographical. They were written by the great French writer when she was in her forties and fifties. In them she is looking back to her youth, to her village childhood, telling stories of her mother; Sido, her father the Captain, her brothers and half-sister and the Savage – her mother’s first husband. It is gloriously nostalgic, but never sentimental. In these reminiscences Colette writes with a glorious lyricism, bringing to life the time and place of her childhood – a time that clearly remained very important to her.  

“Both house and garden are living still, I know; but what of that, if the magic has deserted them? If the secret is lost that opened to me a whole world – light, scents, birds and trees in perfect harmony, the murmur of human voices now silent for ever – a world of which I have ceased to be worthy.”

The childhood recounted here was one of country wisdom and good food, wild flowers and animals. A childhood of games with village children who enjoy more freedom than modern children. Colette writes in a series of delightfully vivid vignettes – stories of villagers, siblings, politics and her parents’ marriage, but above all of a place, the place of her childhood – where she was loved.

“A smell of crushed grass hangs over the unmown lawn, where the lush new blades lie trodden in all directions by the childish games, as if laid flat by a heavy shower of hail. Fierce little heels have dug into the paths and scattered gravel over the flower beds; a skipping rope dangles from the pump handle; dolls’ plates the size of marguerites star the grass; and a long feline wail of boredom heralds the close of day, the cats’ awakening and the approach of dinner time.”

She writes with a particularly palpable affection of Sido, her mother – in both these volumes. It becomes clear that Sido was a woman capable of great love, a woman of strength and good sense, who refused to dismiss a pregnant servant girl to the scandal of the village. She kept a large spider in the corner of her bedroom as a kind of pet – and feared, unreasonably, for Minet-Chéri’s abduction when the child was moved into the recently vacated first floor bedroom. In all her reminiscences, Colette talks of her mother with extraordinary warmth.

In the second novella/memoir; Sido, Colette also recalls her father, the Captain – his absolute adoration of Sido. In her middle age she realises that she really hadn’t known him quite so well.

“It seems strange to me, now, that I knew him so little. My attention, my fervent admiration, were all for Sido and only fitfully strayed from her. It was just the same with my father. His eyes dwelt on Sido. On thinking it over I believe that she did not know him well either. She was content with a few broad and clumsy truths; his love for her was boundless – it was in trying to enrich her that he lost her fortune – she loved him with an unwavering love, treating him lightly in everyday matters but respecting all his decisions.”

The Captain, with his amputated leg, occasional rages and money troubles. When he died there was found a shelf of journals – every page blank – in which he had intended to write, though never had.

We then, inevitably see Sido in her seventies – her daughter visits from Paris, a doctor son lives nearby. She is still bright eyed, clear headed but stubborn – resisting the curtailments of her advancing years.

Colette’s prose breaths life again into these people – her family – the people she knew and loved best. Her memories of them almost become part of her readers’ memories – for from the page these long dead people emerge – very much not forgotten.

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I have come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, my adoration perhaps sealed with The Juniper Tree last year, which made my books of the year list. Though I have loved everything I have read by her to date.

Mr Fox was only published in 1987, something like thirty years after it was written (according to the fly leaf in my battered first edition). Comyns style belies the darkness beneath her stories, she is infectiously chatty, and rather naïve, throwing off odd quirky asides with airy frankness. Mr Fox is not quite as dark as Sisters by a River or The Vet’s Daughter, though one can never expect a happy ever after. In this novel – like in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Comyns portrays an unhappy relationship, motherhood, poverty and uncertainty. I’m a little surprised that this novel hasn’t been re-issued more recently along with some of the other Comyns novels, because for me, this is every bit as good as some of her earlier books.

Set just before and during World War Two and depicting an ambiguous relationship between Caroline and Mr Fox – this novel was a perfect fit for the Librarything Virago group’s ‘reading the 1940s’ event, and February’s theme of relationships.

As the novel opens it isn’t long before the start of the war, Caroline Seymour and her little daughter Jenny have recently moved into a flat with Mr Fox. Caroline is aware that the other residents don’t like her because she isn’t married to Mr Fox. We learn that Caroline and Jenny were abandoned by Oliver, Jenny’s father. Caroline’s attempt to earn money letting rooms out in the house her mother left her the lease to; wasn’t successful – all her tenants gave notice. Mr Fox had owned a garage nearby and became a friend and frequent source of worldly advice. Mr Fox is what was once known as a ‘spiv’ – when Caroline first knew him, he would often choose to spend a short spell in prison rather than pay his rates. Caroline isn’t a bad mother – but she does recklessly leave her little three-year-old alone at night – Caroline sits on the bus idly worrying a fire may break out and wondering if she should go back. Caroline is unworldly and sometimes childlike, like other Comyns heroines she is something of an innocent.  

When Mr Fox suggests to Caroline that she and Jenny move in with him – she is a little taken aback by his certainty that she will say yes. However, it all starts to make sense – with the bailiffs terrifying the life out of her, Caroline sees no other option at least in the short term. So, Caroline moves in with a man of often explosive temper – and her neighbours will have nothing to do with her. There is an ambiguity to their relationship – while Caroline feels she has to be up early to make Mr Fox’s breakfast, she appears to sleep only with her daughter.

“Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.”

As War comes to Europe – Mr Fox is soon heavily involved in the black market. The kitchen cupboards are suspiciously full – and no one in this peculiar little household goes hungry. Mr Fox gets angry more and more often, and Caroline is drawn in to buying and selling pianos through newspaper advertisements, she does quite well. Only, Caroline isn’t very happy with Mr Fox anymore – and so decides to advertise for a job as a live-in cook/housekeeper so she and Jenny can move out.

Mr Fox is a brilliant evocation of World War Two – with air raids, rationing, evacuation and the black market. Comyns view of this new world is so familiar and yet there is always something in her descriptions that takes her reader by surprise.

“You could see them, all the children being herded through the streets with their little bundles and gas-masks bumping on their backs. It made me feel sad. The newspapers were full of war, and an awful lion was always appearing on the Daily Mirror.”

She is employed by one woman she never meets, but whose neighbour; a mother of thirteen, is terribly self-serving – inducing Caroline to hand over various items she swears were promised to her. When that job ends abruptly, she is employed by a terrifying vegetarian – with a spoiled little brat of a daughter who hides her toys from Jenny. Here she is not allowed to drink tea and must endure a healthy herbal drink in the freezing little bedroom she shares with Jenny.

“We had watercress and grated carrot and bread and peanut butter for ‘tea’ and the table had an American cloth instead of a tablecloth. I expect it was more hygienic. It was so cold I felt like crying.”

Mr Fox is still not far away, though I kept hoping something lovely would happen to Caroline, but I suppose that was unrealistic. Dog lovers beware, a rather dear little dog does not survive to the end of the book. I won’t say any more about how things end for Caroline Jenny and Mr Fox, as some of you may not have read this one yourselves yet. This was a real unexpected treat, I perhaps hadn’t expected it to be as good as the others I had read – and I was captivated from the first sentence.

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Sometimes a book review pops into my reader that makes me go off and buy the book almost immediately. One such review was by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal last year – and the book she wrote about; Craven House by Patrick Hamilton. You can read Jacqui’s review here.

Craven House is set in a boarding house – and it was that alone that attracted me – I love boarding houses, hotels, hostels or B&Bs in literature.

Craven House was Patrick Hamilton’s second novel – written when he was just twenty-two (his first novel, published a year earlier). It’s not a perfect novel, we couldn’t expect it to be. However, in Hamilton’s characters and evocative sense of place there is still a lot to like. Sometimes, novels with little plot can be slow burns, I didn’t find that here, Hamilton’s style is playful, a little cynical and rather nostalgic, which is odd perhaps for a twenty-two-year-old. There are some wonderful set pieces, and several delightful laugh out loud moments. I enjoyed it all enormously.

The novel opens in about 1911 – Miss Hatt’s Craven House stands in Keymer Gardens, West London. In the opening pages Hamilton evokes the period beautifully, gas lamp lighters, the call of newspaper boys, the distant sound of trains and factory hooters. Evening is falling, and the little rooms in the houses of Keymer Gardens are lighting up.

There is very little in the way of plot – but what Hamilton does well is to introduce a fairly disparate group of characters revealing them gradually – through their interactions and dialogue.

“The undressing of Mr and Mrs Spicer bears all the naturally furtive embarrassment of two strangers compelled as part of a compact resulting from a limited amount of words breathed over them seven years ago, to undress in the same room and in front of each other’s eyes for life – an embarrassment rendered less poignant by time and its own inevitability.”

This is a world of shared dinners, polite conversation in the drawing room, private whispered arguments behind bedroom doors and little wrangles over bath water. It is a world inhabited by those reduced to living in a boarding house – desperately trying to keep up the standards to which they have been born. So, everyone dresses for dinner, – everyone knows their place – and standards are smilingly maintained. Miss Hatt is capable and pleasant, priding herself in providing a nice home for her residents.

As the novel opens Miss Hatt is preparing for the arrival of the Major and his young son, who will be taking up residence in two of her empty rooms. Major Wildman is around sixty – his son, generally referred to as Master Wildman, is eight.

Already installed in the house are Mr and Mrs Spicer; who have been friends of Miss Hatt’s since school days, and Mrs Nixon; twice widowed and her young daughter Elsie. Below stairs there are two domestic servants Audrey and Edith, a couple of colourful characters, drawn with warm and wry affection.

Elsie and the Major’s son hit it off rather well – and slowly there develops a rather


touching relationship between these two boarding house children. The Major is a hot water hogger, which causes some irritation. Mrs Nixon, we soon learn is a bit of tartar, she is very strict with poor Elsie – and more than once Master Wildman jumps in to cheer up his little friend. As the years pass, we see Elsie is horribly bullied by her mother, and Master Wildman does not like it. There’s the disappointment over a promised treat, years later a ruined evening dress. Mrs Nixon is a jealous, tyrant where her daughter is concerned.

The years pass, Master Wildman is a school boy when the Great War glances lightly off the lives of the residents of Craven House. Only Mr Spicer is drawn into the war – and his service is limited to some training, some work on the home front and a very short spell in France. After the war, a Mrs Hoare comes to Craven House – a woman with the habit of speaking of people or things by their initial sounds – a habit that causes much amusement, and gentle teasing by the younger residents of the house. Later still a Russian lady arrives to stay, and the attempts at conversation with her over the dinner table are hilarious. Hamilton’s dialogue is really good – and he has sharp eye for the absurd.

“ In after life it would be the mornings that he would remember best – the rainy mornings, when you stood at the front door and listened to the hissing and trickling noises, while Miss Hatt fetched Mr Spicer’s old umbrella and told you to wait a bit because it might clear, and then told you to dash – and the dashing itself – and the subsequent dank smell of your own clothes in the beetly, darkened school boot-room. The bitterly cold mornings, silver bright, with the rough feel of the Major’s old Army scarf, and the pavement nearly to be slidden upon, and the absolute perishment of Miss Staines. The undecided mornings, which were dejecting, muddy, and yesterday’s wet-mackintosh mornings…”

Over the course of fifteen years, we witness the highs and lows of the residents of Craven House. Beneath the surface of this polite residence there are unspoken strains. It would seem that Mr Spicer is not quite the respectable husband he appears, taking long walks across London, visiting public houses and trying to pick up young women. Miss Hatt, meanwhile, may not be coping quite as well as everyone thinks, with running her house, and keeping everyone happy.

Engaging characters and a superb sense of time and place captivated me instantly. I felt one or two characters could have done with a little more development and the novel is overall a little loose in places – but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I am still amazed it was written by someone so young. Toward the end there’s a dramatic shift in relations between Miss Hatt and her residents – and the days of Craven House appear to be coming to an end. In his choice of ending (which I still loved) I detected the hand of an inexperienced writer, unsure perhaps of how to end his novel.

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