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My first read for this year’s #DDMreadingweek was The King’s General – an historical novel set in seventeenth century Cornwall at the time of the English Civil War. Proving yet again her versatility du Maurier combines, history, romance, tension, with a poignancy for ageing and the dispossessed. All the main players in this novel are people who once lived – I assume relatively little is known about most of them though – enabling du Maurier to weave her story around them, a story not lacking in credibility. Much of the novel takes place in the house of Menabilly, a house Daphne du Maurier had been fascinated by for many years. She spent a lot of time researching the house and its original owners – who themselves appear in the novel – and a story of the discovery that was made during renovation work in the 1820s fuelled her imagination.

As in several other du Maurier novels her depiction of Cornwall, its landscape, its houses and its people is vivid and strangely timeless. The essence of that landscape, the shape of the land and its coast will have changed little in the long years since.

The novel opens with Honor Harris in 1653, she is thirty eight – looking back at the past recalling her youth and later the war that came to Cornwall. There is a feeling of melancholy in this opening as Honor talks about the last of summer and the approaching chill of autumn.

“It is a strange, joyous feeling, this streak back to the past. Nothing is regretted, and I am happy and proud. The mist and cloud have gone, and the sun, high now and full of warmth, holds revel with my ebb-tide. How blue and hard is the sea as it curls westward from the bay, and the Blackhead, darkly purple, leans to the deep water like a sloping shoulder. Once again – and this I know is fancy – it seems to me that the tide ebbs away in the middle of the day, when hope is highest and my mood is still. Then, half-consciously I become aware of a shadow, of a sudden droop of the spirit. The first clouds of evening are gathering beyond the Dodman. They cast long fingers on the sea. And the surge of the sea, once far-off and faint, comes louder now, creeping towards the sands. The tide has turned.”

Honor Harris grew up the youngest daughter of the Harris family at Lanrest, when she was ten her older brother Kit married the beautiful Gartred Grenvile. The Grenviles being one of the principle families in Cornwall. The marriage is a short one, Kit leaving Gartred a young widow a few years later. Honor has no love for her sister-in-law from the first, but as the years pass the two women will find themselves thrown together more than once in difficult circumstances.

On her eighteenth birthday, Honor Harris meets Gartred’s brother Sir Richard Grenvile – a man of whom she has already heard stories.  He is a captivating, reckless presence – and Honor, beautiful and possessed of a sharp wit intrigues him immediately. The Harris family do not approve, but Honor and Richard ensure that their intended marriage is accepted by everyone. However, just days before the wedding a terrible accident puts a stop to everything and Honor reconciles herself to a single life and puts all thoughts of Richard firmly behind her.

Fifteen years later, the Civil War has brought great danger and uncertainty to Cornwall. Honor, still carrying the disability she acquired fifteen years earlier, is advised by her brother Robin to leave Lanrest and take shelter with her sister Mary (married to Jonathan Rashford) at Menabilly. Honor and her faithful servant Matty travel to Menabilly where they find a house fairly packed with various relatives all seeking refuge from the war. Honor is given a pleasant chamber in the belfry – where she is soon to make an astonishing and important discovery – and from where she can watch the comings and goings of the household in the courtyard below.

“Time heals all wounds, say the complacent, but I think it is not so much time that does it as determination of the spirit. And the spirit can often turn to devil in the darkness.”

It is here at Menabilly that Honor meets Richard again, now he is a much talked about general serving King Charles I. Despite all that happened, Richard and Honor are drawn back to one another – it quickly becomes clear that Richard favours Honor above almost everyone else. In the intervening years he married unhappily, which ended in divorce and has a son and daughter, his son Dick – still a young lad bitterly resentful of his father.

Over the next several years as War tears Cornwall and Cornish families apart – Honor finds herself having to find the most extraordinary reserves of courage as more than once she fights to save the lives of her beloved Richard and others as they try to defend their country and all they believe in. She must watch as Parliamentarian soldiers tear Menabilly apart – knowing her own home of Lanrest has suffered the same fate. War brings danger, violence, instability and loss and in this novel du Maurier again pitches the tension just perfectly.

“There was only the sound of the ripping wood, the breaking of the furniture, the hacking to pieces of the great dining table and the grunts of the men as they lifted their axes. The first thing that was thrown down to us across the hall, torn and split was the portrait of the King, and even the muddied heel that had been ground upon his features, and the great crack across the mouth, had not distorted those melancholy eyes that stared up at us without complaint from the wrecked canvas.”

There’s nothing quite like a suspenseful historical novel for escapism, and this one had all the ingredients necessary for a proper escapist read. du Maurier’s writing though goes far beyond the mere escapist, her description of place and the sense of time passing and ageing is really beautifully done.

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My book group chose to read Etaf Rum’s debut novel A Woman is no Man in May – we meet by zoom to discuss it next Monday.

Etaf Rum is an American-Palestinian writer, and it is easy to see some of her own experiences in her first novel. Rum was born and brought up in the United States but her parents had lived their lives in refugee camps in Palestine. She entered into an arranged marriage at a young age, having two children before enrolling in university. University seems to have opened the world up a little more to Etaf Rum, was doubtless under the sorts of pressures her characters are to stay close to home. In fact, the fate of some of Rum’s characters is considerably darker than her own, reflecting perhaps stories of women in her community. An interview I found online reveals that Rum struggled with the idea that she was betraying her community in her portrayal of certain characters. Yet she felt it was a story she had to tell, she had to speak up for abused women, for herself and for her own young daughter. These stories are necessarily quite grim, women given little agency in their own lives, domestic violence swept under the carpet, hardly venturing outside the house.

“I was born without a voice, one cold, overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later, when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me. Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender, as normal as the bosoms on a woman’s chest, as necessary as the next generation growing inside her belly. But we will never tell you this, of course. Where I come from, we’ve learned to conceal our condition. We’ve been taught to silence ourselves, that our silence will save us. It is only now, many years later, that I know this to be false. Only now, as I write this story, do I feel my voice coming.”

It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, exploring the lives of traditionally conservative Arab women living in America. In alternating chapters, A Woman in No Man tells the stories of Isra in the 1990s and her daughter Deya in 2008. Both women born into a strictly traditional Palestinian family – where women’s lives are desperately narrow, revolving around the family, early marriage children and bowing to the vagaries of their men. Both Isra and Deya grow up being told that there are certain things that they simply cannot do because they are not men – any burgeoning ambition is quashed – they must marry, have children, stay at home. Although they live in America, it is drummed into them constantly, they are not American, they can’t expect to live as Americans do.

Isra is seventeen in 1990 when we first meet her – she is living with her family in Palestine – and already her marriage is being talked about. Isra has little choice in the matter – everything is arranged above her head. Guests come to the house – Isra is asked to serve the guests in the traditional manner – one of the guests will be her future husband, recently arrived back from America to look for a wife. She has never met him before. Adam’s family live in Brooklyn, where the family run a Deli – Adam is the eldest son, and much is expected of him.

Married to a stranger, Isra travels to America to start her new life with Adam and his family. Their rooms are in the basement of the family home, where Isra has just one small window from which to gaze out at the sky. Any ides she had of having more freedom in America are quickly dispelled.

“Ha!” Fareeda said. “You think women have it easier in America because of what you see on television?” Her almond eyes narrowed to slits. “Let me tell you something. A man is the only way up in this world, even though he’ll climb a woman’s back to get there. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Isra also learns that even in America a husband may use violence against his wife and no one thinks it is unusual. Negotiating a sometimes difficult relationship with her mother-in-law Isra sets about getting used to being married – four babies come in fairly quick succession, and they are all girls – no one tries to hide their disappointment. Isra is made to feel a failure.

In 2008 Deya is the eldest of four sisters being brought up in her grandparents’ home in Brooklyn. She is eighteen and coming to the end of her time at the Islamic school she attends. Deya would love to go to university, to travel to have some independence, but she has been told over and over that this is not the kind of life she can have. Already her grandmother is talking about her marriage. She has always been told that her parents died in a car crash when she was seven, her memories of Isra are fleeting, she remembers Isra’s sadness though and how she would read to her daughters from the books her young sister-in-law brought into the house. Her grandmother Fareeda arranges visits from a prospective bride-groom – the two young people allowed to sit together to talk and get to know one another. Nasser is a really nice young man, studying to be a doctor – he surprises Deya in a number of ways. However, she really doesn’t want to get married just yet.

So, everything Deya thought she knew is shattered when a note is left for her by a mysterious woman, who Deya thinks looks familiar. Deya begin to question everything she thought she knew – gradually she begins to understand a lot more about the dark secrets at the heart of her family and her wider community. We glimpse something of Fareeda’s past, her life in the refugee camp, her marriage and begin to see something of the pattern that is repeated generation after generation.

“Fareeda knew that no matter what any woman said, culture could not be escaped. Even if it meant tragedy. Even if it meant death. At least she was able to recognize her role in their culture, own up to it, instead of sitting around saying “If only I had done things differently.” It took more than one woman to do things differently. It took a world of them.”

A Woman is No Man is an excellent debut – a really compelling read – that often made me angry. It is important I think that stories like this are told – even if they don’t always make for comfortable reading. This will make for a fascinating discussion with my book group next week.

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I have been a Barbara Pym fan for some years now so when I first began seeing mention of this new biography on social media, I knew I would have to read it as soon as it was available.

Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s journal has already reviewed this book in two excellent posts – I fear I don’t have the energy to write two posts about a book, though this book is fully deserving of such attention. There is so much to talk about with this wonderful book – but I am going to assume that lots of you will be reading this soon – if you’re not already and so I will try not to get too carried away.

I don’t always engage so well with non-fiction, but this book has a wonderfully readable narrative. Immediately engaging; each chapter a little vignette from Pym’s life with chapter titles such as Miss Pym’s Summer of Love, Miss Pym tours Germany and An Untoward Incident on the River urging us to read on.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym takes its title from Pym’s own diaries which she prefaced – The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym. It seems clear from Pym’s own treatment of her diaries and letters – what she destroyed and those she didn’t – that she always had one eye on posterity. Of course, this isn’t the first biography to have been written about Barbara Pym, in 1990 Hazel Holt published A Lot to Ask, and six years earlier A Very Private Eye an autobiography in letters and diaries edited by Barbara Pym her sister Hilary and Hazel Holt had been published. In my review of that book, I spoke about the revealing nature of letters and diaries that had been first written without thought of publication in mind – having now read Paula Byrne’s fascinating and illuminating biography, I have to say I think Barbara Pym always had an eye on publication. I first read A Lot to Ask in 2010 so it is perhaps unsurprising that I couldn’t remember a lot of detail, I then read A very Private Eye in 2013. I think I had retained enough memory of those books to be unsurprised by some of the things Byrne’s book reveals. However, I think it is clear that Hazel Holt sought to protect her (by that time deceased) friend from certain revelations – and so looking back on that biography now, I think we have to see it as being an incomplete picture. This book I believe gives us a true picture of Barbara Pym, it is both honest and deeply affectionate – and I liked Barbara Pym the woman much better for it.

Paula Byrne takes us back to Pym’s upbringing in Oswestry, Shropshire where she was born in 1913 to Frederic and Irena, her father a solicitor her mother the very model of the excellent women with which we associate Pym.

In 1931 Barbara Pym went to St Hilda’s college Oxford to read English – it was a life changing experience for her, she fell in love with Oxford and found it a very inspiring and stimulating environment.

“Pym went up in the autumn of 1931. In her mind, Oxford would always be associated with that season; the smell of woodsmoke and the picking of wild berries. It was also a place to be forever associated with romance, teeming as it was with young men, dressed not exactly in fancy dress, but in scholars’ sweeping black gowns.”

It was here that Barbara began to form some very important relationships, she was never short of male attention, and as we come to see she fell in love easily, and very hard – liked sex and was unapologetic about it. Her first sexual experience however seems to have been traumatic in some way, and this was definitely one of the things Pym edited from her life, removing the relevant passages from her diary. However, more love affairs followed, Henry Harvey in particular was a big part of her life at Oxford and after. Sadly, Henry was to let Barbara down – and so began a pattern that would last the rest of her life. Falling in love with men who were either unsuitable or unavailable.

One particular section of the book which might surprise some Pym fans are the chapters which focus on Pym’s fascination with Germany. I found it an especially engrossing part of the book. In 1934 Barbara Pym went to Germany with the student’s union – having already started learning to speak German. Like many Britons of this period – Barbara was beguiled by everything the Nazi propaganda machine was pumping out. Her interest was non-political. She was attracted by the German culture, art, music, and landscape. We must remember that England in the 1930s was in a bit of a mess – the Nazi party was quite deliberately presenting Germany to the rest of the world as some sort of promised land – and Barbara fell for it. Later, she clearly had begun to have doubts and she may well have ignored things she really shouldn’t have – but by then she was head over heels in love with Friedbert Glück a handsome SS officer who was quite close to Hitler.

“Pym was thrilled when she caught sight of ‘real Nazis.’ One of them was called Friedbert Glück and he was wearing the black uniform of the SS. The other men wore the brown shirts with the swastika armband of the Stormtroopers (SA).”

We can’t judge the actions of a young woman in the 1930s with 21st century sensibilities, we weren’t there – we don’t really know how we may have acted had we been born then. It is clear that later Barbara Pym bitterly regretted her naivete and saw her later war work with the ARP and the Wrens as some small reparation for her error.

All this was happening around the time that she first started writing Some Tame Gazelle – which interestingly originally had quite a lot of German content in it. Later Pym removed every German and Nazi reference in the novel on the advice of her good friend Jock Liddell. Had Chatto and Windus accepted the novel when it was first sent to them in the mid-1930s, it would be a quite different book to the one we know now.  

Of course, Some Tame Gazelle was finally published in 1950, and paved the way for five more novels – all of which were popular and provided Barbara Pym with a legion of loyal fans. Byrne discusses Pym’s writing and each of the novels brilliantly, with the affection that comes from a dedicated fan. We then sense the sadness and the frustration of those often discussed wilderness years – and her drive to keep writing even when all seemed hopeless. Throughout her life, Barbara had a wonderful relationship with her sister Hilary, who she set up home with when Hilary was widowed. Men came and went; work was at the International African Institute in London. Everything she experienced in her life was rich material for her writing, which remained hugely important throughout her life. Then comes the glorious intervention of Phillip Larkin, and a late renaissance and the publication of her remaining books.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is a wonderful biography, revealing and honest and really compelling. I have already written far too much – I apologise for such a long post – but I really could have written a lot more.

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I think I chose to buy and later to read Much Dithering primarily for the title. I had certainly never heard of Dorothy Lambert who – I see from the introduction to this edition by Elizabeth Crawford – was a pretty prolific writer. In fact, several of the characters from this novel had already appeared four years before this novel was published in a play written and produced by Dorothy Lambert, performed by Shepherdswell Village players.

The Much Dithering of the title is a village – a village that some people think is terribly sunk in the past – sleepy, old fashioned and in need of some modernisation. The pace of change is set by the lady of the manor – she has put her foot down over the question of a petrol pump outside the village pub to begin with.

“The most striking thing about Much Dithering was its peacefulness. The few people who saw it from charabancs on morning or evening circular drives said: “Isn’t it quiet?” And some said they thought it was a lovely place to be buried in, but while they were alive they preferred a place with more life, if you know what they meant.”

Jocelyn Renshawe is the heroine of this lovely little comedy of manners. Jocelyn is the very young widow of the local squire. Downtrodden by years of doing the bidding of her aunt and mother-in-law (the aforementioned lady of the manor). Jocelyn sees herself as ‘a specimen of human cabbage’ utterly unaware it seems that she is a very attractive young woman – and thus the reader is assured of her goodness (rolls eyes – but never mind).

Having lived with her spinster aunt in the village as she grew up – married off to Lancelot, the sickly, weak son of the local squire in her teens – poor Jocelyn knows practically nothing of the outside world. Her husband had died of a chill a few months before his own father died, and so the property that might have been hers has instead gone to a nephew of whom no one knows anything and is somewhere abroad. Jocelyn lives quite comfortably meanwhile in the Dower house – though less comfortably as the novel opens as her mother Ermyntrude has decided to pay a rare impromptu visit.

Ermyntrude is a woman to set anyone’s teeth on edge and really couldn’t be more different to her daughter. Now Jocelyn can be found doing good works and generally keeping her aunt and mother-in-law happy. Ermyntrude is quite disgusted at the life her daughter has lived – though it clearly suited her to off load her offspring on to her aunt. Ermyntrude in fact despises her daughter, she has her own reasons for coming to Much Dithering and they aren’t in any way maternal. Widowed for the second time, Ermyntrude lives in London hotels and spends her life visiting friends. She prides herself on still being young, and in looking much younger – and is currently in hot pursuit of who she hopes will be her third (much younger) husband. Adrian Murchison-Bellaby is the son of a family who having made their fortune in potted meat have recently bought a new country home – in Much Dithering – and Adrian is planning on spending several weeks there while on leave from his regiment. Concerned that Jocelyn might age her a little – she insists on her daughter not calling her mother – a deceit that doesn’t fool anyone. Adrian has already begun to tire of his dalliance with Ermyntrude – especially on meeting the pretty young widow at the Dower house. Adrian’s sister Jasmine has caught the eye of the young lothario at the pub, much to her family’s horror. The family are keen to make a name for themselves in local society – but as ‘new money’ are completley beneath the notice of Jocelyn’s mother-in-law.

“The dinner party at the Murchison-Bellaby’s was a rather difficult affair. The mixture of Jasmine’s London friends and what she contemptuously termed ‘the village people’ was not altogether a success. The vicar was still unable to take part in social events owing to his lumbago, but Mrs Pomfret came determined to make the most of her opportunity to enlist the sympathy and interest of the new and wealthy parishioners in her numerous activities. Ermyntrude came resolved on creating the right impression on Adrian’s people. She had never met any of them but was convinced she had only to be seen to conquer any prejudice that might have to be overcome. Jocelyn came rather diffidently, for she dreaded new acquaintances, especially rich and (she was sure) clever, smart people with whom she would feel shy and out of things. A few days spent in her mother’s company invariably upset her usual serenity and made her feel stupid and ‘Impossible.’

Jocelyn’s aunt and mother-in-law have decided that Jocelyn should re-marry and they have set their sights on the elderly Colonel Tidmarsh – a very dull retired army man. Not long before Christmas a stranger arrives in the village, Gervase Blyth – who rescues Jocelyn from a rainstorm as she out delivering leaflets – later manging to set almost everyone else against himself and falling under suspicion as a jewel thief. However, he also helps to open Jocelyn’s eyes as to the narrowness of her life.

Much Dithering is a real cheer up of a book, Jocelyn is a lovely heroine and the reader is fairly assured of a happy ending. Sometimes I think I would like a less conventionally happy ending with these books but it’s still a satisfying, quick little read. Perfect for tired weekends or when under the weather.

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Translated by the author in collaboration with John Cullen

In the Company of Men was definitely a book that I wouldn’t have read without my Asymptote book club subscription. I received it in February and reading it after the year and a bit we have all been living through, was sobering.

It is a narrative about the ravages of the West African Ebola outbreak. Weaving the human stories with those of the natural world, showing movingly the absolute inter-connectedness of everything. It is very much a novel for our times, it doesn’t always make for easy reading despite the delicacy of the prose which prevents the novel from being as harrowing as I had feared it could be. Nonetheless, I was grateful the book ran to less than 150 pages.

I fear that in reviewing a novel about Ebola, I might be losing my audience a bit. However, Véronique Tadjo has produced a narrative that is in fact very readable – a sensitive and compassionate reminder of the cycle of life and the important role the natural world has to play in it.

“We were here to last. We were here to spread our shade over the remotest lands. We were here so our foliage would murmur the secrets of the four corners of the world. But human beings have destroyed our hopes. No matter where in the world they are, they wage war on the forest. Our trunks crash to the ground with a sound like thunder. Our naked roots mourn the end of our dreams. You cannot destroy the forest without spilling blood. Humans today think they can do whatever they like. They fancy themselves as masters, as architects of nature.”

The author: a poet and author from the Côte d’Ivoire uses fictionalised testimonials, legend and poetry to create a portrait of an unimaginable disaster – giving voice to the people left traumatised in its wake. Although termed a novel In the Company of Men is a series of snapshots – showing the extent of the epidemic through the eyes of the people affected.

Two boys leave their village to hunt in the nearby forest, they shoot down bats which they later cook over an open fire. Soon they are dead, their bodies ravaged by a dreadful disease that the local medical man is unable to help with. The family of the boys are told by experts not to touch their bodies – compounding their grief – but ultimately all warnings come too late and the virus spreads rapidly. The father quickly sends his eldest daughter away to the city, hoping her escape may give her chance of survival.

We meet a doctor working tirelessly to treat patients in a sweltering tent with just a plastic suit to protect him.

“I’m a trespasser in the Kingdom of Death. This is his private domain, his empire, where he rules with absolute power. I feel like an astronaut floating in space, a thousand miles from earth. The slightest tear in his spacesuit and he’s lost. The slightest tear in mine, just like him, I’m lost too.”

A student volunteers as a gravedigger while the university is closed, completley overwhelmed by the number of bodies. A grandmother agrees to take in an orphaned boy who was cast out of his village in fear. We hear from a foreign NGO volunteer who became infected with the virus, and a prefect in charge of one of the outreach teams – taking information to the people all over the country.

Watching over everyone and everything is the Baobab tree – a wise and ancient presence in mourning for the natural world, and yet also providing hope for the future. I particularly loved the way the author brought the natural world into the centre of the story it is a very powerful reminder of how connected to nature we human beings are – and how terrible are the consequences when the normal cycle of things is interrupted.

“As a bat, somewhere midway between a mammal and a bird, with my foxy-looking fangs and snout and my translucent wings, I harbor but one regret: having let Ebola escape from my belly. It was dormant in me until Man came and wreaked the splendour of the forest.”

The West African Ebola outbreak was one of the worst epidemics of our age – what Véronique Tadjo has done in this novel is to humanize it. For those of us unaffected by it, who live on the other side of the planet – Ebola is something that we glance away from on news reports, it doesn’t actually touch us. However, in this novel we hear some of those voices, we recognise the fear and the anguish and feel that helplessness. Those feelings heightened no doubt as we continue to live through a global pandemic, as terrible as Covid is – it isn’t Ebola.

In the Company of Men is a parable – a gut wrenching narrative of the human cost of this most terrible epidemic. Not always an easy read, it is worth the effort.

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As our April read my book group chose to read the first volume in Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography. It is an absolute classic, and several of us had read it before. I think I read it over thirty years ago, and I am fairly sure that I also read one of the other volumes of the autobiography, though I really had no memory of the books, and can’t be certain which of the other volumes (if any) I read.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a simply wonderful memoir of a 1930/40s childhood. Charting her life from when she was three years old; sent with her brother Bailey to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas to when she is seventeen and pregnant – it is a memoir full of truth, joy, and hope. Of course, part of that truth that had to be told is that of a childhood rape by her mother’s lover, yet even here Angelou’s telling never overwhelms us – she honestly acknowledges the terrible trauma she suffered but shows her own amazing resilience too.

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.”

Her parents having separated, when Maya is three and her beloved brother four they are sent to live with their father’s mother in Stamps Arkansas. Here they are brought up for several years by Mrs Annie Henderson, who they call Momma, and her disabled son Uncle Willie. Momma runs the only black store in the community – it is the heart of the community where everything could be bought – or at least ordered in. She got used to seeing the cotton pickers arriving in the very early morning, full of optimism and chatter, buying their food for the day in the fields. Then later their return, ground down by the back breaking work and the constant disappointment of their day’s pay which was never enough.

The white folks at the other end of the town are a mystery, though as she grows up Maya starts to learn something of their power. Sometimes frightening stories are brought back to the store – and Maya doesn’t understand why the local ‘powhite-trash’ kids speak to her grandmother with such disrespect, openly mocking her. To Maya her grandmother’s word is law – she is a towering presence and a superhero – surely everyone else can see that too? Over the years Maya begins to experience some of the terrible racism of the times, there are whispers of klan activity in the area, a white dentist refuses to treat Maya despite her terrible pain.

Maya Angelou’s story is told mainly in a series of vignettes – stories of the store, of Uncle Willie – of school days and her love of her brother Bailey. A visit from their father is a big event – the seven year old Maya feeling so proud of the big handsome man who is her daddy.

It is their father who takes the children back to their mother who is now in St Louis – living with a man named Mr Freeman. The time in St Louis is cut short following Maya’s abuse at the hands of Mr Freeman – and the children are sent back to Stamps.

“I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.”

Following this incident Maya remains mute for some time, traumatised and guilty by what had happened to her. However, drawing on her own inner reserves of strength and the love and support of her family Maya recovers from this most terrible of childhood traumas.

Maya is a very intelligent young girl, later she discovers a great love of literature, of Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, among others. Again, and again, Maya shows great resilience and determination to achieve and to get on, although she turns away from formal education in her teens. After a few years back in Stamps, again she and Bailey travel to be with their mother – this time in California. Her father is also in California and so Maya has more to do with him, experiencing the vitriol of his horrible girlfriend and a rather odd trip to Mexico. Ultimately, though he lets her down. At sixteen Maya is determined to get a job as a conductress on the trolley buses – despite her mother telling her that no black girl had ever been given a job like that – Maya persists and she gets the job.

“There is nothing a person can’t do, and there should be nothing a human being didn’t care about. It was the most positive encouragement I could have hoped for.”

When we leave Maya at the end of this volume she is just seventeen and has just given birth to her son. Her life has already been full, and yet clearly she has a lot more living to do – and an awful lot more to give to the world.

Having now re-read this first glorious volume, I am determined this time to read the rest of it. I think everyone in my book group agreed that Maya Angelou was a quite extraordinary woman.

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I have reviewed books by Virginia Woolf before on this blog, but it’s never an easy task – how to talk about a writer like Virginia Woolf? Is it the mark of a genius that we mere mortals struggle to find the right words – perhaps.

“Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.”

The Years was Virginia Woolf’s penultimate novel – the final one though to be published in her lifetime. It was also the one which was the most popular and sold most widely during her lifetime – and along with Night and Day one of her more conventional novels. It was also the last of her novels I had to read. I still have many of her essays and some short stories to read. Conventional is probably what I am most comfortable with, and despite my great love for To the Lighthouse and Mrs DallowayNight and Day is probably my favourite of her novels. So, despite the fact that I have had The Years on my tbr bookcase for about five years – I knew I would love it, and I did.

The Years is the story of the Pargiter family, from 1880 to the ‘present day’ (early 1930s) it represents the span of Woolf’s own life to this point (she was born in 1882). Each chapter – some longer than others – depicts one day in a particular year within that fifty year period. Each of these chapters begins with a slightly broader view acting as a transition from one year to another – taking in the weather across Britain and delivering a birds eye view of the countryside or London. Woolf does this sort of thing so well – creating that wonderful sense of connectedness and time passing that we have seen her use before.

“The fine rain, the gentle rain, poured equally over the mitred and the bareheaded with an impartiality which suggested that the god of rain, if there were a god, was thinking Let it not be restricted to the very wise, the very great, but let all breathing kind, the munchers and chewers, the ignorant, the unhappy, those who toil in the furnace making innumerable copies of the same pot, those who bore red hot minds through contorted letters, and also Mrs Jones in the alley, share my bounty.”

Despite this span of fifty years – the novel itself is not epic in scope, there’s no feeling of a large family saga, because Woolf’s concerns are smaller and more everyday than that. In this novel Woolf is focussing on the small details of the everyday life of a family.

In many ways there is very little plot – but that certainly doesn’t make this novel inaccessible or hard to read, there’s no build up to a big climax – but you probably wouldn’t expect that from Virginia Woolf – would you? Characters are glimpsed in part – we don’t see everyone wholly or in any exacting detail – it’s as if we meet them fleetingly and having had a brief conversation, they leave us with an impression of who they are as they move on. Later we hear something more about them and we think – ah so that’s what happened to them.

Opening in 1880 – we meet the large Pargiter family. Colonel Abel Pargiter visits his mistress Mira – before retuning home to his family. At home Col Pargiter’s wife is dying – his eldest daughter Eleanor is in her early twenties, she is clearly the most adult person in the family – something of a do-gooder, involved with charitable works and such like. Her brother Morris is already a barrister, while Edward is at Oxford – (we meet him there later) Delia and Milly are in their teens while Rose and Martin still very much in the school room at just ten and twelve years old. Delia is struggling to cope with the fact her mother is dying – and rather wishes she would just get on with it – each crisis which comes along and is then got through almost a disappointment.

The scene shifts to a rainy night in Oxford, Edward Pargiter is thinking a great deal about his cousin Kitty Malone and reads Antigone. Kitty meanwhile is enduring another of her mother’s dinner parties, she is the daughter of an Oxford head of house. She has been taking lessons from a poor female scholar, though she doesn’t seem to have completed the tasks previously set for her. Kitty’s mother predicts that Kitty will marry Lord Lasswade. Kitty, though clearly not as enamoured of Edward as he is of her, seems to be weighing up several possibilities. Kitty is sat with her mother when the news is brought to them that Mrs Pargiter has finally died.

The novel then moves forward to 1891 – life has moved on, more so for some than others. Eleanor is running her father’s house and heavily involved in charity work providing homes for the poor. Other characters have married or gone abroad. In this section we meet Col Pargiter’s younger brother and his family. Time moves on with each chapter, characters age, marry or have children, some may not marry.

“The wind ceased; the country spread wide all round her. Her body seemed to shrink; her eyes to widen. She threw herself on the ground, and looked over the billowing land that went rising and falling, away and away, until somewhere far off it reached the sea. Uncultivated, uninhabited, existing by itself, for itself, without towns or houses it looked from this height. Dark wedges of shadow, bright breadths of light lay side by side. Then, as she watched, light moved and dark moved; light and shadow went travelling over the hills and over the valleys. A deep murmur sang in her ears—the land itself, singing to itself, a chorus, alone. She lay there listening. She was happy, completely. Time had ceased.”

 Friendships develop that will last years. People who went abroad return home – family reunions are brought about.

This was such a lovely novel to read, Woolf’s prose is simply gorgeous and her portrait of London and Oxford are especially lovely I thought.

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Popping up at the end of the day with this third review for the 1936 club. I bought Minty Alley after seeing Bernardine Evaristo talking about the Black Britain Wiring back project on TV – not realising at the time that it would fit into the upcoming club.

C L R James was born in Trinidad in 1901 – later spending time living in the United States and the United Kingdom. Minty Alley was his only novel – the first novel by a Caribbean writer to be published in England. He was also known as a writer of several non-fiction books and worked for a time as a sports correspondent at the then Manchester Guardian.

Set in Port of Spain the Trinidadian capital of the 1920s, Haynes is a young middle class man whose mother has recently died. As the novel opens Haynes is considering his options, he can’t really afford to carry on living in his mother’s house – and is considering letting out half the rooms. Haynes has clearly lived a quiet, careful life with his mother – and with her gone is already beginning to rely on the good counsel of his servant Ella who worked for his mother for years. It is at her suggestion that Haynes decides to give up the whole house – rather than risk losing it entirely and move himself to cheap lodgings.

“Minty Alley was not two hundred yards away and the house was one on which his gaze must often have rested. But it was only now when he approached it as a prospective lodging-house that he took particular notice of it. No 2 stood at a corner, far in from the street. He walked down the yard, mounted a few steps, knocked and waited. The yard was quite clean; so was the front of the house, though badly in need of a coat of paint. Through the open jalousies he could see a neat little drawing room, centre-table, bentwood chairs, antimacassars, what-nots and china ornaments. Among the pictures was one of Christ with a bleeding heart.”

His new home is 2 Minty Alley – where Ella will still come each day to cook for him. Minty Alley is a lively, working class barrack yard – a place filled with more life than Haynes has ever seen. His one room looks out over the yard, opposite the kitchen, and here it seems everyone passes through, coming and going, arguing daily with one another and conducting their riotous love affairs in almost full view of everyone else.

The house is owned by Mrs Rouse and her feckless partner Benoit. Mrs Rouses’s young niece Maisie lives in the house too – a lively, irrepressible girl who Haynes is almost immediately dazzled by. Mrs Rouse’s most faithful servant is Philomen and other kitchen hands seem to come and go. In the room next to Haynes is Miss Atwell – and when Haynes moves in another a woman known only as the nurse and her young son are also in residence. All we know about the nurse is her profession and how pale skinned she is – colourism as well as class feature strongly in the stories of these wonderfully drawn characters.

Hynes is in the perfect position to see all – he watches and listens to all that happens with some fascination and awe – this is the kind of life he has never experienced before. The nurse and Maise are both the cause of furious arguments and upset – Benoit too is shown to have treated his common law wife of many years with some disdain. In the yard insults and accusations are thrown around, tears shed, hurt feelings soothed and the latest gossip endlessly gone over. The atmosphere of the town beyond the yard is portrayed beautifully in the tales that the residents of Minty Alley bring back with them – we can feel the distant hum of a lively, bustling town. There’s always a little bit of drama brewing, everyone waiting to see what will happen next – what the subject of the day’s gossip will say or do when they come back.

“That night No. 2 was a curious mixture of brooding quiet enlivened by flashes of excitement. All the talking and discussion and reconstruction came afterwards. What everyone was really waiting for was the appearance of Benoit. As far as they knew he had no inkling at all of all that had happened, having gone away as usual after lunch.”

In coming to live in Minty Alley Haynes could certainly have been accused of slumming it. Haynes is seen as a gentleman by the other residents of number 2 – and as such his opinion is constantly sought – he finds himself attempting to calm inflamed situations – as he gets drawn into the lives around him more and more. Haynes is more of an observer than a participant in the dramas around him.  Yet, he can’t help but feel sympathy toward some and frustration at the actions of others. Minty Alley opens Haynes’s eyes to the world around him, living here completes his education. There is a sense that Haynes will carry the experiences of Minty Alley with him for the rest of his life, perhaps reflecting on them with a wry smile in old age.

Minty Alley is light-hearted and often funny, it’s also a brilliant portrait of a community. While Hayne’s weekly salary is small enough to be scorned by Maisie as not being nearly enough – it is in fact more than Philomen earns in a month. I’m so pleased that this novel is back in print – such a delight. For those of you who love a boarding house novel this is a worthy addition to the list.

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My second read for the 1936 club was The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. If you haven’t heard of the novel – I bet you have heard of the film(s) it has been adapted for film and TV three times, firstly and most famously by Alfred Hitchcock. The film versions go by the name The Lady Vanishes – and I am fairly sure I have seen both the old Hitchcock version and the 1979 version that starred Cybil Shepard and Angela Lansbury. However, it must be some years since I saw either of them, and I haven’t seen the more recent TV adaptation, so my memory of the plot was sketchy. A young woman searches a train for a middle aged woman called Miss Froy, who everyone she speaks to insists was never there. More than that I couldn’t remember.

Ethel Lina White was a fairly prolific writer of mystery novels and stories, and The Wheel Spins was her ninth novel. I read an earlier novel, Fear Stalks the Village by her a few years ago, and a very memorable short story in Murder at the Manor an anthology of stories from the British Library edited by Martin Edwards. With The Wheel Spins it is easy to see what attracted Alfred Hitchcock to the story – to be so sure of something, and yet have everyone around you telling you that you’re wrong – it’s the stuff of nightmares. Throw in a sinister doctor and his peculiar patient, a crowded train, and the isolation of a language barrier, and suddenly we can all imagine being so disorientated that we begin to doubt our own mind.

“The horror persisted. Blackness was behind her and before—deadening her faculties and confusing her senses. She felt that she was trapped in a nightmare which would go on for ever, unless she could struggle free.”

Iris Carr is a young, attractive society woman, staying in a remote corner of Europe with a group of noisy, attention grabbing friends. The group have not made themselves popular in the hotel and following an awkward disagreement Iris decides to stay on at the hotel for a day or two after her friends depart by train. Glad for some time on her own, things don’t get off to the best of starts when Iris goes walking by herself and gets lost. Her confidence shaken she decides to carry on her journey to Trieste the next day after all.

An odd incident at the station where Iris is hit on the head and briefly loses consciousness leaves her feeling a little unwell, but she catches her train and finds herself stumbling into a carriage which is already rather full. The only other English speaker in Iris’s compartment is a middle aged tweedy type of woman who introduces herself as Miss Froy. Miss Froy has been working as a governess for the children of a local aristocrat – whose widow the baroness is another of the inhabitants of the carriage. Despite not being Iris’s kind of person at all, she agrees to have tea with Miss Froy in the dining car, where Miss Froy proceeds to tell her about the home she is travelling back to. Miss Froy has two very fond elderly parents anxiously waiting for her safe return, and a family dog who will take himself off to the train station to meet her when he senses her approach. Miss Froy’s, simple joy at returning home impresses itself on Iris’s mind – she finds she can picture the fond elderly parents and the eagerly waiting dog – making her all the more anxious that the family should be reunited.

Back in their train compartment, Miss Froy continues to be quite chatty, but overall, very kind. She gives Iris some aspirin and tells Iris to rest. Iris soon falls asleep and when she wakes Miss Froy is no longer sitting in the seat opposite her. Having waited some time for Miss Froy to return to her seat – Iris eventually plucks up courage to speak to the other people in her compartment.

“Where is Miss Froy?” asked Iris. “Miss Froy?” repeated the baroness. “I do not know any one who has that name.” Iris pointed to the seat which was occupied by the little girl. “She sat there,” she said. The baroness shook her head. “You make a mistake,” she declared. “No English lady has sat there ever.” Iris’ head began to reel. “But she did,” she insisted. “I talked to her. And we went and had tea together. You must remember.” “There is nothing to remember.” The baroness spoke with slow emphasis. “I do not understand what you mean at all. I tell you this…There has been no English lady, here, in this carriage, never, at any time, except you. You are the only English lady here.” 

They all claim that the lady Iris describes was never there. Only, Iris knows that she was.

There begins a desperate search for Miss Froy, the woman who was so kind to Iris and whose home coming is so eagerly anticipated. Also, on the train are some of the people from her hotel – but they are every bit as unhelpful – no one claims to have seen Miss Froy – Iris can’t understand how that can be the case – but then, why would all these people lie? She begins to question her own memory – could she have made Miss Froy up? She doesn’t really think so.

Iris enlists the help of a young engineer; Max Hare and the professor who he is travelling with. She starts to make quite a nuisance of herself – getting more and more irate and her behaviour begins to elicit some very unwelcome attention and could be about to put her in great danger.

This was an excellent quick read – a very quick read actually, as I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.  

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Karen and Simon’s #1936club starts today, and as always I am delighted to join with some interesting reads. Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy is the first of three 1936 books I hope to review this week – but whether I manage to do so is another matter. It was easily my favourite of the books I read in March and reminded me what a brilliant writer Margaret Kennedy was.

The subject matter of this novel may not sound especially compelling initially, but Margaret Kennedy captivates her reader instantly. The story centres around the breakdown of an upper middle class marriage and how it affects the couple’s children, wider family and friends.

The couple in question are Betsy and Alec Canning, they have been married for some years and have three children. When Betsy married Alec, he had been a perfectly respectable civil servant and Betsy had been quite content with the life that brought with it. Only, Alec is now a fairly well-known librettist, one half of a very successful writing partnership. Their lives have changed, and so has Alec. Betsy is no longer content, despite the wealth that her husband’s success has brought them.

“It was day to lie on the beach and hear the lazy mew of a gull, the indolent flop of a wave, and see the horizon lost in a shimmering haze; not a day to think and scheme and bustle, but just to lie in the sun, and lie in the sun, and go into the sea, and feel cool water on warm flesh, and come out, and feel the hot sun on cool flesh, and lie dreaming until time came back with the shadows. Outside the house it was that sort of day. But not inside, where so much had to be done. In every room a clock was ticking. Do this! Do that! Hurry! Make up your mind! So that she never dared to stop, not for a minute.”

As the novel opens, it is summer and the family are living in their beautiful Welsh coastal summer house. From here Betsy writes a letter to her mother who is holidaying abroad. She thinks, that if she can explain herself fully her mother will understand and lend her, her full support. However, Mrs Hewitt doesn’t react as Betsy expects, pausing only long enough to send a telegram urging her daughter to do nothing final – she races home. Arriving back in the UK, and before travelling to Wales Mrs Hewitt calls in on Alec’s mother Mrs Canning – where poor Mrs Hewitt in a state of almost nervous collapse is taken ill. Mrs Canning travels to Wales in her stead determined to put a stop to any talk of divorce.

In Wales Alec is already starting to wonder whether a divorce isn’t going to be all too much trouble. The affair he has been having and which Betsy knew something about is over – he thinks perhaps he can talk Betsy around.

“A divorce seemed to be very like a marriage in many ways; relations would be hurt unless they were warned of it beforehand. But it was too soon to write about that, and he could not think of anything else to say. So he gave up the idea, and wrote instead to one or two people who had asked for his autograph. Then he went on to the terrace to smoke a last pipe.”

The children Kenneth, Eliza and Daphne are happy on the nearby beach with no idea of what’s in the air. Kenneth at about fifteen has a school friend staying, Mark is a couple of years older and Kenneth idolises him. Betsy is busy being irritated by the Blochs a Jewish refugee family who Alec has allowed to stay in a cottage in the grounds and is glad of the help of Joy Benson, a beautiful young woman who has spent her last few summers as a sort of mother’s help when the Canning family are in Wales. When Mrs Canning snr arrives, Betsy almost immediately leaves to be with her own mother in a London nursing home. Her relationship with her mother-in-law has often been prickly and is almost glad of the excuse to get away. Mrs Canning is sure her presence in the house will smooth everything out – but of course it transpires that her interference only makes things worse.

An added complication is that Joy has been harbouring feelings for Alec for some time – when she hears rumours of divorce talks from the Bloch’s she starts to wonder where she might be able to fit in. Alec is weak and a pretty young woman easily turns his head, it becomes clear to Alec that he must leave and in her infatuation Joy leaves with him. Alec leaving with Joy unleashes a terrible scandal – the pair are spotted together at the local railway station. Poor Kenneth takes things particularly badly, always rather ashamed of his father he is primed to instantly take his mother’s side. She can do no wrong in his eyes, and he has a huge argument with Eliza when he thinks that his sister isn’t as fully supportive of their mother as he is. Eliza is more torn than Kenneth, she wants a relationship with her father too, she was always his favourite.

Sides are taken by the Cannings friends and family, Alec’s painted as the villain, and his life is the one most affected in the early days. However, it soon transpires that Betsy is seriously considering re-marriage with a titled cousin who has loved her from afar for years. Max St Mullins is a funny little man, who people often find ridiculous but he is kind, generous and adores Betsy. Betsy’s supporters are rocked just a little when they hear that a marriage with Max might be on the cards. The only one really happy at the idea is Betsy’s youngest child Daphne who rather likes the idea of a Lord as a step-father. Everyone it seems has an opinion, and letters fly between these interested parties for months. Meanwhile everyone must get used to a new way of living.

Margaret Kennedy writes about the disintegration of this family beautifully with great understanding. The stories of the elder two children pulled between their parents is especially well done. Even in the 21st century where divorces are ten a penny, I think we can appreciate how whenever a breakdown like this occurs it ends up involving many other people – and its effects are felt for long afterwards.

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