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family money

Family Money; Nina Bawden’s 1991 novel is the kind of novel that I think Nina Bawden does particularly well. A novel of family, concerning money, old age and the battle for independence, it’s one which feels very topical still.

London, and a huge spike in property prices means that houses bought many years earlier are now worth a small fortune. As the novel opens, a group of friends gathered together for dinner, discuss the possibilities that the properties owned now by their respective mothers could afford them.

Bawden’s characters do tend to come from the upper middle classes – though like Bawden herself, many of them also have a social conscience or left-wing sensibilities. One of the peripheral characters in Family Money is a labour peer – while another is a working class, daily housekeeper who has always dreamt of owning her own home, coveting the security it would give her, for the first time in her life.

Fanny Pye, Harry and Isobel’s mother – owns a large house backing on to the canal. Bought years earlier when Fanny and her husband returned from ambassadorial duties abroad – it is now a potential goldmine. Now, her husband is dead, and Fanny is living alone quite ably. Still active she thinks nothing of dining alone at her favourite restaurant, where she is well known, and walking home through the dark precinct lost in her own thoughts and memories.

“Lonely suddenly, she turned from the window and marched sturdily through the rest of the precinct towards the road at the end; not a main road, but a wide one that was always lined with parked cars and busy at night, especially around the time the pubs closed. They must be closing now, Fanny thought, hearing car doors slam, voices shouting. She had not thought it was quite so late.”

When Fanny intervenes in a street brawl late one night she is hospitalised and briefly struggles to remember the most basic things. Fanny is horrified when she forgets her daughter-in-law – and feeling suddenly horribly vulnerable she does her best to cover up her memory lapses in front of her family.

“She didn’t feel fine. She felt papery. The word came into her head, unsought for, unbidden. While Ivy settled her in the comfortable Victorian chair in the ground floor room – Daniel’s study, that was her study now – she puzzled over its origin. If her mind was going to play tricks on her, she must learn how to deal with them. If she could trace the source of each random thought, hold tight to the thread that wound through the labyrinth, then she would be in control again, not at the mercy of her own mind bent on mischief. ‘Papery,’ she said aloud, but speaking softly so that Ivy, on her way down to the basement kitchen, would not hear her. The word was flimsy on her dry tongue. Crumpled. Tissue paper. Smooth tissue paper between the folds of silk dresses. Flat. One-dimensional.”

Fanny is allowed home, most of her memory has returned but frighteningly she still can’t remember exactly what happened that evening, when a man died. Her family think she should sell up and move somewhere smaller – but Fanny doesn’t think quite the same as they do about property and inheritance. Some of her ideas shock Harry and Isabel, who worry about showing their concern, should anyone think them mercenary.

Following her return from hospital, Fanny’s niece Rebecca moves in to the top floor. Fanny slowly attempts to return to normal, the shadow of that evening hanging over her. As Fanny stands at her bedroom window she sees a young man standing on one of the houseboats on the canal who always seems to be staring straight at her house. Fanny finds herself becoming oddly drawn to the young man from the houseboats, after running into him at the library, what is it about him that has made her begin to feel so uneasy one minute, while finding him friendly and neighbourly the next.

Nina Bawden combines the tense uncertainty of a thriller with a wonderfully astute novel of family. Fanny might well be my favourite Nina Bawden character to date. As Fanny struggles with feelings of over whelming fear, she has to make decisions about her future – as her family continue to let her know exactly what they think she should do. In the midst of all this Fanny runs into an old friend, who she and her sister used to call Dumbo.

There is also a lovely (slightly ambiguous) twist, right at the end which I thought was rather brilliant. All in all, Family Money is a really excellent Bawden novel.

The Librarything Virago group have chosen to read novels by Nina Bawden during September – I ws pleased by the selection as I already like her writing very much. I was hoping to read another before the end of the month but as September is turning out to be a very slow reading month indeed – I have no idea if I will get another squeezed in.

nina Bawden2

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quick curtain

For several years I have had the idea that theatres are particularly good settings for murder stories. I suspect that idea was firmly planted in my mind by the Ngaio Marsh novels Opening Night and Enter a Murder. Admittedly Opening Night and Enter a Murderer may be the only murder mysteries set in the theatre that I had previously read, but still the idea persisted. So Quick Curtain has been on my radar for ages, and I was looking forward to it enormously. I was setting myself up for disappointment, really wasn’t I?

Don’t misunderstand me, I did enjoy Quick Curtain, the tone was not what I was expecting (more of that later) and at first, I was concerned that the plot seemed so obvious it is almost by the by (I should have had more faith). Still it was all very enjoyable and there is a lovely little twist (which I did eventually begin to see coming, but is non-the less brilliant). A bright, breezy, slightly tongue in cheek mystery – which I can see many people enjoying. However, if you only read one murder mystery set in a theatre make it Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh (my favourite of those two) once you have done that – if you find yourself in the mood for a second – Quick Curtain will probably do the job. (oh, yes, I know Ngaio Marsh wrote other theatre novels I just haven’t read the others).

Wikipedia describes Alan Melville as follows: an English broadcaster, writer, actor, raconteur, producer, playwright and wit. Certainly, his knowledge of the theatre and his wit is very much in evidence in his novel Quick Curtain, and it makes for a lovely quick piece of escapism. Dorothy L Sayers said of Melville that he ‘Blows the solemn structure of the detective novel sky high…’ He does do that certainly, I really hadn’t expected the light fizzing, satirical tone, but once I got used to that I began to enjoy the book more.

Douglas B Douglas is a leading light in London theatre – and a master at promotion. Such is the buzz created about his latest show, that the extravaganza Blue Music is an assured hit even before it opens. Melville gives a wonderful little glimpse of the theatre star groupies who even in 1934 it seems were apt to queue for days outside the stage door.

“Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day. On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester and finding out the truth of all those jests about the provincial Sabbath, seven grim females parked seven rickety camp stools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.
They were joined a little later in the evening by four more female and a lone male. They unpacked sandwiches and munched. They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks. They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas’s past successes, Miss Astle’s last divorce, Mr. Baker’s profile – both the port and the starboard view. They half slept. They suffered endless agonies on their stupid unreliable campstools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title ‘Gallery Enthusiasts’ three day wait for New Douglas Show’. They were still there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair sized queue.”

The show gets under way with its two big stars Brandon Baker and Gwen Astle, and the audience are lapping it up, when Act two delivers something very unexpected. During a key moment of the action the star Brandon Baker is shot in front of a bemused audience who don’t at first realise that anything is wrong. In the audience is Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard, and his journalist son Derek. Inspector Wilson takes charge, and during the next frantic minutes of upset and confusion another member of the cast is found dead. It seems to be a tragic case of murder followed by suicide. Though is it? It soon transpires that the gun used in the show was replaced at the last minute, and Inspector Wilson makes an interesting discovery in the proscenium.

Derek offers his services as assistant to his father – in return for the exclusive story – and so it is, that the two begin their unconventional investigations. There is a light, bantering tone between father and son, hiding a deep affection for one another, at times it is a little reminiscent of Wodehouse.

“ ‘Toss,’ said Derek. ‘It’s the only satisfactory way of settling anything in this house. Got half a crown on you?’
‘Why half a crown?’ asked Mr Wilson, producing the coin named.
‘It’s much the best coin for tossing,’ said Derek. ‘Now, listen. Heads you go to the funeral, tails I do. Heads you give me a two-column report of the farewell performance for the Gazette. Tails you give me a half page verbatim account of what happened at the inquest. Heads I tell you anything that I heard at the inquest that might be in your line. Tails I tell you if I’ve seen anyone behaving suspicious-like at the graveside. Understand?’
‘Not a word of it,’ said Mr Wilson. ‘But never mind. Toss.’

Father and son compete rather, to see who can uncover the truth. How likely it is, that a Scotland Yard Inspector would allow his journalist son to trail around after him, attending the inquest and generally snooping around, doesn’t really matter, as a duo Wilson Jnr and Snr are highly entertaining. Derek is written with a touch of real comedy. His attempts at going under cover, sending cryptic telegrams back to his father, is really very funny. I really can’t say much more about the plot without giving too much away – but the ending is very satisfactorily unexpected – though as I said I did guess part of it.

These British Library Crime Classics continue to provide wonderful Golden age escapism. I can’t help but love a world where a hapless investigator sends telegrams rather than text messages.

Alan_Melville_(writer)

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nights at the circus

I’m sitting here wondering – where on earth do I start. Nights at the Circus is a riotous, exuberant novel. Bawdy, literary and fantastically imagined, it almost defies description. There were moments when I was held utterly enthralled, and others when I thought – “what on earth?” Overall, I loved it, though not quite as much as The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children.

Angela Carter introduces to a colourful, late nineteenth century world that is amazing, implausible and filled with stories.

Sophie Fevvers (generally called just Fevvers) is a larger than life Cockney aerialiste, the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, her fame has spread across the world. For Fevvers is part woman, – an impressively bosomed blonde, standing over six-foot-high – and part swan with an impressive wing span. It is 1899, and in her dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall theatre in London, Fevvers entertains Jack Walser; an American journalist, who has arrived in London to interview Fevvers. Is Fevvers really part woman, part swan, or is she a fake? Jack is determined to discover the truth about who Fevvers is.

“At close quarters, it must be said that she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they she was ‘divinely tall,’ there was, off-stage, not much of the divine about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the common man.”

The first part of the novel – definitely my favourite section – is Fevvers long raucous account of her life up to that point. In the midst of chaotically strewn costumes, empty champagne bottles and greasepaint Fevvers delights in holding court. Alongside Fevvers in her dressing room that night is Lizzie, a tiny, rough diamond of a little woman, a former prostitute, who has been with Fevvers since babyhood. Every now and then Lizzie cuts in with a story or two of her own, but in essence this first one hundred pages or so is Fevvers story – and alongside it we have the stories of numerous other colourful fantastic creations. These include Ma Nelson, the madam of a brothel, Madame Schreck the owner of a freak show, Toussint her servant born without a mouth and the various inhabitants of these establishments that include a sleeping beauty.

“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe . . . her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh, God . . . how frequently she weeps!”

nights at the circus2Fevvers shows him (and us) her incredible wings – recounts the story of their emergence and how she learned how to use them, it is a story of extraordinary aerodynamics touched with just a little magic. Big Ben strikes, and time seems to stand still, as Jack is drawn deeper into the stories of Fevvers – who never shies away from discussing, quite frankly, the seedier side of life. Belching, farting and directing Jack to just use the chamber pot behind the screen in her room, she is utterly irrepressible – and Jack is completely floored by her.

As the long night of revelations and fabulous stories end, Jack follows Fevvers and Lizzie out into the London streets, and as Jack walks back to his lodgings he knows he can’t just leave it there. So, Jack arranges to run away with the Circus and follows Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of Colonel Kearney’s fantastic troupe to St. Petersburg – and then, on to Siberia.

Now, we get to meet the rest of the circus, and what a fantastic bunch they are! There is sibyl – Colonel Kearney’s pet pig, intelligent clairvoyant, the Colonel often asks her for advice. A troupe of chimpanzees headed up by The Professor – who make a bid for freedom. Tiger tamer, Princess of Abyssinia, the strong man, an abusive monkey trainer – whose cowed wife Mignon frees herself from him, transformed in time into a beautiful singer and who falls in love with the Princess. Buffo, the leader of the clowns – who Jack joins in his bid to follow Fevvers wherever she may go. From St Petersburg the Circus travels toward Japan via Siberia, where in the frozen, snowy wastes the Colonel’s circus encounter adventure, abductors, female murderers and Russian fur traders.

It is testament to Angela Carter’s skill as a storyteller that all these characters work so well. Not everything is quite as it seems, neither us nor Jack is ever really sure what is real and what mere illusion. Fevvers, real or fake – is an extraordinary lovable survivor – and the reader just wills her to be happy.

 “We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

I read Nights at the Circus quite quickly speeding through it in three or four days, it is hard to put down, though for me the middle section sagged a bit – and I longed to be back in Fevvers’ dressing room. Though the story picks up pace again as we find ourselves in Siberia. Nights at the Circus might not work so well had it been written by a lesser writer, but in Angela Carter’s hands it is an exuberant, romp of memorable characters and impossible things.

angela carter

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IMG_20170910_105310

It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

barbara comyns

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an unrestored woman

So just days after reviewing Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – I have another collection of short stories to tell you about. An Unrestored Woman a very powerful collection, first published last year in the USA, this new paperback edition apparently timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the India into what is became the separate nations of India and Pakistan – perhaps that is a coincidence though I suspect not.

“We leave. We leave the places we’re born, the places we’re meant to die, and we wander into the world as defenceless as children. Against such wilderness, such desert.”

For all the stories in this collection take the ramifications of Partition as their theme. However, not all the stories take place in 1947 – in fact Shobha Rao’s stories show how the effects of Partition continued to be felt many, many years after the events surrounding Partition itself.

There are twelve stories in An Unrestored Woman, six pairs of linked stories. This pairing of stories is particularly clever, allowing us an alternative viewpoint – the two halves creating a more complex whole across the two stories. Shobhan Rao writes beautifully of displacement, love, ambitious seduction and revenge. Characters commit murder, take on cross gender identities, embark upon perilous journeys and suffer horrible abuses. I found many of the male characters to be either thoroughly unpleasant or cowardly weak. It is probably unsurprising that it is generally women and children who suffer the worst abuses, rape, coercion and abduction feature. I didn’t find Rao’s writing to be in any way gratuitous – there was a sensitive, understanding to her depiction of these terrible events – an honesty.

In these stories; we meet women trapped into early marriages with men who treat them as objects. Those sold into the sex industry, and the unrestored women who having been abducted during the violent upheaval of Partition – are forcibly returned to the homes where they are no longer wanted. We meet a child who makes a miraculous escape when a train is attacked, an elderly man with dementia confusing the past with the present. A woman in 1990s America meets an elderly Englishman who served in India during Partition, and a young man working for the Indian Geographical Society, takes the opportunity to advance his romantic aspirations when he goes to a village to survey the border between India and East Pakistan.

“He returned an hour later and told her he’s secured passage for her on a bus headed for a nearby camp. It was set up by the Indian government, he said.
‘For what?’ she asked
‘For items that are useless.’ He said ‘Like you’”

The collection opens with the title story An Unrestored Woman in which Neela, believing the husband she never cared for is dead, finds herself briefly in a camp for ‘Refugees and Unrestored Women’. Here Neela meets Renu, and for the short time they are together, the two are inseparable. In The Merchant’s Mistress, Renu is an ambitious servant, seducing both her master and mistress, on her way to a better life.

Jenkins working for the Imperial Police in the story of the same name, finds himself falling dangerously in love. Fifty years later we meet Jenkins again working as an apartment building doorman in the US, in Unleashed. A young woman turns to drink when she uncovers a terrible betrayal. In her misery, she recalls her childhood and adolescence in the company of her sister.

Blindfold tells the devastating story of a child stolen for the sex industry and the carefully plotted revenge the girl visits upon the cruel madam who has held her hostage for years. In the The Lost Ribbon, we have a Hindu woman ‘recovered’ from her Pakistani captor, who makes an unbelievably appalling decision.

A young cartographer in The Opposite of Sex, is desperate to marry the daughter of a wealthy local man, he realises that moving the dividing line between what will soon be East Pakistan and India through the village, he can effectively ruin the father of the girl he dreams of marrying, and so improve his own chances of winning her. Many years later, that young man’s boss Alok Debnath is now an elderly man suffering from dementia in Such a mighty river. As Alok goes in search of a local prostitute whose services he has used regularly, his mind keeps returning to the past when he was first married to his beloved late wife. Unknown to him, Alok is vulnerable and in danger.

“My wife comes into the room, shutting out the sun as she closes the door, and lays the wad of bills on the table in front of me. I can’t look at her. I want to feel shame but I only feel a thin pleasure, like a fine layer of skin, puckered and white and soulless, floating on cooling milk. On another shore, perhaps, the desert has an ashen end; and forests are merely silent folded wings. On that shore poverty doesn’t have an animal stink. And when we touch the face of another, we draw onto their skin a moonlit path, and not the metallic rust of our weakness and our fear.”

During the upheaval of Partition, a married couple embark upon a journey to Mirpur Khas in The Road to Mirpur Khas. The impractical, naïve husband frequently annoys his much sharper wife. Having had the meagre store of money stolen on the road the wife is forced to prostitute herself to aid their journey and their very survival. In the The Memsahib, set I think some years before the events of 1947, a young sweeper becomes obsessed with the imperious daughter of the British family in whose home he and his mother serve. When his attentions are shrugged away, he decides upon a peculiar and terrible revenge.

In Kavitha and Mustafa, a train packed with refugees is attacked, the passengers robbed and beaten, a Hindu woman and a Muslim boy manage to escape by helping one another is a desperate bid to survive. In Curfew, the granddaughter of that boy – now grown up, and living in Britain – goes on holiday with her husband. The couple are still struggling with a terrible grief, their marriage itself at risk.

There is a relentlessness to these stories, but there is also a lot that is beautifully observed and compellingly told. Rao is never sentimental, there is an honesty to her stories which goes some way to telling the rich, complex story of two historically and geographically linked countries.

shobha rao

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stone mattress

I love short stories, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood short stories since I read Bluebeard’s Egg at least twenty-five years ago. I also hadn’t realised that there were a few collections out there that I could have been reading. At the same time that I bought this collection, I bought Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel Hag-seed – and was really debating which to read first. I am so glad I chose this collection because it so completely captivated me – and made me realise I really haven’t read enough Atwood the last few years. My re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale  a few months ago was immensely positive of course – but something about The Heart Goes Last didn’t completely work for me (I’m sure it’s just me) – so to be so blown away by another Atwood book felt quite exciting.

Stone Mattress nine wicked tales is highly addictive, sharply observed and brilliantly imagined, I gobbled them up in two days. These are the sort of stories I don’t want to say too much about – you will all just have to read them.

The first three stories; Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady are connected, Atwood considers matters of ageing in the stories of a group of people who first knew each other back in the 1960s.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlights it looks so beautiful, like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment.”

We begin with Constance, in Alphinland – a renowned fantasy writer – who created the fictional world of Alphinland many, many years earlier while she lived with Gavin an aspiring, serious poet. Now she is an old woman, mourning her husband in the midst of an ice storm, trying to look after herself the best she can, she still talks to her husband Ewan, it keeps him close. Constance makes a hazardous journey to the nearby shop, scatters cat litter on the steps outside – all the time remembering Gavin, who cheated on her with Marjorie, and laughed at her work. Constance was probably my favourite character in the whole book.

In Revenant we meet Gavin, a pretentious, revered poet, now living with his third wife Reynold, thirty years his junior. He remembers Constance as the one that got away, about who he wrote some of his best-known poems. Gavin; pretending great nonchalance – thrives on a bit of attention, so is ready to really enjoy himself when a student turns up to interview him.

“Why couldn’t the two of them have gone on and on forever? Himself and Constance, sun and moon, each one of them shining, though in different ways. Instead of which he’s here, forsaken by her, abandoned. In time, which fails to sustain him. In space, which fails to cradle him.”

In Dark Lady, Constance, Marjorie and Reynolds are reunited at Gavin’s funeral. There are of course truths to be told, and memories of the past re-examined. Atwood’s depiction of the funeral, with its folk singers and poetry is pure gold.

The stories in this collection vary in length, but they have a delicate, dark heart. Lusus Naturae is the shortest, a modern take on the vampire stories of the past, innocence and superstition and misunderstanding clash, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

“Now I was dead, I was freer. No one but my mother wa allowed into my room, my former room as they called it. They told the neighbours they were keepimg it as a shrine to my memory. They hung a picture of me on the door, a picture made when I still looked human. I didn’t know what I looked like now, I avoided mirrors.”

The Freeze-dried groom, is darkly humorous – and if you ever watch that TV programme from the US; Storage Wars (I can’t say I have ever understood the appeal)– you will never look at those storage units in the same light. A man who the reader has reason to distrust for other reasons, buys several container units – and is quite unprepared for what he finds inside.

I dream of Zenia with the bright red teeth reintroduces us to Charis, Ros and Tony from The Robber Bride – a book I know I enjoyed very much, but I’m embarrassed to admit I can remember nothing about – though it is a while since I read it.

We meet another writer in The dead hand loves you, a man who years earlier, as a young, penniless student, wrote a horror story which became a huge bestseller – now considered a gothic classic. However, the writer entered into a profit sharing deal at the time with his three housemates, a deal he has had cause to regret for years.

The title story of the collection; Stone mattress was one of my favourites, it concerns an act of terrible (but rather perfect) revenge, when a woman meets the man who raped in in high school – on an arctic cruise.

The premise of Torching the dusties is rather disturbing – nursing homes find themselves under siege as society outside starts to break down. An elderly couple, one a woman with Charles Bonnet syndrome, come together to do all they can to survive.

Throughout this collection Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply wonderful, gorgeous description, dark humour and complex characters explored with feeling.

A few days after finishing this amazing collection of short stories, the BBC broadcast a wonderful programme in which Alan Yentob talks to Margaret Atwood – it was an extraordinarily lovely programme which I have recorded to keep and watch again. It certainly made me want to read the books of Margaret Atwood that I haven’t managed to get around to (perhaps not the Maddaddam trilogy as I am not great with Sci-fi – those who know better tell me if I am wrong), and re-read all those I read twenty five/thirty years ago. I still have Hag-Seed to read and have now ordered Wilderness Tips.

margaretatwood3

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the summer book

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

witmonth2017As August draws to a close, I am sneaking in under the wire with my final read for Women in Translation month – and reviewing very slightly out of order to do so.

“Wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they’re eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.”

The Summer Book, is a book much loved by many people, and has been chosen by my very small book group as our September read. It’s a slight book, of apparent simplicity, its charm however is in that deceptive simplicity. There is a delicious clarity to Jansson’s prose – which beautifully mirrors (I can only imagine) the clean air of the Island in the Gulf of Finland of which she is writing. It is a book full of quiet wisdom, humour and love. There is a brusqueness to Jansson’s storytelling, a subtle tenderness which is never sentimental or overblown. I can see why it is so greatly loved by people whose opinions I trust.

“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Shockingly this was my first ever experience of Tove Jansson, I didn’t even read the Moomins as a child – and only became aware of them as an adult. Thanks are due to Karen, who sent me this book an absolute age ago. Books have a tendency to disappear into the depths of the tbr bookcase never to be heard of again. So, while it might have taken a while for this book to float to the surface, it did so at a perfect moment – and I read it over one long, lazy Sunday, transported to a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

summerhouse2The Summer Book tells the story of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia as they spend a summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Tove Jansson, wrote The Summer Book shortly after losing her mother – the character of the grandmother was based on her, the character of Sophia based on her own beloved niece, also called Sophia. In the foreword to this edition Esther Freud tells of her visit to the Island and her meeting with the now adult, real life Sophia.

It is spring as the novel opens, and little Sophia wakes up in the small, island cottage to the knowledge that she has the bed to herself because her mother has died recently. Sophia’s grandmother is never far away, who despite her advancing years is a lively, imaginative companion, full of fun, as well as the wisdom brought by great age. Sophia’s father is also present on the island, but he remains very much in the background throughout the novel. The story of their summer is told through a series of vignettes, with titles like; The Cat, The Tent and The Enormous Plastic sausage.

Over the course of the summer, Sophia and her grandmother explore the island’s flora and fauna, spending hours in the ‘magic forest.’ They discuss what heaven might be – the subject of loss and death ever present. We see Sophia unable to cope with the loss of a palace she and her grandmother have made – so her grandmother stays up all night to make a replacement.

“She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.”

Sophia is encouraged to explore the simple joy of sleeping in a tent, and must learn something about how the reality of something she wants does not always match the dream in a chapter about a cat that is given to her.

“It’s funny about love’, Sophia said. ‘The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.’
‘That’s very true,’ Grandmother observed. ‘And so what do you do?’
‘You go on loving,’ said Sophia threateningly. ‘You love harder and harder.”

There are so many lovely little stories within this book, including an episode of house breaking, that the grandmother drew Sophia into when another house on a neighbouring island shows signs of being got ready for occupation.

In grandmother and Sophia’s company we meet visitors and neighbours, suffer disappointment and delight, and experience the unpredictability of the surrounding seas.

This was a lovely little read, and I’m sure I will read more Tove Jansson now – having read The Summer book I really should go for The Winter Book next I suppose.

tove jansson

 

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