Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

A few months ago, I began to see a lot of love on Twitter and book blogs for a debut novel with the intriguing title of Leonard and Hungry Paul. I treated myself to a copy and it has been sitting unread on the shelf ever since. It turned out to be the perfect read for the start of this month, as I struggle with an attack of sciatica.

This was the kind of modern novel that I like, and don’t come across as often as I would like. It’s a novel that isn’t packed with incidence, and the fact it is seriously lacking in drama is exactly what makes it so good. It’s a fairly simple story about friendship, about the ordinary uncelebrated people in the world who are capable of changing everything for someone, in small, quiet ways. Leonard and his best friend Hungry Paul see the world a little differently to many of the people around them, united by their own brand of humour, their love of board games and fascinated by facts. They each have an appreciation for things that are special in the world, that other people perhaps ignore.

Leonard is a quiet thirtysomething who has spent his whole life living with his beloved mother. Leonard writes for children’s encyclopaedias, still as fascinated as he ever was by facts, he wants to pass them on to modern children, to light the little fires in their minds, that were once lit in him. He really wants to write his own book, that would appear under his own name, and present the facts he loves, his way. Leonard works in a big shared office but doesn’t really know any of the people around him. When his mother dies, Leonard is left alone in the home they shared, he is lonely, she has left an enormous hole in his life. Leonard has little idea about how to conduct any other kind of relationship, and he rather likes the idea of having a girlfriend.

Like Leonard, Hungry Paul isn’t always in tune with the twenty-first century, he lives with his parents Helen and Peter in their family home; Parley View. He works as a substitute postman just once a week, doesn’t own a mobile phone, and fully appreciates the beauty of silence. His sister Grace is a highflyer, living with her fiancé Andrew, she’s on the phone nightly to her mother talking about the upcoming wedding, for which Hungry Paul has been instructed to buy a suit – it’ll be the first he has owned. Leonard and Hungry Paul’s friendship is a gentle friendship built on a special affinity, an understanding of one another and a love of board games. They spend long evenings sat over old board games and eating biscuits in the kitchen at Parley View while Helen and Peter watch University Challenge. The two friends discuss everything, they are honest with each other – and each of them always interested in what the other has to say.

‘The figure in Munch’s painting isn’t actually screaming!’ Hungry Paul said. ‘Really, are you sure?’ Replied Leonard. ‘Absolutely. That’s the whole thing. The figure is actually closing his ears to block out a scream. Isn’t that amazing? A painting can be so misunderstood and still become so famous.’

Two friends who don’t always fit into the modern world’s idea of men in their thirties, negotiate the pitfalls of the twenty-first century. Hungry Paul buys the suit for his sister’s wedding, with Leonard’s help. Leonard meets a young woman called Shelley at the office; she has a son who loves the books he ghost-writes, inspiring him to start his own book. Leonard doesn’t always understand the things people say and what they mean – finds it hard to pick up the cues that should tell him how to act. He finds negotiating his way through getting to know Shelley something of a minefield.

Helen persuades Hungry Paul into volunteering as a hospital visitor, he’s not keen initially – he doesn’t really excel in small talk like his mother. He enters a competition run by the chamber of commerce to come up with a phrase to sign off business emails with. With her wedding on the horizon Grace starts to wonder about the future, and what her brother is going to do! She loves her brother very much but worries that her parents would really like to downsize the family home and do some travelling but that they are being prevented by the presence of their adult son, who doesn’t even have a proper job.

“There’s no point planning for what you’re trying to plan for. I know that, more than anything, you would like me to see the world your way, to wake up to your way of looking at things and to become the version of myself that you’re most comfortable with.”

Hungry Paul doesn’t think like his sister, and she has forgotten to take that into account. Never happier than when embraced by quiet – it is this very silence that in time will be key to Hungry Paul’s burgeoning independence, which he sets about very quietly, staying true to himself.

This is a wonderful novel, heart warming with a quiet wisdom. It is a gentle celebration of friendship, that introduces us to characters that it is a pleasure to spend time with.

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I do love a book of Persephone short stories, I have now read all the volumes they publish. Whether it be an anthology like this one, or one of the twelve collections by Dorothy Whipple, Margaret Bonham, Katherine Mansfield, Frances Towers and others, I have loved them all. Alongside these writers of other Persephone short story collections, happily sit many other noteworthy writers including; Winifred Holtby, Colette, Lettice Cooper, Rose Macaulay and Carol Shields. In fact, this volume – along with the First book of Persephone Short stories is pretty much my perfect reading material.   

The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories span very nearly a century of women’s writing. Thirty stories arranged chronologically, the first story first appearing in 1896 the final story by Rosamunde Pilcher dating from 1984. Now this volume features one story from each of those other twelve collections, nine stories previously published in the quarterly/biannually magazine, with nine more stories selected especially for this publication. Now here is where I make what might seem a surprising admission. I have loved the quarterly/biannually ever since I began collecting Persephone books, and I eagerly read the reviews and other bits and pieces, however I rarely get around to reading the short stories. For someone who loves short stories that is odd I suppose – but it did mean that there were more stories in this volume I was reading for the first time.

Quite frankly though, those stories that I was reading for the second time were just as good – or even better – second time around. For instance, I was able to anticipate the ending of After Tea (1941) by Dorothy Whipple quite eagerly, knowing what was coming didn’t spoil it at all, I cheered for Christine, trapped in a dull, household with no freedom – all over again. Similarly encountering Katherine Mansfield’s Her First Ball (1921) was a delight, I could read and re-read Mansfield’s stories at any time.  

“She quite forgot to be shy; she forgot how in the middle of dressing she had sat down on the bed with one shoe off and one shoe on and begged her mother to ring up her cousins and say she couldn’t go after all. And the rush of longing she had had to be sitting on the verandah of their forsaken up-country home, listening to the baby owls crying ‘More pork’ in the moonlight, was changing to a rush of joy so sweet that it was hard to bear alone.”

(Her First Ball (1921) Katherine Mansfield)

A few stories, I’ll admit I had forgotten anyway, the Mollie Panter-Downes stories I read so long ago it was almost like reading them for the first time. A Year of Decision (1944) in which a husband; Mark Goring, with ‘a safe’ though important desk job during the war, longs for service, and rather envies the former school friend whose death he sees announced in the newspaper. His wife, in the country with two young children, is naturally grateful that her husband comes home each weekend. Then Mark is called into to see his boss with unexpected results.

“Mark thought of Janet briefly before he nodded and said ‘fine’, and they settled down to details. When he finally got back to his own office, he still couldn’t believe it. After four years of sitting in one place with his nose to the grindstone, the idea of getting on a plane and going somewhere made him feel like a child let out of school.”

(A Year of Decision (1944) by Mollie Panter-Downes)

It’s always hard to review a large volume of stories, all I ever try to do is give something of a flavour. The collection opens with a lovely bittersweet little story; In Dull Brown (1896) by Evelyn Sharp in which a young woman; Jean, who goes out to teach three children each day in their home, meets a young man; Tom Unwin by chance on the omnibus, they exchange a few words. They bump into one another again, then lose sight of each other, each of them clearly remembering the other in the meantime, before meeting again in the park weeks later. Jean thinks young men prefer women who don’t work, who like her pretty younger sister Nancy, stay home by the fire, ready for any gentleman that should call. She is hugely excited therefore when their friendship develops to the point when she can invite Tom home.

“‘Oh, here you are,’ cried Nancy, gliding off the sofa and putting her arms round her in her pretty affectionate manner. ‘Poor Mr Unwin has been waiting quite an hour for you. Whatever made you so late?’

Jean disengaged herself a little roughly, and held out her hand to Tom.

‘Have you been very bored? She asked him with a slight curl of her lip.

‘That could hardly be the case in Miss Nancy’s company,’ he replied in his best manner.”

(In Dull Brown 1896 by Evelyn Sharp)

The final story is Gilbert (1984) by Rosamunde Pilcher in which we meet Bill Rawlins, recently married to Clodagh – making him step-father to two little girls. The children have three pets, Gilbert is a goldfish. One Sunday morning Bill finds himself tested in his new role when, while his wife sleeps, Emily; one of his step-daughters discovers Gilbert floating in the fish tank.

In between these two stories are stories from both Britain and North America, collectively they reflect those changing decades. Several stories are about war in some form. In The Casualty List (1932) by Winifred Holtby – on Armistice Day, an elderly woman looks back to the time of WW1 when she had read the casualty lists in the paper, rolled bandages and knitted socks. Monsieur Rose (1941) by Irène Némirovskytells the story of a wealthy man’s flight from Paris as the Germans arrive.   In Miss Anstruther’s Letters (1942) by Rose Macaulay we find the titular character searching desperately through the rumble of her home for something irreplaceable.

There are also, as I mentioned some wonderful stories from North America including The Bedquilt (1906) by Dorothy Canfield Fisher which tells of the one great moment of joy in a small, forgotten life. Going Home (1942) by Sally Benson in which a servant in New York sets out on a trip home to Washington. Accidents (1983) by Carol Shields in which a man on holiday with his wife is hospitalised following an accident. His wife takes a motherly interest in the young Englishman in the next bed, alone and far from home, very badly injured.

Well I could go on, there are so many stories I haven’t talked about – but this post is already far too long. Suffice to say I can’t recommend this collection highly enough – especially to readers of Twentieth Century women writers.

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Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

With thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.

The woman in the photograph which adorns the cover of The Girl with the Leica is Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer and activist. The photograph was taken by her partner, André Friedmann, who later adopted the name of Robert Capa. I think it’s a rather lovely portrait, it made me want to know more about Gerda Taro, and it was probably, partly that photo that attracted me to the book in the Europa catalogue.  However, The Girl with the Leica is a novel, not a biography.

Gerda Taro (also an assumed name, she was born Gerta Pohorylle) is regarded as being the first woman photojournalist to have died while covering a war on the frontline. It was 1937, the war; the Spanish Civil war, she was buried on the day of her 27th birthday. Her funeral was held in Paris, the procession led by Friedmann (Capa). Paris had been a home of sorts to Gerda and an assorted group of friends and lovers, refugees from the prejudice and political turmoil that had begun to sweep across Europe. Each of these people have experienced a different Gerda, in this novel, the author imagines what these relationships might have been like, and how Gerda might have been remembered by those she left behind. The novel is told in three main sections, told from the perspective of a different friend or lover, from different points in time.

Gerda is never present in the novel; we see her only through the eyes of others and from some distance in time. She is central to the novel and at the same time remained for me quite frustratingly enigmatic. A short prologue sees her in Spain with Capa (I’ll stick to that name now) and sets her against a backdrop of some of her photographs. Later, following her death some of her photos were wrongly credited to Capa, but if you’re as interested in her as I was, a simple google search will unearth some extraordinary images.

Part one, is told from the point of view of Dr Willy Chardack, his memories of Gerda stirred by a phone call. It is 1960, and he is living in Buffalo, New York. Willy Chardack was a former lover of Gerda, he is nicknamed ‘the Dachshund’ and had to content himself with the role of companion. In Buffalo he walks the familiar streets with his mind in the past, a Jewish bakery and is assailed by nostalgia and reminded sharply of his conflicts with his religion.

“Dr Chardack often repeated that he was a man of science, and therefore detached from every religious practice and belief, until he understood that his important formula, validated by centuries of enlightenment, had no purchase there in America. Science is science, they allowed, but the community you grow up in will never be a conference in California.”

Part two takes place in Paris, it’s 1938, told from the point of view of Ruth Cerf, Gerda’s friend from Leipzig with whom she moved to Paris. In the months since Gerda’s death, Ruth has been looking out for Capa. There is a strong sense of his grief through her eyes. She remembers Gerda’s elegance.

“Did Gerda really believe that her little smiles and her finery would serve as an armour, and had that conviction been strong enough not to be damaged? Or was she truly impervious to fear, to anguish (in the torture chamber, good God!), and to the inexorable sense of defeat?”

She also recalls the early days after they heard the news, and the time before Gerda and Capa went to Spain.

We return to 1960 for Part three, told from the perspective of another former lover of Gerda’s, Georg Kuritzkes in Rome. He is writing a letter to Ruth as this section opens, and it was Georg who had called Willy Chardack in Part one. Georg’s mother Dina, is a part of this group of stateless refugees, often disliked by their Parisian neighbours. In 1960 she is an elderly lady, but she too recalls the enigma that was Gerda Taro.

“Dina would never have dreamed of washing the glasses because you were going from a dry wine to a sweet one. She can ignore it now, strong in the license of age and a venerable history, she can fail to remember what her daughter was like as a girl: a good savage, more good but no less savage than her brothers. And so, recalling ‘our Gerda,’ she can superimpose a non-existent heroine on the girl with bare feet, blouse unbuttoned over the slip, who worked beside her in the garden, pulling up weeds, hoeing, planting roses and salad greens.”

These people connected forever through their friendship with and memory of Gerda Taro. Of course, each section covers at least some of the same period – although each person remembers Gerda in their own way. Initially I had really liked this premise, but to be honest it begins to drag, and there were other problems in the novel for me too. By the time I was two thirds of the way through the novel I found my attention drifting quite a lot, and I skipped bits in the final section. There are some nicely written passages throughout (my favourite section was the first one) yet there is also a lot of long rather unwieldy sentences, and the narrative can become a bit disorienting. In places there just wasn’t enough happening to keep me interested.  One thing I did really like was the use of memory, that sense of being held in the past is very strong.

So, all in all I was really rather disappointed in this novel, which I had been really looking forward to. I don’t know if the problems stem from the original text or the translation – though Ann Goldstein is a well-known, literary translator, considered a safe pair of hands, I’m sure. I had thought it might just be me, so I did look up some other reviews, and it seems I may not be the only one. I am still fascinated by Gerda Taro, who I hadn’t heard of before – I rather wish this novel had led me to know her better. This is a novel I felt should have been better.

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I’m not Complaining joins that list of VMC titles that I loved so much, that I will forever envy those discovering it for the first time.

Our narrator; Madge Brigson is a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher in the 1930s, a neighbourhood dominated by large factories and increasingly plagued by high levels of unemployment. Madge is thirty, with ten years teaching experience she considers herself sensibly mature, well past any silly dreams of romance. Madge is a little sensitive about the tag of old maid schoolteacher, she knows people smile wryly at unmarried schoolmarms (though married women are not allowed to be teachers) and it humiliates her. When she is forced to report a crime to the local police – she sees their barely concealed smiles of derision and it rankles for weeks.

The novel starts a couple of weeks into the new school year, each of the five teachers have a class of at least fifty pupils to get to grips with. Madge’s colleagues are; Jenny Lambert; Madge’s pretty, promiscuous friend, kind middle aged spinster Miss Jones, Freda the earnest communist and Miss Thornby who is in charge of the infant class. Their headteacher is Miss Harford. Together these women must face the day to day existence of school life, which includes the awe-inspiring legality of the daily register, and the ever present threat of the school inspectors.

“We were all at loggerheads that day because the Scripture had been inspected. It seemed silly, because the Scripture is the one inspection that does not matter at all from the point of view of one’s career. It is the merest matter of form. … if you care to teach the children that Jesus Christ lived in the Ark with Noah, the only thing that will happen to you is that some old parson, without any power at the Office at all, will gently remonstrate with you, and the next inspection will be by a member of some religious sect who probably believes something equally odd about Bible history himself. So I did not worry.”

Each day they ride the trams out of the town to a nearby garden suburb where they live – Madge sharing a bungalow with two other young women, Jenny in two rooms above a grocery shop, watched over by a suspicious landlady.

Madge and her colleagues are realistically unromantic about their charges and the families they come from. They are by now too used to the nits, the squabbles, the combative parents to expect much. The Hunt family are especially notorious – a loud, undisciplined bunch with a child in each class. Their eldest girl, unemployed and apparently prostituting herself now, even turns up in the night school class Madge takes to earn more money. Madge can be a little bit judgmental; she looks down at the Hunts and their ilk – but then so does everyone. She has deep suspicions about the school caretaker, suffering shell shock from the war, and determines to get him dismissed. She is hardworking though, and deep down she does want the best for the children in her care, she is often horrified by the gaps present in the society she sees around her, both fascinated and repelled by the politically motivated violence she witnesses on the way to catch a tram one evening. Brought up in the country – where she often spends the school holidays, she finds life in this industrial town hard sometimes.

“It was the last mild day. At the end of that week the winter began in deadly earnest, as though the cold days before had been merely a temporary substitute for the real thing. I had a persistent sensation, as we plunged deeper into those short, icy days, with their lowering fogs, that the town was plunging down with us. It was frightening. We all seemed to be one — the huge husks of the great factory buildings whose heart-beats had stopped — the grey, stained houses round them, the tragic men who stood for ever at street-corners, and the children who came to school in fewer and fewer warm clothes, because as the weather got colder they were pawned for food. I would like to have been detached from it — a visitor, coming down to work and then going away. But I could not get the feeling of detachment. I was part of it, bound irrevocably to their miseries because my work was their children.”

 Madge looks forward to a time, when her hard work means she can afford a little cottage in the country.

As the novel opens it becomes obvious that Jenny, a few years younger than Madge; has become pregnant by the Professor she’s been having an affair with. Madge, deeply disapproving, is drawn into the drama, which includes a weekend visit to the young Professor and his wife to talk about their problem. Mr Gregory the rabble rousing, political curate has offered to marry Jenny, but she decides on another, less conventional solution, not ready to give up her independence.

“I lay awake for a long time that night, but not planning for Jenny. Instead, I thought about myself, from my well-disciplined childhood as the daughter of the village schoolmaster, through the bewildering, over enthusiastic friendships of college, through the ten years’ teaching which had left me with a third share in a little bungalow in the suburbs, a hundred pounds in the bank, and an expert knowledge of how to teach Mental Arithmetic – nothing more. I was sorry for Jenny, and frightened for her, and terribly jealous of her. Hardworking, contented women like me get this longing, from time to time, for all the experiences that have passed us by.”

Meanwhile the spinsterish Miss Jones, is delighting in the letters she is receiving from her sailor friend – who she is excited to be seeing soon when his ship docks. When a large factory is closed and the unemployment money is cut – dissent and demonstration begin to sweep the town, Mr Gregory becomes involved in the fight which also ignites Freda’s politics.

I’m Not Complaining is a wonderful novel – which would appeal to fans of writers like Winifred Holtby and E H Young. The people of Ruth Adam’s second novel are clearly drawn from life – they are the people she knew growing up the daughter of a Nottinghamshire clergyman. From what I read in the introduction to this edition, this realism is present in her other novels too, they however, seem virtually impossible to get hold of, although I have just tracked down one for a mere fiver – though I know nothing about it.

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This was a book I bought on a complete whim having seen the gorgeous cover on Twitter. Ring the Hill sounded like just the kind of book I needed, and it really was. I shall have to explore more by this author now.

‘The hare, call him scotart,

big-fellow, bouchart,

the O’ Hare, the jumper,

the rascal, the racer…

The creep-along, the sitter-still,

the pintail, the ring-the-hill…’

The title comes from a thirteenth century poem; The Names of the Hare, hares are a recurring motif in this book, and they are a pretty special animal, there is something about their elusiveness, the folklore and mysticism surrounding them that I love. Just look at the endpapers in this gorgeous hardback.

Ring the Hill is a book celebrating hills, mountains get enough attention. It’s written around and about hills, each chapter taking a different hill at its heart. In the company of Tom Cox – who is very good company indeed it turns out – we find out about a Northern hill, a very small hill, cliffs and tors.

Over the course of several years, Tom Cox moves lots of times, packing up his car, taking the cats with him, and setting out for another place. Drawn to hills and their surroundings when he isn’t moving to a new place, he is taking time to visit and explore the hills he spotted as he drove around the country.

“As I drive the roads, I watch the hills. I always notice the interesting ones, and none of them aren’t interesting, so I notice them all.”

Starting in Somerset on the Somerset levels as Tom moves to the house he is currently living in (although he may have moved again by now) the book then goes back over some of the places Tom lived in or explored before, exploring the countryside, their historical sites and the stories that are still told about them. These include the smallest hill, in Norfolk, the West country, particularly Devon, Herefordshire and a wintry Derbyshire. He indulges in some fascinating family exploration, discovering a grandmother who lived on Dartmoor.

Somerset might not be the hilliest part of the UK, but Glastonbury Tor is legendary, there is a whole industry that has grown up around the legends of that place. Soon after moving in, while consulting his OS map of the area, he comes across a place name; Maggoty Paggoty, and he is soon setting off on foot to find it. He’s clearly a keen walker – never happier than when exploring a new place.

In another chapter we hear about Tom’s favourite Devon cove, a place where he was stung by jellyfish, and healed cuts and bites in its healing salt waters. This cove is apparently not the best cove in Devon for swimming, but the places that have our hearts are about so much more than being the best. We all have our favourite places; they are full of memories and that something of ourselves that we leave behind every time we visit. Devon is a place I love, and visit regularly, my mum was born and bred in Devon and I always feel a pull back there.

In a chapter called Nearly Northern, Tom describes a few wintry months he spent up a hill in the Peak district on the outer edge of Eyam, that renowned plague village. He quickly discovers that up a hill in the Peak District, in winter, is not an easy pace to live. The winter he describes was seriously bitter, and his rented house, down a rutted path, is old and full of strange noises.

“If you pitched the events around my move to Derbyshire as the beginning of a horror film, it might be rejected for being overdone, too full of well-known haunted house tropes and rural life pitfalls. You have the central character driving almost 300 miles through heavy snow, alone in a fatigued and dented car, every possible inch of its interior stuffed with possessions and cats.”

There is nothing very romantic about this Derbyshire cottage in the snow – it sounded like something that must have been hard to endure, However, it is clear that Tom connected with the place – as he does with all the places in this book – his love of the countryside and the stories surrounding Eyam.

From time to time we get a glimpse of Tom’s parents, his dad, I can only assume speaks loudly – his speech is written in capital letters – and he went up instantly in my estimation when he reports to having told a cardboard cut out of Alan Titchmarsh to f**k off.

In the final chapter Tom writes about the time he lived on the Dartington estate near Totnes, in the magic house. An existence that to me at least sounded very nearly idyllic. He arrived at the Magic House with four cats and leaves three years later with two. I mention this to warn cat lovers, the cats are a glorious part of this book, and with very old cats the inevitable does happen. One of the cats was Bear – made famous by the Twitter account Why my cat is sad. That aside, it was clearly a special time, and a place it was hard to tear himself away from.

Tom Cox writes with such warmth and humour – he puts himself right into the middle of this book – and while he is funny and chatty, we see the English countryside through his eyes and revel in his love of it. He takes us with him on his walks, we too can stand on the tops of hills and look around, we watch a red setter chase a fox. In his enthusiastic company we set out several small adventures. Ring the Hill is an endlessly readable book, portraying the intimate relationship the author has with some very special places around the country.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

Until Virago sent me Corregidora I hadn’t heard of Gayl Jones. She is an African-American writer, three of her best known novels; Corregidora, Eva’s Man and The Healing have recently been re-issued by Virago. Corregidora, pre-dated Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved – and paved the way for them both. Of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora Toni Morrison said:

“No novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.”

(Toni Morrison)

A brutally honest novel, that is at times painfully raw, Corregidora explores themes of race, sexuality and the repercussions of slavery. There were moments when I found it quite tough reading, though compelling too and the ending I will admit left me raging a bit. Still, I am very glad I read it, and glad I have discovered the powerful writing of Gayl Jones.

“I wanted a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese. song. A new world song. A song branded with the new world. I thought of the girl who had to sleep with her master and mistress. Her father, the master. Her daughter’s father. The father of her daughter’s daughter. How many generations. Days that were pages of hysteria. their survival depended on suppressed hysteria.”

Set in the 1940s Kentucky, Ursa Corregidora is a blues singer in a nightclub. She is consumed by an inherited hatred of the Portuguese slave master Corregidora, who having abused her great-grandmother, fathered her grandmother and her mother. Ursa struggles to find herself within the stories told to her by her mother and grandmother, she has been strictly charged by those women in her family with ‘making generations’ who can bear witness to the abuses of the past. These oral stories that Ursa grew up with have formed the woman she is, an ancestral memory that is her legacy.

“My great-grandmama told my grandma the part she lived through that my grandma didn’t live through and my grandma told my mama what they both didn’t live through and my mama told me.”

Ursa is married to Mutt, who has begun to feel jealous of the men watching Ursa while she is singing in the club, there is a violent argument and Ursa falls or is pushed (we’re never quite sure, though we suspect the latter) down the stairs. The fall results in Ursa losing the baby she is carrying and having to have an emergency hysterectomy. Ursa decides to immediately put an end to her marriage to Mutt and following her discharge from hospital takes temporary refuge with Tadpole – the owner of the club where she works.

As Ursa gets back on her feet and starts to think about returning to work at the club, Ursa realises that living with Tadpole is sending all the wrong signals and hurrying her into another romantic entanglement. She takes up the offer of a room in the house of Cat, an older woman hairdresser across the street. A young girl Jeffy is a frequent visitor – and Ursa is shocked when Jeffy makes advances toward her. When Ursa then discovers the true nature of the relationship between Jeffy and the older woman, she returns to Tadpole’s. Following her divorce from Mutt, Ursa marries Tadpole, and continues to sing at his club Happy’s Café.

Her relationship with Tadpole becomes more and more fraught – they fight about sex frequently, Ursa’s sterility a constant grief to her as well as a reminder of violence. In time this marriage becomes as destructive as her first marriage was. Gayl Jones is brilliant at portraying the psychological reality of the unequal relationships between black men and women in this period. Ursa is saddened by the lovelessness of her life, she knows she can never fulfil her destiny to ‘make generations’ and is continuously haunted by the stories of her family’s past – stories of sexual abuse and slavery. Mutt is still hanging around outside the club, trying to get to see her, he sends his cousin to speak to her. It’s as if Ursa is simply not allowed to just be herself – she must be some man’s ‘woman’. A lot of the language used especially about sex and relationships is fairly graphic, certainly it is misogynistic and objectifying. We see Ursa as being as enslaved by men as her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were.

Trying to make some sort of sense of who she is, and the past that she has inherited Ursa pays a visit to her mother, where she explores the story of her Mama and Martin, the father Ursa has never known.

“It was as if she had more than learned it off by heart. Though. it was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong. But now she was Mama again.”

More than twenty years later, at the end of the novel we see Ursa, still singing about to be reunited with someone from her past. Corregidora is at times brutal, but it is quite perfectly and realistically told. Ursa is a wonderfully resilient heroine, affecting and memorable.

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Margaret Atwood reading month provided me with the perfect excuse to read Hag-seed which I have had languishing on my tbr quite some time. In this novel Margaret Atwood has combined her consummate storytelling with a phenomenal understanding of Shakespeare. Hag-seed is a brilliant re-telling of The Tempest. Initially, that might have put me off a little, I love Shakespeare, though The Tempest isn’t a play I know well at all. I definitely know it a lot better now – Atwood is so clever – that I don’t think it really matters if you know the original well or not.

I have been impressed with Margaret Atwood’s fictional achievements before – but this novel is so clever, I can’t help but love the way her mind works. In the story of a man’s obsession to stage The Tempest and take revenge on the people who ruined him, she in fact tells an updated story of The Tempest. The old story within a story thing, that both Shakespeare and Atwood have employed before. With practised skill Atwood weaves a story of greed, revenge, grief and magic. In Hag-seed she is at her most compelling.

Felix Phillips is in his element as director of the Makeshiweg festival, where he is known for his vibrant, forward looking productions. Numb with grief over the recent death of his little daughter Miranda, Felix hadn’t noticed the gradually increasing ambition of his right hand man, who is always sure to be in the right place at the right time. Suddenly, Felix is out, his enemies have manoeuvred their way into position, and on the eve of Felix’s production of The Tempest, they strike. Felix finds himself escorted to his car by security, a pile of packed cardboard boxes waiting for him. Everything he was sure of is shaken, and as his fury mixes with his grief, Felix knows that one day he will get his revenge.

“What to do with such a sorrow? It was like an enormous black cloud boiling up over the horizon. No: it was like a blizzard. No: it was like nothing he could put into language. He couldn’t face it head-on. He had to transform it, or at the very least enclose it.”

Retiring to an isolated hovel he comes across by chance, Felix changes his name and deliberately buries himself away from anyone who knew him during his success at the festival. Living with ghost of his dead daughter – who Felix can conjure up at will, and who continues to grow as she would have done in life – years pass.

After several years, Felix takes a job teaching a theatre course at a nearby prison. The course runs for a few months each year, and each year Felix does a different Shakespeare play. The prisoners know him as Mr Duke, and he insists on his own particular rules, never having a moments trouble with any of the prisoners. His course has proved very successful, it’s seen as quite a privilege by the prisoners, with some, serving longer sentences, coming back in subsequent years to take part again. Felix’s next course at the prison is about to start in early January, when he learns of the perfect opportunity to take revenge on the men who betrayed him.

“What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye”

His enemies have now stepped into cushy ministerial jobs, decision makers, who hold the purse strings, and they will be paying a visit to the very prison where Felix holds his Shakespeare theatre course.

Felix immediately decides that his course that year will be about The Tempest. The course culminates in a performance that is videoed and shown to the rest of the prison via cctv. The inmates taking ‘Mr Duke’s’ course hang on his every word – he really pushes them intellectually; he doesn’t talk down to them and he promises them cigarettes.

“Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else—Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”

Felix has the perfect group of people around him to help put his plan into action. Twelve years have passed since the treachery at the Makeshiweg festival, but never has Felix’s desire for revenge diminished. So, with the help of Leggs, PPod, Bent Pencil and others, Felix, becoming more Prospero like every moment finally gets to stage the production of The Tempest he has dreamed of – with a twist.

The wraith like ghostly figure of Miranda, now fifteen years old, is never far away – only it’s just Felix who can see her, so he enlists the help of an actress he worked with in his previous life. Leaving nothing to chance, Felix spends weeks planning and resourcing his great production. The stage is set…

I really enjoyed this novel, so fantastically readable, and so blinklin’ clever I just wanted to cheer.

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