Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

dancing girls

My second read for Karen and Simon’s 1977 club was Margaret Atwood’s The Dancing Girls, a collection of short stories. It was only after finishing the collection, and quite by chance that I discovered the list of fourteen stories in the book changes very slightly between two editions. In the original 1977 edition the stories; War in the Bathroom and Rape Fantasies are included – which for the 1982 edition are changed for Betty and The Sin Eater. My Virago edition has this later selection of stories – I can’t help but wonder at the change – although I am pleased at the inclusion of Betty as it was one of my favourite stories in this collection.


I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me.


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Published three years before my last read for #ReadingMuriel2018 The Bachelors has a very different feel from The Girls of Slender Means. Here is a London of the 1950s, of bedsitting rooms, public bars and spiritualist meetings.

Certainly, it is a novel with London very much at its heart – the novel opens with several London place names – and the whole novel has a very London feel to it.

“In Queen’s Gate, Kensington, in Harrington Road, The Boltons, Holland Park, and in King’s Road, Chelsea, and its backwaters, the bachelors stirred between their sheets, reached for their wound watches, and with waking intelligences noted the time; then, remembering it was Saturday morning turned over on their pillows. But soon, since it was Saturday, most would be out on the streets shopping for their bacon and eggs, their week’s supplies of breakfasts and occasional suppers; and these bachelors would set out early, before a quarter past ten, in order to avoid being jostled by the women, the legitimate shoppers.”

Despite the promising opening, The Bachelors is something of a slow burn – and lacks the compelling nature of some other Muriel Spark novels. I was worried I wasn’t going to get on with the novel at all – then suddenly around seventy pages in I realised I was gripped and I ended up finishing rather quickly. Thinking about the novel now in retrospect I actually really like it – so it is a shame that the beginning is a bit of a let-down – a couple of conversations on Twitter suggest I’m not the only reader to feel like this. Spark creates such an authentic community of London bachelors that – considering she uses relatively little description, and quite a lot of dialogue – there is still a lot that is very visual in this novel.

The Bachelors of the title include: a handwriting expert, a lawyer, a priest, a policeman and a spiritual medium. Patrick Seton; the medium is the malevolent presence throughout the novel – he is a truly brilliant Spark villain. Patrick is due to appear in court – charged with defrauding a widow; Freda Flower of her savings. Things however, are not straight forward, as the widow concerned – part of the spiritualist circle – keeps changing her evidence. Like all groups, this spiritualist circle is split into dividing factions – those who think Patrick Seton is innocent and those who see him as a fraud and a criminal. However, even those who believe Patrick defrauded Mrs Flower of her savings – tend to think he is a good medium. Patrick is very confident of being acquitted – and he has a few loyal acolytes who are vocal in their support of him.

However, the reader quickly begins to see Patrick as a really nasty character and potentially a dangerous one. Patrick has a girlfriend – Alice – who is in the early stages of pregnancy – something Patrick is clearly irritated by – thinking of it as ‘her disgusting baby’. Alice wants Patrick to marry her – Patrick tells her, his divorce will be granted soon. Other characters in the novel are surprised to hear that Patrick is married as they had understood him to be single. Alice is an insulin dependent diabetic – and it is quickly apparent that Patrick has a dreadful plan up his sleeve. Not averse to a bit of blackmail – Patrick manages to draw his doctor into the plans for when the ‘unfortunate occurrence’ should be over and he safely acquitted. Patrick is confident he can make everything go his way.

Ronald Bridges is a graphologist; due to give evidence on a note supposedly written by Mrs Flower – though said to have been forged by Patrick Seton – in the up coming trial. Ronald suffers from epilepsy, he is very conscious of his condition, which he seems to feel has blighted his life, and practices using his memory whenever he can. He is a slightly sad discontented man, who wants desperately to be taken seriously. It is Ronald ultimately who is the novel’s rather unlikely hero.

“Ronald was filled with a great melancholy boredom from which he suffered periodically. It was not merely this affair which seemed to suffocate him, but the whole of life – people, small-time criminals, outrage housekeepers, and all his acquaintance from the beginning of time.”

Several of the novel’s other bachelors are concerned with Patrick’s case and the spiritualist group he is part of. Detective Inspector Fergusson is the policeman responsible for Patrick’s appearance in court, while Martin Bowles is the prosecuting barrister. Matthew another of Ronald’s friends has designs on Alice, wanting to get her away from Patrick, watches from the public gallery as the trial gets underway. Alice however is devoted to Patrick despite her friend Elsie’s interference to try and prove his guilt.

While this novel won’t be my favourite Muriel Spark novel, I am glad I have read it, I very much enjoyed hating Patrick Seton – and waiting to see what happened to him made the second half of the book much more compelling.


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the danger tree

Today is the start of the 1977 club hosted for us again by Simon and Karen. I got started a few days ago – as I had been looking forward to reading this particular book for a while.

The Danger Tree is the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy – which follows directly on from her Balkan Trilogy – that I re-read with such relish last year. The Danger Tree is every bit as compelling as those first three novels. Enormously intelligent, it is, at times, a no holds barred account of the war in the desert.

“Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.”

Having been forced to flee Greece – where they ended up having fled the German occupation in Romania – Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Again, they are surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of war – thrown together with strangers and old friends – and enemies – with German forces still far too close for comfort.

1977clubThe novel opens with Simon Boulderstone, just twenty years old, who has just arrived with the draft. A young officer, he had formed close alliances aboard ship – but is now separated from his mates – and finds himself alone, in the midst of chaos. Tobruk has just fallen. After reporting to his new barracks Simon is given two days leave and in search of a friendly face, goes to Cairo to look up his brother’s girlfriend; Edwina Little. Simon knows that somewhere out there in the desert is his brother Hugh and he hopes to get a chance to see him.

Harriet is also in Cairo – though Guy has had to go to Alexandria to find something to do for the Organisation – the Organisation is educational not mafioso which is what it always sounds like to me. Harriet is alone – and there are moments when the heat, flies, loneliness and constant rumour takes its toll.

“On one occasion she was in a landscape which she had seen years before, when riding her bicycle into the country. It was an ordinary English winter landscape; a large field ploughed into ridges that followed the contours of the land, bare hedges, distant elms behind which the sky’s watery grey was broken by gold. She could smell the earth on the wind. There was a gust of rain, wet and cold on her face – then, in an instant, the scene was gone like a light switched off, and she could have wept for the loss of it.”

Harriet encounters Simon in the company of some other ex-pats – when together they go off on a sight-seeing tour. The days end with a stark and tragic reminder of war at the desert home of Sir Desmond Hooper.

Guy is in a reserved occupation but his arrival in Egypt brings him back into conflict with those colleagues who had undermined his position in Greece. Finding himself on the outside again – Guy is not the man to sit back do nothing and get paid – he needs to be doing something. Guy always has a host of people around him – he puts everybody before Harriet – who finds herself every bit as frustrated by this behaviour in her husband as she was in Romania and Greece. While Harriet endures the discomfort of Madame Wilk’s pension, working in the American embassy, where she is daily reminded of her outsider status — Guy is running a course for just two students in Alexandria.

Returning to Cairo – to Harriet’s relief – Guy’s career prospects suddenly improve when he is appointed director. Guy’s appointment means the Pringles can move into better accommodation too – a large room in a shared embassy flat which they share with Edwina Little, a strange, rather sad man named Percy Gibbon and Dobson – who the Pringles first knew in Romania. Outside their window is a large mango tree – the danger tree of the title. Harriet loves the tree, Guy hates it.

“The Danger Tree”. You know that in England someone dies every year from eating duck eggs? – Well, in countries where a lot of mangoes are eaten, someone dies from mango poisoning every year.’ Edwina, who had been putting out her hand for another mango, withdrew it, saying, ‘Dobbie, how could you! What a horrid joke!’”

As the novel progresses we also follow the fortunes of young Simon Boulderstone as he joins his new unit. He is a young, inexperienced officer – and his days are long, hot and often boring. When action comes its swift, terrifying, and bloody. Olivia Manning brings us the realities of war with neither sentiment or gratuitous violence. As ever her storytelling is superb.


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When I read my first collection of short-stories by Katherine Mansfield I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I read my next. Well that was five years ago!

The Montana Stories was one of those odd gaps I had in my Persephone collection – I had meant to acquire a copy for years. I love collections of short-stories – and I have no idea why I left it so long to get and read this one – it is glorious.

The Montana Stories ticked off 2001 in my A Century of Books – which felt like a bit of a cheat, because all the stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. This collection contains short stories and unfinished fragments – and some extracts from her letters in the editorial notes at the back. The unfinished stories can be a little frustrating – though still beautiful to read. Some of these unfinished pieces end less abruptly and could be seen as having an ambiguous ending – other pieces end more suddenly. Many of the stories in this edition had been previously published in The Spectator – and illustrations that accompanied those stories are reproduced here too.

montana switz

With so many very short stories and fragments in this collection I am only to talk about three particular stories in any detail – but I really can’t stress how perfect every word of the whole collection is. What a truly gifted writer Katherine Mansfield was. Some other stories that will stay with me particularly are: Mr and Mrs Dove, Marriage á la Mode and A Cup of Tea, as well as the frustratingly unfinished A Married Man’s story.

In Bliss and other Stories (1920) – the collection opens with Prelude – a story still that is very memorable to me five years later. In that story we meet the Burnell family – perhaps that story is so memorable for me because it was my introduction to Katherine Mansfield. So, imagine my delight to find not one but two more stories in The Montana Stories featuring the Burnell family; At the Bay and The Doll’s House. One of the daughters of the Burnell family is Kezia – and I read something, somewhere online that suggests that Kezia is an autobiographical character, having little patience with conventional society rules. These two stories were perhaps not surprisingly among my favourites in the collection.

“As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves.”
(At the Bay)


In At the Bay, Stanley Burnell, Kezia’s father goes out for an early morning swim, then returns to the house for breakfast before leaving for work. When he leaves, the women and children – left behind – breathe a sigh of relief. Aunt Beryl talks coolly to a society woman, while Kezia’s mother daydreams the day away, her latest baby at her side – leaving the majority of the household tasks to be supervised by Kezia’s grandmother. It is a beautifully atmospheric story – suffused with a feeling of long, indolent sunny days, bathing, dreaming and talking the day away, until the time comes for the men to return.

In The Doll’s House the Burnell children are given a fabulous Doll’s House that is so large it has to sit outside the house in the garden. The house opens up to reveal tiny, beautifully furnished rooms, Kezia is particularly enchanted by a lamp. The children delight in telling the other children at school all about their doll’s house, Kezia’s older sister reserves the right to do the telling first, she is, after all, the eldest. They are permitted to bring their friends home to see it – a couple at a time, glorying in the envy and delight the other children have for it. However, they are not allowed to bring the Kelveys – who no one else ever associates with the Kelvey siblings either. No one knows who their father is – and their mother is the washerwoman. It is only Kezia who is made uncomfortable by such rules and dares to go against them.

“The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house swung back, and – there you were gasping at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker.”
(The Doll’s House)

Another of Katherine Mansfield’s most well-known stories in this collection, is The Garden Party – and this too is utterly masterful. The Sheridan family are preparing for their garden party. Daughter Laura has been put in charge of ensuring the marquee is put in the correct place, while her sister Jose tests the piano. Their mother has ordered masses of lilies and the girls are enchanted by the flowers. As the preparations near completion, the family learn that a working-class neighbour has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and children. Laura thinks the party should be called off out of respect but neither her mother or sister agree. Later she is asked to take a basket of left-overs to the family. The Sheridan sisters also appear briefly in the story Her First Ball.

Persephone short story collections are always a hit with me – I’ve yet to read one that isn’t fabulous. This collection reminds me that I haven’t read nearly enough Katherine Mansfield – and I do have another collection waiting on my kindle.

katherine mansfield

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My introduction to Rose Macaulay was with her 1950 novel The World my Wilderness – which I absolutely loved. I was therefore delighted that Virago has seen fit to re-issue some of her novels – and while I’d always prefer a shabby old green these new editions are lovely to be going on with.

Crewe Train is a much earlier novel and yet there are several similarities to Macaulay’s later novel especially in the character of Denham Dobie. Like Macaulay’s later character Barbary Deniston, Denham has been allowed to run wild, growing up abroad in a less than conventional household. There’s an untutored, childishness about Denham as a young woman – who prefers to be alone out of doors, to not have to talk or socialise or play host in any way to relatives from England.

Denham’s father – a former Church of England vicar, had taken his daughter away, seeking a quieter life abroad, having become sick of having to ‘bury dissenters or to baptise illegitimate infants’ and wanting to be less busy and less sociable. Having found Mallorca to be too sociable they moved to Andorra – where Denham’s father re-marries in a moment of weakness providing Denham with a step-mother and half siblings who he immediately has cause to regret and she doesn’t care for at all. To the horror of Mr Dobie and Denham – visitors from England begin to arrive in Andorra – and with them come relatives of Denham’s mother. When Denham’s father dies – her beautifully groomed, still young Aunt Evelyn and her smart cousins Audrey, Guy, Noel and Humphrey contrive to spirit Denham away – to London, where they can civilise her.

Before I go any further – a word or two about the title – which really puzzled me. A Twitter conversation about it put me out of my misery. The title refers to the lyrics of a once popular music hall song – which describes a mis-directed traveller. This is also explained in the introduction to this edition – but of course I don’t read introductions until I have finished the book.

Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham
And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
Take me back to London, as quickly as you can,
Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

In London, Denham is introduced to a world she really doesn’t understand. The world of society writers and publishers, where people are always coming together to socialise – to talk! Her Gresham relatives are very well meaning and kind – but they struggle to understand Denham – who immediately dislikes London – and she struggles to understand them. Denham has no idea what to talk about at dinner – each social situation more agonising than the last.

“At dinner that night, when her neighbour said to her, ‘Did you see the Guitrys last week?’ she replied in the manner of Ollendorf, ‘No, but the hair of my dog is coming out. Do you know the best treatment for it?’

The Greshams are conventional, gossipy, self-absorbed and shallow. Denham is something of a rebel – tongue-tied and awkward in company – she soon recognises her relatives and their friends for what they are.

Denham loves the outdoors, prefers the country to London, she likes to be alone, likes fishing and playing games. She dresses just how she likes – she doesn’t understand her aunt’s horror of her apparel – and when Evelyn says she really can’t go out like that – Denham can’t understand it – as she just did. Denham meets Arnold – her uncle’s junior partner in the publishing firm. They fall head over heels – Denham reminds Arthur how much he loves some of those things too. Together they go fishing, play games in front of the fire. However, Arnold also loves society, he likes London and has to be there for work. To the Greshams disapproval Denham and Arnold get married. Denham is horrified by all the domestic conventions she must adhere to.

“But Evelyn gave Denham the true reason why they must not put all the food on the table at once.
‘You mustn’t try to be original yet, Denham dear. You don’t know well enough yet how to keep rules to break them safely. You must wait a bit, and meanwhile do things like other people. You see, when you break social rules, you should always seem to be ahead of fashion and convention not lagging behind them, do you see what I mean?’

On a holiday to Cornwall Denham discovers a cave with a secret passage leading up to a small, disused cottage. This is just the thing to delight the newly-weds – and they set about arranging to rent it for a year. They are like a couple of kids playing house – taking bits and pieces over to the cottage – Denham insisting that Arnold keep the secret passage a dead secret. The novelty of the cave and passageway to the sea soon wears off for Arnold– who finds he doesn’t like sleeping there. So, it isn’t long before cracks are beginning to show – with Denham wanting to stay by the sea in Cornwall with their little dog, and Arnold needing to return to London. Denham stays at the cottage for an extra few weeks – and Arnold returns to London. Here, the Greshams gossip and interfere causing all sorts of mischief at the couple’s expense. Will Denham ever be able to settle down to life with Arnold? – host afternoon tea, manage the servants, know the right conversation?

In this novel Macaulay highlights the absurdity in conventional society – the so called civilised way of life that Evelyn Gresham and her family are so much a part of. Macaulay is frequently very funny in her recreation of this world. In this entertaining comedy of manners Macaulay provides sharply observed social commentary. However, Crewe Train is also the poignant story of a young woman going relentlessly in the wrong direction.


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thetrick to time

Kit de Waal’s new novel The Trick to Time has been eagerly anticipated by many of us who fell in love with Leon – the child narrator in her debut novel My name is Leon. I rather lost my heart to Leon – and so this novel had rather a lot to live up to. I enjoyed A Trick to Time every bit as much as I enjoyed that earlier novel – though probably in a different way.

My Name is Leon, is a novel with the city of Birmingham very much at its heart. The Trick to Time is (in part at least) a novel about who some of the people who came to Birmingham from Ireland were. Where they came from, how they lived and the shattering effect upon them of the night of November 21st, 1974. I was just six in November 1974, living in a suburb of Birmingham, my mum was in the city centre that day with some other women from her church. She was in a different part of the city centre up on broad street, so didn’t even know about what had happened till she got home. It was an event that had a massive impact on the city – and I think continues to. The Birmingham pub bombings are a back drop to the novel – and highlights the volatile nature of the relationships between Irish and non-Irish in the city during those years.

However, it is also about much more than that, there is a deceptive lightness of touch here, but Kit de Waal executes this multi-layered novel exquisitely. The Trick to Time is a novel about love, loss and grief – what do you do when you lose the love of your life? Using three, time periods and three different settings, kit de Waal weaves together the heart-breaking stories of people who carry a grief inside them every day.

“One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer.”

Mona grew up in a small town on the coast of Ireland. Her mother died when she was a child, for years Mona is her father’s constant companion. She is a witness to his grief, feeling the absence of her mother throughout her childhood. She and her father spend many Sundays with Bridie – a distant relative of Mona’s mother – who Mona is horribly bored by – not appreciating how for Bridie she and her father are all she has left.

As a young woman, Mona travels to Birmingham, gets a room in a boarding house, a job – the independence and excitement she had once dreamed of in Ireland. Here she meets William, also originally from Ireland, he’s charming with an easy smile and the two are soon smitten. Mona meets Williams’s aunts nicknamed Pestilence and Famine, they become family.

“In the evenings they go to the Bear in Sparkhill. It’s an Irish pub and a man’s pub full of labourers who want a break from their rented rooms and their own company, and middle-aged husbands let off the leash after mass. Nicholas Doyle is always in the corner with his accordion or violin and a couple of drinks lined up on the table to his right. That’s where William likes to sit, right near the music, near the musician’s elbow jerking his bow through the air or folding and unfolding the accordion that sits in his lap like a baby. Talking is almost impossible.”

Mona and William marry, but these are difficult days, and sometimes William has to work away. The world conspires to separate them at the end of 1974 – and Mona has to find a way of carrying on.

Now Mona lives in an English seaside town, she is contemplating her sixtieth birthday in a few days’ time, and works quietly in her shop, making dolls for collectors, creating gorgeously detailed outfits for them. With the help of a local carpenter Mona makes other dolls – special dolls that she uses to help women grappling with the over whelming grief of a stillbirth.

“‘It was only the kindness of a stranger that gave me the time to say goodbye. And that kindness gave me forty-five minutes with my child and I turned that forty-five minutes into a lifetime, into all the days and hours and weeks and years that we would never have together.”

The Trick to Time is a wonderfully compelling novel – I loved Mona – her story is one I’ll not forget easily. Many people I suspect will be profoundly moved and affected by the themes in this novel which are explored with sensitivity and understanding. It is a novel with a wonderful final line – I do love a novel with a heart stopping final line.


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Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

At the end of last year, when I was thinking about reading challenges for 2018, I decided to attempt to read more fiction in translation. I suppose I read a few of these books each year – but I have ever deliberately set out to do so. I signed up for the Asymptote book club, subscribers receive one work in translation a month and access to a Facebook discussion group. Initially I signed up for three months, but when that came to an end I took the plunge and subscribed again for a full year. This has all quite obviously whetted my appetite, as I recently found myself asking for recommendations of mid-twentieth century women writers (my comfort zone) in translation. One of the first names suggested was Clarice Lispector, a name I had vaguely heard before but knew nothing about. So, I bought Near to the Wild Heart just a couple of weeks ago, intending to save it for Women in Translation month, only to find myself reading it a few days later.

Clarice Lispector was born in Ukraine but moved to Brazil with her parents as a young child. Near to the Wild Heart was her first novel, published in 1943 around the time of her twenty-third birthday. It was greeted with great acclaim, and won the author the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. Lispector writes in a stream of consciousness style which is reminiscent of modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. The epigraph for the novel comes from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”

A slim novel, it is nevertheless challenging, beautifully written – the perspective changes throughout, and is impressionistic, dreamlike and introspective. I was reminded particularly of Virginia Woolf – it being a very long time since I attempted James Joyce (one novel was enough). The central character; Joana continually asking herself philosophical questions – questioning her relationship with everything including objects around her. Much, I think is therefore required of the reader, and I’m certain some of it went over my head. Apologies if I have made this sound difficult and dull, although maybe not easy – Lispector’s prose is glorious, and even those more difficult sections are a joy to read.

“When I suddenly see myself in the depths of the mirror, I take fright. I can scarcely believe that I have limits, that I am outlined and defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself. When I suddenly see myself in the mirror, I am not startled because I find myself ugly or beautiful. I discover, in fact, that I possess another quality. When I haven’t looked at myself for some time, I almost forget that I am human, I tend to forget my past, and I find myself with the same deliverance from purpose and conscience as something that is barely alive. I am also surprised to find as I gaze into the pale mirror with open eyes that there is so much in me beyond what is known, so much that remains ever silent.”

There is not an enormous amount of plot, which is not something that ever really bothers me. The novel tells the story of Joana, from her childhood, alone with her father, writing him poetry, through the changes that come to her childhood and adolescence, to her marriage to Otávio, through to her decision to make her own way in the world. Even as a child Joana is free thinking and unusual. Lispector’s descriptions of Joana’s thought processes and interactions with the world around her are quite wonderful.

“She lay belly-down in the sand, hand covering her face, leaving only a tiny crack for air. It grew dark dark and circles and red blotches, full, tremulous spots slowly began to appear, growing and shrinking. The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it. Even with her eyes closed she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly quickly, also with closed eyelids. Then they meekly returned, palms splayed body loose. It was good to hear their sound.”

There is an untamed, creativity to Joana, her father calls her his little egg. The novel moves back and forth from the present time, when Joana is a young, married woman, to her past, her childhood and later the years she spends living with her aunt.

“The aunt’s house was a refuge where the wind and the light didn’t enter. The maid sat down with a sigh in the dismal entrance hall, where, among the heavy, dark furniture, the smiles of framed men glowed slightly. Joana remained standing, barely breathing in the lukewarm smell that came sweet and still after the pungent ocean air. Mould and tea with sugar.”

When Joana’s father dies, Joana is sent to another part of the country to an Aunt. Who lives near the beach. Her life changes, her wildness leading her Aunt to call her a viper. The aunt remains rather afraid of Joana. As an adolescent Joana becomes fascinated with her teacher, regarding his wife jealously, arranging a meeting with him a few years later, just before her marriage. Joana marries Otávio, who had previously been engaged to Lídia, although he doesn’t seem very committed to marriage with Joana. Even when Otávio continues his relationship with Lídia, and makes her pregnant, Joana seems more taken up with her interior life, than what is happening in her marriage. Her musings on life, death and discovering who it is she really is are very much at the heart of this extraordinary novel.

As a character Joana is quite difficult to get a firm handle on, despite the fact the novel is very largely taken up with her progress through life, she remains quite elusive. Joana is quite disconnected from the world she inhabits, and from the people around her – her emotions are very cool often she views her own emotions as if from the outside.

I both enjoyed and was confounded by this novel – overall this was a quite wonderful reading experience. Near to the Wild Heart is a novel I should probably get more out of with a second reading. I can’t help but wonder about the young woman who wrote it, what a mind she must have had. I’m sure I will read more by her in time. Clarice Lispector has been a good discovery for me – a challenging literary novelist in translation. I wonder which I should read next?

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