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The Harsh voice is a collection of four short novels (four long short stories is probably more accurate) that each deal with corrupting influence of money and hate. The title coming from a poem by Richard Wynne Errington.

“Speaks the harsh voice

We hear when money talks, or hate,

Then comes the softest answer.”

First published in 1935 the stories straddle the period dominated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Rebecca West had travelled to America several times, and in these four brilliant pieces – three of which are set in the US – she perfectly recreates an American voice. Through these stories we see something of the America that Rebecca West experienced during the 1920s.

Life Sentence concerns both the corruption of money and the hate and misery that can come out of an unsuitable marriage. Corrie Dickson is a good natured young man when he marries his fiancé Josephine against his better judgement. Corrie had somewhat half-heartedly tried to break off the engagement, not counting on the iron will of the sweet little girl he was engaged to. Josie never really forgives him for what Corries later refers to as his attack of cold feet. Corries’s uncertainty on the eve of their wedding overshadows their whole marriage – and in time he begins to see his wife as two people, Josie the soft, lovable girl he fell in love with and Josephine an unforgiving, ambitious woman chasing money. She has become a strident, accusatory woman, who is about a lot more than mere motherhood or marriage.

“And as he knelt by the bed where she had cast herself, and whispered to her that he could not bear it if she would not turn her head that way, that something grew colder still and said, in time to his heartbeat. ‘This is a life sentence, this is a life sentence.’”

Josephine represents a new breed of American woman that was emerging during this period, confident businesswomen taking their place alongside men.

There is no conversation opens in Paris, Etienne de Sevenac a vain French aristocrat who prides himself on his youthful looks and success with women, relates to an unnamed friend how he fell foul of American businesswoman; Nancy Sarle. Etienne has lost – or is about to lose – everything. He’s never worked, relying on his inheritance to fund the lifestyle he enjoys so much. Etienne’s listener (we find out more about her later) is fascinated by Nancy Sarle. She travels to America, infiltrating the very society that will, eventually bring her face to face with this infamously, powerful businesswoman.

This story is particularly strong, it explores the nature of hate and revenge and more importantly the misconceptions between people. Nancy and Etienne are so different to one another – their concerns and experiences such that each was completely incapable of understanding the other. Rebecca West’s characterisation here – as in all four of these pieces is brilliant – the voices of her characters authentic and believably of the times.

The Salt of the Earth is the only story in this collection set in England, it would be hard to pick a favourite piece in The Harsh Voice, but this one might slightly have the edge for me. In this piece West introduces us to another wonderfully monstrous character in Alice Pemberton. Alice is the salt of the earth, an Englishwoman who likes to help everyone around her – her mother, her siblings, their spouses and children – she just wants to ensure they don’t continue to make the mistakes she sees them making. However, her help is destructive, she appears to be utterly unaware of the effect she has. Alice’s husband sees it all though, and so when Alice returns from a visit to her mother, he tries to talk to her about it.

Alice has been ill, and when she leaves her mother’s house to return home, her mother is so relieved to be rid of her, she can’t hide it – and no one at home is pleased to see her. Alice approaches home, thinking she will catch the servants out – but her mother has called ahead – knowing what would lie in store for the poor servants if anything is out of place.

“Of course the servants adored her. Well, so they might. She knew she had an almost perfect manner with subordinates, and she really took trouble over training them and thinking out devices for ridding them of their little faults. She would never need to part with her servants, if it was not for the curious vein of madness running through all women of that class, which invariably came out sooner or later in some wild attack of causeless rage.”

The reader suspects, what Alice’s fate will be, the clues are there from the start – but that just makes the story all the more compelling. West builds the suspense wonderfully in this story, and it was probably that along with its very Englishness which made me love it as much as I did.

The final story in this quartet is The Abiding Vision, a story about the destructive power of money, but also a story about love. Sam Hartley is a self-made man, he has risen from rough beginnings in Butte, Montana to Park Avenue in New York. His wife Lulah has been by his side throughout, but now as Sam has reached his peak of success in middle age, his beloved, kindly Lulah is looking and feeling her age. Sam takes a mistress, a chorus girl named Lily. For Lily, in the beginning at least, their arrangement is a business deal – and for Sam, still committed to his evenings with Lulah, and taking care of her, it’s exactly what he wants. Years pass, and Lulah becomes ill, and Sam is hit hard by the Wall Street crash.

These stories are brilliant, compulsively readable, portraying the America of the 1920s particularly well. One thing that troubled me; Rebecca West puts some rather unpleasant Antisemitism into the mouths and thoughts of a few of her characters. Thoughts prevalent at the time no doubt, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something West was portraying as being authentic of these types of people at this time, or whether in it we see something of her own attitudes. I tend to assume the former.

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Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

When I bought this little collection of stories, I did so because I wanted to learn something about a country that I don’t know much about. I also wasn’t aware just how small a collection it was. As it was, I read it in the car on the way home from Devon last Saturday.

Before I started reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, I had to ask myself what I knew about Sudan – and the answer was not much. My impressions of the country coming almost entirely from BBC news reports. I found myself googling pictures of the cities in Sudan so I could at least have some realistic images of the places I was reading about.

Rania Mamoun is a Sudanese author, journalist and activist, Thirteen Months of Sunrise is her debut collection of stories, though she has previously published two novels in Arabic.

“Thirteen is not a superstitious or unlucky number, it’s the number of months in a year in Ethiopia.

But that’s another story.”

There are ten stories in a collection that only runs to 70 pages, some are really very short indeed. What I found particularly fascinating was how over the course of all the stories a portrait of modern Sudan starts to emerge.

The collection opens with the title story, in which a young woman working in a computer shop meets an Ethiopian man. She fixes his computer and they start to get to know each other. They talk about Abyssinian culture and start spending more time together.

“We laughed a lot that day, and when he said, ‘I feel at home in this country,’ I was filled with joy that I’d managed to ease his sharp loneliness.”

In Passing, a young woman mourns her father – hears his voice asking why she never became a doctor. She remembers Eid, the day her father became ill. It’s a poignant reminder, should we need it, that whoever we are, wherever we may happen to live, the loss of a parent is always seismic, whatever it is that roots you to this earth is severely shaken.

“Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’”

In Doors, a man leaves his home for a new job. The water isn’t on that morning, he hasn’t paid the bill, the bathroom door is riddled with holes, but nothing can spoil his good mood. A new job, things are looking up. I read on with a sinking feeling.

“He reached the businessman’s office on the second floor, and gazed at the beautiful door, solid and well made. It must be from a factory that makes doors and windows and other things, or maybe it’s imported, he thought to himself. At any rate, it definitely hadn’t come from a workshop in the nearby industrial zone.

A sleek, elegant plaque was affixed up high, engraved with the word DIRECTOR.

He felt the door, how cold it was, and took a deep breath. He grasped the handle and said to himself: I’ve done it; at last I’ve made it into the world.”

In A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle a woman wonders about the elderly woman who appears to have chosen to sleep on the ground near the mosque wall. She’s made a home of sorts under the neem tree, but other people in the neighbourhood said she used to own a house, has children and was tricked out of her money by ‘Madam Cash’. Some people call her a mad woman, the narrator wonders why she is all alone here, why does she keep running away from her family.

In other stories; a woman goes to a charity office day after day to beg for the money needed to help her dying son, children go hungry, a woman travels by bus from one city to another watching a fly on the window. They are stories of ordinary people, the destitute and the lost, in the midst of which we witness those things which make life so difficult for people in Sudan.

Rania Mamoun’s thought provoking collection explores isolation and estrangement within Sudanese urban life. Here is the deep love of a woman for her country and she writes about it with a complete understanding.

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Translated from French by Faith Evans.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy

It’s not very long since I last read Madeleine Bourdouxhe but this little collection from Pushkin Press was just so perfect for #Witmonth I couldn’t possibly hang on to it any longer. I love the cover image – what a fabulous attitude.

Seven of these eight stories have a woman right at the heart of them, just one story concerns a man. Taking place in Belgium and France just before or just after the Second World War, the period during which most of them were written these stories depict ordinary women. Women who are reflective, lonely or locked in unsatisfying relationships. Three of the stories were written much later as Faith Evans explains in her introduction. The occupation overshadows many of these beautiful stories – with two of the stories, the first and the last based quite heavily on Bourdouxhe’s own experiences.

In the title story; A Nail, A Rose Irene walks homeward through the icy and darkness, ruminating on her failed relationship. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man from behind, he is wielding a hammer somewhat half-heartedly. Irene engages the man in conversation – he helps her stem the bleeding, walks her home – he is oddly childlike in his eagerness to please.

“He got out his handkerchief and tried to clean her hair, to staunch the wound. She was standing up, her heart racing. A man was wiping blood from her hair – and although he was doing it gently, she was in pain. He was holding the torch on a level with their faces, and she could see his pale greyish skin and the lock of brown hair that fell on to his forehead. He’d pushed his cap back and his face looked young and very thin. It was the face of an archangel or a fool: that look could belong to either one or the other.”

From here the attacker seems to begin to romantically pursue Irene – who appears less alarmed by this behaviour than one might imagine. The whole story has a bizarreness that can only come from real life. It’s a fabulous opening to an excellent collection.

Five of the stories are titled with the names of their central characters; Anna, Louise, Leah, Clara, Blanche and René. Here we have housewives who dream about the possibility of another life; one of them Anna is fascinated by the woman across the road – who like Anna is living above a garage, serving petrol to travellers who come along, but the other woman has a fancy chignon in her hair. Leah is involved with strikers; Leah finds herself taking drastic action to help the strike achieve its desired ends. Louise is a maid who longs to escape the drudgery of her life, she spends her day looking forward to the evening when she will go out, have a drink and maybe speak to men. She dreams of being friends with her employer – Madame – and tries on Madam’s coat. René is a hairdresser – who has an odd slightly dreamlike, fantastical encounter with one of his clients.

Sous le pont Mirabeau is the longest story in the collection, published here for the first time in English. The illustrations which first accompanied it reproduced with it. It is a story, which like the opening story is based on events in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s own life.

“There were people everywhere, men, women and children, twenty or twenty five in a lorry, seven or eight in a vehicle meant for four. She was stretched out in the back of a lorry, her tiny baby on top of her, looking straight ahead with impatience in her eyes. She’d brought it upon herself, she thought, getting caught up in this escape – yet she wasn’t really fleeing or abandoning anything, she was merely responding to an appeal. The clarity of her memories guided her like a star.”

Set in 1940, it depicts the desperate flight of Belgians trying to get to France at the time of the occupation. A woman gives birth to a daughter just as the evacuation begins. She has no option, but to take her tiny daughter on the perilous journey, travelling in jeeps with soldiers, staying with kind-hearted strangers along the way.  It is an extraordinary reminder of the times, just what hardships people had to face in the midst of the fear and disruption of occupation. There was clearly much uncertainty and yet despite that, there is hope.

This is an excellent collection – I do hope there is more Madeleine Bourdouxhe novels and stories to be discovered and translated into English. If you’re yet to discover her short novels; La Femme des Gilles and Marie are both wonderful.

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Daphne Du Maurier reading week started yesterday, but I began my reading last week – mainly because I am quite busy, and I wanted to read and review at least two books. I decided to begin with The Breaking Point – a collection of short stories is always a good choice for a busy week. It’s an excellent collection.

Eight stories of suspense that often cross the boundaries of reality, Du Maurier’s imagination is extraordinary – so you never quite know what she’ll throw at you, that’s exciting. In these stories, we see characters who have reached their breaking point. Stories which take us from the residential streets of London, to the wards of a nursing home, to Venice, a fictional European state, Hollywood and the Devon moors.

The collection opens with The Alibi – the Fentons are a dull middle-aged couple – their lives are unchanging, a walk every Sunday afternoon, drinks with the Alhusons, who are just as dull. One day James Fenton can’t take it anymore – and decides he must vary the routine. On a whim – he walks down a different street and selects a door to knock on.

“Fenton took off his hat. The impulse was strong within him to say, ‘I have come to strangle you, You and your child. I bear you no malice whatever. It just happens that I am the instrument of fate sent for this purpose.’ Instead, he smiled. The woman was pallid like the child on the steps, with the same expressionless eyes, the same lank hair. Her age might have been anything from twenty to thirty-five. She was wearing a woollen cardigan too big for her, and her dark, bunched skirt, ankle-length, made her seem squat.

‘Do you let rooms?’ asked Fenton.”

Fenton then enters into a peculiar double life – for months spending his afternoons in the basement room where he takes up painting. Throughout this brilliantly plotted story the reader waits, heart in mouth for something terrible to happen.

The Blue Lenses is surely the most disturbing and memorable story in the collection. Marda West rests patiently in a nursing home, following an operation on her eyes. Her eyes have been bandaged for days – temporary blue lenses have been put into her eyes – which will be replaced by permanent ones after a couple of days. Mrs West has befriended the gentle, soothing nurse who looks after her – arranging for her to spend a week of her holiday nursing Marda in her convalescence (not much of a holiday, I agree). She looks forward eagerly to her husband’s visits. She is eagerly anticipating the removal of the bandages – what will she see through these blue lenses? The operation appears to have been entirely successful, but Marda can’t even begin to imagine what will happen when the bandages are removed.

In Ganymede a classical scholar travels to Venice where he is almost instantly drawn to a young waiter who he casts as his own Ganymede. Utterly besotted he returns to the same bar each evening. However, the beautiful young man also has an uncle, a tout the tourist is unable to rid himself of, the man appears everywhere, even arranging for a change of accommodation. It’s a story that plays cleverly on our own fears and paranoia – and is wonderfully atmospheric but the scene is set for tragedy.  

In The Pool two children return to their grandparents house for their summer holidays. The garden has been there waiting for them all year – and Deborah has spent the whole year dreaming of it – and being back there.

“Surely sometimes it must mock the slow steps of Grandpa pacing up and down the terrace in front of the windows, or Grandmama calling to Patch? The garden has to endure month after month of silence, while the children were gone. Even the spring and the days of May and June were wasted, all those mornings of butterflies and darting birds, with no one to watch by Patch gasping for breath on a cool stone slab. So wasted was the garden, so lost.”

Deborah takes herself off to the pool at the end of the garden – having thrown off her brother – she wants to experience it by herself. Here she enters a secret, alternative world – and one that could be terrifyingly perilous.

Other stories take us to rather less well known locations, a fictional kingdom in Europe in The Archduchess, where revolution threatens to topple the ruling family – who are gifted with the secret of eternal youth.

In The Menace – the least sinister story – a Hollywood movie star has been the darling of the silver screen for years. With the advent of a new medium – ‘the feelies’ he is found wanting – the feeling he gives off just not strong enough. Something must be done.

In The Chamois an obsessional hunter journeys to the Kalabaka in the Pindus mountains of Greece to hunt the elusive chamois. His wife is to accompany him, she doesn’t understand his obsession. The two set out, with a strange, frozen eyed guide who leads them up the mountain to where the chamois have been seen.

In The Lordly Ones, a young mute boy is taken by his parents from their home in Exeter to the moors. No one ever explains anything to him – he is treated cruelly and negligently – so the child’s imagination fills in the gaps of his understanding – leading to even more confusion. My heart broke for this child – who while watching from his window sees The Lordly Ones and decides to join them.

Eight, wonderfully immersive stories – the kind you gulp down, sitting up too late at night. What an endlessly inventive writer Daphne Du Maurier was, I already knew she was a great short story writer – from the Don’t Look Now collection, these are every bit as readable.

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As the LT Virago group continue ‘reading the 1940s’ our March theme is women – which saw me reading Liana by Martha Gellhorn earlier this month. My second book for this month’s theme was The Persimmon Tree and other stories, a book taking me to Australia. In these stories Marjorie Barnard explores the experience of women, the bonds between them and the relationships they have with men. This VMC edition includes three additional stories originally not included when the collection was first published in 1943.

Marjorie Barnard established a writing partnership with Flora Eldershaw with whom she produced both novels and works of criticism. They published under the name M Barnard Eldershaw for almost twenty years. Marjorie Barnard’s only successful solo work was The Persimmon Tree and other stories.  

Other themes in these beautifully observed stories include rivalry between women, illicit love, new relationships and those gone sour. Women who must face up to loneliness or a changing world, women who manipulate their men to their ways, and others who turn a blind eye to the ways of their men. A couple grieve their youngest child at Christmas, a man hears about his wife’s lottery win with surprise but no idea of what she might really have in mind for her winnings. A woman goes to buy a hat at her children’s insistence another tries to get over a love affair.

“‘I am like a young girl in love,’ she reproached herself. ‘I have no right to this.’ She told herself bitterly ‘I am old enough to know better.’ She was swept with nostalgia for youth when at least love was not ridiculous, when one had a right to grief, even to a broken heart. She told herself, driving in the statements like nails; ‘I am nearly forty, I am a widow, everything is over.”

(The Woman who Did the Right Thing)

Despite being a fairly slim book – less than 200 pages – there are twenty stories here, some really very short – too many to discuss in detail here. I can attempt to give only a flavour by picking out a few that stand out.

The Arrow of Mistletoe is the story that opens the collection. Lisca Munro is married to a very successful business man. Her love is blind, and Lisca seems totally unaware of her husband’s ways of doing business. He has arranged a huge, expensive dinner party – that Lisca is dimly aware they can’t afford – in order to ensnare another man of business for one of his schemes.

The title story The Persimmon Tree is a short subtle story – in which a woman recovering from an illness, takes a new flat. She watches the flats opposite, the street outside and the shadow of the tree on her wall. In this way the woman comes face to face with her own loneliness – and it is quite exquisitely rendered.

“Persimmons belong to autumn and this was spring. I went to the window to look again. Yes, they were there, they were real. I had not imagined them, autumn fruit warming to a ripe transparency in the spring sunshine. They must have come, expensively packed in sawdust, from California or have lain all winter in storage. Fruit out of season.”

(The Persimmon Tree)

In The Bride Elect a delicate young city woman is adapting to life on a sheep farm as she prepares to marry her Jim. Myra loves the landscape she sees all around her, but she is unused to the life of the farm – and Myra knows that her fiancé’s sister doesn’t think she is a suitable wife. Myra is confident of Jim’s adoration – but when his attention is momentarily turned in another direction, she needs to turn him back to her. It is a brilliant story of sly feminine manipulation.

The setting of Beauty is Strength is a beauty salon, where Ida Berrington comes to have the waves put back into her hair. Here, under the observation of the young women who see all their clients as they truly are, Mrs Berrington reflects on her life and her marriage in particular. Plans forming in her mind.

“The shreds of evidence were working like splinters in her brain. There was the letter addressed to Ced lying on the table with the other mail when she came in yesterday afternoon. She recognised Viola’s handwriting at once, large eager, rather unformed. It didn’t surprise her much, for Viola was in constant need of expression. She was for ever telephoning her friends about some new enthusiasm, writing little notes, copying sentiments that pleased her, out of the novels that she read into arty leather note books. But this wasn’t a little note. It was bulky; even in Viola’s sprawling script, a long letter. She had weighed it speculatively and put it by with an open mind. She wasn’t, she often told people – particularly Ced – a jealous wife, nor would she be but for the possessive streak as strong in her as instinct in an animal.”

(Beauty is Strength)

In The New Dress a young woman is enchanted by the new dress she has bought for what she sees as an important day out with her boyfriend – a day which will culminate in tea with his aunt. The dress has taken weeks of sacrifice to buy – and too much importance is put on to it. The day is blighted by the dress – which must be kept clean, not spoiled – so of course, it is the day itself that is ruined.

Only one story is set outside Australia – Fighting in Vienna. Kathie lives alone with her canary – and worried about getting seed for her dear little feathered friend she ventures out, persuaded that it will be safe as there hasn’t been any firing since the day before. However, as she crosses the square on the way to the shop firing does break out and Kathie is caught up in it. Lying in hospital Kathie reflects on another war and a young man she loved. The canary is left waiting in vain for her return, quite different to other stories in this collection, it’s a beautiful, deeply poignant story.

Marjorie Barnard’s stories depict many aspects of women’s lives, and by extension the lives of their men. They are gorgeous, beautifully written, very definitely my kind of stories. Written precisely and sparely – they frequently portray a world where appearances are too often the most important thing.

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The Rental Heart and other Fairytales was chosen by my very small book group for our March read. The group met last Wednesday but I wasn’t able to go – however I had already read the book. A slim collection of stories by a writer I hadn’t read before (perhaps a story in an anthology – I can’t quite remember), as someone who likes short stories, I was looking forward to it. However, it didn’t really hit the spot for me, and ultimately, I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t hate them, I really liked Logan’s writing, her imagery is richly imaginative, yet something didn’t gel with me and these stories – and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was partly my mood, because looking back there were some lovely nuggets and while about half the stories left me a bit cold – some were really very good. Kirsty Logan is clearly a good writer – I was perhaps the wrong reader.

“I met Baba Yaga at the end of childhood – past pigtails and fairytales, but not quite ready to give up on make-believe.” 

(Witch)

Twenty tales – some so short they run to little more than a few paragraphs, they all follow themes of lust and loss – with lots of lgbt characters existing in slightly altered worlds. Many characters written so well I was frustrated that they weren’t explored deeper in a longer story. Here we meet people carrying clockwork hearts inside them, lascivious queens, paper men, teenagers sporting tails and antlers, a girl searching for Baba Yaga in the woods. The tales take place in different times and different places; including nineteenth century Paris, the Isle of Skye, a strange flooded world and 1920s New Orleans.

In The Rental Heart; the opening story in the collection, a young woman finds herself returning to the heart rental shop after she meets Grace.

“The day after I met Grace – her pierced little mouth, her shitkicker boots, her hands as small as goosebumps writing numbers on my palm. The day after I met her, I went to the heart rental place.”

(The rental heart)

In A Skulk of Saints two women live in a caravan between a discount tile shop and an abandoned petrol station. They are awaiting the birth of their child – there is a gorgeous atmosphere to this story – one of several that ended a little too soon for me.

In Coin-Operated Boys a strange love triangle emerges in nineteenth century Paris between a man, a woman and a coin-operated boy. Here technology, love, jealousy and historical fiction collide in a story that could easily have been extended to fill an entire novel.

The Gracekeeper was one of my favourite stories – a story of loss – and recovery, although nothing much happens. The imagery Logan uses is really lovely.

“The graces are restless today. They pweet and muss, shuddering their wings so that the feathers stick out at defensive angles. I feel that restlessness too. When the sea is fractious like this – when it chutters and schwaks against the moorings, when it won’t talk but only mumbles – it’s difficult to think.” 

(The Gracekeeper)

Some of these stories are modern fables, some reworkings of traditional tales – others are Logan’s own. I really hope I will read Kirsty Logan again one day, as there was a lot about her writing that I really liked. If this collection had just been longer versions of about seven or eight of these stories, I would probably have loved it – so many other readers seem to have loved it, so I am rather sorry I didn’t.

My book group have now picked our next two books – which I have been forced (no really) to buy, I make myself feel better by passing on via bookcrossing the majority of my book group reads.

In April we will be reading Bookworm; A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – which seemed to be reviewed enthusiastically everywhere last year. As it didn’t fit into my A Century of Books which obsessed me all of 2018 – I resisted, and my book group waited to pick it until it was in paperback. I think it’s one we are all looking forward to.

In May we will be reading The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. When my friend messaged me after the book group on Wednesday that I missed to tell me which book had been picked – I admit – my reaction was – “what?” or words to that effect. Then I looked it up and thought – ‘oh ok that might be interesting’ – the Guardian called it “Inventive and unflashily wise about human hearts.”

Are you in a book group? – what will you be reading next with it?

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

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

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

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

(from Snow)

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

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

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

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

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

(from Parties)

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

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

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

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

(from The Squirrel)

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

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

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