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Two reviews today in a bid to catch up a little – apologies for the long post. Two quite different novels with nothing to connect them, except they are both excellent and come highly recommended by me.

China Court – Rumer Godden (1961)

I read China Court for Rumer Godden reading week, which was back toward the beginning of December, and can’t really explain why I have waited till now to review it, because I loved it. It was a slow reading week that week, and I spent almost the whole week reading that one book – and in a way that was a joy, because the book was so lovely, I enjoyed spending time in the world of China Court, meeting a host of different people from below and above stairs who had lived there.

Tracy Quin is the daughter of a screen star, she grew up in a variety of places around the world, but China Court where she lived for a while as a child, with her grandmother is the place that really has her heart. Tracy returns to Cornwall, and China Court after her grandmother’s death. The house is full of memories for Tracy, the place she always meant to return to – and now she feels it might be too late. Her grandmother’s death has set in motion certain events – there are things which must be sorted out – decisions to be made. The relatives start to gather – the aunts and uncles who all have very strong opinions which they are happy to share. Tracy feels as if she is losing China Court just as she has found it again. It is a special place to her because of Mrs Quin her grandmother, who dedicated herself to the gardens for so many years.

“In summer the beds are like the flowered stuffs sold in shops, blue, white, and pink. The garden is filled with the scent of lilies that sometimes wins against the clove smell of the pinks, and at night there is the scent of stocks and white tobacco flowers. In late July, the great bushes of hydrangeas, blue and purple, have heads as big as dinner plates and sway across the drive if they are heavy with rain.”

As Tracy comes to terms with her loss, and tries to reconcile herself to the idea of the loss of China Court, she meets Peter St, Omer who farms Penbarrow on her grandmother’s land. Peter is from a once prosperous family, in the area, a family with a long complex history of its own. Peter’s future is now as much tangled up in what happens with China Court as Tracy’s is.

Alongside the story of Tracy, Peter, and the aftermath of Mrs Quins death – Godden evokes the stories of the previous four generations. For me that is what made this novel so special, the way Rumer Godden weaves these stories almost seamlessly through the main narrative. In this way we get to know the cheating Jared, the sad, beautiful Lady Patrick, the embittered Spinster Eliza, who finds an unusual outlet for her dissatisfaction, and Ripsie, an outcast orphan and her love for two brothers, who rose to become a powerful matriarch at China Court. It’s testament to Godden’s skill that she is able to weave so many stories through the central narrative – all these people step fully formed from the pages. The people and places of a Rumer Godden novel are always extremely well drawn, making her novels fully immersive and compelling. A real pleasure to spend time with. The only very slight issue I had with this lovely novel was the last few pages (no spoilers) it jarred quite a bit, and includes a scene which I found rather dated.

One of the main delights though is the story of a very special book collection – no spoilers, but book collectors will adore it.

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan (2020)

This is a novella that has been reviewed widely by other bloggers, a much loved novella, and I can see why. It was also recently featured on the BBC TV programme Between the Covers. Small Things Like These is a slight, powerfully told novella – set in a small Irish town in 1985 in the run up to Christmas.

“It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.”

This was a gorgeously written novel, beautifully, elegantly spare, not a word is wasted in this emotional little story. The novel is dedicated to the women and children who were kept in the Magdalene laundries during that most dark period in Irish history.

Bill Furlong is a family man, and coal merchant, it is his busiest time of year, but there is also a recession on. His wife and five daughters are preparing for Christmas, looking forward to the Christmas celebrations in the town. Bill has known hardship in his life – and he is well aware of how different his life, and the life of his mother could have been. His mother had been very young and unmarried when she gave birth to Bill, but thanks to the kindness and support of a local wealthy woman, who gave Bill’s mother both a home and a job, becoming in time like family to them both – he grew up in safety and love.

Keegan shows us what a cloak of secrecy there was around certain issues in small towns like this in Ireland. These are good people, but they have grown up knowing some things aren’t spoken about, some things just are, and at the heart of all of that – is the church.

One of Bill’s regular customers is the local convent, the nuns there run a training school for girls – of course what it really is, is a mother and baby home. Things known, but not spoken of. One morning while delivering coal to the convent Bill makes a discovery that leaves him with a big dilemma. He discovers a young girl, cold and dirty locked in the coal shed – she begs him to find out what he can about what has happened to her baby. Bill takes the girl inside to the nuns, who make a great show of gently scolding her, feeding her and warming her up, while pouring out cups of tea to Bill. It’s one of those terrible situations where everyone really knows what is going on.

Bill is horrified by this experience, should he maintain the silence that surrounds such things, or expose the convent? He is left in no doubt that speaking out will risk his daughters’ futures as they attend the school attached to the convent. He speaks to his wife – she urges him to leave well alone – but Bill is horribly conflicted, and can’t quite forget the young girl he met that morning.

“…he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”

Claire Keegan is a well known short story writer, and although I haven’t read her stories yet – it is evident that this is an author in superb control, the ability to tell the story of this town and its secrets in under a hundred pages is phenomenal.

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Still working my way through the books I read in November. The Optimist’s Daughter at around 180 pages was one of the slight novels I chose for #novnov. Eudora Welty was a prolific short story writer publishing twelve collections of short stories between 1936 and 1988 and as well as some essays she also published six novels. My experience of Eudora Welty has been somewhat mixed – I began reading her penultimate novel Losing Battles some years ago – but got totally bogged down in it – I couldn’t finish it. I have kept the book among my green viragos though, so do intend to try again one day. Three years ago I read Delta Wedding, Welty’s second novel – and absolutely loved it. The Optimist’s Daughter was Welty’s final novel first published in 1972 it won the Pulitzer prize in 1973.

The story revolves around Judge McKelva, his middle aged daughter Laurel and his second wife Fay. For many years Judge McKelva has been a familiar and respected figure in the community of Mount Salus, Mississippi. The people looked toward the judge, his gracious wife Becky and their daughter Laurel as nice, well bred people living their lives in a reliable manner.

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much, Laurel thought.”

However, when ten years after the death of his first wife, old Judge McKelva marries again – everyone is taken rather aback. Fay is just a little younger than Laurel, a silly, self-absorbed woman from Texas.

As this novel opens Laurel has travelled from her home in Chicago to New Orleans where her father is in hospital – being treated by an old friend who had moved away from Mount Salus. The Judge had contacted Laurel to say he had been having ‘trouble with his seeing’ – and Laurel had felt concerned enough to jump on a plane. Right from the start the reader feels an unspoken tension between Laurel, Fay and Dr Courtland who is treating Judge McKelva. The Judge talks about getting pricked in the eye by the climbing rose that everyone in Mount Salus appears to think of as Becky’s climber. Fay dismisses the whole thing as something and nothing – seeming not to want to share her husband with these others who have such a long history with him. Laurel and Fay must stay in a local hotel while the Judge undergoes a routine operation – and period of recovery.

When the Judge dies suddenly, and unexpectedly the two women are forced to return together to the McKelva house in Mount Salus. Here they are surrounded by a host of friends and neighbours, people with long memories and deep affection for the Judge and his first wife. Laurel a woman who was widowed young, is surrounded by the women she still thinks of as her bridesmaids – the girls she grew up with. Everywhere in this house are memories of the past – things that recall moments of Laurel’s childhood, and the relationship her parents had.

“When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.”

Laurel is numb by the suddenness of death, while Fay is prostrated by the thought that such a thing could happen to her! The house gets filled up with people – those who can’t believe the Judge is gone – for them it is the end of an era, there’s an absence they hadn’t reckoned on. They speak of Becky, Laurel’s mother as if she has only recently gone – and treat Fay with a kind of baffled politeness.

Arrangements for the funeral get underway, with Laurel ably assisted by Missouri – the servant who Judge McKelva had once brought home after Missouri had acted as a witness at court. With Fay having taken to her bed, everything falls to Laurel. On the day of the funeral, Fay’s family, that she had previously denied – turn up, voluble, and slightly boorish – but essentially harmless – they are nicer by far than the sullen, deceitful Fay. After the funeral Fay decides suddenly to return to Texas with her family for a few days, leaving Laurel alone in her former family home.

Everywhere there are little signs to remind Laurel of Fay’s arrival in her father’s life, nail polish on her father’s desk, a bread board she remembered her mother using for years, absolutely ruined. These days alone, give Laurel the chance to come to terms with her past and how she left her father alone. She comes to a better understanding of herself and her parents, and so when Fay returns to claim the house for herself, Laurel is ready to leave with her own memories intact.

This is a beautifully balance, nuanced little novel which I can imagine gets even better with subsequent readings.

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The fourth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography; The Heart of a Woman sees Maya becoming immersed in the world of writers and artists in Harlem, going on to work in the civil rights movement and becoming involved with African freedom fighters. I have been reading these volumes alongside two good friends, Liz, who many of you will know from her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home, and our non-blogging friend Meg. It’s been lovely to be able to discuss the book with them – each of us I think impressed by her extraordinary resilience.

This volume takes up Maya’s story a little while after the end of the last book where we left her working in Hawaii. Following on from her tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess, and her showbusiness work in Hawaii, Maya was living for a short time in a commune with her son Guy. It’s just a stop gap though, soon Maya and Guy are on the move again (they move frequently). Guy is a teenager now, growing up and keen to take on the responsibility he believes he should as a young man. Maya has reason to fear for Guy, the constant moving around means he has few friends, and as a teenager he is at risk of being targeted by other black youths.

“They were young black men, preying on other young black men. They had been informed, successfully, that they were worthless, and everyone who looked like them was equally without worth. Each sunrise brought a day without hope and each evening the sun set on a day lacking in achievement. Whites, who ruled the world, owned the air and food and jobs and schools and fair play, had refused to share with them any of life’s necessities–and somewhere, deeper than their consciousness, they believed the whites were correct. They, the black youth, young lords of nothing, were born without value and would creep, like blinded moles, their lives long in the darkness, under the earth, chewing on roots, driven far from the light.”

For a while, Maya goes back to singing, but she in unsatisfied with her work. She is aware of the work being done in Harlem, the efforts of Martin Luther King. She decides to go the New York, and discover Harlem for herself.

“It was the awakening summer of 1960 and the entire country was in labor. Something wonderful was about to be born, and we were all going to be good parents to the welcome child. Its name was Freedom.”

In Harlem she is introduced to the Harlem Writer’s Guild, where she meets Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstone that I read last year. This is one of a number of extraordinary encounters in the book – including an ageing Billie Holliday, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Soon Maya is working for a key civil rights group in Harlem, helping produce a review show to raise vital funds. Her focus and organisational skills impress, and it isn’t long before Maya is running the Harlem office of the SCLC.

It is here in New York that Maya is introduced to African freedom fighters, she gets swept up in their passion and politics, she is inspired by their similar causes. It is around this time that Maya meets yet another unsuitable man Vusumzi Make an African freedom fighter – who says he wants to marry her. Maya is engaged to another man at the time, so she has a decision to make. She finishes the relationship with her fiancé and throws her lot in with Vus – they don’t actually marry legally – but Maya travels with him to London and Egypt. Her new role as an African freedom fighter’s wife – is not quite what she expects, Vus is a charmer who racks up debts and expects Maya to act like an African wife – but Maya is a capable, independent woman, frustrated by inactivity she starts to feel jealous at the influence of Vus on her son. As a reader, we know this is another relationship that is doomed from the start – but Maya tries to make it work for Guy’s sake.

While Maya is in Africa she learns how different black Americans and black Africans are – there is also a difference in how she is treated as a black American. Africa is an emotional experience. Reminding Maya as she flies from Egypt to Ghana about the millions of African people stolen from their homeland by the evils of the slave trade. At the airport in Accra Maya and Guy are surrounded by a wonderful sea of black people, one thing they notice though is that some of these people are actually wearing the uniforms of airline pilots.

“Three black men walked past us wearing airline uniforms, visored caps, white pants and jackets whose shoulders bristled with epaulettes. Black pilots? Black captains? It was 1962. In our country, the cradle of democracy, whose anthem boasted ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave,’ the only black men in our airports fuelled planes, cleaned cabins, loaded food or were skycaps, racing the pavement for tips.”

In Ghana, Maya and Guy face more challenges when Guy is involved in a terrible car accident. How Maya always manages to land on her feet – walking calmly away from difficult situations is incredible. She doesn’t always make the best decisions in her personal life – and it is clear that her son was affected adversely by the constant moving around and the times when Maya had to leave him in the care of others when she was working. However, she is utterly devoted to her son, and everything she does is with the best of intentions, and she is always honest.

What next for Maya? Goodness knows, there are three more volumes to go.

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The first time I heard of E. Arnot Robertson was several years ago when I acquired a copy of her novel Four Frightened People (1931) – which I read in March 2015. It’s a book many people don’t really like – and while I did like it, it made me fairly uncomfortable in places – it is of its time, I suppose, but that isn’t always palatable now. Ordinary Families is a very different book, none of the things that made me and other readers so uncomfortable in her earlier novel are present. E. Arnot Robertson was a very popular novelist during the 1930s and 40s, publishing eight novels, I would venture to suggest however, that she isn’t very well known today.

Ordinary Families is a coming of age novel – though one firmly rooted in the Suffolk marshes, a place Robertson knew well – unlike that jungle of her earlier novel. Our narrator is Lallie, one of four children of the eccentric Rush family. They live in the sailing village of Pin Mill on the Suffolk marshes – where all things boating, bird watching and inter-family rivalries dominate their days. The Rush children have all been brought up to understand the Rush family sense of humour and a sense of fair play, encouraged to fend for themselves from quite early on.

“I do definitely remember, though, stretching my ankles ecstatically to straining point as I knelt, resting back on my heels, so that the spongy ground should make long black stripes of dampness, like those on the beech-boles just behind us, all the way down the front of my brown stockings, and not only patches on the knees and toes. This was luxury: no other children, we had gathered, were encouraged to get as wet as we were – who else would have been allowed to play in February on the marsh by the river? – Certainly none of our friends.”

The Rush father is quite a character, an impossibly handsome former adventurer, who once crawled across the mountains in Chile and nearly starved on an expedition to Greenland. Now his sense of fair play is such – that during a regatta race he handicaps each of his four children, to give the neighbours a chance – only all his children win. Accusing his son Ronald of cowardice when he suggests pulling out of a race because his boat is unseaworthy Rush snr damages their relationship forever.

Lallie is the third of the Rush children – living in the shadow of her very beautiful younger sister Margaret. Lallie is considered ‘Brainy’ only this isn’t really a compliment, she is a keen observer of the natural world – the descriptions of which are particularly lovely, spending hours by herself in the marshes and along the estuary where she lives. As she grows up, Lallie turns her observant eye on the people around her, her family, and the neighbours in Pin Mill. There are times when she both loves and hates her ‘ordinary family.’

“Religion went bad in mother. It was just her luck to lose her faith when her children were growing independent of her and she needed it, after it had coerced her into bearing six children in her early married life, when she would rather have remained father’s gay out-of-doors companion – the girl he married and sometimes seemed vaguely disappointed that he had lost, in this devoted nurse to his children. If religion had to leave her stranded sometime, why could it not have done so before, when she would have found compensations? But unlike Mrs Cottrell, who dressed well, talked well, kept house well and drew well, all with one hand as it were, mother was a bad manager. Mrs Cottrell might be late for everything social, but she would never be late for spiritually, like this.”

Their biggest rivals locally, are the intellectual Cottrells – when the Cottrells hold a glitzy party – and don’t invite the Rush family, the relationship between the two families breaks down completley.

The novel spans at least ten years – during which time Lallie grows from a young girl into a young woman. She and Margaret spend eighteen months at a finishing school in Belgium – although the time is rather glossed over. The family are amused when Lallie starts writing letters to the Times about wonders of the natural world she has observed – but Lallie is very much her own person, and goes her own way, remaining very much attached to the natural world around her. Already rather over-awed by her sister’s beauty Lallie is rather shocked at Margaret’s casual attitude to sex – Lallie is sexually aware herself though, drawn to one particular man – who she decides to hold out for, no matter what.

I have lots of unread old green Viragos on my shelves – and what I love about them, is that I’m not always sure what I will get. There is always a few surprises in exploring these novels that have perhaps fallen out of fashion, and are little talked about now – the Rush family were wonderfully eccentric and made for excellent companions while I was reading this. After my first unusual experience with E Arnot Robertson in 2015, I was very pleasantly surprised by this novel.

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The first book I started after moving to my new flat was chosen for me by Liz – who had actually bought it for me one Christmas. She was helping sort the tbr cupboard (yes cupboard!) and thrust this one at me to read next – I hadn’t known what my next read was going to be. I really don’t know why I hadn’t read it before – the perils of a large tbr I suppose things get forgotten about. So, despite the fact that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, A Bite of the Apple is definitely a book right up my street. Liz knows me, she knew I would love this, I did.

For anyone who has scanned bookshop shelves looking for that tell-tale apple on the spine of a book – or who, like me, has far, far too many dark green spined VMCs to house – this book is a joy. Part memoir, part history of Virago including thoughts and reminiscences of over forty years of feminist publishing, this is the story of a publisher and a movement. The excitement and vision that started it off – the passion, determination and belief that made Virago the success it was, and still is – is all here.

“It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and witty women’s view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a small canvas, with all human life on display, a great library of women’s fiction.”

Lennie Goodings has been with Virago almost since the start, when Carmen Callil founded the iconic press, she really has seen it all. She began part time in 1978 in the one roomed Virago office, accessed by five flights of steep stairs. She had no idea then, that in time she herself would become the publisher, but she did know that she had found her home.

Throughout these years Lennie Goodings worked with some incredible writers, some pretty big names too – and here she describes those working relationships. Remembering her meetings with women like Maya Angelou, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Dunant and Sandi Toksvig among many others. These glimpses of the women, who for some of us lets be honest, are our heroines, is wonderful, Lennie Goodings shows how many of these writers had just as much passion and belief in what Virago were doing as those working for the publisher at the time.

However, like with any organisation of its kind Virago had – and still have – their naysayers. Those who think that having a separate publisher for women, somehow diminishes their art – they have the same problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Apparently, and it was news to me, A S Byatt refuses to have her books put forward for the women’s prize – there seems to be a fear from some quarters, that if books are published by a women’s press and nominated for a women’s prize then men won’t read them. (Rolls eyes). So, that there is the problem, isn’t it, still despite over forty years of Virago publishing, there are those who don’t take women’s writing seriously enough. I do my bit, by reading very few men (ha! Sticks tongue out!) Lennie Goodings however puts her case for the need for Virago and for the Women’s Prize rather better than me.

“With fiction, what seems to matter more is the gender of the writer; because even in this new world of outspoken writers and readers it appears not all words are equal. Something seems to happen to a novel when it has a woman’s name on the spine.”

One of my favourite chapters – perhaps not surprisingly was the one about the Virago Modern Classics list that started in 1978 – which includes a marvellous encounter with octogenarian Rosamond Lehmann. The classics of course have been an enormous success – oh and how we cheered when the green spines came back – changed a little for the twentieth century but green again. The first one of course was Frost in May – and was followed by so many more – that are now collected and cherished by people like me. Goodings reveals how the list changed the way women’s novels began to be seen, attracting new readers, becoming a strong and familiar presence in bookshops. Suddenly new life was given to the novels of writers like Rosamond Lehmann who had thought their day was done – and generations of readers can thank the Virago Modern Classics for the books that made it into their libraries.

The Virago that Carmen Callil started in that one roomed office all those years ago is not the same company as it is today. Lennie Goodings discusses how difficult remaining independent was, there were some forthright discussions and disagreements, but things had to change. In 1995 Virago became part of the Little Brown group and Lennie Goodings was there to see that transition through and explains clearly why that was necessary for Virago’s survival. Revealing how the imprint has moved forward, and how many exciting publications have come about since then, that may not have done otherwise. Today, Lennie Goodings is chair of Virago Press – still working with the authors and books that have been her passion for so long.

This was a marvellous book, really giving a lot of insight into the feminist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s – the publishing industry and the books and writers I love. Definitely, a book to keep to refer to again.

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August is of course Women in Translation month – but for some of us it is also All Virago All August, a month in which we read vmc books and books from similar publishers like Dean Street Press and Persephone. I have only managed one Virago book so far, the third volume in Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography. I have been reading this alongside Liz and our friend Meg, as ever, I am a bit behind as Liz has already managed to review this one. Singin’ & Swingin’ & Getting Merry Like Christmas focuses on Maya Angelous’s first marriage, her relationship with her young son and the start of her life in showbusiness. 

“Ivonne said, “You know white people are strange. I don’t even know if they know why they do things.” Ivonne had grown up in a small Mississippi town, and I, in a smaller town in Arkansas. Whites were as constant in our history as the seasons and as unfamiliar as affluence.”

Race plays a part in this part of her story too, as for perhaps the first time in her life Maya must learn to build relationships with white people. White people have only featured in her life quite negatively at this point, she spent a lot of her youth growing up in small town Arkansas – definitely a place where white and black didn’t mix. It’s understandable that she is wary of people’s motivations, can she trust them? will they really understand her? So, when a young white woman offers Maya a job in her favourite record shop she is at first rather taken aback.

“Early mornings were given over to Bartok and Schoenberg. Midmorning I treated myself to the vocals of Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Bull Moose Jackson. A piroshki from the Russian delicatessen next door was lunch and then the giants of bebop flipped through the air. Charlie Parker and Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Al Haig and Howard McGhee. Blues belonged to late afternoons and the singers’ lyrics of lost love spoke to my solitude.”

Maya loves music, it is the perfect job and it allows her to take her son out of weekly childcare and move him back in with her full time. It is here that she meets the man she will marry – a white man of Greek heritage. At first everything seems great. Her son gets on well with his step-father – quickly thinking of him as daddy. However, Maya’s husband is clearly a controlling presence in her life – and soon things are not as happy as they were. Maya has the spirit to get out before things escalate – a single mother again, she needs well paid work quickly.

Maya gets a job dancing in a club – it all sounds a little sleazy, and there is quite a racket going on with drinks. Customers are supposed to buy the dancers drinks, and Maya works out how the customers are being conned and explains the racket to the customers when they offer her a drink.  Her honesty makes her very popular with the customers but not with the other women, who jealously conspire to have her kicked out. Maya is always astonishingly resilient, and it’s not long before she is back on her feet – dancing again. This time she is dancing in proper shows, and it is at this time that she adopts the name Maya Angelou – Maya the name her brother called her and Angelou a corruption of her married name.

When Maya goes to see a performance of Porgy and Bess she is utterly blown away. This all black cast of talented singers, actors and dancers – she feels like she has come home. So, when the chance comes for her to take a small part in the touring production of Porgy and Bess, she jumps at it. It means leaving her son in the care of her mother for months – but she feels it is a chance she can’t pass up. It certainly is an incredible opportunity for the company will be touring Europe and North Africa – places Maya could have probably only dreamed of visiting at this time in her life.

In Maya’s company we travel across Europe seeing these places with Maya’s wide eyed wonder and intelligent curiosity. She naturally wants to experience as much as she can.  Starting out in Canada and then on to Paris, Verona, Rome, Venice, Zagreb, Alexandria, and Cairo – with the company of Porgy and Bess Maya really gets to see something of the world, have adventures and make friends.

“I was really in Italy. Not Maya Angelou, the person of pretensions and ambitions, but me, Marguerite Johnson, who had read about Verona and the sad lovers while growing up in a dusty Southern village poorer and more tragic than the historic town in which I now stood. I was so excited at the incredible turn of events which had brought me from a past of rejection, of slammed doors and blind alleys, of dead-end streets and culs-de-sac, into the bright sun of Italy, into a town made famous by one of the world’s greatest writers.”

 She discovers that in lots of places black people are treated differently than in North America, in fact it seems that black Americans are rather preferred to white Americans. However, she has been away from her son for a long time, and so the time comes when she realises she must leave the company and go home.

On her arrival home, we see how her young son has been affected by her long absence, nervous and hating her to be out of his sight – Maya knows she won’t be able to leave him again. She re-builds her relationship with her son with love and understanding and some guilt over what she has done to him by leaving.

We finally leave Maya and her son – who has now changed his name from Clyde to Guy together in Hawaii as Maya undertakes another performance job, this time though, insisting that her son travels with her.

I had to remind myself that at this point in her life Maya is still a young woman, she has done so much. Her continuing determination and resilience shines as brightly as in the first two volumes – and I am really looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

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I hadn’t even heard of this novel – to my shame – until Virago selected it as their book club read for July. Despite reading a lot of VMC titles, I have probably only joined in with the book club once before, as they so often read things I have already read. I quickly bought a copy of Desert of the Heart so that I could join in – there’s an online discussion on FB that starts later this week.

The novel is described as ‘an undisputed lesbian classic’ which made me feel like I should have heard of it before – but neither it nor its author were previously known to me. Written in 1961 – published in 1964 after twenty-two rejections – it was the author’s first novel. This was a time when sex between people of the same sex was a criminal offence – the novel was a breakthrough piece of work, and caused quite the stir. This edition includes an excellent introduction by Jackie Kay – who really sets the novel in context.

It’s simply a wonderful novel – I was immediately drawn in by Rule’s warm and witty tone, her intelligence and her brilliantly drawn characters; fully authentic and real. Evelyn Hall is an English professor who has come to Reno – for the necessary period of six weeks – to obtain a divorce from her husband George. She has been married for sixteen years. The pair have been living incompatibly for years, the marriage has been childless – and it is finally time to bring it to an end.

From the opening lines, Rule sets out her stall – how only one way of life is considered conventional or ‘normal’ while those living outside of that are somehow other.

“Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life.”

Evelyn has come to stay at a B&B run by Frances Parker who lives there with her son Walter. Another woman seeking a divorce is also resident when Evelyn arrives, as well as long-time resident – the almost step-daughter of Frances, casino worker Ann Childs. When they first meet, Evelyn and Ann are struck by how similar in appearance they are – Ann though is fifteen years younger. The two are clearly very highly aware of one another right from the start – though it takes a few days, before they start to get to know one another.

Ann has a very different life, a world that is entirely alien to Evelyn. Working nights at the casino – she finishes in the early hours of the morning, often going straight to her friend – and sometime lover – Silver’s house before heading back to the boarding house. Silver is due to be married soon to Joe – after which Ann’s relationship with Silver will change. Silver is a brilliant creation, generous, tough talking, and no nonsense.  Rule reproduces the sights and sounds of the casino brilliantly – Ann one of a number of ‘change girls’ – who spend hours lugging around a heavy change apron. At the club, Bill is Ann’s boss – there is some residual bitterness between them, after their relationship was ended by Ann.

Soon though, Evelyn and Ann are drawn together – each of them attracted to some similarity in the other. Outside of the casino, Ann is a talented cartoonist – and her bedroom is lined with books, which Ann allows Evelyn to borrow. Despite their obvious differences these women share a not dissimilar intelligence. Ann introduces Evelyn to the incredible beauty of the Nevada desert – and to a sensuousness that is entirely new. The women begin a passionate affair.

“Evelyn wanted to be charming, provocative, desirable, attributes she had never aspired to before out of pride, perhaps, or fear of failure. Now they seemed most instinctive. She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lively thing it was to be, a woman.”

Although at this time a sexual relationship between two women was illegal and definitely seen as being outside the usual conventions, Rule doesn’t present these relationships in such a way. This is a positive relationship – and no spoilers – a hopeful one. Evelyn and Ann are two people who fall in love – in that way perhaps this novel feels like one written in a much later period than it was. What a very long way this is from the depressing rather negative relationships portrayed in The Well of Loneliness that the author discovered when she was fifteen.

“Because I can’t help loving you, your wild, inaccurate emotions, your bizarre innocence, your angry sense of responsibility, your wrong-headed wit, your cockeyed joy, your cowboy boots, your absolutely magnificent body, your incredible eyes. I can’t help it. I don’t know how anyone could.”

The relationship between Evelyn and Ann is complex – the age difference making Evelyn almost old enough to be the motherless Ann’s mother – their strikingly similar appearance underlying this point. Clearly both women have had relationships with men – and there are no real labels applied here – and it is obvious that Evelyn had never considered a relationship with a women in all her life. Ann has had a very cynical view to the accepted romantic ideas of love and marriage – but as she and Evelyn’s relationship develops she has to re-evaluate her prejudices. The story of these two women coming together so unexpectedly is beautifully understated. A wonderful book group choice – I wish I had suggested it to the book group I’m a member of.

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Oh, that feeling, when you experience a writer for the first time – and think ‘I want to read everything now.’ I had been dimly aware of A L Barker for some years, I have had her novel John Brown’s Body (1970) on my tbr shelves for years – and then I acquired Submerged a collection of short stories published by Virago in 2002. The stories themselves were all originally published much earlier in Barker’s career, between the 1940s and 1960s. All of but one of the seven stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere – five of them in collections published by A L Barker earlier in her career. I haven’t gone looking yet – I daren’t, but I can only assume those early collections are hard to find now.

According to the introduction by Jane Gardam, Barker far preferred the short story form to that of novel writing, and this collection shows she was certainly adept at it. She was a prolific writer though, publishing eleven novels and eleven collections of stories (including this one) between 1947 and 2002. There is a seam of darkness running through these stories – for me it never goes too far – but then I love short stories like this – Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson – though their writing styles were different, did that so well too. As Jane Gardam says in her introductions:

“Evil throbs through A. L Barker’s world and is left unacknowledged and unexplained.”

(Jane Gardam – Introduction)

I can’t say too much about these stories for fear of spoilers – but I shall attempt to give a slight flavour of them all

The collection opens with Submerged – the title story. A young boy delights in his secret, underwater world, as he swims in the stream he has been banned from going to by his mother. He is alone here, and he relishes in his isolation. The silence and isolation are disrupted suddenly when two people appear – a man and a woman, in obvious conflict. The boy feels threatened so hides. He is witness to all that transpires – but it is his continuing silence in the wake of the events he witnessed that is shocking, and has terrible consequences for somebody else.

Perhaps the most frightening story in the collection is Someone at the Door for it plays right into the kinds of fear that many people have. That someone threatening might come into out home, and we find ourselves unable to get rid of them. A woman arrives from London at her brother’s cottage in the country to spend Christmas alone. Her brother and his family have gone away, and won’t be back for several days. Rain is falling very heavily, when a stranger arrives at the door, asking to use the phone as his car has broken down. It’s the feeling of not being totally in control of a situation that Barker recreates so well – she stops far short of anything really unpleasant – but the fear is enough, and we all recognise that.

In Men, Those Fabulous Creatures – a woman goes to talk to the residents at a residential home for the elderly. Having sat for a while talking to one resident, she gets something of a surprise later – just as the story she was listening to is reaching its conclusion.

The Iconoclasts – was one of my favourite stories, a story I read before in Wave me Goodbye – a wonderful anthology of wartime stories. There comes a point when the reader watches with horror – we know it won’t end well. It’s a fantastic story of childhood – which I could quite easily say too much about. A young boy plays happily, wrapped up in his own little word of childish superstitions and stories. When an older boy comes to play – he is thrust uneasily into the more knowing world of his exacting playmate. The day will end on a tragedy – that some readers may find upsetting. Barker’s depiction of childhood though is brilliant – despite the fact that she is apparently quoted as having not liked children.

“The visitor put his hands in his pocket, rocked to and fro on his heels and spoke with absolute authority. ‘It’s a twin-engined Blenheim bomber with “mercury” engines and five machine-guns – one in the port wing, two in the turret and two in the blister under the nose. It can carry a thousand pounds of bombs, but I expect it’s on a training trip now.’

Marcus looked sulky, yet he was impressed. Under his breath he muttered, ‘it’s not.’ Just once, without conviction.”

(The Iconoclasts)

Jane Dore – Dear Childe is a rather grim little historical story. Jane is an innocent, loving young girl, a healer. In the seventeenth century she is damned and accused of witchcraft by the local hellfire priest and sentenced to drown.

In A Chapter in the Life of Henry Subito Barker gives us another memorable child with a fierce and fanciful imagination. When his parents leave the stolid, unremarkable Henry on the beach by himself for a while with his comic – Henry decides to turn the time by himself to his own advantage. He wanders off toward one of the local hotels where becoming a little con artist he regales respectable residents with the stories of his life as an Arabian Prince, consuming vast quantities of afternoon tea in the process.

Novellette is one of those very long short stories you can really sink into. At around a hundred pages it is almost novella length. It is the story of a bad marriage, disrupted by a young soldier back from the war. William Felice is just nineteen, back from Dunkirk and injured. After release from hospital, he is billeted temporarily in the country with a draper and his wife Edward and Luise Mallory. William doesn’t think he will care much for the countryside, and goes rather unwillingly to his new billet. The Mallorys are middle aged – Edward concerned more with his little drapers shop than anything else – a little in awe of William’s war experiences. An unlikely affair begins between Luise Mallory and young William. None of these people seem well matched – and Barker shows us the grubby, pointlessness of this relationship – which no doubt young William will shrug off without a backward glance.

This was really a superb collection, which makes me wonder why I have left it so long to read A. L Barker, the introduction does suggest that she never really achieved the recognition and success that she deserved. How true that is of so many women writers of the twentieth century.

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“Thank heaven fasting for a good man’s love.”

(William Shakespeare – As You Like it)

There’s an irony in the title I think – proving that there is much more to this novel by the author of The Provincial Lady than we might at first suspect.

E M Delafield had much to say about society and women’s place within it – that she does so with a light touch, and even with humour is perhaps what makes her such a delight to read. In Thank Heaven Fasting she show us the restrictive absurdity of upper class society in Edwardian England. There is nothing actually to date the setting of this novel precisely; there is no mention of the war, and the attitudes toward society and parental authority seem to place it before WW1. This is a society in which all girls are expected to marry within three seasons of being launched into society, everything in their upbringing and education has been arranged to bring this about.

“Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life — the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square — was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.

One was safeguarded.

One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.”

Any young woman left unmarried or at least unengaged after her third season is a failure – and so by association is her mother. The years after this third season becoming more and more difficult – with each young woman and her distressed parent having to have just the right excuse ready to defend herself against any implied criticism from curious ‘well-wishers’.

Monica Ingram has been brought up well in Eaton Square she has been protected and cosseted just the right amount – she is obedient and properly educated. Monica knows that she must marry as soon as she can to be a success and she wants to be a success – she wants to marry, to have her own life and to make her parents proud. Anything else is unthinkable. Monica is no protestor to this way of life – she knows nothing else – and the idea of being left on the shelf is terrifying. As the novel opens Monica is about eighteen, she is just about to attend her first ball – her excitement is palpable, after all it’s just possible that she might encounter her future husband at her very first ball.

The ball is being held by Lady Marlowe a friend of Mrs Ingram’s. As she was growing up Monica was forced into a friendship with Lady Marlowe’s two daughters Frederica and Cecily who are a few years older than Monica, with some seasons already behind them, the sisters are already beginning to look like failures and Monica only hopes she can do better. Lady Marlowe has practically given up on her two daughters and is planning to abandon them to her house in the country in her disgust at the close of the present season. This toe-curling exchange between Frederica and her mother Lady Marlowe perfectly showing the pity on one side and the sad, embarrassed desperation on the other.

“‘I don’t want to get married. I hate men. I wouldn’t marry anyone – whoever it was.’

Lady Marlowe gazed at her in astonishment for a moment, and then laughed again.

‘So you’ve reached that stage, have you?’ was all she said.”

These sisters who have spent their whole lives together, are a pitiful pair, Frederica dominating her shy, nervy younger sister, unable to live without each other, and yet caught up in a rather unhealthy dependent relationship. With these characters Delafield reminds us that the fate of the unmarried woman in these days was not at all attractive.  

Poor Monica despite knowing all the rules backwards and inside out, has her head turned by the rather caddish Captain Lane. All her life she has had it instilled in her the right way to act around young men, not to show too much favour toward one man, and only to foster friendships with the right sort of man, a man who could be useful – i.e., marriageable. Monica allows Captain Lane to kiss her – and that is enough to almost completley ruin her chances for good with anyone else.  For one terrible, wonderful week poor Monica believes herself in love – assuming a proposal is imminent. When it all comes crashing down and her naïve foolishness is exposed she is devastated.

Time moves forward and the second part of the novel is called The Anxious Years – Monica has had her three seasons – she remains unmarried and unengaged. Frederica and Cecily are almost completely exiled to the country. The anxiety of Monica’s unmarried state is felt as much by her mother as it is by Monica herself – the only way she can have a real life, a place in society, a home of her own, children, is to marry. Marriage for young women like Monica is a sanctuary from a far worse, more useless, wasted life. This theme of the necessity of marriage and the fate of women who don’t marry is one Delafield wrote about in her earlier much darker novel Consequences. Thank Heaven Fasting is altogether lighter and wittier – Delafield is sharp though, especially in some of her absolutely pitch perfect dialogue.

Whether Monica gets her happy ending I shall leave you to discover for yourselves – although sadly out of print this is not an impossible novel to find second hand.

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Two book reviews in one post from me today. Not something I usually do, but both these books were read for #readingIrelandmonth21 and one is just a very small novella. It also gives me the opportunity to catch up very slightly. Both novels concern visitors – someone returning after a period of time to a place in Ireland.

Time After Time is one of the novels that Molly Keane published later in life – her writing life spanned many years and there was a big gap in the middle. It came a couple of years after Good Behaviour but is a rather less dramatic novel than that. It is in fact a really quite sophisticated novel – here Keane uses great subtlety, pealing back the layers of complexity within a family of elderly siblings. A dark tragic-comedy shot through with Keane’s wicked sense of humour – it gets off to a slow start but the sense of place and the characterisation are just fantastic.

Living in genteel poverty in rural Ireland in the house their mother left them are the Swifts – three sisters: April, May and June and their brother Jasper. Each of them is maimed in some way, Jasper lost an eye as a child, April is almost completely deaf and May has a deformity to one hand, June is small and naïve – and perhaps what may have been termed a little slow. As Emma Donoghue says in her introduction Keane uses these disabilities ‘to create a sense of the grotesque.’ That was something I was conscious of right away; I was just a little uncomfortable to begin with – yet she balances these disabilities with some wonderful abilities and vibrant personalities. Jasper is a wonderful cook the kitchen is his domain and from it he rules the house. June – still called Baby June by everyone – is practical and looks after the outdoors, she cares for the animals with understanding and love. May restores ornaments and makes beautiful pieces of art out of wool, fabric, and flowers; she is president of the flower arrangers’ guild. April the only one who ever married is still in old age beautiful and elegant makes beauty treatments.

This is not a harmonious household, however. These elderly siblings have little in common save their memories of better days, their beloved mother, and a shared youth. The four of them bicker continually, never happier than when getting one over on one of the others. They each have their little foibles – April smokes the odd joint, May sometimes steals things, June is rather fond of the farm hand, Jasper enjoys consulting with a young monk from the nearby abbey and dreams of creating a truly spectacular garden. They each also have their own pet – the sisters each have their own dog of whom they are very protective while Jasper owns a cat.

Into this world comes Leda, a cousin from Vienna who they haven’t seen in decades – and who they assumed rather callously had perished in the war. Leda is blind now, but still every bit as beguiling as she was in her youth – when she was feted and adored like a fairy-tale princess by each of the siblings. For Leda, the past is still very present, everything and everyone still exists for her as it once was.

“These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close on the surface of summer roads.”

Leda has a motive for suddenly turning up unannounced – she still feels bitterly about something that happened decades earlier. She is a woman who says and does just what she wants – and that takes some getting used to. By the time she leaves change will have come to the house and to the inhabitants. Molly Keane is so good at just turning the knife a little at the end – not everything is as you think it will be.

I had previously read reviews of Maeve Brennan’s stories and possibly of this novella by other bloggers and was determined to try her soon. Read Ireland month gave the perfect excuse. This lovely little edition comes from New Island books – who I discovered when I bought a couple of Norah Hoult books last year.  

The Visitor concerns a young woman, Anastasia King who returns to her grandmother’s house in Dublin after six years in Paris. Anastasia is just twenty-two – when she was sixteen she had followed her mother to Paris after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Still, she is trying to reconcile herself to that breakup and to abandoning her father. Her mother has recently died and the grieving young woman wants to return to the place she once thought of as home.

However, the welcome that awaits her at her grandmother’s house is less than warm.

“She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.”

 Her grandmother, Mrs King is still angry about the breakup of her son’s marriage – a bitterness that increased after he died. She feels Anastasia was disloyal choosing her mother over her father. She blames them both for his death. With her grandmother lives Katharine – some sort of housekeeper – the two have slipped into a sad, joyless routine. Any expectation Anastasia had of a warm home-coming is quickly dispelled. We see the grandmother as a domineering personality – one Anastasia’s mother had to escape, the marriage to her older husband had not been a success – and naturally, their daughter’s loyalty was horribly divided.

That both the past and the present have begun to have an effect on Anastasia becomes all too apparent – and the image we are left with is a striking one.

I don’t want to say too much more – for to do so might be to spoil it. Brennan’s story is sad and a little disturbing, and really quite unforgettable.

This really was a beautifully rendered little novella – not a word is wasted. I really haven’t done justice to it in this short review. It’s really a little masterpiece. Extraordinary that it was discovered in a university archive after Maeve Brennan’s death.

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