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My first read this year for read Ireland month was Loving Without Tears by Molly Keane (published originally under her pseudonym of M J Farrell). I think I always read Molly Keane in read Ireland month – it’s always a pleasure – she portrays her world to absolute perfection.

This is a novel about family manipulation, set against a stunning landscape of rural, coastal Ireland. A large house overlooking the sea, here Angel ministers to her family with charm and selfishness. Angel is a brilliantly drawn character, a beautiful monster, who always believes she is doing right. I’m sure it’s no accident that Keane chose the name Angel for this character. Some of those closest to her, know exactly what she is, even if she doesn’t know herself.

“’Honey and vitriol, my sweet, that’s you. Oh, you’re just a big lovely ice-cream full of steel shavings.’”

Angel’s only in her late forties, but she’s been widowed for years, since when she has dedicated herself to her children. The war isn’t long over, and her son Julian – only twenty-one – is due back after almost three years away. Her daughter Slaney is eighteen, Angel has also been bringing up her niece Tiddley alongside her children since childhood – she is a year or so older than Julian. The household is completed by Birdie (former nurse, now cook housekeeper) a little younger than Angel, it’s clear she isn’t ready to give up on life, love and romance even if her employer assumes she has. Her nemesis in the kitchen is young Finn Barr, who Angel has decided to train up as a butler – he is a very rough diamond and Birdie resents his presence and doesn’t try to hide it. Keane’s wonderful humour is in evidence in the portrayal of these two.

“Finn Barr came into the kitchen with a gun in his hand. Coming into Birdie’s kitchen like that was as inappropriate as if he came with a leopard’s skin over his shoulder, a sling with a stone in it and a grape-stained mouth – there was the swagger in his entrance.

Finn put the gun among the china on a dresser and clattered two carefully covered plates of sandwiches on to a tray. Birdie swept them off the tray.”

 Oliver lives in his own house in the village, he is Angel’s estate manager and friend – she had come across him in Austria before the war recovering from TB and brought him home.

The novel mainly takes place on one day – a device I really like – just the last thirty pages or so set a few weeks after the main events. It is the day of Julian’s return; a day Angel has looked forward to and planned for. As excited as a child, she has planned surprises for him, consulted with Birdie over the dinner menu – everything must be the way she has envisaged it. Oliver tentatively suggests that perhaps Julian will have changed after almost three years away, war and untold experiences, but Angel won’t be told. She already has a fixed idea of how Julian’s return will be. Meanwhile, without Angel’s knowledge Slaney is falling for long time family friend Chris.

Tiddley is the same as ever, nurturing her garden, hiding in her shed, quick to tears and made happiest by her piano. Tiddley has been learning to play, she loves her piano, playing with rather more enthusiasm than talent perhaps, the thought of losing the piano likely to break her heart. Angel’s financial situation however has raised the question of selling the piano – making Tiddley horribly anxious. Tiddley is also awaiting Julian’s return with delight – the two have always had a special relationship – though no one has guessed at the true nature of Tiddley’s feelings.

“A little dark well on a mountain road she was to him, closely stone-lipped. But below the narrow depths lay the perfect water which he knew and needed. He was sitting in the sun now, the dust of heather in his throat. He was waiting to dip a cup.”

When Julian finally arrives, he has a surprise for his family – an American fiancé several years his senior. Sally believes she has healed Julian from the horrors he encountered during the war, experiences his mother just hasn’t considered. She is a beautiful, highly fashionable widow, tough talking when she needs to be, she’s a woman of the world. Sally is in for more than she bargained for in Angel’s house. With Sally and Julian comes Walter, Sally’s late husband’s English butler, who turns Birdie’s head the moment he walks through the door.

Angel is floored by Julian’s announcement, she puts on the bravest face she can, but Sally isn’t fooled for a moment, she knows the battle lines are drawn. However, her past isn’t far away, and Julian back under his mother’s roof is in danger of becoming someone else. Discovering Slaney’s burgeoning romance enrages Angel – and she immediately starts to interfere, knowing her little comments to Slaney about Chris and to Chris about Slaney will be destructive. Noticing Birdie’s interest in Walter, Angel can’t help but take steps there too – she isn’t ready for anything to change.

However, there are signs of change everywhere, Birdie knows Angel well, she sees what she is up to, and Tiddley is ripe for rebellion, and even Slaney is better at circumventing Angel’s interference than her mother realises. Over several hours family battle lines are drawn, truths acknowledged, and Angel has her work cut out for her.

A thoroughly enjoyable novel – especially if you enjoy a well written monster. The ending will satisfy most readers I am sure. For me, a really lovely start to my Read Ireland reading.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

The new Zora Neale Hurston editions from Virago are utterly beautiful, stunning cover designs, that made me actually ‘oooh’ when I opened the envelope. I read Their Eyes were Watching God a few years ago, a fantastic depression era set novel, it’s the story of Janie and her great love for Tea-Cake. Dust Tracks on a Road is the autobiography of the woman who wrote that great modern classic, beautifully written, it is an extraordinarily intimate and revealing portrait with hundreds of quotable passages. There is such wisdom and inspiration in this book, better than that, I found I really liked Zora from the first page.

“I am not tragically coloured. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

Recounting her rise from a Southern childhood lived in poverty, to when she was taking her place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston is never less than entertaining and honest.

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

Born in Florida in the 1890s, she was the fifth of eight children. Reliving her childhood memories here, little Zora comes across as a bright, inquisitive child with lots of spirit. She fell foul of her father – a baptist preacher – early on, he favoured the boys and her sister Sarah, her mother frequently having to get between them. It’s clear that her upbringing was central to creating the woman she became. She writes wonderfully about the town of Eatonville where she grew up, describing the people and what it was like to grow up there, it’s a vivid picture of a unique black community, the first all-black town in America.  

Zora was only in her teens when her mother died, and life started to change. When her father re-marries, Zora’s stepmother is a woman keen to establish herself in her new home, she bullies her way into position, leaving Zora no choice but to leave. Zora travels, she works where she can, doing what she has to, including working for and travelling with an actress and her theatrical group – often meeting people who help and support her, recognising her great potential.

“I had hundreds of books under my skin already. Not selected reading, all of it. Some of it could be called trashy. I had been through Nick Carter, Horatio Alger, Bertha M. Clay and the whole slew of dime novelists in addition to some really constructive reading. I do not regret the trash. It has harmed me in no way. It was a help, because acquiring the reading habit early is the important thing. Taste and natural development will take care of the rest later on.”

Her dream is to continue her education, to go to college. It was the philanthropy of others that helped her on her way, and she put it to good use.

She studies anthropology – travelling around the US to research folklore and anthropology. Later chapters of the book read more like essays, and in these essays, Hurston discusses the lives of black people in America, religion and love. The chapter entitled ‘My People! My People’ is particularly powerful, in this chapter she discusses her race, and the experiences of black Americans in the period before the war. She is thoroughly thought provoking and wise, she has an acute understanding of people and society.

“It seems to me to be true that heavens are placed in the sky because it is the unreachable. The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seems divine–hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds. It gives them a feeling of security.”

I loved Zora Neale Hurston’s spirit, her intelligence and her way of looking at all sorts of things. Strangely perhaps she discusses her writing quite lightly, it is of less focus than other things in the book, though it’s clear it was important to her. Zora Neale Hurston lived until 1960, and it is sad to remember she died in relative obscurity, her place of rest an unmarked grave until the 1970s.

I am now looking forward to reading Jacob’s Gourd Vine (1934), Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, the story of John Buddy Pearson, who discovers a talent for preaching. A novel which is also apparently highly autobiographical, based on the life of her father.

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I had started to think that there were two sides to E M Delafield. The side she shows us so delightfully in The Provincial Lady so beloved of many of us, satirical, tongue in cheek with superbly sharp observances. Then there are her significantly more serious books like Consequences and The War Workers in which she shines a light on aspects of her society. However now I realise that is too simplistic, I am saying that with all the confidence of someone who hasn’t read all that many Delafield, though I have been wanting to read a lot more for years. In this novel I can definitely see aspects of both of the above – themes explored in both The Provincial Lady and Consequences are in evidence.

The central character in The Way Things Are is a little reminiscent of The Provincial Lady (earlier though and less hilarious) it’s a kind of subdued Provincial Lady and 1920s Motherland (BBC comedy if you haven’t seen it you must.) Her topic isn’t especially comic though, at the centre of this novel is a woman dissatisfied with her life and her marriage. E M Delafield explores how women like her character Laura could be trapped by marriage – though readers can’t help but recognise that these trappings were rather comfortable. In the hands of another writer, this could be a really rather sad novel, however there is lightness and humour here, and while there is a serious point about marriage being made, Delafield knows how to keep her readers engaged.

Laura Temple is a wife and mother in her early thirties, living comfortably in the country beset with all the usual domestic problems and feeling deeply unsatisfied. She is married to Alfred, he is desperately dull, but in no way a bad man, or unkind, he spends most of his time outdoors, and is mainly interested in vegetable matter. Laura is also a writer, she has had some success with getting some stories published, though her writing takes something of a back seat to everything else.

“Laura now admitted to herself – what she had not admitted to herself at the time – that she had been rather anxious to be married, just when she first met Alfred.

The war was over, and there had been a question of her returning home, which she did not want to do, and so many other people seemed to be getting married… She wanted the experience of marriage, and she was just beginning to be rather afraid of missing it altogether, because so many of the men belonging to her own generation had gone.”

Alfred has a habit of being quite strict with their two spirited little boys and otherwise hides himself behind The Times to prevent himself having to engage too much in matters domestic. Each morning Laura wakes to the knowledge of what the day has in store, that includes wrangling with her sons, their Nurse, the domestic staff, and trying to come up with an interesting menu that won’t upset cook. She is a little intimidated by her servants, terrified of them giving notice – which they all seem to with hilarious regularity.

Laura’s two boys are Edward and Johnnie, Edward is the eldest, a quieter more thoughtful boy, far better behaved than the younger precocious, temper tantrum throwing, Johnnie. Laura though, seeing something of herself in her younger child favours Johnnie, she knows that she does, and while acknowledging it to herself she does nothing to redress the balance, and my heart broke a little for Edward. Laura went down in my estimation here, although I didn’t totally dislike her, I found her very annoying on lots of occasions, and my sympathies were often with her husband and children.

There are some fabulous peripheral characters, Edward and Johnnie sometimes go to a dancing class with some other children. Here Laura is plagued by a boastful mother who is keen to show her own little darlings in their best light, much to Laura’s chagrin.

“‘It’s very nice of you to say so, but then,’ returned Mrs Blakewell more brightly than ever, ‘Cynthia has danced ever since she could walk.’

Laura thought: ‘I wonder whether the mere fact of being a mother does really reduce one, conversationally, to the level of an idiot.’ Aloud she said: ‘Yes, of course.’”

One of her near neighbours is Lady Kingsley-Browne, who has a grown up daughter Bébéé (Laura, her sister Christine and Alfred call her Bay-Bay when speaking of her in private). Bébéé is a hit with eligible men, and her mother has high hopes for her and the richest commoner in England. When Christine comes to visit her older sister, local entertainments are organised, and Laura meets a friend of Christine’s; Marmaduke Ayland (known as Duke). He is a good looking, thirty five year old single man, who immediately sees more in Laura than her marriage and motherhood – and Laura is ripe for that kind of attention. Laura finds herself falling in love with Duke, arranging secret meetings when she goes to see Christine in London, revelling in the attention he gives her. Duke wants them to be together – but their love affair – if that is what this is, is pretty tame. Laura is plagued with guilt about her husband and children, she can’t possibly give up her children, and Alfred is totally undeserving of any betrayal.

Ultimately, there is a kind of acceptance in Laura for the kind of life she is living and must continue to live. Also, her great love for Duke is unconvincing, it’s more that she craves the affection that Alfred doesn’t show, desperate for romance before she is firmly middle aged, Laura falls in love with an idea. Her ‘romance’ is contrasted with those of her sister and Bébéé – who are younger with a more modern approach to romance.

The final few lines of the novel are just brilliant – and possibly quite poignant. A little less brilliant than The Provincial Lady perhaps, The Way Things Are is a more reflective novel and I liked it enormously.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

Well hats off to Virago for bringing out a new edition of this quite extraordinary novel. It’s compelling and devastating in equal measure. As well as that, The Street turned out to be a wonderful companion novel to a couple of other books I have read this year. First published in 1946, The Street is an American modern classic, that is shocking in its portrayal of poverty, racism and helplessness. It was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.

The Street was Ann Petry’s debut novel. She had been born in 1908 in Connecticut, her mother had worked in a factory before later becoming a businesswoman, her father was a pharmacist. So, while her life wasn’t that of her debut novel’s central character Lutie Johnson, she must have known something of the struggles for ordinary black people in America at this time. I couldn’t help but compare the experiences of the characters in The Street with those in the works by Dorothy West and Tayari Jones (who writes the introduction to this new edition) that I read earlier this year.

Dorothy West (The Wedding, The Richer, The Poorer) was the same generation as Ann Petry, but the world their writing depicts is quite different, West grew up in an affluent family – touched by issues of poverty and the legacy of slavery mainly through her journalism and work in Harlem. Tayari Jones’ Women’s Prize winning novel An American Marriage depicts a middle class family devastated by a wrongful conviction. In all these novels and stories, we see life as it really is or was for black people in America across a period of more than seventy years.

“The snow fell softly on the street. It muffled sound. It sent people scurrying homeward, so that the street was soon deserted, empty, quiet. And it could have been any street in the city, for the snow laid a delicate film over the sidewalk, over the brick of the tired, old buildings; gently obscuring the grime and the garbage and the ugliness.”

The Street concerns a beautiful, bright young woman who wants only to make a good and honest home for herself and her eight year-old son Bub. Lutie Johnson has already had a lot to put up with in her life – and she is determined it will be better for her son.  As the novel opens Lutie is viewing three rooms in a house on 116th street in Harlem. She has decided she can no longer go on living with her drunken father and his assortment of blowsy girlfriends. She wants better examples for her son as he gets older. She is separated from her husband – there is no question of being able to afford a divorce, which means she is immediately viewed by almost everyone as being fair game, and too good looking to be respectable. There are, as Lutie knows predators everywhere, she feels their eyes on her all the time. As she views the tiny apartment, which is every bit as bad as she knew it would be, she is made to feel very uncomfortable by the leering glance of the building super Jones. Lutie does not relish living in the same building as this man, but her choices are few and far between. The rooms Lutie finally decides to take, are at the very top of the house, small, dark, cold and suffocating they are a long way from what Lutie dreams of – but she knows all the rooms available on this street will be the same – this is how people in Harlem live.

“Her voice had a thin thread of sadness running through it that made the song important, that made it tell a story that wasn’t in the words – a story of despair, of loneliness, of frustration. It was a story that all of them knew by heart and had always known because they had learned it soon after they were born and would go on adding to it until the day they died.”

When Bub was tiny and her husband out of work, Lutie worked as a maid for a wealthy white family in the country. She saw her family just once a month and had to bite her tongue over the prejudice she encountered, it was an unhappy experience. After her marriage broke down, she worked for four years in laundries, studying at night – so she could get an office job and move herself and her son out of her father’s house. Lutie believes wholeheartedly in the American dream, she believes that, that dream is as much for her and Bub as anyone. She’s a tough, intelligent woman, resourceful and ambitious but the world seems stacked against her. Like other characters in the novel, Lutie is resentful and angry at white people – who she sees entirely responsible for the way black people live, what they are able to earn, how they are perceived.

“From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands.”

While Lutie is at work, Bub is left by himself when school is finished, prey to the malign influences of the street. There are a host of fantastically well drawn supporting characters in this novel including the slimy predatory super; Jones, Min, the woman who shares his apartment, and Mrs Hedges a madam who spends her life sat in the window of her ground floor apartment watching the street, she knows everything that goes on. Bub is a lovely boy, close to his mother, however he lacks the understanding of the world that his mother has and is easily influenced by Lutie’s desperation for money.  

After a short time living on 116th street, Lutie is keen to leave it, the tense, claustrophobia of the street, where everyone is out for themselves, and nowhere feels safe is brilliantly portrayed. There is no comaradarie, no pulling together, no one to help.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot – as it is a fast moving, compelling story, brilliantly written. Throughout the novel I was worried for Lutie and Bub – I didn’t really expect neatly packaged happily ever after, but equally I wasn’t ready for the devastation I felt at the end. The Street is utterly brilliant, powerful and thought provoking, I won’t forget these characters in a hurry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

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

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

(Toni Morrison)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A couple of weeks ago two books came through my letter box from Virago that I hadn’t been expecting and what a lovely surprise they were. Two works by Dorothy West; a book of essays and short stories and this novel. Dorothy West is probably best known for her first novel The Living is Easy first published in 1948, (a book I have had for some years) – this novel; The Wedding wasn’t published until almost fifty years later. Dorothy West was a friend of Zora Neale Hurston, part of the Harlem resistance of the 1930s, though she apparently didn’t see herself as a political writer. As Diana Evans explains in her excellent introduction to this new edition, West was never involved in the civil rights movement and yet her work is “infused with the insidious and warped permeations of race into everyday lives.”

Dorothy West wrote about the community that she came from – not the stories of the African-American working class, being published by other black writers – hers; the privileged world of Boston’s black middle class.

In August 1953 the Coles family gather for the wedding of their youngest and loveliest daughter; Shelby. The Oval on Martha’s Vineyard is a proud community made up of Boston’s black middle classes. Although the story in the present takes place over one weekend – it also tells the story of five generations of a family, dipping back into the past exploring the lives of the earlier generations, showing how they came to be where they are as the novel opens.

We have the stories of Preacher – who set out to find the land that would be his home – and his son Isaac, who leaves home as a boy to further his education setting out on a path that will trickle down to the next generation. The story of Josephine who is so afraid of being an old maid she marries the cook’s son and breaks her mother’s heart. The stories of all these people and more are a part of the Coles family.

This is a novel of colourism, and the psychological impact of slavery, and how colour and society’s reactions to it, can become confused with people’s view of themselves.

“Because if you don’t know someone all that well, you react to their surface qualities, the superficial stereotypes they throw off like sparks… But once you fight through the sparks and get to the person, you find just that, a person, a big jumble of likes, dislikes, fears, and desires.”

Shelby Coles like most of the Coles family is very light skinned – fair haired and blue eyed – and has chosen to marry a white jazz musician. Her great grandmother is delighted – Gram; now in her nineties, was a white southern belle, her father had been a slave owner. When her daughter married a black man – it had broken her heart. Now she sees Shelby’s marriage as a chance to free her from what she sees as the burden of living within a ‘coloured family’.

“Like most children, Shelby spent her days and hours trying on the most transparent parts of other personalities, gradually growing aware of their insufficiencies. Then slowly, at a snail’s pace, and with a snail’s patience, she would thread her frailties and fears, her courage and strength, her hopes and doubts, into the warp and woof that would cloak her naked innocence in a soul of her own.”

Gram’s grandson, Shelby’s father married a light-skinned woman as he knew he was required to do – but their marriage has never been happy – and for years Clark has had a mistress, just waiting for the right time to go away with her. Shelby’s sister Liz married a darker skinned man, her baby daughter has been rejected by Gram because of her browner skin.  

“The Clark Coleses came closest to being as real as their counterparts. They had money, enough not only to spend but to save. They were college-bred, of good background. They lived graciously. Two respectful maids had served them for years, living proof that they were used to servants. If Clark and Corinne had not slept with each other for years, even their daughters could not have demanded more discretion in their outward behaviour.”

One of the most memorable stories, relates what happened one summer when Shelby was little – she wandered off and got lost. A search was taken up – but it was many hours before the child was found, because everyone thought they knew what kind of child they were searching for and Shelby didn’t look like that. Shelby later asks Gram ‘am I coloured?”

As Shelby prepares to marry – some people question why it is that of all the men that have paid attention to Shelby she has chosen to marry this white man. Everyone seems to think it’s all about colour. Close to the Coles house in the Oval lives Lute McNeil a black man with three young light skinned daughters – each the result of a disastrous marriage with different white women. The poor little girls having witnessed rather too much emotional turmoil, think white mummies cry, and Lute has got an eye on another new mummy; Shelby Coles.

Ultimately this is a shattering novel of great subtlety, cinematic in scope and richly descriptive.

(This was my fourteenth book in my #20booksofsummer – swapped for The Reading Party – which I still intend to read, eventually.)

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