The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer [book review]

red coatKate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat is a psychologically tense novel that calls to mind that darkly disturbing fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. 

In Hamer’s novel a young girl disobeys her mother and wanders off during a day out at a story-telling festival.  As the fog rises over the fields and the festival goers begin to hurry home, they pay scant attention to the lone child dressed in a bright red coat. No-one sees Carmel leave the site and get into a car with a man who claims to be the grandfather she has never met.

While keeping her captive in his remote and tumble-down hide-out, he plans his next move. He believes she is special, a girl with a gift for healing. A girl whose powers can make him rich.

Told in the alternating perspectives of the missing daughter and her grieving mother Beth, The Girl in the Red Coat is a novel keeps you hooked.

From Beth we learn that she’d long had a premonition that one day she would lose Carmel. Now it’s just the two of them (her husband Paul left her for a younger woman) she becomes ever more obsessed about keeping a close eye on her daughter. Her need to be protective is resented by her daughter. Carmel loves her mum but just wishes she would give her more freedom.

Beth is right to be afraid. Her daughter is an unusual child, highly imaginative, and intelligent beyond her years but also dreamer, prone to lose all sense of time and of her self while playing in the woods.

Was it just me who saw those absences? When she stood rooted to the spot and her eyes became strange and stony —  then as soon as they came, they went. Fugues I began to name them.

Carmel’s sections of the narrative work carry the weight of the narrative since it’s through her we slowly come to understand her abductor’s plans and the girl’s struggle to retain her identity.  There’s a race-against-time element to this novel

Child narrators are always tricky to pull off.  They can either sound too childish or too mature for their supposed age. Hamer compounds the difficulties by imbuing her child with elevated powers of observation and communication. A few times the narrative comes across as a little unrealistic but the power of the story is so great that such thoughts last only a second.

Both daughter and mother  make frequent reference to the fairytale nature of what’s happened to them. Beth wishes she’d kept her daughter “shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow.” Spotting her shadow on the wall beside her captor’s, Carmel muses: “We both look like the paper puppets … and I wonder what story we’d be telling if we were.” She steels herself by thinking: “Sometimes, it’s easier to think of things as stories … If I made these things into stories I could float away from them, and look at them sideways, or like they were happening inside a snow globe.”

Obviously this book has a strong race-against-time element to it. Will Carmel be found? Will mother and daughter ever be reunited in true fairy-tale tradition?  Hamer handles the tension and suspense well and if that were all this book had, it would a perfectly enjoyable yarn.

But it’s her depiction of the complicated relationship between mother and daughter that made this novel considerably more appealing for me. Though their relationship had often in the past been tense, in their forced separation they discover the depth of their need for each other. When they see each other again, theirs will be a very different relationship resolves Carmel.

 All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.

As time passes and her confidence in her ability to survive diminishes, she still clings to the hope that one day she will be reunited with her mum.

Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.

Is there a fairy-tale happy ending for Carmel and Beth? You;ll just have to read the book yourself because on that question, my lips are sealed.

Footnotes

About the book: The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer.  It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.

About the author:  Kate Hamer comes from Pembrokeshire in Wales. She received a New Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales to help her finish her novel, She currently lives with her husband in Cardiff.  Her second novel The Doll Funeral was published in 2017.

Why I read this book: It was selected by one of the book clubs to which I belong but they postponed the date for the discussion and I couldn’t get to that rescheduled meeting. So the book went back on the shelf and I forgot about it until the end of last month when I was hunting around for some books to take with me on holiday.

Bookends #7 Sept 2018

I neglected my Bookends posts over the summer — not through lack of material to share, just a question of other things taking priority (like sitting in the garden). But with September comes that feeling of  “summer is over, time to knuckle down to work/schools/study” so I’ve given myself a good talking too and promised to get back into a regular routine with Bookends, sharing just three things that have sparked my interest from the multitude of news articles, blog posts and announcements that drop into my email box.

This week brings an article about the supposed health benefits of reading, a new novel by a favourite writer from the past and

Book: Transcription by Kate Atkinson. 

TranscriptionAtkinson has been a favourite of mine for several years , starting with Scenes Behind a Museum and continuing with her Jackson Bodie series. I fell out of love with her Costa-winning novel Life After Life and wasn’t excited by the idea of A God in Ruins.

But her latest novel Transcription which is published in the UK this month, sounds much more promising.

At the heart of the novel is a woman who gets a job in an obscure department of the British secret service during World War 2. Once the war ends she joins the BBC, where her life begins to unravel.

The reviewer in the Guardian suggests this novel sees Atkinson once again use an indirect structure (the novel apparently begins at the end) and play with questions of reality/unreality.

I’m hoping our local library system has put this on order…

Blog Post: Podcasts for every reader

As a devotee of podcasts I’m always on the look out for something new to listen to while in the gym or driving to the supermarket. I’ve tried dozens over the years. Some like the A Good Read stream from the BBC, I’ve stuck with but others I’ve abandoned after just one or two episodes because I find the style of presentation (far too many “awesomes”) or the presenters’ voices hugely irritating.

Buzzfeed has just published an article listing 31 podcasts all relating to books and reading (why 31 and not 30 is a mystery). Many of these I’ve not heard of before and some are definitely not to my taste but there are a few I think I’ll dip into. I’m intrigued by one podcast called Live by the Book where the two hosts take a self-help book and try to live by its ‘rules’ for two weeks. Self-help books vary enormously in quality I’ve found, the worst being from authors who came up with one idea that can be explained in a page or two but then gets spun out to more than 200 pages.  Yes “Who Moved my Cheese?” I’m looking at you…..

Article: Readers tend to live longer?

Over the decades, I’ve seen many benefits claimed for the practice of regular reading, from improving your vocabulary, expanding your knowledge of other cultures and ways of living, to helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Today I came across a report from Yale University that claims reading books on a regular basis can help you live longer.

Apparently, Yale’s School of Public Health conducted research in 2016 with a group of 3,635 people, that looked at possible links between the number of hours each individual spent per day on reading and their  life expectancy.

One of the conclusions was that the book readers in the study group who spent up to 3.5 hours a week engrossed in a book were 17 percent less likely to die over the 12-years following the study, while those who read more than the three hour-mark were 23 percent less likely to die.

I’m quite taken by the idea that even 30 minutes reading a day has a health benefit (do the longevity benefits increase if you read standing up??). What a great way to justify my habit of buying yet more books…….they’re an investment for the future in essence.

Unfortunately the researchers didn’t provide a detailed explanation of how this connection works other than to point to the known cognitive benefits associated with reading.

“Reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage,” say the authors. “First, it promotes “deep reading,” which is a slow, immersive process; this cognitive engagement occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented. Second, books can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.

I can understand how the process of reading stimulates the brain and helps mitigate against conditions like Alzheimer’s. But I’m still not clear how empathy, emotional intelligence necessarily translate into the ability of the body to withstand conditions such as cancer or heart disease.

However it’s an interesting question and one I was hoping Yale had continued to research – particularly since in their report they mention the potential for looking at differences between reading physical books and e-readers or listening to audio versions. But I’ve not found anything more recent to indicate their work is on going.

If anyone finds a more recent article, do let me know

In the meantime you can read an abstract of the study  here  and a detailed article here

 

 

 

WWWednesday 4 September 2018

It’s time for another update using the WWWednesday formula created by Sam at Taking on a World of Words 

 

What are you currently reading?

red coat

The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer.  It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.

The red coat of the title refers to the garment worn by eight-year-old Carmel on the day she went missing at a story-telling festival. She is spirited away by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. As Beth, her mother, desperately searches for her, Carmel realises that her kidnapper has not taken her at random: he believes she has a special gift.

This is a novel told in alternating perspectives of the grieving mother and the missing daughter. I started reading it yesterday and am finding it gripping.

What did you recently finish reading?

Lovein cold climate

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford was the book I ended up with via the recent Classic Club Spin.

For years I’ve heard Mitford’s work described as brilliantly witty and irreverent in the way it portrays the upper classes in England between the two world wars. Some parts of Love in a Cold Climate did deliver well-time timed comic dialogue and I enjoyed the characterisations of Lady Montdore and Cedric, the outré homosexual heir to her husband’s estate, but overall I was underwhelmed by this book.

What do you think you’ll read next?

While on holiday I’d planned to read the latest novel by Andrew Miller —Now We Shall Be Entirely Free — but the download from the NetGalley site to my Kindle app hasn’t worked. Since I’m having to rely on the usual slow Internet speeds in hotels, I haven’t been able to figure out where the problem lies.  So that’s going to be moved back in the queue.

Instead I think it’s time to pick up another of the Booker prize winners. I started How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman last year and — once I’d got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect — began to enjoy it but for reasons that now escape me I put it down and never finished the book.

 

Six Degrees from film memoir to crime

It’s time for #6degrees which this month begins with a memoir: Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson. 

The author’s name meant nothing to me but her publisher Penguin Random House informs me that she was a child actress who achieved “stardom” in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. This is a book that I am unlikely ever to read since the acquisition (or loss) of celebrity status holds no interest for me.

Do No Harm

The kind of memoir/autobiography that is much more to my taste is one I read earlier this year: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.  Marsh is  a neurosurgeon with more than 30 years experience in dealing with one of the most complex systems in the human body.  He regularly faces moral dilemmas. How much should he tell a patient’s family about their prognosis? Is it better to let a patient die gradually than put them through extensive  surgery which might result in life changing side effects?

The title of Marsh’s book refers to a phrase erroneously believed to be part of the Hippocratic oath, a creed to which all physicians subscribe.   The next book in my chain deals with a situation in which that code was allegedly violated by staff at a hospital in New Orleans.

Five_Days_at_Memorial

The city’s Memorial Hospital was brought to its knees during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For five days they battled against flood waters which knocked out its power supply making treatment and medical care nigh on impossible. Once the floodwaters receded, questions began to circulate about the number of patients who had died. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink traces the circumstances which led to the prosecution of one doctor and two nurses alleged to have hastened the death of the most critical patients with lethal injections of morphine. It’s a book that raises many questions, not only of whether impossible standards of behaviour are expected of doctors but about the level of preparedness of hospitals and other vulnerable places to deal with natural disasters.

pelican brief

Let’s stay in New Orleans with my next book. This is much lighter reading material though ethical questions do play a key role in the plot. In The Pelican Brief by John Grisham a young law student suspects an oil tycoon whose plans to drill on Louisiana marshland populated by an endangered species of pelican, are about to be scrutinised by the Supreme Court, is behind the assassination of two of its judges.  A complicated plot but the book moves along rapidly — it was perfect reading material for a long flight many years ago.

I’m very relieved that I no longer have to make those long flights for work. In the days before I set off I’d agonise over which books to take. I had three requirements. The book needed to be substantial enough in size that there was no risk I would finish it before touchdown. But it couldn’t be too fat because I didn’t want all that weight on my shoulder. Above all it had to be completely engrossing to keep my mind off the restricted cabin space.

crime-and-punishment

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky fitted that requirement perfectly. Like my earlier books in the chain this one deals with an ethical question: are there ever any circumstances under which it’s acceptable — permissable even — to commit a crime ? The central character of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student in Saint Petersburg, certainly thinks it’s OK provided the crime is undertaken by an “extraordinary person” . He kills two women to prove that he is himself one of these “supermen”. I got so wrapped up in the cat and mouse drama between Raskolnikov and the police officer who wants to bring him to justice, that I was disappointed when we  landed and I had to put it aside.

My next book is a reminder that the quest for justice is one that requires the combined efforts of many specialists.

40 years of murder.png

Professor Keith Simpson was a leader in forensic science in England throughout the 1960s and 70s. He pioneered the discipline of forensic dentistry and was prominent in alerting physicians and others to the reality of the battered baby syndrome.

As the first pathologist to be recognised by the Home Office his services were called upon in several high-profile cases including  the alleged murder of a nanny by Lord Lucan, the 10 Rillington Place murderer John Christie and the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland.  In his memoir Forty Years of Murder he reviews many of those well-known cases and some more obscure ones. It’s fascinating reading though a bit gruesome at times — anyone of a squeamish nature might want to skip the photographs.

What Simpson’s memoir shows is how progress in medical science with its ability to closely  scrutinise and question evidence, has been to the benefit of both criminals and their victims. It was a very different story in the 1860s which is the period in which my last book this month, was set.

His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet takes us to a remote Scottish community where a 17-year-old crofter is accused of multiple murders. A prison doctor,  a criminologist and a phrenologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, reaching the conclusion that he shared the same physical characteristics of murderers. Ergo he must be guilty.  Although the case is fictional the idea that physical features could be used to detect criminal intent was still being relied upon more than 30 years later in a real life case that features in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy,  

We seem to have moved a long way from the memoir of a film actress in this week’s chain. But that’s part of the enjoyment of doing the #6degrees.

 

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan [book review]

Low and Quet SeaWere it not for the Booker Prize I’m not sure I would have ever experienced Donal Ryan’s work.

He was long listed in 2013 with The Spinning Heart, winning The Guardian first book award the same year. Narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash; it reveals the impact of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger on the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town.  In my review I described it as “technically adroit … with pitch perfect characterisation.”

That same description can be equally applied to his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which is on this year’s Booker Prize long list.

I thought it would be hard to beat The Spinning Heart but Ryan has done it with From a Low and Quiet Sea . 

The cast of characters has been significantly trimmed. We’re now focused on three men all of whom have something missing in their lives: a Syrian refugee, a crooked lobbyist and a young man dealing with the heartache of a lost love.

Each man is given their own section in the novel.

Farouk is a doctor who escapes from Syria with his wife and daughter in the hope of finding a more stable, peaceful life in western Europe. Too late, they discover they have been duped and instead of being let to safety are left adrift at sea in the midst of a storm.  Ryan apparently wrote this story after hearing a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country.  Though short, this  was  an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose

They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots . . . sending their messages cell by cell . . . If a tree is starving, its neighbour will send it food. No one knows how this can be, but it is . . . They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind.

The style and pace change markedly for section two which features Lampy, a young man who is pining after the girl he loved who dumped him when she went off to college. He works in a care home, occassionally driving the old inhabitants to their medical appointments. He lives with his mother and grandfather Dixie – a man who loves taking people in the pub down a peg of two. Lampy is frequently frustrated by the old man yet also loves him, feeling “ a strange thrill of pride. His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”

And finally we get to John, a ruthless man involved in very shady dealings, who is full of remorse for long-ago relationship with a younger woman. He tells his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family life fell apart when his brother died and he became obsessed with a young woman he met in a bar.

At first it seems these stories have no relationship to each other. It’s only in the fourth – and final – section that they are drawn together in a way that surprised me. To say more would be to spoil the experience of this book for other readers.

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a brief book but it’s one that lingers in the mind. Every character has a unique voice, from melancholy to matter of fact confession but there is also humour  – there’s a wonderfully funny scene on the bus where the old people grumble because the vehicle breaks down. It’s so good I’m tempted to read it again soon which is something that I rarely do.

I’m not the only blogger to have enjoyed this book. Check out the reviews at A Life in Books and DolceBellezza.net

WWWednesday 22 August 2018

The weeks certainly go fast don’t they? I can’t believe Wednesday has come around again so its time for another WWWednesday post. WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and involves answering just three questions

 

What are you currently reading: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m reading The Line of Beauty because it won the Booker Prize in 2004. I’m down to the last four in my project to read all the winners. I’ve found Hollinghurst’s book a bit of a struggle to the extent that I debated more than once whether to give up on the novel.  Consequently it has taken me weeks to get to within the last 100 pages. To be fair it improved in the second half but it will never get on my list of favourite Booker winners.

Bloomsbury describe it as “a sweeping novel about class, sex, and money during four extraordinary years of change and tragedy.” The years of change is a reference to the fact the book is set during the ‘reign’ of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. There’s a tremendous amount of sex in this book – the central character is either thinking about it or engaged in the act – which would disturb many readers I suspect. My biggest beef about the book is that it was just boring for a large part of the time.

 

What did you recently finish reading:  Beartown by Fredrick Backman

This was the selection for one of my book clubs this month. The contrast with Line of Beauty could not be greater. Beartown is set in a small Swedish town that’s seen better days. The locals are crazy about ice hockey and pinning their hopes that their highly talented junior hockey team win national honours, a success that can herald an economic revival for their community. All is going great until suddenly a terrible incident changes everything, setting one part of the community directly at odds with another. There

Enjoyable to read though I think I know as much as I need to about ice hockey for now.

 

 

What will you be reading next? 

This is usually a difficult question for me since I don’t like to plan too far in advance. But I have to this week because I’m off on holiday at the weekend and so will need to decide what comes with me in my luggage.

There is one title that will definitely be making the trip to Germany.

 

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was selected for me as a result of the Classics Club spin and which, the ‘rules’ say I need to read by August 31.

Another possible companion is the book I bought today.  Lullaby by Leila Slimani is next month’s book club. The Guardian newspaper tells me that “This tense, deftly written novel about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster will take your breath away.”  I’m hesitating though because it’s not a very long novel.

On the e-reader I have the latest novel by Andrew Miller, author of Pure, which I thought was an outstanding novel.  Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, begins on a winter’s night in 1809 when a naval captain fresh from a campaign against Napolean’s forces, is carried unconscious into a house. He is traumatised by what he witnessed in that campaign. Miller is superb at re-creating the past so I’m looking forward to reading this.

 

So that’s how the reading horizon looks for me. What’s on your horizon this month?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book subscription packages – are they worth it?

Until this year I’d never experienced any of the subscription packages run by publishers or book shops. But somehow in 2018 I’ve ended up as a customer for three of these with mixed experiences.

The Random Book Club

At the end of last year a blogger (wish I could remember who you are) talked about a second hand book shop in Scotland that had decided to start a subscription service as a new way of generating much needed income.  It was called The Random Book Club and promised a hand-picked book each month in return for £59.

Here’s how they described the service

Sign up and we’ll send you a hand-picked book once a month from our shop, the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland. And with an element of surprise. You won’t have any idea what it’s going to be until it arrives.

Of the twelve books, roughly half will be fiction, half non-fiction. Every book you receive will be hand-picked from our shop; there will be no Book Club, Readers Union or Reader’s Digest reprints and all books will be in good condition.  And you get to keep the books.

The serendipity aspect was what really appealed to me.

I wish I could say this has been worth doing but sadly it’s not the case. The books I’ve received haven’t really been of interest. The first was a biography of Richard Burton that I’d already read. Then came a little dictionary of the origin of words in the English language. I can’t remember the ones in the middle but the most recent was about the migration West in the United States. All of them have gone unread to the charity shop. Not one has been fiction so, since I have a few months left to go, I’ve asked if the remaining books can be fiction.

Asymptote Book Club

“The best of
global literature
delivered to you
monthly”

I think it was Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write that first put me on to the Asymptote Book Club.  They promised to give me “fiction which will inspire and challenge”  via “exciting new works by emerging voices and beloved authors … from all over the globe”  My own attempts to read from a broader range of countries had stalled a little so this seemed like the perfect way to get back on track.

Ok full disclosure here.

I’ve managed to read only one of the books they’ve sent so far.

chilli bean clanThis was a book from a Chines author, by Yan Ge. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan was enjoyable and suited my mood at the time. Others that are waiting for my attention do look appealing and are exactly what Asymptote promised in terms of coming from many different parts of the world.

We’ve had,  for example, Aranyak, which is from a Bengali author and I Didn’t Talk by the Brazilian author Beatriz Bracher. In between we’ve been taken to to a small village in northern Norway during an Arctic winter, and a Naples apartment filled with haunting memories of the past.

There are different packages available: a three months’ subscription for people who just want a taste of what’s on offer before, possibly, committing fully.  I went for the year thinking I needed that time to fully appreciate whether this is for me. At the moment, even though I haven’t actually read the books, I’m thinking I’ll continue into next year.

Bookishly

My subscription to Bookishly came as a birthday gift from my sister. This is a company that started up in 2009 under a different name and sells various book-related items like prints and stationery. They have different book subscription packages. The one I have is their Tea and Book Club package where each month I receive a little bundle containing some stationery, a speciality tea, a bookmark and a vintage book (ie used).

The package is beautifully packed. I like the way they wrap the book separately so you get an additional surprise. This is the most recent delivery: two sheets of very high quality wrapping paper (almost too nice to use!); a bookmark, 4 tea bags containing Egyptian Camomile tea.

Bookishly package

Inside the package is a Penguin Edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I’ve read the book three times already but still like the idea of having a Penguin edition. Last month’s package was also a Penguin edition – of The Fall by Albert Camus, which is one I’ve not read.

Bookishly package 2

Overall I’ve enjoyed getting these little surprises through the letterbox though my gift subscription is now at an end.  I’m unlikely to continue, not because I don’t rate the service, but there are only so many books I can read in one year and I don’t want my reading choices too heavily dictated by what other people select on my behalf.

And my overall verdict on book subscriptions?

A mixed reaction really.

On the positive side, there’s an element of fun in receiving books that you haven’t personally selected.

The downside is that you could end up with a lot of books which are not to your taste and which you would never have selected for yourself. No matter how good the price of the package sounds, if you end up giving away half of them then it’s money wasted that you could have spent on books you really do want.  I may buy another subscription at some point in the future but I’ll know then to be a lot more particular in choosing the service.

What’s been your experience with subscription services? Have you actually read the books you received? Any companies or service providers you would recommend particularly?

 

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale [book review]

The Wicked BoyIn the summer of 1895, readers of British newspapers were both shocked and gripped by the case of two boys accused of killing their mother in her London home.

The decomposing body of Emily Coombes had lain in bed for ten days while her sons, aged 12 and 13 had a jolly time. They played cards, went to cricket matches and to the seaside and ate their favourites foods. They fobbed off relatives’ inquiries about their mother with a variety of reasons for her absence. Only when neighbours noticed a sickening smell coming from the terraced house was the crime revealed. One local newspaper described the murder as ‘the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.”

The true-life story of Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nathaniel (known as Nattie) is revealed in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy. 

This book is a forensic examination of the events before and after the day in July when Robert stabbed his mother with a knife he had bought specifically for that purpose.  Robert admitted immediately that he had killed his mother, explaining that it was because Nattie had been beaten for stealing food and he thought he would be next. Nattie was let off the murder charge so he could testify against his brother,

When Robert appeared for trial at the Old Bailey, the key question for the jurors was whether he was mad or just bad.

Contemporary opinion was that criminals and lunatics had certain physical characteristics that distinguished them from normal people. Robert’s demeanour contradicted that theory however. While his brother sobbed and shook with fear, Robert was cool and calm, a picture of a young gentleman dressed smartly and neatly in a boater and blazer.

Some of the Coombes’ neighbours testified that he was a clever and musically talented child, well-spoken and well-dressed. His teachers described him as obedient and unusually bright.

If he wasn’t mad or bad had he killed his mother in the interests of self preservation? Was it true, as both children claimed, that Mrs Coombes was prone to sudden outbreaks of violence against her children, particularly when her husband was away at sea?

Summerscale posits another idea: that Robert was influenced by the Penny Dreadfuls —sensational comics which chronicled the adventures of pirates and highwaymen — a collection of which were found in his bedroom.

In the end the jury brought in a verdict of guilty but insane and he was sent to  the Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.

At this point in the narrative other authors may have brought the book to an end with a short summary of what happened to Robert subsequent to his conviction. But Summerscale is nothing if not a completist and also a meticulous researcher. The Wicked Boy  is packed with social, historical and political details but Summerscale never allows the factual content to detract from the story itself.

She visited Broadmoor, discovering the lad was a model prisoner who learned to sew and to to grow veg and became a skilled chess player. By chance she found a picture of his gravestone in Australia and discovered he had emigrated after 17 years incarceration, had won a medal while serving in World War 1 and was a well respected leader of a military band. The very model of an upright citizen about whose previous troubles no-one in Australia was aware.

If the details about Robert’s childhood are interesting, it was the sections about his time at Broadmoor and then his military service that fascinated me the most.  I had imagined Broadmoor at the end of the 19th century to operate an austere regime but it was actually rather enlightened. Robert was allowed access to books, could walk in flower gardens and encouraged to take part in activities like chess and billiards. He was taught to play the violin and the cornet to almost a professional standard.

australian stretcher bearers

Australian stretcher bearers on the Western Front, World War 1

At the start of World War 1 when the Australian government pledged its full support for the allied cause, Robert enlisted for the army. He was despatched to Egypt for training and then to Gallipoli where he served with great distinction, being mentioned for his bravery under sustained attacks. He also led the troops to and from the trenches in France, playing stirring tunes on his cornet.

robert coombes headstoneIn due course he returned to Australia, living in a quiet shack in a remote valley where he grew and sold vegetables. When one of his neighbours was arrested for a vicious assault on his son, Robert stepped in and became the boy’s ward. Kate Summerscale tracked the boy — now a man in his nineties — to his home in Australia and learned how Robert had been a force for good in his life.  That man, Harry Mulville, gave thanks to his de facto father by arranging a headstone for Robert.

By the end of The Wicked Boy it was impossible not to feel that whatever wrong Robert had committed in his early life, his rescue of another unhappy child, had in the end been his redemption.

Footnotes

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. It was shortlisted in the non fiction category of  the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2017. It went on to win the 2017 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.  There’s an interesting interview with The Telegraph newspaper in which Summerscale explains what drew her to the story of  the Coombes family.

 

 

 

 

The Latecomers by Anita Brookner [book review]

the latecomersNothing much happens in Anita Brookner’s eighth novel The Latecomers. But then Brookner is almost always an author who is concerned with more how people feel than what they do.

This time her focus is on two men, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, both Jewish refugees on the Kindertransports from Germany who meet at an unpleasant boarding school in England. Despite very different personalities they develop a friendship that will last some 50 years.  and bond with each other in a wretched boarding school.

Fibich is a man of simple tastes, whose digestive system is fragile. Consequently dinners with Hartmann’s Aunt Marie and her famed dish of braised tongue à l’orientale are a torture for him. He’s a brooding figure who cannot leave the past behind him. So haunted is he by the loss of his parents in his childhood, tht he seeks the help of a psychoanalyst. In middle age he takes a spontaneous decision to return to Berlin, to the railway station where he last saw them. If he was hoping for peace and reconciliation he is sadly disappointed.

Where Fibich is timid, Hartmann is confident and bold. He lives for the present not the past which for him is another country. He has “consigned to the dust, or to the repository that can only be approached in dreams,” all troublesome memories, and is now “deliberately euphoric.” A man of the senses who loves luxury, he is captured perfectly in the opening sentence of the book :

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.

From schooldays, this unlikely pair progress to become business partners in a greeting’s card company. So close is their bond that when they marry they end up living in the same apartment building.

Naturally Hartmann is the first to get married, to a woman who on the surface seems the perfect match for his appreciation of the finer things in life. Yvette loves to be the centre of attention. She knows how to make a comfortable home but is too self-centered to form a strong relationship with her daughter. Fibich does make it to the altar eventually but the match isn’t one of deep emotion or passion. He meets Christine when she visits Aunt Marie and the two find solace together when the older woman falls ill and dies.

Ironically the children of these two marriages seem to have been mixed up at birth.  It’s a shock to Fibich and his shy, plain wife Christine that their only son Toto turns out to be a force of nature, a dazzling creature so alien to their own reserved natures. They watch him and wonder why couldn’t they have had a child as docile as Yvette and Harmann’s daughter Marianne.   It’s the girl’s very docility however that irritates Yvette. Give her Toto any day in place of this child who always looks frumpy and has to be cojouled to get any social life.

The contrasts between these four make The Latecomers a delightful book. At times it’s humerous but never at the expense of either pair. Instead Brookner gives us a detailed and very warm portrait of friendship, marriage and parenthood.  There are no shocks in this book, no sudden revelations or disasters. Reading Brookner is often like putting on a favourite pair of shoes. You know they will never let you down.

 

 

Six Degrees from Atonement

six-chains-logo

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain.  The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.

This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.

I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.

Emma

For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen.  Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.

barchester towers

In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.

Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.

cannery row

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party.  Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.

The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.   I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.

all the light

It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II.  Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.

Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.

The Gourmet

Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.

But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea

Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.

All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.

Right well it’s just cup  a soup then…..

 

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