Category Archives: Book Reviews
Images of death and destruction in a hitherto little known corner of Europe filled our television screens in the early 1990s. Week after week saw ever more alarming reports about the thousands of people forced to flee as the Croatian war of independence advanced on their homes.
Hotel Tito is a novel about that experience of displacement told through the eyes of a young girl.
When war breaks out in 1991 she is nine years old. She is sent from her home town of Vukovar to take a seaside holiday far away from the hostilities. By the time she returns at the end of summer, everything that was familiar no longer exists. Her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. Her town has become a battle ground fought over with shells and rockets.
It’s not safe to stay in Vukovar so she, her mother and elder brother join a stream of residents who become refugees in Zagreb. But then they are evicted and end up in Kumrovec – a village near to Zagreb, on the Croatian-Serbian border. And there they are stuck for three years, sharing a one room apartment in the former Political School (known as Hotel Tito in homage to the village’s most famous son Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia).
It’s a strange existence. The large conference rooms of the hotel have been re-assigned to serve the needs of a new type of resident. Conference Room One is designated as an infirmary, number five is the church, four is used for daycare. For the young inhabitants of the hotel, the magical room is number seven; a space designated for parties, card games and social activities. For the children the front lobby becomes the rendezvous point for ventures into the local night spots.
Though it might sound like a playground, the hotel is hardly an ideal place in which to live. Naturally the family find it difficult to live in a room so tiny it can only just accommodate three beds. Other families are moved on, to bigger and nicer apartments. Why not them, they want to know?
Petitions and appeals to the government result in promises that new accommodation will be found for them. But the promises never materialise. Nor is there any good news about the missing man.
Believe me, it is much harder for the families of the missing because there are things we can never accept, and the uncertainty is crushing us.
The girl never gives up hoping that one day she will learn her father is alive. But in the meantime she has to get on with the business of growing up. A process which involves ditching the Barbie dolls and embracing the rites of adolescence: the first disco, encounters with boys, experiments with smoking and cocktails and the shock of the first hangover.
This narrator is an intelligent girl with a funny way of looking at life but is also keenly observant. At the beginning of the book she has limited appreciation of the momentous changes happening in her country. Although her parents don’t explain why she is being sent to the seaside, she has “a sneaking feeling it has to do with politics because everybody talks about politics all the time.”
I know a thing or two about politics myself, like I call my toy monkey Meso, because my monkey and our president look a lot alike.
About the war itself she has little to say other than it’s “cruel and went on for ages.” She is more focused on the daily challenges of getting around a strange place, making new friends and experiencing the sneers of local people towards incomers who don’t even know the correct names for basic foodstuffs.
The city was lovely and totally insensitive. They didn’t need us, there were enough people in Zagreb already; they felt that being from Zagreb was a matter of some prestige. … We made the switch to salty rolls but when we said the words they sounded off , always with a twang; when we bought them the baker had a little sneer. Like it was something enormous, not a stupid doughy roll.
This is a girl who is full of the anxiety and confusion experienced by teenagers; one moment suffering acute embarrassment at the drunken antics of her grandfather, the next expressing her love for the old man. Desperate to get away from home and experience freedom but nervous about whether she will fit in and find friends in her new school.
Her insight and honesty make reading Hotel Tito a very human novel. It relates the experience of people who are displaced; the constant anxiety about what is happening “back home” and the feelings of never quite being accepted in their new “home.” But it is also very much a novel about the process of growing up. And like so many bildungsroman novels, despite the tribulations and frustrations experienced by the protagonist, by the end you sense that they have come through the challenge and emerged stronger and with a spirit of optimism and hope for the future.
About the author
Ivana Simić Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 though she has lived in Zagreb for many years.
She published her first poetry collection in 2005, Prvi korak u tamu (The First Step into Darkness) and has since published a second anthology plus a short story collection 100% pamuk (100% Cotton).
About the Book
Hotel Zagorje (Hotel Tito) was the first prose work by Ivana Simić Bodrožić. It is described as an autobiographical novel. We know that Bodrožić was in fact displaced from Vukovar and did live for a while in Hotel Tito. But the book reads more like fiction than as a memoir. I suspect that has much to do with the fluidity of the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.
Hotel Tito was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It received the Prix Ulysee for the best debut novel in France, and a number of prestigious awards in Croatia and the Balkan region. Bodrožić is currently working on the film adaptation of the novel with Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić (the winner of Golden Bear 2006, Berlin International Film Festival).
Why I Read This Book
My edition was published by Seven Stories Press. I wouldn’t have known about the book however but for the fact it was chosen by Asymptote for their book club in November 2018. Including it in my #20booksofsummer list meant I could read my first ever Croatian author.
One thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time.
Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #20BooksofSummer reading list includes a book with one of my dreaded words in the title. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world.
It draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.
Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.
And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.
Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.
In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.
All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl.
Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili.
Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship with her mother.
The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.
Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven.
Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom.
Carol was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along
Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.
Why I read Ghostbird
A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here).
When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.
Sometimes a classic mystery or crime novel is the only type of book that will satisfy my mood. I don’t want the kind that oozes with blood or is ultra complex but equally the novel shouldn’t be ‘cosy’, or pedestrian.
Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel The Franchise Affair fitted my recent requirements perfectly.
It’s what I would class as an ‘intelligent’ mystery/crime novel. There are no bodies to be counted, no trail of blood, no criminals to be tracked down and unmasked in a grand dénouement (á la Poirot) and no unexpected plot reversals (á la Christie). Instead Tey presents her readers with a puzzle and invites them to follow along with the ‘detective’ as he seeks to find the truth among a knot of lies and inconsistencies.
The job of sleuth in this novel falls on the shoulders of Robert Blair, a respected solicitor in a respected family law firm in the country town of Milton. He’s called upon to defend Marion Sharpe and her mother who live in “The Franchise”, an imposing house on the outskirts of town.
They’re accused of kidnapping fifteen-year-old Betty Kane, holding her prisoner for a month and beating her when she refuses to do their cleaning. This is far from Robert’s usual kind of case but he’s been feeling lately that his life is rather unexciting and predictable. He’s rather taken with the Sharpe women and their sensible, forthright manner but he distrusts Betty’s story even though she can describe accurately items and rooms inside The Franchise.
Robert begins a painstaking search for clues that will prove his clients’ innocence and reveal that Betty is more of a cunning minx than the butter-wouldn’t-melt figure she presents to police and jurors.
The Franchise Affair is a cleverly paced novel. The first half is very much about Robert’s inability to find the holes in Betty’s story. Though he learns some surprising facts about her, he’s frustrated there is no real breakthrough. The second half has more tension; a race against time as the Sharpe’s find themselves arrested and the evidence appears to be firmly stacked against them.
Beyond the mechanics of the investigation lies a well crafted portrayal of how the media and a community react to a scandal in their midst. Marion Sharpe and her mother were already viewed with suspicion in the town. They’re ‘outsiders’, for one thing and have acquired a reputation for being rude. The conservative townies think Marion looks like a gypsy with her dark hair, browned skin and colourful scarves. Perhaps, it’s whispered, they are witches…
The people of Milton find it easy to believe that these women who live in a ramshackle ugly house behind large gates, could be kidnappers and abusers. They find it equally easy to believe in Betty’s story, particularly when the girl’s youthful appearance and clothes makes even sober men think of “forget-me-nots and wood-smoke and bluebells and summer distances.”
This is a novel about the way people jump to conclusions. The townsfolk assume Betty is innocent because she looks that way and because she was orphaned during the war . They assume Marion Sharpe and her mother are wrong-doers because they live in a large house (hence must be wealthy) and are a little odd.
Tey clearly doesn’t have much time for people like this. But she is even more disapproving of the way the media feed their prejudices. One newspaper, the Ack-Emma is described as:
… the latest representative of the tabloid newspaper to enter British journalism from the West. It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million.
The Ack-Emma’s sensational headlines are instrumental in whipping up public animosity against the Sharpes. They take Betty’s story at face value, publish a picture of the Sharpe’s house (which then becomes a target for vigilantes) and allow abusive missives about the Sharpes to appear in their letters’ page. Tey’s narrator bemoans this new style of reporting. Time was, says the narrator, when newspapers could be relied upon to exercise sound judgement about the contents of their editions. But newspapers like Ack-Emma’ don’t confirm to those old principles.
However the narrator also acknowledges the Ack-Emma’s new style of reporting has clearly found favour with readers since sales had boomed and “in any suburban railway station seven out of ten people bound for work in the morning” were reading its pages.
The Franchise Affair is a darn good story pepped up with sparky social commentary. It also has some first class characters. Robert Blair is a joy as the lifelong bachelor with a peaceful life. He has tea and biscuits brought each day to his desk on a on lacquered tray covered with a clock. He can clock off work after the post has gone at 3.45pm, just in time for a round of golf before dinner. He’s also waited on hand and foot by a devoted aunt). I
His client ‘old’ Mrs Sharp is a fun character. Her acerbic tongue matches her name but she has has an equally sharp eye for spotting a winning race horse.
Pride of place however goes to one of the members of the supporting cast; Robert’s Aunt Linn: “a solid little figure with the short neck and round pink face and iron-grey hair that frizzed out from large hairpins.” She’s a woman perfectly content with her life which revolves around recipes, church bazars and film star gossip gleaned from magazines. Though she’s not too keen on her nephew taking on the Sharpe’s case because the people at The Franchise “aren’t the kind of people I naturally take to” she is one of the few people in Milton who doesn’t let appearances get in the way of a desire for justice.
Though there are aspects of The Franchise Affair that situate it in a particular period (a post-war England which still has the death penalty) it deals with issues that are still relevant today. Questions about media responsibility and accountability and the way communities take ‘justice’ into their own hands, are just as pertinent in 2019 as they were in 1948.
About the author
Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh who was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1896. She also wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot, a surname that might have been chosen because it was the name of the place near Inverness where she spent family holidays.
Her first published work appeared under the name of Gordon Daviot in The Westminster Gazette in 1925. Her first mystery novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929, marking the first appearance of Inspector Alan Grant from Scotland Yard. Grant makes a few brief appearances in The Franchise Affair.
Why I read this novel
I read and enjoyed another of Tey’s novels, The Daughter of Time in 2017. It’s an unusual novel, an investigation into the mystery of a historical event (the deaths of the Princes in the Tower). I was taken by her writing style, enough to want to read more of her work and luckily found a copy of The Franchise Affair in a charity bookshop. Incidentally this novel was included in a list of recommended crime novels published by The Sunday Times.
Raynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.
But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.
The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.
Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed. Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..
While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.
The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them: a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes. In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.
They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did, they would just put one foot in front of the other.
Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility – of people they met along their way.
Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill . “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner. Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :
A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.
Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger. So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.
What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.
All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.
But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.
The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.
The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year. Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path. Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.
When a novel is described as “a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special.
Imagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling.
As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.
Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war. She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.
Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.
For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities. Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:
And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?
In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.
It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce. The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery, while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.
The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.
Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled. Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious. It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.
This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be. I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.
In the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers. But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal. The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.
Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death. In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.” Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.
The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.
Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate. At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.
He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”
In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.
When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion. He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.
Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester. The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other. As John Barton says early in the novel:
The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …
Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :
You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.
It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.
Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.
Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention. The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.
Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada. It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?
The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone, is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.
The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect. It’s a bold move. Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.
Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements. It has a love triangle, a murder, a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution. It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.
About the novel
Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell. She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of her son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.
Why I read this novel
The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed. But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism.
The Woman in the Dark should be sold with a health warning emblazoned across its cover. Readers deserve to be cautioned that it’s such an addictive novel they will want to sacrifice domestic chores and forgo sleep until they reach the final pages.
As you’d expect with a thriller, it has a cracking pace and oodles of twists and turns. But Vanessa Savage has done something far more interesting than simply trotting out the standard elements of the genre. Within her chillingly dark tale of a family in crisis, she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse.
The Woman in the Dark begins on a day that seems just an ordinary one for a rather ordinary family. But the tensions become quickly apparent. Mum Sarah is suffering from a deep depression as a result of her mother’s death. She’s taken to drink to help dull the pain but her cocktail of alcohol and anti depressant tablets leave her feeling spaced out and unable to function. They need a fresh start according to her loving and caring husband Patrick.
So he persuades her to move home, to buy the Victorian beachfront house in which he grew up. It’s the ideal spot in which to raise their two teenage children Joe and Mia, he argues. Conveniently he overlooks the fact that this house is where a brutal double murder took place 15 years ago. The Murder House, as the locals call it, is now a dilapidated shell of its former self. Patrick is convinced they can make it as perfect a home as it was in his childhood. No-one else in the family shares his optimism for the peeling paint, rattling windowpanes and unexplained cold spots in some rooms. And that’s before they are even aware of the creepy messages on the cellar wall.
From these elements Vanessa Savage has created an intense and deeply disturbing novel about lies, secrets and buried tensions. No-one comes out of this intact. Certainly not Sarah who becomes obsessed by the murder and perturbed by what she discovers about Patrick’s past. Definitely not Patrick whose moods swing from concern for Sarah’s wellbeing to uncontrollable anger. Nor their children who suffer nightmares and physical trauma as their parents’ marriage disintegrates.
This is a novel in which nothing – and no-one – can be trusted. Is Sarah right to imagine the house is a malevolent force? Does she have good reason to suspect Patrick is a threat to her and her children? The only version of events we hear is Sarah’s and given her propensity to become confused and muddled, the problems could all be in her mind.
The Woman in the Dark is a remarkably strong debut. Vanessa Savage writes with such confidence that you quickly overcome doubts that any sane adult would want to live in a house whose previous occupants were slaughtered. It’s not a book to enjoy (unless you like to revel in other people’s misery) but it’s certainly one in which you can become engrossed.
About the book
The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage was published in January 2019 by Sphere in the UK and by Grand Central Publishing in the USA.
About the Author
Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives with her family in South Wales (just down the road from me I just discovered 🙂 She has won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and was shortlisted for the Caledonia Fiction Prize.
Look out for an interview with Vanessa when she joins me in Cwtch Corner next month.
An American Marriage was on multiple “must read” lists the year it was published. President Obama apparently said it was one of his favourite books of the year. Jones then achieved the Holy Grail when her novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (inclusion in which is guaranteed to generate a major hike in sales). Now it’s a strong contender for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019.
An American Marriage is the tale of Celestial and Roy, a young middle-class African-American couple who’ve been married for a year. There have been some ups and downs as in all marriages, or as Celestial describes it, their marriage is “a fine spun tapestry, fragile but fixable.” Generally though life is looking pretty good. Roy’s a sales rep for a textbook company and seems to have a promising career ahead of him. She’s an artist specialising in custom-made baby dolls and hoping to open her own shop.
It takes just 15 minutes one night to turn all their plans upside down. On a trip to visit his parents in Louisiana, they spend the night at a motel. They argue, he goes outside to cool off but is back in 15 minutes. Later that night police break down the door of their room and haul Roy into custody on charge of raping a fellow guest. He’s sentenced to 12 years in prison. Incarceration for a crime both know Roy did not commit, puts the marriage under strain. When he’s freed eventually he’s ready to pick up the marriage where they left off. But Celestial has found love in another quarter.
Jones sets a fast pace at the start of this book. One chapter is all it takes to get Roy into jail. There’s no time wasted on recounting his arrest, questioning by police or a trial. Instead we get drawn straight into the effect this wrongful conviction has on the young people.
Jones relates this through three narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, a childhood friend who later becomes something more. A large proportion of the early narrative comes in the form of letters exchanged between Celestial and Roy.
And that was where I experienced my first difficulty with this book.
The letters simply didn’t feel authentic to me because the writing style is belaboured. It would be far more natural for a twenty-something year old to write “I’ve never seen even seen one” rather than “I have never ….” or to say “then I’d know” rather than “then I would know what to do….” Roy’s letters in particular felt like correspondence to a stranger rather than to a wife.
When we discussed this at a book club meeting, a few members commented that the stilted style probably reflects the fact Roy knows that prisoners’ letters are vetted. It’s a fair point but I still found these letters irritating at times.
Equally irritating was the author’s tendency to include platitudes throughout the book. This one for example:
“A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.”
Or how about
“Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition…”
On one level An American Marriage is intended as a state-of-the-nation kind of book; a commentary on race and justice in twenty-first century America. It’s clear that Roy’s ethnicity plays a significant part in the miscarriage of justice he experiences. On another level it’s an examination of what happens when a marriage is put to the severest of tests.
Initially both are hopeful about the future and try hard to keep things as they were. Celestial wants to recount word for word, their last conversation before his arrest so that “we can pick up where we left off.” But their optimism wanes, the affection dwindles and bitterness sweeps in. The question in the final chapters is whether the marriage can ever be put back together.
An American Marriage has many of the elements that would make for an excellent piece of fiction but it never delivers. The injustice issue is never explored to any depth so we’re left to focus on the marriage and the individuals within that relationship. Interesting but not rivetting.
I can understand why this book has resonated with many readers. But I don’t think it’s special enough to win the Women’s Prize. Certainly not when the truly remarkable novel Milkman by Anna Burns is in the frame.
About the Author
Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently a member of the English faculty at Emory University in the city. She had three novels published before An American Marriage.
Her debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, was written when she was a graduate student. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. Her second novel The Untelling and her third Silver Sparrow are also set in Atlanta.
But then I noticed this was the year when Sylvia Plath’s second collection of poetry was published under the title of Ariel. It was this book that established Plath as one of the twentieth century’s most original and gifted poets. Plath herself felt they were her best work, predicting they would “make my name.”
The collection contains some of her most celebrated poems: Lady Lazurus, Daddy; The Moon and the Yew Tree and the titular piece Ariel. Many of these are poems written in a burst of creativity shortly before she took her life. They are poems I’ve read many times over, but only ever as individual pieces of work. When you read them as a collection, the intensity and darkness that’s visible in an individual poem is heightened and magnified many times over.
In them can be seen the effects of clinical depression and breakdown. Landscapes and items of nature take on a menacing dimension. There is a fascination with death and annihilation. And there’s an unflinching honesty as the poet subjects herself to a fierce interrogation of her feelings.
But I also noticed some tenderness. In Morning Song, the first poem in the collection, Plath writes about being a new mother, listening out for the “moth-breath” of her new born baby then stumbling from bed the minute she hears a cry.
These are poems that are enigmatic and complex. Plath’s imagery is frequently startling (like the references to the Holocaust in Daddy) It took me several readings to begin to grasp the sense of them, particularly where Plath fuses and condenses her similies and allusions. Ariel for example uses just three words ‘Stasis in darkness’ to convey the experience of sitting on a stationary horse, waiting for dawn to break. I’m not convinced even now that I have fully understood many of these poems. But the overall effect is breathtaking especially when I found a website which includes Plath herself reading a number of these poems. (you can find them here)
Lady Lazurus is unforgettable and Daddy is superb. I also enjoyed Tulips which describes the experience of being in hospital, lying peacefully until some flowers arrive which to Plath look disturbingly like the mouths of a large African cat.
But my favourite is the titular poem Ariel. Reading it I can imagine Plath astride her horse as dawn is breaking, thundering through furrowed fields, past tors and blackberry bushes
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
I was disappointed to find that my edition, published by Faber, doesn’t represent Plath’s vision for her collection. She started putting the manuscript together in late 1961 or early 1962 (she changed the title multiple times). The collection was published posthumously but with a different order of poems and 12 that Plath had never intended to be included. The change was made by her husband Ted Hughes. He also removed 12 poems.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the selection and arrangement of the poems as Plath had left them was restored. It contains a forward by Plath herself and by her daughter Frieda Hughes. I’m curious whether reading this version will change my views in any way. Will I find a new favourite?
One of the things I love about reading is how it opens up new areas of knowledge. It could introduce you to places you know nothing about or enlighten you about a period in history.
In the case of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, my enlightenment concerned wood. Not just any old wood. Two very special kinds of wood called flame birch and flame walnut.
I’ve never seen furniture manufactured from either of these woods but when polished, the natural patterns that are revealed seem spectacularly beautiful.
It looked like a painting whose meaning is individual to each beholder. From a reddish-orange depth, blue and black lines spiralled outwards wildly, like a blazing fire. The pattern changed depending on where the light struck it. It glinted and new shadows became visible … In the centre of the wood there was a dark, craggy concentration, a maelstrom the colour of dried blood with thin strands swirling around it.
Wood is central to this novel about skeletons in the family closet. It not only plays a key role in the plot, it portrays mood and atmosphere and reveals much about the characters and their attitudes.
The story concerns Edvard Hirifjell, a man in his 20s who was orphaned when his parents died in France in mysterious circumstances. He was wih them at the time but when missing for four days, eventually being disovered in the office of a local doctor. The child was taken in by his taciturn grandfather Bestefar to live on the family farm in a remote mountain valley, tending sheep and becoming an expert in potato crops.
When Bestefar dies, Edvard discovers that there is a beautiful, highly ornate coffin already waiting at the undertakers. It’s been designed and made by his grandfather’s estranged brother Einar, a fabulously skilled cabinetmaker. Further discoveries follow in the form of letters which hint at a family connection to a concentration camp, an assumed identity and a missing inheritance.
As the young man begins to piece together his past, he travels first to the Shetland Islands and then to the battlefields of the Somme.
This novel works on so many levels.
It’s cleverly plotted with plenty of surprises building the momentum towards the concluding revelations.
It has an empathetic central character whose quest to know the truth about his family, is also a process of self-discovery.
The historical context is so well integrated it never feels as if we’re being educated about the battles of the Somme or the centuries-old connection between Norway and the Shetlands.
And then there is the keen observation of the natural landscape and the forces of nature. Storms batter the Shetland Islands, whipping the sea into a seething, frothing mass that looks as if it will “swallow the whole island.” In its wake lie swathes of land where peat has been ripped up and tossed into the water and the beach is scrubbed clean.
Not what you want to encounter on your summer holidays. Much better to head for the lushness of Norway with its
…. fruit trees, the pea pods that dangled like half moons when we got close to them, so plentiful that we could fill up on them without taking a step. The dark-blue fruit of the plum trees, the sagging raspberry bushes just waiting for us to quickly fill two small plates and fetch some caster sugar and cream.
This is a menalcholy novel at times. Edvard barely remembers his parents except as fleeting images.
For me my mother was a scent, she was a warmth. A leg I clung to. A breath of something blue; a dress I remember her wearing. She fired me into the world with a bowstring, I told myself, and when I shaped my memories of her, I did not know if they were true, I simply created her as I thought a son should remember his mother.
His desire to uncover the truth about his parents is more than a desire to put substance and shape to those memories. He’s always felt a sense of alienation, of not quite belonging. His journey into the past is a way of slaying his feers and setting him on a new path to the future.
I’d never heard of Lars Mytting or this book until I spotted it while browsing in a bookshop. So I had no idea he was already a best selling author based on a non fiction book called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. The Sixteen Tres of the Somme is his first novel to be published in English. Go out and buy it – you won’t be disappointed.