Category Archives: Book Reviews

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller [book review]

Now we shall be freeNow We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.

It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.

He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.

Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.

He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war.  It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.

When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .

Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.

Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:

You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.

But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.

While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers.  Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight.  Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.

The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability.  Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.”   Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.

If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.

Why I read this book

I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review

 

The Secret River by Kate Grenville [Book Review]

The Secret RiverBy coincidence I started reading Kate Grenville’s story of a fictional family who were early settlers in Australia, around the same time that I was researching a real life family who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia.

Both families were forced into travelling the thousands of miles to the new world. Grenville’s patriarch was a convict, transported for life for stealing wood; mine was a farmer fleeing from the Irish potato famine.

Though I suspect both the fictional and the real-life families suffered similar difficulties with an unfamiliar climate and terrain, I don’t know whether ‘my’ family experienced the same conflicts with the indigenous population as the convict William Thornhill does when he tries to colonise some land.

Thornhill was born in London into a life of poverty.  He’s not an inherently wicked man  but turns to petty crime because it offers an opportunity to keep body and soul alive. Unfortunately he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Transportation is his escape from the gallows.

With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in New South Wales. Through hard work he is able to earn his freedom and to start afresh. He discovers a plot of land in an inlet of the Hawkesbury River, that he is determined to own and cultivate.

In The Secret River, Grenville shows the effect of a burning desire for ownership and how it changes an otherwise decent, hard working and sensitive man.

Cultivation of the new land is a hard task but what keeps Sal going is the belief that one day they will have enough money to return to her beloved London. But the land and the river have taken grip of William. It’s the one time in his life that he has something that is his. Being a landowner represents dignity and status, and he wants to keep it even if that means conflict with the woman he loves.

… nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own. For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.

But he has not reckoned that there is another group who equally believe the land they are the rightful owners of this plot of land.

The mysterious, dark-skinned people who appear and disappear from the forests, seem seem to him no more than naked savages.  Other ex- convicts up river have found a way to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines but not William. He is angered when they steal his crops and incensed to find his son playing with their children. This to him feels like a betrayal.

When violence between Aborigines and the white settlers erupts further along the river, William is shown a way to protect his own family and everything he has worked for in Australia.  But it requires him to accept bloodshed and violence.  It’s hard to read this part of the novel without a sense of dread about the decision William has to make because it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome.

This is a novel about two attitudes to the land (the settlers and the Aborigines) but also about two rivers.

Grenville shows the Thames as a harsh and unforgiving, environment against which William contends when he plies his trade as a boatman. Yet he loves the river:

After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object.

Even when he’s soaked through and his face is reddened and swollen by the cold and rain, he accepts his condition because “it was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born … in a dank, stuffy room rather than … with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.”

The Hawkesbury River  fires William’s imagination even more than the Thames. Until he saw the sparkle and dance of light on the water, the way the cliffs tumble into the river through snaking mangroves and the sound of wind rustling through skinny, grey-green trees, he had never realised that a man could fall in love with the land. Or that he could become a different man entirely.

This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was; not just in body but in soul as well.

A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.

The is a well-paced novel in the way Grenville shows an escalation of the conflict between Aborigines and some of the white settlers and the conflict within William as he faces his moral dilemma.

Some reviewers have commented that they would have preferred The Secret River to more morally ambiguous. Grenville, they thought, over simplified the portrayal of the  attitudes of the settlers to the Aborigines. Actually I thought her exploration of how people are brought to act against their principles and values,  was far more nuanced than they gave her credit for.

It seems this novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, and was a Booker prize nominee, is the first in a trilogy. I wonder whether the next two titles will have the same level of tension.

 

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani [book review]

Lullaby-by-Leila-SlimaniIt takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending. The strategy could have gone horribly wrong for Leïla Slimani in Lullaby; her tale of a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster.

But this is a novel so deftly written that it doesn’t matter that we we know from the first few pages that the nanny ends up killing the two children in her care. What really keeps us reading is the desire to discover her motive and to learn what brought her to commit such an appalling deed.

Slimani takes her time in providing the answers; dropping clues and leaving hints while slowly ratcheting up the tension. Though we know the outcome there is still a strong sense of dread as details are revealed.  As one reviewer commented on the back of my copy: “I defy you to read the disturbing opening sentences and not be compelled to read on.”

Compelling this novel undoubtedly is but it would be unfair to think of it purely in terms of its thrill factor.  For Slimani  has given us a novel that rests on an experience shared by many working parents in the twentieth century: the struggle between their desire for a rewarding, successful career and their desire to be with their children.

Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, is a highly intelligent  woman and ambitious. She loves her children but after a morning of tantrums and tedious domestic chores she longs for her own space. “They’re eating me alive,” she think. An unexpected meeting brings an opportunity  to return to the legal world she loved before her marriage.  Just one problem: what to do about the children? Her husband’s career as a music producer is about to take off so it’s not feasible for him to replace her as chief carer. They decide the only solution is to bring in a nanny, being careful to filter out unsuitable candidates. “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers,” they agree.

With her smartly polished shoes, prim Peter Pan collar and neatly polished nails, Louise appears the answer to their prayers. She becomes indispensable, bringing order to the couple’s cramped Paris apartment; enchanting the children with her games and stories and creating delicious meals. They treat her like a family member at times, taking her on their holiday to Greece.

“My nanny is a miracle-worker'” Myriam tells her friends and colleagues.

But the magic wears off.  After one incident involving his daughter, Paul decides he can’t stand their nanny any longer. Myriam begins to fret that she is losing the connection with her children. They relate more to their nanny than they do to her. A chilling episode involving a chicken carcass causes Myriam to think that Louise might be dangerous, or mad.

But the parental concerns come too late.

Are the murders some kind of punishment for parents who put personal ambitions ahead of their children’s wellbeing? That’s one interpretation. Equally feasible is that Slimani is making a point  about parents who entrust their precious possessions to a stranger with only the flimsiest of background checks. So wrapped up are Myriam and Paul in their own lives that they never consider their nanny has a life  — and problems — of her own.

Slimani deftly makes her readers more conscious of Louise as an individual than her employers ever do, showing this woman as a lonely figure, a woman who has never once had anyone to care for her or to make her a meal. In Myriam and Paul’s home and family she finds what she never had.  When it becomes evident that her future in this “warm hiding place” is under threat, she becomes unhinged.

Lullaby is a deeply powerful novel that asks questions but doesn’t provide any easy answers. Though I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I can’t get it out of my head. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.

Endnotes

Leila Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Faber will publish her new novel Adèle in February 2019

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst [Booker prize]

LineOfBeautyWhat a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.

It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics  via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university.   He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of  a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

So why do I say the novel is boring?

Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

 

 

Booker prize shortlist 2018

And then there were six.

The Booker Prize judging panel announced today the books that have made it through to the shortlist round of the 2018 prize.

One surprise is that the biggest name on the longlist has now been removed from the prize. I’m still waiting for my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight  to become available in the library but I’ve seen nothing but praise for this book so it’s strange not to find it on the shortlist.

One disappointment is that Donal Ryan’s From A Low And Quiet Sea didn’t make it through. As you can read in my review I thought this was even better than his earlier Booker contender The Spinning Heart.  

No surprises that Belinda Bauer’s Snap is not on the shortlist. Frankly it was a surprise to find it on the longlist. Much has been made of the fact that this was the first crime novel to be included in the Booker longlist. That’s not factually correct (Eleanor Catton’s The Illuminations was a crime novel in a sense) but even  Snap isn’t anything remarkable according to many comments and reviews I’ve seen in recent weeks.  I’ll reach my own conclusion shortly since this has been chosen for our next book club read.

The other longlisted title about which there was a lot of fuss was Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the first graphic novel to be included on the list. This has now disappeared from the contenders.

So what are we left with? These are all the shortlisted titles, ranked in order by members of the Mookes and the Gripes group on Goodreads.

Robin Robertson (UK):  The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse. Chronicling the drift of a Canadian D-Day veteran across post-war America, Robertson fuses poetry, cinema and the traditions of noir into an elegy for a lost age.

Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning                  novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo. The Overstory is a mosaic of stories spanning time and space, joined together by the overarching strata of the world’s trees and a mission to save the last virgin forest

Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel that reimagines The Oedipal myth of divided families, inter-generational rivalry and twisted fate. Set in a remote cottage in the British countryside, the novel centres on the complex and fractured relationship between an isolated young lexicographer and her mother, a woman gradually succumbing to dementia.

Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a darkly wry – but disquieting – coming of age novel set in a thinly-disguised Belfast of the “Troubles”. The narrative focuses on a nameless, 18-year-old narrator and her affair with the somewhat sinister ‘Milkman’, a much older married man allied with the paramilitaries.

Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape):  a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo. The narrative follows convict Romy Hall as she begins two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility.

Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Her new novel is described as a dazzlingly inventive new story of antebellum-era slavery and exploration that spans the globe.

I have three of these on hold at the library so with a little luck I might get to read at least a few before the winner is announced on October 16.

 

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.

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

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.

 

 

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor [Book Review]

bleeding heart square

Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square has the feel of a Dickens or a Wilkie Collins’ novel. We’re on familiar ground with its plot of a dark and convoluted murder mystery and its setting of a grubby corner of London. The cast of larger than life characters equally wouldn’t feel out of place in Woman in White or Our Mutual Friend.

Taylor may hark to the past but he gives his murder mystery a modern twist by overlaying  a twentieth-century political dimension.

The year is 1934. The British fascism movement is in its infancy but making its presence felt. Anyone who voices dissent to their views gets beaten up  by the blackshirted followers of their leader, Oswald Mosely.

Violence on the streets is paralleled by bullying, oppressive behaviour in the home.

Lydia Langstone, a young, privileged society wife, decides she will no longer endure the abusive behaviour of her feeble-minded husband who looks “… like a sinister Boy Scout, his emotional and intellectual development doomed to remain for ever somewhere between 13 and 14 years old”.

Marcus Langstone is trying to wheedle his way into Oswald Mosely’s inner circle. Convinced that Mosely will soon become the country’s leader, he sees himself as his right hand man with a key role in government.  No-one will get in his way, especially not his aristocratic wife whom he despises. But Lydia is more than his match. She walks out of her comfortable marital home in Mayfair. leaving behind most of her clothes and jewels, and seeks refuge in the decaying cul-de-sac of Bleeding Heart Square. It was once  the site of a medieval palace, but now reeks of cabbage and drains.

Her father is no help; he’s a drunkard and a sponger who steers rather too close to the edge of legality. But Lydia has no-where else to go. She just has to learn to cook and clean, to economise and find some way of earning a living.   In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she finds a kindred spirit.

Unwittingly Lydia has stepped into a mystery that begins to take hold of her. Why is a plain-clothes policeman keeping a close eye on the square? What happened to Miss Penhow, the middle-aged, wealthy spinster who owns the house? She supposedly vanished to America four years earlier after signing over all her property to  one Joseph Serridge. Someone has now started to send packages of maggot-infested meat to Serridge.  Is there a connection to the legend that the Devil once danced in Bleeding Heart Square and left a murdered woman behind him?

The answers come and the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place as we follow Miss Penhow’s story, told as extracts from an old notebook. In parallel we track Lydia’s own attempts to find the truth, despite the risk this presents to her own safety.

It’s a complex plot handled well with plenty of red herrings to keep up the suspense.  My one criticism of Bleeding Heart Square is that it does take a while to reach the resolution. But that gives us even more time to enjoy the rich period atmosphere as the novel moves from corner house cafe, to solicitors’ offices, quiet villages and the crypt of a nearby church.  Taylor skilfully handles the novel’s biggest set piece: a meeting organised by the British Union Fascists that descends into a violent anti-Semitic riot.

At its heart (sorry for the pun) Bleeding Heart Square is a delightful old-fashioned yarn of murder committed for the sake of money. In many ways this is a throw back to the Golden Age of crime and mystery fiction. But Taylor gives the familiar device a fresh edge by surrounding it with political and social themes.

Chief of course is the birth of Fascism but Taylor’s novel also examines the position of women in 1930s Britain.  Women had fought the right to vote sixteen years earlier but true independence was still a long way into the future.  Women like Miss Penhow were prey to the unscrupulous while many others found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lydia:  trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. As Taylor shows, her options are limited. She has no skills to use to make her financially independent and no experience of domestic chores. Though divorce was possible, it was a step undertaken with grave risks to the woman’s reputation. Thus almost everyone  in Bleeding Heart Square urges her to return to the abusive Marcus.

The Britain of Bleeding Heart Square is however a Britain on the cusp of events that will radically change the nature of the country. While there are points in the novel where the consequences of the First World War are mentioned the omens of a greater conflict to come loom even larger.

Footnotes

About the Author: Andrew Taylor was born in East Anglia, England and studied at  Cambridge before getting an MA in library sciences from University College London. His first novel, Caroline Miniscule was published in 1982 and is a modern-day treasure hunt featuring a history student. He is probably best known for his 2003 novel The American Boy which won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award.

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