Category Archives: British authors

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 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.

Classics club spin falls on Mitford

The anticipation is over and the result of the latest Classic Club Spin is in. The roulette wheel fell on number 9. Which means that from the list I put together earlier this week I will be reading………

pursuit of lovepursuit of love 2pursuit of love 3

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Published in 1945 it is the first in a trilogy which satirises  an upper-class English family in the interwar period. Mitford of course knew this world intimately since she came from aristocratic stock herself. She put that to great effect in her portrayal of the unconventional, exuberant Radletts of Alconleigh.

Mitford’s wickedly humorous narrative traces the family  through misguided marriages and dramatic love affairs. Although a comedy, the story has a darker aspect because the shadow of World War II begins to close in on the Radletts and a world that will rapidly vanish.

This is a book that I have been intending to read for years. Now I just have to find my copy. I know the cover looks nothing like the ones shown above. Isn’t that middle one awful?

 

 

 

Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe [book review]

Missing fayOne of the best novels I read in 2017 was Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. The jumping off point for that book was the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve while on holiday in England’s Peak District.

In similar vein Adam Thorpe’s novel Missing Fay begins with the disappearance of a teenage schoolgirl and examines the way in which her life touches some of the people in her neighbourhood.

Neither novel has a central protagonist. Nor do they end with any resolution about what happened to the girl. This is not crime fiction but an exploration of the ways in which her disappearance affects the community in which she lives.

McGregor’s novel contains a myriad of characters. Thorpe gives us six: a shop manager, a bookshop owner, an eco-warrier dad, a retired steel worker, a Romanian healthcare assistant and a burned out television executive who has joined a silent monastic order as a postulant.

Most of these characters see Fay fleetingly, as a face on a “Have you seen this girl?” poster. Howard, the steelworker, catches a glimpse of her as she runs with her dog through a local park. Cosmina, the Romanian finds a discarded coat in the woodland although only in retrospect does she wonder if this belonged to Fay.  Chris the postulant dreams of her as a flaming angel flying through the air to land in the monastery’s lake.

Only Sheena, who manages a pricey children’s clothing boutique for yummy-mummy customers, spends any quality time with the girl. When Fay arrives on her threshold one morning, Sheena anticipates she’ll be as useless as all the other work experience students that have crossed her path.  Fay comes from a dysfunctional family and lives in the city’s less desirable housing estate. Her mum spends the day in bed nursing her deep depression while Fay’s pot-smoking step dad busks around town when he’s not involved in some shady affairs. Sheena discovers that despite the pressure the girl is under, Fay is intelligent, charming and funny.

The six stories initially seem to have little to link them (beyond the obvious reference to Fay’s disappearance) but Thorpe has cleverly planted connections throughout the novel and drops lots of hints. Fudge and the monastery crop up at several points. Chris, the would-be monk, makes it for the gift shop. Sheena eats it. Eco-Warrior David takes his family to the monastery. Does the blue car that a few people mention seeing around, have any connection to Fay’s disappearance? Who is the creepy looking guy she sees lurking in the bushes – is it Howard who has taken himself to the park in between a pub crawl with his mates?  The significance of these apparently random references only becomes apparent once you’ve read a few stories.

The fact we don’t instantly pick up on some clues adds a further layer to the meaning of the book’s title. We ‘miss’ these signs just as much as the six people in the story let Fay slip out of their consciousness. Missing Fay isn’t about a physical disappearance but how through our lives we fail to connect with each other. Opportunities are missed, signs are misread aplenty in this novel.

That’s not the only message Thorpe conveys through his novel. Attitudes towards immigrants feature largely. But we also get the futility of attempts to ‘save’ the planet. David and his wife vouchsafe consumerism and are determined to raise their children in a way that makes minimal impact on the environment. But when he looks upon a wind farm he reluctantly admits that it is “a hopeless gesture, really, against the infinite kilowattage of nature herself”.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited to read this book when my book club selected it for this month purely because I thought it would be too similar to Reservoir 13. But it was a lot more enjoyable than expected. McGregor’s work stands out because its so beautifully crafted and the imagery is wonderful. But Thorpe’s novel certainly deserves attention.

Here’s my review of Reservoir 13

New additions to the shelves

After months of admirable self restraint, the flood gates opened in the last few months and all my attempts to whittle down my stack of owned-but-unread books have been thwarted.

Scriveners-BooksOur holiday through the middle of England took us to Buxton in Derbyshire which happens to be the home of Scriveners — one of the 10 best second hand bookshops in the country according to The Guardian newspaper. Five floors of books I was promised. So of course I had to visit. And of course I had to buy.  So keen was I that I was outside the shop waiting for it to open. Long after the announced opening time, I was still waiting. But minor frustration set aside I had a wonderful hour browsing their collection which included a lovely section on literature in translation. I haven’t seen other second hand shops do that but it’s a great idea.

I ended up with the three Virago Modern Classics editions you can see in the photograph because I can’t get those easily anywhere near my home.So when I see a green cover in reasonably good condition peeking at me from a shelf, it’s an opportunity too good to miss.  books aquired summer 2018

The Rising Tide by M. J Farrell (an early pseudonym for Molly Keane) was first published in 1937, her seventh novel. Like many of her other works this is a tale of an Irish family.  Miles Franklin is an author I’ve heard about many times over from bloggers in Australia and since I am trying to read more from that part of the world,

My Brilliant Career seemed the perfect purchase. It’s her first novel, written when she was only sixteen years old. The publisher’s summary on the back cover says it has the faults of immaturity but “it is impossible not to love.”

And finally, we have Willa Cather, an author I came late to via My Antonia which I didn’t expect to enjoy but thought it was glorious. Oh Pioneers is the first of her ‘Great Plains’ trilogy which actually ends with My Antonia. So I’m reading them in the reverse order but it probably doesn’t matter too much.

The copy of A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel is another second-hand shop purchase, this time from the Oxfam book shop in Stratford upon Avon. This isn’t one of her historical novels but I see that it is partly set in South Africa, a region of the world which fascinates me. Mantel lived for many years in Botswana which is where the idea for this story about a missionary couple originated.

My acquisitions haven’t been all used books.

When I got home from the holiday it was to find several packages awaiting me including a copy of  Wally Funk’s Race for Space by Sue Nelson, courtesy of the lovely team at Westbourne Press. This is an extraordinary true story of a woman who was in the first group of American pilots to pass the Women in Space programme. She went on to become the country’s first aviation safety inspector.

Also on the doormat were the monthly choices from three book subscription services (I’ll tell you all about these in a separate post later this week).  Plus my ordered copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, one of the very few Booker prize winners I have yet to read, and Adam Thorpe’s Missing Fay which is a book club choice for this month.

Now I have all of these two questions are causing much furrowing of brows in the BookerTalk household. Where am I going to put all these new books given every bookshelf is full and the floor around them is equally congested. And when am I ever going to read them?

But aren’t these wonderful problems to have????

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I don’t know what possessed me to request The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a gift one Christmas many years ago since I seldom enjoy tales involving the supernatural. Nor do I often read what has been labelled ‘cross over fiction’  – books that can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike.

I did enjoy reading it far more than I expected and would have given it a wholehearted endorsement but for one thing….

Gaiman relates his story through the eyes of an unnamed man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral and recalls events that began forty years earlier.

As a child he is a solitary figure with no friends (no-one turns up for his seventh birthday party), a fearful boy who sleeps with his bedroom door open and the hallway light on. His world is transformed the day his parents’ lodger kills himself in the family car, an event which enables a supernatural being to gain access to our world.

That day  is also significant for another reason. It is the boy’s first meeting with a young girl called Lettie Hempstock who lives in a house at the end of a lane with her mother and grandmother. The boy is captivated by them, especially when Lettie tells him that the pond behind her house, an expanse of “dark water spotted with duckweed and lily pads” is  really an ocean. But he isn’t too sure what to make of Old Mrs Hempstock. Could she really make the moon full every night and how could she have been alive long enough to have witnessed the Big Bang?

The trio of women turn out to have special powers that are needed when dangerous, malevolent forces begin to attack the boy and get into his house in the form of a nanny. The narrator is the only one in his family to suspect Ursula Monkton is not what she seems. She worms her way into the home, ingratiating herself with his sister and seducing his father, a situation which leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship between the boy and his father.

In one of the most memorable scenes, the boy’s father who had hitherto been a kindly man, turns violent, dumping the terrified child in a freezing bath and holding him under the water.  Worse is to come when the Hempstocks do battle with the dark forces, threatening them with annihilation if they do not return to their own world. The boy is saved but one of the women is sacrificed in the process.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a coming of age novel that deals with the loss of innocence and the disconnection between childhood and adulthood.  Gaiman reminds us of the vulnerability many children experience during childhood, times when terrors seemed to lurk around every corner and could only be assuaged by the comforting arms of parents and adults. But what if the very people you turn to for succour cannot be relied upon? Gaiman’s narrator comes to realise that adults are not always what they seem: “People kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath,” he observes at one point.

He reaches another epiphany of understanding when he enters Lettie’s “ocean” and is “reborn” into a life where he knows and understands everything.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.

Despite my normal scepticism I had been fully engaged by this story right up to this point. But then Gaiman destroys it in just a few sentences. As the boy is in the ocean he accepts what seems impossible – that candles can burn in water. Ok so far but what are we then to make of this:

I knew the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time befoer the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.

Or of this:

I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find.

It’s one thing to accept that when an imaginative seven year old who loves books, describes his adventures we believe they are extraordinary.  But are we really meant to believe that the boy who thinks in terms of icing on birthday cakes is the same child as the one who fully comprehends  quantum physics and the nature of the universe?

This was however just one quibble and I’ll forgive Gaiman for this indiscretion because the rest of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautifully constructed and a joy to read. I’m not surprised it was voted Book of the Year in the 2013 British National Book Awards.

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning

The Danger TreeOlivia Manning’s best known work, The Balkan Trilogy, juxtaposes world-changing events with the domestic concerns of the newly-married Guy and Harriet Pringle.  She revisits that narrative device  in The Danger Treethe first novel in her Levant Trilogy,  following the fortunes of the Pringles together with a hotch-potch of refugees from a Europe under the control of Hitler’s forces.

In their new home in Cairo they are no more secure than they were in Europe. The German forces are advancing through Egypt, creating tension among the ex-pat community.  Some choose to make their escape before the rumoured planned evacuation of Cairo. Others who cannot leave become increasingly worried. The Egyptians barely tolerate them and the Americans are more concerned with saving themselves than anyone else.

Nevertheless nothing, not even the threat of capture will deter this odd assortment of characters (many of whom are egocentric idlers) from their cocktails and parties or the occasional trip into the desert where they clamber into the burial chambers of the Pyramids. Anything to relieve the monotony and the daily battle with stultifying heat.

Into this melting pot comes a fresh-faced British officer, Simon Boulderstone. He’s clearly an innocent abroad, a young man who is a loner desperate to make friends.  Those he made on the ship bringing in reinforcements seem to have disappeared, leaving Simon feeling adrift on his arrival in Cairo. 

Waiting for a taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the strangeness of things around him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought, would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome him. 

It’s through the eyes of this naive young officer that we see the disarray of the Allied war effort. Put in charge of part of a convoy to take vital supplies to the battle lines, he has no real idea how to conduct himself or the men under his command.  Everything that was familiar has already disappeared and as the trucks drive mile after mile through a landscape rendered featureless by sandstorms, his feeling of unreality continues. Even when, after long stretches of inactivity, he is suddenly confronted with the brutal realities of war, he acts as if he is in a trance. Manning skillfully deals with this in a matter of fact style, the very lack of sentimentality only serving to reinforce the grim nature of the experience.

Back in Cairo, Harriet is similarly dislocated. Guy takes himself off to Alexandria ostensibly for his work with some nebulous educational entity called the Organisation. While he’s occupying his time dreaming up lectures and cultural activities, she is left alone, feeling under-used in her own job and neglected by Guy. 

What an obnoxious figure of a man Manning has created in Guy. He’s very much an absent husband who “loves everyone,” not just his wife. He’s never happier than when surrounded by friends and cooking up schemes for a play or some musical event. While Harriet has to endure the discomfort of a room in a pension, and her job in the American embassy where she is left in no doubt about  her outsider status — he’s swanning about in Alexandria. Harriet begs him to leave Alexandria when the situation gets more fraught, but Guy decides that a course he’s running for just two students (who might not turn up anyway) is more important.  Understandably Harriet feels isolated, confused and fearful for her marriage, especially when she begins to suspect his affections lie elsewhere. Guy of course is oblivious to the reasons for her distress.

He found it difficult to accept that his own behaviour could be at fault. And if it were, he did not see how it could be changed. It was as it always had been, rational, so if she were troubled, then some agency beyond them – sickness the summer heat the distance from England – must be affecting her. …. That she was unhappy concerned him yet would could hero about it. he had more than enough to do as it was…..

Harriet has far more patience with this self-centred insensitive man than I would have but whether they go their separate ways we never get to discover because the book ends without a resolution. It’s an unsatisfying end because young Simon’s future is also left uncertain. If it wasn’t for the fact I knew there were two more books to follow I would have got to the end of The Danger Tree feeling very short changed.

I hadn’t planned to read the whole trilogy but I was so taken with Manning’s skill in evoking the atmosphere of Egypt at this time in World War II that I now have to get my hands on the next title in the series.

About the author:

Olivia Manning was an English novelist and short story writer whose life bore a number of similiarities with that of her character Harriet Pringle. Olivia married just weeks before the invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War. Her husband’s job  as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest took them to Eastern Europe, but they had to flee, first to Athens, then to Cairo. Given that experience it’s not surprising that she can write so convincingly about the sensation of feeling dislocated and uprooted. 

About the Book

Manning began writing The Danger Tree in 1975. For a time she described it “The Fourth Part of the Balkan Trilogy”. A biography Olivia Manning: A Life, by Neville Braybrooke, indicates she found it a struggle to write apparently because she wasn’t confident of her ability to imagine the world of the soldier in a military campaign. Despite some early criticism that the desert scenes were lacklustre, The Danger Tree was well receive on publication in 1977.

Why I read this book

1977readingclubThis was my one and only contribution to the 1977readingclub #1977club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at StuckinaBook. I’m also counting it towards my Year of my Life reading project.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmPeople who tend to be squeamish or prefer not to know about the internal workings of the human body, wouldn’t enjoy reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. It’s also probably best to avoid this book if you have a friend or relative who has been diagnosed with a neurological condition or is about to have surgery.

Marsh is a neurological surgeon with more than 30 years experience. In Do No Harm he offers insight into the joy and despair of a career dedicated to one of the most complex systems in the body. This is a candid account of how it feels to drill into someone’s skull, navigate through a myriad of nerves that control memory, reason, speech and imagination and suck out abnormal growths. If successful he can save someone’s life or extend their projected life span. But often he is millimetres away from catastrophe. One false move and the result could be death or paralysis.

Marsh frankly admits that in his career he has made mistakes. A few years ago, he prepared a lecture called “All My Worst Mistakes.” For months, he lay awake in the mornings, remembering the patients he had failed. “The more I thought about the past,” he recalls , “the more mistakes rose to the surface, like poisonous methane stirred up from a stagnant pond.”

On a visit to a nursing home for people with extensive brain damage he sees the result of some of those mistakes in the motionless forms of patients in their beds “To my dismay I recognised at least five of the names.” One of them is a schoolteacher in his fifties whose life he ‘wrecked’ (Marsh’s word) during a fifteen hour operation to remove a large tumour. In the final stages he tore part of the artery that keeps the brainstem, and thus the rest of the brain alive. The patient remained in a coma for the rest of his life. The experience haunted Marsh for years.

Yet without mistakes, he says, there would be no progress. And without the willingness of doctors to take risks, many of the greatest advances in his field would never have happened.

It’s one of the painful truths about neurosurgery that you only get good at doing the really difficult cases if you get lots of practice but act means making lots of mistakes at first and leaving a trail of injured patients behind you. I suspect that you’ve got to be a bit of a psychopath to carry on…

Henry MarshDoes that mean surgery is always the best course? This is a question discussed regularly in the daily case conferences Marsh holds with the junior doctors and radiographers who form his hospital team. Is it kinder to let someone die gradually than to undertake invasive surgery from which they may never recover or if they do, face life changing side effects? The team reach a clinical, unemotional conclusion but its down to Marsh to face the patient and explain the decision. It’s an encounter that requires a delicate balance of compassion and detachment.

Marsh suffers anxiety before such meetings, trying to resist the temptation to be overly optimistic about the likely outcome of any procedure. Often before surgery he is oppressed by “almost a feeling of doom’ and panic which only dissipates at the last moment when he sits in his operating chair and takes up his scalpel.

… full of surgical self-confidence, I press it precisely through the patients scalp. As the blood rises from the wound the thrill of the chase takes over and I feel in control of what is happening.

Marsh never set out to become a neurosurgeon. After completing his medical degree he caught a glimpse through a porthole of a patient “anaesthetized, her head completely shaven, sitting bolt upright on a special operating table.” The surgeon stood behind her, with a light fixed to his head, patting her bare scalp with dark brown iodine antiseptic. The image stayed in his mind, and struck him as “a scene from a horror film.”

But his second visit to a neurological theatre fascinated him. Unlike all the other operations he had witnessed which involved the handling of ‘warm and slippery body parts’, this was done with an operating microscope through a small opening in the side of the head using only a few microscopic instruments.

The brain continues to fascinate Marsh. He is awed by what he sees through his surgical microscope, which “leans out over the patient’s head like an inquisitive, thoughtful crane ” as the infra-red cameras in his GPS system shows he position of his instruments. The internal cerebral veins are like “the great arches of a cathedral roof” and beyond the Great Vein of Galen can be seen “dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope.”

In Do No Harm he does a grand job of sharing that wonder with his readers and also the drama of the operating theatre. You don’t need extensive biological or medical knowledge to appreciate the level of difficulty involved in these procedures though a schematic showing what bits of the brain lie where would have been a useful addition to the book.

Every chapter is headed with the name of a type of tumour (who knew there were so many?) in which Marsh talks about some of the cases that involved those conditions. In between he shares his many battles with the bureaucracies and inefficiencies he encounters in the British National Health Service (NHS).

Surgeons kept waiting because of a decree that doctors can’t begin a new operation while another is in the final stages in an adjoining theatre. Or theatre staff forced to kick their heels because their next patient wasn’t allowed to change into their hospital gown while there were members of another gender in the same waiting room. The working hours of junior doctors changed without any consultation with the surgical leads. Computer systems that won’t co-operate when a bed is needed quickly. The causes of Marsh’s frustration range far and wide.

In one episode, which would be farcical in any other sector, he describes having to leave his clinic to repeatedly go up two flights of stairs to get a password so he can discuss an X-Ray result with his patient. “Try Mr Johnston’s,” he’s told. “That usually works. He hates computers. The password is ‘Fuck Off 45’.” It marks the forty-five months since the introduction of a highly-expensive computer system.

Back in his office, Marsh tries every possible combination of upper and lower case letters, adding spaces, taking them out, all without success. He runs up the two flights again. One staff member realises there’s been a miscalculation. The system has been in place two months longer than they recalled. So it turns out the password is now “Fuck Off 47.” All of this while the poor patient waits to hear if Marsh can save his life by operating to remove the cause of his elliptic fits.

His railings stem from a deep concern for his patients and a desire to want to do right by them (he even washes and dries the hair of his female patients before they leave the theatre). He tries not to let his feelings show but his mask slips regularly. Leaving the hospital one evening having told one man that an operation was not possible, he rails against the traffic as if it were the drivers’ fault

“ … that this good and noble man should die and leave his wife a widow and his young children fatherless. I shouted and cried and stupidly hit the steering wheel with my fists. And I felt shame, not at my failure to save his life — his treatment had been as good as it could be — but at my loss of professional detachment and what felt like the vulgarity of my distress compared to his composure and his family’s suffering, to which I could only bear impotent witness.

This is a book that I never expected to enjoy but it proved far more readable than I expected. I’m glad however that I didn’t read it before my friend had her own surgery to remove a brain tumour (from which she thankfully recovered). I appreciated there were risks involved, but never realised just how narrow the margin of error would be. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing.

Footnotes

About the Book: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2014.  It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, the Wellcome Book Prize and the Guardian First Book Prize. Marsh wrote a follow up in 2017. Admissions  was written as he prepared for his retirement.

About the Author: Henry Marsh worked as consultant neurosurgeon in London for about thirty years. In addition he travelled regularly to the Ukraine, donating his time to treat patients in extremely difficult situations and in the face of political opposition. H retired from full time work in the NHS in 2015 but continued to work in private practice until 2017.

Why I read this book: This was a book club choice. I probably wouldn’t have read the book otherwise. But I am so glad I did.

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