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In short: Bawden and O’Farrell

I surrender. My brilliant plan to use the Christmas break to catch up on all my outstanding reviews from 2014 came to nothing. And now it’s nearly the end of January and they are still not done. If I leave it much longer with some of them I will have completely forgotten what I thought of some books. Hence I’m going to do a round up of some books I enjoyed by women authors but don’t have a tremendous amount to say about any one of them.

Nina Bawden

I’d never read anything by Nina Bawden until I found a Virago edition of A Little Love, a Little Learning in a charity shop in Oxford. Published in 1965 this novel is based on the idea that people often create facades behind which they try to hide the truth, even from themselves. The family in this novel seem to live unremarkable suburban lives until their equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of an old friend with an insatiable appetite for gossip who is seeking refuge from her husband. It’s not her indiscrete tittle tattle that throws the family into chaos, but the improvisations and imagination of the middle daughter Kate. This is a story that could so easily have been sentimental and twee but Bawden’s finely tuned understanding of human psychology, and particularly of a young girl who doesn’t understand the impact of her actions, makes this a delightful read.

Having enjoyed this I couldn’t resist an offer from on on-line store for some Bello e-versions of other Bawden titles. Solitary Child, the only one I’ve read so far, was rather a disappointment however. The central figure is a Harriet who comes out of her shell when she falls in love with a wealthy gentleman farmer. He seems a good catch but James Random has a past he cannot shake off; he had been charged with the murder of his first wife. Though acquitted, he’s not entirely free of the suspicions of his neighbours and, increasingly Harriet. Their relationship disintegrates when James’ errant daughter arrives back on the scene, Bawden tried to create a a dark and unsettling atmosphere in which were never really sure whether Heather is right to be suspicious. She was never a completely convincing character for me and the drama of the ending lacked credibility.

Maggie O’Farrell

My introduction to Maggie O’Farrell came with her third novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a haunting book in which she unravels family secrets kept hidden for sixty years.  Her sixth novel, Instructions for a Heatwave  treads a similar path of revelations and a complex interplay of emotions within the family structure. The trigger is the sudden, and unexpected disappearance of a devoted husband and father of three adult children. Robert Riordan, newly retired, goes out to buy a newspaper one morning and never returns. His children congregate at the family home to support his wife Gretta who maintains she has no idea where he is or why he left.  Recriminations and accusations multiply over the next few days, the temperature inside the house matching the sizzling conditions experienced out on the London streets. It’s a beautifully crafted story with a cast of characters valiantly struggling against their individual demons. It’s a painfully believable set up that O’Farrell depicts with real sensibility and appreciation.

I wish I had enjoyed The Distance Between Us as much. It had a very promising start with an episode in which a film assistant Jake Kildoune is caught up in a crowd stampede during Chinese New Year celebrations in Hong Kong. Across the other side of the world a worker at a London radio station is returning home when she sees a red headed man. For a reason we don’t discover until well into the book, Stella Gilmore is so frightened by this encounter that she abandons everything and disappears to a remote location in Scotland. The lives of these two strangers intersect in Scotland and as they build a relationship, O’Farrell reveals why Stella is in such fear.

The pace of the novel is rather slow and unfortunately Stella and Jake are uninspiring central figures so this novel doesn’t hold the attention to anywhere the same degree as O’Farrell’s other work.  This isn’t a poor novel by any stretch of the imagination, It’s carefully plotted and well written, but it never captured my attention fully. Nothing about it really lingers in my mind.

Two hits, one so-so novel and one miss but my interest in both these authors hasn’t diminished.


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