Strange Flowers ~ Donal Ryan

Sometimes you come across a book that is just so beautifully written and so intensely moving in its subject matter that it is hard to say anything about it other than ‘this is perfect’. That’s the way I feel about Donal Ryan’s new novel, Strange Flowers. Having finished it last night, I am still reluctant to write about it, partly because I just don’t feel anything I say can do it justice, but mainly because I simply don’t want to disturb the feelings of gratitude and privilege of being having allowed to read this book. However, if I don’t put pen to paper, as it were, then some of you now reading might never think of picking up this short but atmospheric work and that would be a terrible shame.

Like most of Ryan’s work the novel is set primarily in rural Ireland, in this case in County Tipperary, however, some of the more important scenes thematically are sited in London where two of the main characters try to find a place to lose themselves after traumatic loss sours their experience of home. In 1973, Moll Gladney vanishes from the humble bothy that she shares with her parents, Paddy and Kit, leaving no word of explanation behind her. For five years her devastated family continues with their daily round, Paddy working in the mornings as the local postman and in the afternoons walking the marches of his landlord’s property, keeping an eye on the stock and carrying out any work that might need doing to maintain the land. Then, just as unexpectedly as she left, Moll returns and following her comes her husband, Alexander, a black Presbyterian bringing with him not only his parents but the son, Josh, that Moll has left behind.

While the love that Alexander feels for Moll is patiently obvious to everyone, her feelings about her husband and child are less clear and it is apparent that there is more to the story of her disappearance than any of the family knows. Alexander stays on in Ireland and gradually finds a place for himself in the community, playing hurling with the local team and building a landscape gardening business that looks fit to thrive and help change the fortunes of the Gladney family. And then Alexander is killed in a road accident and the fragile equilibrium that the family has achieved is once more shattered. This time it is Josh who takes himself off to London, working at whatever job he can find while he struggles to make his mark as a writer. From this point in the book the family story is intercut by Josh’s retelling of the story of the blind man cured by Jesus, a story, he tells us, that has to have more behind it than appears in the gospels.

And this is one of the major themes of the book, that however much we know, or think we know, about the truth of a matter, there are always circumstances, details, outcomes, that are omitted from the telling. Just as we don’t know all the circumstances behind the life of the blind beggar, including what happened to him after his ‘miracle’, neither do we know the reason that Moll left all those years before nor truly understand what it is that is motivating Josh.  The other major theme, it seems to me, is the nature of love, the power of love and the sacrifices which that love, seen most often here, within the family setting, is prepared to make. No one reading this book can doubt Paddy’s love for his family, a love that widens to include Alexander and Josh when they make the crossing over the Irish sea. Nor can there be any question of the love that Alexander feels for Moll, even though he knows, as do we, that this is a feeling she is not able to return. Where love is not to be found is in association with power. Lucas Jackman, the Gladney’s landlord, abuses his power in the most atrocious manner and Josh‘s retelling of the gospel story forces the reader to question the extent to which Christ’s miracles were an act of love or if they were not rather part of a publicity seeking campaign designed to boost the persona of the man calling himself the Messiah, a man Ryan seems to suggest who has been overwhelmed by his followers and to have lost all his authority. 

However, the ultimate power of the book lies in the beauty of its language. As you read you feel that every word has been placed not just with precision but also with the same love that Ryan is celebrating in the story he depicts. He is, without doubt, a brilliant writer, far better than I am. I look back over what I have written here and feel that I have come nowhere near expressing the beauty or the force of his novel. All I can do is ask you to read it and experience the power of his words for yourself.

With many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the review copy. 

Summerwater ~ Sarah Moss

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened book

Summerwater is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I have read; it won’t be the last. Located in a Scottish campsite populated by cabins which have been handed down through family generations, Moss sets her novel over a period of twenty-four hours in mid-summer. Subdivided into alternating longer and very much shorter sections, the book recounts how that one day, rain sodden as only a British summer day can be, is spent by the people staying on the site and, in the shorter sections, the wildlife that inhabits the surrounding woodland. We follow the attempts by members of each generation to fill the wet, isolated hours when even to set foot over the threshold is to be soaked to the skin. There is the elderly couple having to face the fact that she is slowly descending into some form of dementia; the young couple with two small children trying to find ways to amuse them cooped up in what seems to be a little more than a wooden box; the lovers planning married life on an isolated island for which this must seem like some sort of trial run and the teenagers, desperate without their social networking, fighting for independence with every breath.

What has brought these people to a location that, on this particular day, might well be called a God forsaken place? Moss seems to suggest that it is ingrained habit. These families have spent their holidays sequestered away in these selfsame wooden cabins summer after summer. It is what they do; it has become who they are. And this notion of ourselves as creatures driven by ways of being that have been handed down and reinforced year in and year out seems to me to be at the heart of what Sarah Moss is concerned with.

Some of these habits are relatively new, inasmuch as they have only been part of family life over one, two or three generations. Some are still in the process of being laid down – in one instance quite literally. ‘Zanzibar’ introduces us to Josh and Milly, the young couple who are intending to marry and moved to the island of Barra.

They are trying to have simultaneous orgasms.

If we can learn how to do it, Josh says, we will be like a hundred times more likely not to get divorced. I read about it.

So they are practising; they are trying to build a habit.

Much of Summerwater is heart wrenching, but not ‘Zanzibar‘, which we experience through Millie’s eyes as she tries hard not to judge [Josh’s] facial expressions nor to think about bacon sandwiches to pass the time.  I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud. It’s a sign of Moss’s excellent pacing that she knows just went to offer the reader some light relief and also a sign of the control she has over her material that when we meet the couple again, this time through Josh’s eyes, we realise that what he is actually trying to do is save the relationship, recognising that he has the habit of living in a small island community but Millie does not.

Habits are built over a lifetime and while they can be very useful in as much as they save us time where every day occurrences are concerned, they can also bind us and leave us tied to repetitive ways of living that have ceased to serve us well. And, some habits, some ways of thinking, some ways of reacting, are built over far longer stretches than one single being’s existence. This is perhaps revealed most strongly in the shorter sections which deal with the natural world that also inhabits this campsite and its surrounds. For me, the point is made most tellingly in always wolves, a bare dozen lines in which a doe, protecting her fawn, steps nervously out of the trees.

In her mind there are always wolves, day and night, a pack of them slinking on the edge of scent and sound. They creep nearer when she sleeps, when she and the fawn bow  their heads to drink, when the trees cluster to make hiding places.

Here is a creature who can never have encountered a wolf, but the herd memory, the fear instilled in generation after generation of her kind, still controls her reactions and informs her way of life. And the same is true of the human inhabitants of the campsite. They bring with them their ingrained fear, passed down from father to son, of those whose habits and way of life are different from theirs, a fear which manifests itself in the shape of distrust, dislike, anger and violence.  And, if Summerwater has a fault, for me it is in the ending, which exploits this fear and gives it concrete shape. It seems too sudden, too definite, for a book which has thus far dealt in less direct means of communication. But this is to quibble. The quality of the writing and of the act of creation, where both atmosphere and characters are concerned, seems to me to be outstanding. This is certainly one of the best novels I have read so far this year.

With thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the review copy.

A Room Made Of Leaves ~ Kate Grenville

It is eight years since we have had a new novel from Kate Grenville; far too long in my opinion. Her last offering was Sarah Thornhill, the third in the trilogy centred around the Thornhill family and the early years of the Australian colony which grew up as a result of the convict settlement in New South Wales.  In A Room Made of Leaves Grenville returns to those early difficult years to tell the story of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur who is apparently credited with establishing the antipodean sheep industry, building up a breed capable of providing quality wool for the European market. History tells us that Macarthur was a very difficult man, constantly at odds with those around him and forced to return to England twice, for four and then nine years, to face judgement in the courts of law. How then, Grenville asks, was such a man, always slant, guarded, sly, evasive, able to not only craft out a viable farm from inhospitable surroundings, but also carry out the skilled task of interbreeding animals capable of surviving and indeed thriving in an alien landscape? Is it not more probably the case, she argues, that his wife, brought up among sheep farmers and instructed in the business of breeding by her grandfather, was the more likely partner to have possessed the necessary acumen to drive the venture forward?

The novel purports to be a recording of papers belonging to Elizabeth Macarthur and found many years after her death. In a series of short passages she describes her early life in Devon, the death of her father, the resulting time spent on her grandfather’s farm, and her friendship with Bridie the daughter of the local minister.  As a result of this friendship, Elizabeth goes to live with the Kingdon family and once she learns that it would be best for me not to be too clever, she fits in very well until such a time as it becomes apparent that she and Bridie both look fit to be left “on the shelf“. Onto the scene comes John Macarthur, an ensign on half pay. The phrase was a byword for failure. Elizabeth falls pregnant and finds herself married to a man whose every fibre was held together by pride, who boasted that he had never yet failed in ruining a man who had become obnoxious to him. In order to escape a monstrous debt, Macarthur signs on with the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth finds herself, with only her maid, Anne, for company, embarked on a six month voyage to Australia.

Once they have landed, they are located in the same territory, both literally and figuratively, that Grenville covered in her novel The Lieutenant. The colony is limited in the extreme and Elizabeth finds herself not only without the basic comforts of life from a material point of view, but also lacking any sort of company that might bring her relief.

I met there a cold indifferent truth: that every person – even a loved person, and I was not loved – was alone.

Eventually, she discovers companionship in the person of William Dawes, the astronomer sent out to map the southern night sky, and through him she makes the acquaintance of some of the first inhabitants of Australia, people with whom, uniquely among the colonists, Dawes is trying to understand and communicate. It is Dawes who teaches her to observe the world around her and to value and appreciate what the land has to offer. Consequently, when she and her husband, accompanied by their servants Agnes Brown and the ex-sheep-stealer, William Hannaford, move inland to Parramatta and establish a smallholding, Elizabeth is the one who is aware enough of the land and the potential of the livestock they have brought with them to be able to derive a profit from their situation.  Nevertheless, her life continues to be one of loneliness and extreme watchfulness, knowing that she must weigh every word she says to her husband who persists in seeing insults everywhere.

When I realised that Grenville was exploring the life of a real and documented individual, I made what I now think was a mistake in doing some background reading about Elizabeth Macarthur before I started the book. As a result, I was expecting the author to deal with Elizabeth’s life through the years during which John was back in England in the same detail that she does those early years when they are establishing themselves in Australia and was disappointed when this wasn’t the case. Up until that point I was enjoying the book very much, but, possibly because of my earlier reading, I felt that it came to a perfunctory ending. Indeed, as I realised I was coming close to the final pages I initially assumed that this was going to be the first of a new trilogy. I was also bothered by the way in which Grenville latterly has Elizabeth thinking in much more detail about the atrocities meted out to the first inhabitants. I know this is something that has exercised the writer considerably during the past couple of decades and indeed there is a preface to the book recognising the rights of the tribes to the land under discussion, but the sudden change in emphasis feels forced, almost like an afterthought and I found that disturbing.

So, in general a book that I very much enjoyed, but one that I felt was let down by its last few pages. I would still recommend that you read it. Grenville couldn’t write a bad sentence if she tried and Elizabeth’s struggle to forge a life with a man for whom she can feel nothing but contempt is beautifully portrayed, just be prepared for a bit of a jolt as it reaches its conclusion.

With thanks to Cannongate and NetGalley for the review copy.


Excellent Women ~ Barbara Pym

beverage breakfast caffeine chocolate

I can’t remember when I first heard the name of Barbara Pym, she seems to have been on my reading horizon forever, yet for some reason I’ve never picked up one of her novels before this week. Lately, however, I’ve found myself being drawn to the fiction of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which for the most part has so far passed me by, and Pym seemed an ideal place to start, the more so because Excellent Women, her second novel, published in 1952, was being offered as a very reasonably priced e-book.

The introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition, written by Alexander McCall Smith, speaks of the decline in her popularity during the 1960s, when Jonathan Cape, her usual publisher, rejected An Unsuitable Attachment. Of course, he writes, Barbara Pym would be considered old-fashioned in the decade of flower power and drugs, and publishers, like anyone else, might have been carried away by the heady atmosphere of the times. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s and the championing of her books by Philip Larkin and David Cecil that Pym found her work back in fashion.

What wonderful embarrassment for those who believed that an unmitigated diet of gritty social realism, graphically described sexual couplings and sadistic violence was what readers really wanted – and all they should get. The entire time the reading public, or quite a large section of it, was really yearning for the small-scale delights, the beautiful self-deprecating humour and the brilliant miniaturisation of Barbara Pym’s novels.

It is precisely those small scale delights, that same beautifully self-deprecating humour, not to mention the brilliant miniaturisation which makes Excellent Women a perfect read for a time when we are threatened by something so huge and incomprehensible that trying to get our minds around it is almost impossible.

Mildred Lathbury lives what might be seen as a small life, occupying rooms in a London tenement sometime after the Second World War, a period when people are still trying to find their feet and understand the changing society around them. Her life revolves around the local church, her friendship with Julian Malory, the vicar, and his sister Winifred, and the work that she does for an organisation assisting impoverished gentlewomen: a cause, she tells us, very near to her own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.  Mildred is precisely the kind of individual to whom the term ‘excellent woman’ is likely to be applied: a pillar of the church, constantly reliable, conservative (with a very small C) in her lifestyle and well on her way to earning the soubriquet “spinster”.  However, excitement threatens with the arrival of the Napiers, who not only take tenancy of the other half of the building, but also share a bathroom with Mildred – the burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seem to me rather a heavy one.  The Napiers are everything that Mildred and the good churchgoing people of the neighbourhood are not. She is an anthropologist and the dashing Rockingham (Rocky when you know him better) an ex-naval officer whose wartime speciality appears to have been comforting Wrens stationed away from home. Completing an awkward ménage à trois is Mrs Napier’s fellow anthropologist, Everard Bone, object of Mrs Napier’s affection when the relationship between her and her husband do indeed become extremely “rocky“ in nature. At some point in the novel all three of these individuals, not to mention Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, turn to Mildred with complete confidence that she will sort out their current difficulty, usually by performing herself the everyday or awkward tasks that they are either too lazy or too incompetent to take on themselves.  They see her as the archetypal “excellent woman“.

However, they are mistaken, and so to is the reader if they think that Barbara Pym’s aim is to reinforce the stereotype, which, of course, inevitably includes a languishing but futile passion for the local minister. Although Mildred is perfectly happy to spend time with the men who suddenly seem to be populating her life, marriage is not something for which she is looking and consequently when the real villain of the piece, Allegra Gray, a clergy widow, comes onto the scene and sets about getting her claws into the hapless Julian, Mildred’s primary concern is for Winifred, who has no place in Mrs Gray’s plans, rather than for herself. Possibly the most telling aspect of this is that Julian himself has assumed that Mildred is in love with him and is therefore going to be shattered by the news of his engagement. To what extent, Pym seems to be asking, is the concept of the “excellent woman“ a fabrication on the part of those members of society who benefit most from their existence. Mildred Lathbury most definitely is an excellent woman, but not in the sense of the term is usually applied. She is independent, she knows her own mind and, when her way of life is threatened, she speaks her mind as well.

Setting aside Mildred, with whom I have to say I feel a certain kinship, The chief joy of this novel is Pym’s wonderful way with words, a way that so often pins precisely the absurd realities of humanity and all its foibles.  Time and again I found myself jotting down sentences just for the sheer pleasure of being able to re-read them. Just a couple of examples:

Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti.

A very young curate, just out of the egg, I should think.

And my favourite, although I have to admit I don’t completely understand it – I boiled myself a foreign egg for dinner. Can anyone elucidate? What constitutes a ‘foreign’ egg? One shipped in from the continent? I seem to remember Helen Hanff sending fresh eggs to the booksellers of 84 Charing Cross Road.

There must be many other authors who, like Pym, found themselves neglected as fashions changed in the late 50s and early 60s. Indeed, there may be many such now,  whose close and perceptive explorations of human nature are being overlooked in favour of works whose subject matter is more in tune with the current zeitgeist. The time has come, I think, for a wider exploration on my part of such writers. Who do you suggest I try next?


All Adults Here ~ Emma Straub

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened bookFor the second time in a matter of weeks I’ve read a book that I wouldn’t normally have picked up simply because it was well recommended by Elizabeth Strout and, for the second time in a matter of weeks, I have had an absolutely wonderful experience. Strout is clearly as good a critic as she is a writer. Emma Straub’s All Adults Here is set in the Hudson Valley small town of Clapham, a community where everyone knows everyone else and where the marketing slogan Keep Local, Shop Small really means something. It is in Clapham that Astrid Strick has brought up her family, Elliot, Porter and Nicky, all now adults grown and it is here, at the moment when the novel begins, that she recognises that her life has changed forever. What brings this revelation about is the death of Barbara Baker, a woman Astrid has never liked, but whose death she witnesses when Barbara is run over by a speeding school bus. Astrid has a secret and the accident makes her realise that the time has come to reveal that secret, initially to her family and eventually to her friends and wider acquaintances, despite being aware that her plans may well meet with opposition. However, she is not the only member of her family to be concealing things. Both of her older children, still living in Clapham, have important matters which they are keeping from the rest of the family for fear of the consequences and much of the novel is concerned with the difficulty that parents and children have not only in communicating with each other but also, perhaps more fundamentally, in understanding each other and in providing the support and encouragement that is needed when the going gets tough.

This is most obvious, initially at least, in respect of what has happened to Nicky’s  daughter, Cecelia, as a result of an incident in her New York school. Confided in by her friend Katherine, who is involved in a relationship with an older man which is clearly abusive, Cecelia, concerned for her classmate’s well-being, tells those that she expects to be responsible and supportive adults. However, in the aftermath of the fury that erupts as Katherine turns against her, Nicky and his wife, Juliette, fail to come up with the backing Cecelia so desperately needs.

The trouble was that people always told Cecelia things, and that she wasn’t a lawyer or a therapist. She was just a kid and so were her friends, but she seem to be the only one who knew it. The trouble was that her parents had given up at the first sign of trouble.

As a result, the decision has been taken to send Cecelia to live with her grandmother and complete her final year at Junior High in Clapham. When she needed her parents most, they simply weren’t there for her. Straub, however, is very careful not to be too condemnatory in respect of either the behaviour of Nicky and Juliette or that of Astrid who, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear has not really provided the support her children needed a generation earlier.  Being a parent is difficult. This is the message that comes through time after time after time. And there is no manual, you have to learn as you go.  Is there any wonder that so many people get it wrong.

If there is one set of parents who do seem to be well on the way to getting it right it is Ruth and John Sullivan. We meet them first as they fetch their 13-year-old son, August, back from Summer Camp. August is dreading going back into eighth grade, knowing that it’s going to be no better than fifth grade, sixth grade or seventh grade was. He has no friends at Clapham Junior High and only ever feels that he is fully able to be himself amongst the people he meets up with each year during the summer vacation. For August also has a secret and it is one that he feels certain will earn him at best ridicule and at worse abuse, should it become known. Ruth and John however do seem to have an understanding of what is troubling their child and they certainly do their best to offer support as, with Cecelia‘s help, August finds the courage to show the world, or perhaps more importantly, his classmates, who he really is.

I’m conscious that I may be making this sound as if it’s a really serious and heart searching novel, one that is searing to read, and it is serious, and at times it really touches your heart, but searing it is not; it is an absolute delight. I found myself trying to eke it out because I didn’t want to leave either the world that Straub has created nor the lightness of touch with which she explores the difficulties that the Strick family go through.  And there are some wonderful passages of writing. When I looked back through my notebook I found I had copied out paragraph after paragraph of ideas that just rang so true and were expressed so well. I have already read some very good books this year, but so far All Adults Here tops them all and I can’t recommend it too highly.

With grateful thanks to Michael Joseph and NetGalley for the review copy.

Noel Streatfeild ~ Ballet Shoes & Saplings

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

I have just spent a very pleasant long weekend in the company of Noel Streatfeild, first rereading her children’s classic, Ballet Shoes, and then exploring for the first time her adult novel, Saplings.  I thought it would be interesting to consider how the work of a writer for two contrasting audiences might be seen to both differ and to bear similarities and Streatfeild proved to be an excellent choice in this respect.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ballet Shoes.  I’m not sure why I was so fond of it as a child, because the world that was being described was completely alien to me; perhaps that’s why I found it so enticing. It was first published in 1936 and reading it now I have to wonder how much of it was wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. As I’m sure you all know it tells the story of the three Fossil girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, each of whom has been “collected“ by great uncle Matthew (GUM) and deposited with his niece Sylvia in a large house in London. When GUM fails to return from his travels, the money begins to run out and so Sylvia takes in boarders, one of whom, Theo Dane, suggests that the three girls be trained for the stage so that eventually they may also contribute to the family purse. For two of them this is an absolute delight, but for Petrova it represents something akin to one of Dantes’ circles of hell. Into the breach steps another of Sylvia‘s lodgers, Mr Simpson, who, with his car and eventually his garage, provides the outlet that she needs for her own talents.

In many respects it’s possible to read this as almost a proto-feminist work, given that what we have in the end is three young women who are able to dictate their own futures. But, as I’ve suggested, this may be wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. I wonder just how many young girls in the 1930s were able to manipulate their responsible adults in the way that the Fossil sisters do? Of course, the fact that those adults are not the girls’ actual parents is important. Already the significance of being able in someway to isolate children and thus give them a certain amount of independence is making itself felt in children’s literature.

The relationship between Pauline, Petrova and Posy is very tight, possibly idealistically so. The children at the heart of Streatfeild’s 1945 publication, Saplings, are perhaps a more realistic portrayal of sibling interaction. When we first meet them in the summer of 1939 Laurel, the eldest, is eleven, the two boys Tony and Kim, nine and seven and the younger daughter, Tuesday, four. They are spending a last idyllic holiday at Eastbourne and while they may not be aware of the dangers lurking on the horizon, it is clear that both their father, Alex Wiltshire, and the writer are. In his afterword for the Persephone edition, Dr Jeremy Holmes suggests that Streatfeild’s primary concern is the psychological damage that war does to children. Certainly the final words of Mrs Oliver, I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o-ever else ‘as” have to be seen as ironic given the trauma that at least three of the Wiltshire children have endured. And, it is true that while one of the chief issues for the adults in the novel is the question of physical safety, of where the children will live, questions initially to do with evacuation and eventually, given that we are dealing with a nice middle-class family, where they should spend the holidays when their boarding schools are closed, the consequences of the decisions that they make in this respect are given very little thought at all. And yet, they are frequently disastrous, especially for the mental well-being of Laurel, whose distress at being moved from pillar to post is rarely taken into account. However, it seems to me that Streatfeild is every bit as interested in the relationship between the children and the adult women in their lives and frequently the young Wiltshires are let down by the very people you would expect to offer them the most support.

There are many women, relatives and teachers for the most part, who are influential in the children’s experiences, but the primary contrast is between the children’s mother, Lena, and the governess, Ruth Glover. For Lena the children are darlings, charming decorations, but they must not interfere with her real life:

she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on doing just those things.

Lena is not used to having to accommodate herself either to other people or to circumstance. The war hits Lena hard.

Ruth, on the other hand, has had a difficult childhood:

she was highly strung and acutely sensitive and, to defend herself drew away from her childhood, studying it with detachment, waiting patiently to be grown-up. As a legacy of these bitter school years she possessed a profound understanding of children.

As the war progresses and the children are successively sent away to boarding school, Ruth joins the ATS and from what we are told has a remarkably successful career there, but it is still to her that the children, Laurel in particular, turn in times of crisis. Lena, almost literally drowning in her own misery, is of no help to them at all, prepared to have them home only when it suits her needs. Not that she is capable of recognising this; she is a victim of muddled thinking, a problem from which the Fossil household suffers as well. The children’s grandfather defines this for us during a conversation about two young evacuees, Albert and Ernie, whose mother has demanded that they return to London, explaining

she didn’t get them home because she thinks the danger’s over but because she’s lonely without them…the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is…very important not to fool yourself.

Lena may think clearly at the beginning of the novel, but by the time the war has taken its toll she is incapable of doing anything other than fooling herself and damaging her children in the process.

I understand that this is the only one of Streatfeild’s adult novels available in print, which is a shame. Saplings is by no means a flawless work, but nevertheless it’s one that I enjoyed very much and I would have liked to have been able to explore more of her writing for this audience. It’s clear that her main interest is still children, how they interact with each other, and how they grow through childhood into young adults. Perhaps when it came to writing just about adult relationships she found herself at a loss, I’m not in a position to find out, but perhaps some of you have read other works by her intended for an older audience. If so, I would be very interested to know what you thought of them.



Redhead By The Side Of The Road ~ Anne Tyler

IMG_0093Maybe as much as twenty years ago I remember a librarian colleague at the University where I was then working saying to me, “Read Anne Tyler”. Most of my time then was given over to reading children’s literature to support one of the courses that I was teaching, but since my retirement I have started to catch up with Tyler’s work and, while I still have some of her back catalogue to read, I have made a point of getting hold of a copy of each new publication as it appeared. Inevitably, some have been better than others, but none have truly disappointed me and her latest, Redhead By The Side Of The Road, to my mind at least, is one of her very best.

In a recent interview, Tyler commented that she wasn’t very interested in plot, that it got in the way of her real concern which is the development of character, and it is definitely true that Redhead By The Side Of The Road is far more character driven than it is in any way led by its storyline. Central to the narrative is Micah Mortimer, in his forties and living in the basement of an apartment block where he acts as super in between running a small scale business solving other people’s computer problems.  At no point does Tyler mention the fact that Micah has Aspergers.  Well, maybe it takes one to know one, but I can’t imagine that anybody would have any difficulty in recognising his personality type. He had a system she comments.  I’ll say he has a system – for everything, from how he organises his drawers to the days of the week when he mops the floor or cleans the kitchen. And, his system comes first because his system is predictable, it doesn’t ask him to take account of how other people might be feeling, to accept the fact that they may behave in ways that can’t be predicted, perhaps most tellingly to understand that what somebody says and does on the surface may not be a true reflection of what they are actually feeling or expecting from him.

Perhaps Micah’s obsessive tidiness and organisation is a reaction to the family in which he grew up. The youngest child and, as far as I can gather, the only boy, his sisters, their husbands and the ever-growing brood of children and grandchildren live in a type of chaos that I have to say fills me, personally, with horror. Attending an engagement party for one of his nephews, Micah sits down at a table which

itself was bare, except for a portable Ping-Pong net that had been stretched across the centre for the past couple of years or so – long enough, at any rate, so that everyone had stopped seeing it.

I am still shuddering!

But, Micah’s sisters clearly love him and would dearly like to see him married with a family of his own, however, his personality proves to be most obstructive when it comes to forming friendships with women. When we first meet him he’s in a relationship with Grade 4 teacher, Cassia Slade, but we watch as his inability to read the subtext in what she is telling him about her altercation with her landlady leads to the breakdown of the friendship.  (I was going to put “romance” but it really isn’t a word I can use in respect of Micah; it’s so totally foreign to his nature.)  The break-up with Cassie is accelerated by the arrival in his life of Brink, the freshman son of his one-time college girlfriend, Laura. Brink, born out of wedlock and with no knowledge of who is father is, has elected Micah to the position. Simply by virtue of being a teenager, Brink brings chaos to Micah’s life and home, not least because he is hotly pursued both by his mother, his stepfather, Roger and the welter of emotions generated by his departure.  But, it is Roger who suddenly paints Micah’s existence in a completely different light. When Brink admits that he thought Micah might be his father because they appear to have some traits in common, Roger responds:

with a man who earns his own living…Who appears to be self-sufficient. Who works very hard, I assume, and expect no handouts…Sorry, son…but I fail to see the resemblance.

Everything that Roger says about Micah is true, but it is also true that he has allowed his obsession with order and with systems to stand in the way of developing relationships with those outside his own family. It is not that he doesn’t care about other people. His concern for those who live in the apartment block is very apparent, but then they don’t impinge upon his personal life.  Recognising that the life he has is not the life he wants, in a final act of true courage, he sets out to try and mend some broken bridges. Whether or not he succeeds you will have to find out for yourself, and please do, because this is truly an excellent piece of writing that should be enjoyed by as many as possible.

With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Chatto & Windus and NetGalley for the review copy  


The Bass Rock ~ Evie Wyld

IMG_0093Evie Wyld’s new novel, The Bass Rock, is a remarkable piece of work. It’s a long time since I’ve read a novel that has engaged me so thoroughly and moved me to the extremes of this book. Set over three different time periods, the present day, post-World War II and the seventeenth century, the narrative focuses primarily on the lives of three different women, all linked by location and by the looming presence of the Bass Rock.  Just as the rock stands immovable, dark and brooding over the landscape, so too does the question of male sexual violence darken the lives not only of Viviane, Ruth and Sarah but also of the nameless, beaten women whose stories punctuate the seven segments into which Wyld organises her book.

In each of the main storylines the focus rests upon a woman whose relationship with both herself and those around her is to some extent dictated by the men in her life. In the present day, Viviane, commuting between London and Scotland, where she has been tasked with the job of closing down the old family home of her recently dead father, is wracked with guilt at having slept with her sister, Katherine’s, husband, Dom, while at the same time beginning a tentative relationship with Vincent, a man she meets in a queue. In the post war period the narrative centres around Ruth, second wife of the widowed Peter, whose younger son, Michael, is Viviane’s father. Very aware that in the eyes of many she does not live up to the expectations associated with the ‘Lady of the Big House’ and often lonely given the boys absence at school and Peter’s frequent expeditions to London for work, Ruth makes friends with Betty, their cook cum housekeeper and through her begins to understand what motivates the disturbing undercurrents she finds in the society around her. The final strand, set in 1600s, centres on Sarah, proclaimed a witch and forced to flee with a family who, to all intents and purposes, are running not only to protect her but also themselves. These segments are perhaps less well worked than those relating to Viviane and Ruth, but the menace felt by Sarah, the constant danger that she is in simply because she is a woman, is much more directly communicated. And, between each of the seven major segments there is the story of a series of unnamed women, united by the violence that they suffer at the hands of men.  The universality of the theme that Wyld is exploring is given explicit voice quite late in the book:

I can see that there are people in the kitchen with us, there are children and women, all holding hands like us, and I wonder, is this the ghost everyone sees, is it in fact a hundred thousand different ghosts? It’s only possible to focus on one at a time. They spill out of the doorway, and I see through the wall that they fill the house top to bottom, they are locked in wardrobes, they are under the floorboards, they crowd out of the back door into the garden, they are on the golf course and on the beach and their heads bob out of the sea, and when we walk, we are walking right through them. The birds on the Bass Rock, they fill it, they are replaced by more, their numbers do not diminish with time, they nest on the bones of the dead.

Apparently, Wyld was in the middle of writing the novel when the #MeToo movement began and it is clear to see that she is exploring many of the issues relating to violence towards women which that brought to light. However, it would be to diminish this book  to suggest that it is nothing more than a feminist tract. There are good men in the book, especially Christopher, Michael‘s elder brother, and, by implication, Michael himself. Both of them, as boys, have suffered at the hands of predatory men and equally both of them have suffered as a result of a conspiracy on the part of other men who have power over them, to refute any complaint that they might make. Both of them appear to grow up to be decent human beings. It is also the case that to some extent society has conditioned women to be instrumental in their own suffering. We see this in the way in which the post war women readily take part in a traditional picnic that ends in a rite which has obvious sexual overtones and it is there in the attitude of Ruth‘s mother who has no sympathy for Judith‘s loss of a daughter, she had lost her only son after all, which was surely worse than losing a daughter. And, there is also the suggestion that when faced with violence, women don’t always act in their own best interest, almost as if accepting that such treatment is inevitable. When Viviane and Katherine are threatened by an angry Dom on both occasions their response is to freeze rather than to assert their right to safety.

The Bass Rock is a powerful and most beautifully written novel and I was gripped by it from beginning to end. My only question is this: can somebody please explain to me why such an excellent book is not on the long list for the Women’s Prize this year?

With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing Jonathan Cape and NetGalley for a review copy.

A Thousand Moons ~ Sebastian Barry

B7565CB2-4272-4F45-9DC9-02CE18ED9356Sebastian Barry’s 2016 novel, Days Without End, would, without any doubt, stand very high in any top 10 list of all time reads I might ever be asked to compile. I have said it before and I am willing to say it again, I think that book is word perfect. His most recent novel, A Thousand Moons, continues the story of John Cole, Thomas McNulty and their adoptive daughter, Winona, who are still living and working on the farmstead owned by Lige Magan, alongside freedmen, brother and sister, Rosalee and Tennyson Bouguereau.

Each in their own way harbours an identity which is an anathema to the majority of those in their community.  John and Thomas are homosexual, Rosalee and Tennyson are black and Winona is a Lakota Indian. And, of course, in the previous novel they were all involved in the killing (in self defence) of Tach Petrie, hardly an upstanding member of the local fraternity, but certainly a power in it.

While the previous novel focused primarily on John and Thomas, this book centres itself around Winona. Having been taught to both read and write and to figure her numbers by Mrs Neale, Winona is able to find work with Lawyer Briscoe in the local town. Although she finds the job fulfilling and the money that it brings in is much needed, her position calls her to the attention of those who have an in-bred contempt for her and her people. One young man, however, Jas Jonski, is seriously attracted to her and pays court to the point of seeing himself as her fiancé. For her part, Winona goes along with this until one disastrous evening, the events of which leave her both physically and psychologically damaged. From this point on, not only Winona but her entire family are threatened by the consequences of that one night, and the challenge that their way of life is seen as posing to the local community means that they and all those who offer support become vulnerable to smalltown vigilantes.

While the plot of this book is engrossing and marches on apace, like all Barry’s work it is about so much more than simply the events that take place. Chief of these, perhaps, is the question of identity. Although she is deeply embedded in the family unit centred on John Cole and Thomas McNulty, Winona is at all times conscious of the fact that the life she is living compromises the identity into which she was born. Much as he loves her it is Thomas who begins this process by changing her name.

I am Winona.

In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose. Thomas McNulty tried very hard to say this name, but he failed, and so he gave me my dead cousin‘s name because it was easier in his mouth. Winona means first-born. I was not first-born.

If one’s name is essential to one’s identity, then so to is one’s language. Returned temporarily to her people Winona discovers that she

couldn’t conversed with them. I remember sitting in the teepee with the other women and not being able to answer them. By that time I was all of thirteen or so. After a few days I found the words again. The women rushed forward and embraced me as though I had only just arrived to them that very moment. Only when I spoke our language could they really see me.

This isn’t only true when she returns to her original home, but has its parallel in Tennessee.

To present yourself in a dry goods store to buy items you have got to have the best English or something else happens.

Throughout the course of the novel, Winona discovers more and more about who she essentially is, until at the end, despite being in the direst of situations she takes her future into her own hands and forbids the rest of her ‘family’ from coming to her aid.

If identity is one of these books major themes, then the concept of time is another, especially as it is viewed by different cultures. This is very much influences the way that people see the relationship between themselves and eternity. Winona speaks of “the whiteman’s strict straight line” through life to the end. Whereas for the Lakota there is no past, present, or future

time was a kind of hoop or circle…if you walk far enough…you could find the people who had lived in the long ago.

How you envisage time, and the end of your time here on earth, inevitably affects how you see yourself, your identity, your relationship to the people and events around you.

And the book is also about the concept of justice and how justice relates to truth. Justice and truth are poor bedfellows in the Tennessee of the 1870s. There is little hope of justice for those who are in anyway seen as different.

You only had to look like you done something wrong in America and they would hang you, if you were poor.

To that you can add if you were black, homosexual, or from any of the first nation races.

A Thousand Moons is a superb piece of writing.  There is almost no limit to the number of beautifully expressed passages that I could quote as an example of this; one will have to suffice.

The land was trying to loosen itself from the royal heat of summer.

If I wasn’t as overwhelmed by it as I was by Days Without End then that is probably because I wasn’t as engaged by Winona as I was by Thomas and John in the previous novel. However, I’m sure that for many readers the opposite will be true. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, my only caveat being that if you haven’t read the earlier book you really do need to do so in order to place the characters and what happens to them in a complete perspective.

With thanks to Faber & Faber and NetGalley for a review copy of this novel. 

Reviews ~ Catching Up

I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life.  She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place.  “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously.  I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”.  At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst.  Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list.  It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself.  Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book.  As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s.  I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent.  Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down.  Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair.  What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.

This is a chilling story extremely well told.  It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.


A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion.  It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed.  The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit.  Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience.  Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand.  I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.


Black Summer ~ M W Craven

Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here.  As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time.  Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton.  As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder.  If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe.  Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book.  However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw.   When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon.  Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do.  Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction.  Her incisive mind cuts through everything.  I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation.  Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it.  What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion.  Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series.  If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.