Tag Archives: Bloomsbury Books

Land of the Living by Georgina Harding: War and its aftermath reprised

Cover imageA new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Her last novel, The Gun Room, explored the legacy of war through a photographer and the unwelcome fame endured by one of his subjects. Land of the Living revisits the theme from a different perspective. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence.

Charlie is a veteran of the Battle of Kohima, fought in the Indian province of Nagaland close to Burma’s border. His sleep is broken by nightmares, his days punctuated by flashbacks to the jungle patrol of which he was the sole survivor. Rescued by Naga warriors whose village he lived in for several months, he was taken to a British settlement where he met Hussey, a keen ethnographer and agent of the empire. As Charlie sets about his work, Claire wonders about the things he witnessed in Nagaland, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman. In 1947, three years after Charlie first met him and facing the independence of the only country he has properly known, Hussey visits the Ashes. During the night, Claire is woken from her own jungle nightmare by their laughter and wonders what the men can have found to amuse them. By morning Hussey has gone, leaving Charlie unburdened and Claire about to give birth. New beginnings are on the horizon.

Shifting occasionally from Charlie’s perspective to Claire’s, Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Much is left unspoken between these two , her apparent light-heartedness disguising her understanding of the chasm between them. Harding manages all this with characteristic deftness, quietly conveying Charlie’s dislocation from the prosaic everyday:

He drew the curtains and tended the fire then sat down in the armchair beside it with the whisky glass in his hand. The room only began to seem inhabited when the dog followed him in.

Much is communicated in a few well-chosen words while her descriptions of both Norfolk and Nagaland are lyrically evocative:

The fog wasn’t coming down again. The night would be clear and cold. The sky towards sunset was becoming unexpectedly lighter, pale turquoise-blue streaks bared in it, the first colour of the day.

With its exploration of the legacy of empire and war, the burden those who fought carry on their return and the silence with which it is often borne both by family and veterans, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

French Exit by Patrick deWitt: Squewering the rich

Cover imageI’ve been a keen fan of Patrick deWitt’s fiction since reading his darkly comic ripping yarn, The Sisters Brothers. His last novel, Undermajordomo Minor, was entirely different having more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it. French Exit takes yet another turn with its caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, taking its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat.

Frances has been avoiding her financial advisor. She knows what’s coming. After years of jaw dropping extravagance her husband’s money has finally run out. She sells the contents of her swanky apartment, then the apartment itself, stashing 185,000 euros in cash along with her sedated cat in her handbag and crosses the Atlantic with Malcolm in tow. On board ship, Malcolm briefly takes up with a medium, later banged up in the brig for telling a passenger she’s about to die which said passenger promptly does. Once settled into her best friend’s apartment, Frances sets about ridding herself of her cash but not before Small Frank runs away. Soon they’ve acquired a full house of lodgers including a lonely widow, a private investigator and Madeleine the medium, tracked down to contact Small Frank. Frances is still spending money like water, handing it out to strangers when there’s nothing left to buy, and she’s desperate to find Small Frank. He is, after all, the vessel that houses her dead husband’s spirit.

DeWitt’s satire is almost cartoon-like in its outlandish comedy, lampooning the rich with a cast of vividly memorable characters: Frances the sharp-tongued widow, long thought to have taken off to Vail on a skiing trip after discovering her husband’s corpse; Small Frank lumbered with Franklin’s truculent, whining voice as he roams Paris, flea-ridden and hungry; and Malcolm whose only purpose in life is to keep his mother company. There’s a degree of humanity amongst all this excoriation: Malcolm’s emotional constipation after a childhood of being ignored by both parents contrasts with his mother’s attempt to burn the house down to get attention when she was a child. Not my favourite deWitt novel – The Sisters Brothers still holds pride of place for that – but still a welcome treat.

Blasts from the Past: War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen (2002)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

It was the jacket that first attracted me to War Crimes for the Home. There’s a nice little Rosie the Riveter period feel about it that made me want to read the book, and I’m pleased to say that all these years later it remains the same. I suspect that means Bloomsbury feel it’s not worth the usual repackaging that denotes a facelift for a steady seller, or perhaps the relaunch of an author’s backlist in the hope of a little boost from a new title. A shame – it has a superb main protagonist, gutsy and bawdily funny with it, plus a twist that while it isn’t altogether unexpected works beautifully.

Liz Jensen’s novel explores memory and old age through Gloria a reluctant resident of the Sea View nursing home. Gloria loves a joke, but her memory’s not so good. Nearly eighty, her passionate nights with the dashing Ron, an American Second World War pilot, are crystal clear but there are puzzling gaps, black holes that have to be filled when her son starts asking uncomfortable questions which she isn’t sure she can answer. Her wartime love affair with an American Air Force man has left a legacy of secrets so deeply buried that it seems even Gloria is no longer privy to them.

The irascible yet determined, ‘feisty’ (how I hate that word) old woman was something of a rarity in contemporary fiction when Jensen’s novel was first published – Lesley Glaister’s protagonists, who no one would dare to call ‘old dears’, or, of course, Angela Carter’s twins in Wise Children come to mind but that’s it. Nowadays they’re more common but Gloria remains one of the most convincing fictional old women I’ve encountered.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison: Dark clouds gather

Cover imageBoth Melissa Harrison’s previous novels are notable for their vividly evocative descriptions of the English countryside, the kind of thing readers are treated to in the very best nature writing. This combined with a dollop of sharp social observation made At Hawthorn Time stand out for me. All Among the Barley goes several steps further with a powerful piece of storytelling set in the early ‘30s when a young woman turns up in the East Anglian village of Elmbourne, inveigling herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl.

The Mathers have worked Wych Farm for generations. Edie has known little else for her entire fourteen years. She caught diphtheria as a young child, almost dying from it, and it seems that her mother is determined to keep her safe at home. She’s a bright child, more often found reading than doing her chores, too clever to have made much in the way of friends. In 1933, the year of the most beautiful autumn Edie can remember, times are troubled as the Depression bites. Edie knows little of that but she does know that her father is in the grip of worry about grain prices and that John, the farm’s horseman, and he are at political loggerheads. When Constance FitzAllen appears in the village, asking questions and professing a love for the old rural ways, Edie senses that life could be something other than the occasional trip to the cinema with her mother, visits to her grandparents and a future of marriage with babies soon to follow. As the farming year wears on, harvest becomes the urgent focus, all hands put to bringing it in and safely storing it. Almost in celebration, Constance calls a meeting in the village pub, promising free beer with dramatic results.

Harrison unfolds her story through Edie who is looking back to the events of over half a century ago. Naïve yet intelligent, Evie is the perfect narrator for this story, flattered by the attentions of Constance but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside are neatly conveyed, revealing a nostalgia for a world that never really existed rather than concern for those who live in the countryside . Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism that are gathering throughout Europe. I’m not suggesting that those times exactly mirror our own but it was hard to read this novel without the spectre of the EU referendum and its fallout popping up in my mind. For those feeling less doomy about all that, there are a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy. Here are two favourites:

The woods and spinneys lay in our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes  

The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks

 An impressive novel, then. Harrison seems to go from strength to strength.

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: Where are the grown-ups?

Cover imageThe press release for Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney proclaims it to be this summer’s must read which made me wonder if it might be one of those slip-your-brain-in-neutral beach reads you see piled up at the airport but that proved not to be the case at all. Instead, it’s an intelligent, subtle novel which explores the fallout of sexual abuse all wrapped up in an engrossing piece of storytelling, so good that I included it on my Man Booker wish list.

When young composer Ralph visits the Putney home of a successful novelist keen to see his work put to music on stage, he catches sight of Daphne and is immediately aroused by her boyish beauty. Daphne is nine and Ralph is twenty-seven. Ralph begins to pay visits to Daphne when her parents are out, bringing her presents, writing her love notes and telling her that their friendship is to be a secret. It’s some time before Ralph kisses Daphne but when he offers to take her to visit her mother’s relatives in Greece he knows exactly what he plans to do, telling her it’s to be an adventure. Daphne is twelve and he is thirty. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, sexual and otherwise, airily pronouncing that it’s up to their children to find their own way and looking anywhere but what is happening under their noses.

Forty years later, Ralph is still married to Nina, still cherishing memories of Daphne as a child as he undergoes chemotherapy, oblivious to the chaotic, rackety life she’s led as an adult. Ensconced in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home, Daphne works on a collage commemorating her time with Ralph prompting her to get in touch with her childhood best friend. It’s Jane who points out to Daphne that her own daughter is the same age Daphne was when Ralph met her, and Jane who leads Daphne to an understanding of what happened to her. What ensues echoes the historical abuse scandals that dominated the headlines not so long ago.

This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill. She unfolds her story from the perspectives of Daphne, Ralph and Jane, flashing backwards and forwards from the ’70s to the present day. Each character is carefully and credibly realised: handsome, successful Ralph seems far from a monster but his depravity is slowly unfurled, his self-delusion maintained to the end. Daphne’s grooming is both chilling and believable. As Zinovieff switches from character to character so our understanding of the damage Ralph has done deepens. Daphne’s daughter with her social conscience and her disgust with Ralph is a bright counterpoint to the devastating consequences of his behaviour. Putney is a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.

Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene: A Hollywood romp

Cover imageI reviewed Louise Levene’s The Following Girls here just over four years ago. I loved it – a pitch-perfect satire on ‘70s schoolgirl life whose period detail rang more than a few bells for me. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that detail in Happy Little Bluebirds, set in Hollywood just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, but the humour undercut with a serious edge makes her new novel equally enjoyable. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off to Bermuda.

Evelyn has a facility for languages. She’s fluent in nine of them including Esperanto. Married to the dour Silas, she’s now a war widow but still lives with her sister-in-law in their mother-in-law’s Woking house. When she’s presented with an assignment helping to keep an eye on the Hungarian film director keen to persuade America into the war, she’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. Off she goes in her drab but serviceable British clothes, only to find that her British contact has disappeared. She catches the Super Chief from New York to Los Angeles, stopping for a makeover in Chicago and seeing spies at every turn. Once in Hollywood, she’s welcomed with open arms by some, sharp-tongued sarcasm by others. Soon she’s caught up in a round of parties, finally meeting Zandor Kiss who has an adaptation of The War of the Worlds in his sights. Kiss’ enthusiasm is welcome but needs to be curbed for the Foreign Relations Committee, keen to keep America out of the war. The once-dowdy Evelyn is settled into her new glamorous life, still somewhat puzzled as to what her job is and wary of watching eyes, when she receives news from home which to others might seem welcome but to her is not.

Happy Little Bluebirds is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a Hollywood for whom the war is just so much background noise. Letters from her sister-in-law remind Evelyn of the sober events at home but, serious and dutiful as she is, she finds it impossible to resist the delights of California once over the culture shock, not least the matinée idols. Levine has a great deal of fun with the movie industry, mocking the extravagance of the moguls while showing solidarity with the poor put upon writers. The adaptation plans for War of the Worlds are a particular delight and the novel is stuffed full sharp one-liners:

Silas hadn’t cared for it and said so repeatedly while he cleared his plate

 He looked faintly unreal; too smart, too handsome for everyday use

 She’s filled the blasted swimming pool with gardenias again

As with all the best satire, there are serious points to be made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are slipped into the narrative. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining novel and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood. Dentists, a constant motif throughout the novel, finally come into their own.

Two Days in Madrid, Five Days in Toledo and Just One Book

After a difficult winter which seemed never-ending, we were in dire need of a bit of sun and some relaxation so took ourselves off to Spain, flying to Madrid early on Thursday evening. Our second visit to the city started much like the first with a walk around the botanical gardens. Irises were in glorious full bloom then but this time it was tulips of which I’m not hugely fond – some are a little too gaudy for my taste – but the lovely watercolour exhibition from the Society of Botanical Artists together with a few particularly luxuriant camelias made up for that. The other notable difference was the frantic cacophony at the frog pond where the mating season was apparently in full swing.

We plumped for lunch at the CaixaForum just across the road. Owned by one of the big Spanish banks who go in for supporting culture in a way that I wish ours would, it was hosting an exhibition about Adolf Loos. A contemporary of the Viennese Secessionists, Loos was an architect who believed in putting humans rather than design first and as a result his architectural plans are very pleasing. Sailing Boat (Edward Hopper)

The following day was also something of a rerun, a trip to the wonderful Thyssen-Bornemisza walking past the long queue standing in the rain (yes, I’m afraid so) for the Prado. The attraction of the Thyssen is Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza’ s collection of fabulous pieces by artists you may well never have heard of. My favourite, though, is Edward Hopper’s gorgeous ‘Sailing Boat’, as lovely as I remembered it. Its radiant light made a stark contrast with the increasing gloom outside.

A thirty-minute train journey took us to the ancient walled city of Toledo and La Hacienda del Cardenal, once an 18th century bishop’s palace but now a hotel.  Hard not to gush about this place which reminded me of a Moroccan riad with its walled gardens full of secluded corners in which to lounge and rooms with touches of Moorish architecture, a welcome contrast to our hipper-than-thou Madrid gaff. These five days were to be all about taking it easy, preferably loafing in the sun but an early Easter put paid to that. Being British we were prepared: Monday’s riverside walk through an impressive gorge was taken wearing four layers and a beanie before the rain set in. We stiffened our upper lips and consoled ourselves with a particularly delicious lunch. Toledo is in Castilla-La Mancha, Don Quixote country and the home of scrumptious cheese: we didn’t find any windmills to tilt at but we did eat a lot of scrummy food, some of it Manchego. 

When we weren’t eating and it wasn’t raining, and sometimes when it was, we wandered around this beautiful city whose history can be read in many of its buildings which blur Muslim, Jewish and Christian architectural traditions, nicely exemplified in the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, possibly the oldest in Europe, whose name Toledo stationsays it all. This pleasing Mudéjar style suggests that all three religions lived in harmony and so they did for many years but sadly the usual skirmishes, violent suppressions and massacres intermittently reared their ugly heads not least in the form of Spanish Inquisition. Other Mudéjar highlights included the Iglesia de San Román whose gracefully arched interior reminded me of the mezquita at Cordoba, the fabulous station and the tiny but near-perfect Cristo de la Luz once a mosque then a church.

Back to Madrid for our last day which ended very pleasingly, buying an American import of William Stegner’s Recapitulation at the excellent Central bookshop we’d visited four years ago. A very pleasant break, then, although not entirely what we were hoping for in the way of weather however here’s a little reminder from the entrance to Toledo’s Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes to enjoy life while you can. I suspect that’s not quite Cover imagethe message the artist intended, though.

And the book? That was Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, an erudite, absorbing brick of a book which carried me through most of the holiday. It’s about a man cursed with a genius for maths, an addictive personality and a distinct lack of humility whose son inherits the first two traits and worries about passing them on to his children. Well worth reading, but not so much that I wasn’t relieved to lose its weight from our luggage.

Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’

Cover imageDavid Chariandy’s Brother is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year that I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink, hoping that it would buck the British publishing trend of ignoring Canadian gems. The first was Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which lived up to the Margaret Atwood plaudit adorning its cover. Fingers crossed there’ll be more given the excellence of both the Vermette and Chariandy’s eloquent exploration of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty.

Michael has cared for his mother since the death of his older brother Francis, shutting himself off from the friends he and Francis once shared. When Aisha contacts him, telling him about her father’s death, he issues an uncharacteristic invitation triggering memories of the years leading up to Francis’ death. Born and raised in Canada, the brothers visited their mother’s Trinidadian home just once. Their Indian father had left when they were barely out of nappies. Determined to lift her two sons out of poverty and sensitive to the judgement of others, Ruth constantly drummed into them strict codes of behaviour and the need to do well at school. Just one year older than Michael, Francis was the cool one growing into a thoughtful man, protective of those he loved yet sassy and adventurous enough to attract the authorities’ attention. A shooting at the development where they lived marked a turning point for him, and for Michael. Francis began to spend more time with his friends, listening to music and falling in love with Jelly, a brilliant DJ in the making. When Aisha comes home, ten years after Francis’ death, it’s Jelly she invites back to the apartment Michael shares with his mother. Her clear-eyed perception offers Michael a way out of the cage of grief he’s locked himself into.

Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book. Chariandy explores themes of grief, racism and social deprivation, weaving. Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit. The introductory page sets the tone for evocative often understated prose which ranges from the colourful – I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel! – to poetic observation: It was difficult not to feel something for him sitting there, catching snatches of sleep, other times growing old in the squinting smoke while the orders were shouted at him. Chariandy’s characterisation is both astute and compassionate: it’s impossible not to care deeply about what happens to these two young men, both bright and ambitious but thwarted by their circumstances. Brother was longlisted for last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award well worth looking out for. Competition must have been very stiff indeed for this beautifully crafted piece of fiction not to have made it onto the shortlist.

That’s it from me for a week or so. After a rather tough winter, H and I are off to Spain tomorrow evening in the hope of catching some sun, a bit of culture and reading one or two books.

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. by George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?

I’m not a thriller fan, although I have been known to read one or two. Metafiction on the other hand fascinates me which is what attracted me to Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this shockingly accomplished novel which has had its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

Exhausted after a lengthy author tour publicising her latest book, Delphine finds herself uncharacteristically accepting an invitation to a party. She’s approached by a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. Delphine is preparing to say goodbye to her twins, off out into the world to start their lives. Her lover is often away but like most writers, solitude comes naturally to her and she is just at the point where she is ready to begin her next book. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. Pure fiction is not what readers want insists L, demanding that Delphine write the ’hidden book’ she mentioned when discussing her last novel, a piece of intimate autofiction. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about Delphine’s life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching Delphine’s every move?

Combining elements of a blockbuster thriller with a sophisticated literary debate, Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. De Vigan narrates her novel through Delphine’s voice as she looks back over the year L. insinuated herself into her life. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. This is the hook on which de Vigan hangs a debate about fiction and truth – how much veracity do we as readers expect from our novelists, what do we want in terms of authenticity and to what extent do novelists blur the line between fact and fiction whether consciously or unconsciously. Even now I can’t quite classify this book – thriller, literary novel, autofiction? It requires more than one pigeonhole. Given that it’s a piece of suspense I’ve no intention of revealing the resolution, although that’s to assume there is one which I’m not entirely sure there is. I do have my own theory, though, and I will say that the last two words are breathtakingly, diabolically clever.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Antigone redux

Cover imageIt’s been three years since Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, a book I confidently expected to appear on the following year’s Baileys longlist. This year’s Man Booker judges have followed suit, longlisting Home Fire which I’m sure would have appeared on my own wishlist had I read it in time. It’s a retelling of Antigonethose who know their Sophocles won’t be expecting a happy ending.

On her way to begin a PhD in America, Isma is waylaid by the British border authorities and subjected to a humiliating interrogation. Once there, she settles into a pleasing routine, setting up her laptop in a local café most mornings. Her nineteen-year-old sister regularly Skypes her from home in London. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz also appears online, a frequent but silent presence. One day Isma recognises a handsome young man in the café. He’s the son of the British Home Secretary, a Muslim known to be a hardliner, determined to clamp down on extremism no matter how unpopular it makes him. Eamonn and Isma become comfortably familiar with each other but Isma is careful not to reveal her history until she trusts him. Her father died when she was a child, a terrorist on his way to Guantánamo. Hers is a family used to secrecy, tightly knit and even more so after the death of her mother when Isma took the upbringing of the twelve-year-old twins upon herself. When Eamonn offers to take a package home for her, he decides to deliver it in person, meeting Aneeka with whom he becomes smitten. To his surprise, she returns his interest and an affair begins but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria.

Shamsie excels at taking complex themes and humanising them. She structures her novel into five sections, shifting perspective between each of her principal characters so that we are presented with a rounded view of how this tragedy has come about. Her characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, each with a different experience of what it is to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century Western world. Parvaiz is far from a caricature jihadi – a young man who sees his sisters forging ahead in their respective studies but finds his own talents frustrated, easy prey to the older man who flatters and ingratiates himself, grooming him and leading him towards a hell that six months later he’s desperate to escape. Shamsie’s writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable. Tensions between what the state expects and requires, and the pull of familial love are explored in a story which kept me gripped to its dramatic end. This is a very fine novel, perhaps her best yet and thoroughly deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.

If you’d like to read another review of Home Fire, Claire over at Word by Word has reviewed it here and Heavenali here.