Tag Archives: British Fiction

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?

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik: ’We were rich…’

Cover imageRachel Malik’s debut has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be reviewed for quite some time. I was sent a copy a few months after its hardback publication when Malik approached me and I warily agreed to look at it. I’ve learned my lesson in this respect but an old friend had reviewed the novel positively in the Sunday Times which swayed me and Heavenali’s review sealed the deal. The old bookseller in me thought it would be better to hold back a review until the paperback edition appeared, and now it has.

Elsie Boston has run the family farm alone for many years. She’s a little eccentric and deeply introverted, living on the edge of the village in every sense. Struggling to keep the farm afloat, she decides to take on a Land Girl and waits nervously for her arrival, wondering how she will cope with a stranger. Rene Hargreaves is a Manchester girl who has left her gambling husband and three children, passing herself off as a widow. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits, settling into a routine of evening Patience and listening to the radio with Rene spending her afternoon off at the pictures. By the time Elsie is forced off the farm by her opportunistic neighbours, their lives have become so entwined that they leave together, embarking on fifteen years as itinerant farm workers until they settle in Cornwall in 1958, almost two decades after they met. Life settles back into its usual routines – Elsie keeping herself to herself, Rene off to the pictures once a week – until Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. Despite her antipathy towards him, Rene knows she and Elsie must take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive.

In her historical note at the back of the book, Malik explains that Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is based very loosely on her grandmother’s life, knowledge which makes her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Smoothly shifting perspective back and forth between Else and Rene, threading their memories through her narrative, Malik combines quietly understated prose with appropriately cinematic, vivid episodes. The passage in which Rene and her friend stumble onto a film set, charming the crew and triggering a life-long passion for the movies, is quite magical. The relationship between Elsie and Rene is delicately sketched, its changes subtly shaded in. Their lives were so very ordinary, except perhaps in one or two respects sums up these two women beautifully as it must have for many other couples like them, discreetly living their lives together. As Elsie says in court to much sniggering derision We were rich, and indeed they were. A touching, thoroughly absorbing novel – I’m looking forward to reading what Malik comes up with next.

Cousins by Salley Vickers: A welcome and absorbing distraction

Cover imageI started Salley Vickers’ Cousins a few days before the American Presidential election. It’s a bit of a doorstep, a literary family saga if you will, and I was in dire need of something to distract me from constantly looking at the polls. I finished it the day after the election but this is a book blog not a political one so that’s enough of that. Vickers’ novel tells the story of three generations of the Tyes through the voices of three women as one of them tries to reconstruct what happened to the young man each of them loves dearly: grandson to one, brother and nephew to the others.

Hetta Tye is looking back to 1994, the year that her brother Will fell while attempting to climb the spire of Kings College, Cambridge, damaging himself horribly. She wants to try to understand exactly what happened, calling upon her grandmother and her aunt Bell to help her fill in the many gaps in her knowledge. Hetta remembers the phone call that summoned the family to Will’s bedside where he lay in a coma, her grandparents Betsy and Fred arriving from Ely before she and her parents could get there, and the distress of her cousin Cele, clasping his hand in hers. Theirs is a convoluted family: Betsy and Fred are cousins whose love story looked set to repeat itself in Will and Cele. As Hetta, Betsy and Bell tell their versions of the family story, they also tell their own. Hetta has always been in the shadow of her rebellious, fiercely intelligent brother set, it seems, on going off the rails. Bell has spent her life caught up in her own beauty, neglecting her daughter Cele who finds comfort with Betsy and  Will. Fiercely protective of her grandchildren, Betsy’s life with the idealistic Fred has not been quite the idyll it seemed. Stretching back to the Second World War, Vickers’ novel flashes back and forth leading us to the tragic events of 1994 and its consequences.

There are no literary fireworks in Vickers’ novel, just straightforward prose, presented in a straightforward style which feels a little old-fashioned at times but suits the complexity of this novel which explores politics, morality and the nature of family through the tangled history of the Tyes. As with any backward looking narrative, those telling the story are unreliable, given to the ‘prophet hindsight’ as Bell’s lover nicely puts it, or subject to the vagaries of an ageing memory as Betsy reminds us. There’s a welcome undercurrent of humour: ‘I didn’t quite spill wine down my front because I was wearing my cream cashmere’ gives you an idea of Bell’s character when faced with a startling revelation by Cele and Fred’s use of a nappy change – enforced by his wife – to lecture his colleagues on gender equality is priceless. As Vickers draws the novel towards its conclusion, she neatly ties in any loose ends, referring back to points made long ago. With its secrets, coincidences, overlapping connections and inter-marriage, the Tye family history is somewhat more convoluted than the average – you’ll need your wits about you to keep up at times – but their story repays attention. Not the escapism I might have been looking for but it took my mind somewhere other than the news for a while and for that I’m grateful.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Literary fan fiction at its best

Cover imageBetter start this with a confession: I’ve never read a Patricia Highsmith novel. I’ve often thought about it, been urged by fans to do so, but I’ve never got around to it. Jill Dawson, on the other hand, has long been addicted to Highsmith’s fiction as she tells us in her acknowledgements. Obviously, my reading of The Crime Writer will be entirely different from a Highsmith fan’s but my ignorance didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. Dawson takes Highsmith’s sojourn at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.

Highsmith has bought the Suffolk cottage to be in easy reach of her married lover, Sam, who lives in London with her brutish husband and their eight-year-old daughter. She’s agreed to have her fiercely protected privacy breached by a Virginia Smythson-Balby, a journalist after a piece for the local paper on the famous author in their midst. Aside from Sam, the only person welcome in Highsmith’s life is Ronnie, a writer friend who calls in daily to prise her out of her shell. She’s unsettled when Virginia turns up, sure that she’s seen her somewhere before, but Highsmith’s no stranger to such niggling suspicions, constantly dogged by the conviction that she’s being stalked. It’s true that a stream of letters were sent to her in Paris, some signed ‘Brother Death’, but the gendarmerie dismissed them as only to be expected by a crime writer. Highsmith bristles at this particular epithet, insisting that – like Dostoevsky – she writes ‘suspense stories’. She struggles with the two books she’s writing – one a novel, the other about her craft – longing for Sam and painting her lover’s portrait to fill the void. One evening her yearnings are fulfilled and Sam arrives. Then things take a very dark turn, or do they?

Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction, replete with a multitude of allusions to Highsmith’s work as Dawson makes clear in her acknowledgements for the ignoramuses among us. Biographical details are all present and correct, from Highsmith’s grim childhood to her obsession with snails. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. The irascible Highsmith is a woman constantly in the grips of a paranoia aggravated by her alcoholism. Dawson is careful to tie in some loose ends but we’re left wondering what exactly happened inside and outside Ms Highsmith’s head. It’s a very clever piece of writing, absolutely engrossing. I’ll be interested to hear what Highsmith’s fans think of it. It’s left me determined to get my hands on one of her novels as soon as I can. The question is which one. Any suggestions?

Trading Futures by Jim Powell: The unravelling of a betting man

Cover imageWhen I first picked up Jim Powell’s new novel I was looking for a bit of light relief after finishing Olivia Laing’s excellent but often harrowing The Lonely City. I thought it might be a much slimmed down version of John Lanchester’s Capital or Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, a post-financial crash novel, which to some extent it is but it’s also about what can happen to us when our lives turn out to be far from what we’d hoped.

Sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. He’ll make the phone call if five white cars pass him. Matthew is a chronic gambler, albeit an apparently respectable one, trading futures in the City up until a few months ago when he was downsized ahead of the looming global financial meltdown. He even got the job as the result of a backfiring bet with his fellow students way back in the ’60s, all of them intent on changing the world. Judy, his wife of many years, loves their settled comfortable life but Matthew loathes it. He’s now in the grips of an existential crisis, pretending to Judy that he still has a job, turning up to sit in the office which his old boss has tolerantly allowed him to occupy and drinking far too much. On an errand for his erstwhile employers, Matthew spots an attractive blonde roughly his own age, convincing himself it’s Anna with whom he fell in love one idyllic summer afternoon in 1967. When the two of them click over a drink, Matthew begins to entertain all sorts of ideas.

Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. He’s that uncomfortable mixture of self-loathing and arrogance, dismissing his wife’s careful construction of their comfortable life as dull and prosaic while ruing his own betrayal of his baby boomer ideals. It’s often very funny – there’s a particularly amusing scene with a lunch guest in which Matthew finds himself ‘defending crooked capitalist practices on behalf of the Labour party, while the brave Captain Ahab spoke for the downtrodden masses on behalf of the Tories’. In amongst all this, Matthew comes out with some observations it’s hard to argue with particularly on the subject of the City’s shenanigans. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one. There are a few unlikely coincidences but it’s good enough to suspend your disbelief. An enjoyable read then – if not quite the antidote to The Lonely City I was looking for – and who can resist a novel which contains the line ‘I think I mostly learn about reality from works of fiction’.

The Ballroom: Both chilling and humane

The BallroomAnna Hope’s debut was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction set around the First World War back in 2014. Set in 1920, Wake stood out for me as being a cut above the others with its exploration of the way in which women’s lives had been affected by the war. I enjoyed it very much and was eager to read Hope’s next book, ever mindful of that tendency for second novels not to match excellent debuts. Thankfully, The Ballroom bucks that particular trend with its story of Ella and John, two inmates in an asylum, and the doctor who oversees their care over the course of 1911.

Charles Fuller has been employed more for his musical than his medical abilities. Sharston is run along progressive lines for its time. Its superintendent believes that a regime of self-sufficiency, gender segregation and music will help improve the mental health of his patients. Charles and his small band of musicians provide the accompaniment for the weekly dance in the beautiful ballroom on the only occasions that male and female inmates are allowed to meet. Ella has been newly admitted by Charles, having smashed a window in the mill that employed her as a spinner. Furious at her incarceration, she seems entirely sane soon realising that the only way to prove it is to keep her head down. Illiterate yet bright she strikes up a friendship with Clem a young woman of an entirely different class, committed by her family after her refusal to eat as a protest against their marriage plans for her. When finally picked for Friday’s dance, Ella feels awkward and clumsy but it is there that she meets John, admitted for ‘melancholia’ after the loss of his family and livelihood. When John learns of Ella’s yearning for freedom he offers to record what he sees in his work in the fields. These two find their way to a relationship which will have profound repercussions, not only for them but for Clem and Charles.

Hope alternates the narratives of these three characters, gradually unfolding their stories against a backdrop of national strikes, George V’s coronation and the genesis of what became the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Her descriptions of the asylum and its poor benighted inmates are both chilling and humane. Running through this compassionate novel is society’s perception of sanity and insanity, as relevant today as it was in 1911. Hope succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathies for Charles whose initial embracing of the more progressive theories of his beloved Eugenics Society is eclipsed by his tortured personal experience until he’s brought to unthinkable actions. It took me a little while to find my way into The Ballroom despite its dramatic opening but once I had I found myself gripped by it, not to mention horrified at times – the Eugenics Society’s more moderate views felt uncomfortably close to today’s tabloids’ strident voices. It’s an engrossing novel, sobering in its revelation of the theories surrounding mental illness not so very long ago and made all the more so by the author’s note which tells us that it was ‘inspired by the true story of her Irish great-grandfather’.

Exposure: A Cold War tale of love, betrayal and espionage

Cover imageA new Helen Dunmore’s always a treat for me. Regular visitors may have noticed that she’s the writer I cite when complaining about the ratio of acclaim given to male and female writers.  Exposure has already garnered much in the way of review coverage but when it comes to ranking writers in the contemporary literary canon McEwan, Barnes, Rushdie etc. etc. always seem to win out over the likes of the extremely talented Dunmore. Enough of that for now – no doubt it’s a theme that will be revisited. Like Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, Dunmore’s new novel is set during the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia but whereas events in Kay’s book take place in 1981, Exposure opens in 1960

Three people listen to a train whistle blow: Lily is in the garden, a little unnerved by the noise before realising there’s nothing to worry about; Gus hears it, too, but is unmoved, knowing ‘exactly which train he will catch, if he ever needs to disappear’; ten year-old Paul adores trains and wonders if his father will take him to King’s Cross again soon. Lily was once Lili, a German-Jewish refugee, now married to Simon, son of the landed gentry with whom he’s disassociated himself. He’s almost as obsessed with trains as his son, dashing home from his work at the Admiralty to play with Paul, Sally and five-year-old Bridget. Gus also works for the Admiralty. Educated, well-travelled, sophisticated, louche – he’s a little past his sell-by date and suspected of dallying with Moscow. Trips to the Nightshade to pick up boys are no longer passing without comment. Gus is thick with the high-ranking Julian Clowde and has taken the liberty of bringing a top-secret file home. Up in his attic hidey-hole all seems secure until he takes a drunken tumble, lands himself in hospital and calls upon his old friend Simon to remove the file. For the sake of loyalty and love, Simon agrees but decides not to return it that night as Gus has urgently instructed. Before long those in the Admiralty who have Gus in their sights have sprung into action.

You could describe Exposure as a thriller – not the first Dunmore has written; the wonderfully taut, sensual Talking to the Dead is one of my favourites of hers – but it’s very much more than that. A triumph of storytelling, Exposure is a subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. The bond that binds Simon to Gus despite long since turning his back on their past relationship, the fierce love Lily has for their children and the almost painfully adult protectiveness they grow to have for her are all beautifully drawn. Dunmore’s writing is always striking, each word carefully chosen. ‘Moscow? It’s like Birmingham, my dears, but without the bright lights’ perfectly conveys Gus’s self-regarding showy wit. Lily’s solicitor is ‘the kind of man who would always know, without even having to think about it, that Lily was a Jew’ summons up 1960s anti-Semitism vividly while Julian contemptuously dismisses her as ‘Exactly the kind of woman to make trouble. Jewish, of course’. It’s an engrossing story well spun, replete with the kind of period detail that has you smelling the coal fires Lily kindles in the chilly Kent cottage the family finds itself in. Gripping storytelling, subtle characterisation and beautifully crafted prose: another Dunmore triumph then

The Long Room: A study in loneliness and obsession

Cover image I’ve been hoping for a new novel from Francesca Kay for quite some time now. I enjoyed both of her previous books which explore the nature of passion – An Equal Stillness looks at the way in which the prosaic everyday grind of marriage and parenthood can stifle creativity while The Translation of Bones examines religious fervour and the solace it can offer, misguided or otherwise. In some ways The Long Room has similar themes but this time the setting is ‘the Institute’ – or MI5 as we can assume it to be – during the last few weeks of 1981. The Cold War is still quietly raging, Irish terrorism is in full swing and the nation is gripped by Brideshead Revisited fever.

Stephen is a ‘listener’. He listens to tapes of tapped phone calls along with several colleagues in the long room, each attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery be it spoken or unspoken. His department looks after low-risk targets but every so often they’re called in to help others when it appears an operation is about to go off. Just as in any other office, there are after-work drinks to be had or avoided, Christmas parties to attend, presents to buy. Smartly dressed, Oxford-educated Stephen is seen as something of a cut above, an illusion he quietly fosters although his weekends are spent in his cramped childhood home with his mother whose pride and joy he is. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative who’s concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path.

Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. Her writing is quietly low-key, summoning up the mundane life of the listeners. This isn’t the high-octane world of Spooks but very much closer to the truth I imagine. It’s a world where ‘listeners become interpreters of silence’, where ‘boredom is the condition of the listener’. Attachments are formed – Stephen imagines himself growing old with Oberon, his Jamaican target who is much the same age as himself, and worries about Vulcan the ageing communist who lives alone. Stephen’s character is convincingly drawn. His aching loneliness, his painful attempts to disguise his working-class background and his hopelessly romantic obsession with Helen all combine to form a portrait of an outsider at times poignantly so as are the passages in which his mother frets her way around her small world, remembering the golden days of Stephen’s childhood. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession. Well worth the five-year wait.

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: The Winshaws are back…

Cover imageWay back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. I was in bookselling at the time and my Penguin rep and good friend, A, gave me a proof, praising it to the skies. Twenty years later and the Winshaws are back. Thanks to A who handed over a copy of Number 11 when we met for lunch last weekend I’ve been chortling over their return. Sadly, Coe has just as much to satirise now as he did all those years ago and much of it in the same vein.

Ten-year-old Rachel and her friend Alison are visiting Rachel’s grandparents when the news of David Kelly’s death breaks. It’s the first death, perhaps the first bit of news, that Rachel registers and it has a profound effect on her. She and Alison make an uneasy alliance. It’s their mothers who are the real friends, both single parents hoping for a bit of fun during their break in the sun. When Alison finds what she thinks is a dead body together with a few playing cards – one marked distinctively with a spider – she drags a reluctant Rachel off to see it, only to find the corpse has disappeared. Suddenly a hand seizes a second playing card left abandoned, terrifying the girls. The hand belongs to the Mad Bird Woman who Rachel remembers flying a kestrel one half-term visit with her brother. Alison, by far the sassier of the two, persuades Rachel that they need to get to the bottom of the mystery. Taking their courage in their hands, they visit No 11, the house on Needless Alley where the Mad Bird Woman lives, and find that appearances are not always what they seem. Coe’s novel follows Rachel and Alison over the next decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws, taking swipes at all manner of things from reality TV to factory farming along the way.

‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is obilque, slippery’ notes one of Coe’s characters in an essay on film. Maybe Coe’s warning us about thinking of Number 11 as a sequel to What a Carve Up! but the ghosts of the Winshaw family, who met such a satisfyingly sticky end, are everywhere. Perhaps it’s a  political comment rather than a literary one. Whichever, Number 11 bears many familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references reflecting his early career as a cinema critic. The final section is a winning combination of Ealing Comedy and B-movie horror. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have nots. People who look like you or me are forced to resort to food banks while Rachel’s employers dig down eleven floors for a basement for one of their six homes just because they can. This is Coe’s eleventh novel – expect the number eleven to pop up again and again – but something tells me that the Number 11 he has in his sights is the chancellor’s. Maybe it’s that infamous George Osborne quote ‘We’re all in this together’ which precedes the final chapter, What a Whopper! Bit of a giveaway.

A Ghost’s Story: A matter of punctuation

Cover image‘Tis the season of ghost stories. Halloween’s long past, I know but Christmas, when lots of us are cosily tucked up at home, offers the perfect opportunity for a few ghostly frissons. Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is somewhat different from the more traditional scare-yourself-rigid variety such as Susan Hill’s splendidly terrifying The Woman in Black. The hint’s in the title’s punctuation. This isn’t so much a ghost story as the ‘autobiography’ of one of the most famous manifestations of the spirit world: Katie King – or John King as she was sometimes known – who first made her appearance during the heyday of nineteenth-century spiritualism. Gibb has already published non-fiction in the shape of a biography of Rebecca West but this is her first novel, and a very ambitious one it is, too.

It begins with Katie’s first glimmerings of consciousness – a collage of graphic, chaotic images, many gruesome and full of death, ending with the vision of an extraordinarily empathetic little boy touched by the death of a mill hand. This is Robert Dale Owen, son of the philanthropist Robert Owen, who Katie comes to love and yearn for many years beyond his death. Couching her story within the framework of academic research, Gibb takes us from London to New York, Russia to the slums of Naples, and back again as she follows Katie from séance to séance, revealing the elaborate theatrical shenanigans employed by mediums and their sponsors. It’s a story which spans a century and a half, ending in 2013 with Katie’s impressions of the life she ‘has not lived’. Gibb’s novel is made up of seven computer printouts which appear on an Italian bookshop’s printer apparently without human intervention; bits and pieces of ‘spirit writing’ courtesy of the Magic Circle’s library; analyses of documents by Adam Marcus, an academic – now dead; and correspondence between the Magic Circle’s librarian and Lorna Gibb, the academic who has taken over from Marcus.

The novel’s fragmentary structure takes a little getting used to but the device of academic research gives Gibb’s fiction a nice touch of sceptical analysis making Katie’s voice all the more vivid. At times it’s very funny – Katie sniffily decries the theatrics and sexual titillation of nineteenth-century spiritualism with its scantily clad young women and levitating tables, often finding humans intensely irritating. In a clever twist hers is the voice of scepticism, debunking much of what she sees at séances and wary of those who seem to have the possibility of psychic ability. Gibb injects a poignancy into Katie’s story with her yearning for connection and physicality, and her constant devotion to Robert Dale Owen. It’s a novel firmly rooted in research, peopled with prominent historical figures – from the renowned scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who becomes convinced of Katie’s existence, to Florence Cook, a celebrated Victorian medium – and if I have a criticism it’s that at times the research threatened to overwhelm the story. That said, it’s a fascinating study of the strange world of belief and longing to believe all wrapped up in a very clever, sophisticated piece of fiction.