Tag Archives: Picador Books

Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens: A little light relief

Cover imageI was casting around for a spot of diversion after a string of excellent but particularly dark novels when Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell and Me arrived. I’d been eyeing it up for a little while, wondering if I’d enjoy it and now seemed the perfect time to find out. Stevens’ account of her doctoral research into Mrs Gaskell’s correspondence with a young man she met in Rome together with her own love story turned out to be very appealing, although perhaps not as light hearted as I’d expected.

Stevens had been struggling for a little while, trying to get a grip on her thesis, watching her fellow post-grad students, all displaying the classic signs of the PhD candidate – obsession with one’s subject, inability to talk about anyone’s else’s subject, a tendency to prickliness – but finding nothing of their passion in her own research. She’s constantly distracted by fantasies about Max, the friend she met on a creative writing course in Boston, with whom she’s fallen in apparently unrequited love. When he invites her to Paris, where he’s trying to write, she goes armed with a declaration that this can’t go on, that she adores him but can no longer see him platonically. After an awkward supper, things take a surprising turn back at Max’s apartment. Not long after, the focus of Stevens’ research becomes clear to her. Anticipating opprobrium on the publication of her biography of her dear friend Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell took herself off to Rome where she immersed herself in the English-speaking artistic community, meeting the likes of Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning and making the acquaintance of Charles Eliot Newton with whom she formed a deep connection. It’s this that Stevens decides to research, based on their correspondence.

Unlike Mrs Gaskell, who informed her publisher that she wanted to libel those she felt had let Brontë down, Stevens makes no bones about her book being a ‘work of imagination’, weaving imagined episodes in Rome through her own story and addressing some sections directly to Mrs Gaskell herself. I may well not have picked this book up without the Gaskell hook but I found myself rushing through these sections eager to get on and find out what was happening between Stevens and Max. There’s plenty of heartbreak here, despite the light tone, but there’s also a good deal of humour to enjoy particularly if you’ve had anything to do with academic life. I see from her biographical notes that Stevens teaches creative writing and I suspect she’s much more comfortable with that than in a literature department. I raced through her book, rooting for her all the way. Happy endings often make for dull fiction but give me a real life one any day. I hope Stevens has found hers.

The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood: Love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus

Cover imageNaomi Wood’s The Hiding Game has been on my radar since I discovered it was about the Bauhaus, the German art school whose designs I’ve long admired. It’s one of a multitude of books published to celebrate the movement’s centenary this year. I still have my eye on Theresia Enzensberger’s Blueprint which looks promising but it will have to be a remarkable novel to eclipse Wood’s for me. Beginning in 1922 with the admission of six students whose lives will become inextricably bound, Wood’s novel tells their story through Paul whose memories are brought vividly into focus by the death of Walter, both friend and enemy.

Paul is a talented painter, a skill hardly worth consideration in the Bauhaus school whose emphasis on material and functionality constrasts starkly with the ornate architecture and conservatism of its Weimar home where the local worthies make clear their disapproval of the eccentrically dressed instructors, baptisms of the ‘Bauhaus babes’ and outrageous parties. Paul is quickly smitten by Charlotte, a young Czech, conspicuous in her mannish dress and perfect bob. They become a pair but not a couple, joined by Irmi, Kaspar, Walter and Jenö in an inseparable sixsome. Eager to assert his financial independence, Paul finds work painting extravagantly florid works for rich Americans. When a shocking incident lands Jenö in front of a tribunal, Walter joins Paul determined to earn the money needed to pay off the man Jenö has beaten. Walter has fallen as deeply for Jenö as Paul has for Charlotte, a passion which results in a series of terrible betrayals when it becomes clear that Jenö’s affections lie elsewhere. Meanwhile the brownshirts, for whom the Bauhaus represents everything they both despise and fear, begin their inexorable march to power. When Hitler is elected Chancellor, a decision must be made to stay or go putting love to the test.

Wood explores the nature of love and morality through the story of these six characters weaving her meticulous research lightly through it. She’s the consummate storyteller, foreshadowing events so that we understand the nuance and complexity of these unfolding relationships while maintaining a riveting tension. The Bauhaus detail is fascinating. Wood has a knack of including celebrated members of the movement without a trace of clunkiness and her descriptions of their work are beautiful in their simple clarity:

From the outside you could see many floors at the same time, and the way people disappeared and then materialised made them appear like actors in a jump cut.

This is a story fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love told in the form of a confessional, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised. It’s a stunning piece of fiction, surely set to appear on a multitude of prize lists and win at least one.

The Braid by Letitia Colombani (Transl. Louise Rogers Lalaurie): Take three women

Cover imageLetitia Colombani’s The Braid is one of those elegantly structured novellas that manages to pack a great deal into fewer than two hundred pages. Three women’s stories intersect in a way that none of them can imagine when the book begins. They will remain unknown to each other yet each will have played a crucial role in changing the others’ lives.

Smita is a Dalit in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, an untouchable whose job is to empty the latrines by hand. The ostracism of Dalits from society was outlawed by Mahatma Gandhi yet Smita and her rat-catcher husband continue to be spurned. Smita is determined that her six-year-old daughter won’t suffer the same humiliation and is prepared to go to any lengths to protect her.

Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business that has been established for generations. When her father is left comatose after an accident, Giulia discovers that all is not what it seems with their finances. Her Sikh lover offers a solution which isn’t welcomed by everyone.

Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm, a position hard-won and at great cost. She never mentions her children at work, hiding domestic difficulties and maternal guilt behind a mask of calm capability. Illness cannot be countenanced. When Sarah finds she has cancer she tucks the knowledge away, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work.

Colombani uses the conceit of telling the stories of Smita, Giulia and Sarah through a wig maker, interweaving their three separate narratives into a braid. It’s a device that works well: the wig maker makes a brief appearance at the start and end of the book with the occasional interpolation in between. Each of the stories explores the societies in which these three women live: Smita’s abject poverty, locked into a caste system sustained by corruption and lack of education; resistance to Giulia’s innovation in traditional, male dominated Sicilian society; Sarah’s discovery that the glass ceiling hasn’t been entirely shattered in her intensely competitive law firm where loyalty counts for nothing. All three women changes their lives for the better on their own terms, facing apparently insurmountable problems with courage and determination. It’s a heartening story, fable-like in its telling but not sugar-coated, and an appealing one. Proof, yet again, of the power of the novella – not that I needed it.

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Seven Days in North Norfolk and Half a Book

View from Blakeney Hight StreetAfter our long railway jaunt around central Europe earlier in the year H and I both fancied settling in one place for a week. Despite having spent three enjoyable holidays in North Norfolk in four years, we’d not been back in almost a decade: a return visit seemed ideal. We set off on one of those gorgeous autumn mornings, arriving in Blakeney in the late afternoon only a little discombobulated by the ‘axe-throwing escape rooms’ sign just outside Kings Lynn.

North Norfolk is famous for its big sky stretching out over theView out over North Norfolk marshes marshes to the sea. On a clear night the stars are spectacular, something we never see at home thanks to all that ambient light thrown up by the town. It’s also home to lots of pretty villages, many with delis offering treats, plus the small town of Holt which still boasts a proper department store. None of your brand concession nonsense at Baker and Larners.

Beach Houses WellsWe already had a catalogue of walks in our heads, the favourite of which for me is a circular hike beginning at Wells-next-the-Sea continuing to Holkham and back up the beach past Wells’ colourful beach huts whose numbers seemed to have expanded greatly since our last visit. One of the joys of this walk is watching lots of happy waggy dogs cavorting on the beach although they, like us, were having a bit of trouble with the buffeting wind.

By mid-week the bluster was in full-swing so we took ourselves off inland to Hindringham Hall’s Hindringham House gardensgorgeous gardens, far more lovely than we were expecting with its beautifully ordered kitchen garden, groaning with produce, and autumn crocuses scattered across lawns surrounded by a moat.

Inevitably there was a wet day but I’d wanted to visit the Sainsbury Centre at UEA in Norwich for Arcade Norwichsome time. The collection is housed in Norman Foster’s first building, still looking good despite its fortysomething years. Only a smattering of artefacts is on display from the vast collection but it’s beautifully curated. My favourite piece was a miniature Peruvian lama fashioned in silver c. 1400-1532. The afternoon was spent wandering around Norwich which is far enough away from anywhere else to have retained its character. It even has a little outbreak of Art Nouveau.

And the book? Sad to say that not nearly as much reading was done as either of us had hoped thanks to our cottage’s crepuscular lighting, clearly not designed for readers. I did manage to get stuck in to Emma Flint’s Little Deaths set in ’60s New York. Based on a true crime, it’s the story of a double child murder told from the perspective of the children’s mother whose apparently louche lifestyle puts her in the frame and the rookie reporter who shoulders his way into covering the crime and becomes obsessed by her. Not usually my cup of tea but it’s deftly handled and engrossing.

An enjoyable break, then, despite the blowing about by Storm Ali. I’m enjoying the current spell of sunny autumn days before knuckling down to winter. Long may it last.

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson (transl. Saskia Vogel): Balancing the emotional books

Cover imageI reviewed Lena Andersson’s sharply observed, witty novella Wilful Disregard here a couple of years ago. It’s a study in obsession that has you squirming in your seat. Acts of Infidelity sees its main protagonist, Ester Nillson, once again in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things will play between Ester and Olof.

Ester meets Olof at the first read-through of her play, experiencing a familiar tingling of attraction towards him. She’s a highly accomplished writer: a poet, playwright and intellectual. Intensely cerebral, she’s given to analysing the tiniest detail of their affair, balancing one interpretation against another yet choosing the one which fits her delusion no matter how outlandish or detrimental to herself. Olof is initially quiet about his marriage, blowing hot and cold with Ester, insisting that he and she are not in a relationship long after they have slept together. This is their particular dance: he breaks things off then one of them – often Ester – contacts the other and Olof carries on as if nothing has happened while Ester remains steadfast in her belief that he is on the brink of leaving his wife despite his frequent insistence that this will never happen. As the years roll past – three and a half of them – Ester’s friends become increasingly frantic in their advice, then weary, until one day she takes a decision.

While infused with a sly humour, Acts of Infidelity is altogether more sombre than Wilful Disregard. There’s the odd passing reference to Hugo Rask, the previous object of Ester’s obsession, but it’s clear she’s learned nothing from that experience. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s self-deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him while ‘Let’s get out of here’, Olof said, and proceeded to take a seat in an armchair neatly sums up Olof’s exasperatingly contradictory behaviour throughout their affair. The ‘girlfriend chorus’ listens as patiently as they did in Wilful Disregard, becoming less so as time wears on. This may sound like a rerun, then, but the difference is that sombre tone which makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible. Most of us have known friends in this kind of predicament, although perhaps not quite so extreme as Ester’s. The ending is a relief. Andersson refuses to put the blame squarely on the mistress’ shoulders as society so often does, offering instead – as you’d expect from Ester – a more complicated, nuanced interpretation.

Things We Nearly Knew by Jim Powell: The enigma of other people

Cover imageThere’s nothing like getting your reading year off to a good start. Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew continues 2018’s satisfying trend for me with its slice of American smalltown life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I’d enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a couple of years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. His new novel is infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier and all the better for it.

Our narrator runs a bar with his wife Marcie on the edge of the small town he’s lived in all his life. He looks after the evening trade, she does the lunches. They’re the perfect professional combination: he knows how to keep secrets, which questions to ask and which to leave unasked; she knows how to interpret the answers. However, they differ wildly in their approaches to life: he wants things cut and dried; she grasps the messiness of it all. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking for a vodka martini and whether they’ve heard of a man named Jack. She becomes a regular, if an intermittent one, telling only the stories she wants to tell. Marcie and the bartender are intrigued. She begins a romance with one of the other regulars, more from mutual loneliness than any sense of passion. Then the roguish Franky turns up, not seen for thirty years but barely changed. It seems that Franky and Arlene are made for each other despite his distinctly flexible relationship with honesty. Marcie and the bartender lie in bed at nights mulling it all over but they have their own stories to tell – one which he has been determined to bury but she has not, and another he knows nothing about.

Questioning, speculating, interested in other people and their problems – although blind to his own troubles – Powell’s narrator is the consummate bartender complemented beautifully by the astute Marcie. It’s such a clever device: backstories abound and anecdotes are legion as befits the profession. The story unfolds beautifully through our narrator’s memories as he looks back on the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, telling us her tale while slipping in details of his seemingly prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. Powell’s characterisation is intelligent and perceptive, his writing more striking that I remembered it:

Arlene was someone who invited protection, then declined it when it was offered.

Marcie and I have no secrets from one another. We tell that to each other constantly, so it must be true

Later, we’d take off the masks we’d worn for the occasion, pack them away, and put on our usual masks the next morning.

Overarching it all is the question how well do we know those we think we know? How well do we even know ourselves? A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling, well turned out in every sense. If the rest of 2018’s reading is as good as this I’ll be delighted.

Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl (translated by the author): A meditation on grief, love and friendship

Cover imageI remember reading Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Lucca when it was published in the UK in 2003, too long ago to recall the detail of its story but an impression of quietly elegant prose stuck which is what attracted me to Often I Am Happy. Its premise is also an intriguing one: recently widowed, Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner.

Georg has been felled by a heart attack at seventy-eight. He and Ellinor have been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that Georg has died she’s bought herself a small apartment in the down-at-heel neighbourhood of Copenhagen where she was brought up believing that her farther died in the war. Both Anna and Henning were killed in the accident but not before Georg had discovered their affair. Stunned by grief, Ellinor had taken herself off to Anna’s house in the afternoons after her death, helping to bring up her twins and keep house for Georg until they became a couple. Ellinor has always cast herself as an outsider, falling in love with Henning and into a marriage which didn’t feel entirely right. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at the edge of it. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna.

This is a quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella. Grøndahl’s pose is elegantly spare, studded with vivid images: ‘the snow on the summits resembled torn lace where the grey-blue mountainside showed through’; ‘Life went on without you; the years passed like an express train, its windows full of new faces’. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. Anna’s twins while accepting of Ellinor’s love as children have grown into distant middle-aged men while her love for them has become ‘the recollection of a feeling, not the feeling itself’. ‘Yes, it is true that one is no longer oneself’ in the face of grief she tells Anna but as Ellinor unfolds her story, revealing secrets long hidden, it seems as if she has never quite inhabited herself. At the heart of Grøndahl’s novella is a loving, forgiving friendship for a vibrant woman of whom Ellinor says I have ‘warmed myself in front of you’. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.

Pages for Her by Sylvia Brownrigg: Flannery and Anne reprised

Cover imageBack in 2001, I was very taken with a novel called Pages for You. It was a love story, telling of the intense almost visceral affair between seventeen-year-old Flannery and her teacher Anne, ten years her lover’s senior. Since then I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Delivery Room, a very different novel. When I spotted Pages for Her on Twitter I immediately wanted to read it despite a niggling sequel worry. It’s a brave author who revisits her characters sixteen years after they emerged into the world but in this case, it’s a risk that’s paid off.

Flannery is now thirty-eight and married to a bombastic, self-centred yet affable sculptor, renowned enough to have an installation at the Venice Biennale. She’s the mother of six-year-old Willa whose conception prompted her marriage to Charles. Much to Flannery’s amazement, she loves being a mother if a little resentful of the hands-off Charles and bored by the circle of mothers she finds herself in. She has a bestselling memoir under her belt, a lightly fictionalised account of her search for the father she never knew accompanied by her lover Adele, best known for its raunchy sex scenes. Her more literary second book sank leaving little trace and now she’s blocked. She’s surprised to be invited to a conference on women’s writing but as soon as she sees Anne’s name on the schedule, she’s determined to accept. Meanwhile Anne has taken a lecturing gig on a cruise, hoping to lose herself in something different and turn her mind away from the rawness of her lover’s departure. A brilliant graduate student when Flannery knew her, she’s now a highly respected academic with a seminal work to her name and resolutely childless. When she’s asked to suggest a younger writer to invite to the conference, Anne thinks of Flannery. What will happen when these two women meet after so many years?

Brownrigg structures her novel into three parts. The first from Flannery’s perspective, full of domestic difficulties, love for her daughter and fantasies about Anne’s life. The second from Anne’s point of view, reflective on her long relationship with Jasper, her experiences on the cruise and her short stay with her sister in Venice with just a few thoughts about Flannery. The third section brings these two together for a reunion that one has longed for and the other has idly considered. It’s a very effective structure, neatly contrasting the two women’s lives, showing their affair from both sides and building a little suspense as we wonder how these once besotted lovers will find each other. Flannery’s character is particularly well drawn as she struggles with her egotistical husband while idealising the relationship she believes Anne shares with Jasper. It’s a pleasingly literary book, from the naming of Flannery and her daughter to the allusions scattered throughout, particularly in its final section. Brownrigg leaves the novel’s ending nicely open, possibly even enough to allow for a third instalment. That would probably be a step too far, although I’d be tempted to find out how Flannery and Anne get on in later life.

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler: What maketh the man?

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will probably know that I’ll take any opportunity to bang on about Nickolas Butler’s debut Shotgun Lovesongs. I even managed to get it into my first Six Degrees of Separation post. No surprise, then, that The Hearts of Men was one of the books I was looking forward to most this year, eager anticipation tempered by a little nervousness the bar having been set so high. Set in Wisconsin and spanning nearly six decades, Butler’s novel explores what it is to be a man in America through the lens of two very different boys who form a kind of friendship in 1962.

Nelson is a lonely thirteen-year-old, bullied at school, always careful to do everything well. His father is quick to beat him, often turning his violent attentions on Nelson’s mother. When Jonathan turns up at his birthday party, the only guest to attend, Nelson cherishes hopes of a friendship with this older boy, hopes that are bolstered when Jonathan singles him out at Scout camp. Morally upright but naïve, Nelson catches the attention of the camp’s leader emboldening him into taking a decision he’s convinced is right but which will further cast him out. Three decades later, Jonathan is driving his own son to camp, planning to meet Nelson on the way. Both men have taken very different paths: Nelson is a Vietnam vet, subject to recurring nightmares, and now the camp’s leader while Jonathan owns a thriving business, spending his time golfing and womanising. Sixteen-year-old Trevor is in love with Rachel, determinedly shrugging off his father’s cynicism, looking to Nelson as a model of what a man should be. Twenty-five years later, Rachel is taking her sixteen-year-old son to camp, looking forward to seeing Nelson again and happy to be the only female chaperone in attendance. This summer will see a dramatic and disturbing turn of events.

Butler’s novel wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, exploring the troubling state of American manhood largely through the characters of Nelson and Jonathan. These two stand for models of good and bad behaviour but Butler is careful to avoid turning them into cartoon black and white characters: Nelson’s naivete takes a bashing, leaving him wary and circumspect while Jonathan’s self-absorption is shaken by the dramatic events towards the end of the novel, leading him towards a degree of redemption. Relationships between often absent fathers and their sons are perceptively portrayed, posing the question ‘Where are the role models for boys?’ The gorgeous writing of Shotgun Lovesongs is present and correct with beautiful descriptions of the Wisconsin night sky particularly striking although it’s the startling image of a stripper who ‘peels her panties off the way you might peel the price tag off a book you intended for a present’ that will stay with me. This is a deeply heartfelt novel, infused with sadness rather than anger, which asks hard questions and gives no easy answers. The plot may feel a little creaky occasionally but sensitive characterisation and the clarity of Butler’s writing more than make up for that.