Tag Archives: Wake

The Ballroom by Anna Hope: 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’.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

The BallroomTop of the list of my second batch of February books to look out for has to be Anna Hope’s The Ballroom. Her debut, Wake, was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction that dealt with the First World War and its aftermath back in 2014. I liked it very much and have hopes for this one which is set in the summer of 1911 in an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors where men and women meet briefly once a week to dance. ‘A tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which’, according to the publishers. I suspect this one will be hyped to the skies but it may well live up to it, or close at least. Lovely jacket too – almost a match for the gorgeous Wake cover.

I’ve long been a fan of Julie Myerson’s fiction all the way back to Sleepwalking  but the last one or two novels seemed a little formulaic to me. The synopsis of The Stopped Heart sounds as if it may well be in the same vein. A good deed to a stranger, a century ago, seems to have left its mark on the apparently idyllic cottage where a couple are trying to make a fresh start after the loss of their child. ‘The perfect place to forget. To move on. But in The Stopped Heart, the past never dies.’ say the publishers. Hmm… Not at all sure about that but once more for old time’s sake, I think.

At one stage I was convinced that Tim Parks had a huge alimony bill, either that or a Cover imagesubstance abuse problem, so great was his output. It turned out to be neither as the happily married, sober Parks revealed in his moving memoir on his driven nature and inability to stop working, Teach Us to Sit Still. His new novel, Thomas and Mary, is about a long-married couple who are facing the prospect of separating. Billed as ‘a love story in reverse’ Parks’ novel chronicles Thomas and Mary’s marriage from its first heady days in what the publishers have described as ‘a fiercely intimate chronicle of a marriage’. Sounds quite appealing to me.

Entirely different, Sunil Yapa’s debut, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set in Seattle against the backdrop of the 1999 World Trade Organzation protest. Victor, the estranged son of Seattle’s police chief, finds himself homeless after a family tragedy. On a day that will see the city under siege from protesters, Victor and his father are set on a collision course. This one could go either way but it has an unusual setting and that’s an eye-catching title.

Cover imageI’ve seen Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans talked about on Twitter – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.

That’s it for February. Lots of reasons to wrap up warm and stay inside. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis and If you’d like to catch up with the first set of February titles they’re here. First batch of paperbacks next week.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2015

The MiniaturistSurprisingly, all but one of the paperbacks that catch my eye this January have already been reviewed here which gives my credit card a welcome break, if nothing else. I’ll start with one of my books of 2014: Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, much-hyped before, during and after its publication but deservedly so. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. A love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface, it’s the perfect winter read.

Set two centuries on, Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light is very much about women making their way in the world and the challenges – sometimes mortal danger – that they faced in doing so. It’s the story of Ally and May whose mother, intent on helping the Manchester poor, has little time and no inclination to indulge them. In her desperate effort to please her mother Ally finds her vocation while May takes a more rebellious route. It’s impossible not to cheer Ally on as she grows from a fragile young woman into a feminist unafraid to speak her mind.

Next is Anna Hope’s Wake, still with the same gorgeous jacket as the hardback edition. Set in 1920, it shows us awake battered Britain through the eyes of Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, deftly conveying the complicated mess and aching loss of the war’s aftermath. It’s an accomplished, often very moving, piece of work which ends on a note of hope.

Harriet Lane’s Her couldn’t be more different. A fine psychological thriller – hard to avoid those tired old clichés like ‘gripping’ and ‘riveting’ – it’s the story of Nina and Emma told in their alternating voices. Nina recognises the harassed, ragged toddler-toting Emma from her past but Emma fails to make the connection. What follows is a tale of revenge in which Lane expertly handles the tension between Nina and Emma’s narratives.

Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman is a thriller of a very different stripe (sorry). Suffice to say that there’s a flying superhero tiger and another who purrs like an avalanche; a sergeant, wise in the ways of war, longing for a child; a comic-book obsessed, internet-mad boy who seems not to have a family; a volcanic island poisoned by chemical waste on the verge of being blown up to purge it from bacteria; a bomb made of custard powder; good guys, bad guys and a few in between – with a superb twist at the end.

I remember Brian Payton’s The Wind is Not a River most for its beautiful writing but it’s also an intriguing story. Set in 1943, it’s narrated by John Easley – marooned on the Aleutian island of Attu after his plane has gone down – and his wife, Helen, so convinced that he’s still alive that she sets out to find him no matter how hard the journey.

What Was PromisedFinally, the one that I haven’t yet read: Tobias Hill’s What Was Promised which begins in London just after the Second World War and follows three immigrant families across forty years, charting the changes in both their lives and the life of the city. I remember Tobias Hill’s brilliant thriller  Underground  and The Love of Stones which followed three lives linked by one jewel, both of which I enjoyed very much but his later novels have not appealed. The framework of What Was Promised is an immensely appealing one for me and I’m hoping for a return to form.

That’s it for January – a click will reveal a full review on this blog on all but What Was Promised which will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis, and in case you’re interested, here are January’s hardbacks. This will be my last post for a week or so – H and I are off to Hamburg to see what we can see. Best wishes for an enjoyable break to all, and particularly to those working in retail or catering – I hope you get some rest.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

Wake by Anna Hope: My first Great War novel of 2014

WakeA  multitude of books will no doubt be published this year commemorating the outbreak of World War I, many of them novels adding to the already substantial body of fiction devoted to it including Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, to name but a few. Stiff competition, then. Three 2014 novels have caught my eye, one of which is Anna Hope’s debut Wake, partly because it explores women’s experience of the war and its aftermath, partly because of its unusual premise. Set in 1920 it covers five days in which the body of the Unknown Soldier is chosen, prepared for burial, transported from the battlefields of France and given a state funeral on what will come to be known as Remembrance day. Wake follows three disparate women over the course of those five days – Hettie, a ‘dance instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais charging sixpence a dance; Evelyn, from a well-connected family, who works in the war pensions office; and Ada, a housewife who has lost her son. Hettie’s brother is shell-shocked, unable to look for work, haunted by nightmares. Evelyn’s brother, a captain returned from the Front, spends much of his time drunk while she misses her lost lover, judging the veterans forced to plead their case before they even open their mouths. Ada and Jack no longer talk about their son but Ada cannot accept his death nor understand why she has never learnt the details of that death the way that other mothers have. Threaded through their stories is the progress of the Unknown Soldier as he nears the end of his journey, bringing the country together in what is hoped will be a cathartic act of communal grief and a commemoration of sacrifice.

Hope shows us a battered Britain through the eyes of Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, deftly conveying the complicated mess and aching loss of it all. It is not a ‘land fit for heroes’: war veterans, mentally and physically ravaged, are lucky to have a job, many of them reduced to hawking poor quality goods door-to-door. Everyone is emotionally ragged, exhausted after four years of grinding deprivation and nerve-wracking uncertainty. Those who have not been to the Front are unable to understand what the returning men have been through. The separate strands of the three women’s very different lives are brought together in a riveting passage as Evelyn listens to the story which links them all, and the reader understands its outcome with a sickening certainty before the end is told. It’s an accomplished, often very moving, piece of work which ends on a note of hope

Apparently, Hope had the idea of writing Wake while researching women’s social history and the suffrage movement so it’s worth noting that, shocking as it may seem, despite the fact that many women contributed to the war effort – Evelyn works in a munitions factory, for instance – most would not gain the vote until 1928, a decade after the war ended. Seems scarcely believable now, but it’s all too true.