Cheerfulness breaks in

by Angela Thirkell

I can’t remember where I read about this author – it was a couple of weeks ago, while browsing the internet.  Perhaps it was on another book blog, or in a review of another book, or in one of those lists you find all over the place.  Whichever, it was serendipity.  I needed something relatively light to read over the Christmas holiday. This is a time when I find it hard to get down to ‘serious’ reading, what with the demands of guests and a more than usually active social life.  I had started reading an excellent biography of Attlee, but was ready to put this aside for a week or two and take up something lighter.

Thirkell’s book proved to be the ideal holiday read.  There is humour, but also pathos.  With a huge cast of characters, it is inevitable that some will be sketchily drawn and others caricatures, but there are also characters who seem real enough to leap off the page and arrive on your doorstep, hoping to be invited in for a sherry.

Yes, sherry seems to be very much à la mode in the Barsetshire of Thirkell’s book.  Most of her novels – and her output was prolific – are set in the fictional town of Barchester and surrounding villages, that are the setting for Trollope’s Barchester chronicles.  There are oblique references to some of Trollope’s characters too, though of course their activities are already in the past by 1939, the time this novel opens.

This is a love story and also a story of social life in a village at the start of the Second World War.  The people who populate the book are affected by the war, most notably by the arrival of an evacuated London school which shares facilities with the local public school, and evacuee children who are billeted around the villages.  Most of the ‘action’ takes place in social settings: parties; a ‘communal kitchen’ organised by the ladies of the area to give the evacuee children their midday meal; a Christmas party for the evacuees.  Private moments between the key characters are snatched within these social events.  The novel ends with an understated cliffhanger, as the heroine, Lydia, receives a telegram that may or may not be bad news about Noel Merton.

Thirkell published at the rate of about one novel a year from the age of 40 till her death thirty years later.  Most of these novels are set in Barsetshire.  Having only read this one, I don’t know whether any of the characters reappear – but I get the impression that each novel is quite separate, and populated with its own group of people.  Virago has published a number of Thirkell’s books in its ‘Modern Classics’ collection, and happily they are also available as Kindle editions.

Don’t expect the profound understanding of human character and social relations that Trollope does so well in his Barchester Chronicles.  Look instead for gentle humour and sometimes sharp wit, well-observed characters and a satisfying, if not particularly tidy plot – and you will find it in abundance in this book.

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Towards the End of the Morning

by Michael Frayn

An early work by this accomplished author, this story is based in a newsroom of the 1960s, where Frayn himself cut his journalistic teeth.  It is satirical, and often very funny – as when an international group of reporters is taken by air to report on a Middle-Eastern resort, and the journey is held up in every conceivable way, which had me laughing out loud.

John Dyson, the main character and a sub-editor on a newspaper which is, we assume, a thinly-disguised Guardian or Observer, fumbles his way through the demands of work and family life in a snapshot of what now seems to be irretrievably in the past.  Even the description of the sparse lodgings of the new recruit to the team, which I recognise only too well from my student years, is redolent of something that has gone for ever.  As has the Fleet Street pictured so well in this novel: indolent journalists (all male), smoky atmosphere, long lunch breaks in the pub.

The title reflects the fact that most work in such offices was done “towards the end of the morning”, when journalists scurry to complete their assigned tasks before heading off to the pub.

The book reminded me strongly of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and I think I prefer the Waugh book – though perhaps I should read it again before making this judgement.  It was, after all, the first Waugh book I had ever read.

The best part of reading this charity-shop acquisition was the introduction to this edition, written by Frayn some 40 years after the original publication.  Insightful, thoughtful, beautifully put.  Boy, that man can write!

For an entertaining commentary on journalism in C20 fiction, read Christopher Hitchens in the Guardian.

A Room of One’s Own

by Virginia Woolf

Listening to not one but two podcasts concerned with Virginia Woolf as I did some garden work (one from BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives, the other from In Our Time) prompted me to read this essay, which I had long been aware of as an important piece of Woolf’s writing and a work of feminist literature.

What can I say that has not already been said?  Woolf is speaking to an audience of young women and she encourages and indeed incites them to hold their own in a world of men.  Powerful and convincing stuff.

I am glad I read this now, as a mature adult, and not as a young student.  I am also happy – as so often when I read ‘classics’ these days – that I was not obliged to read it as part of a course of study.  Though studying a text can undoubtedly add to one’s appreciation of it, it can also put you off, as you are not reading in the way the author intended.  I find this is especially true of fiction – which this essay, of course, is not.

The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service

by Rosina Harrison

I’m not at all sure what prompted me to read this.  It was a cheap buy on Kindle, and I suppose it was one of those impulse browse moments.  I’m glad I took the plunge.  This is an easy read and very enjoyable.

Rose (as her employers called her – her own family dubbed her Ena) was, by any standards, plucky, ambitious, confident and with bags of common sense.  With a life in service as the only career option open to her, she decided at an early age, encouraged by her mother, to aim high and work towards becoming a lady’s maid.  The reason for this choice was that she wanted to travel.

Her family made the sacrifices required to allow her to stay on at school for an extra two years till the age of fourteen, and then to start a dressmaking apprenticeship.  She knew that she would need excellent dressmaking skills, as well as a knowledge of French.  Her first job was as a “young lady’s maid” to a 17-year-old girl, but pretty soon she moved on to working for a lady, and from there she moved into the Astor household, where she remained for 35 years, most of it as Lady Astor’s maid.

Inevitably, the story is as much about Lady Astor as it is about Rose.  The servant has an intimate view of the family she serves, and Rose was bright enough (as well as discreet enough) to tell their story well.  True, she manages to gloss over some of the more dubious aspects, such as the activities of the ‘Cliveden set’ in the 1960s; but her time with Lady Astor, who died in 1964, was drawing to an end by then, and the lady and her household no longer lived at Cliveden.  Rose does however show her lady’s character warts and all.  It is clear from this account that Lady Astor was not an easy person to get on with; she could be temperamental and was often rude.  Rose puts up with her behaviour after a succession of lady’s maids have failed to do so.

The book abounds with delightful anecdotes that not only shed light on the relationship between a wealthy family and their servants, but also read as good stories in themselves.  Witness the account of a journey to Istanbul with Lady Astor and Dame Edith Lyttelton, where the Dame – an absent-minded academic – keeps losing things.  Rose eventually and assertively takes charge.

An engaging narrator and a fascinating story, beautifully told.

 

All the light we cannot see

by Anthony Doerr

My friend Meryl lent me this book – but when I got it home I found it was a book I had marked up on a ‘wish list’. So clearly I was meant to read it!

I was not disappointed. Though the staccato writing occasionally jars, and the references to German or French places, names and expressions are not always idiomatic or contextually accurate (or even correct: muséum instead of musée), the story itself is spellbinding, human, full of drama but also full of descriptive detail that is almost always relevant, never superfluous.

The main protagonists are Marie-Laura, a French girl who loses her sight at the age of six, and Werner, a technically gifted young German. The main story takes place between 1940 and 1945, with two final chapters telling us what happened to the survivors after the war. The characters are so real and engaging that you really want to know.

Historically, it is interesting too. The occupation and relatively late liberation of St Malo, a fortified French town, is the backdrop to a large part of the story. The chapters flip between Marie-Laure’s and Werner‘s stories, and the action moves back and forth between the early 1940s and the crucial days in August 1944, when St Malo was besieged and eventually taken by the Allies.

This book is full of action, but is also reflective and soulful. A really satisfying read.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

by Joël Dicker

I had read reviews about this book and put it on my ‘wishlist’, and then when I saw it at a book sale for £1 I immediately picked it up.  The seller recommended it as well – and that was good enough for me.  Having read it now, I am in two minds about this novel.

Positives:  It is an intriguing whodunnit, and keeps the reader guessing almost to the end.  Many of the characters are stereotypes, but there is enough interest in them, and an ambiguity that leaves you wondering, even about the most apparently innocuous character, “could he/she be the murderer?”.  The relationship between Marcus Goldman and the detective is interesting and plausible – they complement each other’s abilities, and solve the mystery together, and yet maintain a healthy distance almost to the end. The book’s structure is compelling, even if a little forced at times: the older writer and mentor, Harry Quebert, coaches Goldman in bite-sized chunks of advice, chapter by chapter, as the story (and his book) unfolds.  The New England setting is recognisable from Stephen King, Philip Roth and John Updike’s work, and is convincing enough to someone who, like me, has never been there.  I am not qualified to say whether it would convince a New Englander.  After all, the author is Swiss – but as I know only too well, most educated Swiss have the opportunity to spend time in English-speaking countries.  The best thing about this book is the translation: fluid, idiomatic, utterly believable.  Given the North American setting and Sam Taylor’s superb translation, it is quite hard to believe that this book was actually written in French.

Negatives:  The book is too long.  I was totally gripped until about two-thirds of the way through (the length of an average novel) and the last third was a bit of a slog.  Some characters are frankly unbelievable, and these tend to be the female ones. Goldman’s mother is a stereotypical Jewish mom whose only concerns seem to be a desire for her son to be married, and paranoia that he might be gay.  Tamara Quinn is obsessively concerned with her position in society and finding her daughter a suitable match – and yet she manages to run a successful café business which she then passes on to her daughter.  The women in this book, without exception, are not ‘movers and shakers’.  Perhaps this reflects the Swiss culture of the author!  Luther Caleb, a promising young man from a humble background who experiences a brutal and disfiguring attack early in his adult life, is portrayed as dim-witted as well as physically disabled.  Can he really achieve no better position than that of chauffeur, after such a promising start in life?  Perhaps he suffered some brain damage as well as a damaged facial expression and speech defect – but this is never stated, even implicitly.

Critics have made comparisons with Roth, Franzen, Bellow.  I can’t comment on the latter, having – to my shame – never read anything by Saul Bellow.  I don’t see any particular similarity to the Franzen works I have read.  I did read a French review accusing Dicker of, effectively, plagiarising Roth’s The Human Stain.  I haven’t read Roth’s book (which appears to have a very different plot and characters), so can’t comment on whether the college professor/writer relationship bears any similarity.  But even if it does, this can be understood in the acknowledged fact of Dicker’s admiration of the older writer.

Let’s not allow this accusation to spoil our appreciation of what is, after all, an achievement of some quality from Dicker and Taylor.

The End We Start From

by Megan Hunter

I chose to read this book largely because I sort of know the author.  She was a house-mate of my deceased son Ben in Brighton, twelve or so years ago.  Since Ben’s death I have kept in vague contact with Megan via Facebook – enough to know that she had written and then published this book.

Then I saw the book prominently displayed at the Liskeard Bookshop which I go to whenever I am visiting my aunt Wendy.  The book seemed to shout “buy me” and so I did.

The first thing to note is that this is a short book, with short phrases, paragraphs and chapters.  Without reading the bio, it seemed to me that the author must be a poet – and indeed she is.  There is a poetry lifting off every page of her sparse but poignant prose. (At this point, as an aside, I should perhaps note that although none of the posts on this blog relate to poetry, I do in fact love to read it, so perhaps I should ‘review’ some of my favourite poems/poets/volumes of poetry here too.)

All the characters in this story are named with a unique letter – apart from the narrator, who is not named at all.  Somehow this is not confusing but actually serves to engage the reader in the personalities of the characters, even the babies, without being distracted by any connotations their names might suggest.  The story is of a cataclysmic event – a serious flood – that upsets the country (we assume England) and neighbouring countries just at the moment that our narrator gives birth to her first child.  Her story is one of new motherhood, with all its excitement, delights and fears.  Somehow the backdrop of a huge and terrifying disaster, with the attendant disintegration of society and displacement of huge numbers of people, is secondary to the real and immediate tasks of motherhood.  Any parent can surely relate to the descriptions of childbirth, breastfeeding and teething – all sparsely told and yet immediately recognisable.  Baby Z is not remarkable, and he is not put on a pedestal, even by his mother.  He simply is, and her job is to care for him no matter what circumstances she may find herself in.  She finds friendship – indeed almost everyone in this story behaves honourably in a crisis – but loses her partner, whom she then sets out to find.

The story closes with Z’s first steps, and a reunion of sorts.

Thank you Megan – a brilliant debut.  I wish you all the success you deserve, in your family as well as your literary life.