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Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

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I  like the sound of that Eileen Chang book - I was vaguely aware of her because of ` Lust, Caution` but haven't ventured into any actual purchases. One for the ` buy in the future` list. :)

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I certainly enjoyed it and would read more!


Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe has decided here to analyse marriage by looking at a number of unconventional marriages covering the years 1910-1939 and all moving in literary circles. The marriages were H.G. and Jane Wells, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, Elizabeth von Arnim and John Francis Russell, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Ottoline and Philip Morrell, Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge (not a legal marriage at the time obviously), Vera Brittain and George Catlin. There is a chapter on each relationship. This inevitably means that it feels like you are reading several potted biographies with inevitably limited information. In actuality everyone in this book I think has had a biography written about them (in some cases quite a few biographies) and so there is a feeling of glossing over detail.

There is nothing particularly new here; it is a retelling and there is a great deal of information available in a variety of forms. There are however quite a few little details that do add something; for example when Elizabeth von Arnim left her husband, John Francis Russell, he sent her a copy of the Bible with each mention of faithless wives underlined! The inhabitants of this book in themselves were often radical, unconventional and bohemian (and in some cases Bloomsbury). If you don’t like love triangles then this book is not for you; it’s full of them; however there are lots of other variations. No one seems particularly happy (apart from H G Wells who moved from mistress to mistress with monotonous regularity) and it does feel a little voyeuristic, but that’s the nature of biography.

It is interesting looking at how ideas about love and marriage which were unusual for the time, actually worked in practice. Inevitably the answer is a very mixed one and there are some spectacularly bad examples of parenting. Rebecca West and H G Wells stand out here; packing off their son to a Montessori school before he was four. Anthony West grew up to be a writer and very publicly fell out with his mother when he wrote about his childhood. Angelica Bell’s thoughts about her childhood are also well documented.

This was interesting enough, but its focus is very narrow and I don’t think it tells us much about marriage in general; a good deal perhaps about the foibles of the literary middle classes in England.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Passing On by Penelope Lively

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This Census-Taker by China Mieville


I have not read enough China Mieville. This one is a fairly brief novella which is set in a post-apocalyptic society, although that part is much understated and you pick it up from clues along the way.  The beginning of the Guardian review sets the scene very well;

“Any story that, on its very first page, redefines its protagonist from third to first person, flips forward in time to offer a view of him from elsewhere, makes a subtle alteration of tense, and announces that the character’s age in the story is a matter of speculation even to the older self doing the narrating, is going to be a story about perception, whatever else it is.”

The boy who narrates lives with his parents in isolation on a hill near a run-down town. His father makes keys for the townspeople; these seem to have unusual properties which are never entirely defined.

“[My father] made keys. His customers would come up from the town and ask for the things for which people usually ask—love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly—and he'd make them a key.”

His father sometimes kills animals which he throws into a hole in a nearby cave. These killings are disturbing and without reason. The boy feels that sometimes people are thrown down there too. One day the boy runs into town saying his father has killed his mother and he saw it. His mother is nowhere to be found and his father says she left and produced a goodbye letter. The boy remains in town for a while living with a group of street children. Eventually his father fetches him back. Life goes on and then the census taker arrives. It is worth noting that the boy is not an entirely reliable narrator.

The whole is rather eerie with lots of asides that don’t lead anywhere, but are interesting in themselves. Devotees of Mieville have argued that this is a Bas-Lag story (Mieville has written three novels in the Bas-Lag series) and will produce a great deal of evidence to make the argument.

There are nods in the book to Kafka and Borges and there is mystery, suspense and magic and of course there is an element of fairy tale as well.  The narrator is writing as an adult and his circumstances are unclear as well. Because Mieville is writing and telling through the eyes of a child there is a great deal left unasked and unexplained and the whole can feel sparse at times. But then Mieville can also become almost baroque in its descriptiveness;

There I, who’d known only the fierce spine-backed fish of the mountain streams and their animalcule prey, came to a sudden stop, slack with awe before a glass tank big enough to contain me, transported at some immense cost for I don’t know what market, full not with me or with any person but of brine and clots of black weed and clenching polyps and huge starfish, sluggishly crawling, feeling their way over tank-bottom stones like mottled hands.”

There is plenty of symbolism and the whole left me feeling that I do need to read more by Mieville

 8 out of 10

Starting Small Talk by Naomi Mitchison


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Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Another First World War read. Blunden survived the war, physically unscathed, but he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of his life. One of his daughters described him as “war haunted” and he wrote about the war in verse and prose until the last; his final poem was about survivor guilt. Nightmares were regular, most nights. He went to war in 1915, a teenage boy. By his own description he left it three years later and old man. His family felt that his tremendous creativity was partially a defence mechanism.

Blunden wasn’t at the front line all the time, he was an officer of works, transport and intelligence, so the book gives quite a broad picture of the war. He was at the front line for the Somme, Passchendaele and the third battle of Ypres. He was awarded a Military Cross.

This is not the same type of book as the ones written by Sassoon or Graves. Blunden was a countryman and he describes the effects of war on the landscape with telling effect;

Darkness clammy and complete, save for the flames of shells, masked that movement, but one stunted willow tree at which the track changed direction must haunt the memories of some of us.  Trees in the battlefield are already described by Dante.”

But in the landscape were people as well;

Climbing the dirty little road over the steep bank, one immediately entered the land of despair.  Bodies, bodies and their useless gear heaped the gross waste ground; the slimy road was soon only a mud track which passed a whitish tumulus of ruin with lurking entrances, some spikes that had been pine-trees, a bricked cellar or two, and died out. . . . The shell-holes were mostly small lakes of what was no doubt merely rusty water, but had a red and foul semblance of blood.  Paths glistened weakly from tenable point to point.  Of the dead, one was conspicuous.  He was a Scottish soldier, and was kneeling, facing east, so that one could scarcely credit death in him; he was seen at some little distance from the usual tracks, and no one had much time in Thiepval just then for sight-seeing, or burying.  Death could not kneel so, I thought, and approaching I ascertained with a sudden shrivelling of spirit that Death could and did.”

This is different to many of the other memoirs I have read, there is no getting to know other characters in any depth, but there are many memorable moments, including the poignant and well known last sentence;

“No conjecture that, in a few weeks, Buir-sur-Ancre would appear much the same as the cataclysmal railway cutting by Hill 60, came from that innocent greenwood. No destined anguish lifted its snaky head to poison a harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat.”

Blunden was not a natural soldier and he loathed the war, yet it haunted him for the rest of his days.

I didn’t find the poetry that was in the back of my edition as powerful as Owen or Sassoon, but some of it did resonate;

“…At the instance

Of sound, smell, change and stir,

New-old shapes for ever

Intensely recur.

And some are sparkling,

laughing, singing,

Young, heroic, mild;

And some incurable, twisted,

Shrieking, dumb, defiled.”

And this juxtaposition;

“We heard the maniac blast

Of barrage south by Saint Eloi,

And the red lights flaming there

Called madness: Come,

my bonny boy,

And dance to the latest air.

To this new concert, white we stood;

Cold certainty held our breath;

While men in tunnels

below Larch Wood

Were kicking men to death.”

Blunden as he grew older acknowledged that he found it increasingly difficult to contain the enormity of what happened to him. He wrote that the war had won and kept on winning.

There is great descriptive power here and I think Blunden is an unparalleled descriptor of landscape. I didn’t engage with this as easily as I did with other memoirs but parts were very powerful.

 7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederick Manning


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Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

My first novel by Barbara Pym and this is her first novel, published in 1950, but started before the war and the setting feels pre-war as well. The title comes from a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly:

“Some Tame Gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh something to love”

The premise is a simple one and the novel is based on Pym and her sister. Pym started it in her 20s and imagined herself and her sister in their 50s, unmarried and living together. Belinda and Harriet Bede are sisters in their early 50s living together in an English village. It is worth noting that this novel is very English, centering on the Church of England in a rural village and nothing much happens. There is plenty of irony and satire and Pym is a very astute observer.

Both sisters are very much preoccupied with the local Church of England clergy. Belinda has loved Archdeacon Hoccleve for many years, since they were at college;

“Belinda, having loved the Archdeacon when she was twenty and not having found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning.”

He married a rather more ambitious wife; Belinda doesn’t really like her. Harriet is much more occupied with the younger clergy who pass through the parish in the role of curate and live in lodgings. She cooks and knits for them and invites them for dinner and afternoon tea. When the Archdeacon’s wife goes on holiday, other visitors including a librarian and an overseas bishop come to visit and provide some minor disruption to the smooth running of village life. Both sisters get proposals of marriage during the book. Harriet receives an annual proposal from an Italian Count who lives in the village.

Pym has a way of showing the reader what is going on under the surface at times as with this conversation with the Count after another proposal is turned down, when Belinda says:

'' 'mustn't lose hope. ... I know she is fond of you and even if she will not love you, always remember' - her eyes lighted on the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson - 'that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I always think those lines are such a great comfort; so many of us have loved and lost.' She frowned: nobody wanted to be one of many, and she did not like this picture of herself, only one of a great crowd of dreary women. Perhaps Tennyson was rather hackneyed after all.''

There is no action, but a great deal of observation; it feels a bit like Miss Marple without the murders!

Poverty and the working classes make no real appearance and the servants are fairly anonymous. The bishop who visits has a diocese in Africa and Pym dissects the Church’s attitudes to mission and the inherent racism masquerading as charitable concern. It must also be said that the male characters are also pretty grim and it is no surprise that there are so many unmarried women

As a comedy of manners and a satire on middle class English village life in the early twentieth century it works quite well.

7 out of 10

Starting The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou


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Passing On by Penelope Lively

This novel is about a brother and sister, Helen and Edward Glover living in a South English village in the late 1980s. They are around fifty and have never married. We start at the funeral of their mother; she has dominated their lives and been a controlling and malign influence. Their younger sister Louise was the only one who escaped. Edward appears to be quite a neutral character, obsessed with nature and conservation. Helen, who is the main narrator has more of an edge, illustrated by her thoughts about her mother at the funeral:

"Eternal life is an appalling idea, especially in mother’s case."

There follows an interesting study of loss, especially of a dominating character:

“During the ensuing days Helen felt as though her mother were continuously present in the house as a large black hole. There was a hole in Dorothy's bedroom, in the bed where she was not, on which, now, the blankets were neatly folded and the cover spread. There were various other holes, where she stood at the kitchen table preparing one of those unappetizing stews, or shouting instructions from the landing or inspecting a caller at the front door. There were perambulant holes in which she creaked down the stairs or came in through the front door. Almost, Helen stood aside to let her pass or maneuvered around her large black airy bulk as she occupied the scullery or the narrow passage by the back stairs. It was weeks before Helen could walk straight through her, or open her bedroom door without bracing herself for the confrontation.”

The old and roomy house they live in is attached to a small patch of woodland called The Britches which is where Edward spends much of his time documenting the wildlife. There is a local builder who wishes to purchase the land and who had been frustrated by the siblings mother Dorothy.

As time goes on both Edward and Helen begin to change as their mother’s influence fades. This is where the novel is interesting. Lively is showing that even for those in later middle age can develop and experience life. The drawback is some of the choices she makes for her characters, counter to that it does show mistakes are possible at all ages. Helen falls in love with her late mother’s solicitor, Giles, who is silver haired and smooth talking. Lively portrays the obsession with another human being that can take over your life very well. She also sets the Glovers in sharp contrast with the acquisitive society around them; they simply aren’t interested in possessions. The woodland could be sold for building purposes and make their lives more financially comfortable, but neither Helen nor Edward are interested.

There is a spoiler ahead; Edward’s latent homosexuality and his acknowledgement of his feelings are, I think, meant to illustrate the ongoing problem of homophobia at the time. Edward was brought up at a time when such activities were illegal. Edward’s character is a good examination of repression, however the working out at the end left me angry. Not everyone who has repressed their true nature because of the society around them is going to make their first reaching out to another a fourteen year old! This just suggests that those who are gay are actually a danger to children if feelings are repressed. It was clumsily handled and for me let down what was actually a good analysis of loss and growth.

6 out of 10

Starting A Woman's Place by  Elizabeth Roberts

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I quite enjoyed A Tame Gazelle, though it felt a bit `slight` at times. I think I`d pick `Jane and Prudence` as the Pym I most enjoyed.  ( though I wouldn`t call it a rave, by any means ). :)

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I know what you mean Pixie; I have Excellent Women on the shelves, so I will try that some time!

Small Talk by Naomi Mitchison

Naomi Mitchison lived from 1897 to 1999 and the range of things she did was breath-taking. She was a feminist who campaigned for birth control, helping to establish the first birth control clinics. Mitchison was a committed socialist and Scottish Nationalist as well as being a renowned historical novelist. A friend of Tolkein, she proof read Lord of the Rings. She also wrote fantasy and science fiction and a series of memoirs. Her early training was in science and with her brother she published the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals in 1915. She travelled a great deal and wrote a number of travelogues. Along the way she also had seven children.

This book is billed as a memoir of an Edwardian childhood (there ae a few of those around). Mitchison takes much of what she writes from the diaries she wrote, freely admitting she has forgotten some of the incidents she describes (this was written in the 1970s. There are a number of interesting lines of thought.

Mitchision’s father was part of the Haldane family, who were prominent liberals and scientists. Her mother was a Tory and an imperialist who supported Empie and Mitchison remembers the celebrations following the end of the Boer War. Her father had been opposed to the war. Mitchison records how she took on her mother’s beliefs quite naturally rather than those of her father.

She also records the beginning of the dualism that marked her later life. As a child Mitchison believed in ghosts and fairies like many of her contemporaries. She used these beliefs from childhood in her later writing of fantasy and science fiction. The scientific inheritance is obvious from the way nature is recorded and described.

The family moved around between Oxford, Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands and the book is really a series of snapshots of family life. I read it as a prelude to the next in the series, which will be part of my World War One reads.

7 out of 10

Starting All Change Here by Naomi Mitchision

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Cotters England by Christina Stead

This is a complex novel, not easy to read and not comfortable on any level. It looks at the lives on the English working class and is set in the early 1950s. It took Stead fifteen years to write it and so by the time it came out in the mid-1960s it was almost looking at a world that was passing. The novel moves between Bridgehead in North East England (loosely based on Gateshead) and the east end of London. It centres around one family the Cotters. In Bridgehead there are Mr and Mrs Cotter senior whose role is minor and who dies during the novel. Their daughter Peggy acts as housekeeper. Also in the house is Uncle Sime, Mrs Cotter’s brother and a rather ill-tempered dog. There are other relatives who move in and out of the orbit. In London is Peggy’s sister Nellie Cook, the central character of the book and a socialist journalist. Her husband George is a trade unionist who has just got a job abroad working for the International Labour Organisation. In the household is Eliza, George’s first wife, who acts as housekeeper. Peggy and Nellie’s brother Tom moves between the two and for part of the novel has jobs elsewhere. There are lots of characters in London who move in and out of the novel. Nellie has lots of women friends.

It must be said that none of the characters are likeable and Nellie is a remarkable creation who many reviewers have described as a monster. Stead looks at a number of themes and the novel makes reference to incest, suicide (in relation to one of the minor characters), poverty, malnutrition, a lesbian affair and inevitably class. There is no real plot and at times it almost feels stream of consciousness as the reader experiences Nellie’s monologues and the strength of her character. Nellie drowns in tea, whisky and cigarettes and appears to use and abuse people for her own ends in a pretty outrageous way. Uncle Simon is the victim of abuse and the portrayal of his vulnerability is powerful. Tom (to quote a line from a Jarvis Cocker song), slides through life on charm. Women find him attractive and he uses them for his own ends and there is an ongoing and volatile relationship with Nellie.

Stead was a committed socialist and was certainly making a point about poverty and deprivation. She also said herself that she wanted to write the lives of the obscure; the themes here have strength in themselves;

“I’d like to take ye with me, show you a bit of England with the lid off, no Roseland, the furnace beneath the green moor that’ll blow up into a blistering volcano one of these days. Aye, it’s a bit different from your green and pleasant fields. But it’s a very normal tragedy.”

The images I the novel contain references to folkloric, supernatural and fairy tale elements. As Denise Brown points out:

“These elements are then concentrated in the characterisation of the novel’s protagonist, Nellie Cook, who as the spirit of this England, is the focus of the supernatural; she is the bewitcher personified. Stead succeeds in combining vividly the private drama of the troubled protagonist, Nellie, with the public drama of a troubled nation. We are finally to understand that living in a land of illusion called “Cotters’ England”, “Bohemia” or “fairyland” has the effect on its people of a kind of life in death.”

We are looking at frustrated lives and Nellie has (I think accurately) been described as Kafkaesque. Nellie’s power is illustrated in the character of her friend Caroline, to whom Nellie says;

“If you don’t confess you must commit suicide and suicide itself is a confession; and not to commit suicide is a terrible confession.”

All the novel’s characters are trapped in one way or another and there is a bleakness to it, a sense of despair. There is no vanguard of the proletariat here; they’ve all gone off to nice jobs abroad to be internationalist. Many of the characters are done to.

It’s a tour de force, but there are troubling elements, including the overwhelming character of Nellie and the general passivity.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Third Miss Symons by Flora Mayor

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Pao by Kerry Young


This is my first novel by Kerry Young; it is set in Jamaica from the 1940s to the 1990s. One thing that attracted me to it was that it is not a stand-alone. Young intends to write a novel about each of the three main characters, looking at the same events in three different ways. Young was born in Jamaica; her father was Chinese and her mother of African and Chinese heritage.

The novel is written in the first person which can make the reader very favourable towards Pao. Pao arrives in Jamaica in 1938 at the age of 12 following the death of his father and lives with his uncle Zhang, who is a boss in Chinatown. Pao learns from his uncle and gradually takes over from his uncle. The business varies from the entirely legitimate to the downright illegal and includes protection and generally managing the Chinese community, bribing the police and a variety of other things. The whole feel is paternal and Pao sees himself as a good member of the community.

Pao develops a relationship with Gloria, a prostitute whose brothel he protects, but he has to make a proper marriage within the community. He marries Fay Wong, from a respectable family. He has two children with Fay and one with Gloria.

The backdrop to the whole novel is Jamaica and Jamaican history. Through the war years and the end of colonial rule to the unrest of the 1960s with Cuba as a backdrop, Manley’s election and loss of power and closer ties with the US. The novel covers a lot of ground including Pao’s gradual loss of influence.

Pao laces his narrative with quotes from Sun Tzu and is an engaging and plausible narrator, even when he rapes his wife. The Sun Tzu quotes focus on how to get victory without direct conflict and the struggles of a minority community trying to survive. So Pao appears honourable and dishonourable, but appears to pretty much justify everything, even forcing himself on his wife:

“..she must have got pregnant when I force myself on her. Not that Fay was ever willing as such but that time it was bad. I don't know what came over me.”

There certainly appears to be a redemptive theme, but then I expect the novels from Gloria’s and Fay’s point of view with throw a different light. For Zhang and Pao the real enemy is British imperialism and its effects, which are marked even after independence. There are moral complexities here which are well handled and the reader sees through Pao and his petty criminality whilst understanding the difficulties of a minority community.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Gloria by Kerry Young

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The Third Miss Symons by F M Mayor


Flora Mayor was a remarkable woman; she read history at Cambridge in the early 1890s; a great achievement. She then became an actress before turning to literature. She wrote short stories and several novels, which were well regarded. She was a writer of ghost stories which were greatly admired by M R James (the greatest writer of ghost stories ever!). Again I wonder why she is so little known. There is no individual biography of her. There is a joint biography of Mayor and her friend Mary Sheepshanks published in the 1980s by virago.

This novel was published in 1913 and is set in the Victorian era and is essentially the study of a Victorian woman who did not marry. Women and their place in the world was one of Mayor’s themes. Henrietta (Etta) Symons is an uninteresting middle daughter in a large family. The reader spends the whole novel in her company, through her whole life. Mayor makes her hard to sympathise with because of her temper, her impatience, lack of charm and her pettiness. Other people, including her family find her difficult and unlovable. In fact the reader is aware that she does have a capacity to love and sees that her attempts at friendship and her reaching out are rejected because of her diffidence and temper.

It is a portrayal of what Mayor saw as the fate of a particular type of woman of the Victorian period; as the original introduction by John Masefield describes the lot of these women:

 the fate to be born in a land where myriads of women of her station go passively like poultry along all the tramways of their parishes; life is something that happens to them, it is their duty to keep to the tracks, and having enough to eat and enough to put on therewith to be content, or if not content, sour, but in any case to seek no further over the parochial bounds.”

Etta did fall in love. At school there were two adored objects who were female, Etta was misunderstood. And later there was even a young man who showed some interest;

“And perhaps she loved him all the more because he was not soaring high above her, like all her previous divinities, but walking side by side with her. Yes, she loved him; by the time he had asked her for the third dance she loved him”

Unfortunately, one of her sisters proved more interesting and Etta less interesting.

Etta never marries and has no interests and shows no interests in music or study. For a period of her life she travels on the continent going from cheap hotel to cheap hotel. Sometimes she has a travelling companion, women like herself. None of them last for very long. Mayor succinctly sums up the travel situation when Etta and her companion of the time arrive in Italy;

“They went to Italy. Neither of them cared in the smallest degree for sculpture, architecture, painting, archaeology, poetry, history, politics, scenery, languages, or foreigners.”

I am very tempted to make a comment about modern English people abroad but I will desist.

Mayor is also making a point about opportunities available to women as she occasionally interjects into the narrative:

“Even now, when there is a certain amount of choice and liberty, a woman who is thrown on her own resources at 39, with no previous training, and no obvious claims and duties, does not find it very easy to know how to dispose of herself. But a generation ago the problem was far more difficult. Henrietta was well off for a single woman, but she was incapable, and not easy to get on with. She would have thought it derogatory to do any form of teaching – teaching the natural refuge of a workless woman. ….. It was before the days of women’s colleges; they were established, but frequented only by pioneers, in whose ranks no Henrietta’s are to be found. But courses of lectures were so ordinary that not even the most timid could look askance at them.”

A good deal has been made, looking back at this type of novel, of boredom as “feminist protest” and of the spinster’s queer potential and there are certainly elements of both here; combined with the wasting of a life. Henrietta wanted to be loved and didn’t know how to easily give and receive it and was consequently misunderstood. Mayor manages to create in the reader a mixture of irritation and sympathy and the more perceptive reader will see that Etta’s anger and unhappiness are directly linked to her upbringing, lack of opportunity and her place in society as a woman.

It is a brief and powerful novel, I found the ending slightly irritating, but that is a minor quibble.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson

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The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederick Manning

Manning was born in Australia to an Irish Catholic family. He moved to England in 1898 at the age of sixteen with the Rev Arthur Galton (secretary to the Governor of New South Wales), with whom he had formed a close friendship. They had similar literary interests and tastes and Manning lived with Galton until his death in 1921. Galton became vicar of Edenham in Lincolnshire in 1898. Manning was essentially a man of letters and moved in literary circles, being friends with Beerbohm, Rothstein and Pound before the war. During the war he served throughout and took part in the battle of the Somme. He was in the trenches, becoming a sergeant and a lance corporal, although he had an uneasy relationship with his senior officers. After the war Manning continued to write articles and poetry and became friends with T E Lawrence. The Middle Parts of Fortune was written in the late 1920s. It was originally published as Her Privates We (both titles are quotes from Hamlet Act 2 scene 2 and there is a quote from Shakespeare at the start of every chapter). Authorship was initially credited to Private 19022. The novel uses vernacular language which you would expect soldiers to use; as a result the original text was not published until 1977. Earlier editions toned down the swear words.

The central character in the novel is Bourne (Manning lived near Bourne in Lincolnshire) who is strongly based on Manning himself. Bourne is one of the men, but also feels a sense of difference:

 He was not of their county, he was not even of their country… He felt like an alien among them.”

The novel is very well written and focuses on the day to day grind of the ordinary soldier, in the trenches, being moved around the countryside regularly, doing boring and menial tasks, parading, managing officers (commissioned and non-commissioned) and managing to get the occasional night out. Relationships with the local population are not neglected and are fascinating in themselves. The importance of food and drink stands out; an army marches on its stomach!

There is a lot of humour in the book as well as anger and some of the descriptions are vivid and powerful;

“Bourne, foundering in the viscous mud, was at once the most abject and the most exalted of God’s creatures. The effort and rage in him, the sense that others had left them to it, made him pant and sob, but there was some strange intoxication of joy in it, and again, all his mind seemed focused into one hard bright point of action. The extremities of pain and pleasure had met and coincided too.”

The novel has an emotional impact as the reader gets to know a small group of men and some of the lower rank officers. The men think of themselves as a “fudgein’ fine mob”, Bourne has his own assessment:

“The men … came from farms, and in a lesser measure, from mining villages of no great importance. The simplicity of their outlook on life gave them a certain dignity, because it was free from irrelevances. Certainly they had all the appetites of men, and, in the aggregate, probably embodied most of the vices to which flesh is prone; but they were not preoccupied with their vices and appetites, they could master them with rather a splendid indifference; and even sensuality has its aspect of tenderness. These apparently rude and brutal natures, comforted, encouraged and reconciled each other to fate with a tenderness and tact which was more moving than anything in life … They had been brought to the last extremity of hope, and yet they put their hands on each other’s shoulders and said with a passionate conviction that it would be all right, though they had faith in nothing, but in themselves and in each other,”

The bonds between the men are striking as is their awareness that they are pawns in a game being played by someone else;

 “They don’t know what we’ve got to go through, that’s the truth of it,” said Weeper. “they measure the distance, an’ they count the men, an’ the guns, an’ think a battle’s no’ but a sum you can do wi’ a pencil an’ a bit of’ paper.”

A soldier named Pritchard sees the death of his bed chum, a close friend;

““E were dyin’ so quick you could see it …”elp me up”, ‘e sez, “elp me up.” – “You lie still, chum”, I sez to ‘im, “you’ll be all right presently.” An’ ‘e jes gives me one look, like ‘e were puzzled, an’ ‘e died.

…”Well, anyway”, said Martlow, desperately comforting; “e couldn’t ‘ave felt much, could ‘e, if ‘e said that?”

“I don’t know what ‘e felt” said Pritchard, with slowly filling bitterness, “I know what I felt.” “

There is brutality and tenderness here and the only real battle scene is towards the end of the book; the ending is powerful and very sad. I think this novel does capture the sense of how ordinary soldiers were feeling very well. Bourne is apart in some way with his complex interior life and ambivalence and his analysis of what was going on;

“One could not separate the desire from the dread which restrained it; the strength of one’s hope strove equal the despair which oppressed it; one’s determination could only be measured by the terrors and difficulties which it overcame. All the mean, piddling standards of ordinary life vanished in the collision of these warring opposites. Between them one could only attempt to maintain an equilibrium which every instant disturbed and made unstable.”

A well written and powerful novel, certainly one of the best in this genre.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff

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The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou

This is the fourth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, the title comes from a poem by Georgia Johnson:

“The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,

As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o'er life's turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.”

This volume follows from Angelou from 1957 to 1962, starting in San Francisco and covering Angelou’s time in New York working for Martin Luther King’s organization. After meeting freedom fighter Vusumi Make she moves with him to London, then Cairo. The book ends when Angelou is living in Accra (Ghana). The list of people she meets and works with is impressive and she is very involved with the Civil Rights movement. The book starts with a meeting with Billie Holiday. Her civil rights work in New York leads her to meet and work with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, James Earl Jones, Paule Marshal and Cecily Tyson to name but a few. Malcolm X’s oratorical power comes across;

“Malcolm stood at the microphone. ‘Every person under the sound of my voice is a soldier. You are either fighting for your freedom or betraying the fight for freedom or enlisted in the army to deny somebody else’s freedom.’ His voice, deep and textured, reached through the crowd, across the street to the tenement windows where listeners leaned half their bodies out into the spring air. ‘The black man has been programmed to die. To die either by his own hand, the hand of his brother or at the hand of a blue-eyed devil trained to do one thing: take the black man’s life.’ ”

Angelou consciously writes in the slave narrative tradition, speaking in the first person singular, talking about the first person plural. As you would expect the issue of race is central as Angelou is involved in active political protest. As always Angelou has a focus on relationships; with her son, with lovers and friends. She wrestles with how to bring up her son and on the nature of motherhood for a single black woman;

“The black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion. She questions whether she loves her children enough- or more terribly, does she love them too much? Do her looks cause embarrassment- or even terrifying, is she so attractive her sons begin to desire her and her daughters begin to hate her. If she is unmarried, the challenges are increased. Her singleness indicates she has rejected or has been rejected by her mate. Yet she is raising children who will become mates. Beyond her door, all authority is in the hands of people who do not look or think or act like her children. Teachers, doctors, sales, clerks, policemen, welfare workers who are white and exert control over her family’s moods, conditions and personality, yet within the home, she must display a right to rule which at any moment, by a knock at the door, or a ring in the telephone, can be exposed as false. In the face of this contradictions she must provide a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged.”

 One of the things I like about Angelou is her honesty about herself, her actions and motives. She admits mistakes freely and openly. It has been noted that there is also a sense of journey about the book and comparisons are made by Angelou to On the Road by Kerouac. Angelou emphasizes the sense of journey by quoting a line from spiritual that refers to Noah’s Ark; “The ole ark’s a-moverin.” The journey includes time in Africa and Angelou makes some pointed comparisons with the US. This on landing in Ghana:

“Three black men walked past us wearing airline uniforms, visored caps, white pants and jackets whose shoulders bristled with epaulettes. Black pilots? Black captains? It was 1962. In our country, the cradle of democracy, whose anthem boasted ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave,’ the only black men in our airports fueled planes, cleaned cabins, loaded food or were skycaps, racing the pavement for tips.”


Angelou never loses her sense of humour:

“If more Africans had eaten missionaries, the continent would be in better shape”

I always find Angelou inspiring and am continuing to enjoy her autobiographical excursions.

9 out of 10

Starting Heartburn by Nora Ephron

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All Change Here by Naomi Mitchison

This is the second book of autobiographical writing from Naomi Mitchison and follows on form the first, starting around 1912.

Naomi Mitchison lived from 1897 to 1999 and the range of things she did was breath-taking. She was a feminist who campaigned for birth control, helping to establish the first birth control clinics. Mitchison was a committed socialist and Scottish Nationalist as well as being a renowned historical novelist. A friend of Tolkien, she proof read Lord of the Rings. She also wrote fantasy and science fiction and a series of memoirs. Her early training was in science and with her brother she published the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals in 1915. She travelled a great deal and wrote a number of travelogues. Along the way she also had seven children.

This charts Mitchison taking a place at Oxford in 1914 to study science and spending time with her older brother’s friends. She captures a time of innocence and optimism in the summer of 1914 very well. The war intruded inevitably, although for the first few months there was no real sense of what was to come. That changed when members of her group of friends did not return from war. She married one of her brother’s friends, Dick Mitchison, in 1916.  In 1915 Mitchison became a VAD at St Thomas’s Hospital;

“In 1915, with Dick away I became more and more impatient with Oxford and my own non-involvement. Girls I knew had gone to do 'war work'; one or two were even in munitions factories. And at least I had passed first aid and home nursing examinations and what was more Sister Morag Macmillan had chosen me as the one to whom she could teach massage, feeling the hands of half a dozen girls and rejecting them before taking me on. Whether she knew I had some capacity as a healer which might be brought out is something else again; had she sensed that she would wisely have said nothing about it.

I nagged and nagged and finally went off to be a VAD nurse at St. Thomas's along with May Douie, an Oxford friend whom I did not know very well. I had no idea what a hospital was really like; I doubt if I had ever been inside one. Our friends and relations would never find themselves in a hospital; they went to nursing homes, especially the Acland at Oxford, though there might well be arrangements there for almost free treatment in certain cases. Some nursing homes or small, special hospitals were quite well endowed. So St. Thomas's was something of a shock; the size, the long, clattering corridors and staircases and the huge, undivided wards. Everything was, no doubt, sanitary, but there were no frills.

Of course I made awful mistakes. I had never done real manual household work; I had never used mops and polishes and disinfectants. I was very willing but clumsy. I was told to make tea but hadn't realised that tea must be made with boiling water. All that had been left to the servants.

Once when lifting a heavy patient my collar stud flew out and my stiff collar opened. Oh, dear! At that time we all wore stiff white cuffs, collar and belt into which we stuck our scissors, so much needed for bandages, dressings and sewing. One's blue skirt was ankle length with a long white apron over it. I ought to have had a proper uniform coat to go out in, but my mother had economised on that, thinking my own old one would do as well, but again I got an official scolding.”

Mitchison’s time as a VAD was ended when she caught scarlet fever. She also talks about nursing her husband after he sustained a head injury in a motorbike accident in France. The account ends with the birth of Mitchison’s first child.

Mitchison is an engaging narrator, not underestimating her naivety and how she had been sheltered from many aspects of life. She also charts the beginning of her move away from the beliefs of her childhood and the seeds of the political and feminist radical she became are clear.

 7 and a half out of 10

Starting To The River by Olivia Lang


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Another time, another place by Jessie Kesson

A brief novella, set in rural Scotland late in the Second World War. Born in 1916 Jessie Kesson was Scottish and born in Inverness in the workhouse. She never knew her father and was brought up in by her beloved mother. Her early childhood was spent avoiding the rent man and the Cruelty Inspector (who had the power to remove children to the orphanage if they were being neglected).

There is an autobiographical element to this as Kesson lived and worked on a farm in her early adulthood. The setting is a farm and the main protagonist is a young woman married to a farm worker. She lives in a row of three cottages on the farm and there are other cottages scattered nearby. It is quite an enclosed community. Into this community come three Italian prisoners of war who are billeted on the farm. The story illustrates the role of women in a rural community and the stresses and pressures. The young woman narrator married to an older (though good) man, has ambitions and desires which she is unable to fulfil; she is in prison, though the jailor is kind. However the arrival of the Italians changes things;

“The young woman felt a small surge of anticipation rising up within her at the prospect of the widening of her narrow insular world as a farm worker’s wife, almost untouched by the world war that raged around her. She always felt she was missing out on some tremendous event, never more so than when she caught a glimpse of girls of her own age, resplendent in uniform, setting out for places she would never set eyes on. Or when she caught their laughter-filled whispers of a whirling social life, the like of which she had never known”

The isolation of the small community is illustrated when the three women from the farm go to a local fair in the nearby village;

“It hadn’t been imagination. The young woman realised that the moment she stepped inside the marquee. For, although the village lay little more than a mile away from them, the cottar wives had no real part in its integral life. They could have ‘dropped in’ from another planet, to find themselves invisible, in a marquee. Huddling closely together, they began to wander round the different ‘sections’, their voices rising loud in praise of each and every exhibit on show. As if the sound of themselves could merge within that of the folk who surrounded them.”

The writing is quite sparse and episodic with some sharp descriptions of the daily round of life on the farm. The narrator earns a little extra money by doing odd jobs for the Italians. The young woman develops feelings for the men which worry her as she realises she is as much of a prisoner as they are; probably more so. An inevitable affair ensues. However there is a twist at the end and the ending is complex and open. It’s a good novella, which for me would have benefitted by being longer with more time for character development. Kesson makes some powerful points about the role of women in rural communities and the restrictions on them.

8 out of 10

Starting Bid me to live by H.D.

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A Woman's Place; An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940 by Elizabeth Roberts

This is an interesting study of the lives of working class women in the North West of England in the early twentieth century. It focuses on the towns of Preston, Lancaster and Barrow; all primarily weaving areas. It was published in 1984 and Roberts interviewed 160 older women about their early lives and the communities in which they lived. This is the strength pf the book; the voices of the women interviewed. One woman comments generally about the lot of women;

"They had babies and worked like idiots. They died. They were old at forty."

Themes explored include childhood, childbirth, work, family, neighbours, living conditions, poverty, pay, food, death and much more. Life was difficult and often brutal. Women usually had many babies and infant and childbirth mortality were still quite high. Roberts argues that she found plenty of evidence of the problems of class, but not of patriarchy; an interesting conclusion, which the evidence doesn’t really (for me), bear out. Evidence can always be used in more than one way. This is one woman talking about her father;

“He always had that little wallet at the back that wasn't ours. On a Saturday night he would get ready and put his jewelry on, his gold chain and rings, and what not. He would turn with his back to Mum, like this, to count his money. He had an eye for the ladies when he were out. He used to go to what they called the Long Vaults... Well, we have come a long way since then. “

There are plenty of accounts of stories about drink. There are also of course, stories of strong women working and running households with numerous children. The interviews chart changes in society, there was a decline in drinking over the period in question; mainly brought about by the introduction of licensing hours in the First World War.

This was a period of time before accessible birth control, but there was a decline in the size of families over the period. There is a serious academic debate about the reasons, which Roberts addresses. I’m not qualified to enter into the complexities of the debate, apart from to say that one review of this book points to the unwillingness of demographic historians to take into account what many early feminists clearly knew; women’s resistance to frequent childbirth and the beginnings of a refusal to accept it. The frequent reports of crude and dangerous attempts at abortion outlined by the women interviewed also seems to support this.

This history of women’s lives is well worth reading and the voices we hear are powerful. I didn’t agree with some of the conclusions Roberts reached, but that often adds to the enjoyment.

7 out of 10

Starting H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

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Heartburn by Nora Ephron

“I married him against all evidence. I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in so doing I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being.”

The history and origins of this novel and the subsequent film are a matter of record. It charts the end of Ephron’s marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein. The focus is Bernstein’s affair with Margaret Jay. The characters are very thinly disguised. In the book Ephron’s character (Rachel) explains to her therapist why she is writing about it;

“Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”

So I told her why:

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

Ephron was seven months pregnant when she discovered the affair; the novel charts her reactions and those of her husband. The book is full of one-liners, many of them very funny, some of them later finding their way into the script of “When Harry Met Sally”. The comment about her husband being the sort of man who could “have sex with a Venetian blind” illustrates Ephron’s turn of phrase. The inability of men to find things in the kitchen;

“And if you say to him…’in the refrigerator’… and he goes to look, an interesting thing happens, a medical phenomenon that has not been sufficiently remarked upon. The effect of the refrigerator light on the male cornea. Blindness….. ‘I don’t see it anywhere.'”

There are some very funny moments, the key lime pie, the hamsters in her first marriage, the group therapy session.

Amongst the humour is raw pain and this is a story of survival and there is a sense of the sadness of it when Rachel says that the most difficult thing will be forgetting being in love. But this is also part cookbook as in the novel Rachel is a food writer (this is from Ephron’s sister Delia), there are a number of recipes dotted around the place as well.

I enjoyed the ironic and biting humour, but there was one niggle for me. We have made racist language unacceptable and progress has been made towards making homophobic and sexist language unacceptable. It does seem though that we still think it is ok to deride those with mental ill health and make jokes about “loony bins”. I am old enough to remember the old hospitals where we used to “warehouse” people in the UK and spent some time volunteering in one when I was at university. We still have a long way to go in this area.

Apart from that caveat’ this was funny.

7 out of 10

Starting The Eyrie by Stevie Davies

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In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff


This is a history of the 1917 third battle of Ypres (also known as the battle of Passchendaele). What is somewhat different about this history is that it tries to cover not only tactics and the views of the generals and politicians, but also the soldiers on the ground. Although it must be said that the majority of the discussion centres on Haig and his battle with Prime Minister Lloyd-George, who opposed Haig’s tactics. I’m not really interested in military tactics, but it is fascinating and horrifying to read the arguments of generals as they play dice with the lives of men.

When he puts his mind to it Wolff can capture scenes and give a glimpse of life at the front, as with this description of the aftermath of a battle;

“As the fighting simmered down, the waste products of the battle, like the precipitate in a cloudy glass, moved rearward - the walking wounded and the stretcher-borne wounded ('very cheery indeed,' according to Haig's diary), soaked, bloody, haggard with pain; the shrouded dead; the vague and stumbling shell-shocked. One artillery lieutenant had been struck in the throat by a bit of shrapnel. As the blood gushed, he walked 100 yards to a dressing station near Zillebeke, gasped to a doctor, 'My God, I'm going to die!' and immediately did so. The stretcher-bearers worked all day and night, helped by German prisoners, who had also begun to filter back early in the day - surprisingly young boys and older, grimmer veterans - all with sunken eyes, sodden clothing, boots full of water that squished at every step.”

There are vivid descriptions of the terrain and especially of the mud, which was so deep that men drowned in it. When one officer was asked to consolidate his advanced position, his response was;

"It is impossible to consolidate porridge. Trenches full of liquid mud. Smelt horribly. Full of dead Frenchmen too bad to touch. Men quite nauseated."

It is difficult to comprehend the full horror of that statement.

Wolff is probably trying to do too much with this book, but parts of it are interesting. There is a good deal of analysis of the characters of those in leadership roles, which has its place, but doesn’t sit easily with the descriptions of the front. Personally I prefer the literary explorations of the war.

6 out of 10

Starting Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams

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The Bone People by Keri Hulme

This was twelve years in the writing and was rejected by many publishers. It defies easy description and is very much set in the interface between Maori and western culture. There is complexity in the structure and a dose of magic realism at the end. The character of Kerewin Holmes is a remarkable creation who jumps out of the page.

The novel revolves around three characters. Kerewin Holmes is a solitary woman living in a tower, a painter who does not paint and who is estranged from her family. Joe is the adoptive father of Simon, a boy washed up on the beach, who isn’t able to speak and who has considerable behavioural problems and no sense of personal property. Joe has relatively recently lost his wife and child and he is now bringing up Simon alone. In this he is struggling and he is physically abusive and violent towards Simon.

Hulme is a great storyteller and her descriptions are vivid;

''watching the blood sky swell and grow, dyeing the rainclouds ominously, making the far edge of the sea blistered and scarlet''

There is a musicality and rhythm to it all; Hulme switches perspectives between her characters and mixes poetry with prose, also mixing English with indigenous Maori language.

There are lots of themes. All of the main characters are isolated. A sense of home and family life is often seen as something to be strived for as Simon thinks;

“He had endured it all. Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it. Provided that at the end he could go home.  ……if he can’t go home, he might as well not be. They might as well not be, because they only make sense together. We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken.”

Hulme has said that interwoven threads is one of her favourite images in the novel. Hulme has taken two elements of postcolonial literature, language and magic realism and uses them to good effect.

One issue that cannot be avoided is the violence by Joe towards Simon. When Hulme writes the violence she strips back the language and makes it very stark. Hulme herself is very clear about why she did this; to address an issue in New Zealand. Hulme has stated that violence towards children was a “pervasive social problem in New Zealand, among Maoris and Pakeha . . .  and she had written the bone people in part to draw attention to it”

Hulme gives the reader nowhere to go with this; Joe by being violent loses his Maori language and sides with the Pakeha, the western colonizers. His attempt to destroy Simon seems linked to the destruction of Maori culture. His redemption is linked to his rediscovery of his roots and culture. I only found this partially convincing; male violence is male violence, wherever it is found.

I must admit that I did struggle with some aspects of the ending, but the writing and language is captivating.

8 out of 10


Starting The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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Gloria by Kerry Young

This is the second of Kerry Young’s trilogy of historical novels about twentieth century Jamaica. The first novel, Pao, focussed on race and colour. Gloria deals with the same story and characters, but deals with gender and sexuality. Young is on record as saying that she wants to show there are many Jamaicas and showing the political and social issues and their impact (including slavery and colonialism).

“A hundred years ago they free the slave, but they nuh free the woman” The novel opens in 1938 when a sixteen year old Gloria beats to death a man who has abused her and has started to abuse her younger sister. They both move to Kingston to get away and start a new life and the story begins to intersect with Pao. Stretching over several decades and covering recent Jamaican history. Gloria also looks at what is happening to Cuba, comparing it to Jamaican politics.

As in the first book prostitution and racketeering are part of the background; the novel takes us through the end of colonial rule and through the changes of the sixties and seventies. The role and place of women is central and Young explores sexuality; relations between men and women and also between women and women.

I really enjoyed this novel, I didn’t find the dialect problematic and Young writes with zest and humour. The characters are engaging and not at all two dimensional. It does help to have read Pao and Gloria fills in a few gaps in the first novel. Seeing the same events from two points of view is also very illuminating. I’m looking forward to the final novel in the trilogy.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Show me a Mountain by Kerry Young

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