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A Book Blog 2022 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Europe Central by William Vollmann

“In olden times, wars were waged by heroes who admired one another but found themselves forced by fate or blood revenge to do each other harm. In our time, we fought for hateful ogres against other ogres equally hateful.” 

This is Vollmann focussing on mid-century Eastern Europe. The eastern front in the Second World War is at the centre of the book and Vollmann switches between a Soviet perspective and a German one. There are multiple voices on both sides, including Shostakovich, Roman Karmen, Anna Akhmatova, two generals (Paulus and Vlasov) and numerous others. Vollmann is very clear this is a work of fiction, saying that his seven dreams books are much more historical. I’m not sure I’m going to give him that, but he is known for his meticulous research. There is certainly an underying skeleton of historical fact and the book contains a mind-boggling array of facts and historical detail.

Vollmann examines the differing fanaticisms of the Nazis and Soviets and the timelines of the fifty different stories range from the 1930s to as late as the 1970s, although most focus on the War. This is almost a series of novellas. Some of them concern Shostakovich, his music and his tense and difficult relationship with the state and the party. Special attention is paid to Opus 110:

“Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best in an airless room—correctly speaking, a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots—the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody. The soul strips itself of life in a dusty room.

There is also an examination of the holocaust through the eyes of Kurt Gerstein, a rather contradictory SS officer. We get a lot of responses to totalitarianism.

The novel also pivots around the Battle of Stalingrad, exploring its mythic status and the reactions of the generals involved:

“at Stalingrad it was not only the Russian will, but the whole world’s assessment of Germany’s power which was at stake. To withdraw from the field of battle would be an admission or defeat which though it might be acceptable to a detached and calculating military professional, was unthinkable “in the cosmic orientation of world power forces,” as Schwerin von Krosigk might have put it”

This work is challenging and for many authors this would be their magnum opus. It’s probably average length for Vollmann and nowhere near the over three thousand pages of his reflection on violence Rising Up and Rising Down. It does help to have a little background knowledge before reading this, but there are lots of notes and sources. Having studied all this in the historical context some forty years ago, I did appreciate Vollmann’s approach to this and got a good deal out of it. I still think Grossman’s Life and Fate is better, but this is good.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Virginia Woolf in Manhattan

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A Ghost in the Throat by  Doireann Ni Ghriofa

 

I found this in the horror and supernatural section of my local bookshop, probably because of the following quote on the back:

“When we first met, I was a child and she had been dead for centuries.”

It is not that sort of ghost story, it’s about the author’s relationship to an eighteenth century lament for the dead, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill a woman mourning her husband. The story goes that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill was married with a young child and one on the way when her husband was murdered (he was Catholic, his murderers were Protestant and part of the establishment). She rushed to the scene and found him bleeding out, in her grief she drank his blood and composed the lament. Ní Ghríofa becomes obsessed with the poem and its author, about whom little is known. It is not known when she died or where she is buried. She was a relative of Daniel O’Connell. Ní Ghríofa researches her life and the poem and ends the book with her own translation of the poem (It wasn’t written in English).  

This is how the book begins:

“This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores.

This is a female text borne of guilt and desire, stitched to a soundtrack of cartoon nursery rhymes.

This is a female text and it is a tiny miracle that it even exists, as it does in this moment, lifted to another consciousness by the ordinary wonder of type. Ordinary, too, the ricochet of thought that swoops, now, from my body to yours.

This is a female text, written in the twenty-first century. How late it is. How much has changed. How little.

This is a female text, which is also a caoineadh: a dirge and a drudge song, an anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo, a chorus and a hymn. Join in.”

The research and writing was done over a period of years when Ní Ghríofa was pregnant or breastfeeding or both. There is a good deal about both in the book, combined with some good prose (Ní Ghríofa is a poet) and some impressive scholarship, published by Tramp Press. The book weaves together Ní Ghríofa’s own life, her research and the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.

There is an elevation of a little known female poet and her striking poem, which is combined with a celebration of domesticity and motherhood. As well as being biography, memoir, auto fiction and history it can’t be separated from the interior life and personality of the author. There is a good deal of speculative imagination about what might have been:

“I try to imagine the small treasures of her days, all she saw and took joy in: watching her sons begin to run, to ride, to read, their faces lit with Art’s old smile. The flight of bats and swallows. The branches reaching higher each year, their leaves turning gold, falling, and then budding green again.

All the remembered fragments of her dreams, all her frustrations, her money worries, her lists, her days of egg-pains and brass-polishing … her days of brave faces and darning … her days of loneliness, her days of laundry. Her children, waving back at her from the garden … always waving as they leave.”

 

This is an original and unusual book, it can feel claustrophobic at times, but the subject and the way it is approached make it worthwhile.

9 out of 10

Starting The Whispering House by Elizabeth Brooks

 

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Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Braddon

This is another fortuitous find from Virago Modern Classics. You never quite know what you might find with some of the lesser known works. I picked this up in a job lot. Braddon herself was a prolific writer of sensationalist novels, over eighty in all.

This was published in 1862 and is what was known as a sensationalist novel and there was plenty of sensation. It was actually loosely based on a real life case. There is bigamy, arson, child desertion, attempted murder (more than once) and lots of deception and wickedness. There are also questions about sanity and the reader is left to make up their own minds about that. It shatters the Victorian conception of domestic bliss. There are questions about gender and class. There was apparently a TV version in 2000 which seems to have passed me by entirely.

The questions about class and social mobility are relevant, especially in relation to Lady Audley who was born in poverty:

““Poverty—poverty, trials, vexations, humiliations, deprivations. You cannot tell; you, who are among those for whom life is so smooth and easy, you can never guess what is endured by such as we. Do not ask too much of me, then. I cannot be disinterested; I cannot be blind to the advantages of such an alliance. I cannot, I cannot!”

Beyond her agitation and her passionate vehemence, there is an undefined something in her manner which fills the baronet with a vague alarm. She is still on the ground at his feet, crouching rather than kneeling, her thin white dress clinging about her, her pale hair streaming over her shoulders, her great blue eyes glittering in the dusk, and her hands clutching at the black ribbon about her throat, as if it had been strangling her. “Don’t ask too much of me,” she kept repeating; “I have been selfish from my babyhood.””

This is a page turner with a touch of the gothic about it. Lady Audley makes a good villain, unfortunately the hero is pretty irritating and I was beginning to hope something nasty would happen to him. There are questions about the male gaze too as most of the males in the book seem to fall in love with Lady Audley because of her looks. It’s a bit over sentimental times, but I enjoyed it and it’s quite fun to watch out for the plot twists, you’ll trip over them!

7 out of 10

Starting The Wing of Azrael by Mona Caird

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The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

Set in Somalia in 1987-1988 during Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorship it is the story of three women. There is Deqo, a street child, used to fending for herself in a refugee camp and living with and cared for by prostitutes. Kawsar is an older woman, now bed bound following being assaulted by a female soldier at a police station. Finally, Filsan, a thirty year old soldier from Mogadishu. At the beginning of the novel their lives intersect at a large outdoor meeting to honour the dictator with long lasting consequences. There is then a section for each of the protagonists which looks at their past and present. At the end of the novel their lives intersect again.

When Mohamed does do well is write people in isolation and these are the strongest parts of the book. The inter relationships are sometimes violent as well as supportive. At times there is a lightness of touch to this which works well. There was also the feel of a nineteenth century novel, rather slimmed down though and I certainly felt it could easily have been two or three times the length with more space for the author to explore her themes. The backdrop is a civil war and rebellion which is bloody and relentless, “totally ordinary yet irrevocably depraved”.

The novel is written well and there is a good sense of place and the primary focus is the effect of civil war on women and on female agency and resilience. There are flaws and the ending is a bit neat, but it will please some. It’s worth reading.

7 out of 10

Starting Rebel Englishwoman by Elsabe Brits

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Cannonball by Joseph McElroy

It’s been a while since I read any McElroy and I did enjoy Smugglers Bible. This is a more recent novel, published in 2013 and is about the Iraq War, amongst other things: the novel takes place in California and Iraq.

The main character is Zach who is an army photographer and we follow him (sort of chronologically, but this is McElroy) from his teenage years when he is a very good high diver (there’s rather a lot about diving and in his youth McElroy was a diver). His friend Umo pops up periodically, he happens to be an unusually gifted diver, despite what should be some obvious physical limitations. Whilst Zach is taking photographs at a captured palace in Iraq the swimming pool explodes and Zach discovers underneath in a series of tubes/pipes some ancient scrolls. The scrolls contain what appears to be a sort of gospel which extols prosperity and an interview with what appears to be Jesus praising a sort of free market doctrine. Throw in Zach’s sister Em (with whom he has a more then platonic relationship) and a developing conspiracy theory and there you have it. An American Republican style Jesus with the scrolls as “weapons of mass instruction”. The narrative and dialogue are often chopped and disjointed and McElroy employs what is pretty much a stream of consciousness approach.

This is a satire and this is how McElroy himself describes it:

“If I were to put my finger to one cause for the novel, it was anger of the Iraq war that led me to the strangeness of things that happened.  Although, I am not a practicing Christian, I was angry at the self-righteousness of the government. They undoubtedly embedded a pretext for entering the war--I made up another kind of pretext for getting into the war. What I made up was partly based upon a big event in archeology back to 1947, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered on the shore of the Dead Sea. I made up whole kinds of new scrolls. Which, in this case, the government concocts, wants to protect, and sets up intent to destruction of the scrolls by terrorists. It is in that situation that the main character is drawn. The burden of these scrolls is that Jesus is not the person we know, but a yuppie with capitalistic acclamations—thus suiting the mindset of the American government as I saw it.

It’s clever and well written stuff and it takes some effort to follow, but it does hit its targets.

7 out of 10

Starting Urban Outcasts by Loic Wacquant

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Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

I haven’t read any Gaskell since my teens and this is one of her less well known novels, which caused a good deal of controversy when published. It’s certainly a slice of high Victoriana.

“The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities.”

It deals with one of the favourite topics of the time, “fallen women” and is the story of Ruth Hilton a girl who is orphaned fairly young and is working in what can only be described as a sweat shop. Ruth has an interminably good and sweet nature and is very trusting. Ruth meets a rake of the upper class variety and falls for his charm. The inevitable happens (she is abandoned) and Ruth loses her position and is homeless, contemplating taking her own life. She is found by a dissenting minister, Mr Benson, who rescues her. It was good incidentally that one of the main characters who is one of the heroes of the tale has a disability. Ruth is taken in by Benson, his sister and their servant and they invent a story that she is a widow. Her son Leonard is born and the rest of the novel is the working out of this beginning. Some of the characters are very strict and moralistic and it is clear throughout that Ruth could not have had any sort of life had the truth been initially known. Ruth is almost unbelievably good throughout, but don’t expect conventional happy endings.

There is a strong religious thread throughout and Gaskell explores the themes of fallenness and redemption. In doing this she highlights the double standards between men and women. The religious background enables Gaskell to put the Madonna/'lady of the night' dichotomy into one character. There is even a bit of a pandemic at the end which was interesting, especially the way Gaskell uses it.

This caused some controversy at the time, however tame it may seem to us and there was some burning of it. Gaskell herself wrote:

“Of course it is a prohibited book in this, as in many other households; not a book for young people, unless read with someone older… but I have spoken out my mind in the best way I can, and I have no doubt that what was meant so earnestly must do some good, though perhaps not all the good, or not the very good I meant.”

It’s a good example of Gaskell’s approach as a crusading novelist and it was good to read her again after all these years.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

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The Fall of the Imam by Nawal El Saadawi

A novel by someone who should have won the Nobel prize, but didn’t. El Saadawi examines religious hypocrisy. The novel is set in an unnamed Islamic country and there are two central characters. One is the Imam, a religious leader of a country. He is a cruel hypocrite, imposing standards he doesn’t maintain himself. The other is Bint Allah (daughter of God), an illegitimate orphan, possibly the daughter of the Imam. The narrative rotates and moves backwards and forwards. It isn’t linear and revolves around two events. Firstly the stoning of a woman and secondly the assassination of the Imam.

The narrative moves between persons and is experimental; the two events are retold and this can be confusing until the reader realises what is going on. Bint Allah is where the real focus lies with her attempts to make sense of it all:

“We know nothing about our fathers or our mothers. We were called the Children of God, and I was called Bint Allah, the Daughter of God. I had never seen God face to face, yet I thought He was my father and that my mother was His wife.” 

This is the second book that I have reviewed this week that has been burnt! The role of religion is central and El Saadawi had strong views on religion:

‘if the power of religious groups increases, so does the oppression of women. Women are oppressed in all religions.’

This isn’t easy or straightforward and it has some elements of magic realism and there are links to The Thousand and One Nights. At one level of course The Imam is Sadat but he also represents all religious totalitarianism and male patriarchy. Not an easy read but worthwhile.

8 out of 10

Starting Happiness, like water by Chinelo Okparanta

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On 11/03/2022 at 7:01 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

There was apparently a TV version in 2000 which seems to have passed me by entirely.

I didn’t know that either! I really enjoyed Lady Audley’s Secret when I read it last year. Agree that the narrator was a very annoying character at times  but I didn’t actually want anything bad to happen to him. (Actually, thinking about it, most of the characters were annoying in some way!)

 

On 25/03/2022 at 7:45 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

I want to read this too but am aware that it’s probably going to be frustrating in the same way as Tess of the D’urbervilles…

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Hayley: I'm glad I read Ruth, but as you say there are drawbacks

The Whispering House by Elizabeth Brooks

I enjoyed the first novel I read by Brooks, The Call of the Curlew. This one I didn’t enjoy. It is supposed to be gothic and chilling with a build-up of tension. Again I didn’t find it so. The plot is straightforward. Freya is in her early 20s and she goes to a wedding at a country house on the coast, close to where her elder sister Stella committed suicide five years earlier. Having drunk a little too much she sneaks into the house to rest. There she sees a portrait of Stella: as far as Freya is aware Stella had nothing to do with the house. Living in the house are Cory, a rather mediocre artist and his mother. Freya decides to investigate and inevitably ends up in a relationship with Cory. It was not a surprise to discover things were not as they seemed. Cory turns out to be manipulative and controlling and possibly may know more about Stella than he lets on. It’s meant to be a thriller. But it is very predictable and the twist at the end just makes it worse.

There is an element of the horror film where the watcher says “Don’t open the door/cupboard, don’t turn round”. But it isn’t horror, or gothic. It’s rather tedious with the twist at the end implying that it isn’t really the poor abusive bloke’s fault!

4 out of 10

Starting Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tocarczuk

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Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee

What to make of this. The premise is simple: novelist Angela Lamb is preparing to deliver a paper on Woolf at a conference in Istanbul by doing some reading in the Berg collection at New York Public Library. As she is thinking about Woolf, the woman herself appears somewhat damp and disoriented in the library. She is promptly ejected and Angela rescues her and shows her round New York (obviously resurrected novelists being an everyday occurrence). It’s a straightforward idea, two novelists, past and present interacting. Woolf learning about the modern world, internet (looking herself up), modern food, shopping and bickering with Lamb. The action moves from New York to Istanbul to the Woolf conference. The idea of Woolf attending a Woolf conference is quite interesting. There is a sub plot. Lamb’s daughter Gerda (rather neglected) is at a private school. She is 14 and being bullied and her mother isn’t in contact very often. Gerda (and yes we are in Anderson’s Snow Queen territory) decides to track down her mother and manages to get to New York just after her mother and Woolf have left for Istanbul. She has some adventures with a gang of street kids and then manages to get to the conference in Istanbul. There’s a bit of magic realism and the ending is open. Woolf, in Istanbul ends up in bed with a footman and possibly a chambermaid (possibly at the same time).

This is a mixed bag. Lamb is not very likeable as a character and how on earth do you make Woolf coping with modern life believable. However there is some humour and playfulness. There are some Woolf references; the lighthouse is replaced by the Aja Sophia and there’s plenty of Orlando dotted about.

There is a paucity of discussion about Woolf’s works, and this is quite a conversational book. As the Guardian reviewer put it (and she didn’t like this), “It’s like bringing Abe Lincoln back to talk about beards”!

I did find myself asking the question “Why?” on several occasions. It’s a bit muddled in some ways, but it is an homage. I didn’t hate it, but there are lots of missed opportunities mixed in with some sharp and funny moments along with a passionate plea (based on A Room of One’s Own) for creative female writing. 

6 out of 10

Starting Kith and Kin by Stevie Davies

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I had much the same reaction to Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. I read it some time ago so can't remember the exact details but I know I was disappointed, the reviews had been uniformly glowing though the reality didn't match up.

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Yes, it was certainly an odd one!

Rebel Englishwoman by Elsabe Brits

I wonder how many people know about Emily Hobhouse. She was certainly not someone I heard of in school and still remains little known in this country. During her lifetime she was often reviled in England by the press and politicians. Her first years were unremarkable and until she was 34 she cared for her father. He died in 1894. Following a brief and unsuccessful romance she became involved in the movement for peace following the outbreak of the Boer War. She learnt of the policies of the government which were causing distress to the civilian population. What the army was doing was using a scorched earth policy, destroying farms and villages and putting the residents into camps: these came to be known as concentration camps. Another great British invention! Hobhouse was the first to highlight how appalling they were. Deaths in the camps are estimated at over fifty thousand.

In 1900, having helped to raise money to relieve distress, Hobhouse went to South Africa to have a look for herself. She had relatives in the Liberal Party and had managed to get permission to visit. Once there she had to get permission to visit the camps from Lord Kitchener who was in charge. He reluctantly agreed to allow her to visit a limited number of camps (a decision he came to regret).

The conditions she found were appalling:

“In some camps, two, and even three sets of people, occupy one tent and 10, and even 12, persons are frequently herded together in tents of which the cubic capacity is about 500 c.f.

I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty… To keep these Camps going is murder to the children.

It can never be wiped out of the memories of the people. It presses hardest on the children. They droop in the terrible heat, and with the insufficient unsuitable food; whatever you do, whatever the authorities do, and they are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means, it is all only a miserable patch on a great ill.

Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. I was at the camp to-day, and just in one little corner this is the sort of thing I found – The nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls–cooking as well as nursing to do herself. Next tent, a six months' baby gasping its life out on is mother's knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent.

Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can't describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing.

It was a splendid child and it dwindled to skin and bone ... The baby had got so weak it was past recovery. We tried what we could but today it died. It was only 3 months but such a sweet little thing… It was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out, with a white flower in its wee hand. To me it seemed a "murdered innocent". And an hour or two after another child died. Another child had died in the night, and I found all three little corpses being photographed for the absent fathers to see some day.”

 

Hygiene was poor, people were starving and disease was rampant. Hobhouse was shocked and angry and vowed to do something about it. She made a nuisance of herself to try to improve conditions. There were camps for different races and she visited at least one of those. Death rates were high in them all and she reported back to the British authorities with limited success. On her return to Britain she wrote, harried politicians and spoke at public meetings. She received some support in Liberal circles but mostly the press were very critical as were much of the public and the government. She was thought unpatriotic and anti-British. However the government couldn’t entirely ignore her and appointed a commission to investigate. Hobhouse tried to return to South Africa in 1901, but was promptly deported when she arrived. After the war she did go back to organise relief work, setting up charities to provide oxen and ploughs for farmers and training skills for women.

As time went on Hobhouse began to become more distanced from some of her South African friends, especially those in government as they began to consider segregationist policies then years later turned into Apartheid, although Hobhouse has always been more celebrated and commemorated in South Africa. She met Gandhi in 1913. He wrote to her

“It was during the Boer war that I came to admire your selfless devotion to Truth, and I have often felt how nice it would be if the Indian cause could plead before you for admission”

During the First World War Hobhouse was defiantly pacifist, falling out with some of her suffragist friends who supported the war. During the war she even travelled to Germany (via Switzerland and without permission) to see their prison camps and to see if there was a chance of peace talks. The British government were not impressed and the press accused her of treason. She had left the Liberals by now and was very much a socialist. After the war she went to Germany (Leipzig) to campaign for support and relief for those left destitute by the war, campaigning in her usual fashion.

Hobhouse is well remembered and respected in South Africa and in parts of Germany and pretty much forgotten in Britain.

This is a competent and well researched biography of a woman who was frequently a thorn in the side of the male establishment

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Muse by Jessie Burton

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Happiness Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

A collection of ten short stories, set variously in Nigeria and the US. These are all excellent a real breath of fresh air and Okparanta has a novel out later this year. The stories are On Ohaeto Street, Wahala, Fairness, Story Story!, Runs Girl, America, Shelter, Grace, Design and Tumours and Butterflies.

"Happiness is like water, we're always trying to grab onto it, but it's always slipping between our fingers."

The stories focus on home, with food an underlying theme throughout. Cultural expectations and concerns are set against personal interests. Marriage is a burden rather than a boon, queer relationships are still risky but cannot be kept down and domestic abuse echoes through the years. Religion plays a role in some of them. There are surprising and unexpected characters (one of the most homicidal is really unexpected). Decision making tends to come from mothers and husbands. Violence is sometimes (not always) muted. The stories really resonate, the prose is great and Okparanta excels at creating a sense of dread without being too explicit.

There is hope as well:

“And I think perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun is high in the sky.  The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold. Grace is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its own form of happiness.”

And:

“And sometimes I think that if I were to be placed in a valley full of bones, I would create a new Eve, create her from a new set of bones. And I would lay sinews upon her dry bones, and flesh upon the sinews. And I would cause there to be a noise, a clicking noise, and everything would fall in place. And I would cause breath to enter in, and this new Eve would live.
And this new Eve would walk amongst the trees of the garden. And she would drink from the waters of the river of the garden. And again, she would eat the forbidden fruit. But she would not be cast away from the garden, because she would be given the opportunity, just once, to ask for forgiveness. And she would be forgiven.”

Some of the best short stories I have read in a long time.

9 out of 10

Starting The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

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I Wanna be Yours by John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke, punk poet and the Bard of Salford is in danger of becoming a national treasure. I remember him from the 70s and from assorted TV appearances. He’s even on the GCSE curriculum these days! In this autobiography he is engaging and pretty honest (irritating as well). He’s done a great deal and drops a lot of names. Clarke is also very keen on lists: there are a lot of them. Another speciality is clothing and fashion, something he takes very seriously. He also charts his struggles with heroin addiction in the 1980s. The lists of people he knows and has worked with is impressive, from Bernard Manning to Gil Scot-Heron, from The Clash to Nico, from Plan B to Chuck Berry to list a very few. His working class roots are clear and make a fascinating tale.

Clarke, as you would expect is a wordsmith and this is easy to read. He appears quite self-deprecating and seems to appeal to all ages. He recounts the time he met the Arctic Monkeys, who told him they had studied his poems at school: he is over 70 now. He seems to have been one of the few to have had a good relationship with Mark E Smith of The Fall, possibly because he knew him when Smith was at school and he rates them as well:

“I’ve worked with the best of them, but The Fall I would watch night in, night out. Each performance seemed unique.”

Clarke is no saint and he has his flaws, but he recounts a life well lived. This is a tale well told with lots of self-deprecating one liners, but Clarke’s voice is remarkable and he has to be heard. Some of his early stuff is raw and angry, like Beasley Street:

 

Far from crazy pavements – 
The taste of silver spoons
A clinical arrangement
On a dirty afternoon
Where the fecal germs of Mr Freud
Are rendered obsolete
The legal term is null and void
In the case of Beasley Street

 

In the cheap seats where murder breeds
Somebody is out of breath
Sleep is a luxury they don’t need
– a sneak preview of death
Belladonna is your flower
Manslaughter your meat
Spend a year in a couple of hours
On the edge of Beasley Street

 

Where the action isn’t
That’s where it is
State your position
Vacancies exist
In an X-certificate exercise
Ex-servicemen excrete
Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies
In a box on Beasley Street

 

From the boarding houses and the bedsits
Full of accidents and fleas
Somebody gets it
Where the missing persons freeze
Wearing dead men’s overcoats
You can’t see their feet
A riff joint shuts – opens up
Right down on Beasley Street

 

Cars collide, colours clash
Disaster movie stuff
For a man with a Fu Manchu moustache
Revenge is not enough
There’s a dead canary on a swivel seat
There’s a rainbow in the road
Meanwhile on Beasley Street
Silence is the code

 

Hot beneath the collar
An inspector calls
Where the perishing stink of squalor
Impregnates the walls
The rats have all got rickets
They spit through broken teeth
The name of the game is not cricket
Caught out on Beasley Street

 

The hipster and his hired hat
Drive a borrowed car
Yellow socks and a pink cravat
Nothing La-di-dah
OAP, mother to be
Watch the three-piece suite
When shhhhhhh-stoppered drains
And crocodile skis
Are seen on Beasley Street

 

The kingdom of the blind
A one-eyed man is king
Beauty problems are redefined
The doorbells do not ring
A lightbulb bursts like a blister
The only form of heat
Here a fellow sells his sister
Down the river on Beasley Street

 

The boys are on the wagon
The girls are on the shelf
Their common problem is
That they’re not someone else
The dirt blows out
The dust blows in
You can’t keep it neat
It’s a fully furnished dustbin,
Sixteen Beasley Street

 

Vince the ageing savage
Betrays no kind of life
But the smell of yesterday’s cabbage
And the ghost of last year’s wife
Through a constant haze
Of deodorant sprays
He says retreat
Alsations dog the dirty days
Down the middle of Beasley Street

 

People turn to poison 
Quick as lager turns to wee
Sweethearts are physically sick
Every time they kiss.
It’s a sociologist’s paradise
Each day repeats
On easy, cheesy, greasy, queasy
Beastly Beasley Street

 

Eyes dead as vicious fish
Look around for laughs
If I could have just one wish
I would be a photograph
On a permanent Monday morning
Get lost or fall asleep
When the yellow cats are yawning
Around the back of Beasley Street

8 out of 10

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Drive your plow over the bones of the dead by Olga Tokarczuk

A novel from Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk. The title is from Blake:

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.

This novel is an amalgam of a number of things centered on an unreliable narrator, a woman in her 60s in poor health, Janina Duszejko. Variously it is a murder mystery/whodunit, an animal rights tract, an homage to Blake, pro-vegetarian, a feminist comedy with a gothic edge, an astrological handbook and even an existentialist fable. Each chapter is also headed by a Blake quotation.

Janina lives in a remote Polish village and does some odd jobs. She has some equally unusual friends: someone who assists her to translate Blake, an entomologist, a shopkeeper call GoodNews and someone living nearby who did odd jobs and was inevitably called Oddball. Janina’s reflections are sometimes amusing. This one is about age:

“already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night”

Sometimes they are tremendously sad. There is a thread of passion for the wellbeing of animals running through it:

 “Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

And

“What sort of a world is this? Someone’s body is made into shoes, into meatballs, sausages, a bedside rug, someone’s bones are boiled to make broth … Shoes, sofas, a shoulder bag made from someone’s belly, keeping warm with someone else’s fur, eating someone’s body, cutting it into bits and frying it in oil … Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?

Those who are murdered and are prominent citizens and hunters. But this is not a traditional murder mystery:

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish”

Not surprisingly Tokarczuk has come in for some criticism for her stances, but I must admit that I enjoyed this, the metaphors are a delight and the whole is wonderfully eccentric and life enhancing (despite the death and mayhem).

9 out of 10

Starting Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich

 

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Posted (edited)

I've had this on my list (in Amazon's save-until-later shopping basket, actually) for ages and am looking forward to it. I'm glad that you liked it.

Edited by lunababymoonchild

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I certainly did, just gone and bought Flights!

Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

The second chronologically in the Lonesome Dove series, but the last one to be written.

“See this page of paper? It’s blank,” Scull said. “That, sir, is the most frightening battlefield in the world: the blank page. I mean to fill this paper with decent sentences, sir—this page and hundreds like it. Let me tell you, Colonel, it’s harder than fighting Lee. Why, it’s harder than fighting Napoleon. It requires unremitting attention,”

“I suppose she's just dying of living--that's the one infection that strikes us all down, sooner or later.”

This is better than the first in the series. Mc Murtry does build characters well and like Martin in Game of Thrones, has no compunction in killing them off if he needs to. Call and McCrae although present throughout are not the standout characters (Inish Scull manages that). However the ongoing relationship between them is interesting. McMurtry indicates it is straight from Don Quixote; the juxtaposition between the visionary and the practical.

Beatriz Fernandez, in a PhD looking at masculinity in McMurtry and James Welch’s portrayal of the West makes the following rather interesting comment about Call’s character:

“He is the epitome of the Westerner, a Christian by birth who has adopted Christian aesthetics but has rejected Christian religion: an Indian by choice who unconsciously imitates the former’s pose and character but rejects Native American pantheism and the belief in the individual as part of a wider totality. Lack of spiritual and emotional anchors inevitably lead the Westerner to his death.”

The timeline covers the 1850s and 1860s, though it is a little fuzzy. The time period covers the expansion led by settlers and encroachment onto Indian lands; the decline and death of a way of life and the struggles and conflict that surround it.

But what of the representation of the Comanche. How far have we come since John Wayne said the following?

"I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Indians], if that's what you're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Was there any moving on from the colonial framing of Indian savagery? McMurtry does try to focus on spirituality and connection to the land and its animals. There is some subtlety in the character of Buffalo Hump, much less in Blue Duck, but it could be argued that he was taking on some of the characteristics of the settlers. There is, I feel a sense that the Native American is either homicidal or spiritual with not much in between. It may be an improvement on John Wayne as quoted above, but the portrayal made me uneasy and made me wonder whether there are any other narratives from a Native American source.

7 out of 10

Starting They came like swallows by William Maxwell

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Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Feminism

Cobbe was a feminist journalist working from the 1850s to the 1880s/90s. She wrote a substantial amount of articles on a variety of subjects. Here Hamilton provides a comprehensive study and analysis of her writing. It isn’t a biography (mores the pity as I knew little about her).

Cobbe campaigned on a number of issues including reform of matrimonial law, domestic abuse, divorce, women’s suffrage, animal rights, women’s education (and university attendance), vivisection and temperance. She was in a relationship with the Welsh Sculptor Mary Lloyd for over thirty years. She wasn’t a fan of marriage but was also critical of bohemianism in women, her focus being on morals and ethics, which makes her seem quite conservative at times. She was ambivalent about suffrage as she felt that ultimately it wasn’t the answer that many women argued it would be.

Her most consistent and concentrated work was in relation to the legal reforms of the 1860s and 70s in relation to marriage, divorce and domestic abuse. She was able to argue her case in pithy and to the point ways as illustrated here as she employs the concept of a visitor to Britain knowing nothing about its laws:

“Pardon me; I must seem to you so stupid! Why is the property of the woman who commits Murder, and the property of the woman who commits Matrimony, dealt with alike by your law?”

Periodically Cobbe also involved herself in other controversies. In 1862 she came to the support of the sculptor Harriet Hosmer when her sculpture of Zenobia caused controversy. Hosmer (who is also someone I know too little about) also challenged Victorian categories of sex and gender.

On the whole this is an interesting study. Cobbe’s work on legal reform was vital and influential. Some of her attitudes in later life were more conservative, but she was a complex and not always consistent thinker. However she is a Victorian feminist who deserves more attention than she gets,

7 out of 10

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Kith and Kin by Stevie Davies

Davies is one of my favourite authors and although this is not her strongest it is still very good. It is about three interlinked families living in South Wales, starting in the 1950s and focusing on the 1960s with a few sections in the early 1990s. The real focus is on the nature of families and their secrets, but also on the hippies of the late 60s and the lifestyles and attitudes they represented. The two main protagonists are cousins Mara and Frankie and their experience of the hippies, the interface of radicalism, mysticism and women still making the tea and doing the cooking.

“We were two groups of people: the old-fashioned Swansea lefties, serious and kempt young men with low side-partings and open-neck shirts, chiefly students, and the long-haired dropouts of no particular denomination or age groups; people who came and went without warning, charismatics or lost souls, the unemployed and the artistic. Oddballs. Prophets. What my parents called, on a frightened reflex, gypsies, riffraff, vagrants, scum. They drifted between towns and festivals, dossing and playing for their supper. To me they had a scary glamour, being older than ourselves and privilege-free. They travelled the fabled dark side of the road.”

There is a tragedy at the centre of the novel and there are two contrasting male characters, both flawed in their own ways. They illustrate how men adapted to the new thoughts and ideas and still managed to have their cake and eat it. The rites of passage and coming of age here leave scars that last and the hippie myth and idyll is mercilessly examined and dissected. The counterculture turns out to be dystopian, especially for the women.

The novel is also an analysis of family life and there are casualties in all the generations. As always Davies writes beautifully and the novel is compelling.

8 out of 10

Starting The Fell by Sarah Moss

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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

My favourite Eliot so far I think and her last novel. There are two strands to the novel. There is the attraction between Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth with all its vicissitudes. Then there is the depiction of the Jews and the Jewish question. Deronda discovers his Jewish origins and goes on a journey of discovery. Eliot even ponders the idea of a Jewish homeland as Deronda is drawn into early Zionist politics. Eliot’s approach here is in contrast with other Victorian novelists; especially Dickens and Trollope. Eliot does illustrate some of the tensions within society with the reaction of some of the other characters to Deronda as he explores his Jewish roots.

There have been attempts and proposals to amend the novel to maintain only one theme. Leavis felt the Jewish section was weak and should be removed to focus on Deronda and Harleth. Some Jewish commentators have felt that the Deronda/Harleth sections should be removed. The TV adaptation in 2002 focused on Deronda and Harleth and there was virtually no mention of the Lapidoths. Eliot certainly reflects the general attitudes towards the Jews in society at the time. The character of Mordecai is an interesting one and is based on Emanuel Deutsch. He reflects the mysticism and visionary nature of early Zionism. Of course Eliot is still a Victorian novelist and doesn’t mention circumcision, although maybe she does indirectly:

“If his father had been wicked – Daniel inwardly used strong words, for he was feeling the injury done him as a maimed boy feels the crushed limb which for others is merely reckoned in an average of accidents – if his father had done any wrong, he wished it might never be spoken of to him: it was already a cutting thought that such knowledge might be in other minds.

Deronda does come across as being rather too good, perhaps with a bit of a saviour complex with messianic overtones:

“Persons attracted him, as Hans Meyrick had done, in proportion to the possibility of his defending them, rescuing them, telling upon their lives with some sort of redeeming influence; and he had to resist an inclination, easily accounted for, to withdraw coldly from the fortunate.”

Eliot also uses other tropes. The relationship between Gwendolen and her husband Grandcourt is a case in point, being a play on Ovid’s version of Diana and Actaeon (it has the archery, virginity and hunting) and the use of water at the end also fits, even if in an inverted way. The relationship is also an example of what would now be called Coercive Control:

“Of what use was the rebellion within her? She could say nothing that would not hurt her worse than submission. Turning slowing and covering herself again, she went to her dressing-room. As she reached out the diamonds it occurred to her that her unwillingness to wear them might have already raised a suspicion in Grandcourt that she had some knowledge about them which he had not given her. She fancied that his eyes showed a delight in torturing her. How could she be defiant? She had nothing to say that would touch him—nothing but what would give him a more painful grasp on her consciousness.

And:

“He delights in making the dogs and horses quail: that is half his pleasure in calling them his,” she said to herself, as she opened the jewel-case with a shivering sensation.

“It will come to be so with me; and I shall quail. What else is there for me? I will not say to the world, ‘Pity me.'”

It is also worth remembering Said’s critique of this novel saying:

"Eliot uses the plight of the Jews to make a universal statement about the nineteenth century's need for a home"

Said finds Deronda’s departure for the East as:

“uncomfortably close to the imperial adventurism common among Englishmen of his time and class, who go off to the colonies to find a role and make a reputation

It’s an interesting and complex discussion which doesn’t take away from the greatness of the novel. This has been a bit of a rambling tour round some of the issues. Despite a few flaws I really enjoyed this.

9 out of 10

Starting The Yangtze valley and Beyond by Isabella Bird

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Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

How on earth to categorise this? Read in my last thing at night to send me to sleep spot. An undemanding piece of nonsense. It is set in London and is pretty much an homage to the city, its history, myth and folklore. It is also a police procedural if you will, with magic! It’s been called Harry Potter for adults. Well, I suppose if J K Rowling can set her series in an English public school, Aaronovitch can set his in the Metropolitan Police and give the police a small magic division.

There are ghosts, revenants, vampires, incarnated river spirits and a variety of other oddities. A newly trained police constable discovers he can see ghosts and finds himself recruited to the very small magic division which is discreetly tolerated by the rest of the Met. The plot has more holes than a string vest, but is partially redeemed by a certain humour and it shouldn’t be over thought.

6 out of 10

Starting The Century Girls by Ben Aaronovitch

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The Wing of Azrael by Mona Caird

This is Mona Caird’s third novel and is an accompaniment to her infamous article on marriage where she refers to marriage as a “vexatious failure”. Her own marriage was successful. Probably because her husband had a farm in Scotland where he lived and she lived in London!

Caird wrote about the nature of marriage and its inequalities. She was also a campaigner for women’s suffrage movement. She also campaigned against vivisection and was generally part of the New Woman movement. Towards the end of her life she also wrote a science fiction novel about the racism of eugenics.

This novel weaves together themes from Caird’s views on marriage, high melodrama and gothic. It is a study in what would now be called coercive control and domestic violence. Viola Sedley has been brought up to be obedient and has been given clear guidance about her role in life from her very pious mother:

“Mrs. Sedley, following the dictates of her creed, had spent her life in the performance of what she called her wifely duty, and this unfailing submissiveness, this meek and saint-like endurance had now succeeded in turning a man originally good-hearted into a creature so selfish, so thick-headed, and often so brutal, that even his all-enduring wife used to wonder, at times, if Heaven would give her grace to bear her heavy cross patiently to the end!

Her father has a very clear idea that his daughter is a commodity to be traded for an advantageous marriage, no matter what she thinks and for his own financial gain he negotiates a marriage with Sir Philip Dendraith, a vicious and cruel man. When Viola tries to explain that she doesn’t love him, her father’s reaction explains his views about women who won’t or don’t marry:

“Yes, a burden, a dead weight, hanging like a millstone round my neck’. Do you know what a woman is who does not marry? I will tell you: she is a cumberor of the ground, a devourer of others' substance, a failure, a wheel that won't turn; she is in the way; it were better she had never been born. She is neglected, despised, left out; and who cares whether she is alive or dead? She is alone, without office, without object, without the right to exist. If you are minded to choose such a lot, at least you shall do it with your eyes open. A woman who is not performing her natural duties, serving her husband and her children is an absurdity,— an anomaly, a ramrod without a gun, a key without a lock, a — a ship without a sail — she's — she's a DAMNED NUISANCE!

Viola is in love with someone else, who also loves her, but she has to marry Dendraith in obedience to her parents. Her marital life is a miserable and oppressive one and the novel is unremittingly bleak. Eventually even Viola begins to question her lot:

“We have both been taught (as we imagined) to worship God; I fear that we have really been taught to worship the Devil! We are trained to submission, to accept things as they are, to serve God by resignation — yes, even the resignation of our human dignity; whereas the Devil laughs in his sleeve, and carries off the fruits of miserable lives to add to the riches of his kingdom.

The novel is a clear and salutary account of patriarchal reality set in a classic Victorian backdrop. There is wind and rain, rambling bleak and creaky old houses, cliffs and rocks with crashing waves: all the usual backdrops. You want gothic?

 The great stable-yard clock was slowly striking the hour – midnight. …

The mist was thick, but one could see through it a large white house with innumerable majestic windows, very broad and very high. Even in this dim light it was evident that everything was falling into decay. … The house stood hushed in the moonlight, with blinds drawn, windows closed; all but one blind and one window on the first floor, on that side of the house which faced the garden, and beyond it a steep avenue of elm-trees.

At that open window a small figure was kneeling; a dark-haired little gi
rl”

You have gothic!

Under all the melodrama Caird represents the themes she explores in her article “Is Marriage a Failure? Female sacrifice and self-abnegation, sexual exploitation, threats of incarceration (the “mad woman” locked in the attic trope) and there is almost the feel of a fable to it all. Viola’s husband has virtually no redeeming features and he is also cruel to animals. Viola knows this before she marries him but follows what she perceives to be her duty and lot in life. Her husband also knows her role:

“Do you think that you have only yourself to consult? Let me remind you that you bear my name; that, in fact (to speak so that you can understand), it is branded upon you, and by that brand I can claim you and restrain you wherever you may be, so long as you live. Now are matters clear to you?

“You will see nobody, man or woman, without my knowledge; you will make no acquaintance, man or woman, without my knowledge. You will receive no letter that is unseen by me. And now” – Philip held open the gate into the garden gallantly – “now to the home of which you are the sunbeam.”

Don’t expect a happy ending!

Caird presents a very stark picture of Victorian marriage and be careful if you don’t like gothic melodrama.

8 out of 10

Starting Lullaby by Leila Slimani

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The Muse by Jessie Burton

I have found myself reading some quite recent stuff of late as well as my usual diet (this has only been around six or so years). Formerly I have felt that books ought to be left a while to see how they age. However there are a couple of problems with that. Firstly I have found a significant number of books that are a century or more old that have been almost completely forgotten and are really rather good. Secondly I am getting on in years so if I wait to see how they age I will be pushing up the daises anyway. The next problem is how you pick them. I haven’t cracked that one yet! This was cheap and had a nice cover: how shallow!

There are two timelines here. One is London in 1967 and the other is in Spain in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. This is an exploration of the relationship between art and artists and indeed the role of the muse. It also considers the afterlife of a painting. Burton explores the way men and women are treated differently as artists and there is a sort of artistic detective story.

It’s well-crafted on the whole but the linking of the two timelines is a bit heavy handed. One of the main characters in the 1967 strand is a Trinidadian immigrant and I don’t think Burton quite pulls this off. Odelle experiences no racism in the novel, not something that would have happened in 1960s London. The sections which concern the Spanish Civil War was rather two dimensional and unconvincing. The sections on the creative processes is stronger. There was also an issue with some of the language, a bit too 21st century for the 1960s and 1930s. There are complaints about the difficulties women artists had:

“Was the difference between being a workaday painter and being an artist simply other people believing in you, or spending twice as much money on your work? As far as Olive saw it, this connection of masculinity with creativity had been conjured from the air and been enforced, legitimised and monetised by enough people for whom such a state of affairs was convenient – men like her father.”

See what I mean about the language: monetised? In 1936!

This wasn’t all bed. It read easily and as I read it last thing before sleep, it sent me off rather well.

6 out of 10

Starting A net for small fishes by Lucy Jago

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They Came like Swallows by William Maxwell

A novel about the influenza pandemic after the First World War. It is set in small town Illinois. This is a haunting novella which will stay with me, well written and hasn’t really become dated. The Morison family consists of mother, father and two boys: Bunny who is eight and Robert who is thirteen and has a disability (he has lost a leg below the knee). All four members of the family are ill at some point and inevitably there is loss. The first two parts of the book are told from the point of view of the two brothers. The last part is from a more general perspective.

The title is from a Yeats poem:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air…

Maxwell is writing from his own experience in the pandemic and that is what makes this feel very personal.

The eight year olds perspective feels like an eight year old and life is centred on his mother:

“He got down from his chair at once. But while he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath. ‘Whose angel child are you?’

By those words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely. With wings beating above him and a great masculine noise of trumpets and drums he returned to his breakfast.”

And:

“Always when he and his mother were alone, the library seemed intimate and familiar. They did not speak or even raise their eyes, except occasionally. Yet around and through what they were doing each of them was aware of the other’s presence. If his mother was not there, if she was upstairs in her room or out in the kitchen explaining to Sophie about lunch, nothing was real to Bunny – or alive. The vermillion leaves and yellow leaves folding and unfolding upon the curtains depended utterly on his mother. Without her they had no movement and no colour.”

I felt at times there was an indebtedness to Woolf and I was reminded a little of To The Lighthouse.

Robert is older and a little more knowing and worldly wise and the two don’t always get on. Both perspectives work pretty well. Robert’s thoughts about the pandemic are different to Bunny’s:

“Page two… There it was: ‘SCHOOLS … The school board and the health officer have posted notices on the school houses and at places about town to the effect that the schools will be closed until further notice…’ Robert felt very small prickles in the region of his spine. He read the first sentence twice, to make sure that there had not been a mistake… His mother couldn’t keep him at home indefinitely. Things as awful as that didn’t happen.”

Semi spoiler ahead. We also see some perspective from Mr Morison senior as well:

“It was a shock to step across the threshold of the library and find everything unchanged. The chairs, the white bookcases, the rugs and curtains – even his pipe cleaners on the mantel behind the clock. He had left them there before he went away. He crossed the room and heard his own footsteps echoing. And knew that, now that he lived alone, he would go on hearing them as long as he lived.”

This is a really good novel which captures loss and uncertainty in childhood and is one of the better pandemic novels I have read.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting I'm not complaining by Ruth Adam

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