In Memoriam by Alice Winn: Review & Author Event
I read In Memoriam by Alice Winn last month, then had the chance to see the author in conversation at Hungerford Town Hall, an event hosted by Hungerford Bookshop, on Friday evening. Here’s what I thought of the novel, which is on my Best of 2023 list.
Heartstopper on the Western Front; swoon! It’s literary fiction set in the trenches of WWI, yes, but also a will-they-won’t they romance that opens at an English boarding school. Oh they will (have sex, that is), before the one-third point, but the lingering questions are: will Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt both acknowledge this is love and not just sex, as it is for many teenage boys at their school (either consensually, as buddies; or forced by bullies); and will one or both survive the war? “It was ridiculous, incongruous for Ellwood to be bandying about words like ‘love’ when they were preparing to venture out into No Man’s Land.”
Winn is barely past 30 (and looks like a Victorian waif in her daguerreotype-like author photo), yet keeps a tight control of her tone and plot in this debut novel. She depicts the full horror of war, with detailed accounts of battles at Loos, Ypres and the Somme, and the mental health effects on soldiers, but in between there is light-heartedness: banter, friendship, poetry. Some moments are downright jolly. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that Adam Bede is the only novel available and most of them have read it four times. Gaunt is always the more pessimistic of the two, while Ellwood’s initially flippant sunniness darkens through what he sees and suffers.
I only learned from the Acknowledgements and Historical Note that Preshute is based on Marlborough College, a posh school local to me that Winn attended, and that certain particulars are drawn from Siegfried Sassoon, as well as other war literature. It’s clear the book has been thoroughly, even obsessively, researched. But Winn has a light touch with it, and characters who bring social issues into the narrative aren’t just 2D representatives of them but well rounded and essential: Gaunt (xenophobia), Ellwood (antisemitism), Hayes (classism), Devi (racism); not to mention disability and mental health for several.
I also loved how Ellwood is devoted to Tennyson and often quotes from his work, including the book-length elegy In Memoriam itself. This plus the “In Memoriam” columns of the school newspaper give the title extra resonance. I thought I was done with war fiction, but really what I was done with was worthy, redundant Faulks-ian war fiction. This was engaging, thrilling (a prison escape!), and, yes, romantic. (Public library)
Readalike: The New Life by Tom Crewe, another of my early favourites of 2023, is set in a similar time period and also considers homosexual relationships. It, too, has epistolary elements and feels completely true to the historical record.
Some favourite lines:
“If Ellwood were a girl, he might have held his hand, kissed his temple. He might have bought a ring and tied their lives together. But Ellwood was Ellwood, and Gaunt had to be satisfied with the weight of his head on his shoulder.”
“Gaunt wished the War had been what Ellwood wanted it to be. He wished they could have ridden across a battlefield on horseback, brandishing a sword alongside their gallant king. He put on his gas mask. His men followed.”
Buy In Memoriam from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
Winn is in the UK on a short book tour; although she is English, she now lives in Brooklyn and recently had a baby. She was in conversation with AJ West, the author of The Spirit Engineer, also set on the cusp of WWI. Unrecognizable from her author photo – now blonde with glasses – she is petite rather than willowy. As I was leaving, two ladies remarked to each other how articulate she was. Indeed, she was well spoken and witty and, I expect, has always been precocious and a high achiever. I think she’s 32. Before this she wrote three novels that remain unpublished. She amazed us all by admitting she wrote the bulk of In Memoriam in just two weeks, pausing only to research trench warfare, then edited it for a year and a half.
West asked her about the genesis of the novel and she explained her obsession with the wartime newspapers of Sassoon’s school and then the letters sent home by soldiers, tracking the shift in tenor from early starry-eyed gallantry to feeling surrounded by death. She noted that it was a struggle for her to find a balance between the horrors of the Front and the fact that these young men come across in their written traces as so funny. She got that balance just right.
Was she being consciously anti-zeitgeist in focusing on privileged white men rather than writing women and minorities back into the narrative, as is so popular with publishers today, West asked? She demurred, but added that she wanted to achieve something midway between being of that time and a 2023 point-of-view in terms of the sexuality. Reading between the lines and from secondary sources, she posited that it was perhaps easier to get away with homosexuality than one might think, in that it wasn’t expected and so long as it was secret, temporary (before marrying a woman), or an experiment, it was tolerated. However, she took poetic licence in giving Gaunt and Ellwood supportive friends.
Speaking of … West (a gay man) jokingly asked Winn if she is actually a gay man, because she got their experiences and feelings spot on. She said that she has some generous friends who helped her with the authenticity of the sex scenes. In the novel she has Ellwood interpret Tennyson’s In Memoriam as crypto-homosexual, but scholars do not believe that it is; Gaunt’s twin sister Maud also, unconsciously in that case, has a Tennysonian name. This was in response to an audience question; this plus another one asking if Winn had read The New Life reassured me that my reaction was well founded! (Yes, she has, and will in fact be in conversation with Crewe in London on the 23rd. She’s also appearing at Hay Festival.)
If you’ve read the book and/or are curious, Winn revealed the inspirations for her three main characters, the real people who are “in their DNA,” as she put it: Gaunt = Robert Graves (half-German, interest in the Greek classics); Ellwood = Sassoon; Maud = Vera Brittain. She read a 5-minute passage incorporating a school scene between Gaunt and Sandys and a letter from the Front. She spoke a little too quickly and softly, such that I was glad I was within the first few rows. However, I’m sure this is a new-author thing and, should you be so lucky as to see her speak in future, you will be as impressed as I was.
Reading the Rathbones Folio Prize Poetry Shortlist
I borrowed the whole of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize poetry shortlist from my local library and have enjoyed reading through it to see what the judges felt was worthy of recognition from 2022’s releases. Of course, personal taste comes into the appreciation of poetry, perhaps more so than for fiction or nonfiction, so I liked some of these more than others and suspect the judges’ final decision may differ from mine. Still, it’s always a pleasure to discover new-to-me poets and/or debut authors.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
This is Benson’s third collection but my first time reading her. I was fully engaged with her exquisite poems about the ephemeral, whether that be insect lives, boarding school days, primal emotions or moments from her children’s early years. The book is in four discrete corresponding sections (“Insect Love Songs,” “Boarding-School Tales,” “Translations from the Pasiphaë” and “Daughter Mother”) but the themes and language bleed from one into another and the whole is shot through with astonishing corporeality and eroticism.
The form varies quite a lot – bitty lines, stanzas, blocky paragraph-like stories – and alliteration, slant rhymes and unexpected metaphors (a wasp’s nest as “a piñata of stings,” “this avant-garde chandelier” and an “electric hotel / of spit-balled papier mâché”) make each poem glisten. I’ll even let her off for the long section inspired by my pet hate, Greek mythology (so gruesome, so convoluted), because of how she uses these melodramatic situations to explore universal emotions. She does something interesting with the story of the Minotaur (Asterios), suggesting that instead of being born a literal bull he was born deformed or disabled and no one knew what to make of him, but even so he had a mother’s love.
Here’s one section of “Magicicadas” as an example:
summons them up
after seventeen years,
down their backs
like the wet head
of a baby,
of their tight old skin
like an orgasm,
like an ecstatic gymnast
on the high trapeze;
their damp wings lemon
before they stiffen
and straighten, lattice brown.
Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Protest doesn’t have to be loud; sometimes it can even be silent. In her debut, Bulley, a British-born Ghanaian poet, makes that especially clear with the pair “[ ] noise” (= white noise, inescapable) and “black noise” (an erasure poem). She models how language might be decolonized (particularly in “revision”) and how Black femininity might be reimagined (“fabula”). Along with her acknowledged debts to Lucille Clifton, bell hooks, Mary Oliver et al., I spotted echoes of Kei Miller (her “there is dark that moves” sounds like his “there is an anger that moves”) and Toni Morrison (Bulley includes the line “Quiet as it’s kept,” which is the opening of The Bluest Eye).
The collection is bold but never heavy-handed, and the seriousness of its topics (also including an early miscarriage) is lightened by poems about cats and snails. My two favourites were “not quiet as in quiet but,” which juxtaposes peacefulness and the comfortable life with the perils of not speaking out about injustice; and “Epigenetic,” about generations of traumatized bodies (“if your pain is alive in me / so too must be your joy.”).
Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
Kinshasa is also a dancer, and in her debut the British-born Barbadian intersperses poems with choreographed dances, transcribed via hand-drawn symbols explained in a key at the end. I confess I couldn’t picture them at all, though they make attractive patterns on the page – you can see one in purple on the cover. This and the Caribbean patois in which she voices narratives of historical atrocities and contemporary microaggressions against Black people (particularly women) are the collection’s claims to novelty and probably impressed the judges. Yet I found both strategies to be affected and looked forward to those poems in standard language. Some of the events are given specific dates and places in Barbados while others are more generic. Female victims of sexual oppression seek revenge, as in the gruesome “Miss Barbados Is No Longer Vegan.” This probably works best aloud, to allow one to appreciate the musicality of the voice and the alliterative lines.
Some lines I liked:
we gambled all our wishes on dandelions,
now we celebrate de little tings
every unburnt rice grain & regrown eyelash
vaulting between lemon vines and dog friendly cafés.
just because we do what needs to be done,
it doan mean we nah ready, we just aware
there are too many of us to be martyrs
(from “Sometimes Death Is a Child Who Plays With Rubber Bands”)
The work is dangerous; writing into history is like feeding unknown seeds while attempting to control the rate of their growth. Sometimes when I danced, I inhaled the language of my ancestors’ captors, and they became mine.
(from “Preface: And if by Some Miracle”)
if you want something to become extinct
doan give it attention.
(from “Choreography: She, My Nation”)
England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
A collection in praise of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, with poems about hedgerows and butterflies; cricket and the writings of the Brontë sisters. There are autobiographical reminiscences as well, most notably “The Crucible,” which describes the meeting between his Kashmiri father and his English mother’s father, who had refused to acknowledge the relationship for its first three years.
Kunial clearly delights in language, with wordplay and differing pronunciations fuelling “Foregrounds” et al. I particularly liked “Foxgloves” (“Sometimes I like to hide in the word / foxgloves – in the middle of foxgloves. The xgl is hard to say”) and “The Wind in the Willows,” where he wonders if the book title appeals to him just for its sound. This wasn’t as immediately cohesive and impressive as his first book, Us, but still well worth reading.
Some favourite lines:
“Prayer is not the words / but having none and staying” (from “Empty Words”)
“Life // is wider than its page. And days are a cut field, clipped and made to run on” (from “The Groundsman”)
Manorism by Yomi Sode
Like Surge or Poor (or what little I read of Citizen), this is driven by outrage and a longing for justice for Black people. I suspect that, like those precursors, it is a book best heard in performance, given that Sode honed his skills on London’s open mic circuit.
The first third of the book is under the heading “Aneephya,” a word Sode coined and defines as “the stress toxin of inherited trauma” – from slave ships to police checks. My two favourites were from this section: “L’Appel du Vide,” in which he ponders microaggressions while cooking a traditional West African mackerel and okra stew; and “A Plate of Artichokes,” about the time a waiter made him pre-pay for his meal and he went along with it even though he suspected other customers weren’t being asked to do the same.
Nigerian culture, rap music, being a father, and Black brotherhood are other themes, with recurring allusions to the work of Caravaggio. I also liked the long section on the decline and death of his great-aunt (“Big Mummy”) from cancer.
This was a book that made me feel super-white, but that’s not a problem: I can recognize its importance and appeal while also accepting that it’s not necessarily supposed to be for me.
Which of these poetry collections interest you?
All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.
All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett
Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.
Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.
There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.
Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.
Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick
With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.
Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.
After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.
Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).
At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.
let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.
– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.
Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.
What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?
Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell & What Remains? by Rupert Callender
I raced to finish all the September releases on my stack by the 30th, thinking I’d review them in one go, but that ended up being far too unwieldy. There was way too much to say about each of these excellent books (the first two pairs are here and here; Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder is still to come, probably on Wednesday). I’ve mentioned before that the month’s crop of nonfiction was about either books or death. Here’s one of each, linked by their ‘remain’ titles. Both:
Remainders of the Day: More Diaries from The Bookshop, Wigtown by Shaun Bythell
It’s just over five years since many of us were introduced to Wigtown and the ups and downs of running a bookshop there through Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve also reviewed the follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller, which was an enjoyable read for me during a 2019 trip to Milan, and 2020’s Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.)
This third volume opens in February 2016. As in its predecessors, each monthly section is prefaced by an epigraph from a historical work on bookselling – this time R. M. Williamson’s 1904 Bits from an Old Bookshop. It’s the same winning formula as ever: the nearly daily entries start with the number of online orders received and filled, and end with the number of customers and the till takings for the day. (The average spend seems to be £10 per customer, which is fine in high tourist season but not so great in November and December when hardly anyone walks through the door.) In between, Bythell details notable customer encounters, interactions with shop helpers or local friends, trips out to buy book collections or go fishing, Wigtown events including the book festival, and the occasional snafu like the boiler breaking during a frigid November or his mum being hospitalized with a burst ulcer.
Reading May Sarton’s Encore recently, I came across a passage where she is reading a fellow writer’s journal (Doris Grumbach’s Coming into the End Zone):
I find hers extremely good reading, so I cannot bear to stop. I am reading it much too fast and I think I shall have to read it again. I know that I must not swallow it whole. There is something about a journal, I think, that does this to readers. So many readers tell me that they cannot put my journals down.
I’ve heard Zadie Smith say the same about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: it’s just the stuff of prosaic, everyday life and yet she refers to his memoirs/autofiction as literary crack.
I often read a whole month’s worth of entries at a sitting. I can think of a few specific reasons why Bythell’s journals are such addictive reading:
- “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Small-town settings are irresistible for many readers, and by now the fairly small cast of characters in Bythell’s books feel like old friends. Especially having been to Wigtown myself, I can picture many of the locations he writes about, and you get the rhythm of the seasons and the natural world as well as the town’s ebb and flow of visitors.
- (A related point) You know what to expect, and that’s a comforting thing. Bythell makes effective use of running gags. You know that when Granny, an occasional shop helper from Italy, appears, she will complain about her aches and pains, curse at Bythell and give him the finger. Petra’s belly-dancing class (held above the shop) will inevitably be poorly attended. If Eliot is visiting, he is sure to leave his shoes right where everyone will trip over them. Captain the cat will be portly and infuriating.
- What I most love about the series is the picture of the life cycle of books, from when they first enter the shop, or get picked up in his van, to when rejects are dropped at a Glasgow recycling plant. What happens in the meantime varies, with once-popular authors falling out of fashion while certain topics remain perennial bestsellers in the shop (railways, ornithology). There’s many a serendipitous moment when he comes across a book and it’s just what a customer wants, or buys a book as part of a lot and then sells it online the very next day. New, unpriced stock is always quick to go.
Also of note in this volume are his break-up with Amazon, after his account falls victim to algorithms and is suspended, the meta moment where he signs his first book contract with Profile, and the increasing presence of the Bookshop Band, who moved to Wigtown later in 2017. Bythell doesn’t seem to get much time to read – it’s a misconception of the bookselling life that you do nothing but read all day; you’d be better off as a book reviewer if that’s what you want – but when he does, it’s generally an intense experience: E.M. Forster’s sci-fi novella The Machine Stops (who knew it existed?!), Barbara Comyns’s A Touch of Mistletoe, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis.
I’m torn as to whether I hope there will be more year by year volumes filling in to the present day. As Annabel noted, the ‘where they are now’ approach in the Epilogue rather suggests that he and his publisher will leave it here at a trilogy. This might be for the best, as a few more pre-Covid years of the same routines could get old, though nosey parkers like myself will want to know how a confirmed bachelor turned into a family man…
Some favourite lines:
“Quiet day in the shop; even the cat looked bored.” (31 October)
“The life of the secondhand bookseller mainly involves moving boxes from one place to another, and trying to make them fit into a small space, like some sort of awful game of Tetris.”
(10 February and 15 March are great stand-alone entries that give a sense of what the whole is like. There are a lot of black-and-white photos printed amid the text in the first month; it’s a shame these don’t carry on through.)
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
What Remains?: Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Rupert Callender
Call me morbid or call me realistic; in the last decade and a half I have read a lot of books about death, including terminal illness and bereavements. I’ve even read several nonfiction works by American mortician Caitlin Doughty. But I’ve not read anything quite like punk undertaker Rupert Callender’s manifesto about modern death and how much we get wrong in our conceptualization and conversations. It was poignant to be reading this in the weeks surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s death – a time when death got more discussion than usual, yes, but when there was also some ridiculous pomp that obscured the basic human facts of it.
Callender is not okay with death, and never has been. When he was seven, his father died of a heart attack at age 63. His 1970s Edinburgh upbringing was shattered and his mother, who he has no doubt was doing her best, made a few terrible mistakes. First, a year before, she’d reassured him that his father wasn’t going to die. Second, she didn’t make him attend the funeral. (I still wish my mother had made me go back to tour my late grandmother’s house one final time when I was seven; instead, I stayed behind and played on a Ouija board with my cousins.) Third, she soon sent Callender away to boarding school, which left him feeling alone and betrayed. And lastly, when she died of cancer when he was 25, she had planned every detail of her funeral – whereas he believes that is a task for the survivors.
An orphan in his late twenties, Callender came across The Natural Death Handbook and it sealed his future. He’d been expelled from school and blown his inheritance; acid house culture had given him a sense of community. Now he had a vocation. The first funeral he coordinated was for a postman named Barry. The fourth was a suicide. Their first child burial was one of his partner’s daughter’s classmates.
Over the next two decades, he and his (now ex-)wife Claire based Totnes’ The Green Funeral Company on old-fashioned values and homespun ceremonies. They oppose the overmedicalization of death and the clinical detachment of places like crematoria. Callender is vehemently anti-embalming – an intrusive process that involves toxic substances. They encourage the bereaved to keep the body at home for the week before a funeral, if they feel able (ice packs like you’d use in a picnic cool bag will work a treat), and to be their own pallbearers to make the memory of the funeral day a physical one. He performs the eulogies himself, and they use cardboard coffins.
This is a slippery work for how it intersperses personal stories with polemic and poetic writing. Despite a roughly chronological throughline, it feels more like a thematic set of essays than a sequential narrative. Callender has turned death rituals into both performance art (including at festivals and in collaboration with The KLF) and political protests (e.g., a public funeral he conducted for a homeless man who died of exposure, the third such death in his town that year). While he doesn’t shy away from the gruesome realities of dealing with corpses, he always brings it back to fundamentals: matter is what we are, but who we were lives on in others’ loving memories. Death rituals plug us into a human lineage and proclaim meaning in the face of nothingness. Whether you’ve seen/read it all or never considered picking up a book about death, I recommend Callender’s sui generis approach.
Some favourite lines:
“[The practice of having official pallbearers] is all part of the emotional infantilising encouraged by the funeral industry, all part of being turned into an audience at one of the most significant moments in your family history, instead of being empowered as a family and a community.”
“each death we experience contains every death we have ever lived through, Russian dolls of bereavement waiting to be unpacked.”
“Only once you are dead can the full arc of your life be clearly seen, and telling that story out loud and truthfully to the people who shared it is a powerful social act that both binds us together and place us within our culture.”
With thanks to Chelsea Green for the proof copy for review.
And as a bonus, given that today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the USA, here’s an excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review of another book that came out last month:
No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: A Lyric Essay by Julian Aguon
An indigenous human rights lawyer, Aguon is passionate about protecting his homeland of Guam, which is threatened by climate change and military expansion. His tender collage of autobiographical vignettes and public addresses inspires activism and celebrates beauty worth preserving. The U.S. Department of Defense’s plan to site more Marines and firing ranges on Guam will destroy more than 1,000 acres of limestone forest—home to endemic and endangered species, including the Mariana eight-spot butterfly. Aguon has been a lead litigator in appeals rising all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rejecting fatalism, he endorses peaceful resistance. Two commencement speeches, poems, a eulogy and an interview round out the varied and heartfelt collection.
The Dark Is Rising Readalong #TDiRS22 & #Headliners2023 Online Event
Annabel’s readalong was the excuse I needed to try something by children’s fantasy author Susan Cooper – she’s one of those much-beloved English writers who happened to pass me by during my upbringing in the States. I’ve been aware of The Dark Is Rising (1973) for just a few years, learning about it from the Twitter readalong run by Robert Macfarlane. (My husband took part in that, having also missed out on Cooper in his childhood.)
Christmas is approaching, and with it a blizzard, but first comes Will Stanton’s birthday on Midwinter Day. A gathering of rooks and a farmer’s ominous pronouncement (“The Walker is abroad. And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining”) and gift of an iron talisman are signals that his eleventh birthday will be different than those that came before. While his large family gets on with their preparations for a traditional English Christmas, they have no idea Will is being ferried by a white horse to a magic hall, where he is let in on the secret of his membership in an ancient alliance meant to combat the forces of darkness. Merriman will be his guide as he gathers Signs and follows the Old Ones’ Ways.
I loved the evocation of a cosy holiday season, and its contrast with the cosmic conflict going on under the surface.
He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before. Now and forever, he knew, he inhabited a different timescale from that of everyone he had ever known or loved…But he managed to turn his thoughts away from all these things, even from the two invading, threatening figures of the Dark. For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was on the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside.
The bustling family atmosphere is reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s books (e.g., Meet the Austins), as is the nebulous world-building (A Wrinkle in Time) – I found little in the way of concrete detail to latch onto, and like with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, I felt out of my depth with the allusions to local legend. Good vs. evil battles are a mainstay of fantasy and children’s fiction, like in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, or The Chronicles of Narnia I read over and over between the ages of about five and nine. Had I read this, too, as a child, I’m sure I would have loved it, but I guess I’m too literal-minded an adult these days; it’s hard for me to get swept up in the magic. See also Annabel’s review. (Public library)
Headliners 2023 Online Event
For a small fee (the proceeds went to The Arts Emergency Fund), I joined in this Zoom event hosted by Headline Books and Tandem Collective yesterday evening to learn about 10 of the publisher’s major 2023 releases.
Six of the authors were interviewed live by Sarah Shaffi; the other four had contributed pre-recorded video introductions. Here’s a super-brief rundown, in the order in which they appeared, with my notes on potential readalikes:
Dazzling by Chikodili Emelumadu (16 February)
Two girls at a restrictive Nigerian boarding school tap into their power as “Leopard People” to bring back their missing fathers and achieve more than anyone expects of them.
Sounds like: Akwaeke Emezi’s works
A Pebble in the Throat by Aasmah Mir (2 March)
A memoir contrasting her upbringing in Glasgow with her mother’s in Pakistan, this promises to be thought-provoking on the topics of racism and gender stereotypes.
Sounds like: Brown Baby or Brit(ish)
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer (19 January)
In 1834 Barbados, a former slave leaves her sugarcane plantation to find her five children. Shearer is a mixed-race descendant of Windrush immigrants and wanted to focus not so much on slavery as on its aftermath and the effects of forced dispersion.
Sounds like: Sugar Money
Becoming Ted by Matt Cain (19 January)
In a Northern seaside town, Ted is dumped by his husband and decides to pursue his dream of becoming a drag queen.
Sounds like: Rachel Joyce’s works
Mother’s Day by Abigail Burdess (2 March)
As a baby, Anna was left by the side of the road*; now she’s found her birth mother, just as she learns she’s pregnant herself. Described as a darkly comic thriller à la Single White Female.
(*Burdess had forgotten that this really happened to her best childhood friend; her mum had to remind her of it!)
Sounds like: A Crooked Tree or When the Stars Go Dark
Me, Myself and Mini Me by Charlotte Crosby (2 March)
A reality TV star’s memoir of having a child after an ectopic pregnancy.
Sounds like: Something Katie Price would ‘write’. I had not heard of this celebrity author before and don’t mean to sound judgmental, but the impression made by her appearance (heavily altered by cosmetic surgery) was not favourable.
All the Little Bird Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow (2 March)
In the Lake District in the 1980s, Sunday is an autistic mother raising a daughter, Dolly. The arrival of glamorous next-door neighbours upends their lives.
Sounds like: Claire Fuller’s works
The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (19 January)
A work of creative nonfiction about adopting a cat named Mackerel (who briefly appeared on the video) during lockdown, and deciding whether or not to have a child.
Sounds like: Motherhood, with a cat
The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier (30 March)
Set in Northern Italy in 1500, this is about a convent librarian who discovers a rich tradition of goddess worship that could upend the patriarchy.
Sounds like: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s and Maggie O’Farrell’s historical novels
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay (6 July)
A historical heist novel set in 1905, this is about Mrs King, a Mayfair housekeeper who takes revenge for her dismissal by assembling a gang of disgruntled women to strip her former employer’s house right under her nose during a party.
Sounds like: Richard Osman’s works
If there was a theme to the evening, it was women’s power!
I’m most keen to read The Year of the Cat, but I’d happily try 3–4 of the novels if my library acquired them.
Which of these 2023 releases appeal to you most?
Roald Dahl Day Blog Tour: “Boy” & More
Like so many children on both sides of the Atlantic, I grew up with Roald Dahl’s classic tales: James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda. I was aware that he had published work for adults, too, but hadn’t experienced any of it until I was asked to join this blog tour in advance of Roald Dahl Day on September 13th.
Last year Penguin brought out an eight-volume paperback set of Dahl’s short stories, grouped thematically. I focused on Innocence: Tales of Youth and Guile, which opens with a reprint of Boy (1984), the closest thing to an autobiography that Dahl wrote. That’s in spite of his prefatory disclaimer:
An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography. … throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten. … Some are funny. Some are painful. … All are true.
Dahl’s father was a one-armed shipbroker who’d moved from Norway to Wales for the coal. His mother, Harald’s second wife, was also from Norway, so Dahl was a full-blooded Norwegian. After his father’s early death he attended Llandaff Cathedral School and then boarding school and public school in England. Sofie Dahl, quietly tough, tended her brood of six children and stepchildren, giving them magical summers on a Norwegian island and keeping her cool during the car accident in which Dahl’s nose was almost severed.
Any time they were separated, Dahl wrote to his mother once a week, without fail. The book includes facsimile excerpts from some of these letters, along with black-and-white family photographs and drawings. This is more of a scrapbook than a straightforward chronological memoir, especially in the way that it moves between playful and disturbing vignettes from Dahl’s school days. It’s particularly delightful to spot incidents that inspired his children’s books, such as a plot to plant a dead mouse in the mean sweet shop lady’s gobstopper jar and the boxes of new-recipe Cadbury’s chocolates that would arrive at Repton School for testing by eager boys.
Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here. But so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Dahl had his adenoids removed without anesthesia, and at school he received and witnessed many a vicious caning. Aware that such scenes are accumulating uncomfortably, he addresses the topic directly:
By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.
When he graduated, instead of going to Oxford or Cambridge, he wanted to see the world and have adventures, so he spent the summer of 1934 exploring Newfoundland and joined the Shell Company at age 18. His first placement was to East Africa for three years; soon afterwards he would become a fighter pilot in the Second World War. In the short years he spent as a London commuter, he realized how easy a 9-to-5 office job is compared to making a living as a writer. (I could sympathize.)
The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. … A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul.
I don’t often like reading books from a child’s perspective (particularly novels with a child narrator) because I find that the voice can ring false. Not so here. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20. I’d highly recommend Boy to fiction and nonfiction readers alike.
I also dipped into Trickery: Tales of Deceit and Cunning and particularly liked “The Wish,” in which a boy imagines a carpet is a snakepit and then falls into it, and “Princess Mammalia,” a Princess Bride-style black comedy about a royal who decides to wrest power from her father but gets her mischief turned right back on her. I’ll also pick up Fear, Dahl’s curated set of ghost stories by other authors, during October for the R.I.P. challenge.
My thanks to the publisher for free copies of four volumes of the tales.