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?
The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos (Walter Presents Blog Tour)
A library populated entirely by rejected books? Such was Richard Brautigan’s brainchild in one of his novels, and after his suicide a fan made it a reality. Now based in Vancouver, Washington, the Brautigan Library houses what French novelist David Foenkinos calls “the world’s literary orphans.” In The Mystery of Henri Pick, he imagines what would have happened had a French librarian created its counterpart in a small town in Brittany and a canny editor discovered a gem of a bestseller among its dusty stacks.
Delphine Despero is a rising Parisian editor who’s fallen in love with her latest signed author, Frédéric Koskas. Unfortunately, his novel The Bathtub is a flop, but he persists in writing a second, The Bed. On a trip home to Brittany so Frédéric can meet her parents, he and Delphine drop into the library of rejected books at Crozon and find a few amusing turkeys – but also a masterpiece. The Last Hours of a Love Affair is what it says on the tin, but also incorporates the death of Pushkin. The name attached to it is that of the late pizzeria owner in Crozon. His elderly widow and middle-aged daughter had no idea that their humble Henri had ever had literary ambitions, let alone that he had a copy of Eugene Onegin in the attic.
The Last Hours of a Love Affair becomes a publishing sensation – for its backstory more than its writing quality – yet there are those who doubt that Henri Pick could have been its author. The doubting faction is led by Jean-Michel Rouche, a disgraced literary critic who, having lost his job and his girlfriend, now has all the free time in the world to research the foundation of the Library of Rejects and those who deposited manuscripts there. Just when you think matters are tied up, Foenkinos throws a curveball.
This was such a light and entertaining read that I raced through. It has the breezy, mildly zany style I associate with films like Amélie. Despite the title, there’s not that much of a mystery here, but that suited me since I pretty much never pick up a crime novel. Foenkinos inserts lots of little literary in-jokes (not least: this is published by Pushkin Press!), and through Delphine he voices just the jaded but hopeful attitude I have towards books, especially as I undertake my own project of assessing unpublished manuscripts:
She had about twenty books to read during August, and they were all stored on her e-reader. [Her friends] asked her what those novels were about, and Delphine confessed that, most of the time, she was incapable of summarizing them. She had not read anything memorable. Yet she continued to feel excited at the start of each new book. Because what if it was good? What if she was about to discover a new author? She found her job so stimulating, it was almost like being a child again, hunting for chocolate eggs in a garden at Easter.
Great fun – give it a go!
(Originally published in 2016. Translation from the French by Sam Taylor, 2020.)
My thanks to Poppy at Pushkin Press for arranging my e-copy for review.
(Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama streaming service, launched in the UK (on Channel 4) in 2016 and is also available in the USA, Australia, and various European countries.)
I was delighted to be part of the Walter Presents blog tour. See below for details of where other books and reviews have featured.
Reading with the Seasons: Summer 2021, Part I
I’m more likely to choose lighter reads and dip into genre fiction in the summer than at other times of year. The past few weeks have felt more like autumn here in southern England, but summer doesn’t officially end until September 22nd. So, if I get a chance (there’s always a vague danger to labelling something “Part I”!), before then I’ll follow up with another batch of summery reads I have on the go: Goshawk Summer, Klara and the Sun, Among the Summer Snows, A Shower of Summer Days, and a few summer-into-autumn children’s books.
For this installment I have a quaint picture book, a mystery, a travel book featured for its title, and a very English classic. I’ve chosen a representative quote from each.
Summer Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
One of a quartet of seasonal “Brambly Hedge” stories in small hardbacks. It wouldn’t be summer without weddings, and here one takes place between two mice, Poppy Eyebright and Dusty Dogwood (who work in the dairy and the flour mill, respectively), on Midsummer’s Day. I loved the little details about the mice preparing their outfits and the wedding feast: “Cool summer foods were being made. There was cold watercress soup, fresh dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs and meringues.” We’re given cutaway views of various tree stumps, like dollhouses, and the industrious activity going on within them. Like any wedding, this one has its mishaps, but all is ultimately well, like in a classical comedy. This reminded me of the Church Mice books or Beatrix Potter’s works: very sweet, quaint and English.
Source: Public library
These next two give a real sense of how heat affects people, physically and emotionally.
Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (2020)
“In the heat, just having a human body was a chore. Just keeping it suitable for public approval was a job”
From the first word (“Languid”) on, this novel drips with hot summer atmosphere, with its opposing connotations of discomfort and sweaty sexuality. Rachel is a teacher of adolescents as well as the mother of a 15-year-old, Mia. When Lily, a pupil who also happens to be one of Mia’s best friends, goes missing, Rachel is put in a tough spot. I mostly noted how Barkworth chose to construct the plot, especially when to reveal what. By the one-quarter point, Rachel works out what’s happened to Lily; by halfway, we know why Rachel isn’t telling the police everything.
The dynamic between Rachel and Mia as they decide whether to divulge what they know is interesting. This is not the missing person mystery it at first appears to be, and I didn’t sense enough literary quality to keep me wanting to know what would happen next. I ended up skimming the last third. It would be suitable for readers of Rosamund Lupton, but novels about teenage consent are a dime a dozen these days and this paled in comparison to My Dark Vanessa. For a better sun-drenched novel, I recommend A Crime in the Neighborhood.
Source: Public library
The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1998; 2001)
[Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska]
“Dawn and dusk—these are the most pleasant hours in Africa. The sun is either not yet scorching, or it is no longer so—it lets you be, lets you live.”
The Polish Kapuściński was a foreign correspondent in Africa for 40 years and lent his name to an international prize for literary reportage. This collection of essays spans decades and lots of countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. The author sees many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. Living among Africans rather than removed in a white enclave, he develops a voice that is surprisingly undated and non-colonialist. While his presence as the observer is undeniable – especially when he falls ill with malaria and then tuberculosis – he lets the situation on the ground take precedence over the memoir aspect. I read the first half last year and then picked the book back up again to finish this year. The last piece, “In the Shade of a Tree, in Africa” especially stood out. In murderously hot conditions, shade and water are two essentials. A large mango tree serves as an epicenter of activities: schooling, conversation, resting the herds, and so on. I appreciated how Kapuściński never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences: “Africa is a thousand situations, varied, distinct, even contradictory … everything depends on where and when.”
Along with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and the Jan Morris anthology A Writer’s World, this is one of the best few travel books I’ve ever read.
Source: Free bookshop
August Folly by Angela Thirkell (1936)
“The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake.”
I’d been curious to try Thirkell, and this fourth Barsetshire novel seemed as good a place to start as any. Richard Tebben, not the best and brightest that Oxford has to offer, is back in his parents’ village of Worsted for the summer and dreading the boredom to come. That is, until he meets beautiful Rachel Dean and is smitten – even though she’s mother to a brood of nine, most of them here with her for the holidays. He sets out to impress her by offering their donkey, Modestine, for rides for the children, and rather accidentally saving her daughter from a raging bull. Meanwhile, Richard’s sister Margaret can’t decide if she likes being wooed, and the villagers are trying to avoid being roped into Mrs Palmer’s performance of a Greek play. The dialogue can be laughably absurd. There are also a few bizarre passages that seem to come out nowhere: when no humans are around, the cat and the donkey converse.
This was enjoyable enough, in the same vein as books I’ve read by Barbara Pym, Miss Read, and P.G. Wodehouse, though I don’t expect I’ll pick up more by Thirkell. (No judgment intended on anyone who enjoys these authors. I got so much flak and fansplaining when I gave Pym and Wodehouse 3 stars and dared to call them fluffy or forgettable, respectively! There are times when a lighter read is just what you want, and these would also serve as quintessential English books revealing a particular era and class.)
Source: Public library
As a bonus, I have a book about how climate change is altering familiar signs of the seasons.
Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute (2021)
“So many records are these days being broken that perhaps it is time to rewrite the record books, and accept the aberration has become the norm.”
Shute writes a weather column for the Telegraph, and in recent years has reported on alarming fires and flooding. He probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. However, he provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations (phenology) such as temperature data and photo archives that reveal that natural events like leaf fall and bud break are now occurring weeks later/earlier than they used to. He also meets farmers, hunts for cuckoos and wildflowers, and recalls journalistic assignments.
The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility: he and his wife long for a child and have tried for years to conceive, but just as the seasons are out of kilter, there seems to be something off with their bodies such that something that comes so easily for others will not for them. A male perspective on infertility is rare – I can only remember encountering it before in Native by Patrick Laurie – and these passages are really touching. The tone is of a piece with the rest of the book: thoughtful and gently melancholy, but never hopeless (alas, I found The Eternal Season by Stephen Rutt, on a rather similar topic, depressing).
Forecast is wide-ranging and so relevant – the topics it covers kept coming up and I would say to my husband, “oh yes, that’s in Joe Shute’s book.” (For example, he writes about the Ladybird What to Look For series and then we happened on an exhibit of the artwork at Mottisfont Abbey.) I can see how some might say it crams in too much or veers too much between threads, but I thought Shute handled his material admirably.
Source: Public library
Have you been reading anything particularly fitting for summer this year?
Autumn Reading: The Pumpkin Eater and More
I’ve been gearing up for Novellas in November with a few short autumnal reads, as well as some picture books bedecked with fallen leaves, pumpkins and warm scarves.
An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell (2004)
[Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, 2014]
My first and probably only Mankell novel; I have a bad habit of trying mystery series and giving up after one book – or not even making it through a whole one. This was written for a Dutch promotional deal and falls chronologically between The Pyramid and The Troubled Man, making it #9.5 in the Wallander series. It opens in late October 2002. After 30 years as a police officer, Kurt Wallander is interested in living in the countryside instead of the town-center flat he shares with his daughter Linda, also a police officer. A colleague tells him about a house in the country owned by his wife’s cousin and Wallander goes to have a look.
Of course things aren’t going to go smoothly with this venture. You have to suspend disbelief when reading about the adventures of investigators; it’s like they attract corpses. So it’s not much of a surprise that while he’s walking the grounds of this house he finds a human hand poking out of the soil, and eventually the remains of a middle-aged couple are unearthed. The rest of the book is about finding out what happened on the property at the time of the Second World War. Wallander says he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but victims of wrongful death are as persistent as ghosts: they won’t be ignored until answers are found.
This was a quick and easy read, but nothing about it (setting, topics, characterization, prose) made me inclined to read further in the author’s work.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer (1962)
(Classic of the Month, #1)
Like a nursery rhyme gone horribly wrong, this is the story of a woman who can’t keep it together. She’s the woman in the shoe, the wife whose pumpkin-eating husband keeps her safe in a pumpkin shell, the ladybird flying home to find her home and children in danger. Aged 31 and already on her fourth husband, the narrator, known only as Mrs. Armitage, has an indeterminate number of children. Her current husband, Jake, is a busy filmmaker whose philandering soon becomes clear, starting with the nanny. A breakdown at Harrods is the sign that Mrs. A. isn’t coping, and she starts therapy. Meanwhile, they’re building a glass tower as their countryside getaway, allowing her to contemplate an escape from motherhood.
An excellent 2011 introduction by Daphne Merkin reveals how autobiographical this seventh novel was for Mortimer. But her backstory isn’t a necessary prerequisite for appreciating this razor-sharp period piece. You get a sense of a woman overwhelmed by responsibility and chafing at the thought that she’s had no choice in what life has dealt her. Most chapters begin in medias res and are composed largely of dialogue, including with Jake or her therapist. The book has a dark, bitter humor and brilliantly recreates a troubled mind. I was reminded of Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. If you’re still looking for ideas for Novellas in November, I recommend it highly.
Snow in Autumn by Irène Némirovsky (1931)
[Translated from the French by Sandra Smith, 2007]
(Classic of the Month, #2)
I have a copy of Suite Française, Némirovsky’s renowned posthumous classic, in a box in America, but have never gotten around to reading it. This early tale of the Karine family, forced into exile in Paris after the Russian Revolution, draws on the author’s family history. The perspective is that of the family’s old nanny, Tatiana Ivanovna, who guards the house for five months after the Karines flee and then, joining them in Paris after a shocking loss, longs for the snows of home. “Autumn is very long here … In Karinova, it’s already all white, of course, and the river will be frozen over.” Nostalgia is not as innocuous as it might seem, though. This gloomy short piece brought to mind Gustave Flaubert’s story “A Simple Heart.” I wouldn’t say I’m taken by Némirovsky’s style thus far; in fact, the frequent ellipses drove me mad! The other novella in my paperback is Le Bal, which I’ll read next month.
Plus a quartet of children’s picture books from the library:
Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper: A cat, a squirrel and a duck live together in a teapot-shaped cabin in the woods. They cook pumpkin soup and make music in perfect harmony, each cheerfully playing their assigned role, until the day Duck decides he wants to be the one to stir the soup. A vicious quarrel ensues, and Duck leaves. Nothing is the same without the whole trio there. After some misadventures, when the gang is finally back together, they’ve learned their lesson about flexibility … or have they? Adorably mischievous.
Moomin and the Golden Leaf by Richard Dungworth: Beware: this is not actually a Tove Jansson plot, although her name is, misleadingly, printed on the cover (under tiny letters “Based on the original stories by…”). Autumn has come to Moominvalley. Moomin and Sniff find a golden leaf while they’re out foraging. He sets out to find the golden tree it must have come from, but the source is not what he expected. Meanwhile, the rest are rehearsing a play to perform at the Autumn Ball before a seasonal feast. This was rather twee and didn’t capture Jansson’s playful, slightly melancholy charm.
Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney: Ungrateful Little Owl thinks the orange scarf his mother knit for him is too scratchy. He tries “very hard to lose his new scarf” and finally manages it on a trip to the zoo. His mother lets him choose his replacement wool, a soft green. I liked the color blocks and the simple design, and the final reveal of what happened to the orange scarf is cute, but I’m not sure the message is one to support (pickiness vs. making do with what you have).
Christopher Pumpkin by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet: The witch of Spooksville needs help preparing for a big party, so brings a set of pumpkins to life. Something goes a bit wrong with the last one, though: instead of all things ghoulish, Christopher Pumpkin loves all things fun. He bakes cupcakes instead of stirring gross potions and strums a blue ukulele instead of inducing screams. The witch threatens to turn Chris into soup if he can’t be scary. The plan he comes up with is the icing on the cake of a sweet, funny book delivered in rhyming couplets. Good for helping kids think about stereotypes and how we treat those who don’t fit in.
Have you read any autumn-appropriate books lately?
Doorstopper of the Month: The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992)
This was a rare case of reading a novel almost entirely because of its famous first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I was familiar with the quote from the Bookshop Band song “Once Upon a Time” (video on bottom right here), which is made up of first lines from books, but had never read anything by the late Iain Banks, so when a copy of The Crow Road turned up in the free bookshop where I volunteered weekly in happier times, I snapped it up.
There’s a prosaic explanation for that magical-sounding opening: Grandma Margot had a pacemaker that the doctor forgot to remove before her cremation. Talk about going out with a bang! To go “away the crow road” is a Scottish saying for death, and on multiple occasions a sudden or unexplained death draws the McHoan clan together. As the book starts, Prentice McHoan, a slothful student of history at the university in Glasgow, is back in Gallanach (on the west coast of Scotland, near Oban), site of the family glassworks, for Margot’s funeral. He’ll be summoned several more times before the story is through.
Amid clashes over religion with his father Kenneth, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, plenty of carousing and whiskey-drinking, and a spot of heartbreak when his brother steals his love interest, Prentice gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to Uncle Rory, a travel writer who disappeared years ago. The bulk of the book is narrated by Prentice, but shifts into the third person indicate flashbacks. Many of these vignettes recount funny mishaps from Kenneth or Prentice’s growing-up years, but others – especially those in italics – reveal darker matters. As Prentice explores Uncle Rory’s files from a project called “Crow Road,” he stumbles on a secret that completely changes how he perceives his family history.
This reminded me of John Irving at his 1970s‒80s peak: a sprawling coming-of-age story, full of quirky people and events, that blends humor and pathos. In all honesty, I didn’t need the mystery element on top of the character study, but it adds direction to what is otherwise a pleasant if lengthy meander through the decades with the McHoans. I particularly appreciated how Prentice’s view of death evolves: at first he’s with Uncle Hamish, believing there has to be something beyond death – otherwise, what makes human life worthwhile? But Kenneth’s atheism seeps in thanks to the string of family deaths and the start of the Gulf War. “They were here, and then they weren’t, and that was all there was,” Prentice concludes; the dead live on only in memory, or in the children and work they leave behind. I can’t resist quoting this whole paragraph, my favorite passage from the novel:
Telling us straight or through his stories, my father taught us that there was, generally, a fire at the core of things, and that change was the only constant, and that we – like everybody else – were both the most important people in the universe, and utterly without significance, depending, and that individuals mattered before their institutions, and that people were people, much the same everywhere, and when they appeared to do things that were stupid or evil, often you hadn’t been told the whole story, but that sometimes people did behave badly, usually because some idea had taken hold of them and given them an excuse to regard other people as expendable (or bad), and that was part of who we were too, as a species, and it wasn’t always possible to know that you were right and they were wrong, but the important thing was to keep trying to find out, and always to face the truth. Because truth mattered.
That seems like a solid philosophy to me. I’ll try more by Banks. I also nabbed a free copy of The Wasp Factory, which I take it is very different in tone. Any recommendations after that? Could I even cope with his science fiction (published under the name Iain M. Banks)?
Page count: 501
#1920Club Classics of the Month: Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’m sneaking in a couple of quick reviews on the final day to join in with Simon and Karen’s latest reading week, The 1920 Club. Speaking of books that were published a century ago, I happened to review Chéri by Colette as one of my monthly classics last year, and I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton in advance of our May book club meeting.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
I don’t think I’ve read an Agatha Christie mystery since I was about … 13? (It was And Then There Were None.) But over the years I’ve watched countless Poirot and Miss Marple cases on TV with my mother. This was Poirot’s first outing, and it’s narrated by Hastings, the slightly dim Watson to the Belgian detective’s Sherlock Holmes.
One July, invalided home from the war at age 30, Hastings goes to visit old family friends at Styles, their Essex manor house: brothers John and Lawrence Cavendish and their elderly stepmother, who has recently (and somewhat shockingly) remarried. When old Mrs. Cavendish is found dead of strychnine poisoning, Poirot is brought in to sort through the potential suspects. Coffee and cocoa cups, a fragment of a charred will, a fake beard, a candle wax stain and a bolted door will be among his major clues.
Like Hastings, we as readers are quick to point to the obvious: hey, that foreigner who happens to be an expert on poisons, it’s him, right?! But as Poirot carefully explains, again and again, “If the fact will not fit the theory, let the theory go. … Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined, sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried.”
I rarely pick up a mystery novel, though when I can get stuck in I do tend to enjoy them. This was a super-quick read and I found myself turning to it more often than to other books on my stack that felt weightier in subject matter. In the end I find crime novels inconsequential, so can’t imagine needing to try another Poirot or Marple for another 20 years or so. But if you’re struggling to read in a time of anxiety, you could certainly do worse than a Christie novel.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald has long been one of my literary blind spots. The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece, sure: I studied it in school and have read it another couple of times since, as well as lots of background nonfiction and some contemporary novels that riff on the story line. But everything else of his that I’ve tried (Tender Is the Night was the other one) has felt aimless and more stylish than substantive.
Amory Blaine is a wealthy Midwesterner who goes from boarding school to Princeton and has literary ambitions and various love affairs. He’s convinced he’s a “boy marked for glory.” But Monsignor Darcy, his guru, encourages the young man to focus on developing his character more than his dashing personality.
Hugely popular at its first release, this debut novel won Fitzgerald his literary reputation – as well as Zelda Sayre’s hand in marriage. What with the slang (“Oh my Lord, I’m going to cast a kitten”), it felt very much like a period piece to me, most impressive for its experimentation with structure: parts are written like a film script or Q&A, and there are also some poems and lists. This novelty may well be a result of the author cobbling together drafts and unpublished odds and ends, but still struck me as daring.
In a strange way, though, the novel is deliberately ahistorical in that it glosses over world events with a flippancy that I find typical of Fitzgerald. Even though Amory is called up to serve, his general reaction to the First World War is dispatched in a paragraph; Prohibition doesn’t get much more of a look-in.
I understand that the book is fairly autobiographical and in its original form was written in the first person, which I might have preferred if it led to greater sincerity. I could admire some of the witty banter and the general coming-of-age arc, but mostly felt indifferent to this one.
Recommended March Releases: Magnusson, May, Moor and More
March has been a huge month for new releases. With so many authors feeling let down about book tours and events being cancelled, it’s a great time for bloggers to step in and help. I attended two virtual book launches on Twitter on the 19th and have another one coming up on the 31st. I also have three more March releases on order from my local indie bookstore: Greenery by Tim Dee, tracking the arrival of spring; Footprints by David Farrier, about the fossil traces modern humans will leave behind; and The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, a novel about violence against women set on the Scottish coast in three different time periods.
Today I have short reviews of five March releases I recommend (plus a bonus one now out in paperback): a Victorian pastiche infused with Scottish folklore, an essay collection about disparate experiences of motherhood, a thriller about victims of domestic violence, poems in graphic novel form, a novel about natural and personal disasters in Australia, and a lovely story of friendship and literature changing a young man’s life forever. All:
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
(Published by Two Roads on the 19th)
Like Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, this is an intense, convincing work of fiction that balances historical realism with magical elements. In mid-1850s Britain, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there is a drive to ensure clean water. Alexander Aird, hired as the on-site physician for the Glasgow waterworks, moves to the Loch Katrine environs with his wife, Isabel, who has had eight miscarriages or stillbirths. With no living babies requiring her care, Isabel spends her days wandering the hills and meets a strange scarecrow of a man, Reverend Robert Kirke … who died in 1692.
A real-life Episcopalian minister, Kirke wrote a book about fairies and other Celtic supernatural beings and, legend has it (as recounted by Sir Walter Scott and others), was taken into the faery realm after his death and continued to walk the earth looking for rest. It takes a while for Isabel to learn the truth about Kirke – though her servant, Kirsty McEchern, immediately intuits that something isn’t right about the man – and longer still to understand that he wants something from her. “Whatever else, Robert Kirke could be relied on to ruffle this mind of hers that was slowly opening to experience again, and to thinking, and to life.”
This was a rollicking read that drew me in for its medical elements (premature birth, a visit to Joseph Lister, interest in Florence Nightingale’s nursing methods) as well as the plot. It often breaks from the omniscient third-person voice to give testimonies from Kirsty and from Kirke himself. There are also amusing glimpses into the Royal household when Victoria and Albert stay at Balmoral and return to open the waterworks during the “heaviest, windiest, most umbrella-savaging, face-slashing deluge that Scotland had experienced in twenty years.” Best of all, it gives a very different picture of women’s lives in the Victorian period.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly about Motherhood, edited by Katherine May
(Published by Elliott & Thompson on the 19th)
These are essays for everyone who has had a mother – not just everyone who has been a mother. I enjoyed every piece separately, but together they form a vibrant collage of women’s experiences. Care has been taken to represent a wide range of situations and attitudes. The reflections are honest about physical as well as emotional changes, with midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) kicking off with an eye-opening rundown of the intimate scarring some mothers will have for the rest of their lives. We hear from a mother of six who’s “addicted” to pregnancy (Jodi Bartle), but also from a woman who, after an ectopic pregnancy, realized “there are lots of ways to mother, even if your body won’t let you” (Peggy Riley, in one of my two favorite pieces in the book).
Women from BAME communities recount some special challenges related to cultural and family expectations, but others that are universal. An autistic mother (Joanne Limburg) has to work out how to parent a neurotypical child; queer parents (including author Michelle Tea) wonder how to raise a son at a time of toxic masculinity. There are also several single mothers, one of them disabled (Josie George – hers was my other favorite essay; do follow her on Twitter via @porridgebrain if you don’t already).
What I most appreciated is that these authors aren’t saying what they think they should say about motherhood; they’re willing to admit to boredom, disappointment and rage: “motherhood is an infinite, relentless slog from which there is no rest or recuperation … a ceaseless labour, often devoid of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation” (Javaria Akbar); “I step barefoot on a rogue piece of Lego and it’s game over. I scream” (Saima Mir). These are punchy, distinctive slices of life writing perfectly timed for Mother’s Day. I plan to pass the book around my book club; mothers or not, I know everyone will appreciate it.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Keeper by Jessica Moor
(Published by Viking/Penguin on the 19th)
Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson are among the fans of this, Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020. When a young woman is found drowned at a popular suicide site in the Manchester area, the police plan to dismiss the case as an open-and-shut suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced, and for nearly the whole span of this taut psychological thriller readers are left to wonder if it was suicide or murder.
The novel alternates between chapters marked “Then” and “Now”: in the latter story line, we follow the police investigation and meet the women of the refuge; in the former, we dive into Katie’s own experience of an abusive relationship back in London. While her mother was dying of cancer she found it comforting to have a boyfriend who was so attentive to her needs, but eventually Jamie’s obsessive love became confining.
I almost never pick up a mystery, but this one was well worth making an exception for. I started suspecting the twist at maybe the two-thirds point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Based on Moor’s year working in the violence against women sector, it’s a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.
I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.
Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
(To be published by Plough Publishing House on the 31st)
Peters is a comics artist based in Montreal. Here he has chosen 24 reasonably well-known poems by the likes of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti and W.B. Yeats and illustrated each one in a markedly different fashion. From black-and-white manga to a riot of color and music, from minimalist calligraphy-like Japanese watercolor to imitations of Brueghel, there is such a diversity of style here that at first I presumed there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, this is all Peters’ work; I was impressed by his versatility.
The illustrations range from realistic to abstract, with some more obviously cartoon-like. A couple of sequences reminded me of the style of Raymond Briggs. For “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, lines are inlaid on the squares of a painted patchwork quilt. Other sets look to have been done via wood engraving, or with old-fashioned crayons. You could quibble with the more obvious poetry selections, but I encountered a few that were new to me, including “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg and “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters has grouped them into six thematic categories: self, others, art, nature, time and death. Teenagers, especially, will enjoy the introduction to a variety of poets and comics styles.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
(Published by ONE/Pushkin on the 5th)
“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.
Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.
The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
My thanks to the publisher for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus…
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
(Paperback published by Bloomsbury on the 5th)
With the Second World War only recently ended and nothing awaiting him apart from the coal mine where his father works, sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard sets out on a journey. From his home in County Durham, he walks southeast, doing odd jobs along the way in exchange for food and lodgings. One day he wanders down a lane near Robin Hood’s Bay and gets a surprisingly warm welcome from a cottage owner, middle-aged Dulcie Piper, who invites him in for tea and elicits his story. Almost accidentally, he ends up staying for the rest of the summer, clearing scrub and renovating her garden studio.
Dulcie is tall, outspoken and unconventional – I pictured her as (Meryl Streep as) Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia. She introduces Robert to whole new ways of thinking: that not everyone believes in God, that Germans might not be all bad, that life can be about adventure and pleasure instead of duty. “The offing” is a term for the horizon, as well as the title of a set of poems Robert finds in the dilapidated studio, and both literature and ambition change his life forever. Bright, languid and unpredictable, the novel delights in everyday sensual pleasures like long walks with a dog, dips in the ocean and an abundance of good food. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it – how refreshing is that?
I pre-ordered the paperback using a Waterstones voucher I got for Christmas.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Doris Lessing’s Centenary & The Grass Is Singing
Today would have been Doris Lessing’s 100th birthday; she in fact died in 2013. Reading Lara Feigel’s Free Woman last year encouraged me to try more from Lessing, and I’m glad that I did so this month. I started with The Fifth Child, a horror novella for R.I.P., followed by the novel Lessing brought with her when she left Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England.
The Grass Is Singing (1950)
I had trouble believing that this novel a) was Lessing’s debut and b) is now nearly 70 years old. It felt both fresh and timeless, and I could see how it has inspired writing about the white experience in Africa ever since, especially a book like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, in which an English farmer and his son are haunted by the violent death of the young man’s mother back in Zambia 10 years ago.
For The Grass Is Singing begins with two sly words, “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. It’s a tease because in one sense there’s no mystery to this at all: we know from the first lines what happened to Mary. And yet we are drawn in, wondering why she was killed and how the Turners went from an idealistic young couple enthusiastic about their various money-making schemes – a shop, chickens, tobacco – to a jaded, distant pair struggling for their health, both mental and physical.
The breakdown of their marriage and the failure of their farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail, all while exposing (with neither judgment nor approval) how Anglos felt about the natives at that time.
There’s a sense in which this was all fated: Dick is weak, someone Mary pities rather than loves and respects; and Mary’s mixed-up feelings toward her black servants – fear, contempt, curiosity and attraction – were bound to lead to an explosion. The land itself seems to be conspiring against them, too, or is at least indifferent to their plans and dreams.
So many passages struck me for their effortless profundity. I cringed to see myself so clearly in Mary’s boredom and restlessness, along with her ambivalence about the idea of motherhood: “She hated the idea of a baby, when she thought of its helplessness, its dependence, the mess, the worry. But it would give her something to do.”
This was the fifth full-length book I’ve read by Lessing, and by far the best.
Alas, I had a Lessing DNF this month, too:
The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
This was shelved in with the memoirs in The Bookshop, Wigtown. I’m not blaming Mr. Bythell or his staff, as this would be a very easy shelving error to make, even for those well versed in literature. But I was disappointed to realize that it’s actually one of Lessing’s detached, dreamy dystopian novels. I tried really hard with this but couldn’t make it past page 48. There’s just not much detail to latch onto. You know that it is set in a vague but believable near future (London?) in which there has been political and social breakdown, followed by gangs, looting and fighting. The narrator hides out in her apartment and is able to live a fairly normal life (“We can get used to anything at all”), at least until an adolescent girl named Emily Cartright is deposited into her care. The novel still feels relevant – the comments on rumor and gossip being as important as news; the sense that the narrator’s generation has ruined things for Emily’s generation and should accept guilt and responsibility – but there is just no plot to speak of.
Next up for me from Lessing’s works will be at least one of her heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels.
#5–6 Short Fiction: Animal Crackers and Barnacle Love
I may have fallen behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading – August is going to have to be jam-packed! – but I have been enjoying the all-animals challenge. One of these two collections of short fiction sustains an animal theme for most of its length, while the other draws on metaphors from a fishing community but isn’t specifically about nature.
Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti (2004)
A zoo, a circus, a turkey farm, a natural history museum, an African hunting expedition: several of the 11 stories are set in locales where human–animal interactions are formalized and exploitative, but all mention an animal at least once. In two cases the animal reference seems incidental and the stories really belong elsewhere – “Home Sweet Home,” which opens with the excellent line “Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night,” appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2003; “Hit Man of the Year” feels like a trial run for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – and in others there are gratuitous animal deaths at the hands of disturbed boys or angry men, which is always a strike against a book for me.
I only found four stand-outs here. “Reasonable Terms” is a playful piece of magic realism in which a zoo’s giraffes get the gorilla to write out a list of demands for their keepers and, when agreement isn’t forthcoming, stage a mass mock suicide. In “How to Revitalize the Snake in Your Life,” a woman takes revenge on her boa constrictor-keeping boyfriend. In “Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus,” which reminded me of Ned Beauman’s madcap style, a boarding school teenager eludes the private detectives her parents have hired to keep tabs on her and makes it all the way to Ghana, where a new species of monkey is named after her. My favorite of all was “Preservation,” in which Mary saves wildlife paintings through her work as an art conservator but can’t save her father from terminal illness.
Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa (2008)
When I plucked this Giller Prize finalist from a secondhand bookshop’s clearance shelf, I assumed it was a novel. The 10 titled chapters are in chronological order and recount the Rebelos’ experiences in Canada between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, but in that each focuses on a discrete incident from the family’s history, they are more like linked short stories. Manuel, a fisherman from the Azores, is shipwrecked on the coast of Newfoundland and begins a new life in Canada. He’s deliberately gone far from his home village, far from his controlling mother and the priest who abused him: “I knew that if I stayed in our town, on our stifling island, I’d be consumed by what it was you [his mother] hoped and dreamed for me.” He moves from St. John’s to Toronto, brings over a Portuguese wife, and raises two children while hopping from one unsuccessful money-making scheme to another.
The first half of the book reports Manuel’s life in the third person, while the second is in the first person, narrated by his son, Antonio. Through that shift in perspective we come to see Manuel as both a comic and a tragic figure: he insists on speaking English, but his grammar and accent are atrocious; he cultivates proud Canadian traditions, like playing the anthem on repeat on Canada Day and spending Christmas Eve at Niagara Falls, but he’s also a drunk the neighborhood children laugh at. Although the two chapters set back in Portugal were my favorites, Manuel is a compelling, sympathetic character throughout, and I appreciated De Sa’s picture of the immigrant’s contrasting feelings of home and community. Particularly recommended if you’ve enjoyed That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung.
Manuel’s mother: “My husband used to say that men are all barnacles. A barnacle starts out life swimming freely in the ocean. But, when it matures, it must settle down and choose a home. My dear husband used to say that it chooses to live with other barnacles of the same kind so that they can mate.”
Manuel: “I leave Portugal on fishing boat and I know I not going to come back. I give everything away to follow something new. I no understand what but something inside push me here—to make something of myself in this land. I come to be someone in this world.”