A little update!

Hello dear readers! My apologies for my absence. Life has been a wee bit crazy in the last month or so, but we have finally moved into our new house and things are evening out… I actually have the time to sit down and write a blog post! Yay! I’m sitting at the dining table in our new house, and I could not be happier about it.

Anyway. I have read a few books since my last post, and I have lots of reviews to write! Here are some of the books I have read recently that you can expect to read about here soon:

  • Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
  • The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg
  • In the Labyrinth of Drakes and Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

I am also going to do a belated Best of 2016 post very soon, so watch out for that too! I’m currently reading Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Katherine Howard and loving it, so I’ll write about that when I have finished it. I also received a few books for Christmas, and expect to get a couple for my birthday, so I’ll post about that those as well. So lots to come! Your patience will be rewarded!

In the meantime, happy reading and happy new year!

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.

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2009 PMC edition

At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.

I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.

Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.

Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.

This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.

I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!

*

Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

 

Blog tour: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

 

I don’t often agree to review brand new books anymore, or take part in blog tours – but The Dark Circle intrigued me. I had heard lots of good things about Linda Grant but never actually read her books, and the premise of this novel appealed to me. In 1949, twins Lenny and Miriam are both diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in Kent to recover. From the press release: “Trapped in this sterile, closed environment, with a host of extraordinary characters, they find a cure that is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.” This makes it sound a little like they are in prison, and you can see why they might feel that way. From their arrival they see that the sanatorium is cut off from the rest of the world and has its own pace of life.

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2016 proof from Virago

Lenny and Miriam are very young, only nineteen, and they are used to living in the bustling city. Miriam is confined to bedrest on the veranda with fellow patient Valerie, but Lenny is able to move about and even walk to the local village. En route he runs into an army captain who is also a patient at the sanatorium; the captain states that he and all the other military patients are ‘dead men’, just waiting to get better after all the action and excitement – as well as danger – that they saw in service. At the sanatorium they face another kind of danger in the form of extreme boredom coupled with the possibility of death. From the start there is a slightly morbid air to the whole place, and both Lenny and Miriam wonder if they will ever leave alive.

I wondered if the ‘dead men’ and their fellow patients represented the generation struggling to go back to normal life after the War, either because they were soldiers or their lives were so shaken up by it. Throughout the book there is a lot of discussion of the ways in which the country and its people are changing in the aftermath of the War. Class divides are beginning to blur, seen here through the fact that the sanatorium can admit poorer people via the brand new NHS where previously it was an enclave of rich people. Lenny and Miriam are some of these new patients and are exposed to new types of people during their time in the sanatorium.

Their overseer Dr Limb implements a trial of the new cure, a drug called streptomycin, and he faces the choice of who should receive the treatment – knowing that in the clinical trials some patients were cured, but others had severe allergic reactions to the new medication. Their lives are in his hands in a way they have never been before. Gradually the patients hear about this new drug, and the fact that only some people seem to be receiving it. As Lenny improves, Miriam gets worse, and he becomes desperate for her to receive the new cure.

I won’t say anymore there so as not to spoil the plot, but the ‘rebellion’ soon takes place. Not long after that the timeline moves ahead and we see the twins, and Valerie, in the future with their new lives. This section towards the end is a little less potent than the sections in the sanatorium, but we see the long term effects of the treatment there, both physical and psychological. All the patients feel that their survival of the sanatorium is something that holds them together – they have an “aura of darkness about them, [as if] their past suffering had penetrated their skin.” It is a dark circle surrounding them for the rest of their lives.

Honestly I felt that this imagery was a little melodramatic, given that other people had just experienced the horrors of the Second World War, but this manifestation of a shared experience works quite well. All the former patients have something that ties them together, this defining moment in their lives, for better or worse. I suppose the point is that we all have our own ‘dark circles’ that remind us of past suffering, and our experiences always affect our later lives. There is also something to be said for the bonds created by these experiences.

I am glad I read The Dark Circle, though it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be – but I did enjoy it. It explores some fascinating issues and ideas, and has some excellent vivid characters, as well as a dry sense of humour. I don’t think I was as moved by it as I was perhaps supposed to be, but it was nonetheless a satisfying and enjoyable reading experience.

*

Published by Virago in November 2016. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

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In Praise Of: True Crime

Many years ago I worked as a bookseller for Borders and I have to admit that the true crime section was not one that I thought of as full of ‘literature’. All the books had sensational covers with big red letters and bad photographs. They were small fat books that didn’t get many visitors, and while I thought some of the topics looked sort of interesting, their terrible covers and titles put me off. So I turned my nose up at true crime. It seemed almost as bad as the trend for Misery Memoirs a few years ago –  books that implied you were entertained by the suffering of others and that you fell for the sensationalised titles and covers. They were the book equivalent of the trashiest tabloid newspaper.

But as time has passed I’ve realised that I have an interest not in suffering or sensationalism, but in crime. I like crime novels, detective TV shows, mysteries and thrillers. And surely the best stories are always the ones that are true? These days it seems to me that love true crime is as popular as ever, but there are more socially acceptable ways of receiving it – podcasts are the prime example. People went mad for Serial, and now In the Dark is making a splash, as well as Criminal. There’s also the success of the Netflix series Making a Murderer, which I thought was brilliant. I’m pleased to hear there will be a second series.

I enjoyed Making a Murderer so much because it delved right into not only what may or may not have happened in terms of the murder itself, but also the events following it – the search for Teresa Halbach, the police investigation, and the ways in which Steven Avery was identified as a suspect. The investigative and legal processes are fascinating to me, and I was glued to the scenes featuring Avery’s lawyers as they worked on their case, and especially when they were arguing in court.

I think my interest in this area is linked to my interest in psychology and unusual people. People who are in some way different from others, people who are strange or unusual, are inherently interesting to me. I like weird stories and unexplained mysteries – the ‘other’ side of life. People who commit serious crimes are on that other side.

Which leads me to serial killers. They are some of the most extreme and troubled of people, and some of the most interesting. There are a handful of topics that regularly lead me down Wiki-holes, and serial killers is one of them. When J. P. March had a bunch of them over for dinner in the Halloween episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, I knew their stories already.

Listening to the podcasts mentioned above, and my Reading Lists project, lead me to consider The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. This was a book I’d been aware of for quite a while, but worrying that it was too trashy stopped me from getting hold of a copy. But my new attitude to reading what I really want made me click ‘order’ on Wordery.com.

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Like the trashiest true crime books, it is small and fat and has a very questionable cover design; but The Stranger Beside Me proved to be an engaging and fascinating book. It is as much about Ann Rule and her experience as it is about her subject, Ted Bundy, and it was a rich and immersive reading experience. Rule was a journalist before she wrote books, and this was her first one, so the style is quite journalistic, which I think worked well. She is methodical in detailing what happened, or what might have happened, and manages to mix the ‘cold hard facts’ of Bundy’s crimes with the emotional aftermath.

Ann Rule was in a unique position when it came to Ted Bundy – she knew him in real life purely by chance, and she was assigned to write about his crimes before anyone knew that he was the one committing them. Some of the most interesting sections in the book are when Rule tries to reconcile the man she knew in the early seventies – young, polite, caring, intelligent – with the man who committed these crimes. He was someone entirely different. In this vein the later updates to the book are fascinating as Rule looks back on the period with hindsight. She states that she was wrong to think Bundy was insane, and that at the time she had a limited understanding of what that meant. The passing of the years has allowed her to learn more about people like him, and for her view of him to expand and develop. She comes to understand that he was not insane, but was a true psychopath.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Stranger Beside Me if you are home alone and it’s dark outside, particularly if you are female. Bundy kidnapped many women in broad daylight, but the most frightening tales of him are those in which he crept into houses late at night and murdered girls in their beds – such as his ‘visit’ to the Chi Omega sorority house in Florida in 1978. These episodes, along with the kidnapping and killing of twelve-year-old Kimberley Leach, really show the most frightening sides of his personality.

Ann Rule writes a certain type of true crime book. Her heyday was the eighties and nineties, so the covers of her books look quite dated, and they do have slightly melodramatic titles – they do not have the reserved and ‘sophisticated’ look of titles such as The Monster of Florence or Columbine. She does not spare details, and she readily includes the emotional side of the story. The fact is she was not an investigative journalist, and they are the people that usually present true crime stories to us these days. Her style is a little dated, but she is a brilliant storyteller and an engaging writer. I am considering reading one or two of her others books (she wrote a lot of them), and I’m glad to have discovered a new genre of writing that I find interesting. True crime isn’t for everyone, but I will definitely be reading more of it.

*

The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980 by Norton; I read the 2008 edition from Pocket Books (pictured above).

Puchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

*

Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!

Beware the Hype: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

 

My Name is Lucy Barton has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and so understandably it’s quite popular at the moment generating a bit of hype. Almost every review I have read (both in newspapers/magazines and online) has been favourable, mentioning the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth of the story. My fiance’s mother gave me her copy to read, and I had high hopes.

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It is a novel without much of a plot. Our narrator Lucy is looking back at her life and recounts the time she spent in hospital in the mid 1980s. Her mother, who she had not seen for years, came to visit her and stayed for five days. They talked mostly about people they used to know, gossiping and laughing. That is the frame for the story, and the starting point for Lucy to recount various other scenes in her life that are relevant and or in some way related to this time or this visit from her mother.

Ostensibly it is a novel about a mother/daughter relationship and the nature of family. The Barton family were desperately poor when Lucy was growing up and clearly didn’t have an easy time; there are also allusions to some kind of abuse, possibly sexual, though no details are given. Whatever happened it seems like Lucy is living in a post-trauma phase in her life – her narration is very childlike and simple, and she fights to explain everything she says. Her voice is distinctive but in my opinion not very well executed as the childlike side of her is frustrating rather than endearing. She struggles to understand people and has very little emotion in her voice. I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (which would explain either her being traumatised or possibly on the autism spectrum) or just the deep self-consciousness of the writing. It seems to be a ‘thing’ these days to write in a quite blank way that is supposed to convey deep emotion in a method similar to poetry, and while this sometimes works it certainly doesn’t in this case. This ‘blankness’ also meant that to me the characters seemed underdeveloped. Given that Lucy is our narrator she is the most fully-formed, but I would say she is only 75% developed. All the other characters, including her mother, are almost like templates – they do not seem to have full personalities. As with the tone of Lucy’s narration I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (perhaps demonstrating that Lucy finds it hard to understand other people) or just a flaw in the writing.

Many reviews I’ve read praised the deep emotion of the book – but to me this novel is almost emotionless. Lucy’s voice is very flat and unmoving, and I found her hard to connect or empathise with. Given most people’s very different reaction, I wonder if I am missing something that the author is doing intentionally, or if this book just wasn’t for me. I’d be interested to hear from other readers who didn’t completely love it.

Lastly I want to consider Lucy’s relationship with her mother. Before the hospital visit they haven’t seen each other in about a decade, and the reason for this seems to be a mixture of Lucy’s desire to move away from her family to start her own life, and her parents’ dislike of her husband. Lucy also seems to have some level of resentment or anger towards her mother for her difficult childhood, though we do not know exactly what happened there. The mother is very distant and emotionally unavailable – Lucy says she has come to expect that her mother can never say ‘I love you’. They speak a couple of times about Lucy’s childhood and the rest of the family, but always briefly and evasively; most of their conversations are about people they remember from the past and where they ended up. Most of these stories are of divorce and heartbreak, but Lucy and her mother enjoy recounting them. This seems to bridge a gap between them, but it also means that most of their conversations are largely meaningless. The mother leaves the hospital quite abruptly and after that Lucy states they do not see each other again for a long time. I think I could see what Elizabeth Strout was trying to do with this relationship, to show them trying to connect with each other, but her method of doing this made it very hard for me to connect with the characters. There was not enough depth to their joint story, and it felt like there could have been so much more to it.

My Name is Lucy Barton is an odd little novel. I think a lot of people will warm to it, but it just didn’t work for me.

*

Published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin) in 2016.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I’d heard of The Glass Castle long before I read it, and I was vaguely interested in it, but the real impetus to read it came from two things: my putting together reading lists of the books I most wanted to read; and the news that it has been adapted into a film starring some great people – Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson. I have to say casting Harrelson as Jeannette’s father is pretty perfect.

Anyway, so I bought the book. It is one of those memoirs that seems, oh yeah, simple, story of redemption, escape from poverty, crazy family… and it is about those things, but it’s also about accepting the fact that your parents are flawed, weird, not-perfect people; and accepting the life they have given you. Jeannette Walls talks a lot about chances, choices, and what really makes us happy. Towards the end it gets quite philosophical.

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Virago 2005 paperback edition

For me this was a book about building on what you have and bettering yourself, but also about mental illness and fear. Jeannette’s parents Rex and Rose Mary are both lovably quirky and hippy-ish to start with, but over the course of the book, and Jeannette’s childhood, you see that they are both a little unstable, and they are both afraid of a lot of things. Rex is delusional and believes that a host of government agencies are out to get him, so he needs to keep moving around the country (but this is also because the family are often skipping out on rent). He also has a terrible attitude towards authority and cannot keep a job; and he is an alcoholic. In time he proves to be the family’s main obstacle when it comes to earning enough money and making things work. But Rose Mary is also to blame. She seems to be terrified of responsibility and work, is very self-centred, and she acts as an enabler to Rex. Even when he screws everything up, even when he is angry at his family for no reason – there comes a point when her teenage children (Jeannette and her three siblings) are practically asking her why she doesn’t just leave him. But she always has an answer, always accepts him just as he is and doesn’t push for change. I felt that Rose Mary was afraid of change, and afraid of things she didn’t know. She also says more than once that she might as well do as Rex says because he’s her husband. This was before third or fourth wave feminism.

There is in fact a point when the children persuade their mother to leave their father behind when they move, but he follows soon after. Rose Mary and Rex are like doomed lovers – they cannot be apart, but being together just seems to create problems. It gets really interesting when the children get older and are able to live on their own – we accept that their parents will never change just as they do, and we see their efforts to create good and happy lives for themselves. Jeannette is the most sympathetic to her parents, and in her and her siblings’ differing attitudes to them we see the complexity of parent/child relationships and the different ways in which people cope with the same situation. One thing that ties all four children together is that they are all incredibly independent and resilient, not to mention brave. They know how to look after themselves and are not afraid to take risks – they have always survived worse. I really admired them all for this bravery and willingness to try things, this refusal to give up or become hopeless.

As for the reading experience, The Glass Castle is both wonderful and terrible. Rex and Rose Mary are infuriating and frustrating, and they just completely lack practical parenting skills. But they are both fascinating as case studies of people who are a product of their environment and their families, people who are just so determined to do what they think is right no matter what anyone else says or thinks – even their own children. The story of the Walls family is entertaining, fascinating, sad and desperate, but ultimately hopeful. They seem to be able to survive anything. For me the lasting message of this book, if there is one, is that people are more resilient that you know, and very different things make different people happy. There is a no one right way to live – although there is one right way to look after your children and that is to keep them safe, something which Rex and Rose Mary did not always do. Despite everything the family still love each other, and they are always a family no matter what. That is what holds them together, for better or worse.

As for their life now, this New York Times article from 2013 is a brilliant update on the Walls family, and Jeannette’s attitude to her life and parents now that she’s an adult and has a totally different lifestyle. It is still kind of heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating in the way that families almost always are.

*

First published in 2005 by Scribner (USA) and Virago (UK). I read the Virago edition.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

New Fiction: The Last Photograph by Emma Chapman

As some readers may know, I was a big fan of Emma Chapman’s first novel How To Be A Good Wife. It was a taught thriller with wonderful characters and plotting, and though dark in subject matter it was a joy to read.

Chapman’s literary skills are similarly showcased in her new novel The Last Photograph. It is the story of Rook Henderson, a photographer whose life was changed by his time in Vietnam during the war there. The book alternates between Rook’s life in the 1960s, and the present day, and though this kind of time-hopping can sometimes be jarring, Chapman carefully links the section together so that they flow nicely and nothing gets muddled.

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2016 Picador hardback

There are two time frames, and there are also the two sides of Rook’s life – his work in Vietnam, and his life at home with his wife June. The novel covers his entire relationship with June and the impact that his working away from home has on their marriage. I thought this was sensitively handled and as a whole the portrait of their marriage is both sympathetic and rather stark. Chapman excels at presenting the subtleties of a relationship to the reader through dialogue as well as things left unsaid.

Personally I enjoyed the scenes in Vietnam the most. While I have seen movies and read books that discuss this place at this time, it was refreshing to see it through the eyes of a photographer, and a British one at that. The military aspect is not the focus – instead we look at the ordinary people, both the Vietnamese and the civilians like Rook who are visiting. He quickly bonds with two American journalists, Henry and Tom, and they play pivotal roles in his experience of Vietnam, both personally and professionally. The sections set in Vietnam are vivid and exciting, with Rook slowly realising how serious the situation really is. He captures amazing photographs and you can see why he likes being there, in the middle of the action.

The scenes set back home in England are of a different feel. When they are young Rook and June’s life is full of hope and excitement, but as Rook travels more and more their relationship begins to strain and there is less and less happiness in their lives. To be honest at times this got a little grim. They find it hard to communicate, Rook in particular – he bottles up his feelings and cannot find happiness in the ordinariness of life with June. His refusal to fully engage with that life, instead always yearning for adventure, made him quite a frustrating character. He is obviously unhappy with his lot and feels unfulfilled, but his only solution for this is to run away.

Rook’s passion for photography is his redeeming feature. The passages exploring this are lovely, as Rook finally feels in control, able to capture time in an image. He sees suffering and death in Vietnam but he knows that if he does not take a photograph then there will be no evidence and no one will know what happened. He revels in the details captured on film, in the impact of his work. The importance of photographs in reportage is analysed and celebrated in The Last Photograph, and is almost worth reading for this fact alone.

It isn’t the most cheery of books, but it is beautifully written and full of human understanding. The characters throughout are flawed and imperfect, and this coupled with Chapman’s precise prose makes them come alive. A successful second novel if ever there was one.

*

Published in July 2016 by Picador (UK).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

I bought this book last year, and somehow have only just got around to reading it. Too many books as always. Despite being about life during the Second World War I knew that it would not be a heavy read – and so I took it with me on holiday to Mallorca.

The introduction and afterword provide plenty of information about Mollie Panter-Downes and the context in which these stories came about: they were all published in The New Yorker during the course of the War. Panter-Downes was their ‘writer in London’ and these stories were her way of communicating what ordinary English life was like between 1939 and 1944. Also included in the book are two of her ‘Letter from London’ articles that were also published in The New Yorker – one from 1939 and one from 1944. They bookend the stories and remind us that while these are fictional tales they are based on the realities of civilian life in this period and place.

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Mollie Panter-Downes was a journalist as well as writer of fiction and this is demonstrated in the matter-of-fact nature of her storytelling. Her characters live ordinary lives, fully realised, that become extraordinary in one way or another – whether it a sewing group arguing over whether to make pyjamas for Greek troops, or a husband leaving his wife to go and fight. Domestic drama becomes a microcosm of the conflict and change that every country involved experienced during the War. The silent pain of a housewife represents the pain of all those who have lost something.

The fact is that Mollie Panter-Downes was a beautiful writer. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the pure loveliness of her language, the nuances and the perfectly captured moments. There is great emotional depth in her stories, but it is buttoned up by the characters and their will to ‘keep calm and carry on’. They are so very English in their desire for life to continue and to prevent their world from falling apart.

The story that the book takes its name from,’Good Evening, Mrs Craven’, is one of the most heartbreaking. The woman in question is called ‘Mrs Craven’ by a restaurant owner who doesn’t know she is in fact Mr Craven’s mistress. When he is called to fight she has no way of knowing if he is still alive, and resorts to calling the real Mrs Craven and pretending to be an old friend of her husband, asking if she has had any news. Their conversation is so well composed that it seems real, and you can feel the pain of both women.

Most of the stories focus on the women left behind, but there are men too – those too old or unwell to fight. We see their frustration at not being able to go, and their sadness that another war has come. No one escapes the pain of being caught in this impossible situation, but while these stories are sometimes sad they are ultimately uplifting as a whole. There are moments of humour scattered throughout and the overriding impression is that although life has changed irrevocably, it does in fact go on. The English spirit perseveres and Mollie Panter-Downes reminds us that there is always something to fight for.

*

The stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven were originally published in The New Yorker, 1938-1944, and published as this collected by Persephone Books in 1999 and 2008.

Purchase from Foyles and Wordery.