Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson (2007)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I came across The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial in my GoodReads recommendations, and thought it seemed almost like the perfect book for me – a memoir about family history, women, and crime. The crime element particularly appealed to me as the book details Maggie Nelson’s experience of the trial of the man of may have murdered her aunt, over thirty years before. She and her family had no idea that the murder was still being investigated, and then suddenly they are told that a possible suspect will be tried for it. It’s a whirlwind of old pain and new horror as Nelson’s mother, aunt, and grandfather have to dredge up their memories of what happened to their sister and daughter – Nelson’s aunt Jane.

It turns out Nelson had written a book of poetry and prose about her aunt, simply called Jane: A Murder, which came out in 2005, just two years before this book – so she was already somewhat familiar with her aunt’s life and the circumstances of her death, even though she never knew her. Jane was murdered in 1969, when she was 23 and studying at the University of Michigan. Unless it happens to you, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live with the knowledge that someone in your family, so closely related to you, was murdered. Throughout The Red Parts, Nelson muses on her connection to Jane and why her death seems to haunt her so much. Perhaps because she knows the pain caused to her mother and her other relatives, perhaps because Jane was killed so randomly by a stranger, and that this could, in theory, happen to any woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She also muses on our shared interest in these awful stories, especially when she and her mother are asked to participate in an episode of the show 48 Hours Mystery about Jane’s death. They agree to do it, but throughout The Red Parts Nelson discusses her conflicted feelings about this sort of thing – why do we want to know all the unpleasant details? Is it voyeuristic or sensationalist to learn about murders like Jane’s? She wonders why we obsess so much over young women who are murdered, why it can be so hard to prove what really happened, and why it is necessary to try a man for a crime that happened so long ago. She wonders about the nature of justice and the difference between its legal definition and the feeling of justice that she supposes her family are meant to feel if the suspect in Jane’s murder is found guilty. Does that make it all better? Does that close the book on the whole thing?

These are interesting and vital questions that I think we could all relate to or apply to something in our lives; but I wasn’t sure whether Nelson was trying to appeal to her readers in that way, or whether she just wanted to express her disgust at both the horrific nature of Jane’s murder, and her own confusion over it and its consequences. She seems to disapprove of 48 Hours Mystery and other media interest in the trial, and at times even her own interest in it beyond her familial connection. I thought perhaps she was going to explore the possibility that we are all fascinated by things like murder because we are afraid of them, and we want to understand them, and she brings this in to some extent, but the overwhelming impression is of her revulsion and misery in the face of the whole situation. Not to say she shouldn’t feel these things, but there was nothing to counter it, nothing to remind us that life can still be good and happy, and that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

I’d never read anything by Maggie Nelson before The Red Parts, and honestly I’m not sure I will read anything else of hers. While I found this book fascinating, I found it very hard to read (it’s only 195 pages and I was reading it from August to October) and I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. Nelson’s narrative is raw and tough, and I personally found her hard to relate to, despite the universality of much of what she discussed. The Red Parts is, to me, a cold and hard book with a cold and hard centre. Its darkness is rarely countered by glimmers of light or comfort and the unpleasantness and sadness is unrelenting. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it was so short. Not one for the fainthearted.

*

Originally published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2007. I read the 2017 Faber paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwells, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I had vaguely heard of this book before I saw it in Waterstones – probably because it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. I was in Barnstaple and wandering around the bookshop, having stupidly taken only one book away on holiday with me (perhaps the first time I have ever done that), and have inevitably finished in the first two days. So we drove to the nearest Waterstones. History of Wolves was on one of the front tables, and both the the cover and the title caught my eye. I don’t pay much attention to book prizes, but the front and back of the book was also covered in praise, so I thought I’d give it a go. The premise of a lonely teenage girl, living with her parents on an ex-commune next to a lake in Minnesota appealed to me.

The girl is Linda – we learn her real name is Madeleine or Mattie, though an explanation for why she is sometimes called Linda is never given – and she is lonely and isolated, both at home and at school. You quickly realise she is incredibly independent for her age, and only relies on her parents for her home and food. She seems to do everything by and for herself. I adored this early phase of the book, as author Emily Fridlund is wonderful at setting the scene and conjuring up the Minnesota woods and countryside. There is a deep sense of place, and lovely descriptions throughout. We also get a decent sense of Linda’s character through her narration, though you feel that she is still always holding something back. She always retains an element of mystery.

Likewise there is a degree of mystery about the commune that she grew up in, and her parents involvement in it. We learn that it eventually ended when relationships broke down, but Linda seems to have happy memories of her childhood there – though she doesn’t talk about it much. She also doesn’t provide that much detail or characterisation about her parents, and this adds to the opaqueness of certain areas of her character and experience. At first I found this a little frustrating, but I think it was an intentional choice on the part of the author, to add to the isolated feeling, and Linda’s un-anchored sense of family and belonging.

Perhaps for this reason, she becomes fascinated with the family that build a house across the lake. They seem perfect at first – two parents and a little boy. In such a quiet area it is perhaps inevitable that she eventually meets the mother, Patra, while she is out with Paul, the little boy. For much of the novel that father, Leo, is away and Linda and Patra become friends. Linda takes Paul out for long walks in the woods, the place where she seems to feel most at home, and she teaches him about the plants and animals. She has a fascination with wolves that she tries to pass on to him, unsuccessfully. This all goes along for a while until we start to realise, as does Linda, that there’s something off about the way Patra talks about Leo. He seems to have all the power in the relationship, and this becomes even more clear when he returns and meets Linda. They never really get on, and Linda is oddly protective of Patra and Paul when he is around. He asks her lots of questions about belief and sense of self that she finds odd. As she spends more time with the family and becomes more invested in them, she sees that something is bubbling under the surface, something that isn’t discussed explicitly, but something that makes her uneasy. Eventually Paul seems to become ill, and Linda is concerned, but both Patra and Leo brush her off and say that he’ll be fine once he rests. They both seem on edge, and as if they aren’t telling her something.

In the background behind this main story there is also Linda’s fascination with her teacher Mr Grierson, and with Lily, one of her fellow students. We find out early on that Mr Grierson was eventually fired from the school when they discovered that in his last job he had been accused of paedophilia, and a lot of indecent images were found in his home. Despite this Linda never seems to judge or hate him, and even sends him a letter at one point. She is oddly obsessed with him, and discovers that his status as a registered sex offender means that she can see his movements around the country in the years after he leaves the school. Somewhat connected to him is her obsession with Lily, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment. For this she loses her social status and becomes something of a pariah at school. At first I couldn’t work out why Linda was so fixated on these two people, but I think it is because she feels some vague connection to them as outsiders, as people who are judged and who do not fit in. She tries to help them both in her own way, and perhaps this enables her to feel like she is doing some good, and preventing someone else from feeling as lonely and isolated as she does.

Linda is a fascinating character. As I said we never find out why she gets called Linda, and though it was a bit annoying at first I actually liked that she remains a bit of a mystery to the reader. Likewise her parents are not fully realised characters, and I came to see that this is largely because she isn’t really close to either of them, and actually questions whether they are her real parents because all the children in the commune were raised together. The failed commune is a like a symbol of how trying too hard to create an idyllic family is almost doomed to fail and implode; and Linda and her parents are what is left behind. She is obviously starved for love, affection, and a real connection with someone, and this influences her actions and her views of others. She gets fixated on people and tries to connect with them, but doesn’t really know how. When we see parts of her later adult life, she is still isolated and lonely, even when she is with other people.

History of Wolves is an odd sort of coming-of-age novel, in that Linda is trying to figure things out and make her way in the world, but I’m not sure if she is ever really successful. There isn’t any sort of satisfying conclusion to the book, and that seems to fit with Linda’s independent and uncommitted way of living, her connection only to nature and herself, and her isolation from conventional society and relationships. It’s an odd little book that I think some readers might find unsatisfying or frustrating, but I enjoyed it for the character of Linda, the beautiful and evocative settings, and the wonderful writing. An unconventional but intriguing story, like Linda herself.

*

Published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. I read the Weidenfeld & Nicolson paperback, pictured above.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (2017)

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Like the last book I read, I found Once We Were Sisters through my GoodReads recommendations. I had never heard of Sheila Kohler but soon discovered that she is well-established writer of fiction, and this is her first memoir. It centres around her relationship with her older sister Maxine, and the devastation of Maxine’s sudden death at the age of 39. Having an older sister of my own, I knew I would be able to relate to their relationship in some way, and the premise intrigued me. More intriguing still is the fact that Maxine died when her husband veered their car off the road; she died, but he lived. Sheila wonders how this could have happened, and in the prologue poses her questions immediately following her sister’s death:

How could we have failed to protect her from him? What was wrong with our family? Was it our mother? Our father? Was it our nature, the way we were made, our genes, what we had inherited? Or, more terrible still, is there no answer to such a question? Was it just chance, fate, our stars, our destiny? It was not as if we did not see this coming. What held us back from taking action, from hiring a bodyguard for her? Was it the misogyny inherent in the colonial and racist society in the South Africa of the time? Was it the Anglican Church school where she and I prayed  daily that we might forgive even the most egregious sin? Was it the way women were considered in South Africa and in the world at large?

I am still looking for the answers.

This is quite a setup, and I was instantly drawn in.

The book skips about in time, with some chapters covering Sheila and Maxine’s childhood in South Africa, and the rest telling various stories from across their lives. There is very little mention of the years, and only the occasional mention of their ages, and so at times I was a little muddled about which period we were visiting in which chapter; it doesn’t help that both sisters travelled a lot, and lived abroad at various points. Towards the end of the book, when Maxine’s death is discussed in more detail, the timeline becomes more linear and we see how Sheila dealt with her grief and managed to continue on with her life.

There are some wonderful sections musing on the nature of sisterhood, of mothers and fathers, of marriage; both sisters have ultimately troubled marriages, and Sheila wonders why they both chose men that “have almost destroyed who we are.” I particularly enjoyed the memories of their mother with her two sisters, sitting together talking and knitting, weaving stories; likewise Sheila and Maxine playing games and wandering around the grounds of their huge childhood home in South Africa; and their times together in France and Italy, really getting to talk and escape their daily lives.

They are both weighed down by children, and as we learn, Maxine’s husband becomes violent towards both her and their children, and her life becomes increasingly difficult. As the above quote implies, while there is sympathy and comfort for Maxine from Sheila and their family, none of them step in to protect her from her husband, Carl, or offer her anything more than temporary respite. More than once, when Maxine does not want to return home from a trip, Sheila reminds her that she must get back to her children. Leaving Carl is never suggested as an option for Maxine, as it might be today, even when she reveals that he was caught trying to molest a child. Although Maxine has six healthy children, being a mother and wife is the end of her in more ways than one.

Sheila’s troubled marriage is blighted by infidelity rather than violence, and becomes perhaps even more difficult when her husband does not want to end their marriage, despite his affairs, and they continue on together in disharmony. His reasons for this are not explained beyond his declaration of continuing love for Sheila, but one suspects that the weight of tradition and obligation are a factor – likewise for Sheila, as she does not express a desire to leave him at this point. Instead she seethes with rage and betrayal, becoming obsessed with the idea of his lover, and even going to his mother for support. Of course it turns out that his mother is also speaking to him, and playing them off against each other.

A lot of this book is about mothers, and being a woman in a particular time and place, and the expectations society can place on women. Sheila and Maxine, as well as their mother and mothers-in-law, all seem to be trapped by their lives in some way, while the men live more or less as they choose. None of them seem especially happy except when they are purposefully escaping on holiday, or into drinking. Even as children there is a certain gloom over the two sisters – which may or may not be due to Sheila’s knowledge of their fate, woven into the writing.

I enjoyed Once We Were Sisters, but for me the book lacked coherence as a whole. The moves through time seemed a bit random, rather than a carefully constructed timeline, and the sparse writing, though lovely, made the whole thing feel a little out of reach, a little unreal and dreamy. Though I suppose this is how memories sometimes feel, especially if they are wrapped in sadness and grief. The book ends on a vague note, after Sheila has explored her anger and grief, her desire for revenge against her brother-in-law, dissipated over time. She reflects on her sister’s life, and her life as it is now, but does not really draw any conclusions. Instead we are left with the pain of her memories of her sister as a perfect child, and she comes to accept “that she, so lively and lovely, could be dead.”

*

Published by Penguin and Canongate in 2017. I read the Canongate paperback, pictured above (image via goodreads.com).

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Fiction, Reviews

Re-reading: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947)

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2009 Penguin paperback (image: goodreads.com)

I first read Alone in Berlin in 2011 just after I’d left university. I’d read a lot of books about the Second World War for a course at university, and my further reading (and time on Twitter) led me to this novel. It was only translated into English in 2009, so in 2011 it was still making quite an impact as a ‘new’ book in the UK, and everyone was talking about it. I read it without knowing much at all about the life of ordinary Germans during the war, or life in Berlin at the time. I had read mostly non-fiction about the war, survivor accounts like If This is a Man, and studies like Ordinary Men and Eichmann in Jerusalem, so this was a new side of the war for me.

I was impressed and somewhat overwhelmed by Alone in Berlin the first time I read it, though I’m not sure I fully appreciated it for what it was. Reading it in 2017 was a different experience. Since 2011 I have read a lot more about the war and have read about life in Berlin for ordinary people in non-fiction. I have also read a biography of Hans Fallada that was very illuminating about both him and the context in which Alone in Berlin was written; if you are interested in his fiction I would really recommend it. Fallada was deeply patriotic and refused to leave Germany during the war, even though his British publisher had made arrangements for him and his family to leave – he just couldn’t do it. He never joined the Nazi party and was therefore suspicious to his neighbours and Party officials – so much so that Goebbels himself tried to dictate his output (he was already a successful author and therefore well-known). He did the bare minimum to appease the tenacious Minister, and remained a private critic of the Party.

Alone in Berlin is based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who performed their own kind of civil disobedience to resist the Party. Their story was brought to Fallada by his friend Johannes Becher, who urged him to write about them – and Alone in Berlin was the result, written in only 24 days. Apparently Fallada was reluctant to take on the material, but once you read the book it’s clear he had a lot to pour into it – it is a rich and vivid novel filled with his resentments, anger, and sadness about the war years. The cast of characters features archetypes of Berlin at the time, covering Gestapo staff, petty criminals, terrified Jews, party members, beleaguered women, and those that just want to stay under that radar and get on with their lives – like Otto and Anna Quangel, the fictional versions of the Hampels.

Otto Quangel is a hard-working man, a foreman at a factory, hardened by years of work and with no belief in art or literature. He is described as having a birdlike face and a hard expression, and prefers silence to mindless chatter, even with his wife. He is uneducated, cautious, and set in his ways – and yet, he is the one to instigate his and Anna’s resistance. He decides to write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and deposit them around the city for others to find. At first Anna is terrified of being caught, but her fear for Otto and her desire for a better life lead her to help him with the cards. Like the real life Hampels, the Quangels are depicted as simple working people with little education. They do not have the power or resources to form any kind of large-scale resistance, but their passion compels them to do what little they can. Their defiance is driven by the death of their only son on the Eastern Front. They realise that they must do something, however small.

The book features several supporting characters, mostly the Quangels’ neighbours in their apartment building. These include the Persicke family, increasingly led by their teenage son who becomes a zealous member of the Hitler Youth; the Jewish Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been ‘taken away’; an old judge who seems well-intentioned; Eva Kluge, the postwoman, and her layabout husband Enno; and Emil Borkhausen, the petty criminal who tries to play everyone at their own game. There is also Inspector Escherich, assigned to track down the writer of the cards once they become known to the Gestapo. He is a multi-layered character with his own arc within the novel, and is a brilliant example of those who were instruments of the Reich but grew to have their doubts.

As with other books about this time and place, there is a strong sense of desperation running throughout the book, and we go through extreme highs and lows with almost all of the characters. Safety, reputation, and life itself are often on a knife edge, millimetres away from either saviour or destruction. More than once Fallada perfectly demonstrates apparent randomness of whether one is caught or one escapes, whether life will continue as always, or whether everything will change. Nothing in Alone in Berlin is certain, and the effect is terrifying. It is an intense and vivid novel, and though the writing is sometimes a little clunky, perhaps due to the speed at which it was written, you are still completely sucked in and engaged with the story and the characters.

The fact that it’s based on a real story, and even the embellished parts are probably close to things that really happened, means that the saddest and most devastating parts of the novel are even more so, and the effect can be overwhelming. You are shown real suffering, real determination and defiance, real chance and luck, and how easy it can be to win or lose. As per the title, and as is said by Otto more than once, we are all alone in the end; but in a strange way, this can bring us together. Knowing that we are each alone means that we should show compassion for one another, we should know that no one’s life is easy, no matter their position.

I think this time around I had a greater understanding of what Fallada was trying to do with this novel – to show how easy it was to collude, or do nothing, or give in to authority and power. This can be seen in several characters, and particularly Inspector Escherich. Fallada also demonstrates that, like Otto the misanthrope, you don’t even have to like other people to see that everyone deserves to live and be free, and that everyone is equal. The afterword mentions the ‘banality of goodness’ on display in the novel, in contrast to the ‘banality of evil’ later explored by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (as well as others). Society in Berlin is so destroyed that basic goodness and decency have become rare. Knowing this also made me appreciate Fallada’s writing a bit more, though it is flawed. His tone is often very deadpan, nonchalant, understated, or even sarcastic when serious or sad things are being discussed; violence, death, cruelty, grief have all become so commonplace for the characters and the city that they do not require any special language.

When I reached the end of Alone in Berlin a second time, I wondered whether it can be considered a hopeful book. The answer is yes and no – even if evil wins sometimes, there are many more victories for goodness and compassion.

*

Originally published in Germany in 1947 as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone); translated into English in 2009 and published by Melville House in the US, and Penguin in the UK. I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition (pictured above).

A new film adaptation of Alone in Berlin, starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, was made in 2016.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)

[A side note: in the US, the title is The Women in the Castle.]

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Bonnier Zaffre UK hardback (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always been interested in the literature of the Second World War, ever since a course on the Literatures of Genocide at university. I’ve read history books, personal accounts, and novels such as Alone in Berlin and City of Women; so, I was happy to accept a review copy of The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck when it was offered to me (something I don’t do very often!). What appealed to me about this book were the fact that it is mostly set after the War, exploring its consequences, and that the story centres around the experiences of three German women who are thrown together by circumstance, and who have all had very different experiences of the War years.

Marianne and Benita are widows of resistors and met through their husbands just before the War. Shattuck quietly inserts the husbands into the notorious 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, led by Claus von Stauffenberg. As we know, the plot failed, and Marianne and Benita’s husbands are executed. Ania’s Polish husband was also involved in the plot, and appears once at the beginning of the novel. He, too, died.

In May 1945 Marianne is living at her late husband’s family estate, Burg Lingenfels. She urgently sets about finding her fellow widows from the 20th July plot and bringing them to live with her at the Burg, to recover and rebuild their lives. She finds Benita, whom she met once before the War, still living in Berlin. Her apartment building has been bombed and she is only alive because a Russian Captain has taken a shine to her, and protects her from the other Russian soldiers who are ransacking the city and raping its women – though of course he rapes Benita, and she lives in squalor in her former home. Marianne literally marches in and takes her away; she also magically manages to find Benita’s son, Martin, who has survived the War in a Children’s Home run by the Nazis.

Ania is located by Marianne in a nearby Displaced Persons camp, along with her two sons. She seems a little reluctant to come to the castle, but once there she sets to work cooking and looking after everyone. She is stoic and quiet, like her children, and does not reveal much, if anything, about herself. She is probably the most complicated of the characters, and her story unfolds slowly throughout the book.

The women and children, including Marianne’s son and two daughters, live in a sort of uneasy harmony for a while. Despite their traumas and their wariness of each other, they become a funny sort of family. When a group of Russian POWs approach the castle looking for food and somewhere to sleep, the women are reminded that they are still vulnerable and that the after-effects of the War will continue for some time. They are safer in the castle than they were before, but the War can still reach them, and their lives are not ‘back to normal’ at all.

The timeline skips about a bit, with the prologue set in 1938, the bulk of the book set in 1945, with a few flashbacks to 1944, the 20s, and the 30s as we slowly learn more about each woman’s past. For me, Marianne and Ania were the most well-rounded characters, and felt like real people with purpose and influence on the story. Benita on the other hand has less impact on the story, and is not quite as full a character. The key thing about her is that as a young woman she was part of her local branch of the BDM, and considered to be the perfect example of a young German woman who would fulfil Hitler’s vision of a wife and mother – and yet her husband was a resistor, she spent time in prison, and was left to rot in bombed out Berlin, raped by Russians and separated from her son. Marianne saves them both, but even then, Benita is a shell of her former self. Perhaps she represents the death of that vision of perfect German womanhood – the follower of the famous motto “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”, who met the Aryan physical standards of the Reich and espoused its ideals. She was blindsided by the War and left broken afterwards. She is a sorry and somewhat wretched character, a figure of the broken domestic ideals of the Reich.

Marianne, meanwhile, is a pillar of strength, German and pragmatic through and through, refusing the submit to the hardships and sorrows. We learn that she was interrogated by the Gestapo more than once over her husband’s resistance activities, and campaigned endlessly to redeem him and those like him. Her determination to gather her fellow widows in 1945 perfectly demonstrates her desire to care for others, and to do what is right. She diligently makes lists of women to find, visits the Displaced Persons camps, and does wonderfully brave things like going back into Berlin to fetch Benita. Though she sometimes comes across as a bit hard and serious, I admired Marianne for her bravery and determination. She isn’t perfect, and makes her own mistakes, but tries her best and looks after other people.

As I said earlier, Ania is the most complicated of the characters. While the women are at Burg Lindenfels, we learn almost nothing about her past until the very end of that section. She is determined to carry on with life and not look back, and she does not seem to have time for affection and laughter. Her two sons, Wolfgang and Anselm, are serious children who grow into serious young men, taciturn and stoic. We learn more about Ania’s life through a series of flashbacks, and these not only paint a broader picture, they also go some way towards explaining her character and behaviour at the castle. I won’t give anything away as there is a lot to learn about Ania’s past. She is a brilliant character and I think she probably represents a lot of ordinary Germans who tried to do the right thing, but were caught up in the circumstances around them.

The last section of the book is set in 1991, and I think it rounds out the story nicely. A time jump at the end of a novel can sometimes feel a bit trite or sentimental, but in this case, it doesn’t. We see the central characters again, forty years later, and it connects their stories with our modern world, in Germany and beyond. We see how their generation adapts to the changing 20th century, and how their children deal with their parents’ past lives. There is a bit of philosophising about the march of time and the inevitability of death, and grief, and change, but Shattuck doesn’t overdo it.

The Women of the Castle is a satisfying novel full of the richness of life and the intricacies of personal experience. I loved the fact that although you get the overarching stories of the War, and each of the three women represent different archetypes, you still get a sense of their individual experiences and inner lives. Some things, like Ania’s past, are revealed more slowly than others, but that only makes the development of the story and characters more intriguing, and satisfying when you reach the end. I loved the fact that this novel covers so many different perspectives and experiences, but doesn’t feel overstretched or overreaching. It isn’t a very long book, only 353 pages, but it encapsulates so much without being overwhelming. I think it’s a wonderful addition to the genre, and covers a period in the lives of ordinary Germans that deserves more attention. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a more literary take on the post-War experiences of German women. It’s also worth looking at the author’s Acknowledgements at the end of the book for more recommendations of books about the period, and the War itself.

*

Published in the UK by Bonnier Zaffre in May 2017, and in the US by William Morrow in March 2017. My copy was kindly provided by Bonnier Zaffre for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyle’s, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (1962)

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(image: dauntbookspublishing.co.uk)

I came upon this book entirely by chance in Waterstone’s – it was the cover that made me pick it up, and I am so, so glad I did. A Broken Mirror is described on the inside cover as “A haunting classic of modern Catalan literature from one of Spain’s most prestigious writers”, but honestly I had never heard of Mercé Rodoreda before I picked up this book, for whatever reason. But I am so happy I have discovered her work, because, put simply, this book is sublime.

A Broken Mirror is a family saga, stretching over three generations of the Valldaura family in Barcelona. We begin with Teresa, the matriarch, during her first marriage. She is beautiful and in some ways this is what carries her, what keeps her going through so much of her life. Men seem to fall in love with her all the time. After her first husband dies (he is quite a bit older than her) she marries Salvador Valldaura, and the saga of the family begins. They have a daughter, Sofia, who in turn marries Eladi Farriols – they have two boys, Ramon and Jaume; there is also Maria, who happens to be Eladi’s daughter from an affair with a dancer. This complicated family live in a villa, thrown together with several generations of servants, and watched over by Armanda, the one maid who never leaves them. Her life is intertwined with theirs, as well as with that of the house.

The book is divided into three parts, with several chapters in each. The chapters are each told from the third person perspective of one of the characters, whether a family member or one of the many people in their orbit. In the introduction to the book the translator Josep Miquel Sobrer writes that,

“… each chapter is anchored in some character’s point of view, often a character who is incidental to the development of the action. The technique, which Carme Arnau has related to cinematic narratives and to the free indirect style of writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, gives the novel its intensity.”

I remember learning about free indirect speech in Jane Austen at school, and I think this assessment is correct. Throughout A Broken Mirror you are given time to understand each of the characters’ mentality, and their own experience of the shared narrative. For a book with so many characters, free indirect is the perfect way to visit all of them without feeling overwhelmed by all the information. Through this technique, Rodoreda also perfectly illustrates the way in which we live both in the past and the present, as the characters constantly relate what is happening to what has happened before, how things used to be, the things they remember. Things change all the time, but they also stay the same.

Josep Miquel Sobrer writes in his introduction that A Broken Mirror is pessimistic, and in some ways it is – time ravages everything, people never love as they should, and in the end everything comes to nothing… but I think it does celebrate the joys of family life, the pleasures of love, and the thoughtlessness of childhood. It celebrates moments in time. At several points there is a stark contrast between the dramatic, troubled family, and the joyous abandon of the maids stripping off in the summer and chasing each other with the garden hose. Armanda watches them all and sees the beauty and fragility of life and happiness.

I think that is the crux of this book, and the reason it is so beguiling. A Broken Mirror reminds us that life is always messy, and complicated, but that it is still worth living. There is a scene, late in the book, where Armanda drops a mirror and sees in all the broken pieces all the pieces of her long life with the Valldaura family – all the people, all the heartache and grief, the joy and happiness as well as the sadness. Life is made up of so many pieces, good and bad, and sometimes it is impossible to fit them all together. Some of the best passages come when characters are looking back on their lives and remembering their lost loves, their stolen moments, and their youth. They realise that it was pointless to think that life would be a certain way, because it always happens just as it will. Even if the pieces do not fit together, they are each worth something.

A Broken Mirror is one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read. The language is beautiful, even in translation, and each character is fully realised, no matter who they are. There is sheer poetry and romance in this novel, and it is full of the most wonderful imagery. Each scene feels three-dimensional, and you can almost feel the Spanish summer heat and hear the laurel bush rustling in the wind. I was totally immersed in the story of the Valldauras and was sorry to come to the end of the novel, and I will certainly seek out more of Rodoreda’s work. Especially if Daunt do more of these beautiful editions!

*

Originally published in 1962. I read the 2017 Daunt Books edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Fiction, Reviews

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (2017)

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Viking UK edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Jennifer McVeigh’s first novel The Fever Tree (my review is here) so I was eager to read her new novel Leopard at the Door. It has a similar setup, in that it’s central character is a young British woman thrown into turmoil on foreign soil. This time its Rachel, a British woman returning to Kenya, the country of her birth, after years away. Her mother died just after the two of them came back to England, and she was sent to live with relatives while her father stayed in Kenya. Now she returns and finds a new woman in the house with her father, and everything has changed.

Leopard at the Door is set in the early 1950s, and Kenya is experiencing the beginnings of the Mau Mau Uprising (you can read more about this here). For Rachel and her family, this means that their entire way of life in Kenya is threatened, and their relations with the local people are strained. There are local villagers that Rachel supports, and remembers from her childhood – women who knew her mother, and who she has good relationships with. These people are immediately put under suspicion of being allied with the rebellious Mau Mau, and are eventually forced to move from their village. Rachel is devastated, but her father and Sara, the new woman in his life, are adamant that these changes must be made to protect the family and the farm. There is also Michael, the local man who tutored Rachel as a child and who now helps out on the farm. Rachel has a deep affection for him, rooted mostly in her childhood memories and her desire for how things used to be. She uses his workspace in the barn to escape the tension of being in the house with her father and Sara, and looks to him to show her a way out of her situation. But Michael is torn between the struggles of his people, and the white people he has known for so long. The layers of conflict are myriad.

The novel charts Rachel’s conflict between her nostalgia and lasting grief for her mother, and the changes she finds when she returns to Kenya. Rachel feels more distant than ever from her father, and this is expertly exacerbated by Sara’s blatant racism and her aversion to any kind of positive relationship with the Kenyan people. Rachel’s father is a farmer and has lived in Kenya for a long time, and he tries to mediate between Sara and Rachel, and to keep the peace in a country he loves. McVeigh excels at using the domestic drama in this story to explore the wider issues in Kenya in this period, and showcases each point of view fairly.

Sara’s acerbic comments about ‘natives’ and ‘civilisation’ grate against our modern understanding of race and equality, and are in stark contrast to Rachel’s sympathetic view of the country and the Kenyan people. She has a nostalgic and almost idealistic desire for everyone to live in harmony, and her personal feelings direct her actions. At times this seems like the right thing to do, but at others it just seems dangerous. McVeigh perfectly conveys the conflicts and emotions of her eighteen-year-old protagonist and how this plays against the political and familial turmoil in the novel. The fact that the Mau Mau Uprising really happened means that it must be handled sensitively, and I think McVeigh strikes the right tone – she manages to convey the fear and anger on both sides, as well as the motivations and emotions behind their actions.

The cover of this novel makes it look more romantic than anything else, and there is a romance in there, but it’s more than that. Leopard at the Door is Rachel’s story, with its tragedies and triumphs, and is a wonderful exploration of the struggle of reconciling life with how it used to be, and how it is now. Nostalgia is at once glorious, and dangerous. This novel expertly pitches familial drama against political and colonial issues, along with the difficulties of growing up and finding what you believe in. It’s an enjoyable and engaging read, and McVeigh’s writing is as beautiful as always. I loved Leopard at the Door, and look forward to her next novel!

*

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK, in July 2017. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Fiction, Reviews

All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Viking UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This novel was one of four that I accepted for review from Viking, and it was the one I was least sure about. I liked the initial premise, the question of whether doing a bad thing makes you a bad person, and I am always intrigued by debut novels. Not knowing much more than that, I dived in.

All the Good Things is a short book that packs a lot of punch. Our narrator Bethany is only twenty-one but she has had a very eventful and challenging life, and is in prison at the start of the book. The frame of the novel is a task set by Bethany’s counsellor to list all the good things in her life (hence the title!) and each chapter is what she writes about each of these. They range from ‘Smelling a baby’s head right into your heart’ to ‘The promise of a blank page’ and many more in between. Early on we learn that Bethany had a child, and that she loves running, and that she grew up in the foster care system. Her father is absent and her mother suffers from increasingly bad mental health, and so she is put into foster care. The Penguin website states that author Clare Fisher is interested in ‘social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls’, and this is essentially the topic of the novel. Bethany is let down by so many people, and finds herself easily lead astray. Deprived of parental love, she grabs onto any relationship she can, even if it’s clearly not right. She becomes pregnant, and it’s sort of all down hill from there.

Bethany is very young, and the language and style is appropriate to this. Like any reader, I appreciate an immersive and believable narrative voice (like Jack in Room), but for me reading Bethany’s narrative was like reading a more grown up version of a Jacqueline Wilson novel. You can see that this is a vulnerable young person, and they are in less than ideal circumstances, and you can almost see everything that’s going to happen to them. It’s incredibly sad, and in some ways it felt like a warning or a social message – hence my comparison to Jacqueline Wilson (especially her novel Bad Girls). It’s educational for someone with no experience of the world in the novel, but it lacks a certain finesse and I felt like All the Good Things was meant to be read by someone younger than me (and I’m only 29). Now, I loved Jacqueline Wilson as a child, so I’m not trying to tear down this novel, but for me it was a little too realist, a little too bleak, and I felt like it was trying to teach me something when really I just wanted to try and enjoy the writing and the story. The things that it is trying to teach are very important, but the tough subject matter and style meant that I couldn’t just enjoy it.

I must praise Clare Fisher for her realism, her refusal to shy away from unpleasantness, and her dedication to the narrative voice. There are some really heartbreaking scenes where you just want someone to help Bethany, or for her to help herself, and these are brilliantly written. I think the ending is supposed to be hopeful, but I found that after a whole book filled with disappointment, sadness, and pain it was hard to get on board with the small glint of hope at the end. Once I reached that point I felt horribly sad for Bethany and her misfortune, and I was glad to have reached the end.

All the Good Things is a very accomplished debut novel, but ultimately I think it just wasn’t for me. But, I think a lot of readers will really enjoy it, and I must recommend it for the quality of the writing and the convincing realism.

*

Published in June 2017 by Viking, an imprint for Penguin UK. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Penguin UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This book was one of the few review copies I have been accepting recently, and I’m glad I decided to read and review it, because it’s something a little different – but once I got into it I realised it actually is the sort of thing I like. Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is what I would call an unconventional memoir – it is not a straight chronicle of someone’s life, but rather a story from that life that has significance, that means something to the author. It is an unusual story and a special one that deserves to be told.

Min Kym is a concert violinist, and as a child she was classed as a prodigy. Her list of achievements is certainly impressive, with awards and scholarships, huge concerts, and acceptance into the Purcell School of Music as well as the Royal Academy of Music. She has made a few recordings and these are available on iTunes and Spotify. I would recommend listening to the little album she released of songs that feature in this book – it is simply beautiful. One piece on it is very special to me as it will be played at my wedding in a couple of weeks! I’ve decided to use Min Kym’s recording as I walk down the aisle.

I am no expert in classical music, but I feel I learned a lot about it from this slim book. Kym speaks passionately about her love of music and how it feels to play. Her writing isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter because she conveys a strong sense of her personality and personal experience, with the music but also with the people in her life, and most importantly with her violin. She repeatedly reminds the reader that it feels like part of her, that she does not feel whole without it, does not feel like herself. She states that she is two people – Min, and Min with a violin.

Gone is quite an emotional book, and you go on the ups and downs with Kym as she experiences huge career success, and intense love for her violin and the music she plays; but she also experiences difficult relationships and setbacks – and of course the biggest setback of all, the theft of her Stradivarius violin. This is the crux of the book, the tipping point in her life. There is the time before, when she had the violin; and the time after, when she is mourning for it, and suffering from its absence. Kym goes through a period of depression, and it takes her a long time to get back to her old life – but while the writing is emotional and personal, it never becomes sensational or melodramatic. Kym is in control of her story.

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Min Kym (image: deda.uk.com)

The writing is at its best when Min Kym is writing about music. Her language flows beautifully as she describes the sounds, the feelings, the images that music brings to mind; the way the violin feels in her hands and when she nestles it into her neck. It is like a child, a sacred object, a beautiful thing. She also talks eloquently about the violins she plays, how they were made and where they came from, and how these things affect the experience of the player as well as the sound that the violin makes. It is utterly fascinating.

I was also fascinated by Kym’s discussions and mentions of her sense of self in relation to the violin, and how this develops as she gets older. She started playing at such a young age that she always sees herself with a violin – it is an integral part of who she is. Her family moved from South Korea to the UK for her musical career, and this relationship between familial and national belonging and the violin and its music is wonderfully explored, from a practical as well as personal point of view.

Though only slim this is a rich volume filled with life and passion, joy and sorrow, silence and beautiful music. I would highly recommend Gone to anyone who loves unconventional memoirs, especially those with a love of or an interest in classical music, and the ways in which our passions shape our lives.

*

Published in 2017 by Viking, and imprint of Penguin, in the UK and Crown Publishing, part of PRH, in the US. My thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

*

Published in March 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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