Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

I bought my copy of Jane Austen at Home while on holiday in Devon, when I ran out of reading material (first time in my life that I only packed one book, silly me). I ended up reading it mostly after the holiday, but starting it in picturesque Devon only added to my joy at reading such a lovely book.

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For lovely it is. Lucy Worsley has a wonderfully easy writing style that is great to read, with her personality coming through nicely at certain points, though not overpoweringly. Her academic background means that she covers her subject comprehensively, as well as proclaiming herself a ‘Janeite’ and including all the small details of Jane Austen’s life that make this book so enjoyable.

I have long been a fan of Austen’s novels, but knew relatively little about her life before reading Jane Austen at Home – so it was wonderful to learn more about her. One thing I particularly liked was the way the Worsley related events and circumstances in Jane’s life to similar examples in her novels. This was peppered throughout, always reminding us of Jane’s work and its roots in social realism. We see that Jane was a keen observer of life and preserved so much of it in her work; but also that she put quite a lot of herself and those closest to her into her characters, and this only serves to make them more real and relatable. As a lover of Persuasion, I adored exploring how Jane’s own experiences and feelings informed her creation of Anne Elliot, and her story.

The premise of the book, and the reason for at Home in the title, is that Worsley sets out to tell Jane’s story through the places she lived, “[showing] us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her.” This is wonderfully executed as we follow Jane through her various homes (there were many), as well as her visits to relatives and holidays to the coast.

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Jane’s first home, Steventon Rectory (image: janeausten.co.uk)

Worsley also explores the importance of home to women of the Georgian period more generally, using Jane as a starting point but also using the examples of her friends and relatives. Unmarried women like Jane had no real control over where they lived and were at the mercy of their male relatives, and so they made their homes their own through the small spaces they could claim. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, and in some homes they also had their own little drawing room, which Jane seems to have really cherished. Worsley also explores how women would express themselves through their home-based work, like crafts and music. Writing was of course a key way in which Jane expressed and asserted herself, in her novels but also in poems and letters. I loved Worsley’s examination of how important letter-writing was, not just as a means of communication and connection, but also as a way of really expressing the inner lives of the women who wrote them.

As Jane’s readers will know, she was excellent at what Worsley calls ‘double speak’ – saying one thing, that seemed rather plain, but really meaning something else, or something more, that was much more interesting. In this way Jane used her letters to express her real feelings and opinions that she might not feel able to say outright. Worsley highlights the fact that letters were often read aloud to the household, and one didn’t want something private shared openly, and so this double speak was used to imply hidden meanings. This all adds to the distinct impression that Jane and many of the women she knew were full of deep emotions and strong opinions that were hidden beneath their ‘perfect’ exteriors.

In relating Jane’s life to her novels, this book really shows how life was slowly changing and expanding for women in the Georgian and Regency eras. Worsley presents the time and context of Jane’s books, as well as the novels themselves, as a sort of stepping stone on the way to women’s emancipation and freedom. They depicted life as it really was, and showed readers that women were ready to take more power, to express and assert themselves, and to be heard.

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Jane’s portable writing desk (image: bl.co.uk, © British Library)

One particular strength in this book is Worsley’s dedication to dismantling the often negative preconceptions about Jane – that her life was ‘without consequence’, that she was an ‘old maid’, that she was boring and lived a boring life. Many of Jane’s relatives glossed over the more interesting parts of her story in their telling, and Worsley uncovers all of these inaccuracies. She demonstrates Jane’s sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm, and explores her love life over the years. Jane received several marriage proposals, and apparently loved to flirt at dances and parties – far from the image we sometimes get of an old spinster with no romantic prospects. Rather, we see that Jane simply did not want to marry someone she didn’t love; she wanted a home, a family, just like anyone else, but she was particular, and not willing to settle for someone who did not really make her happy. This is another reason I hugely admire Jane.

I really could waffle on about how much I love Jane Austen, and how much I loved this book. It is an exploration of her life, but also of women in her time, and their experiences. We learn about their domestic daily lives, their place in both the home and wider society, and the ways in which they took control. Jane Austen at Home really gives us a sense of Jane’s personality and her experience of life, and how this often directly influenced the novels that we love. For me, it is one of the best biographies I have read, and I shall recommend it to everyone. I only wish I could read it again for the first time; instead, I plan to visit Jane’s home at Chawton Cottage this weekend, where she wrote many of her books, and hope that I can follow in her footsteps.

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Jane’s penultimate home, Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum (image: visitwinchester.co.uk)

*

First published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read the 2018 Hodder paperback, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I discovered this book through the wonder that is GoodReads recommendations, which are surprisingly good at times. I have found a number of unknown-to-me books this way that I ended up loving. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick recently, and have always loved reading unusual or off-beat memoirs, especially by women. The Bridesmaid’s Daughter has the perfect combination of mother/daughter relationships, New York in the 1940s and 50s, Grace Kelly, and what promised to be a fascinating life story. I couldn’t resist.

The outline is that Nyna Giles’ mother, Carolyn, came to New York in the late 1940s to become a model, and she was neighbours with Grace Kelly in the Barbizon Hotel, which was a hotel specifically for young women who lived alone in New York. It was run almost like a big university dormitory or boarding school, with a curfew, no men allowed, single rooms, and shared communal spaces. Carolyn was a model, Grace was an actress, and they became fast friends; as the title states, Carolyn was a bridesmaid at Grace’s wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. The book effortlessly blends the story of Carolyn in New York with episodes from Nyna’s childhood, allowing the reader to get a sense of Carolyn’s life from different angles at the same time. As we see her rising to fame to New York with her modelling, we also see her later in life, married and living on Long Island, struggling with motherhood.

We learn from the blurb, and quite early in the book, that when Nyna was a child her mother often kept her home from school, saying she was too ill. There were various doctors over the years who either agreed or disagreed, and in her research Nyna found many letters and reports from the school despairing at her absence and begging her mother to meet with them. As the book goes on and Nyna gets older, she realises that sometimes she is not ill, or she only has a minor medical issue, like a cold, but her mother insists she is too ill and weak to go to school, or to have home tutoring. We also hear about Nyna’s two older sisters, and her father, and her parents’ troubled marriage. This story grows alongside that of the young Carolyn finding success, meeting her husband, travelling to Monaco for Grace’s wedding, and getting married herself. Eventually the two stories meet somewhere in the middle and we get the full picture of Carolyn’s life.

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Carolyn with her three daughters; Nyna is the baby. (image: refinery29.uk)

Reading about Nyna’s side of things, you realise that something was not quite right with Carolyn once she was older and had children. She is clearly neurotic about Nyna’s health, and is unhappy is her marriage, but still she seems off balance. At one point Nyna recalls her mother tearing down her beloved posters because she thought she could hears noises in the walls. The subtitle gives away the fact that by the time Nyna was an adult, with her own children, Carolyn was sleeping in a homeless shelter in New York; this book attempts to explain how she went from the glamour and success of her young life, to the shelter. As the two timelines of her lift come together, we begin to see how fragile Carolyn’s mental health was, and how this affected not only her but her children as well, and how things worsened over time. The sudden deaths of Nyna’s older sister Robin, and of Grace Kelly, obviously had a devastating effect on Carolyn as well.

Looking back, Nyna explores how difficult it was to get any help or treatment for mental health issues in the 1960s and the decades afterwards. At one point Carolyn starts to see a psychiatrist, but Nyna’s father disapproves and makes her stop when she won’t go to a doctor he has chosen; Nyna reflects on several instances like this when help was possible, but Carolyn was either thwarted or did not pursue it. Once you get about two thirds of the way through the book, you realise that Carolyn’s mental health was the point of the story all along, and why Nyna chose certain episodes about which to write. Grace Kelly is at first a fun addition to Carolyn’s story, adding glamour and a connection to the wider world that Carolyn experiences; she also introduces Carolyn to her husband Malcolm, Nyna’s father. As the timeline progresses, especially after Grace gets married and moves to Monaco, she is not quite so present, but serves as a rough parallel to Carolyn’s life, and how different their lives ended up being – although Nyna does see a similarity in that both of them essentially gave up their careers for marriage and children, for better or worse.

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Grace Kelly’s wedding; Carolyn is on the far left. (image: blog.hellomagazine.com)

Before I started The Bridesmaid’s Daughter I worried that there might be too much of a focus of Grace Kelly, or that it would be clunky, but it was actually executed very well. She exists as a symbol of Carolyn’s past, and something to aspire to. Nyna Giles is writing about her own mother, and so she is the focus, and the whole story is handled very sensitively and empathetically. Perhaps because I’m a woman, I find mother/daughter relationships fascinating, and the ones in this book were no exception (we also hear a bit about Grace and Carolyn’s parents, as well as Nyna’s two sisters). Personally I really enjoyed this book – I read it in only two days – and would recommend it to anyone interested in these kind of memoirs, as well as the 20th century history. It is elegantly written by Giles, with the help of co-writer Eve Claxton, and is honestly just a really fascinating story. Another win for GoodReads recommendations!

*

Published in 2018 by September Publishing in the UK, and St Martin’s Press in the US. I read the September paperback, pictured above.

There is a lovely website about the book here, including galleries of Carolyn’s modelling days. Nyna Giles has also shared a lot of great images on her Instagram here.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

As soon as I heard about this book I wanted to read it. It was published in February 2018, and just two months later its subject, the Golden State Killer, was finally captured. His first recorded attack was in 1974, and he had finally been identified and caught. It was a big moment for all involved, to say the least, and I had to know more.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is a brilliant mix of reportage and the author’s account of her own experience trying to identify this man. By the end we feel that we know Michelle McNamara as if she had been talking to us the whole time.

The Golden State Killer case was, as the title states, her obsession and it filled her life for several years. In Michelle’s writing as well as the afterword and the section completed by her colleagues, we see that she worked tirelessly to acquire huge amounts of information relevant to the case, however tangentially, and that she was nothing if not thorough in her research. I am in awe of her dedication and attention to detail.

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It becomes clear throughout the book that Michelle’s interest in the case is driven not only by her interest in its subject (and his unknowableness) but also by her sincere desire for his victims to be honoured, and for him to pay for his crimes. She had a deep interest in true crime cases (as documented on her blog True Crime Diary), but this was the one that she devoted the most time to, and the one she will be remembered by. Michelle passed away in 2016, before she could finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. 

Luckily, two of Michelle’s colleagues in her investigation were able to go through her files and write a concluding section for the book. This section, Part Three, is therefore lacking Michelle’s engaging writing style, and her personal touch, but it in still incredibly detailed and demonstrates the level of work that went into this amateur investigation – and how closely it ran alongside and often intersected with the official police work. Michelle was often in touch with several investigators and shared evidence with them, working together to solve this mammoth case.

It is heartbreaking to know that Michelle did not live to see the case solved; but it is gratifying to know that her dedication and incredible hard work obviously contributed to it being solved. In Part Three, Michelle’s colleagues discuss how she and other investigators (both professional and amateur) were using the killer’s DNA profile to look for matches on genealogy websites such as Ancestry and 23andMe. We now know that this exact method, looking up possible matches to his DNA and then following the family tree to a possible suspect, was successfully used on the website GEDMatch to identify the man who had been haunting California for 44 years. After reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, it is even more amazing to learn this, and to see the coverage of the arrest, and the court dates so far, and to learn more about this man. Plenty of people involved in or connected with the case are sharing their stories, and you can feel the relief – and how angry they still are. Even if a killer is captured, the anger and sadness don’t necessarily go away.

I would honestly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in true crime, but also anyone who likes thrillers and crime fiction. Michelle McNamara’s writing and storytelling is as gripping and engaging as the best thriller and crime fiction writers. I read her book in four days and wish she would have been able to write more.

Now that the Golden State Killer (aka the East Area Rapist or the Original Night Stalker) has been identified and caught, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a more redemptive story than it would have been otherwise. Even though he is older now, in his 70s, wearing a prison jumpsuit, behind bars or in handcuffs, it is still terrifying to look into the eyes of Joseph James DeAngelo and remember all the terrible things he has done. Reading this book, you realise the darkness that can live inside people, that pain and fear can be twisted into motivation to attack, to rape, bludgeon, and kill. It is hard to think about. For while we are fascinated and gripped by I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, we must remember the pain he caused, and the suffering of these people. Michelle McNamara helped to solve the puzzle that lead to his capture, and for that we are all grateful.

*

Published in 2018 by Harper and Faber & Faber. I read the F&F paperback edition, pictured above.

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Fiction, Reviews

Her Hidden Life by V.S. Alexander (2018)

I bought this novel on a whim in the supermarket (something I hardly ever do) because I was just in the mood to buy a book. It happens. Almost all of the novels on sale were sensational crime, romances, or what was once called ‘chick lit’ and this was the only one that appealed to me. The unusual setting and female protagonist of Her Hidden Life convinced me to buy it.

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Magda Ritter is a young Berliner who ends up working as a ‘taster’ for Hitler – tasting all his food before it is served to him to see if it’s poisoned. Fun times. From the start she states that she is not a supporter of Hitler, and she only ends up working for him because the Reichsbund is the only place where she can get a job, as she has no skills beyond basic housekeeping. Despite not being a Party member, Magda’s well-connected Nazi uncle means that she is accepted for a job, though she has no idea what it is. One day she is picked up in car, and taken to the Berghof, one of Hitler’s countryside retreats.

Here she works as a taster in the kitchen with several other women doing the same job. Her life among the Nazi elite is surprisingly humdrum, despite her random yet frequent chance meetings with Eva Braun and her attraction to SS Captain Karl Weber. This is something I noticed throughout the novel – Magda describes everything rather flatly and in a matter of fact way, even when she describes her feelings of love for Karl, and her feelings of hate for Hitler. Her hatred of Hitler only develops once Karl shows her photographs of killing squads and concentration camps; up until that point she expresses little feeling either way and even states that the plight of the Jewish people does not affect her as she doesn’t know anyone who’s Jewish, so she has never thought about. Magda admits she is naive, but that’s an understatement.

Personally I think that while Magda is genuinely horrified by what she learns, most of the impetus for her hatred of Hitler comes from the fact that Karl hates him, and she loves Karl. He is a fictional character inserted into the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, and is alarmingly quick to tell Magda all about it once they get together. Magda then dedicates herself to his cause and develops fantasies of killing Hitler herself, to the point of obsession. From this point on that is all Magda thinks about, in a totally unbelievable way – she doesn’t seem to accept how impossible it would be to murder him without being caught, and she doesn’t depict how he would have always been surrounded by security as well as his most senior ministers and officers. She makes the situation all about her and her love for Karl.

One review I came across on GoodReads made the very good point that everything seems to happen to Magda in the course of the novel, and this sometimes makes it all a bit hard to believe. I have to agree that way too much is crammed into this novel, and its only 384 pages. Not only does Magda meet Hitler on more than one occasion, she also develops a tenuous friendship with Eva Braun, and just happens to meet Claus von Stauffenberg in the woods at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters., which of course would happen in real life! Magda’s experiences are like if you thought of all the key things a person could have gone through in the war, and then made them all happen to one person – working with the Reich elite, meeting Hitler, living in two of his residences, experiencing bombing in Berlin, losing a parent, being sent to a concentration camp (really), being in Berlin again and being raped by Russian soldiers, oh and then ending up in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945. By that point I was incredulous.

I think when I realised that Magda was being sent to a camp did I give up believing in any of it. After the 20th July plot Karl flees and Magda is suspected of being involved. An anonymous Colonel seems to hate her for some reason, and so he accuses her and gets her shipped off to Bromberg-Ost. Luckily Magda only has to endure two days of work before she gets an officer to believe that she worked for Hitler, and he gets her out, and she returns to her work at the Berghof. Lucky girl! If only it was that easy!

This section of the book really got to me. By this point Magda has heard about the camps, but still has very limited knowledge and doesn’t know about the gas chambers. She describes her arrival and processing, and that she is told “All work was to be completed in the name of the Reich, for ‘work makes you free’.” This is of course a heavy handed reference to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ emblazoned over the gate to Auschwitz and several other camps, and I found it in very poor taste and completely inappropriate and disrespectful; even if Magda is supposed to be ignorant of the use of the slogan. I found lots of small moments like this throughout the book that were just not appropriate. Like the fact that Magda is sent to a camp, but manages to get out by dropping the fact that she works for Hitler. While there she befriends two women, one of whom disappears during her stay, and another who is Jewish. She worries about them as she leaves but doesn’t think about them again. Similarly she abandons her friend and her friend’s family, after they have been raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin, so that she can seek the safety of Hitler’s bunker – she had been invited but up until that point refused to go. Again she briefly worries about the women she has left behind, but then they disappear from her thoughts.

After reading a bit about the author V.S. Alexander, and particularly this blog post about writing the book, I realised that while he made a point of researching the historical material, he clearly has no idea how to write about these subjects. I’m no historian but I felt like even I could write about these things with a little more sensitivity and understanding. Alexander also states that he was inspired by the story of Margot Woelk, a woman who actually was a taster for Hitler, and decided to tell her story finally in her 90s. I read this article about Margot Woelk and realised just how much of her story is used in Her Hidden Life – but also how the point was missed, and the novel is made into some kind of sweeping romance about Magda fulfilling Karl’s dream and then trying to redeem herself by telling her story. In fact, the back cover copy asks the reader to “lose yourself in this sweeping, heroic love story fraught with danger.” Because that was what life was like during World War II.

Perhaps worst of all is Magda’s time spent in Hitler’s bunker at the end of the war. This setting is unique and nuanced, and should be handled carefully, and V.S. Alexander is frankly not qualified to do this. I cringed at the scenes where Magda encounters Magda Goebbels and her children – she even goes into the room after the children are dead. I don’t what the author was thinking. He even portrays Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries who has written about her experiences, and makes it seem like she is dedicated to the Fuhrer. And then misspells her name when he credits her book at the end (a book which in part inspired the incredible film Downfall, which will give you a much more accurate look at life in the bunker).

The point is that many of the events depicted in this novel happened to real people, and so you can’t just write about them as if they are juicy drama. Even though Magda experiences a camp and being raped, the writing never conveys how awful things are. After the failed assassination attempt she is arrested because the Colonel has a vendetta against her – and then when this is reversed she is able to return to her work in the Berghof. But in reality, as the wife of a conspirator she would have either been sent to a camp and kept there, or would have been executed immediately. Instead, in this novel, she just carries on working for Hitler. There is only a fleeting mention of Von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators, even though they would have been imprisoned and executed. My point is that even though Magda sees the camps firsthand, and sees how people are suffering in Berlin, the cold ruthlessness of Hitler and the Nazis is never really conveyed. Their obsessive hatred of Jewish people and all the others they persecuted is never shown. Instead the author uses them as pantomime villains for his dramatic heroine to dance around.

I have had a rant at my husband about this book and I think I could probably rant here even more – but I’m going to stop there for fear of driving away any readers who are still here… I hope I have managed to convey my issues with this book without just rambling.

If you do want to read novels about World War II, there are so many others that do a much better job than Her Hidden Life – novels that respect the tragedy and the people who suffered, who appropriately explore what really happened. This is not one of those novels unfortunately.

*

Published as The Taster by Kensington Publishing in the US; and by Avon, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the UK. I read the Avon paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

This gorgeous little book appeared somewhere on Twitter (or Instagram?) recently, and the yellow cover caught my eye. It intrigued me. The cover, the title, the fact that it was a debut novel – all things that interested me. I was in Blackwell’s in the Oxford the other day (the new branch!) buying Mother’s Day presents, and decided to treat myself to the signed edition I saw on one of the tables.

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I then did something that rarely happens – I started to read it very soon after I’d bought it. It’s not a long book, only 246 pages, and the type is quite big, and I read it in two evenings and a lunch break. I read it quickly because it’s short, but also because it is completely engaging and enthralling.

I Love You Too Much is narrated by 13-year-old Paul, navigating life after his parents’ unpleasant divorce. The book is set in Paris, and the city is beautifully described by Paul as he wanders around it, both loving and hating it at the same time. He complains about the uniformity, and the peer pressure of the affluent 6th arrondissement where he lives with his mother; but the city is his home and you can feel his affection for it. Drake brings the city to life through Paul.

Drake also perfectly portrays what it is like to be 13 years old, filled with the emotions of puberty, and dealing with post-divorce life in all its glory and pain. Paul reminded me a little of Theo from The Goldfinch – young and naive, and yet wise beyond his years; independent and ruminative; and caught up in the emotions and events of family and life that are beyond his control. They are even the same age.

Paul is a wonderful observer. He watches his mother most keenly, maman, as she obsesses over her looks, her hair, her career, her useless boyfriend Gabriel. The sharp pinpoint at the centre of all this is the fact that she has just had a baby, Lou, with Gabriel. At first Paul is resentful of his new half-sister, uninterested in her. Her presence is an undercurrent in his life throughout the book, reminding him that his mother’s life has continued without him, that she is no longer just his mother anymore.

I think Paul’s mother, Séverine, is one of the most brilliantly drawn characters. Paul adores her, and her pain only seems to make his worse. She is hard on the outside but he can see her vulnerability, and wishes she would spend more time at home and reach out to him. Their relationship is so brilliantly crafted that it feels utterly real, and they feel like real people. I was completely drawn into their world, felt almost like I was seeing too much, but did not want to turn away. For all the cool hardness and aloofness of Séverine, there are some really beautiful moments between mother and son, when you can see into the heart of their relationship. You can see that they really do want each other to be happier, and better.

Paul’s father Philippe is inevitably less present in his life, living separately, but he appears episodically to illustrate their sometimes strained relationship. Paul does not know why his parents divorced, and he doesn’t seem to blame either of them, but the fact that it was his father who moved out, who seems to live a separate life, means that he attracts some of Paul’s resentment towards the whole situation. Philippe often seems oddly unemotional, and you can feel Paul yearning for more from his father. Several scenes with Philippe’s family carefully show us more of his psyche, his emotional life.

Similarly there are key moments with Séverine’s mother that show us more of their relationship. We see how Paul’s mother has come to be as she is. And as the book goes on, these parts of the family come together in Paul, and we see how he was formed, and why he is who he is.

A key part of Paul’s experience in the novel is his burgeoning friendship with Scarlett, the girl at school that all the other boys want. They meet on holiday and recognise each other from school, bonding over their distant parents and general dissatisfaction with life. In some ways Scarlett is an archetype of a moody teenage girl rebelling against everything and constantly looking for ways to feel better, to escape her own pain. She complements Paul well throughout the story, and provides him with the emotional attention he needs – and in her neediness gives him something outside of himself and his family to care about.

I won’t say too much, in order not to give anything away. The plot moves at a mixed pace, flowing nicely so that it never moves too fast or two slow. Enough time passes that things change, but it still feels like the novel represents a certain period in Paul’s life. It is a period of intense change, of growth, for better or worse. The last chapter is a perfect summation, a brilliant, brilliant ending. It is one of about three or four books ever that have made me cry. I highly recommend it.

*

Published in the UK by Picador and in the US by Little Brown. I read the UK edition, pictured above.

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