Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via orionbooks.co.uk

I’d had The Reading Cure on my GoodReads TBR for a while, so I was pleased to see that it was shortlisted for The Young Writer Of The Year Award, and I would have a reason to actually hurry up and read it. It is a memoir that blends together the personal and the literary, as writer Laura Freeman takes us through her struggles with anorexia and her deep love of reading.

Despite the word ‘cure’ being in the title, and the subtitle being How Books Restored My Appetite, Freeman acknowledges that anorexia is a much more complicated thing than that, and she muses on the fact that it will never completely leave her. I admired her candidness throughout the book, and found her discussions about mental health issues refreshing and down to earth, especially the lasting effects of it both on her and those closest to her. More than once she writes about how isolated she was during the worst points of her illness, whether that was in a literal sense when she was confined to bed, or in a more personal sense when she felt different and weird for having these issues around food.

Her discussions of the possible causes of her anorexia are insightful and fascinating as she takes us through her happy and thoughtless childhood eating through to her gradual realisation as a teenager that food could make her fat, something she didn’t want to be, and that the ideal form was obviously to be thin. Later in the book she also considers how women both in real life and in literature seem required to eat daintily, to prefer neater foods, while the man can glut themselves on pies and meat. This is something that I have observed too. It always seems to be seen as a virtue when a woman denies herself more food than she absolutely needs. Freeman considers this in light of the writers she reads throughout her illness, as she starts with male authors and eventually veers over to more women, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Virginia Woolf.

The books she reads are the centre of this memoir. It is as much a reading diary as a book about Freeman’s experience with her illness. She takes us in great detail through her year of reading Dickens, her time reading Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor, First World War poets, and then through Fisher, David, Woolf, and on to others. At times I felt like there was a little too much detail from the books (I was glad I actually hadn’t read most of them, otherwise it would be too repetitive), and not quite enough about how it related to Freeman’s life and experience. She is also very obviously influenced by her reading when it comes to her writing style, which is quite flowery and sometimes quite self-conscious. While she discusses her love of new words she learns from her reading, and this is great at the time, her later use of them can come across a bit heavy-handed.

The Reading Cure is a very charming book, filled with Freeman’s love of literature and her appreciation for food, despite her illness. At times I think things could have been delved into a little deeper, or explored from another perspective, but the book is very enjoyable and a great accomplishment nonetheless.

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Published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Group. My copy was kindly provided in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

This Will Only Hurt A Little by Busy Philipps (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

Like many people, I was aware of, and liked, Busy Philipps from her various TV shows and movies, and my liking of her only grew when I followed her on Instagram and witnessed the joy and brilliance of her Stories on the app. I love that she is honest and frank on Instagram, and shows us the everyday parts of her life as well as the exciting ones. Of course you have to realise that even for someone as open as Busy Philipps, the life we see on Instagram cannot be the whole picture – there is always more to people’s lives than what they present to the world, whether online or in real life. And in Busy Philipps’ case, quite a bit of the ‘more’ is here in her book, This Will Only Hurt A Little.

Busy Philipps is an insightful and engaging writer, even if her style isn’t ‘literary’, and she draws you in straight away. There isn’t really a theme to the memoir, so it is a a straight chronicle of key moments from Philipps’ life, and she is relatable and likeable right from the start. I have seen reviews where people weren’t sure how to feel about her strong emotions, especially when she expresses anger or dislike; but for me I liked these moments because she was really being honest, and women are often discouraged from expressing these ‘unpleasant’ emotions or opinions. You can see that sometimes she had a certain reaction for personal reasons, which might not always be ‘correct’, but I liked that she didn’t try to sanitise or cover up what really happened and how she really felt. Philipps readily admits that she is “a lot” and that she is an emotional person. I loved that she is so honest about how she feels, and that she is unwilling to compromise who she really is.

I had a very different experience growing up to Philipps, but despite that there was still so much in the early parts of the book that I could relate to, and I think a lot of people will find the same thing. There is always something universal about growing up in a very ordinary place, and going through the turmoils of family, friends, school, puberty, and all the ensuing drama – we each just have our own versions of all these things. I was amazed at how open Philipps is about her family in particular, and their own unique issues and personalities. I did wonder how they might feel about all that being in the book. I wondered this too about various people she meets over the years, as she never uses pseudonyms or tries to hide who she is talking about, or what happened between them. Likewise she is searingly honest about her marriage and its ups and downs, as well as her and her husband’s feeling about having children, and what is was like to be new parents. This type of candour and emotional honesty is rare in the celebrity world, especially when it is not played for laughs and just told straight – and I found it refreshing and relatable. Busy Philipps and her husband (who is a screenwriter, producer, and director) may have a Hollywood life, but they still have a family and a marriage, and everything that comes along with it.

I genuinely just really enjoyed reading This Will Only Hurt A Little, and I was happily swept up in the emotions of Philipps’ stories. It made me feel a lot of things about her, and myself, and women, and men, and mothers and sisters, parents, work, self-worth and self-esteem, moments when we need to be tough and demanding, moments when we need to work and give, moments when we need to be there for others, and for ourselves. Philipps has had an incredible life filled to the brim with people and emotions, and it has obviously been a difficult life at times, both when she was young and as an adult; but I was impressed by her resilience and her later self-awareness and willingness to deal with difficult things. I really do admire her for these things – as well as her wonderful body of work. Freaks and Geeks is one of my favourite things I have seen her in, as well as Vice Principals, and movies like Made of Honor (one of several movies and TV shows where she plays a scene-stealing friend of the central female character). I’m also very keen to see her new late night chat show on E!, amazing titled Busy Tonight, partly because she is one of very few women to host a late night show, but also because I am sure she will be completely engaging and brilliant on it.

I think This Will Only Hurt A Little is one of the most well-written and engaging celebrity memoirs I have come across, and in fact it doesn’t really feel like a ‘celebrity’ book – more like a memoir of a woman who is really interesting and brilliant and normal and just happens to be an amazing actress with an amazing life. I really recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of memoir, especially if you would normally be put off by the ‘Hollywood’  aspect. Busy Philipps is a relatable and brilliant women who deserves nothing but success. Read this book!

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Published in 2018 by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

 

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Articles, Events, Fiction, Non-Fiction

The Peters Fraser And Dunlop/Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award – Shortlist Reveal!

As I ~may~ have mentioned, I am on the shadow panel for this year’s Young Writer of the Year Award – and today the shortlist has been announced! Here they are:

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Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (Particular Books)

Kings of the Yukon is about Adam Weymouth’s journey in a canoe along the length of the Yukon River, as he explores the landscape, people, climate, and animals of Alaska. He made the journey alongside the migrating salmon, and considers their plight along with his own. I have always loved good travel writing, especially when it comes together with memoir, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

Elmet is a novel that explores class, nature, violence, land-ownership, childhood, humanity… a lot of things. The central character is a boy named Daniel whose idyllic existence with ‘Daddy and Cathy’ in their rural home is changed forever. Their land is threatened and Daniel sees a new side to Daddy as he becomes more and more angry and violent. I didn’t know much about this novel before now, but it seems intriguing and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker)

This novel was very popular when it first came out, and I remember seeing a lot of press and blog reviews, so I’m sure it’ll be an enjoyable read. Jonah Hancock, a merchant, becomes famous when one of his crew discovers what appears to be a mermaid. Soon everyone wants to come and marvel at the spectacle, and along the way Jonah meets a courtesan named Angelica Neal… and it all goes from there. It is described as a “spell-binding story of obsession and curiosity” on GoodReads and I’m not surprised that it has been so popular.

The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman (W&N)

I had already had The Reading Cure on my TBR for a while, so I was very pleased to see it on the shortlist, and to be given the opportunity to read it. Laura Freeman suffered from anorexia as a teenager, and this book chronicles how her love of literature kept her going through some of the hardest points of her illness, and inspired her to get better. This is just the sort of memoir I’m sure I will enjoy.

So there they are – four very interesting books. I’m very pleased that two are fiction, and two are non-fiction, as I love reading both, and I think it will be a very interesting conversation when the shadow panel and I have to try and choose our winner. They all look wonderful.

You can follow award news on Twitter via the award’s page and with the hashtags #youngwriteraward and #youngwriterawardshadow.

I’d love to hear what you think of the shortlist – have you read any?

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick (2017)

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(Image: goodreads.com)

I honestly didn’t know much about Joan Leigh Fermor when I asked for this book for Christmas last year, but I knew a little about her travel writer husband Paddy,  and the blurb intrigued me. I decided to take the book in holiday with me to Devon, where I read it in two days, mostly while sitting in a cafe overlooking a beach, and on a sun lounger outside our holiday cottage. Bliss!

In his introduction Simon Fenwick reminds his readers that he is primarily an archivist, and his author bio states that he has worked on/in the archives of Paddy Leigh Fermor. Reading the book, you can see his archival skills coming out as he meticulously details documents and diaries, and he reproduces a lot of letters. This was great in terms of accuracy, but after a while I found it a bit list-like and too literal. Fenwick goes into a huge amount of detail about social events from Joan’s one surviving pocket diary, to the point where you feel that you aren’t learning anything real about Joan, just about her calendar.

Fenwick tells us an awful lot about Joan’s social circle, which included the likes of Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman – which is interesting in that you get an idea of her social world and contemporaries, but I felt that there was too much detail about these other people and their lives in ways that were not always relevant to the story of Joan’s life. In a similar vein, the book begins with a little history lesson about some of Joan’s ancestors, which while interesting was totally irrelevant. The second chapter, titled ‘Growing Up’, is also more about Joan’s brother Graham’s time at Oxford than about her; towards the end of the chapter there is a bit about her and her sister’s experience at their boarding school, and a brief mention of her social debut and visit to Buckingham Palace. This is described as a moment she has been waiting for her whole life, and yet it is only mentioned briefly. I didn’t feel like I got a real sense of Joan’s childhood or what it was like for her growing up.

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A happy young Joan (image: patrickleighfermor.org)

As the book, and time, progresses, we learn more about Joan’s own life, and a little about her career as a photographer. This was seen as a suitable career for a woman, and it was one that Joan could do with her small amount of formal education. She was obviously sharp and intelligent and clearly would have benefitted from a chance to extend her schooling and go to university. I got the impression that she did the best she could with what’s she had, and wasn’t willing to settle into a domestic life straight away. She travelled for a job and this lead her to a desire to live abroad – something she shared with her eventual partner and husband, Paddy Leigh Fermor. I enjoyed hearing about their life together, even though they spent a lot of time apart as Paddy travelled and wrote in various locations. Fenwick reproduces a lot of their letters and highlights their adoration for each other, only later dropping in that Paddy had a lot of affairs throughout their early relationship, and maybe later. Once Joan meets Paddy, it becomes even more clear that the author is an expert on Paddy rather than Joan. At times I felt like I was learning more about him than her, and I didn’t get a real sense of Joan’s experiences.

This was my feeling throughout most of the book to be honest – I got the outline of the movements of Joan’s life, and the people around her. At times I felt like Fenwick was trying to tell the story of Joan’s life by talking about about everything and everyone around her, rather than the woman herself. He admits that she left a very small personal archive, but still the book feels a bit blank, like there isn’t enough material to go on. There was too much detail and at the same time not enough. It felt a little unbalanced. In my most disappointed moments, I thought that you could tell that this is the first biography that Fenwick has written, and that his career as an archivist means that he presents the evidence well, but doesn’t really go beyond that. So, I was rather disappointed overall, which was a shame, as I could tell that Joan Leigh Fermor was a brave and interesting woman who deserves for her life story to be told.

*

Published in 2017 by Macmillan. I read the hardback edition 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.

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

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

IMG_0852Like most people, I am familiar with the term ‘mansplaining’. I’ve also heard a fair bit of excitement about Rebecca Solnit as an interesting writer. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me is the origin of the term, something I only learned seeing the word in circulation – when it first became a thing there were lots of little articles about it everywhere, and examples of when women had been mansplained to were shared across social media. It became something of a pop culture phenomenon. It’s even in the OED.

So, once I knew where the word came from, I was curious to know more. I’d heard of Rebecca Solnit a bit, so finding out more about her work certainly appealed. I’m always keen to read a bit more non-fiction, especially something like this that isn’t narrative (I read a lot of that). Plus, the Granta hardback of Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays is very attractive indeed, so I just had to go for it.

It’s funny to hear that something is great, and then actually experience it for yourself. There are expectations, whether they are rational or not. I expected the essay to be good, to be groundbreaking even, but I didn’t know anything about Solnit’s writing style or her narrative voice. Luckily I was pleased with both of these things – her writing is academic and formal enough to be taken seriously, and it is engaging and elegant enough to entertain and keep you turning the pages. With this essay she is writing about a cultural occurrence, but also about a personal experience. The first instance of explaining occurs at a party, with people she knows, and some she doesn’t, and it’s a wonderful example of a personal, female experience that can be translated into the wider context of our current culture and society. It must have been quite the epiphanic moment when Solnit decided to distill this experience and its relevance to women everywhere into this eloquent and succinct essay. It is a perfect translation of life into literature, and then into something bigger that permeates society.

Though the book is under 200 pages, there are six ‘Other Essays’ in this volume. They all centre around gender, feminism, equal rights, freedom. Personally I found Grandmother Spider to be the most compelling. It starts with an analysis of an untitled painting by the artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, in which a woman is obscured by the sheet which she is pegging to a washing line. The wind is blowing it against her, showing some of the shape of her body, but all we see are her hands at the top, trying to peg it down, and her feet below, jarring in their pointy high heeled shoes. This painting and others by Fernandez are printed at the start of each chapter to illustrate some point in the following essay. But this one struck me the most.

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Untitled (image: anateresafernandez.com)

In Grandmother Spider Solnit discusses how easy it is for women to be obscured, hidden from view, made to disappear. She uses the example of family trees, where maiden names are erased, and sometimes lineages only depict the males of the family, leaving out the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. She also writes about the war in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s, where countless people were “disappeared”, and how the mothers of the disappeared were the ones who gathered in public to protest. She writes about the Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death) project led by the Italian actress Serena Dandini, and how they count every woman killed by a man (about 60,000 annually, worldwide) and how this can be seen as “the ultimate form of erasure, silencing, disappearance” – because most of them are killed by “lovers, husbands, former partners”.

I particularly loved the closing paragraph of this essay, summing up Solnit’s reaction to these terrible facts, to this erasure of women throughout history:

To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.

If you have any interest in feminism and equality, no matter your gender, I would recommend this book. I shall certainly be reading more of Solnit’s work – in fact this afternoon I ordered a copy of her new book, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. I can’t wait to read it!

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Published by Granta (UK) and Haymarket Books (US) in 2014. I read the Granta 2014 hardback edition (pictured above).

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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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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Fiction, Reviews

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.

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The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.

Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.

Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.

Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.

He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.

As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.

I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.

Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.

The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.

*

Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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