Non-Fiction, Reviews

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


Penguin UK cover (image:

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.


Min Kym (image:

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

Fiction, Reviews

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

Articles, Fiction, Reviews

Best of 2012: After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold

In August I wrote my first review for Fiction Uncovered (my only so far but there will hopefully be more!) – the book in question was After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold. I hadn’t heard of it until Fiction Uncovered sent it to me, and I’m so glad they did. The novel is ‘inspired by the “tender and troubling” friendship between Lewis Carroll and his muse, the young Alice Liddell’. Not only did Carroll write the wonderful Alice novels, but his relationship with Alice Liddell, as well as his photographs of her, have intrigued readers almost as much.

2012 hardback edition – love this cover!

Gaynor Arnold uses their friendship as inspiration for her story – Oxford don and clergyman John Jameson befriends fellow priest Daniel Baxter, as well as his family, and is enchanted by Baxter’s young daughter Daisy. Jameson, Baxter, Daisy, and Daisy’s mother all narrate the story; Daisy in particular is a fascinating narrator, looking back on events of her childhood from adulthood and her new life with her husband. She is an unreliable narrator, as time has altered her memories and perceptions of events.

Gaynor Arnold. Image:

My review on Fiction Uncovered is here and here is a great blog post by Gaynor Arnold about her fascination with Alice in Wonderland and why she wrote After Such Kindness. It really is a fascinating book, extremely intelligent and well written, and definitely one of my top books of 2012.


After Such Kindess was published in July 2012 by Tindal Street Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Fiction, Reviews

Best of 2012: When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones

I’ve decided not to write about my best books of 2012 in any sort of order – though I have one or two that stand out as favourites I’ve decided not to do a Top 10, or to write chronologically. However, by chance, the first book in my Best of 2012 series was published in January, though I reviewed it in June (see my review here). When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones came to my attention as one of Fiction Uncovered’s picks for the best British fiction of the year. I had high expectations for this novel, due to Fiction Uncovered’s description, and was not disappointed.

Hardback edition

The very beginning of the twentieth century is a fascinating period that is sometimes overlooked in favour of the Victorian era and World War Two, so I was intrigued by the choice. Suffrage and women’s independence play an important if underlying role in When Nights Were Cold, and the ways in which we cope with our ever-changing world. I loved the female characters’ desire for adventure, and their ambition to live as they pleased. Grace Farringdon is classic and brilliant unreliable narrator, looking back at the events of the story after many years.

There are three key settings that I loved: Candlin Women’s College, where Grace goes to study and meets the members of her Antarctic Exploration Society; the mountains of Wales and the Alps; and Grace’s family home in London, a place filled with memories and dreams. All are vividly brought to life by Jones, and all are are as dramatic as the events that take place in them.

Susanna Jones

When Nights Were Cold is not the best book I have ever read, but I couldn’t help loving it and recommending it to people I know. A wonderful mix of themes, characters, time periods and plot twists place this book firmly in my best of 2012. Also, I bloody love the cover. Always a good thing.


When Nights Were Cold was published in January 2012 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Fiction, Reviews

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

2013 Tinder Press edition (image:

2013 Tinder Press edition (image:

Instructions For A Heatwave is the sixth novel from the extremely popular Maggie O’Farrell, one of the titles from new imprint Tinder Press, and the first of her books I have read. O’Farrell was yet another one of those authors I had always heard good things about but for some reason had never actually read. To be honest I think part of the reason for that was because all the covers of her previous novels were a bit girly and swirly and pink, and that put me off a bit. They were clearly romantic and emotional and while that isn’t bad, they just seemed a bit fluffy. Think of that what you will.

Tinder Press is a new imprint from Headline, with all of its little collection of new titles coming out in 2013. The catalogue is beautiful, consisting of a set of postcards with the details of each book on them. Firstly the cover of Instructions For A Heatwave got my attention – it is generally rather pleasing, but also, crucially, looked modern and intelligent, probably because it doesn’t look like a cover I’ve seen before. The plot description was simple but also very appealing – a husband and father walks out on his family for no apparent reason; the estranged children come back to their mother, and secrets and drama unfold. Knowing O’Farrell’s reputation but never having taken the plunge with her, I was intrigued, and requested a copy.

I’m not going to say too much about this novel. From the start I loved O’Farrell’s writing; simple and honest, but beautiful too. I particularly liked the way she shifted perspective from one character to another within one scene, so elegant and smooth, so easy and graceful that you barely notice and when you do you are impressed and pleased. Her descriptions – of people, moods, emotions, thoughts and particularly places – are exceptionally beautiful and well thought out. Nothing here is generic or cliched.

Aoife flips a page over, realises that she hates this photographer’s work, that she met the man once and he was an arrogant pig. She eyes the long form of her brother [lying on the floor].

‘You OK?’ she says.

‘Mmmnnng,’ Michael Francis says, or thereabouts.

His face is pressed to the rag rug in what was once his sisters’ bedroom. It is, he suddenly sees, the best place in the world to be.

Those of you who have read her previous work probably know this, but O’Farrell really does understand all the complexities held within families. We feel a vast sum of emotions towards each family member and our history is always, always present, no matter how deep down or far back. O’Farrell lays everything bare; she is unafraid of the truths of family relationships, no matter how difficult. The relationships between siblings I found particularly moving and expertly crafted. Youngest (and most ‘difficult’) sibling Aoife, I fell in love with.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. It is one of the few I have awarded five stars on GoodReads, and I am certainly going to read more of O’Farrell’s work. I am so, so happy I chose this book – shows just how important covers are! Seen opaquely, the end could be thought of as a little too neat; but really there are a lot of questions still unanswered. You are left pondering it all for a long time after the book is closed.


Published in hardback in February 2013 by Tinder Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Articles, Events

Impromptu visit to see Neil Gaiman at The Cambridge Theatre

While I finish off my review of Freshta I thought I’d share with you the pictures I managed to take on Monday night. Now, I’m currently an intern at Duckworth Publishers, and my boss Jamie had a ticket for Monday night, but was too ill to go, so very kindly gave it to me. This ticket just happened to be for an evening at The Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden (where they do Matilda, hence the set) to see Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman talking about Pullman’s new versions of the Grimms’ fairy tales. I thought, why not. The evening was hosted/moderated by Rosie Boycott, and authors Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffenegger stood in for Philip Pullman, with Rosoff chatting with Gaiman and Niffenegger reading one of his new fairy tales at the start. This was called ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ and was excellent. Gaiman wrote about the event here.

Gaiman reading a new short story ‘The Click Clack The Rattle Bag’

The evening closed with Neil Gaiman reading a new short story of his called ‘The Click Clack The Rattle Bag’. It was terrifying and excellent, and is available to download from Audible. For every download, Audible will donate money to educational charities through Find out more and download the story here.


Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pullman was published on 27th September 2012 by Penguin. The tenth anniversary edition of Coraline by Neil Gaiman was published on 2nd August 2012 by Bloomsbury.

Articles, Interviews

Interview with Emma Chapman

Emma Chapman’s debut novel How To Be A Good Wife will be published on 3rd January 2013 by Picador, and is already creating a lot of ‘buzz’ and excitement. I reviewed the novel earlier in the week and now here is my interview with Emma. Enjoy!

2012 proof cover

Firstly, congratulations on the book, it really is excellent! You have said that a documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder inspired How To Be A Good Wife – has psychology always been an interest of yours? Did you have to do much research to create Marta’s state of mind?

Emma Chapman: I have always been interested in what makes people who they are: where the line between genetics and environment lies.  After watching the initial documentary, I did a great deal of research into Post Traumatic Stress and a number of other more controversial disorders related to early trauma.  I was particularly fascinated that it seemed possible to repress memories subconsciously as a coping mechanism: to be unaware of things that had occurred in your own past.  I think everyone does this to an extent, but I wanted to envisage a character where this was taken to the extreme.  It was also important to me that the character was not totally reliable: to raise the question of whether we can ever truly trust the complexities of our own minds.

What else inspired you? Were there any writers, books, or films that you were thinking about when writing the book?

So many.  For clean writing style, and an unreliable narrator undergoing psychological stresses, I have always admired “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. There is quite a canon of literature exploring themes of female psychological instability which can also be read as a reaction against submissiveness to men: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and “The Awakening” (Kate Chopin) to name just two.

On a less literary note, while I was writing, I also watched the film ‘What Lies Beneath’, which until the rather too supernatural ending, questions whether to believe husband or wife, and has plenty of suspenseful moments.

The novel is very intense and vivid – was writing it an immersive experience, especially since it’s in the first person?

It was incredibly immersive: I actually found myself thinking like Marta in my everyday life, which as you can imagine was an unsettling experience!  I felt so close to her, so much inside her head, that it became quite claustrophobic.

I also had a horrible feeling of inevitability about Marta: that her ending was not going to be a happy one, and it took me a long time to reconcile myself to that.  Having put her in such a terrible situation, it was difficult to find a way out without removing the ambiguity surrounding what actually happened, which for me was crucial to the book.

I found the focus on time really fascinating, as Marta always seems to be checking her watch, and the clock in the strange room seems to stand out in her ‘visions’; she is also deprived of the knowing the time towards the end of the novel and finds this very frustrating. This obsession with time suggests a lack of and a need for control that has been taken away from her – was this the intention?

Yes. There are so many things in Marta’s life in the present, and in the room, which are out of her control.  Time and cleanliness therefore become very important to her, continuing into her married life.  I wanted to use these themes to show how although Marta progresses through different environments (the room, the house, the psychiatric facilities), her lack of control remains.  Her life is always in the hands of other people. The ending, for me, was the only way for her to take back that control.

 Did you consider gender roles when writing? For instance, with issues of control and dominance, as well as the image of the woman as a victim, and female ‘hysteria’?

Yes. As I have mentioned, many twentieth-century books that explore this theme influenced me.  I was brought up in a family where it was never even suggested that I couldn’t do the same things as my brother: it didn’t even cross my mind.  Through school and university, I began exploring the conventions of the past and how they held women in a very specific role that is not only limiting but also damaging.  If we are left with only the home, although in many respects we can find it fulfilling, is it enough?  Freud’s work on ‘hysteria’, and books like “The Feminine Mystique”, which explores the dissatisfaction of women in the 1950s, demonstrate that perhaps these archaic women’s roles result in psychological problems for women.  A bad marriage can still result in a limiting of a woman’s potential, and I suppose the book is an exploration of that.

How did the Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway help you to write the novel?

It was invaluable.  It forced me to show my work to like-minded people when I had never done that before.  It gave me the time to focus on the novel, and to take it seriously.  It gave me a good headstart.  Also, it taught me that writing is a skill like any other: something you can improve on.

What are you planning for you next novel?

My second novel is about a war photographer during the Vietnam War.  It explores the role of the observer in a conflict zone: asking whether you can ever stay on the outside of such situations without intervening, and if it has a future impact on your mind and your home life.

I recently returned from a three-month research trip where I was also teaching English.  I set up a teaching volunteer scheme on my return, which you can read more about here

Emma Chapman. Photo credit: Claire Weir


Many thanks to Emma Chapman and Emma Bravo at Picador for this interview. How To Be A Good Wife is published by Picador on 3rd January 2013.

Fiction, Reviews

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Firstly, this book needed/needs more publicity. What’s going on Random House? It was published in August and I came across it by chance – and it’s Jeanette Winterson! Jeanette bloody Winterson! AND it’s published in association with Hammer, who are super famous for their classic horror films (and a few more modern things too). You’d think more of a fuss would have been made. Fair enough it’s not standard Winterson fare (although she does manage to squeeze in some lesbianism) but still – more publicity needed!

2012 hardback edition

The Daylight Gate is part of Hammer’s work with Arrow Publishing, part of Random House, to help the classic horror brand reach a new audience through literature and already-famous writers. The end-page in The Daylight Gate states that “Hammer is back, and its new incarnation is the home of cool, stylish and provocative stories which aim to push audiences out of their comfort zones.” Aside from use of the word ‘cool’, this sounds promising. While I’m a total wimp when it comes to proper nasty horror, I like thrillers and a bit of suspense and creepiness in both movies and books, so this ‘new incarnation’ of Hammer is something I can get on board with. Besides, I’d personally much rather read a horror novel than watch a horror movie; but that’s just me.

Now, I don’t know the details of how Winterson came to join in with this Hammer revival and actually write The Daylight Gate. Perhaps she’s always liked horror, but she certainly seems to have an interest in her subject matter – the Lancashire witch trials of 1612. They are the ‘best-documented’ witch trials in our history and are surrounded by rumour and legend. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was a notorious spot for witches, with its standing stones still in place today.

Pendle Hill in Lancashire

Winterson takes real life figures and creates her own story with them, postulating what might have really happened before and during the trials. In her introduction she states that her versions of these people, particularly Alice Nutter, are not the figures of history but her imaginings of them. She does use real events such as the meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday of the Device family and their friends. This meeting is the catalyst for the trials and the story goes from there, as the alleged witches plot to somehow win, and the wealthy Alice Nutter tries to avoid the situation but ultimately cannot avoid getting involved. Initially this is because Malkin Tower is on her land and she is knowingly letting the Devices use it – but then she herself is accused of witchcraft.

Stephanie Merritt’s review for The Observer stated that the more terrifying aspects of The Daylight Gate are the scenes taken from real life – or at least those that are more plausible – than the demonic witchiness. Merritt writes that

the social realism sits uneasily alongside the supernatural elements: a severed head that speaks, or the appearances of the mysterious Dark Gentleman … The story is at its least convincing in these moments, as if the truth of why women were accused of witchcraft – because they did not conform to convention – can’t be reconciled with the demands of the horror genre. The description of a prisoner being skinned alive has a far more chilling effect here than the appearance of an animated corpse, because it is true.

I agree. However that’s not to say that the supernatural parts of the story are not good or believable in the context of the story. It is just that they are somehow less affecting to the reader – while the image of a talking severed head and the grisly description of someone else’s severed tongue being sown into it is certainly upsetting, it is so extreme that the reality of it does not hit home in the same way as the image of lawmen taking advantage of their status to humiliate, beat, and rape a woman they have decided is a witch.

My only real problem with The Daylight Gate was the writing. It is well-established that Winterson is an excellent storyteller and I’ve always liked her style of writing before; but at certain moments in this novel the writing failed. There are moments of typical Winterson brilliance, and the overall structure of the story is excellent; but there are too many moments when Winterson seems to be relying on the fact that she is a good writer and not really trying to make the book as good as it can be.

That said I really did enjoy The Daylight Gate and wished it were longer – I blasted through it in two days! I would definitely be interested to see what else the partnership between Hammer and Arrow produces, and whether Winterson decides to return to horror.


Published in the UK in August 2012 by Hammer and Arrow Publishing, part of the Random House Group.