Fiction, Reviews

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

I loved Susan Fletcher’s last novel, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, so I was very happy to accept a review copy of House of Glass, which was published at the start of November. It’s another historical drama, this time centering on a woman named Clara Waterfield, who is employed to create a greenhouse at a mysterious country estate, Shadowbrook (doesn’t sound creepy at all…). Clara is born with weak bones and lives a very sheltered life until she finds a ‘gentle’ job in the greenhouses at Kew Gardens – and it is from there that she is employed at Shadowbrook.

From the start things are a bit weird, with the house’s owner, Mr Fox, being absent and everyone being a bit cagey about where he is. The housekeeper Mrs Bale is kind but seems fraught with some underlying fear or tension, and evades Clara’s questions; and the two maids at the house are likewise unable or unwilling to give her any more information. She must simply prepare the greenhouse for the plants that are to come, and when they arrive she must plant and look after them. While the house and its owner are a mystery to Clara, she in turn is something of a mystery to everyone she meets – her bones mean that she is short and walks with a cane, and she has unusually light hair, skin, and eyes. She constantly feels looked at wherever she goes, and it takes her a while to settle in. Throughout these introductory sections of the book, Fletcher’s beautiful writing really shines through, as Clara explores the house, grounds, and the local village, observing everything and always wanting to learn more. She also thinks and dreams of her dead mother almost all the time, haunted by her memories.

Soon, Clara starts to hear strange noises in the house, and wonders why there are no pictures on the walls. She learns that there were pictures, but they kept falling down for no apparent reason. So, not only do we have a mysterious house with a mysterious owner, we might also have ghosts. I wouldn’t say that House of Glass is a ghost story or a haunted house story, but it’s certainly Gothic. Clara herself is a great Gothic character with her unusual appearance and sheltered life. She moves about like a little creature, stared at, but still bold. She makes a point of talking to people and asking them about the house the its previous owners, the Pettigrews. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them and they obviously made quite an impact on the village – particularly the daughter, Veronique, who inherited the house and was the last Pettigrew to live there. Clara is fascinated by Veronique and endeavours to find out everything she can about her – while wondering if she is the ghost in the house.

I honestly can’t say too much more without giving things away, as there are several key things that slowly get revealed as the book goes on. An investigator is hired to come and see if there really is a ghost, and from this point Clara digs deeper and does manage to uncover some truths. The story is really well paced, and while things are revealed slowly to the reader, you don’t feel like things are held back, or given too fast. I found Clara to be a really engaging narrator and I loved her bold attitude and determination. As I expected Fletcher’s characterisation (of the whole cast) is excellent, and the world of the novel feels very real, as do the people in it. The novel starts a little slowly, but gets better as it goes on, and I have to say I was not expecting what was revealed towards the end – the truth about Mr Fox, Shadowbrook, and the Pettigrews. It is an ending well worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

*

Published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

I still have two more Jane Austen novels to read but I have wanted to read Emma for the longest, and wanted to read it the most, if that makes sense. Ever since I learned that one of my favourite films, Clueless, was loosely based on it, Emma has loomed large on my TBR. After reading Lucy Worsley’s wonderful biography of Austen recently I was spurred on to get myself a lovely Penguin English Library edition and crack on. And I am so glad I did.

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Emma is such a well-read and well-reviewed book that I can’t really review it as such – but I can heap on the praise and say that it had everything that I love about Austen’s work. There is humour, drama, irony, sarcasm, free indirect speech (when characters’ voices are incorporated into the narrative voice), layered meanings, romantic intrigue, and wonderfully real characters and emotions. Emma herself felt like a real person, so fully realised and with some elements of character that clearly came from Jane herself.

Austen famously declared that she didn’t expect readers to like Emma, and she does have flaws, but of course these dissipate as she matures and becomes more self-aware throughout the novel, and you can see she is well-intentioned; her major flaw is perhaps naivety, or arrogance, or snobbishness. But as I grew to like her more and more, I forgave her these. In the end she accepts the truth of things and is able to be happy for others, and for herself.

I think Persuasion is still my favourite of Austen’s novels, though I’d like to reread it as I haven’t visited it in years – but I completely adore Emma now as well. I know there are several TV and movie adaptations of it out there, but if anyone could recommend one that would be amazing! It’s always lovely to see Austen’s novels brought to life (except for that movie of Pride and Prejudice, which is best forgotten). Which is your favourite?

I’ve been a bit Austen-mad recently, so I am looking forward to my next few books – though I have yet to choose what to read next. As always I have too much to choose from! The current contenders are Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thérèse Desqueyroux by  François Mauriac – how to choose??

*

Emma was originally published in 1816; I read the 2012 PEL paperback, 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

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

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2009 Penguin paperback (image: goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)

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

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Bonnier Zaffre UK hardback (image: goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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Fiction, Reviews

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (2017)

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Viking UK edition (image: goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Fiction, Reviews

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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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

WWW Wednesday, 19th April 2017

I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Here are mine!

What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

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This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).

What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!

What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.

What are your WWW books?

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Fiction, Reviews

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of those books that gets an awful lot of hype and press, and often this puts me off for some reason – but in this case it is entirely deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see promos and reviews all over social media. I read a proof copy back in November and loved it instantly. The premise alone drew me in: it is the story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders of her father and stepmother. I love historical fiction, and I love true crime, so this  was a perfect blend of both. Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character from history that just gets under your skin. She was famously acquitted of the murders, but there remains suspicion that she was guilty, and the mysteriousness of her character is something that Schmidt uses excellently.

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Tinder Press 2017 edition (image via goodreads.com)

The book is narrated by four people: Lizzie herself, the maid Bridget, Lizzie’s sister Emma, and a man named Benjamin who gets caught up in their story. All of them are unreliable, something that becomes more and more clear the more you read. The women are all wrapped up in the strangeness of the household and the family, tortured by the strained emotions and simmering tensions. Lizzie is clearly not an easy person to live with, but she is not the only one guilty of making things difficult. The Borden family are filled with sadness and a longing for the past, for better days. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, keeps all the windows and doors locked for fear of criminals, and this literal confinement only exacerbates the feeling of being trapped in their lives that all the characters seem to feel.

The women of the house are trapped in their feminine roles and their corsets, never to be free like men and do as they please. And Andrew, the only one with any real power, keeps them that way. The relationships between the women – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and the stepmother Abby – are quietly brilliant and acutely observed. They have no obvious reason to dislike each other, but the oppressive atmosphere in the house brings out the worst in them, even if they do not intend it. Like any family they have a few small disputes, but for the Bordens these become life-changing.

Benjamin is one of the only entirely fictional characters in the book. He turns up in their town of Fall River looking for work, and by chance meets their uncle John. Now I’ve decided not to tell exactly how Benjamin gets wrapped up with the Bordens – but suffice to say he gets quite close to them and, crucially, provides an outside view to the events of the story.

I thought both Benjamin and Bridget were excellent choices as narrators. They are both outside of the family, but still close to it, and they give us a slightly different perspective. Bridget observes the quarrels between Lizzie and her parents, and the effects of Lizzie’s moods and is the unique position of being part of the household but not part of the family, so she observes everything without always knowing what it means. The Bordens are a family full of unexpressed emotions, unfulfilled desires, and stifled arguments. Lizzie is the only one that seems to let anything out, and for this she if often treated like a child by her parents, but particularly by her father. Andrew Borden is very stuck in his ways, and is emotionally closed off and quite cold and hard towards his family, even his wife Abby. He does not deal with Lizzie’s outbursts and tantrums very well, and I think he makes her feel even more trapped and stifled than she already does.

Living in the 1800s meant that Lizzie could not have an independent life, and is stuck living in the family home. You can see why she is frustrated with her life, but she is also, frankly, quite childish and selfish, and doesn’t always see that life is sometimes hard for the rest of her family as well. She has a push-pull relationship with her sister Emma, and I think though they love each other there is also a lot of resentment and negative feelings.

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Lizzie Borden in about 1890 (image via wikipedia.com)

Schmidt excels at this sort of family psychology, and as a result the entire cast of characters feel entirely real. This is also due to the first person narratives, and the fact that all the events of the book take place over only two days. This means that everything is examined, often from multiple angles, and small events often take on more meaning. The short time frame allows Schmidt to really get inside her character’s heads and examine exactly what happened and when. I felt that the two days covered in the novel are the culmination of a lifetime of family secrets and strong emotions, of dysfunctional relationships, and unfulfilled desires. All the problems and issues within the Borden family are exemplified in those two days, and as we know the results are extreme.

As the book progresses you realise that Schmidt has a clear opinion about whether or not Lizzie is guilty, but this doesn’t ruin anything and I don’t think she is trying to influence the reader. It is still up to you to decided whether you think she really killed Andrew and Abby. She remains a mystery to this day.

Sarah Schmidt writes a wonderful blog where she often discusses her experiences of writing See What I Have Done, and tells the story of why she chose to write about Lizzie Borden. I would really recommend reading this as it helps to explain some of the reasons why Lizzie remains in the public consciousness and why she is still so fascinating.

*

Published in May 2017 by Tinder Press in the UK. I read a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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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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