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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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!

*

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

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

*

Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

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Fiction, Interviews, Reviews

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher: blog tour review plus Q&A with the author

This post is part of the blog tour for Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew – be sure to check out the other posts!

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I was very glad to be offered a review copy of this book. The Little Brown website describes it as ‘tender and savage’ and this is certainly true – the pains and passions of life are explored and considered in all their beauty and horror. The descriptions of Provence are vivid and colourful, and took me right back to our holiday there last year. Fletcher obviously has a passion for the area she describes – a place filled with history and nature, and the lives of those who live there.

Van Gogh himself is very ‘in touch’ with nature in this novel, and seems happier to be out in it than in amongst buildings and people. He is troubled and vulnerable when we meet him, having recently committed that famous act of self-harm, severing the lower part of one of his ears, and now residing in a psychiatric hospital. To Jeanne Trabuc, the wife of his doctor, van Gogh is doubly mysterious as both a patient at the hospital and as an artist. She is captivated by his creativity and what she sees as his freedom from the constraints of an ordered life. She is mesmerised by the story of his ear, and the rumour that he once wandered into Place du Forum in Arles completely naked, in the rain, at night.

To Jeanne he represents freedom, creativity, boldness, and the potential richness of life. She compares him, sometimes unconsciously, with her own husband, Charles. He is professional and ‘buttoned up’, and lives by rules and routine. She herself is a housewife, forbidden to talk to the patients or go inside the hospital, left to her housework. When van Gogh arrives she is instantly intrigued by him, and actively seeks him out – in secret of course.

While van Gogh is the ‘big name’ here, the story is really about Jeanne, and her life and  marriage. She reflects on the feeling of loss she has now that her children are grown up and living far away, and the loneliness she feels now that Charles insists on separate beds. The question of intimacy in their marriage – both psychological and physical – is an important theme to the novel and something that Jeanne thinks about often. The ‘man’ in the title is van Gogh, this mysterious artist, but also Charles. He is the love of Jeanne’s life and yet sometimes she feels that she no longer knows him. Her passion is contained within her, and as she talks more with van Gogh and learns about his art and life, she realises that she must release it. She hears about his troubles and his pain, and realises that you must live with passion, and that life is beautiful. Her boldness grows throughout the novel and she refuses to settle for her lot. Jeanne is brave in her own small way, and she fights for what is worth having – her marriage and her happiness.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a portrait of a time and a place, and a marriage. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.

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Virago 2016 cover (image: littlebrown.co.uk)

The author Susasn Fletcher kindly agreed to answer some questions I sent her, which I hope will entice you to read this wonderful novel even more.

What drew you to write about Jeanne Trabuc? How did you get into her mindset and her life?

I first became aware of Jeanne through Vincent’s letters. I knew I wanted to write a novel about van Gogh; I also knew that I was interested in that year of his life – May 1889-1890 – where he was at his most prolific, in the olive groves of Saint-Remy. So I began to read his letters to Theo, from that time. Vincent’s description of her – the warden’s wife – was so astonishing that I felt compelled to find out more. She was a plain, middle-aged housewife who was unlikely to have either seen much of the world, or been educated well. This was my starting point: to imagine a life in which there weren’t such luxuries, and how small such a life would be

Did you travel to Provence to get a feel for the environment and the buildings of the asylum?

I did! And it was one of the most wonderful weeks. I stayed in a tiny annex, on the outskirts of Saint-Remy, and I’d walk along the lanes into the town every day. It was June, and everything was in blossom. The asylum itself is still there; it’s still a working hospital, so the majority of it is inaccessible. But there’s a small museum about van Gogh’s stay at Saint-Paul, with a replica of his little room. I’d go to the hospital most days, walk through the fields surrounding it with my notebook. As for the Trabuc’s cottage itself, I got conflicting information as to which it was, or where it had been – so I was left having to make my own guesses. Even so, I came back with such a vivid, strong sense of Jeanne and her life there. It was a turning point in the writing of the book.

Did you have to do much research into the treatment of and attitudes towards mental health in 19th century France? What did you learn?

My research didn’t, in fact, take me too far into the treatment of mental health in France in general. The two things that I did, however, need to know and understand were, firstly, what van Gogh suffered from – what he was prone to, how others perceived him and how he perceived himself – and, secondly, the regime at Saint-Paul. Saint-Paul was not particularly representative of other asylums, at the time, in that it focussed on simple diet, rest, regular baths and the freedom to write, paint or read. As for van Gogh’s conditions, I think there’s debate even now as to what he suffered from. The likelihood is that it was a combination of things: bipolar disorder and epilepsy are two strong possibilities.

How did you go about learning about Van Gogh’s time at St Paul? What was the most interesting thing you learned about him?

The best resource, by far, was the letters that he wrote to his brother during his stay. Van Gogh wrote to Theo throughout his life, and they were saved and published after his death by his sister-in-law Jo. Without them, we’d know so much less about him, and his life. What I loved most about these letters was that they show Vincent’s tenderness, and vulnerability: I’d assumed they’d be troubled, hard, perhaps aggressive in their tone. In fact, they are beautiful meditations on his work, on life, his condition and his loneliness. He also had a sense of humour: there’s a wonderful sentence in an early letter, from Saint-Paul, in which he laments the bland food there, and the downsides of the patients having so many beans!

Finally, what are you working on now?

I’m frustratingly coy when it comes to talking about works in progress! But it’s another historical piece, set in rural England before the First World War. I’m having to research flowers, at the moment – which is an absolute gift of a thing.

*

Published by Virago, an imprint of Little Brown, in June 2016. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Available at Wordery and Foyles.

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Articles

The Official Blog Tour for Hild!

Just a quick note to say that I am very pleased and excited to announce that I am taking part in the official blog tour for Hild by Nicola Griffith! It will be published by Blackfriars Books (an imprint of Little, Brown) on 24th July, and I will be posting about it on 6th August.

Hild tells the story of the life of St Hilda of Whitby, who lived in the 7th century. She was a niece of King Edwin of Northmbria and was said to be a ‘seer’ with special abilities. She also played a key role in the spread of Christianity in England. The writing is absolutely beautiful and I can’t wait to share more about this novel with you.

This is the official blog tour schedule – be sure to follow the posts!

 

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Articles, Comment

WWW Wednesday: I’m finally joining in with a meme!

WWW Wednesday is the brainchild of ‘MizB’ over at Should Be Reading. Every Wednesday loads of book bloggers join in and I’ve enjoyed reading their posts, so thought I would finally get involved. The rules are very simple: all you have to do is answer three questions.

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

So here goes:

1.  I am currently reading Hild by Nicola Griffith. It is published on 24th July 2014 by Blackfriars, an imprint of Little Brown, and was very kindly sent to me early so that I could review it. It’s about 500 pages, and I’ve been reading it for over a week now, which isn’t usually a good sign for me – but I’m really enjoying it. It’s a huge hardback and really annoying to take to work with me, so I haven’t been reading it at lunch, which has slowed down my pace. I’m devoting lots of evenings to it though, and so far I love it. It is a fictionalised account of the life of St Hilda of Whitby, who lived in the middle of the 7th century. She was the niece of King Edwin of Northumbria and from a very early age was declared to be a ‘seer’ due to her connection with nature and her way of noticing things that others didn’t. From this dually privileged position she witnesses the upheavals of England and the intricacies of court life, all whilst trying to grow up and be a normal child. So far in my reading she’s only thirteen years old and it’s already very exciting and dramatic, so I can’t wait to see what the rest of the book holds.
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2.  I recently finished reading The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik, which I reviewed here. It covers a day in the life of the teenage Johanne. She wakes up to find her mother has locked her in her bedroom, and rather than trying to escape spends the day musing over her relationship with her mother, recent events in her life, and her new relationship with a young man named Ivar. Johanne and her mother are both quite, shall we say, odd individuals and have a very complicated relationship. Johanne is very religious, but is also preoccupied with images of violent sexuality, which burst out of the text and surprise the reader. I found The Blue Room to be one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read, and I can’t say I actually enjoyed it – although the writing is excellent, and I think Orstavik is a very brave writer.

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3.  I’m actually not 100% sure what I’m going to read next – I have a few choices! I think it will probably be After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell. Headline have recently reissued O’Farrell’s entire back catalogue with gorgeous new covers in the style of her latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave (which I loved and review here). Mary-Anne at Headline kindly sent me a copy of After You’d Gone as her recommendation of which O’Farrell book I just had to read after I commented on how gorgeous the new covers were on Twitter (thank you Mary-Anne!). I’ve only read Heatwave and The Disappearing Act of Esme Lennox, so I’m very eager to read more and #discovermaggie (the official hashtag).

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I would love to hear your answers to the WWW Wednesdays questions!

 

 

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Articles, Interviews, Reviews

Donna Tartt Interviewed on CBS

A little more Donna Tartt excitement for you!

She recently recorded her only American TV appearance for This Morning on CBS, and here it is! The interviewer has some great questions but quite an odd way of talking that is a bit off-putting, and fades out the ends of Donna’s answers – but it is still excellent, especially as they go to see The Goldfinch (the actual one!!) in New York, which is wonderful. Enjoy!

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Events

An Evening With Donna Tartt

Let me just say this now: Donna Tartt is my favourite writer. Hands down. I read The Secret History and then The Little Friend about ten years ago, and something latched on inside of me and has never let go.

I was amazed and excited to hear that she would be publishing a new novel this year. I tore through The Goldfinch (you can read my thoughts on it here) and before I had even got a copy I ran to Blackwell’s to buy a ticket for the event I attended tonight, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The Divinity School at The Bodleian Library. A beautiful and perfect venue.

The Divinity School at The Bodleian Library. A beautiful and perfect venue.

I have seen and met authors before whom I respected and whose books I love; but for me this was different. I was overwhelmed even at being in the same room as Donna Tartt. I gasped when I saw how tiny she is in real life – and how neat and modest, her black bob perfect as always and her slim frame wrapped in a dark suit. And yet she is bright, with wide eyes and a beautiful voice. She talked with passion and intelligence about how she writes constantly, always carrying a notebook with her and jotting down descriptions, ideas, scenes – some of which will never be part of a finished book but are, for her, like scales are to a musician or sketches are to a painter.

She talked a lot about art. Fabritius’ painting ‘The Goldfinch’ is her new novel’s namesake but also a force behind the story that drives it along but also pushes and pulls it around; it is also a painting that Tartt loves and that she writes about with great beauty and understanding. She spoke of going to a private viewing of the painting and those with it it the gallery in Amsterdam with her Dutch publisher and the majesty of the artworks and the deep affect they had on her – to see them in person. Donna Tartt is a writer but she understands what it is to be an artist in all senses of the word. She understands the impetus to create, and also the deep joy that art can bring to those who experience it.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Image: commons.wikimedia.orf

The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

She also loves antiques (very important in The Goldfinch and an element I loved – Hobie’s shop is almost magical) and sleeps in the same carved bed that her grandmother was born in. It is a bed that came from France in a ship (to America), and as a child she was amazed by this. She had never been in a ship to France and neither had anyone else she knew; but the bed had, and it contained something of the ship and the ocean within it. This is why Donna Tartt is so wonderful – she sees the beauty in the world and translates it into beautiful writing for her readers to enjoy.

After the event there was a signing. I queued, nervous, clutching my huge hardback copy of The Goldfinch. What would I say? What would she say? As she wrote my name and her own, I told Donna Tartt that The Secret History was my favourite book and I thanked her for her work; she looked so pleased, and she shook my hand.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

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The Goldfinch is out now from Little, Brown.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Where do I begin? The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch. It still hasn’t entirely sunk in that Donna Tartt has written another novel; that it is out this year; that it is called The Goldfinch. And yet I have read a proof copy of it, all 771 pages, kindly sent to me by someone at Little, Brown.

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(image: goodreads.com)

I read her two previous novels quite close together when I was about 14 or 15, and loved them both, The Secret History in particular. It is the only book I have read more than once and I still remember scenes from it as if I saw them as a film, or as if I was there – Francis’ country house in particular. Bunny coming downstairs in pyjamas with ruffled hair for a drink; someone playing the piano; Camilla cutting her foot on a stone in the lake; and Richard looking at her ‘dusty boy feet’ in the kitchen, overwhelmed by her beauty.

There were ten years between the publication of The Secret History and that of The Little Friend in 2002, and now we have waited eleven years for The Goldfinch. And, to ask that ridiculous question, was it worth the wait?

If you love Tartt’s novels, then there is no doubt, of course it was worth it. Just to have more of her words is reason enough to wait eleven years. Obviously I had read the snippets of information about the plot of The Goldfinch, but it did not really prepare me for the reality of it.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, miraculously survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is bewildered by his new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld.

That, taken from the back of my proof copy, does not even touch the surface. There is infinitely more. Each phrase there, each thing that happens to Theo, is so much more complicated and has so much more depth than it appears to. The simplest things have such resonance.

A lot of The Goldfinch is about the question of what is the right thing to do – what is best, what should we do, what would our mothers do? Are they always right? What about our fathers?

Theo’s mother is a ‘presence’ throughout this novel, and it occurred to me that no other parent has played such a crucial role in Tartt’s other novels. In The Secret History, Richard’s parents feature only in the early stages of the book as he applies to college. His father wants him to take over the family business, and his mother is a housewife. In my memory they are like zombie cartoons, stock characters that Richard uses to demonstrate to the reader how empty and meaningless his life in Plano was before he came to Vermont. In The Little Friend, our central characters Harriet and Hely seem to operate almost entirely independently of their parents, despite being about ten years old. Harriet’s mother is sickly and wafts in the background; the only time she or any other parent has any influence is when Harriet is sent away to camp. It’s been ten years since I read either novel, so forgive me if I am wrong, but Theo’s mother seems like the first of Tartt’s fictional parents to be entirely good, entirely wanted and loved by the child. Though perhaps this is because Theo loses her when he is so young, and he is so lost without her.

Theo is indeed lost. He gets lost again and again and again in this story. And the reader gets lost with him. He is an entirely immersive narrator, and even when parts of his story are bleak and I didn’t necessarily enjoy reading about them (particularly the middle section during his teens), I still wanted to be there with him. You want Theo to survive, even when he makes mistakes and acts like a complete arsehole. Which he does, on several occasions. You will him to make the right decision. But of course, Tartt is asking us throughout the novel, what is the right decision? And how do you know it’s right?

The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel (though it has been more than 20 years since the first), but having read all of them I can see how she has matured as a novelist. While The Secret History and The Little Friend both had philosophical elements, The Goldfinch is an exploration of not only the protagonist’s story but also of the possibility of fate and limits of morality. That said, I did not find it too overreaching or preachy; and its narrative does not get lost in philosophising about life separate from the thrust of the plot. It is literally longer in length but also feels deeper and wider than the two earlier novels, like it contains more – it is not just Theo’s story in relation to the painting, but it is the whole of his world and his life; and the lives of so many around him. This one small painting of a goldfinch is the centre of Theo’s world but also the entire book, the entire story.

As I began to read I was terrified that I would not like the latest novel by my favourite writer; but I was happily enveloped in Tartt’s style again, her world that she creates for her readers, and for her characters to inhabit. They could all plausibly exist within the same world, and it felt good to be back. I had really missed reading Donna Tartt’s work and I felt relieved to be reading her again. The Goldfinch is entirely new, entirely different and modern; but it still feels like Donna Tartt, it is still intelligent and beautiful, complex and real.

It may be another ten+ years that we have to wait for another Tartt novel – but it will be worth it; and we have this to sustain us in the meantime.

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Published by Little, Brown in the UK and US on 22nd October 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Donna Tartt interviewed about The Goldfinch in The New York Times

Also from The New York Times, Tartt’s reading habits

Tartt is doing a few events around the UK – rare and almost sold out!

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