Articles, Events, Fiction, Non-Fiction

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

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

young writer award shortlist 2018

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

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

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

*

Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson (2007)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I came across The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial in my GoodReads recommendations, and thought it seemed almost like the perfect book for me – a memoir about family history, women, and crime. The crime element particularly appealed to me as the book details Maggie Nelson’s experience of the trial of the man of may have murdered her aunt, over thirty years before. She and her family had no idea that the murder was still being investigated, and then suddenly they are told that a possible suspect will be tried for it. It’s a whirlwind of old pain and new horror as Nelson’s mother, aunt, and grandfather have to dredge up their memories of what happened to their sister and daughter – Nelson’s aunt Jane.

It turns out Nelson had written a book of poetry and prose about her aunt, simply called Jane: A Murder, which came out in 2005, just two years before this book – so she was already somewhat familiar with her aunt’s life and the circumstances of her death, even though she never knew her. Jane was murdered in 1969, when she was 23 and studying at the University of Michigan. Unless it happens to you, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live with the knowledge that someone in your family, so closely related to you, was murdered. Throughout The Red Parts, Nelson muses on her connection to Jane and why her death seems to haunt her so much. Perhaps because she knows the pain caused to her mother and her other relatives, perhaps because Jane was killed so randomly by a stranger, and that this could, in theory, happen to any woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She also muses on our shared interest in these awful stories, especially when she and her mother are asked to participate in an episode of the show 48 Hours Mystery about Jane’s death. They agree to do it, but throughout The Red Parts Nelson discusses her conflicted feelings about this sort of thing – why do we want to know all the unpleasant details? Is it voyeuristic or sensationalist to learn about murders like Jane’s? She wonders why we obsess so much over young women who are murdered, why it can be so hard to prove what really happened, and why it is necessary to try a man for a crime that happened so long ago. She wonders about the nature of justice and the difference between its legal definition and the feeling of justice that she supposes her family are meant to feel if the suspect in Jane’s murder is found guilty. Does that make it all better? Does that close the book on the whole thing?

These are interesting and vital questions that I think we could all relate to or apply to something in our lives; but I wasn’t sure whether Nelson was trying to appeal to her readers in that way, or whether she just wanted to express her disgust at both the horrific nature of Jane’s murder, and her own confusion over it and its consequences. She seems to disapprove of 48 Hours Mystery and other media interest in the trial, and at times even her own interest in it beyond her familial connection. I thought perhaps she was going to explore the possibility that we are all fascinated by things like murder because we are afraid of them, and we want to understand them, and she brings this in to some extent, but the overwhelming impression is of her revulsion and misery in the face of the whole situation. Not to say she shouldn’t feel these things, but there was nothing to counter it, nothing to remind us that life can still be good and happy, and that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

I’d never read anything by Maggie Nelson before The Red Parts, and honestly I’m not sure I will read anything else of hers. While I found this book fascinating, I found it very hard to read (it’s only 195 pages and I was reading it from August to October) and I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. Nelson’s narrative is raw and tough, and I personally found her hard to relate to, despite the universality of much of what she discussed. The Red Parts is, to me, a cold and hard book with a cold and hard centre. Its darkness is rarely countered by glimmers of light or comfort and the unpleasantness and sadness is unrelenting. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it was so short. Not one for the fainthearted.

*

Originally published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2007. I read the 2017 Faber paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwells, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

As some readers may know, I don’t accept review copies very often, as I always have too many unread books already on my shelves – but I made an exception for A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes, as it seemed intriguing. A young woman named Robyn returns to her home town, along with her brother Kit, and tries to resolve things to do with their parents, and some mysteries from their childhood. So far, so intriguing…

I tend to have mixed feelings these days about first person narrators, and Robyn did nothing to allay my concerns. She is an engaging narrator, but also infuriating in her obsessions and self-centredness. On several occasions Kit tells her to let things go, but she just can’t, to a degree that goes beyond what seems reasonable. We deduce that their mother appears to be missing, or perhaps dead, and their stepfather has decided to absent himself from this particular trip down memory lane. Few people in their home town seem pleased to see Robyn and Kit, and there are lots of hints at something bad that happened in the past, some big secret that no one wants to talk about.

The story is well constructed, but I felt that there was a little too much teasing and hinting at the truth, beyond what was needed to keep the reader interested. I think the problem occurs because we only know what Robyn knows, and we are taken down all the paths of her thought process, all the leads she pursues to find the truth, and I found it hard to care just as much she did. Robyn’s narrative takes us on a heartrending emotional journey that was somewhat draining to read. I cared about the story and characters, but in general things were too overblown, too over-emotional, too intense – when really the story is not that intense, not that pressurised. It was just that it felt that way to Robyn, because it was so personal. But to the reader, this was hard to connect with, and I felt overwhelmed by Robyn’s intensity.

As Robyn learns more about her mother, and a strange man she knew when she was younger, and how things might all be connected, information is handed to the reader piece by piece. Many things we find out as Robyn does, and so we go through the emotions with her, and this creates much of the structure of the novel. Sometimes this works, and keeps us interested, drawing us in with more revelations; but at some point in the book I realised that there was something we didn’t know, that Robyn might – that was purposefully being held back from the reader. Once I realised this, and the information was revealed, I felt conflicted – surprised and intrigued by the revelation, but frustrated that something Robyn knew was not in her first person narrative. It was an odd trick to use on the part of the author, and I’m not sure how well it worked, given that we are supposed to be on this journey with Robyn. Why else choose to use a first person narrator, and involve the reader so deeply in her emotions, if to withhold information that the narrator already knew, for a big reveal?

Despite all this I did enjoy reading A Little Bird Told Me, even if at times I had to take a break when Robyn got too overwrought. I think the story would have benefitted from a little more introspection on Robyn’s part, and a little less focus on the drama of the whole thing. I felt like the story would make a better TV series than a book in that sense. So, a bit of a mixed bag, but undeniably entertaining and engaging. If you’re here for the high drama, then A Little Bird Told Me is for you.

*

Published by Agora Books in September 2018. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I first read Shirley Jackson a few years ago, and saw this biography advertised shortly after – and immediately wanted to read it. Even before I’d read Jackson’s work I was intrigued by her and her life, and of course a biography is the perfect way to explore that. If you’ve ever read any of her work you’ll know what I mean; when she was alive journalists used to say she was a witch (something she didn’t deny).

Having so far read three of Jackson’s novels (currently reading a fourth) and several short stories, I can confidently say that her fiction is filled with the dichotomy between the norms of everyday life, and the unknown horrors that lurk beneath it. Many of her short stories are about women who are in some way lost, or whose worlds are slowly unravelling. And in her novels, the central female characters share these traits, explored on a deeper level. It has been said before that Jackson’s life and personal experiences influenced much of her work, and Ruth Franklin explores this in A Rather Haunted Life. As she takes us along the story of Jackson’s life, she constantly makes links to her work, both fiction and non-fiction, and demonstrates how much of herself Jackson put in to some of her stories. There is no one character that is completely based on her, but parts of her self and experience are dotted throughout her various characters in one way or another.

Shirley Jackson was born in California, and began her life in a well-to-do suburb. When she was sixteen the family moved to New York state, where Shirley would later attend Syracuse University. This was where she met her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a hugely influential figure in her life and work. Eventually they moved to North Bennington in Vermont, where Hyman taught at the famous Bennington College. Franklin takes us through the early years of Jackson’s life with a perfect blend of detail and overview, and highlights those all-important episodes that would later appear in novels and short stories. Jackson’s tricky relationship with her mother Geraldine is excellently established, and then highlighted very effectively throughout the book. Their relationship was always a source of tension for Jackson, as her mother was very critical and often withholding, but Franklin does not sensationalise this or demonise either one of them – she simply lays out the facts, often with quotations from letters, and shows us the impact and influence of the mother on the daughter, both personally and professionally.

The third chapter, “Intentions Charged with Power” introduces us to Stanley Edgar Hyman, with a bit of background on his childhood and adolescence, up to his meeting Jackson at Syracuse. Normally I would roll my eyes at a big tangent into the life of a man, when I’m reading a biography of a woman, but this chapter is not only necessary for illustrating Hyman’s character, but it is also just really entertaining and interesting. You see that he and Jackson both had ‘big personalities’, and knowing more about him gives you much more insight into their relationship and marriage, for better or worse – which in turn also gives you insight into much of Jackson’s work. They were both deeply flawed but I liked them both very much, and wished I could hear their conversations and see them in their everyday lives.

Franklin depicts them as having an intense and sometimes volatile relationship, with strong emotions on both sides. They obviously loved each other a great deal, and at the same time were capable of hurting each other deeply. Hyman became Jackson’s life long critic, reading her work first and offering searingly honest feedback. He pushed her to write as much as possible, and more than once we hear how he considered time she spent doing other things as a waste, because writing stories in order to earn money and be successful was the most important thing she did – in his opinion.

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Jackson with her children in 1956 (image: sevendaysvt.com)

More than anything I enjoyed being immersed in Jackson’s world as I read A Rather Haunted Life. To me she is utterly fascinating both as a writer and as a woman. I adore her insightful and uncanny depictions of women battling with the ultimate dichotomy in their lives, as she did – the desire to be a good wife and mother, and still achieve things outside of this and be independent. It was a classic dilemma of Jackson’s era in the mid-twentieth century, but I think it is still relevant today, if in a slightly different form – perhaps more as the juxtaposition of our psychological inner life with our day to day existence of work and home, relationships, and everything in between. Shirley Jackson was perpetually torn between looking after her house and four children, and fulfilling her career as a writer (as well as being her own person with her own identity). Both were hindered by episodes of ill health, and her husband’s wonderful combination of not helping around the house but also berating her for not spending more time writing. There was also the fact that Jackson’s mother was never satisfied with her daughter, and seemed disappointed in every achievement that didn’t fit her narrow vision of what a woman should be.

What a woman should be. I think this is a question Jackson grappled with throughout her life and work, and something that I, and I’m sure many other women, still grapple with today. But luckily we have the work of Shirley Jackson to help us, and this wonderful biography to inspire us. I adored this book and its exploration of Jackson’s writing, as well as her personal experiences, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in her work. If anything it shows us that life is rarely easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

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Published in 2016 by Liveright, part of W.W. Norton. I read the 2017 paperback (pictured above).

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

IMG_4278This is one of those books that I have no memory of first discovering – but somehow it made its way on to my radar, and my GoodReads TBR. I am fascinated by the true crime genre, and so my interest in My Friend Dahmer came from that. I’m the kind of person who has heard of a lot of serial killers, with a mixed amount of knowledge, and I already knew plenty about Jeffrey Dahmer when I picked up this graphic novel (if you don’t, you’re lucky).

The author, John ‘Derf’ Backderf, went to school with Dahmer and this book recounts his memories of him at that time, supplemented with material from interviews, news coverage, and the memoir written by Dahmer’s father. This last especially helped the author to depict a broader view of Dahmer’s teenage life both at school and with his family. This is all explained in the notes section at the end of the book – Backderf talks about his sources, as well as why he wrote the book, and what he really thinks of Dahmer, both in school and later on. It turns out he wrote a few short stories about Dahmer once his crimes became public, a few gained attention, and he eventually put his memories together in this book.

My Friend Dahmer is short and stark. Backderf’s black and white style makes the uneasiness that underlies everything even more palpable, and the exaggerated features of both people and surroundings really lift the story from the page and make it seem more real. You get a sense of the claustrophobia of 1970s small town life, and the routine of school and home; you see how limited their world was, and that there was no outlet or relief for Dahmer’s increasingly disturbed mind. More than once Backderf states his opinion that if the adults in Dahmer’s life had paid more attention to his behaviour, and had intervened, he might not have grown up to be a serial killer. He was clearly different, with his propensity for collecting and dissecting roadkill, and his burgeoning alcoholism, among other things.

But as Backderf shows, his mother was increasingly fragile and unwell, and due to his parents’ deteriorating relationship and subsequent divorce, his father was largely absent. In Backderf’s notes he writes about how once Dahmer’s father, Lionel, realised that his son was drinking so much, he did try to help, and he did support him, but it was too little and too late. This would have been in the summer after Dahmer graduated from high school, after he had been left alone in the family home for a few weeks – at which point he had already committed his first murder. Once his parents’ divorce was initiated, Dahmer’s mother moved away with his younger brother, leaving him to wait at home for his father to move back in. A perfect example of how the adults in his life left him to his own devices far too much.

Given the subject matter, My Friend Dahmer is pretty heavy going, even though it never goes into the nature of his crimes beyond the fact of murder. But the dread of what we know comes later hangs over the whole story, creating an oppressive atmosphere. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that this troubled teenager will become what he becomes. His experience throughout this story is miserable and lonely, and more than anything the whole thing is incredibly sad. There is an unsettling inevitability to Dahmer’s giving in to his fantasies and abandoning any attempt at normalcy. Backderf draws excellent and jarring comparisons between his own happy teenage life with his loving family, and the misery of Dahmer’s experience. He acknowledges that he and his friends sometmes excluded Dahmer, and made fun of him, and played along with his cruel impressions of what turned out to be his mother’s drug-induced fits (at the time they thought he was impersonating a mutual acquaintance with cerebral palsy, and Backderf later learned it was really about his mother – though neither is excusable). He knows that they were clueless teenagers, never really thinking about their actions, or what was really going on with this strange guy they knew. They never spoke to him about his obvious drinking, or how unhappy he seemed. Like the adults in Dahmer’s life, it was easier for them to keep their distance. At one point Backderf states that most people figured he could just become someone else’s problem – and then he was.

Despite how dark it is, I really enjoyed reading My Friend Dahmer. It is brilliantly constructed and Backderf’s style is perfect for such a multi-layered and deceptively simple story. Once you reach the end you are left to think about what came next – the years in the military where Dahmer allegedly abused and raped two separate men, and was eventually discharged because of his drinking (not because of the abuse, even though it was reported); and then the later rape and murder of 17 men and teenage boys. Even when you consider his later statements that he didn’t want to do any of it, that he wished someone had stopped him, the fact is that he still did these things, and he didn’t turn himself in. Backderf states that he has sympathy with Dahmer up until the point he commits his first murder at the age of 18, and I agree. He had a miserable and damaging adolescence, but that doesn’t excuse anything. It depresses me how easy it could have been for someone in his teenage years to step in and try harder to help him. He might not have had a normal happy life (he was clearly very disturbed) but he wouldn’t have become a rapist and murderer.

So, My Friend Dahmer is not the easiest book to read. But then I like weird stories about weird people, and I’m fascinated by this kind of stuff. I plan to watch the movie adaptation that came out recently, which looks like it’ll be good. I’ll have to write about that once I’ve watched it.

Would you read My Friend Dahmer, or watch the movie? Or have you already read it? 

*

Published in 2012 by Abrams Books (paperback edition pictured above).

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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??

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

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen's House Museum 3

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

*

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

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Fiction, Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I had vaguely heard of this book before I saw it in Waterstones – probably because it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. I was in Barnstaple and wandering around the bookshop, having stupidly taken only one book away on holiday with me (perhaps the first time I have ever done that), and have inevitably finished in the first two days. So we drove to the nearest Waterstones. History of Wolves was on one of the front tables, and both the the cover and the title caught my eye. I don’t pay much attention to book prizes, but the front and back of the book was also covered in praise, so I thought I’d give it a go. The premise of a lonely teenage girl, living with her parents on an ex-commune next to a lake in Minnesota appealed to me.

The girl is Linda – we learn her real name is Madeleine or Mattie, though an explanation for why she is sometimes called Linda is never given – and she is lonely and isolated, both at home and at school. You quickly realise she is incredibly independent for her age, and only relies on her parents for her home and food. She seems to do everything by and for herself. I adored this early phase of the book, as author Emily Fridlund is wonderful at setting the scene and conjuring up the Minnesota woods and countryside. There is a deep sense of place, and lovely descriptions throughout. We also get a decent sense of Linda’s character through her narration, though you feel that she is still always holding something back. She always retains an element of mystery.

Likewise there is a degree of mystery about the commune that she grew up in, and her parents involvement in it. We learn that it eventually ended when relationships broke down, but Linda seems to have happy memories of her childhood there – though she doesn’t talk about it much. She also doesn’t provide that much detail or characterisation about her parents, and this adds to the opaqueness of certain areas of her character and experience. At first I found this a little frustrating, but I think it was an intentional choice on the part of the author, to add to the isolated feeling, and Linda’s un-anchored sense of family and belonging.

Perhaps for this reason, she becomes fascinated with the family that build a house across the lake. They seem perfect at first – two parents and a little boy. In such a quiet area it is perhaps inevitable that she eventually meets the mother, Patra, while she is out with Paul, the little boy. For much of the novel that father, Leo, is away and Linda and Patra become friends. Linda takes Paul out for long walks in the woods, the place where she seems to feel most at home, and she teaches him about the plants and animals. She has a fascination with wolves that she tries to pass on to him, unsuccessfully. This all goes along for a while until we start to realise, as does Linda, that there’s something off about the way Patra talks about Leo. He seems to have all the power in the relationship, and this becomes even more clear when he returns and meets Linda. They never really get on, and Linda is oddly protective of Patra and Paul when he is around. He asks her lots of questions about belief and sense of self that she finds odd. As she spends more time with the family and becomes more invested in them, she sees that something is bubbling under the surface, something that isn’t discussed explicitly, but something that makes her uneasy. Eventually Paul seems to become ill, and Linda is concerned, but both Patra and Leo brush her off and say that he’ll be fine once he rests. They both seem on edge, and as if they aren’t telling her something.

In the background behind this main story there is also Linda’s fascination with her teacher Mr Grierson, and with Lily, one of her fellow students. We find out early on that Mr Grierson was eventually fired from the school when they discovered that in his last job he had been accused of paedophilia, and a lot of indecent images were found in his home. Despite this Linda never seems to judge or hate him, and even sends him a letter at one point. She is oddly obsessed with him, and discovers that his status as a registered sex offender means that she can see his movements around the country in the years after he leaves the school. Somewhat connected to him is her obsession with Lily, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment. For this she loses her social status and becomes something of a pariah at school. At first I couldn’t work out why Linda was so fixated on these two people, but I think it is because she feels some vague connection to them as outsiders, as people who are judged and who do not fit in. She tries to help them both in her own way, and perhaps this enables her to feel like she is doing some good, and preventing someone else from feeling as lonely and isolated as she does.

Linda is a fascinating character. As I said we never find out why she gets called Linda, and though it was a bit annoying at first I actually liked that she remains a bit of a mystery to the reader. Likewise her parents are not fully realised characters, and I came to see that this is largely because she isn’t really close to either of them, and actually questions whether they are her real parents because all the children in the commune were raised together. The failed commune is a like a symbol of how trying too hard to create an idyllic family is almost doomed to fail and implode; and Linda and her parents are what is left behind. She is obviously starved for love, affection, and a real connection with someone, and this influences her actions and her views of others. She gets fixated on people and tries to connect with them, but doesn’t really know how. When we see parts of her later adult life, she is still isolated and lonely, even when she is with other people.

History of Wolves is an odd sort of coming-of-age novel, in that Linda is trying to figure things out and make her way in the world, but I’m not sure if she is ever really successful. There isn’t any sort of satisfying conclusion to the book, and that seems to fit with Linda’s independent and uncommitted way of living, her connection only to nature and herself, and her isolation from conventional society and relationships. It’s an odd little book that I think some readers might find unsatisfying or frustrating, but I enjoyed it for the character of Linda, the beautiful and evocative settings, and the wonderful writing. An unconventional but intriguing story, like Linda herself.

*

Published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. I read the Weidenfeld & Nicolson paperback, pictured above.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (2017)

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Like the last book I read, I found Once We Were Sisters through my GoodReads recommendations. I had never heard of Sheila Kohler but soon discovered that she is well-established writer of fiction, and this is her first memoir. It centres around her relationship with her older sister Maxine, and the devastation of Maxine’s sudden death at the age of 39. Having an older sister of my own, I knew I would be able to relate to their relationship in some way, and the premise intrigued me. More intriguing still is the fact that Maxine died when her husband veered their car off the road; she died, but he lived. Sheila wonders how this could have happened, and in the prologue poses her questions immediately following her sister’s death:

How could we have failed to protect her from him? What was wrong with our family? Was it our mother? Our father? Was it our nature, the way we were made, our genes, what we had inherited? Or, more terrible still, is there no answer to such a question? Was it just chance, fate, our stars, our destiny? It was not as if we did not see this coming. What held us back from taking action, from hiring a bodyguard for her? Was it the misogyny inherent in the colonial and racist society in the South Africa of the time? Was it the Anglican Church school where she and I prayed  daily that we might forgive even the most egregious sin? Was it the way women were considered in South Africa and in the world at large?

I am still looking for the answers.

This is quite a setup, and I was instantly drawn in.

The book skips about in time, with some chapters covering Sheila and Maxine’s childhood in South Africa, and the rest telling various stories from across their lives. There is very little mention of the years, and only the occasional mention of their ages, and so at times I was a little muddled about which period we were visiting in which chapter; it doesn’t help that both sisters travelled a lot, and lived abroad at various points. Towards the end of the book, when Maxine’s death is discussed in more detail, the timeline becomes more linear and we see how Sheila dealt with her grief and managed to continue on with her life.

There are some wonderful sections musing on the nature of sisterhood, of mothers and fathers, of marriage; both sisters have ultimately troubled marriages, and Sheila wonders why they both chose men that “have almost destroyed who we are.” I particularly enjoyed the memories of their mother with her two sisters, sitting together talking and knitting, weaving stories; likewise Sheila and Maxine playing games and wandering around the grounds of their huge childhood home in South Africa; and their times together in France and Italy, really getting to talk and escape their daily lives.

They are both weighed down by children, and as we learn, Maxine’s husband becomes violent towards both her and their children, and her life becomes increasingly difficult. As the above quote implies, while there is sympathy and comfort for Maxine from Sheila and their family, none of them step in to protect her from her husband, Carl, or offer her anything more than temporary respite. More than once, when Maxine does not want to return home from a trip, Sheila reminds her that she must get back to her children. Leaving Carl is never suggested as an option for Maxine, as it might be today, even when she reveals that he was caught trying to molest a child. Although Maxine has six healthy children, being a mother and wife is the end of her in more ways than one.

Sheila’s troubled marriage is blighted by infidelity rather than violence, and becomes perhaps even more difficult when her husband does not want to end their marriage, despite his affairs, and they continue on together in disharmony. His reasons for this are not explained beyond his declaration of continuing love for Sheila, but one suspects that the weight of tradition and obligation are a factor – likewise for Sheila, as she does not express a desire to leave him at this point. Instead she seethes with rage and betrayal, becoming obsessed with the idea of his lover, and even going to his mother for support. Of course it turns out that his mother is also speaking to him, and playing them off against each other.

A lot of this book is about mothers, and being a woman in a particular time and place, and the expectations society can place on women. Sheila and Maxine, as well as their mother and mothers-in-law, all seem to be trapped by their lives in some way, while the men live more or less as they choose. None of them seem especially happy except when they are purposefully escaping on holiday, or into drinking. Even as children there is a certain gloom over the two sisters – which may or may not be due to Sheila’s knowledge of their fate, woven into the writing.

I enjoyed Once We Were Sisters, but for me the book lacked coherence as a whole. The moves through time seemed a bit random, rather than a carefully constructed timeline, and the sparse writing, though lovely, made the whole thing feel a little out of reach, a little unreal and dreamy. Though I suppose this is how memories sometimes feel, especially if they are wrapped in sadness and grief. The book ends on a vague note, after Sheila has explored her anger and grief, her desire for revenge against her brother-in-law, dissipated over time. She reflects on her sister’s life, and her life as it is now, but does not really draw any conclusions. Instead we are left with the pain of her memories of her sister as a perfect child, and she comes to accept “that she, so lively and lovely, could be dead.”

*

Published by Penguin and Canongate in 2017. I read the Canongate paperback, pictured above (image via goodreads.com).

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