Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (2017)

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Viking UK edition (image: goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Viking UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This novel was one of four that I accepted for review from Viking, and it was the one I was least sure about. I liked the initial premise, the question of whether doing a bad thing makes you a bad person, and I am always intrigued by debut novels. Not knowing much more than that, I dived in.

All the Good Things is a short book that packs a lot of punch. Our narrator Bethany is only twenty-one but she has had a very eventful and challenging life, and is in prison at the start of the book. The frame of the novel is a task set by Bethany’s counsellor to list all the good things in her life (hence the title!) and each chapter is what she writes about each of these. They range from ‘Smelling a baby’s head right into your heart’ to ‘The promise of a blank page’ and many more in between. Early on we learn that Bethany had a child, and that she loves running, and that she grew up in the foster care system. Her father is absent and her mother suffers from increasingly bad mental health, and so she is put into foster care. The Penguin website states that author Clare Fisher is interested in ‘social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls’, and this is essentially the topic of the novel. Bethany is let down by so many people, and finds herself easily lead astray. Deprived of parental love, she grabs onto any relationship she can, even if it’s clearly not right. She becomes pregnant, and it’s sort of all down hill from there.

Bethany is very young, and the language and style is appropriate to this. Like any reader, I appreciate an immersive and believable narrative voice (like Jack in Room), but for me reading Bethany’s narrative was like reading a more grown up version of a Jacqueline Wilson novel. You can see that this is a vulnerable young person, and they are in less than ideal circumstances, and you can almost see everything that’s going to happen to them. It’s incredibly sad, and in some ways it felt like a warning or a social message – hence my comparison to Jacqueline Wilson (especially her novel Bad Girls). It’s educational for someone with no experience of the world in the novel, but it lacks a certain finesse and I felt like All the Good Things was meant to be read by someone younger than me (and I’m only 29). Now, I loved Jacqueline Wilson as a child, so I’m not trying to tear down this novel, but for me it was a little too realist, a little too bleak, and I felt like it was trying to teach me something when really I just wanted to try and enjoy the writing and the story. The things that it is trying to teach are very important, but the tough subject matter and style meant that I couldn’t just enjoy it.

I must praise Clare Fisher for her realism, her refusal to shy away from unpleasantness, and her dedication to the narrative voice. There are some really heartbreaking scenes where you just want someone to help Bethany, or for her to help herself, and these are brilliantly written. I think the ending is supposed to be hopeful, but I found that after a whole book filled with disappointment, sadness, and pain it was hard to get on board with the small glint of hope at the end. Once I reached that point I felt horribly sad for Bethany and her misfortune, and I was glad to have reached the end.

All the Good Things is a very accomplished debut novel, but ultimately I think it just wasn’t for me. But, I think a lot of readers will really enjoy it, and I must recommend it for the quality of the writing and the convincing realism.

*

Published in June 2017 by Viking, an imprint for Penguin UK. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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

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Penguin UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This book was one of the few review copies I have been accepting recently, and I’m glad I decided to read and review it, because it’s something a little different – but once I got into it I realised it actually is the sort of things I like. Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is what I would call an unconventional memoir – it is not a straight chronicle of someone’s life, but rather a story from that life that has significance, that means something to the author. It is an unusual story and a special one that deserves to be told.

Min Kym is a concert violinist, and as a child she was classed as a prodigy. Her list of achievements is certainly impressive, with awards and scholarships, huge concerts, and acceptance into the Purcell School of Music as well as the Royal Academy of Music. She has made a few recordings and these are available on iTunes and Spotify. I would recommend listening to the little album she released of songs that feature in this book – it is simply beautiful. One piece on it is very special to me as it will be played at my wedding in a couple of weeks! I’ve decided to use Min Kym’s recording as I walk down the aisle.

I am no expert in classical music, but I feel I learned a lot about it from this slim book. Kym speaks passionately about her love of music and how it feels to play. Her writing isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter because she conveys a strong sense of her personality and personal experience, with the music but also with the people in her life, and most importantly with her violin. She repeatedly reminds the reader that it feels like part of her, that she does not feel whole without it, does not feel like herself. She states that she is two people – Min, and Min with a violin.

Gone is quite an emotional book, and you go on the ups and downs with Kym as she experiences huge career success, and intense love for her violin and the music she plays; but she also experiences difficult relationships and setbacks – and of course the biggest setback of all, the theft of her Stradivarius violin. This is the crux of the book, the tipping point in her life. There is the time before, when she had the violin; and the time after, when she is mourning for it, and suffering from its absence. Kym goes through a period of depression, and it takes her a long time to get back to her old life – but while the writing is emotional and personal, it never becomes sensational or melodramatic. Kym is in control of her story.

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Min Kym (image: deda.uk.com)

The writing is at its best when Min Kym is writing about music. Her language flows beautifully as she describes the sounds, the feelings, the images that music brings to mind; the way the violin feels in her hands and when she nestles it into her neck. It is like a child, a sacred object, a beautiful thing. She also talks eloquently about the violins she plays, how they were made and where they came from, and how these things affect the experience of the player as well as the sound that the violin makes. It is utterly fascinating.

I was also fascinated by Kym’s discussions and mentions of her sense of self in relation to the violin, and how this develops as she gets older. She stated playing at such a young age that she always sees herself with a violin – it is an integral part of who she is. Her family moved from South Korea to the UK for her musical career, and this relationship between familial and national belonging and the violin and its music is wonderfully explored, from a practical as well as personal point of view.

Though only slim this is a rich volume filled with life and passion, joy and sorrow, silence and beautiful music. I would highly recommend Gone to anyone who loves unconventional memoirs, especially those with a love of or an interest in classical music, and the ways in which our passions shape our lives.

*

Published in 2017 by Viking, and imprint of Penguin, in the UK and Crown Publishing, part of PRH, in the US. My thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

*

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

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

WWW Wednesday, 19th April 2017

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

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

Here are mine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your WWW books?

Upcoming Reads and Reviews, April 2017

Upcoming reviews

I am pleased to say I have finally finished reading Gareth Russell’s wonderful book about Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair. It took me about a month to read, which is a long time for me, but it was so worth it. I am now planning a blog post about it in conjunction with Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Catherine that I finished in January. They are two very different books about the same woman and I think it will be really interesting to do a bit of a contrast and compare.

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I also have two other books to review that I have read this year: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and Labyrinths by Catrine Clay, which is a biography of Emma Jung, wife of Carl. These were two of the most interesting books that I have read recently, and reviews of them will soon be up!

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Another review that will soon be up – it’s currently in drafts! – is See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This book has been creating rather a lot of buzz, and is out in early May. [Update: this review is now up here.]

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Upcoming reads

As for books I am about to read, there are far too many of course, but these are the ones I am most looking forward to:

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

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All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

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The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

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A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda

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The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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These are books that I actually have copies of, so they are all I am going to include for now (the first four were kindly sent to me by Penguin, and the last three were purchases). There are way more on my GoodReads TBR that I am desperate to read, but until I actually have copies of them it feels too immaterial (literally) to commit to saying I will read them soon!

So there you have it – these are the books you can look forward to hearing about here on the blog and on my Twitter feed.

Which books are you looking forward to?

Beware the Hype: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

Truth and Identity in ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’

How do we know what is true, and what is not? How do we know that people really are who they say they are? Are you ever only one person? These were questions I asked myself while reading Lady Audley’s Secret recently. The novel starts off simply enough with a few chapters to set things up: the governness Miss Lucy Graham has recently married the much older Sir Michael Audley and become the eponymous heroine of the title. She is young and very beautiful –  in fact throughout the book it is reiterated several times that she derives most of her power, and identity, from her beauty. We also meet Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert Audley, who is a layabout but somehow also a barrister; Sir Michael’s daughter Alicia, who hates Lady Audley and is in love with Robert; and George Talboys, who is just about to land in England after having made his fortune finding gold in Australia. George has been gone for three years and left his wife and child behind, leaving them only a note to explain where he was going. His first task in England is to find his wife, Helen. It does not prove as simple as that.

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From this point it all gets a bit complicated. Already we are wondering about Lady Audley and where she has come from, and why she has married Sir Michael, who though clearly a lovely person, is much older than her. It takes a long time for the reader to really get to grips with Lady Audley’s character. She is described as being very young and babyish, with childish mannerisms and a certain innocence about her; and yet when we see her alone with her maid, Phoebe, she seems much older and self-assured, and not afraid to ask for what she wants. Sir Michael has lavished her with a beautiful set of rooms filled with expensive trinkets, and you can’t help but think it is suspicious that she is all too willing to accept such riches from her new husband. Robert is beguiled by his new aunt and unwillingly attracted to her. Her charm and beauty, as well as her charisma, starts to form the idea of her as a siren, a seducer. And of course the title sets you off right away – what is she hiding?

Robert happens to be very good friends with George, and when he returns from Australia Robert brings him to Audley Court; but before he can meet Sir Michael and the new Lady Audley, George disappears. The rest of the novel centres around Robert’s search for him, and the various layers and forms of truth that he discovers along the way. It is shown, very deftly, that most of the characters in the novel simply accept the truth that is shown to them at face value. Once Robert has the motivation of finding his friend, he is unafraid to pull back the curtain and question what he previously thought to be true. It is fascinating to read about how much trouble Robert has to go to learn anything about George’s disappearance; in an age before modern technology, he travels up and down the country, questioning people about George. Without telephones or computers, finding out each piece of information is at least twice as hard as it would be now. I marvelled at the number of times Robert could so easily have missed something or someone. He has to dig and dig to get to anything other than surface truths, and you can see why they are so often accepted as fact by the other characters. The nature of truth itself is examined as Robert breaks through the layers.

Lady Audley’s is the identity we are chiefly concerned with; but Robert’s is also rather important. He is a barrister but has never worked a day in his life – he just sits around smoking and reading French novels. His family do not think of him as very intelligent, and it is stated more than once that he doesn’t seem to care about anything very much, and doesn’t put much value on love and human relationships. And yet once George goes missing, he is fraught with concern for his friend, and will do anything to find him. He becomes an amatuer detective, and the mystery consumes his life. He doubts himself for the first time, and wonders what he is capable of, while challenging what is presented to him as the truth. He has created a version of himself, and this is worn away by his search for George. Similarly Lady Audley’s identity and self are challenged as the events of the novel start to affect her. The facade of ‘Lady Audley’ is slowly broken down, and we start to see the woman underneath. Has she really become who we think she is, or does her old self remain?

This novel is also full of gender and class issues, which are wonderfully explored in the essay at the back of the Penguin English Library edition: ‘Gender and Role Playing’ by Elizabeth Tilley. I would really recommend reading it, but only after you’ve read the novel as it goes into the key plot points. It’s best to go into this novel without knowing anything about what happens, as eash layer of truth brings a new revelation, and shows you a new side to the characters. I very much admire Mary Elizabeth Braddon for writing such a complex and multi-faceted novel. Lady Audley must be one of the best literary creations of the 19th century, and I am very glad I took the time to find out who she really is. Will you?

*

First published as a serial in the magazine Robin Goodfellow, and then the Sixpenny Magazine, before being published as a novel by William Tinsley in 1862. I read the 2012 Penguin English Library edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles.

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore

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I’m not usually one for celebrity autobiographies. I think Anjelica Huston’s memoir was the first I actually read (that I can remember), and I only read that because I love Huston’s work, and the book seemed down to earth and non-sensationalist, which it was. It was a journey through a life. I decided to read Drew Barrymore’s book Wildflower because I have always liked her as an actress, and find her to be an interesting person. Also, when I read about the book it didn’t seem like a straightforward life story, more like snippets and anecdotes. I am happy to say that is largely true.

I liked a lot of things about Wildflower, but one of the major things is the structure and tone. It is not a chronological story, but more eclectic. This feels more like the natural way that memory works, and avoids a list-like description of ‘this happened, and then this…’. The stories this book tells are of different lengths and different levels of significance, but they are all about life – they are defining moments or experiences that have made an impression and are memories that stand out for Drew Barrymore, for one reason or another. She does not ‘tell all’, but shares stories and lessons she has learned. But it isn’t preachy, or her trying to give advice. It is just what she has learned, and what is important, and what matters in life. There is a lot about family, and the difference it can make to our lives. I found her discussion of parent/child relationships very interesting, with stories from both perspectives rounding out the experience. Drew Barrymore had very non-traditional parents and a very non-traditional upbringing, and you can see the impact this has made on her as she navigates her other relationships and later creates her own family. It is very sweet and heartwarming to hear her desire for stability and love, and how much she cherishes family and understands the importance of it, whether it’s good or bad.

As I said this isn’t a ‘tell all’, so while Barrymore does talk about the wilder aspects of her childhood, she makes the correct assumption that anyone reading her book probably already knows the outline of the story, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need all the nitty-gritty. She does speak about her emancipation from her parents at age fourteen, which I found amazing, as she has to tackle renting a flat and getting a job at such a young age. It sounds terrifying, but exciting. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all that at fourteen! She is very brave and determined, and I really admire this.

The tone of the book is very positive and hopeful, and although sometimes Barrymore’s style of writing can get a bit cute and chirpy (there are a lot of exclamation marks), I actually liked this because it felt like her real voice, and the way she would naturally talk and write. She isn’t a ‘writer’, so you don’t expect the writing to be perfect. Instead it is engaging, entertaining, and interesting. Drew Barrymore is a good storyteller.

I really enjoyed Wildflower. It was a nice break from my usual serious/literary stuff, and I loved that the book doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – just like Drew Barrymore. And I love the cover!

*

Published in 2015 by Virgin Books (part of Ebury and PRH).

Purchase from Foyles here.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)
2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)

I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.

Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.

I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.

Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.

The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.

There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?

I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.

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First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.

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