Fiction, Reviews

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

*

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

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

Blog tour: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

I don’t often agree to review brand new books anymore, or take part in blog tours – but The Dark Circle intrigued me. I had heard lots of good things about Linda Grant but never actually read her books, and the premise of this novel appealed to me. In 1949, twins Lenny and Miriam are both diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in Kent to recover. From the press release: “Trapped in this sterile, closed environment, with a host of extraordinary characters, they find a cure that is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.” This makes it sound a little like they are in prison, and you can see why they might feel that way. From their arrival they see that the sanatorium is cut off from the rest of the world and has its own pace of life.

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2016 proof from Virago

Lenny and Miriam are very young, only nineteen, and they are used to living in the bustling city. Miriam is confined to bedrest on the veranda with fellow patient Valerie, but Lenny is able to move about and even walk to the local village. En route he runs into an army captain who is also a patient at the sanatorium; the captain states that he and all the other military patients are ‘dead men’, just waiting to get better after all the action and excitement – as well as danger – that they saw in service. At the sanatorium they face another kind of danger in the form of extreme boredom coupled with the possibility of death. From the start there is a slightly morbid air to the whole place, and both Lenny and Miriam wonder if they will ever leave alive.

I wondered if the ‘dead men’ and their fellow patients represented the generation struggling to go back to normal life after the War, either because they were soldiers or their lives were so shaken up by it. Throughout the book there is a lot of discussion of the ways in which the country and its people are changing in the aftermath of the War. Class divides are beginning to blur, seen here through the fact that the sanatorium can admit poorer people via the brand new NHS where previously it was an enclave of rich people. Lenny and Miriam are some of these new patients and are exposed to new types of people during their time in the sanatorium.

Their overseer Dr Limb implements a trial of the new cure, a drug called streptomycin, and he faces the choice of who should receive the treatment – knowing that in the clinical trials some patients were cured, but others had severe allergic reactions to the new medication. Their lives are in his hands in a way they have never been before. Gradually the patients hear about this new drug, and the fact that only some people seem to be receiving it. As Lenny improves, Miriam gets worse, and he becomes desperate for her to receive the new cure.

I won’t say anymore there so as not to spoil the plot, but the ‘rebellion’ soon takes place. Not long after that the timeline moves ahead and we see the twins, and Valerie, in the future with their new lives. This section towards the end is a little less potent than the sections in the sanatorium, but we see the long term effects of the treatment there, both physical and psychological. All the patients feel that their survival of the sanatorium is something that holds them together – they have an “aura of darkness about them, [as if] their past suffering had penetrated their skin.” It is a dark circle surrounding them for the rest of their lives.

Honestly I felt that this imagery was a little melodramatic, given that other people had just experienced the horrors of the Second World War, but this manifestation of a shared experience works quite well. All the former patients have something that ties them together, this defining moment in their lives, for better or worse. I suppose the point is that we all have our own ‘dark circles’ that remind us of past suffering, and our experiences always affect our later lives. There is also something to be said for the bonds created by these experiences.

I am glad I read The Dark Circle, though it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be – but I did enjoy it. It explores some fascinating issues and ideas, and has some excellent vivid characters, as well as a dry sense of humour. I don’t think I was as moved by it as I was perhaps supposed to be, but it was nonetheless a satisfying and enjoyable reading experience.

*

Published by Virago in November 2016. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Tales of Survival: A Woman in Berlin and Gone to Ground

I decided to write about both these books in one post for several reasons. They share obvious themes for one, and they complement each other in that one is written by a free German woman, an ‘ordinary citizen’, and the other is written by a Jewish German woman who spent the war in hiding. They have the same setting and certain things in common, but they are two distinct stories and that must be acknowledged and appreciated by the reader – though they can be compared.

They are very individual stories. Other women in similar circumstances will have had completely different experiences, for better or worse. In some ways these two women were lucky – they were not imprisoned or sent to the camps, and they survived the war. But they were deeply unfortunate to be Berliners at that time. They both suffered for it enormously.

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First let’s talk about A Woman in Berlin. It was written and published anonymously, though some have identified the author as journalist Marta Hillers. I’m not sure if Hillers ever confirmed this herself, and honestly it doesn’t matter too much to me. The author wanted to be anonymous, to depict a ‘snapshot’ of her experience rather than to talk about herself.

The point is that the author is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is extraordinary. When her diary starts on 20th April 1945, she has already lived through years of war and her fiance has gone to the front. She begins her diary because she knows, somehow, that she is now living through history.

I have called her extraordinary largely because of her personal strength. She loses more or less everything and yet she does not break down or give up – she always carries on. She see people around her, some of whom she knows well, either give in to despair or be arrested and disappear. Looking back on the book it is clear she is living in a state of depression and trauma, forcing herself to carry on.

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in German in 1953, it was ‘ignored or reviled’, largely because of its depiction of rape. The author and almost every other woman in the book is raped at least once by Soviet soldiers, and no one in Germany at the time wanted to know about this. The book was published in America in 1954, and it seems that non-German audiences were more receptive. As time has passed both German and non-German readers have come to understand and see that the painful reality of what happened to these women must be acknowledged. Reading about these assaults is horrifying, but the women prove that you can live on after something like that and that your world does not have to end. This is partly because life goes on regardless, but also because it must. The author and her fellow women see that if they do not carry on things will only get worse.

It is difficult to explain what it is really like to read A Woman in Berlin; I can only say that it was one of the most intense and emotional books I have ever read. The writing is clear and pragmatic, but still lyrical and full of beauty where it can be found. Gone to Ground shares this trait – the author seeks out life and beauty where she can.

Marie Jalowicz was a German Jew living in Berlin when the War began. She carried out forced labour at the Siemens factory until 1941 when she realised that her situation was too precarious. When some post was delivered to her she told the postman that her ‘neighbour’ Marie had been deported. Unsurprised by this the postman noted that she had ‘gone east’ and that was that. Marie then took on the identity of a non-Jewish friend, including forged papers, and lived as a ‘U-boat’ – one of 1700 Jews who lived in hiding in Berlin during the War.

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Marie Jalowicz in the 1940s (image: timesofisrael.com)

Her story is incredible, and I was overawed by her bravery and resilience. She stays with friends and colleagues, acquaintances, really anyone who will take her in and not report her, and she has to move every few days and weeks. There is a huge cast of supporting characters who help her along the way, some more remarkable than others but all of them literal life-savers. Marie is forced to take risks and more than once she is just a knife’s edge away from being discovered. This makes reading Gone to Ground and intense and exciting experience, but also very emotional. Marie loses both her parents early on, and everyone she know seems to be desperate in one way or another. Too afraid to write anything down, she keeps a mental diary of things to remember and as a way to process everything that happens to her.

Her story is a mixture of life threatening adventure and the mundanity of being in hiding. She is unemployed and so must either keep busy at home (where sometimes she must stay in a single room to avoid detection) or walk the streets of Berlin from morning til night. More than once she has to repel the advances of men offering her help in return for sexual favours, though one a few occasions she decides to give in rather than face the Gestapo. Similar to the anonymous woman she realises that it is sometimes better not to fight in order to live.

At the very end of the book the Soviet soldiers arrive in Berlin. At this point she is staying with the non-Jewish friend under whose identity she has been living, and they are both raped. Marie is very matter of fact about the whole thing and does not involve her emotions, even when she hears her friend screaming. She reasons that this is still preferable to being sent to a concentration camp. Despite this it is still utterly horrifying.

Gone to Ground was put together by Marie’s son Hermann. He knew his mother had a remarkable story about the War and towards the end of her life he persuaded her to record her story on several tapes. In the Afterword he writes about this experience and how he reacted to his mother’s story. He writes that she remembers everything.

I would highly recommend these books to anyone interested in life in Berlin during the Second World War. They are unforgettable books that remind us of the experience of the War outside of the Holocaust itself, and that even those that were not persecuted by the Nazis also suffered terrible experiences.

The only thing I must say is that they are not ‘easy’ and will have an emotional toll. But they are more than worth it.

*

I read the 2005 Virago paperback edition of A Woman in Berlin and the 2016 Clerkenwell Press/Serpent’s Tail paperback edition of Gone to Ground (both pictured above).

Purchase A Woman in Berlin from Foyles and Wordery.

Purchase Gone to Ground from Foyles and Wordery.

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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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Fiction, Reviews

‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman

Any reader of Victorian literature, or any student of the history of the period, will be aware of the concept of the fallen woman. If not, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It’s a depressingly detailed page. For an era in which society began to move away from the government of Christianity (thank you Darwin and your fellow evolutionists!), the 19th century was one that made a national phenomenon out of the concept of a woman fallen from God’s Grace.

Grace Marks, the protagonist of Alias Grace, was a real person. In 1843 she was convicted of murdering her employer, Mr Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. This brought her to the public attention, and eventually, to that of Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace is a fictional account of Grace’s life, the murders, and her time in prison afterwards. Her supposed accomplice is James McDermott, who also worked for Mr Kinnear. He was hanged, but she was spared that sentence at the last moment, and sent to prison. She became a momentary celebrity, with the trial being covered widely in the media.

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The frame of the novel consists of meetings, in prison, between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan. He is interested in criminal behaviour and mental health, and aspires to open his own modern asylum with progressive treatments. He meets with Grace and asks her about the murders; during her trial she stated that she could not remember most of what happened, and Dr Jordan spends a lot of his time trying to get her to remember. Even though large sections of the book are narrated by Grace, we are never quite sure exactly how much she does or does not remember. Grace is an unreliable narrator, but so is Margaret Atwood.

One of the things Dr Jordan wants Grace to speak about is the relationship between her and McDermott. In the papers at the time of the trial it is claimed that she is his ‘paramour’, implying they are lovers. This incriminates Grace further by implying she colluded with McDermott entirely, and that they had the same aims. Grace’s version is that they were not lovers, that she did not like him, and that he killed both Kinnear and Nancy. She was there at the time, and tried to convince him not to do it; that was all. During the trial the media, as well as the members of the court, are frankly obsessed by the question of whether or not Grace and McDermott were lovers, and so is Dr Jordan. This is partly to establish their relationship, and how this played a part in the murders; but it also because of the desire for scandal and sensationalism. If it was proved that Grace has slept with McDermott, she would be even more guilty. Even if proved innocent she would still be guilty of premarital sex, and would still be judged by society.

Her apparent lack of memory makes her something of an enigma during the trial, and indeed she is still very enigmatic with Dr Jordan – even in her first person narrative. People want to understand her, to understand the mind of a person who has committed a crime, and they are obsessed with her virtue. She must either be innocent and therefore ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as a woman should be; or she should be guilty and therefore prove the weakness and inherent sin of woman, and be ‘fallen’. Society condemns her to be one or the other, and in my opinion she is somewhere in between, like most people. As with our modern treatment of female murderers, Grace is demonised so much partly because she is a woman, and we find it harder to believe that women can be as evil as men. As soon as they show any sign of wrongdoing, in any way, we are very quick to demonise them. Look at the media portrayals of female murderers, such as Aileen Wournos or Myra Hindley, or even those of non-criminals that are perceived as doing something wrong, such as Theresa May or Katie Hopkins. These women may do things we don’t like (or that are monstrous in case of the two former), but they are always treated differently to men who do similar things. How could a woman kill another person, or a child? How could a woman be tough or vitriolic?

The duality of ‘pure vs fallen’ still exists today, even without the explicitly religious context. In the eyes of the public, and of Dr Jordan, Grace must be one or the other, and there is little room for complexity in her character. The Victorian ignorance of the human psyche is frustrating, but the demonisation of women is infuriating. Mental illness is also demonised to some extent, and as the novel goes on it seems that this may affect Grace too. I’m not going to write about what happens at the end of the novel for those who haven’t read it, but the duality is very clear there as well. Grace must be either an angel or a demon, and nothing in between. Women must be either the angel in the house, or the demon in the asylum.

For anyone to be equal, they should be allowed to show their complexity and humanity rather than conform to a stereotype. Grace is trapped within hers, and it affects her whole life. If she had been a man she would either have been hanged with McDermott, or sent to prison forever and forgotten about. Dr Jordan is so fascinated with her partly because of the ambiguity over her guilt, and also because she is a woman in her particular situation. We are never quite sure whether she is guilty or not, and in some ways that was the right choice on the part of Atwood; how can we ever know the reality of another person, or what really happened? How can we ever know if a person is good or evil – or indeed if it’s possible to just be one or the other?

*

Alias Grace was first published in Canada and the UK in 1996 by McLelland & Stewart, and Bloomsbury Publishing. I read the 2001 Virago paperback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles here.

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Fiction, Reviews

Julius by Daphne du Maurier

Having only read Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and some short stories, I was eager to branch out into the less obvious novels of Daphne du Maurier. For years I have found her and her work fascinating, and always tell other people they should read her – and yet Julius is only the third novel of hers I have read. That should tell you about the sheer brilliance of her work. There is a quotation on the ‘About the author’ page in the Virago Modern Classics editions from Margaret Forster (a novelist herself), written at the time of Daphne’s death in 1989, and it’s worth quoting in full:

No other popular writer has so triumphantly defied classification … she satisfied all the questionable criteria of popular fiction, and yet satisfied too the exacting requirements of “real literature”, something very few novelists ever do.

Surely this is the ultimate goal for a novelist, to bridge the gap between popular and ‘real’. Daphne is perpetually popular, and, as far as I know, genuinely respected as a writer. She bloody should be anyway. As any of you who have read the seminal Rebecca will attest, she can both move and horrify you all at once, and absolutely stun you with the beauty that she manages to create with only words as her tools.

2004 VMC edition (image: goodreads.com)

2004 VMC edition (image: goodreads.com)

Julius was her third novel, originally titled The Progress of Julius (which I think is better), and was published in 1933, when its author was only twenty-six. I’m twenty-seven, so I am infinitely jealous of the timeline of her work. Daphne was deeply accomplished at a young age. Julius is not only an entertaining and intriguing story, it is also a frank examination of the human psyche from a young woman trying to unravel the mysteries of us all. In her introduction to the book Julie Myerson marvels at the coldness and emotional cruelty displayed by julius throughout the story:

This is a tale of such emotional brutality and moral dislocation that it feels as if it’s been wrought by a master, someone who has seen, known, and grappled with the world. Chilling then, to discover that Daphne du Maurier was just twenty-six years old when she wrote it.

Chilling indeed. Daphne had knowledge of this behaviour, this emptiness. When you read Julius with this in mind, and observe the ways in which he treats those around him, even those closest to him who love him, it is tragic to think that Daphne knew just how to construct those moments of cruelty and ‘moral dislocation’. They are truly masterful.

As a novel Julius is a bit of a slow starter. I was much more gripped by it once our anti-hero had arrived in England and begun his attempts to ‘put a chain around’ the country with his empire. Here we see not only the depths of his single-mindedness, and his lack of concern for others, but also the secret warmth in his heart – the longing for a home, a country, the nostalgia for his father and grandfather. The reader alone sees the humanity in him, and his struggle with it. I’m sure it would be possible to place Julius on some sort of spectrum of psychosis, such is his willingness to forego care and attention, and instead choose only his selfish determination. He is troubling and fascinating, and a truly impressive creation.

While Julius is not the greatest of Daphne du Maurier’s novels, its central character is one of her greatest, and the novel is a necessary step on the road to the genius that created Rebecca, and more besides. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as the first of her novels to read, but once you appreciate her style and understand her intentions, it is well worth the time and effort.

Originally published by Heinemann in 1933. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition from 2004.

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Articles, Events

An Evening with Sarah Waters at the Bodleian

Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Paying Guests, came out last week on 28th August, and of course it was amazing. I was very lucky to be sent an early copy, and also that I managed to nab a ticket to the event held last night (2nd Sept) in Oxford. Sarah Waters was in conversation with Viv Groskop at The Divinity School in the Bodleian Library. I saw Donna Tartt there in October (how could I ever forget THAT?) and it is such a lovely venue. It is not only beautiful, but atmospheric and really cool, being the first teaching room ever built at the University of Oxford (in the 1400s!). It looks like this:

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And the event itself was just as lovely. I made notes like a nerd, and I’m actually glad I did as it’s helped me to remember all the things Sarah talked about. It was rather a lot really, and I can’t talk about it all here, but I will mention some of the absolute best things. Yes, in bullet points.

  • Sarah’s “kernel” moment when plotting was the question of what would happen if a wife’s affair was with a woman rather than a man. She had been looking at real life crimes of the early twentieth century that were caused by affairs, and she decided to mix things up. And you can’t have a Sarah Waters book without lesbians! (except for The Little Stranger – though someone there might have been a secret lesbian)
  • It was crucial that Frances and Lillian really love each other for the story to have depth and, I think, to veer away from sensationalism.
  • Her fondness for Frances, and the fact that she, in some ways, belongs to the feminism of the suffragette era – but she is also ahead of her time with her defiance and bravery. This is demonstrated very well through her differences with her mother, and also with Lillian in some ways.
  • Class is always a very good way of adding complexity to a historical setting. There were a lot of class shifts in the 1920s and it is a big issue in the novel. Frances was of the last generation of daughters that were expected to stay at home and help (Sarah talked about Vera Brittain giving up her degree to come home and help her parents with housework!), and Lillian is also very tied to her home despite being married.
  • The choice of setting. Sarah spoke about how her novels have grown out of each other, and that the 20s was a good halfway point between her Victorian novels and those set in the 1940s – this also meant that in some ways The Paying Guests has a past and a future in the Sarah Waters universe, which I really like.
  • Really, the novel is about what happens when ordinary lives are interrupted by passion. In my review I spoke about how the characters are ordinary people made extraordinary, so it was great to hear this! It’s something that Sarah Waters works with to great effect in a lot of her work (with passion, but also tragedy and drama).

I could waffle for hours about how brilliant Sarah Waters is. She is one of the most perceptive and intelligent writers I know, and is very down to earth and likeable. I could have listened to her for a lot longer.

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A huge thank you to Blackwell’s and Virago, as well as Sarah Waters and Viv Groskop, for such a fantastic evening.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Well, well, well… hello again Sarah. We have all missed you.

I don’t remember when I first decided I loved Sarah Waters. We studied Affinity for a course about the modern novel at university, so maybe it was then. I’ve since read all of her novels except one, which I plan to read very soon, and though some were better than others I loved them all. So when I heard a new one was being published I, like most of the book-reading/publishing world, got very excited. What was it about? When was it set? Would it be as good as the others? Would it live up to its own hype? And, perhaps most importantly, will there be lots of lesbian sex?

In a word – yes.

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(2014 Virago poof copy)

As I’m sure you know, whether you’ve read it or not, the novel starts with single gal (‘spinster’) Frances and her mother having to take in some lodgers. It is 1922 and they have lost not only Frances’ father and two brothers but also most of their money and their servants. This bitter combination leaves them with no choice but to take in paying guests. The opening scene sees them anxiously waiting for their arrival, looking at the clock and twitching the curtains. It’s a wonderfully constructed scene, and works perfectly as the nervous prologue before this saga of emotion, drama, and intrigue begins. The book is just over 500 pages, but it is the story itself rather than the length that has caused me to call it a ‘saga’. It so dense and rich, and Sarah Waters manages to capture all the tiny nuances and heartbreaks of life.

Frances is our main character and we stay with her throughout the novel, and see things from her point of view; but I am glad that it is not told in the first person. The events of the book (most of which I cannot share as it would just ruin it for you) are quite dramatic and intense, and Frances has an awful lot of feelings throughout the story. She goes through a huge range of emotions and experiences, but at the same time her world is quite small and she lives quite a claustrophobic life, much of which revolves around the house and her mother. I think if the story had been told in the first person it could easily have become a bit melodramatic and over the top, as well as exhausting for the reader – and I’m sure the writer too. So, it works perfectly that we have a healthy step or two between us and Frances. We observe her closely, and hear snippets of her thoughts and feelings, rather than having to endure and experience everything with her – something for which I was grateful.

For Frances does not have the easiest time of it. Not only is she lonely and stuck with endless housework and a fretting mother, she has to adjust to these new people living in her house, just across the hall. Though they are charming and friendly, and Frances and her mother have chosen to take them in, there is still a sense of intrusion and the destruction of the safe, familiar, family home. The house itself could almost be seen as a character in the novel, in a way. It symbolises both the things that Frances and her mother have lost, and the new life that they have no choice but to lead. It also becomes the scene for events that will change Frances’ life, and will take on new meaning, and engender new feelings from its inhabitants.

After we see Frances and her mother twitching and feeling anxious, dreading what might come, we are introduced to Mr and Mrs Barber. Frances and her mother are both horrified and charmed by them as they enter the house with smiles and handshakes, and apologies for being late. Straight away the issue of class presents itself: Frances and her mother are middle class, whereas Mr and Mrs Barber are of the ‘clerk class’, people who come from families with little money and status, but who work to better themselves. To Frances’ mother, and perhaps Frances herself, it is another symbol of how much their former life has faded, and how, in the harshest terms, they have been brought ‘lower’. They are no longer a family, but landladies.

Aside from thoroughly enjoying the plot (it is killing me that I can’t talk about it here) one of the best, best things about this novel is the characters, and Waters’ ability to ‘characterise’ them in such a way that they are not only vivid and real, but that we feel we get to know them as we spend more time with them. She is one of the few novelists whose characters have stayed with me, and continued to exist in their own universe. There is more to these characters’ lives than what we see in the novel, and when it has finished there is a strong sense that their lives will continue beyond the pages, that they will continue on their story – and what a joy it is to imagine what the rest of that story might hold. For me Frances is still there,  living her life and dealing with the consequences of the events of this wonderful book.

I imagine Frances would have worn something like this, from 1922 edition of Fashion Service magazine (image: dressmakingresearch.com)

I imagine Frances would have worn something like this, from a 1922 edition of Fashion Service magazine (image: dressmakingresearch.com)

Now. What about the lesbians? This is Sarah Waters. There have to be some lesbians, and they have to do it. And fear not, they do, quite a lot, and it’s pretty fantastic. There is a lot of talk of hips and breasts touching, and some really beautiful descriptions of types of kisses, and the mood and emotions of the – how shall I put it – encounters. ‘Encounters’ feels correct because here the sex is all illicit, secret, often hurried and urgent, which only serves to make it more erotic. Given the circumstances in which it occurs, and the circumstances of the women (yes, one of them is Frances) it becomes only more beautiful. It is loving and affectionate as well as horny and fumbly, and is often accompanied by a communication of deep feelings. At one point it is described as being like drinking water after having been deprived of it. The sex is in no way gratuitous and is not described in detail every time – sometimes it is, but sometimes it is described simply as ‘going to bed’ or something similar, which makes it seem awfully romantic and very sweet.

Surely the triumph of this novel is the analysis, exploration, and deep understanding of the very complex relationships within it. They are mostly Frances’ relationships, with her mother, Mrs Barber (who soon becomes ‘Lillian’) and Mr Barber (who soon becomes ‘Len’). She relates to them all in different but equally multi-faceted ways, and nothing that is said or done is ever (or at least is very rarely) completely honest and transparent. Much like Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters seem to perfectly perceive the delicacies and intricacies of our relationships and interactions; not only that but she is able to to transcribe them in such a way that they seem to be happening right in front of you. Actually, ‘transcribe’ is the wrong word, it is too literal. She moulds these scenes and these relationships out of words and captures them on the page, whereby they are relayed to us, the reader. This story is intensely personal as we see the most private of moments between the characters (I do not mean just the sex scenes – private in every sense) and yet the story and its characters are universal. They are normal, unremarkable people who are made remarkable by their actions and the ways in which they live their lives. We come to love them as we do the people we know in real life. I still think of Sue and Maud from Fingersmith and Margaret from Affinity; I’m sure I will continue to think about Frances and Lillian.

The Paying Guests is classic Waters (drama, intrigue, period setting, lesbians, sex, single women, feminism) but it is also entirely new and modern. Though it has similar elements it doesn’t feel like anything she has written before, which is wonderful. I wish, wish, wish I could talk more about details of the plot, but has I had no idea of them when I started reading I think it would ruin the reading experience for anyone else. Though if you’ve read it I am dying to talk about it! Get me on Twitter.

So there you have it. Another amazing, beautiful novel from Sarah Waters. If you loved her other novels you will love this one too, but you will also love it even if you haven’t read the others. There’s a bit of something for everyone, I think, as the novel as so many different elements and facets, so many different types of story within it. I loved it.

Published by Virago (UK) on 28th August 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Review: Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi

The full title of this book is Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present. Despite what this may imply, I do not think of it as a specifically feminist book. As far as I can tell it does not set out with a feminist agenda; rather it is interested in how women have been treated and analysed by the ‘mind doctors’ from 1800 to the present. Appignanesi takes women as her subject but does not do so in order to specifically protest their treatment – rather she examines it as objectively as possible, and does mention treatment of men as well. Also, the doctors throughout this book as women as well as men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a feminist, but this book is not about feminist anger. It’s about women and psychology.

Image: eurekastreet.com.au

Image: eurekastreet.com.au

A quote on the back of the book from Viv Groskop, writing for The Observer, states that,

The book’s triumph is to mix evocative case studies with potted histories of the great and good of psychology and psychiatry

I agree. This quote sums up the book perfectly. It is an educational and thoroughly entertaining mix of history and case studies, with added emphasis on the impact of psychology, and psychiatry, and their practices on wider society. Appignanesi carefully chooses case studies to discuss, from those in psychologists’ essays and notes, to celebrity cases, which she deftly compares; in particular Zelda Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe. Using figures the reader has heard of roots the psychological technicalities and analysis in real life, and as we empathise with and relate to celebrities, this makes the subject matter easier to digest and understand. That’s what I found anyway.

This book could be called a history of psychology, or ‘mind doctors’ and their practices, from 1800 to the present. The fact that it focuses on women makes it easier for the author to sift through the sheer amount of material that is potentially relevant. The book is 547 pages long and probably could have been longer – though I felt that it should have been shorter, as the book became more and more list-like as it went on, and the pattern of case and contextual history, then another case, got a little repetitive.

Lisa Appignanesi’s style is academic but accessible, as well as relaxed. She uses all the correct terminology but does not get buried in jargon and medical language, so you need not worry about getting lost or confused. My only moments of confusion came with her odd comma placement, and too many phrases contained within one sentence.

Lisa Appignanesi. Image: redroom.com

Lisa Appignanesi. Image: redroom.com

I have an existing interest in psychology, and the history of women in general, so I found this book fascinating. If you’re the same, you will too. It made me realise how important the development of psychology and psychological treatment is to society, as well as the cultural perceptions of mental illness and those who are in some way different. Mad, Bad and Sad covers everything from hysteria, to sex, mothers, America, schizophrenia, autism, eating disorders, childhood abuse, the anti-psychiatry movement, and the prevalence of drugs in modern psychiatric care. I felt the book suffered from the great weight of knowledge that it tried to contain and would have benefitted from frankly being a bit shorter. I have no problem with long books, but there is simply a bit too much going on in this one.  That said it is wonderfully researched and highly interesting, and I would definitely recommend it. I admire Appignanesi for taking on the ambitious and daunting task of writing Mad, Bad and Sad – no surprise that it was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction in 2008.

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Published by Virago in 2008.

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