Saturday, 1 May 2021

Mary Lawson

She threw out a bottle of perfume the twins had given her for Christmas one year, the name of which - Ambush - had made her father laugh out loud ...

A new novel by Mary Lawson is always a pleasure. Like Anne Tyler she writes about families out of step with each other and her literary landscape is always Northern Ontario in Canada. I’m re-reading Mary Lawson’s three earlier novels before I start A Town Called Solace.

My favourite Road Ends was published in 2015 and its snowy setting is the fictional town of Struan.  The novel has a warm beating heart, largely in the form of Megan the eldest daughter of a mother who can’t stop having babies and then losing interest in them when they become children.  The eldest brother Tom is struggling to cope with the suicide of his friend and instead of using his degree he opts to drive the town snowplough.  Some of the most vibrant scenes in the novel are Tom struggling to get the ancient ‘headache yellow’ snowplough to start and then rumbling down the roads of Struan with ‘the new snow flying off the blade of the plough in a great soft arc.’

Megan has the household pretty much buttoned down, cooking, cleaning, laundry, organising her mother, keeping her younger brothers under control and loving and caring for her smallest brother Adam. It is when she decides to leave for London that this outwardly respectable but deeply troubled family start to fall apart. The dopey mother and wilfully blind father can’t seem address the benign neglect of little Adam but as Lawson weaves their narratives together you begin to understand the reasons for their behaviour.

Lawson is wonderful on the London of the late 1960s and 21 year old Megan’s experiences as an outsider in the world of Mick Jagger, bedsits, mini skirts, Carnaby Street and sexual freedom. I am looking forward to starting A Town Called Solace.

Anyone else vaguely remember a perfume by Dana called Ambush

Friday, 5 March 2021

Josephine Tey

 'Go away from here.  Go away while the going is good.  Go away.  Away from here.'

I made the rookie mistake of reading the blurb on the back of the book before starting Josephine Tey's 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes and annoyingly it gave away the crime!  It didn't spoil my enjoyment though and I loved the setting - a girls PE college which teaches gymnastics, ballet and anatomy as well as taking in remedial patients.  Just the spareness of the opening sentence shows what a good writer Tey is:

'A bell clanged.  Brazen, insistent, maddening.'

The central premise - young woman writer visits alma mater and her success and stylishness proves to be a hit with the girls and the teachers - is not disimilar to Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night although they differ in style and focus.  In fact, the hectic timetable, teachers arguing in the staff room and a bit of cheating in an exam reminded me a lot of the Enid Blyton classic girl school stories Malory Towers and St Clare's. 

Before whole-heartedly recommending Miss Pym Disposes though I will just say that those of us who read a lot of novels from the early part of the 20th C have to keep a sense of place and time and there are a couple of expressions in this book which are really not acceptable now. 

I've also started another Tey novel The Singing Sands set in the bleak beauty of the Scottish Highlands.  It has a great opening with a London Euston train sliding into a Scottish station.  On board is Detective Alan Grant of Scotland Yard visiting an old friend in the 'great clean Highland country' on doctor's orders.  Overworked and suffering from claustrophobia Grant is planning to fish the lochs and relax.  On board, there is also a dead body, as is the way with detective novels and Alan Grant doesn't want to get involved.  He's off duty, he's not well, he's going on holiday.  But something about the dead man's young face and rumpled black hair gives me the impression that Grant is not going to have a relaxing holiday.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Black Narcissus

'Then she could have sworn she heard a noise, a drag like a wet skirt on the floor, but the room was empty.'

Rumer Godden's novels begin with a journey. In Black Narcissus the five English nuns travelling to Mopu in Northern India think they will establish a school for making lace, a clinic and teach local children to read and write. Instead the Himalayan altitude begins to work on them and the Darjeeling wind which smells of tea and orange blossom evokes desire and memories. 

Sister Clodagh cannot stop thinking about her former love in Ireland, Sister Blanche yearns for a baby, Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the gardens and poor sad, mad Sister Ruth becomes fixated on Mr Dean the macho site agent.

Only the older, wiser Sister Briony keeps it together but even she can't prevent Sister Blanche from making a fatal mistake which turns the local people against the nuns.  Then Sister Ruth makes her move on Mr Dean.

Virago have just published this lovely edition and I'm very much looking forward to the BBC production tonight.  I hope they do justice to a wonderful storyteller.  Rumer Godden went on to write a more sophisticated study of a convent in In This House of Brede, one of my favourite novels, but nothing quite captures the gothic tension of Black Narcissus.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Ann Patchett

When my daughters were little I used to read them the Blue Kangaroo books by Emma Chichester Clark.  While they were entranced with the adventures of Lily who kept losing her toy kangaroo, I became besotted with the house Lily lived in. It was generously proportioned with high ceilings, fireplaces and tall bookshelves, wooden spindles on the staircase and panes of coloured glass in the front door.  We were living in a small semi at the time and when we eventually did buy a larger house I was looking for a Victorian house like the one in the Blue Kangaroo books.

I do like a novel that centres around a house or has a house as character.  Ann Patchett's The Dutch House features a post WW2 house built with secret crawl spaces, window seats and  cinematic size panes of glass.  There is a shattered ballroom on the third floor, once infested with racoons and now lovingly restored.  The house is a backdrop for secrets slowly revealed and a rock of a big sister, the magnificent Maeve. There is also a second wife whose coldness and insecurity centres around her insatiable desire for the house.

I think this is Ann Patchett's finest novel to date and I want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again!

Friday, 7 August 2020

When the sukebind is in bud ...

Delicious new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Cold Comfort Farm.  I've never found this book quite as amusing as is often claimed.   Probably because  I am very fond of one of the novels it parodies (Mary Webb's Precious Bane) but there is lots to love about this 1932 classic.

Flora Poste is an elegant bluestocking, remarkably self-assured for a nineteen year old but her moments of self-doubt and kindness keep the reader on her side as she descends on Cold Comfort Farm to drag the unwilling inhabitants into the twentieth century.

I liked Mrs Beetle, wife of Agony Beetle and mother of Meriam the hired girl who falls pregnant 'when the sukebind* is in bud' and has produced several babies.  Flora advises Meriam on contraception and Mrs Beetle offers her own advice:
Anyway, we know now, thanks to Miss Interference from up the 'ill. And I'll lay she's no better than she ought to be, a bit of a kid like 'er sailing in 'ere as bold as brass and talkin' to you about such things.  Still, she does look as if she washed 'erselef sometimes, and she ain't painted up like a dog's dinner, like most of them nowadays.  Not that I 'old with wot she told, you mind you, it ain't right. 
I really liked all the Jane Austen references.  The novel's dedication comes from Mansfield Park 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery' and  begins with Flora's position in the world and financial prospects which is also typical of the beginning of an Austen novel.  I suppose her interfering nature makes her a little like Emma, but Flora does not have Emma's wealth and status.  She does however intend to write a novel as good as Persuasion when she is 53.

Sukebind is a flower invented by Stella Gibbons to symbolise human lust!

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters

In September 1926, Daphne Du Maurier and her sisters Angela and Jeanne and their mother caught the Great Western train at Paddington bound for their first visit to Cornwall.  Arriving at Looe they travelled a few miles west towards Fowey and gazed across the harbour at the Boddinick Ferry.  They were overwhelmed by the harbour, the houses and the mystery and beauty of Cornwall.
Daphne knew that here was a place where she could find the freedom and solitude she craved to walk, to row boats and above all to write.  Angela and Jeanne also forged deep connections with the west country and both eventually settled there.

Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn is a traditional ‘womb to tomb’ biography in one sense but is also unusual in that it is a biography of the three Du Maurier sisters, Angela, Daphne and Jeanne.  They had a very privileged London upbringing as daughters of actor-manager Gerald Du Maurier.  Gerald was friends with J M Barrie who wrote Peter Pan and this book was a huge influence over the lives of the sisters who renacted scenes at home.

Daphne was famously reclusive and remote as a mother and wife, but I suppose the artist has to find time and space to write.  Writing took priority over everything.  Angela wrote, too, but did not have Daphne’s gift for storytelling or her confidence and  willowy elegance.  It seems that Daphne got all the gifts.  Angela recalled meeting a lady who mistook her for the famous Daphne and on realising her mistake turned to her husband and said ‘It’s only the sister!’   Jeanne the youngest sister remains quite elusive in the biography but she became an artist in the Newquay arts colony in Cornwall.
I particularly liked the account of the first meeting between Daphne and her future husband the handsome Guards Officer, Tommy 'Boy' Browning who had read her first book The Loving Spirit and sharing her love of boats and the sea set off in his own boat to find her in Fowey.
I'd forgotten how much I like to read a good literary biography - if you have any recommendations do let me know! 

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Trouble at Lowood

 When the typhus fever had fulfilled its mission of devastation at Lowood, it gradually disappeared from thence; but not until its virulence and the number of its victims had drawn public attention on the school. Jane Eyre

Something about Victorian literature in troubled times.  Charlotte Bronte's descriptions of typhus in Jane Eyre which infected forty-five of the eight pupils at Lowood school for orphans during a bright and beautiful April and May is remarkably prescient.  The poorest suffered the most and of course Charlotte was drawing on memories of the loss of her two young sisters Maria and Elizabeth.

It's been a while since I read Jane Eyre and it was such a pleasure to revisit the scenes where Jane climbs the step-ladder to the attic at Thornfield and throws open the casement window looking out over the hills and valleys and vents her frustration at the limitations of her existence.  Charlotte's voice seeps into the text and becomes the voice of Jane. 

There is also the wonderful chapter where Jane meets Mr Rochester and as she walks alone on the frosty causeway she first of all sees his large dog, Pilot, and thinks for a moment it is the Gytrash of North England legend which haunts solitary ways and startles travellers.
Jane Eyre
When Mr Rochester later asks Jane if she is from another world she goes along with his questioning to the bafflement of Mrs Fairfax.  Jane, at last, has met a kindred spirit. 

"No wonder you have rather the look of another world.  I marvelled where you had that sort of face.  When you came on me in Hay Lane last night I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse."  Jane Eyre