Author, Book review, Fiction, Frank Moorhouse, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘Grand Days’ by Frank Moorhouse

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 736 pages; 2018.

Grand Days, by the late Australian writer Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022), is the first in a trilogy of (chunky) novels exploring the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman making her mark in diplomatic circles on the world stage.

First published in 1993, but set in the 1920s, this novel charts Edith’s early career at the newly created League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s an enormously detailed look at office politics and corporate life through the lens of a headstrong and idealistic 20-something woman whom we might now dub “before her time”. Indeed, the novel could be described that way, too, because it takes an enlightened approach to 21st-century issues including gender fluidity, female agency and independence, sexual politics and “internationalism”.

It first came to my attention via the three-part ABC TV program ‘Books That Made Us’ (screened in 2021) when it was the only book mentioned in the first episode that I hadn’t heard of ( I had already read most of the others). I’m not sure why this one passed me by — I was working as a part-time bookseller when it was published so I must have sold copies of it — but I rather suspect that even if I had taken the time to read it I would have been too young and naive to appreciate it at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m in a much better place to value (and recognise) the richly detailed world that Moorhouse has created, with its focus on the minutiae of office life, the never-ending internal politics between rival colleagues and departments, and the failed idealism at its heart.

But the novel is much more than just a historical glimpse of “corporate” conduct: it’s also a wonderful coming-of-age story about a 26-year-old woman working out who she is, what she wants from life, falling in love and discovering sex.

A journey to a new life

When the book opens, we meet Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva en route to her new post at the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation designed to uphold world peace following the end of the First World War. (The history of the ill-fated League, which was disbanded in 1946, and later inspired the formation of the United Nations, is expertly woven into the narrative which includes real people, identified by their real names, and is largely based on documentary sources.)

In the train’s dining car, Edith meets Major Ambrose Westwood, unaware that he will become the single-most significant figure in her life, both at the League, where they become colleagues and allies, and at home, where they become secret lovers participating in a “sexually adventurous underworld” (as the blurb on my edition describes it).

In each gloriously named chapter (for example, How Edith Berry Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva, or The Tenets of Civilisation and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked Of) is like a self-contained story in its own right, which serves to move the narrative forward set-piece by set-piece. And from this, we see how Edith slowly transforms herself from a naive employee to an invaluable staff member — despite getting into various tricky predicaments with the serious potential to backfire — and inches her way up the career ladder, all the while figuring out her love life and building a solid circle of friends.

She goes through some pretty icky and challenging experiences but always manages to come out the other end stronger and more resilient than ever. But she’s also manipulative, with a head for scheming, which is probably why she is able to survive the internal machinations at work so adroitly. Not much seems to bother her. And even when her mother dies, back home in Australia, she seems remarkably unfazed by it.

Highly recommended read

Did I like this book? Yes. And no.

It’s too long and parts of it dragged. Sometimes it was a struggle to pick it up after I had put it down, and it took me the best part of three weeks to read.

But there was so much of it I enjoyed.

  • The heady idealism of everyone working at the League, including Edith’s deep belief that she’s doing important work for the world
  • The scheming and shenanigans and internal bickering in the office, which is so realistic even by today’s standards
  • The depiction of the Geneva nightlife, the glamourous parties, the seedy clubs
  • The history of the League and the people that worked there (the appendices detailing “who’s who” and some of the working practices are enlightening)
  • Edith’s transformation from a naive young woman to a woman of the world, even if she makes some dubious decisions along the way
  • The Australian abroad aspects, which will resonate if you have been an ex-pat for any length of time
  • The biting satire that underpins the storyline, but also the many wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes
  • The forward-thinking attitudes held by many of the characters

There are two more books in the series — Dark Palace, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001, and Cold Light — which I will look forward to reading in due course.

For another take on Grand Days, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

‘Grand Days’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jay Carmichael, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Marlo’ by Jay Carmichael

Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 160 pages; 2022.

If we believe that one of literature’s aims is to give voice to the voiceless, to tell the tales of those unable to write it themselves, then Jay Carmichael’s novella Marlo has hit the bullseye.

This short, sharp, powerful story is set in Melbourne in the 1950s at a time when homosexuality was punishable by law and seen as a medical condition (and therefore “curable”) rather than as an identity.

Carmichael explains in his Author’s Note that “there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived as a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia”.

To fill that gap he has imagined what it was like to live in fear of being branded a “sexual pervert”, of being outcast from family and friends, of being beaten up by strange men, of police entrapment, and “of arrest, exposure, infamy, and disgrace”.

Anonymous city life

The story is told in the first person by Christopher, a young gay man, who has fled his small repressive town in rural Gippsland — the Marlo of the title — to try living in the city where no one knows his name — or his preference for men.

But Chris is shy, quiet, not particularly sociable and far from worldly-wise. He moves in with Kings, an old school friend, who has no idea of Chris’ sexual orientation, winding him up about “birds” and “sheilas”, and begins working as a car mechanic.

When he meets Morgan, a young Aboriginal man, in the Botanic Gardens, a renowned gay beat, he befriends him and escorts him home on the train. An exchange of correspondence occurs over a few weeks and the pair fall in love.

Finding his place in the world

Meanwhile, Chris is introduced to a homosexual cafe, hidden away in downtown Melbourne, where he struggles to find his tribe — “these aren’t my people” — and continues to feel out of place and out of step with the rest of the world.

For Morgan, an Indigenous gay man, the struggle is even more difficult. Originally from NSW, he must carry ID papers with him, to prove he’s exempt from the Aborigines Protection Act, because he has a white father and can move freely about. He calls this a “dog tag” and is embarrassed by it, never more so than when he courts Christopher at the zoo and the pair are accosted by a policeman who orders them to leave but not without first checking Morgan’s papers.

The zoo visit was meant to be so raucous, with children chasing pelicans and mothers chasing children and fathers sweating by the snakes, that Morgan and I would be invisible. Our invisibility would have allowed us to wander, to find common ground. But common people […] disliked two men like us walking across their ground; even worse, when one of us was even less like them.

Quiet dignity

Marlo is written in beautiful, restrained prose and conveys a mood of poise and quiet dignity. The text is accompanied by striking black and white photographs, many of them courtesy of the Australian Queer Archives, which evoke a certain mood and capture time and place so magnificently.

I really enjoyed this evocative novella. In reclaiming a previously untold history, the author has created a bittersweet story that is as much about growing up and navigating a complex world as it is about living an authentic life under constant fear of exposure.

For other takes on this book, please see Lisa’s review at Anzlitlovers, and Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

The title will be released in the UK  in paperback on February 9, 2023; a Kindle edition is currently available in the UK and US.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott: a thinly veiled memoir based on the author’s first-hand experience struggling to keep his homosexuality secret while growing up in Sydney in the 1930s-40s.

‘Gents’ by Warwick Collins: an unusual tale about three West Indian janitors working in a central London toilet block that is frequented by cottagers. It explores many big themes, including homophobia, racism and religion.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. And because it’s by an Australian writer, it also qualifies for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Julie Janson, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Magabala Books; 356 pages; 2020.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence tells the story of the early days of European settlement in Australia but with one important twist: it’s told through the eyes of a young Aboriginal girl.

Written as a rebuttal to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River*, a novel that dared to talk about frontier violence from a white perspective, Janson uses a First Nations lens to tell the other side of the story.

The author, who is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation, says it is a work of fiction but is based on historical events in and around the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney.

In her afterword, she says:

The characters are derived from Darug, Gundungurra and Wonnaruah Aboriginal people who defended their lands, culture and society. Muraging is based on my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas, who was a servant on colonial estates in the Hawkesbury area. The other characters in the novel are inspired by historical figures and my imagination, except the governors who are based on historical documents.

Raised by white settlers

Benevolence spans 26 years (1816 to 1846) in the life of Muraging (later renamed Mary), who finds herself caught between two cultures.

Raised and educated by white settlers at a boarding school set up for Aboriginal children, she desperately misses her family and for most of this novel, she swings between the two: working as a servant when she needs food and shelter, heading on country to be with her people when she needs to get back in touch with her culture and traditions.

But even when she is with her own kind she stands out, for she wears European, albeit servant, clothes, can play the violin (she totes one around with her) and speaks English. In white society, the colour of her skin marks her out as different and her pretty looks attract the unwanted attention of often violent men. No matter where she is, she is “othered” and her desire to fit in is only made harder by the children she bears (with white men) and must raise on her own.

Frontier wars

But this is not just a tale about one indigenous woman’s experience, it’s a larger tale about the frontier wars, which rage on in the background, and of the violence committed on First Nations people by white settlers determined to keep the land for themselves, declaring Australia terra nullius and treating the original inhabitants as nothing more than vermin to be shot and exterminated.

From the start, Mary is aware of the danger that white men pose to her race because she has heard the rumours circulate at  school:

Days go by and Mary hears other children’s stories whispered in the night. Many have seen, and still see, the bodies of their parents shot and hung on trees with corn cobs in their mouths. They still watch in horror as crows peck out living eyes and black beaks pick brains.

Later, as an adult, she knows about the Bells Falls Gorge massacre, north of Bathurst, in which women and children jumped to their deaths after white settlers opened fire on them — and she is terrified she could be caught up in something similar.

She’s also increasingly aware of the destruction white people are causing and the implications this poses for local tribes. When she’s on country, for instance, the women in her tribe struggle to gather enough food to eat because “the white hunters have massacred all the local kangaroos” and there is little game nearby. The new settlers are also wreaking havoc in other ways:

The men discuss the thousands of newcomers arriving in ships in Sydney Town and how they crash through the bush smashing the fragile undergrowth, cutting down the oldest, tallest and most sacred trees – even carved burial trees. Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.

Throughout the story, we see how Mary’s Christian upbringing — supposedly designed to deliver her from sin — simply entraps her. It’s a feeling that never quite goes away, messes with her sense of identity and makes her reliant on white settlers who don’t always have her best interests at heart.

An important novel

Benevolence is an important book because it puts a human face to an Aboriginal perspective, a perspective that has previously been ignored or written out of history.

At times, I felt it lost momentum, perhaps because it is just so detailed, covering every aspect of Mary’s life, which includes time on the run in the bush, various jobs as a servant, a lusty romance with a white reverend and a short stint in jail. But on the whole, it’s a comprehensive account of all the many challenges and tragedies to which Mary must bear witness.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.


* The Secret River is based on Grenville’s ancestor Soloman Wiseman, a Thames waterman who was transported to Australia for theft, and who later settled on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wisemans Ferry. He is mentioned in Benevolence as follows:

Wiseman’s Ferry is a large raft where loads of flour are winched across the river by a metal wheel driven by a horse. The old ferryman and innkeeper is Solomon Wiseman. His inn is called The Sign of the Packet; he is an ex-convict and lighterman from the Thames in London. Along the riverbank, the convict road workers are dressed in torn, dirty shirts, their skins tanned from the sun and hunger etched on their faces.


This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it in July 2020, began reading it and then got distracted by covid lockdown shenanigans and never returned to it. I also read it this year as part of my project to read more books by First Nations writers. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Italy, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.

Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

A love story

At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.

Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.

That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)

It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.

A supportive wife

And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.

‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.

There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.

It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:

Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.

Intimate first-person tale

The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.

It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.

Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.

Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!

This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘Mothering Sunday: A Romance’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – hardcover; Simon & Schuster; 132 pages; 2018.

The novella Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, pivots around one central moment: a final sexual encounter between two people from different social classes before one of them goes off to marry someone else.

Set on 30 March 1924—Mothering Sunday—the story goes beyond this date to explore what happens to each of the young lovers in the aftermath of their affair.

It’s written in the third person but told largely from the perspective of Jane Fairchild, a 22-year-old housemaid, who is romantically involved with Paul Sheringham, a handsome young man up the road who is engaged to be married to Emma Hobday, a young woman in the same social class as him.

Paul is 23, the only surviving son of an upper-class family in rural Berkshire (his brothers were killed in the Great War), and his whole life has been mapped out for him. His background — and his prospects — could not be any more different than Jane’s. Yet the pair have been secret lovers for years.

She didn’t know how he had acquired his sureness. Later, in her memory, she would marvel at it and be almost frightened by his possession of it then. It was the due of his kind? He was born to it. It came with having no other particular thing to do? Except be sure.

Despite Jane’s lack of formal education, she is a keen reader and has access to her kindly employer’s own personal library. On the day in question, she plans to read her borrowed copy of Joseph Conrad’s Youth in the spring sunshine. She’s an orphan, so has no mother to visit, but then Paul summons her for a morning rendezvous and the whole course of her life changes…

An auspicious date

Written in exquisite language, languid and sensual, the narrative continually loops back on itself so there is never any mistaking the importance of the date, repeated like a mantra, to Jane, who looks back on this particular Mothering Sunday with awe and delight and shock and grief. What enfolds on that single day has repercussions for her entire life, a life in which she becomes a successful writer and uses her affair with Paul as both inspiration and succour during her long career.

Swift is a careful stylist, shaping the story so that it seamlessly flits backwards and forwards in time, revealing Jane’s innermost feelings and desires, showing what her life was like before meeting Paul and what it becomes, years and decades later, when their romance ends.

And in highlighting the differences between British social classes, it’s easy to see how this match between a maid and a young lawyer would never be acceptable to the masses despite their clear feelings for one another. Jane, in particular, has been conditioned to behave according to her social standing and she is wary of challenging Paul, of demanding anything of him even though she’s well within her rights to do so.

It was not her place, after all, with her ghostly maid’s clothes back on again, to speak, suggest or do more than wait. Years of training had conditioned her. They are creatures of mood and whim. They might be nice to you one moment, but then— And if they snapped or barked, you must jump. Or rather take it in your stride, carry on, not seethe. Yes sir, yes madam. And always—it was half the trick—be ready for it.

As it turns out, such training holds Jane in good stead when she needs it most.

This is a beautifully told tale that is both compelling and heartbreaking. It’s richly evocative of the era and lingers in the mind long after the final page. I loved its exploration of truth and memory and of lives unlived.

For other takes on Mothering Sunday, please see Brona’s review and Lisa’s review.

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‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan: Set on a single night, this novella explores the consummation of a marriage between two deeply inexperienced people.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, holocaust, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting, USA

‘Address Unknown’ by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 90 pages; 2015.

For such a slim book, this one packs a powerful punch!

First published in 1938, Address Unknown is a timely reminder of the invidious nature of fascism and the ways in which this warped ideology can tear once-close people apart.

It tells the story of a friendship between two men — a Jewish art dealer and his business partner — that is tested by political events in the lead up to the Second World War.

Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein run an art gallery together in San Francisco, but when Martin repatriates to Germany their friendship continues via correspondence.

An epistolary tale

Through their letters, which span the period from November 1932 through to March 1934, we come to understand the closeness of their relationship and the way in which it begins to fracture as events in Europe unfold.

When Max hears about political unrest in Germany, he is distressed by the news reports “that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland” and asks Martin to clarify what is going on:

I know your liberal mind and warm heart will tolerate no viciousness and that from you I can have the truth.

Martin’s reply, now on headed paper from his bank to avoid the censors, warns his friend to cease writing to him.

It is impossible for me to be in correspondence with a Jew even if it were not that I have an official position to maintain.

He makes deeply offensive antisemitic remarks further on in the letter, suggesting that he is now firmly on the side of Hitler, whom he refers to as “our Gentle Leader”. But Max refuses to believe that his friend has gone down this upsetting political path, writing:

I can see why Germans acclaim Hitler. They react against the very real wrongs which have been laid on them since the disaster of the war. But you, Martin, have been almost an American since the war. I know that it is not my friend who has written to me, that it will prove to have been only the voice of caution and expediency.

Within a few more letters their friendship lies in tatters, but Max does not give up easily, continuing to write even when he gets absolutely no response. There’s a sting in the tail though, one that demonstrates the life-and-death power which can be wielded by the pen.

Address Unknown takes less than an hour to read, but I dare say it will be a tale that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I came away from it reeling and I’ve been mulling over the implications, and the way in which Max levels the playing field, ever since.

Afterword by the author’s son

This edition, published in 2015, comes with an afterword written by the author’s son, Charles Douglas Taylor.

He explains that Address Unknown was originally published in Story magazine in September 1938, one of the first stories to expose “the poison of Nazism to the American public”. It was published as a book the next year and sold out in the USA and England but was banned in Europe. It was largely forgotten after the war but was reissued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

A French translation in 1999 brought it to the attention of European readers for the first time. By 2010, it had been translated into 23 languages. It has been adapted for stage and performed on both Broadway, in the US, and the West End, in London.

The author died in 1996, aged 93. You can find out more about her via her Wikipedia page.

Author, Billy O'Callaghan, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Life Sentences’ by Billy O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 220 pages; 2021.

Irish writer Billy O’Callaghan’s Life Sentences is a wholly absorbing family saga that spans three generations over the course of a century. It’s loosely based on the author’s own family tree and gives voice to the branch that was “illegitimate” because two children were born out of wedlock at a time when this was frowned upon.

At its essence, it is a love story between a teenage girl and the married man with whom she falls in love, but it’s also a damning portrait of one man’s eagerness to have his cake and eat it too, arrogantly ignoring his responsibilities to the children he fathered and blaming the woman for falling pregnant in the first place.

It’s split into three parts, with each part told by a different family member: Jer, 1920; Nancy, 1911; and Nellie, 1982.

Nancy’s romance

Nancy is the central character in this tale. As a 16-year-old, she flees Clear Island, off the south-west coast of County Cork, after the famine kills all her family, and starts afresh on the mainland where she finds work in a big house on the northside of Cork city. It is here she falls for the tall, good-looking, charismatic gardener, Michael Egan, with whom she starts a secret relationship, unaware that he is already married.

I  was nineteen when I met Michael Egan for the first time. That’s not where my story begins, but it’s where I begin, that day the beginning of my happiness and the start of my fall.

When she falls pregnant, Michael Egan (he is always referred to by his first and last names throughout this story) wants nothing to do with her. She’s fired from her job and moves into a workhouse.

Later, she moves into a crowded tenement and supports herself through “shameful things I could not regret, as much as I hated myself for them because I knew they were necessary”. It is while walking the streets down near the pubs “where I knew men with money in their pockets would be” that she bumps into Michael Egan once again.

Despite her better judgement, and perhaps because Michael is a familiar face and unlikely to be physically rough with her, she rekindles her affair with him. But history repeats. Another child is born out of wedlock, Michael Egan rejects her and it’s back to the workhouse with a baby and toddler in tow.

Jer’s complex history

It is that baby, a boy named Jeremiah, or Jer for short, whom we meet when the novel opens. He is in a pub, “drinking fast and heavy”, waiting for the guards to come looking for him. We slowly learn that he is angry, deeply angry, because his beloved sister Mamie has died (Nancy’s firstborn) and that he blames her husband, a violent alcoholic, for her death.

He killed her. He might not have kicked the chair away, but with his drinking he put the rope around her neck. He’s been killing her for years. And now she’s gone.

Despite this imminent arrest, we discover that Jer is a good man, happily married with six children, but he is emotionally scarred, not just by his impoverished childhood and the father he met on just a few occasions, but by his time in the Great War. He seeks solace in his family, but his thoughts often turn to Michael Egan:

Dead now, dead a long time, but one half of me then and still. I exist because of this man, but because of him I am rootless. I made myself strong, in spite of him.

Nellie’s sense of peace

Jer’s youngest daughter, Nellie, takes up the final part of the novel. She’s in her 60s and lives with her daughter Gina and son-in-law Liam just “a stone’s throw from the house in which I was born”.

She’s dying but isn’t afraid to do so, and has shunned any kind of medical intervention:

I’ve watched so many go [die], and find comfort in knowing that I’m to take the same road. If it leads nowhere then that’s all right. But if there’s a chance of maybe seeing them again, my loved ones, my husband Dinsy and my father and mother and all the rest, then who wouldn’t want that?

As Nellie looks back on her life, we see how things have panned out for Nancy’s children and grandchildren. There is tragedy and heartbreak in this life, but there is also love and happiness and a sense of belonging, of putting down roots that her own father never could because of his illegitimacy.

Sad and melancholy

I adored this book. Yes, it’s sad and melancholy and treads some dark territory (there’s a lot of death in this novel, it has to be said), but it’s written in such an engaging manner, brimming with humanity and compassion, celebrating the tenacity and resilience of a family just doing their best to get by against the odds.

It’s intimate, rewarding and poignant, the kind of novel to make the heart lurch. And I’m delighted to see the author has two other novels and a bunch of short story collections for me to explore. I will look forward to reading them when I can.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.