Algeria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Andras, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Verso

‘Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us’ by Joseph Andras (translated by Simon Leser)

Fiction – paperback; Verso; 136 pages; 2021. Translated from the French by Simon Leser.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a short, powerful novella by French writer Joseph Andras.

Set at the height of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), it is based on the life of Fernand Iveton, a Communist working for the National Liberation Front (FLN), who was the only European executed during the War.

A highly unusual case

Fernand Iveton’s case is highly unusual for many reasons, so it is easy to see why an author might wish to tell his story. First, Iveton was a “pied-noir”  — a person of French origin living in French-ruled Algeria  (his mother was a Spanish Catholic and his father was French) — working on the anti-colonialist side.

Second, the bomb he planted in his locker at the power station where he worked was designed to go off when no one was in the building. He claims he did not want to kill people; he simply wanted to send a message to the authorities. In any event, he was arrested and the bomb located and defused before it ever went off.

And third, his trial lasted a single day, after which he was sentenced to death despite the fact he was not responsible for killing or injuring anyone. Attempts to have his sentence commuted by the then French president René Coty failed, and he was executed by guillotine on 11 February 1957.

Condemned to death

The story opens with Iveton preparing to plant the bomb provided to him by his accomplices, Jacqueline and Abdelkader Guerroudj, and closes with his death. (His accomplices were arrested and tried later, but neither were executed.)

In between, we learn about his arrest, interrogation and the ways in which he was tortured (mainly by electrocution and waterboarding). Later, we see how his lawyers tried to push for his death sentence to be commuted, but a high profile campaign in France had painted him as a terrorist and murderer and there was no room to sway popular opinion.

To offer some light relief, the narrative also traces Iveton’s romance and subsequent marriage to Hélène, a Polish woman who grew up in France and was a partisan in the French Resistance during the Second World War. They met when Iveton came to Paris to get an X-ray for a lung problem (which turned out to be tuberculosis) and she was a waitress at the hotel in which he was staying.

Fernand sits down and orders the set meal. Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…

When he returns to Algeria, he paves the way for Hélène to join him, along with her son, Jean-Claude, from her first marriage, and together they set up a happy home.

Armed struggle

The strength of the story is to highlight how the “armed struggle” is never black-and-white and that people choosing to pursue violence for political ends have their reasons for doing so.

Our client is conscious of fighting for more than himself [Iveton’s lawyers tell the President of France]. He’s fighting for his country, which he wants to see free and happy, a country which guarantees to each and every one of its citizens, Muslim or European, freedom of thought and equality. Our client wants nothing else.

I came away from it thinking how history just keeps endlessly repeating and how it’s just the countries, and perhaps the religions, that change. This story, for instance, could so easily be transferred to Northern Ireland in the 1970s or the Basque Country at any time in the 50 years leading up to 2011.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us was awarded France’s top literary prize for debut novels, the prix Goncourt du premier roman, in 2016, but the author declined to accept it, claiming that he didn’t believe writing should be a competition.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 156 pages; 2006.

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond
life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

A book about a bookshop seems hard to resist, right?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — first published in 1978 — has languished in my TBR for years, but I was only encouraged to read it after I watched the film adaptation last week (it’s streaming on SBS on Demand for anyone in Australia who fancies checking it out). Unfortunately, the film was a bit on the dull side (despite great performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy), so I wanted to find out whether the book was better.

And it was.

While the film is faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue, characters and plot, it somehow fails to capture the subtle humour and the little digs at busybodies and those who wish to keep a good woman down, as it were.

And it also neglects to even mention the supernatural element of the storyline in which the lead character, Florence Green, is pestered by a poltergeist (or “rapper” as the locals call it)^^. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that might distract from the main storyline, which is a bittersweet tale about a widow who opens a bookshop against the wishes of the community “elite” who would rather an arts centre was established in the town.

A comedy of manners

Set in East Anglia, in 1959, the book is essentially a comedy of manners. It’s about petty-minded villagers who rail against Florence’s plan to open a bookshop in the small town of Hardborough on the coast — although it’s never made entirely clear why they think it is so objectionable.

Florence is kind-hearted but she’s also determined to do her own thing. (And maybe that’s why the locals are so against a bookshop being set up — women, after all, should be home makers and looking after children, but Florence is widowed and child free and she has a dream she wants to fulfil.)

She buys the Old House — “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams” — which has been vacant for years and is rumoured to be haunted by a poltergeist.

The noise upstairs stopped for a moment and then broke out again, this time downstairs and apparently just outside the window, which shook violently. It seemed to be on the point of bursting inwards. Their teacups shook and spun in the saucers. There was a wild rattling as though handful after handful of gravel or shingle was being thrown by an idiot against the glass.

Florence isn’t put off by this. She ignores the noise and the unexpected occurrences and gets on with the business of opening her shop, which also includes a lending library. She hires a local school girl, the forthright 10-year-old Christine, who helps out after class even though she doesn’t like books and isn’t particularly studious. Her working class parents, it seems, need the money.

The relationship between the older woman and her young charge is one of the sweeter elements of the book. Florence tolerates Christine’s rudeness and her sharp manner and tries to help her study for her 11-plus exam which will determine whether she goes to a grammar school or a technical school.

Other relationships develop over the course of the book. A strange older man by the name of Mr Brundish becomes a loyal customer and helps Florence decide whether she should stock the controversial Lolita to sell to the inhabitants of Hardborough. “They won’t understand it,” he tells her, “but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” She orders 250 copies.

By contrast, the charming (read slightly sleazy) Milo North, who commutes to London where he works at the BBC, is often on her case. When they meet at a grand party for the first time he asks her whether she is “well advised to undertake the running of a business” and claims that he will never visit her shop. He’s on the side of Mrs Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”, who wants the Old House to be used as an arts centre for chamber music, lectures and art displays even though the building had been on the market for six months and no one but Florence had expressed an interest in buying it.

A successful business

Despite the local animosity and the challenges that confront Florence, including from her own solicitor and the opening of a rival store in a nearby town, the business is a relative success, and the story, while not exactly light-hearted, has a vein of gentle comedy running throughout it.

‘I don’t know why I bought these,’ Florence reflected after one of these visits. ‘Why did I take them? No one used force. No one advised me.’ She was looking at 200 Chinese book-markers, handpainted on silk. The stork for longevity, the plum-blossom for happiness. Her weakness for beauty had betrayed her. It was inconceivable that anyone else in Hardborough should want them. But Christine was consoling: the visitors would buy them – come the summer, they didn’t know what to spend their money on.

Sadly, there are greater unseen forces at work which put Florence’s livelihood at risk and the novel, for all it’s comic moments, nuanced observations and evocative descriptions of the Suffolk landscape, ends on a terribly sad note.

I enjoyed its commentary on class and ambition, courage and optimism, and think it’s probably the kind of story that benefits from a close second reading. The introduction to my edition, by novelist David Nicholls, is worth reading (but only after you have finished the book), as is the preface by Hermione Lee, who has written a biography about the author.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The winner that year was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

^^ Update 20 August: Apparently the supernatural element wasn’t ignored, I just did not notice it when I watched the film.

This is my 17th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback so long ago that I can’t remember the date, but I also have it on Kindle, which is how I read it for the purposes of this review.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), A&R Classics, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Peter Goldsworthy, Publisher, Setting

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy

Fiction – paperback; A&R Australian Classics; 156 pages; 2014.

Originally published in 1981, Maestro was Peter Goldsworthy‘s debut novel written by an author in total control of his craft. Without wishing to exaggerate, it’s a minor masterpiece — in tone, style and subject — and was named on the Australian Society of Authors’ list of top 40 Australian books ever published back in 2003.

Top End tale

Set in tropical Darwin, where the weather — whether Wet season or Dry season — is a character in its own right, it’s a lush, wholly absorbing tale that explores the long-lasting impact of a piano teacher on a young, aspiring student.

The time is 1967, and Paul Crabbe, who narrates the story, has moved to Darwin with his happily married (if poles-apart) parents, a medical doctor and a part-time librarian, from the more cultured south (Adelaide).

My father loosened his tie. In those first weeks he still clung to the Southerner’s uniform. Then he wiped the sweat from his brow.
‘The arsehole of the earth,’ he declared, loudly.
He dropped the piano lid with a thud.
‘A city of booze, blow, and blasphemy,’ he said, in the tone of voice he reserved for memorable quotes.
‘Shakespeare?’ my mother wondered.
He shook his head: ‘Banjo Paterson’.

Fifteen-year-old Paul has shown promise as a pianist, so lessons are arranged with Eduard Keller (the maestro of the title), a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past who has emigrated to Australia and now lives in rooms above a busy pub.

Keller is not particularly warm or welcoming. He’s gruff, bad-mannered and doesn’t let Paul touch the piano for weeks, preferring to instruct him on the importance of each finger on the hand before letting him loose on the keys.

Keller waggled a forefinger in front of my nose. It was our second lesson? Our third?
‘This finger is selfish. Greedy. A … delinquent. He will steal from his four friends, cheat, lie.’
He sheathed the forefinger in his closed fist as if it were the fleshy blade of a Swiss army knife and released the middle finger.
‘Mr goody-goody,’ he said, banging the finger down on middle C repeatedly. ‘Teacher’s pet. Does what he is told. Our best student.’
Last came the ring finger.
‘Likes to follow his best friend,’ he told me. ‘Likes to … lean on him sometimes.’

Paul is not sure that these lessons are very rewarding, but over time there’s a slow thawing in relations and while the pair never truly become close, he is intrigued enough to want to know more about his teacher.

Did he do bad things in the war? Is he a Nazi, or perhaps related to one? Would that explain why he’s so mean-spirited, cruel and unemotional? Why he is missing a ring finger? And why he drinks so much? To forget? To drown his guilt?

Paul embarks on some research and discovers that Keller’s own music teacher was supposedly trained by 19th-century Hungarian composer Liszt, that his wife was a renowned contralto and Wagner specialist, and that he supposedly died in 1944. This piques his interest even further.

Coming-of-age story

Running alongside this narrative about Keller’s mysterious past is another involving Paul’s coming of age. He’s bullied at school and the only friend he makes is a similar outcast, Bennie, an English boy who collects butterflies and is not liked. It’s only when Paul joins a rock’n’roll band, as the keyboardist, that his peers begin to accept him.

But then he discovers girls and falls in love, first with the untouchable Megan and then Rosie, his teenage sweetheart who later becomes his wife, and this burgeoning interest in sex complicates matters even further.

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Paul, a music teacher who has travelled the world, looking back on his life and recalling the ways in which Keller changed him. There’s a scene towards the end when he realises that the one time Keller wanted to talk about his past, Paul was too busy thinking about the girl waiting for him outside to pay his teacher the necessary attention — he was too focused on the promise of sex instead of listening to his Keller’s long-awaited admission.

This shame-filled sense of nostalgia infuses the story with meaning and emotion. It’s actually the tone of the book, deeply reverent with a touch of humour, that makes it such a terrific read. The last time I read a novel with the same kind of emotion, of a man reminiscing about times and possibilities that will never come again and mourning their loss, is George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, my favourite book of all time.

Maestro really is a wonderful gem of a novel, a beautiful story about love, loss and learning. I will no doubt be reading this one again.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitlovers and Simon’s at Stuck in a Book.

Note, it doesn’t appear to be in print outside of Australia, so check bookfinder.com for secondhand copies.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from my local independent bookshop earlier this year.

20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 372 pages; 2020.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one of those books you will have seen everywhere if you haven’t already read it yourself. It won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted — amongst many other awards and accolades — for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

As the title may suggest, it’s a fictionalised story about William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (a name that in the 16th century was regularly switched out with Hamlet), who died unexpectedly, aged 11, plunging his father (and family) into grief. (Though history has not recorded the cause of death, it’s widely believed to be the Bubonic Plague, which is what causes him to die in this novel.)

Initially, I found Hamnet completely gripping — the opening chapter is a very fine piece of writing, indeed, alive with rich descriptions, brilliant characterisations and a heart-thumping sense of urgency — but by the mid-way point my interest began to wane, and I really struggled to finish it.

No doubt you have probably read loads of positive reviews online, so let me briefly outline what I liked and didn’t like about this book.

Here’s what I liked about the story

The dual storylines: The novel is divided into two separate storylines, one of which recounts what happens when Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, falls ill from the Plague, and the second of which goes back in time to chart the romance between a young William “John” Shakespeare and the mysterious woman, Agnes, who would later become his wife. These two narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, which helps build suspense because just when you get to an exciting point in one storyline, it switches to another.

The characters: These are all richly drawn, from Shakespeare’s cruel, drunken father, to Agnes’ cruel, pessimistic stepmother Joan — and everyone in between. Perhaps the best-drawn character is Agnes herself. Much of the story is told through her eyes, so we get a real feel for her innermost thoughts, her undying love for her husband and the ways in which she’s viewed as an outsider by society at the time, purely because she’s an unconventional woman, very much in touch with nature, folklore and her own emotions.

The vivid descriptions: Despite some writerly quirks that annoyed me (see below), the prose is lavish and opulent, a style that lends itself well to historical fiction when scene-setting and period detail is so important. Sometimes O’Farrell can arrest your attention with a single beautiful line — “The hedgerows are constellations, studded with fire-red hips” — or an entire paragraph:

Balanced on the tops of the houses was a sky scattered with jewels, pierced with silver holes. He had whispered into her ear names and stories, his finger outstretched, pulling shapes and people and animals and families out of the stars.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story

The present tense: I understand that present tense creates urgency and it’s quite unusual to be employed in historical fiction, but I found it very wearing to read more than 300 pages of it! The opening chapter, when Hamnet is desperate to get help for his ill sister, is riveting because of the present tense, but do we really need to read a whole novel as if the action is happening right now? It’s exhausting.

The rule of three: O’Farrell uses a prose pattern that once seen cannot be unseen. She has a penchant to compose sentences that employ three adjectives or three clauses to help prove a point and, I suspect, to make her writing feel more “rich” and “abundant”. But when every page is dotted with sentences structured in this way it becomes kind of annoying. Here is a couple of examples:

The smell, the sight, the colour took her back to a bed soaked red and a room of carnage, of violence, of appalling crimson.

And:

The hawking, honey-producing, ale-trading priest will marry them early the next day, in a ceremony arranged quickly, furtively, secretively.

Plot implausibility:  This is a tough one to write about because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know, but basically, O’Farrell employs a readerly “trick” that is implausible. After devoting 70-plus pages to the prospect of young Judith dying from the plague, she survives, but at the very last minute, Hamnet dies instead. There’s also an entire chapter about how the flea, responsible for Judith’s illness, travels from Venice to London that just felt like it had been lifted from a fairytale and felt out of keeping with the rest of the novel.

My conclusion

I guess the best way I can sum up my feelings for Hamnet is ambivalence. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the concept of it but had issues with some of the delivery.

I felt a bit like this when I read O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, so am beginning to wonder whether she just isn’t the writer for me. Either that or I am reading her books at the “wrong” time or I am reading the “wrong” books by her.

I haven’t given up though — I’m now eying off her memoir, which has been sitting in my TBR for a few months and which would qualify as another #20booksofsummer read.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my friend Armen in London.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 195 pages; 2020.

How can this be my first Graham Swift? He seems to be one of those authors I always mean to read but never get around to — until now.

Here We Are is his latest novel (he has 11 to his name) and what a gorgeous, immersive quintessentially English story it turned out to be!

Theatreland by the sea

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, it tells the tale of three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

Jack Robinson is the handsome 28-year-old compere and a song-and-dance man. Ronnie Deane, who has “dark Spanish eyes”, is a talented magician and Evie White is his assistant — together they perform under their stage name “Pablo & Eve”.

The tale is less about the trio’s onstage antics, but what happens behind the scenes.

It tells the back story of Ronnie, a sensitive boy from the East End of London, who was a child evacuee during the Second World War. He went to live with Eric and Penelope Lawrence, a comfortably well off middle-aged couple, in a beautiful house in rural Oxfordshire, and it is here he learns to perform magic tricks — or illusions, as he likes to call them.

Despite missing his mother, a char woman from Bethnal Green, and the seaman father who was barely ever at home, he realises he has been given a chance to escape the poverty of his London life. When he is told his father has gone missing in action — he is “lost at sea” — he feels little to no emotion. And later, after the war is over and he returns to London aged 14, he realises he no longer knows his mother and feels guilty about missing his life with the Lawrences who, to all intents and purposes, have become his “real” family, having raised him for the past five or so years.

Evie and Jack have less complicated childhoods, brought up by mothers we might now describe as “pushy” but who encouraged their children to perform and entertain others, a skill that serves them well as adults.

A breakdown in relations

The narrative is cleverly structured so that the reader discovers relatively early on that the relationship between all three performers has broken down, but we do not know under what circumstances nor when it happened.

Some of the story is told from Evie’s point of view as a 72-year-old widow looking back on her life with Ronnie and Jack, and this provides a counterbalance to the thread about Ronnie’s childhood.

It’s a wonderfully evocative novel, told in a sensitive, gently nuanced style. I loved the way it contrasts the lives of these characters pre- and post-war and how the events of that successful summer season had long-lasting impacts on them all.

It’s a totally absorbing read, what I would call proper old-fashioned storytelling, and there’s a gentleness at work even though it addresses some pretty heavy subjects, including loss, love and betrayal.

Here We Are might have been my first Graham Swift novel, but it certainly won’t be my last.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘The Illustionist’ by Jennifer Johnston: A twist on the Bluebeard fairytale, this is a dark brooding novel about a woman who marries a magician and then regrets it.

This is my 16th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie store earlier in the year.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s very much a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.

20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2019.

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay must be one of the most underrated books of the year. It won the Eason Novel of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards, but it doesn’t seem to have garnered much attention in the UK or elsewhere. And yet this is a truly amazing book, one of my favourite reads of the year, and deserving of a much larger audience.

Set largely in London in 1878, it brims with atmosphere and menace and pure Victorian gothic drama.

It takes real-life characters — Bram Stoker, the Irishman who wrote Dracula; Henry Irving, an English actor and theatre director, who was later knighted; and Ellen Terry, the leading stage actress of the era — and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre, building a successful season from pretty much nothing.

As they battle to keep emotions in check (actors are prone to drama, after all), to balance the books and draw in the crowds, it is largely Stoker who holds everything together. A struggling writer (he did not become successful until after his death), he acts as Irving’s personal assistant, dealing with his petty squabbles, grievances and short temper, while also managing the theatre’s finances.

His marriage to renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe brings him into high society circles, but Stoker is never quite accepted by the upper classes. O’Connor paints him as a loyal and conscientious man, often derided by others who look down upon him.

Original structure

Like other novels by O’Connor, the story has a loose and experimental structure. The narrative, told from Stoker’s point of view, is comprised of diary entries, letters, private notes and sections written “in the voice of Ellen Terry”.

It is wildly imaginative, filled with rich historical detail and drips with witty one-liners.

And it’s hard not to keep seeing hints of Dracula in what Stoker conveys, such as this description of Irving, whom he slowly comes to realise is a vain, narcissistic and deeply unpleasant man.

Henry Irving stopped mid scene and stared down at them grimly, his eyes glowing red in the gaslight. Paint dribbling down the contours of his face, like dye splashed on a map, droplets falling on his boots, his doublet and long locks drenched in sweat, his silver painted wooden sword glittering in the gaslight, shimmering with his chainmail in the lightning.

As well as charting the rise and fall of the theatre, and providing insight into the lives and loves of the trio who worked so closely together, it’s a striking and evocative portrait of Victorian London, where long dark nights, fog-shrouded streets and wet cobblestones give rise to ghostly apparitions. This is the time of Jack the Ripper who stalks the East End, and O’Connor plays with this to create heightened tension for the reader.

A truly immersive read, Shadowplay represents storytelling at its wonderful best. It’s largely character-driven, but it is the prose and the structure of the novel that elevates it into something rather extraordinary. I don’t usually re-read books, but I will make an exception for this one: yes, it really is that good.

This is my 14th book for #20BooksOfSummer. Yes, I know I’m about three months late penning this review, but it was one of those books that I wanted to think about before rushing to write about it. Then, unfortunately, life just got in the way. I actually ordered this copy in hardcover from Dubray Books in Dublin because it had red-tinted page edges and was signed by the author. I must say, though, that O’Connor’s covers always look a bit fey. As much as I like the gold and black contrast on this one, the image of the woman makes this book look like romantic fiction of some kind, when it’s actually Victorian gothic with a literary bent.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book lists, Book review, Catherine Jinks, dystopian, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Fourth Estate, Heather Rose, historical fiction, literary fiction, Meg Mundelle, Michelle de Krester, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher, Setting, Text, University of Queensland Press

5 Fast Reviews: Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Catherine Jinks, Meg Mundell and Heather Rose

The past two months have been fairly hectic around here, mainly because I started a new job and I’ve had to learn a whole new role in a new industry and I’ve really not had the energy to read books much less review them.

The books I have read haven’t exactly set my world on fire — perhaps because I’ve been distracted by other things — so I haven’t been inspired to write proper full-length reviews. Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve read recently:

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 96 pages; 2017.

I’ve read a couple of Michelle de Kretser’s novels before — The Life to Come was one of my favourites last year — so I was delighted to find this novella in my local library. Billed as a ghost story, it’s not typical of the genre. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not a ghost story at all but a richly written tale about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city. The “ghosts” — for want of a better word — are the memories associated with the place you leave behind.

The story is about a married couple, Frances and Charlie, who are grappling with a move from Melbourne to Sydney. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to them. Frances spends a lot of time exploring on foot with her dog — there are lots of lush descriptions of the city’s parks and gardens coming into bloom written with de Kretser’s typical literary flourishes  — and it’s while she’s on her wanderings that she comes across a haunting sight in a neighbour’s garden. This “apparition”, which alarms her greatly, could also be seen as a metaphor for the ghosts in her husband’s past, which she is trying to decipher.

Easily read in a sitting, Springtime is about ghosts of the past haunting a marriage as much as it is about the eerie goings-on in the neighbourhood. I’d argue that it’s really only for die-hard fans of de Kretser; it felt slightly too ephemeral for me to get a real handle on the story. For a more detailed review, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 375 pages; 2011.

Originally published in 2003 under the author “anonymous”, The Bride Stripped Bare is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening. Written in diary form as a series of lessons numbered from one to 138, it tells the story of a young woman who has never felt sexually fulfilled in her marriage and then acts, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, on her impulse to take a lover.

Her relationship with Gabriel, a handsome older man who turns out to be a virgin, gives her the chance to explore her own needs and desires without fear of judgment. Intoxicated by the power of her newly developed sexual prowess, she begins to take chances she shouldn’t and the double life she’s leading pushes her perilously close to the edge.

Admittedly, this book got me out of a reading slump, probably because it’s written in a compelling tone of voice (in the second person) and surges along at an octane-fuelled pace, helped no doubt by the exceedingly short chapters, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read the two follow-ups, With My Body and I Take You. And the whole idea that you could find a willing 40+-year-old virgin hanging around London seemed too ludicrous for me to take the story all that seriously…

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019.

Shepherd tells the tale of a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840. The narrative swings backward and forward in time, detailing Tom’s old life in England, and then contrasting it with his new life assigned to a shepherd’s hut, where he helps to protect a flock of sheep with a trio of violent prisoners.

This fast-paced story is essentially a chase novel, for it follows what happens when Tom becomes caught up in events that may lead to his death at the hands of a vicious killer known as Dan Carver.

Initially, I really liked this tale, especially Tom’s warm, empathetic voice, his wisdom, his concern for the “blacks” and his desire to know the plants and animals of the Australian landscape, but it soon began to wear thin when I realised there was not enough show and too much tell. There was too much violence in it for me, too, and the chase dragged on for too long to sustain my interest. Without wishing to damn it with faint praise, it actually felt like a novel that teenage boys might like, so it comes as no surprise that the author has several award-winning children’s books to her name.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 278 pages; 2019.

If ever a novel was to be a nod to the shenanigans of Brexit or Australia’s shameful immigration detention policy, this is it. The Trespassers is a dystopian tale set on a crowded ship bound for Australia. Onboard are Brits escaping the disease-ridden UK. They have all been carefully screened, but midway through the voyage disease breaks out, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.

The story is told through the eyes of three different characters, all superbly drawn, who take turns to narrate their side of events in alternate chapters: there’s a nine-year-old Irish boy who is deaf, a singer-turned-nurse from Glasgow and an English schoolteacher in need of money.

By the time the ship gets to its destination several people have died and there’s no guarantee the immigrants will be allowed to disembark on Australian soil. This is a riveting story that reads like a thriller but has all the intelligence and wisdom of a literary novel not afraid to tackle big issues such as healthcare, immigration, human trafficking and politics. I really loved this book and hope to see it pop up on literary prize lists in the very near future.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 424 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tasmanian writer Heather Rose will be known to most people for her award-winning The Museum of Modern Love, a book I loved so much I convinced my book group to read it even though it hadn’t yet been published in the UK (we all bought it on Kindle). Bruny, her latest novel, has arrived with much fanfare, but it’s completely different in almost every possible way to what preceded it.

Set in Tasmania some time in the very near future, it tells the story of the bombing of a massive bridge being built to link mainland Tasmania with the island of Bruny, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The terrorist attack brings the bridge down, but it also brings worldwide attention to this usually quiet and sleepy part of the world. New York-based UN conflict resolution expert Astrid Coleman returns home to help her twin brother, the state premier, soothe troubled waters. Matters are complicated further by a dysfunctional family: her sister is the Opposition Leader; her mother barely talks to her; and her father, who is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s, can only communicate in Shakespeare quotes.

A sharp-eyed and intelligent political satire come thriller (reminiscent of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon), the book is fast-paced and written with wit and verve. But as much as I enjoyed reading it, I just didn’t buy the premise — that a massive bridge would be built in this part of the world and that terrorists would take the time to blow it up — and had a hard time taking it seriously. And even though I went to the Perth launch and heard Rose talk about the story in great depth (she was very careful not to give away crucial plot spoilers), I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is simply preposterous — but I’m sure that won’t stop it being shortlisted for awards aplenty.

These books are all by Australian women writers. They represent the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd books I have read this year for #AWW2019.