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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Wakefield Press, war, Wendy Scarfe

‘One Bright Morning’ by Wendy Scarfe

Fiction – paperback; Wakefield Press; 228 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Books set in Darwin are so rare I was keen to read Wendy Scarfe’s One Bright Morning which arrived unsolicited from the publisher at the start of the year.

A World War Two novel, it follows the exploits of Xenobia ‘Zeny’ Haviland, a young Australian woman, who flees Malaysia after the fall of Penang in December 1941 and lands in Darwin shortly before the Japanese bombed the city.

The novel charts her escape, her new life in Australia and the romance she develops with a shell shocked veteran, and includes graphic detail of the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, a real-life event that is the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia, resulting in around 250 fatalities (The figure is disputed, for various reasons. You can read more about the attack via this Wikipedia entry.)

Reporter on newspaper

When the story opens, we meet Zeny, a bright young reporter on an English language newspaper. She writes pieces “mostly to do with women’s life in Kuala Lumpur” where she has been based for three years.

Her job was arranged by her father, a medical missionary in Burma, with whom she is particularly close (her mother died when Zeny was seven). Because her father went to boarding school with the editor of the Morning Star, he arranged for  Zeny to be hired as an office worker on the understanding that if she showed any talent, she could have a shot at writing articles.

While she’s a great writer, Zeny doesn’t like the insular ex-pat lifestyle with its “tea parties, gossip and endless complaints about servants”. She moves out of the English colony and into the Chinese quarter, a decision that shows her independent spirit and fearlessness, character traits that hold her in good stead when the war arrives on her doorstep.

Fiercely loyal to a friend who is getting married, she makes the fateful decision to stay behind to attend the wedding, meaning she misses the first train out of the city. So when it comes time to get out of Kuala Lumpur safely her options are cut short, and by a stroke of good fortune, she finds herself on a boat with two kindly men disguised as Malyan fishermen who are, in fact, coastwatchers (Wiki entry). They help smuggle her into Darwin, where her new life begins.

New life in Darwin

Here she is taken in by Olive, a local Quaker, who rescues waifs and strays. She gains a job as a reporter on The Northern Standard, the local newspaper, becomes friends with a small circle of local women and falls in love with Robert, a young man who fought in the Spanish Civil War and now suffers from debilitating night terrors.

When it becomes clear the Japanese are going to advance on Darwin and launch an attack, civilians are urged to leave the city and head south, but Zeny refuses. Even when her boss says he will sack her so she has no job to keep her in town, she holds her ground:

‘You know I told you, I’m not leaving,’ I burst out. ‘I have never had a permanent home. I lived in Melbourne at boarding school and that was not my home and neither was Burma nor Kuala Lumpur. It seems I have always been moving, always transient. I want Darwin to be my home now. I feel this is where I belong and no wretched Japanese is going to drive me out.’

Of course, the attack, when it arrives, is devastating, but Zeny survives and it is only through her tenacity and ability to use morse code, a skill she learned from her father, that allows her to get the word out to the rest of Australia.

Gently nuanced tale

One Bright Morning is a gently nuanced novel, full of spirit, friendship and light romance, featuring an inspirational lead character. It is a timely reminder of the value of community and selflessness, of working together against a common foe.

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

Please note, the book is published by a small indie press in South Australia and if you wish to support them can be purchased online. If you live abroad, try readings.com.au as their flat-rate international delivery fee is much cheaper. Alternatively, you may be able to source via the Book Depository.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Prague Nights’ by Benjamin Black

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).

But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.

Atmospheric murder mystery

This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.

He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.

‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’

He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.

As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.

Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena —  is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.

Not a conventional crime tale

Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.

I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:

I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.

What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.

This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.

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.