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.


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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sarah Schmidt, Setting, TBR40, Tinder Press, USA

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Sarah Winman, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Tin Man’ by Sarah Winman

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 224 pages; 2018.

Sarah Winman’s third novel, Tin Man, is a perfectly paced story about friendship, longing and unrequited love set in Oxford and rural France spanning the late 1960s to the late 1990s.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and the subject of much “book buzz” on social media last year, I wasn’t sure if this book would live up to the hype. But after hearing the author speak at the Chiswick Book Festival in September I decided I would read it as soon as the paperback edition was published.

My pre-order arrived in the post this week, so I sat down on Saturday afternoon and began to read. Before I knew it I was half-way through, confirming what most of the critics have said: the story is an absorbing one. But I’m not entirely sure I loved it as much as everyone else.

The story is framed around the friendship between two boys, Ellis and Michael, who meet in Oxford when they are 12 years old. This morphs into something more romantic when they are adolescents on holiday in France, but is called off when they return to the UK. Later, Ellis marries a woman, Annie, and the trio become firm friends, but when Michael moves away to London they lose contact. In the ensuing years Michael’s lover falls prey to AIDS and it’s only when bereaved that he realises he is grieving for something else: the unrequited love of his first love, Ellis.

A tale of two men

The book is told in two halves: the first half is composed of Ellis’s side of the story told in the third person in rather detached, unsentimental stripped back language, while the second half is narrated by Michael, in the first person, in a more warm and intimate tone of voice. These two different approaches make each character distinct, but the switch over jars, almost as if they are two different books sandwiched together. (And, of course, it’s hard not to favour one voice over the other — in my case Michael’s.)

But the prose style, in both halves, is spare and moving. Here’s but one example:

I rest till I’m calm and my breathing has settled. I lift myself out and sit by the edge of the pool with a towel around my shoulders. And I wonder what the sound a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.

Heart-rending story

Tin Man is a well crafted story, one that is heart-rending without being sentimental, and gorgeously written without being showy. Its observations about friendship, love, loss and sexuality are astute.

It is also perceptive about the destructive power of father-son relationships and shows how we should give boys the freedom to connect with their emotions and their creativity, to let them know that they “are capable of beautiful things” as Ellis’s mother Dora so beautifully puts it.

But I often struggled to understand Ellis’s motivations and didn’t really warm to him. I suspect that’s deliberate given that he’s (presumably) the “tin man” of the title, the character from The Wizard of Oz who did not have a heart. Similarly, I struggled to believe that Annie would forge such a strong friendship with Michael, unless, of course, she hadn’t fully grasped he was essentially her rival. Sadly, we never get to hear her side of the story at all and the reader only ever sees her through the male character’s eyes.

But I’m nit-picking. The book has been lauded far and wide. I just think I’ve read better, more emotionally devastating, books about unrequited love than this one (see below).

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Last Fine Summer by John MacKenna: a heart-rending novel about forbidden love in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, literary fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press, UK

‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tinder Press; 338 pages; 2013.

In 2013 Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave was THE book of the moment. It was all over Twitter,  was a favourite with bloggers and became a Sunday Times bestseller. Four years on, I thought I’d give it a try.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really get on with it.

The story is a relatively simple one. It’s set in 1976, during the height of the infamous British heatwave of that year, and examines the outfall on one family when the patriarch, the last man rescued at Dunkirk during the Second World War, walks out of the family home never to be seen again.

Here’s what I liked about the story:

1. It has a rich cast of characters — an Irish mammy, a trio of adult siblings and their various partners and children — all of whom are richly drawn and believable. Each character grapples with their own personal dilemmas: Aoife hides the fact she can’t read from everyone she knows, including her family; Monica is struggling to make friends with the step-children she never wanted and is still coming to terms with her own miscarriage many years earlier; Michael Francis is in love with someone else he cannot have but does not want his wife to leave him; and Gretta is devoutly Catholic but has committed a mortal sin that no one except her husband knows about.

2. The dialogue is spot on and O’Farrell is very good at capturing more than two people speaking at any one time (a tricky skill to pull off if you’ve ever tried to write fiction).

3. The depiction of sibling relationships is especially good, particularly the ways in which misunderstandings and perceived betrayals can lead to years of silence, heartache and estrangement.

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

1. The heatwave element was poorly done. Perhaps I’ve just read too much Australian fiction in which sizzling summer temperatures and drought becomes a character in its own right. But in Instructions for a Heatwave it felt tacked on and didn’t feel central to the story; from the mid-way point it could well have been set during a big freeze in the middle of winter and we’d be none the wiser.

2. It was too reliant on flashbacks. Each character seems to spend an inordinate amount of time remembering things from the past. I know this is a good way to flesh out a character, to tell their back story, but it slowed the pace down. A choppy, more fractured structure might have given the narrative more of a “push” but I realise that may not have been the author’s intention, which, I assume, was to spend a lot of time with each character so that the reader would come to know them well. But this structure didn’t really work for me; I quickly grew bored. (As an aside, I wanted to know more about the missing father, but we only ever hear about him through second-hand accounts.)

3. The ending tied up all the loose ends too nicely. Everyone seemed to suddenly mend their years’ long disputes and grievances in the space of a couple of days. It didn’t feel very believable, but maybe I’m just not used to happy endings…

As a domestic drama, Instructions for a Heatwave is fairly conventional; it doesn’t do anything particularly original and if you’ve read dozens and dozens of novels by Irish writers (who excel at this kind of story) it feels fairly run-of-the-mill. But it’s readable and peopled with interesting, well drawn characters, and if you like your books to have neatly drawn endings, then it won’t disappoint.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in September 2013 and kept it hidden away on my Kindle all this time. I’m tempted to say something along the lines of “perhaps it should have stayed there”, but I won’t <insert winky face here>.

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, England, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephanie Bishop, Tinder Press

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 304 pages; 2015.

Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It was recently longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, but did not make the cut, yet I found it a deeply moving story and one that I’m sure I will remember for a long time.

Looking for a new life

The story begins in England. It’s 1963, and Charlotte lives with her Anglo-Indian husband Henry and their two young daughters  in a cute, but damp, cottage in rural Cambridgeshire. But all is not well. Henry is restless — he’s sick of the endlessly wet English weather and their too-small home — while Charlotte is grieving for the loss of her earlier life as a painter now that she’s a new, energy-deprived mother.

So when a brochure arrives through the letterbox offering assisted passage for those seeking a new life in Australia (what are known as “£10 poms”), it looks like an opportunity to grab with both hands. Yet Charlotte takes a lot of convincing — she’s deeply connected to the countryside around her and doesn’t mind the damp — but eventually, in a kind of relentless wearing down of wills, agrees to go.

But their new life in Perth isn’t all it is cracked up to be. It’s hot. It’s lonely. There’s latent racism as the locals struggle to place Henry because his accent doesn’t match his skin colour. But in the initial few months they both make an effort to “give it a go”:

Habit is the only thing that can travel from one side of the world to the other and remain intact. He makes her morning cup of tea. She brings him her dinner. She lets him wash her back because he’s always washed her back, because such gestures involve a complex system of kindness and gratitude, assumed even when not deserved.

But as time moves on and nothing much changes, Charlotte makes it clear that she wants to return to England. She feels absolutely no affection for Australia:

It would make life easier to feel this — to feel real affection for this new place. It would make Henry happy. But she is afraid —without clear reason — that it would necessarily lessen her feelings for home. As if there were only so much affection,so much loyalty, to be portioned out. It is the same kind of fear, she realises, that she felt when pregnant with May. Would she have enough love for a second child? Would it mean giving up some of the love for her first? How mad that seems now — the foolishness of not seeing, not knowing, that such love simply doubles, triples, quadruples as required. Unless one refuses, of course — unless one resists.

But this is 1963. International travel of any kind is expensive and the couple cannot afford the boat ticket home. And Henry doesn’t want to go anyway: he likes the heat and the light, which reminds him of his childhood in India, and he’s relishing the chance to make his mark as a professor of literature. This creates new tensions in their marriage, for what Henry wants and what Charlotte wants are two entirely different things.

Evocative descriptions

This is very much a character driven novel rather than a plot-based one, but perhaps the best bit about it is the languid, sensual prose and the evocative descriptions of the natural world — whether of the fens of East Anglia, the rural fringes of Western Australia or the jungles of India. Bishop is very good at metaphor, too, and I loved this small passage which can only be a metaphor for Charlotte losing her husband:

That evening she watches Henry tend the roses. He has cured them of rust and mite and now they flourish and grow up past his waist. There is a breeze and the flowers sway. Henry is tall, his long arms reaching over to check the buds. In his blue shirt he is the same colour as the dusk. She watches him fade.

The emotions of a young woman wrestling with motherhood are beautifully evoked — and heartbreaking to read — and one can’t help but wonder whether Charlotte’s situation could be alleviated by a visit to her GP.  She’s clearly homesick, but she’s also raising two children without a support network upon which to fall and seems unable shake off her melancholy mood. She’s a little cold and stand offish, and isn’t the kind of character to which a reader warms, but her pain and anguish seem all too real. I couldn’t help but wonder whether her emotional distress was heightened by her inability to express herself in her usual way — through painting. When she does, eventually, take up the brush again it opens up a whole new world — and one that is not necessarily compatible with the one Henry has carved out for her.

It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, but there are some aspects of the novel towards the later stage that felt slightly implausible to me. Yet The Other Side of the World is a rather brilliant book that captures that sense of nostalgia and homesickness that every emigrant feels. It’s a quietly devastating read about a young married couple trying to find their way in the world, and is as much a portrait of misguided love and thwarted dreams than anything else.

This is my 16th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 12th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, general, Natalie Young, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Season to Taste / How to Eat Your Husband’ by Natalie Young

Season to taste

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do like a dark, disturbing novel, especially when the protagonist is guilty of a horrendous crime and tries to get away with it, so when I heard about Natalie Young’s Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband it seemed right up my street.

A set of spoof recipe cards sent to me prior to the book’s release served to heighten my interest, so by the time I’d received a proof in the mail I was dying — pun fully intended — to read it.

Alas, this is a classic case of a book not quite meeting my over-inflated expectations. Indeed, I’m struggling to comprehend all the hype around its publication, which I can only assume is based more on the stomach-churning subject matter — cannibalism — than the story itself, but others may beg to differ.

An intriguing premise

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband tells the story of Lizzie Prain, billed as an ordinary housewife, who murders her husband in the garden by caving his head in with the back of a spade.

To dispose of the body, she comes up with a rather unique solution: she butchers him into component body parts, bags these up, pops them in the freezer and then over the course of the entire novel eats him piece by piece.

To make the meat palatable, she concocts various recipes, thereby turning her late husband into an extended gourmet meal, which she expects will last a month. All the while, she’s conscious that once she’s eaten Jacob, she will be free to move to Scotland and live the life she’s always wanted to lead.

Sounds intriguing, if slightly sickening, doesn’t it? But that’s basically where the intrigue ends, because not much else happens in this book. The story really is as basic as Lizzie killing her husband and then turning cannibal to get rid of the evidence.

A dull protagonist

My problem with Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband does not lie in the flat, emotionless prose style, which I quite liked, nor in its structure, told in part by Tom, one of Lizzie’s neighbours, and dotted with Lizzie’s own notes to herself (“81. Your husband’s flesh will now be in your mouth and oesophagus, your gullet, stomach and intestines.”) And I’m not too fussed that we never find out Lizzie’s real motivations for killing her husband, although there are hints he was controlling and she was co-dependent.

My problem lies in the relentless descriptions of cannibalism — a reader can only tolerate so many macabre pages of cooking and eating body parts before they begin to feel ill — and the overwhelming dullness of the lead character.

Indeed, part-way through this novel I began to wonder if Lizzie might be slightly dim-witted or perhaps have a learning disability, because she was just so dreary and uninteresting. Instead of wanting to cheer her on — aka Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley or Matt in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here — I found myself simply not caring about her.

And the meaning is… ?

Of course, reading a novel like this I couldn’t help but try to figure out what the author was trying to say about Lizzie. Was there a deeper meaning to all this butchery and blood and gruesomeness? The blurb on my proof copy bills it as a novel about the end of a marriage, but it’s not really about a marriage at all, because we only ever see things through Lizzie’s eyes and Jacob feels too one-dimensional for the reader to take any pleasure in his demise.

My theory is that the story is a metaphor for creativity, because one of Jacob’s criticisms of Lizzie is that she lacks imagination. What better way, then, to show him he’s wrong than to use all her creative faculties to get rid of his body by cooking and eating him? That, I dare say, shows one hell of an imagination!

That said, I found Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband a hugely disappointing read, far too gruesome and grim for my liking, with nary a chink of humour to lighten the mood. No matter how cruel and unusual the method of body disposal, when all is said and done an ordinary woman killing her ordinary husband really does make for an ordinary story…

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Setting, Tinder Press

‘A Sixpenny Song’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 192 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A new Jennifer Johnston novel is always something to celebrate in this household, so I was very much looking forward to the arrival of A Sixpenny Song, the author’s 18th novel, at the end of October.

This short book, easily read in an afternoon or over a couple of evenings, is what I would describe as  “typical” Jennifer Johnston fare. Like so many of her earlier stories, this one is about fathers, daughters — and family secrets.

Return to the big house

The story, told in the third person, focuses on Annie Ross, who is in her late 20s/early 30s. She was born in Dublin, but her father, a rich and domineering man, shipped her off to boarding school in England when she was 12 — shortly after her mother died — and later, as an 18-year-old, she fled the family home to start a new life in London, free from her father’s expectations and his financial support.

Now her father has died and he’s left her the house, which is set on about 10 acres, so Annie must return to Dublin, her first visit in more than 10 years, to take ownership. But when she returns she finds that the large stately house — “standing resplendent on what looked like its own private hill and backed by the low mountains” — represents more to her than bricks and mortar: it is a repository of her childhood memories, especially of her beloved mother.

When she arrives she is greeted by her father’s second wife, Miriam, who plans to decamp to her pad in Monte Carlo with the money she’s inherited, and Kevin, the odd-job man and gardener, who has spent his life maintaining the property and was a close confidante of her mother’s.

Past and present

The book is structured around two narrative threads: we follow Annie’s present — putting the house on the market, because she can’t afford the upkeep, looking for a venue to set up a bookshop, visits and conversations with people once close to her mother — and her past, in which she recalls memories from her childhood flashback-style. These two expertly interleaved story lines inform one another, allowing Annie’s present discoveries to give new meaning to past experiences.

Her growing friendship with Kevin is absolutely crucial to the plot, because he’s the one that drops a bombshell that makes Annie reassess her parent’s marriage, which may not have been as happy as she once thought. And when he introduces her to his aunt, Miss Dundas, who lives nearby, Annie is able to find out even more about her mother — much of which turns her whole past on its head.

Standard trademarks

While I wouldn’t describe A Sixpenny Song as my favourite Jennifer Johnston book, it features all her standard trademarks — lyrical prose, authentic dialogue, the big house, the tension between past and present, and the family secret waiting to be exposed — and is a rather effortless read. It’s full of bittersweet memories, biting wit and heart-rending tragedy.

But the story is rather slight and wholly predictable — I guessed all the major revelations long before they were made. And a month after reading it, I’ve had to go back to my notes and the book itself to try to recall any of the detail, so it’s not what I would call a memorable novel.

Instead, I’d mark this one as a cosy read for a time when you are looking for a “palate cleanser” or something light.

Finally, I’d just like to say how much I detest the cover of this book, with its  horrid colour scheme and awfully twee image. I wish the publisher would update and reissue all of Jennifer Johnston’s work in a modern and attractive livery — not something that looks like it fell off your granny’s shelf in, oh, about 1973.