Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 192 pages; 2021.

If America is a nation of immigrants, then this debut novella is a quintessential American story.

A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez, was first published in 1995. It’s framed around an American woman looking back on the lives of her working-class immigrant parents and includes aspects of her own struggle with identity as a multiracial person.

The novella is structured in four parts — the story of the narrator’s Chinese father, the story of her German mother, her own life as a ballerina, and her love affair with a Russian immigrant — each of which could be read as a standalone story in its own right. (This is not to say there’s no overarching thread tying everything together, for there is, and that comes in the first-person narrator telling the story, but the overall narrative feels slightly disjointed.)

An unlikely partnership

Both the first part, Chang, and the second part, Christa, are detailed pen portraits of two very different people.

Chang is a quiet, introverted man, who was born in 1911 in Panama of Chinese parentage, and despite more than 30 years in America has never quite mastered English. His wife, the narrator’s mother, is the complete opposite. She’s loud, confident, speaks excellent, if heavily accented, English, and is proudly German.

The pair met shortly after the end of the Second World War when Chang was stationed in a small southern  German town (he had been drafted into the US Army and saw action in France and Germany). He was 34 and Christa was 18. In 1948 they settled in the US, where they set up home in the housing projects of New York, and had three daughters, two of them born out of wedlock.

Their relationship is complex and fraught. The narrator does not understand either parent, or their marriage, but in looking back at their lives she begins to empathise with their situations, their struggles and the ways in which their different backgrounds came to shape their personalities and, in turn, her own identity.

By putting herself in her father’s shoes, for instance, she begins to see how life as a father of three American daughters must have been for him:

We must have seemed as alien to him as he seemed to us. To him we must have been “others”. Females. Demons. No different from other demons, who could not tell one Asian from another, who thought Chinese food meant chop suey and Chinese customs were matter for joking. I would have to live a lot longer and he would have to die before the full horror of this would sink in. And then it would sink in deeply, agonizingly, like an arrow that has found its mark.

There are similar revelations about her mother, who refuses to apologise for being German despite the atrocities of the Nazis coming to light:

It was not to be hoped that any American — let alone an American child — could grasp what this unique quality of being German was all about. I don’t recall how old I was, but at some point, I had to wonder: If you took that quality away from her, what would have replaced it? What sort of person might she have been? But her Germanness and her longing for Germany — her Heimweh — were so much a part of her she cannot be thought of without them. To try to imagine her born of other blood, on other soil, is to lose her completely. There is no Christa there.

Forging your own life

The second half of the novella explores the narrator’s own life. As a ballerina, the goal was to be as light as “a feather on the breath of God” (hence the book’s title), which meant constantly starving herself. This is a direct contravention of her childhood, in which her mother, brought up during the war, insists everyone eat every little morsel on their plate.

I was never thin. Not even at ninety pounds. To see how long I could go without solid food (up to five days) was a favorite game. How beautiful the hollowed gut, the jutting bones.

Later, as a teacher of English as a second language, she embarks on an illicit affair with a married Russian student who has a shady past but is dedicated to learning the language. This reminds her that love and language are intertwined, furthering her inability to comprehend how her parents ever communicated with one another.

Whenever I praise his English he says: “I did it for you.” Not the whole truth, of course, but it cannot be denied: he studied hard for me.
“My dear, can I say, ‘I dote on you’? Is it correct?” “Can I say, ‘I adore you’?” “I search my dictionary for ways to tell you.”
My heart runs out of me.
In all those years, my father never learned enough English to tell me how he felt about me.

A Feather on the Breath of God is an intriguing story of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture and a new way of life as seen through the eyes of their youngest daughter.

As a tale about personal identity — specifically how much of it is shaped by our ethnicity and cultural upbringing — it is unwavering in its lack of sentiment. It’s bold and brave and compelling.

I have reviewed several books by Sigrid Nunez in recent years. You can see all my reviews here.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Dorothy Hewett, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Virago

‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 204 pages; 1985.

First published in 1959, Bobbin Up is Dorothy Hewett’s debut novel famously written at her kitchen table in the space of eight weeks whenever her children were in bed. But it’s not really a novel; it’s more a collection of short stories focused on a bunch of diverse characters, all female, who work together at a woollen mill in Sydney during the 1950s.

It doesn’t have a lead protagonist, a deliberate decision by the author, because — as she points out in her “Introduction” to this UK-published edition — “it set out deliberately to tell the brief history of a group of women millworkers […] whose lives interconnected at the mill then separated off as they walked out the gates when the whistle blew”.

In these densely written chapters — which are alive with vivid descriptions of homes and streets and suburbs and beaches and public transport — we meet a bunch of hard-working women whose lives are dominated by their long shifts in the factory.

Gwennie joined the press of women round the bobbin boxes, pushing, shoving, clawing to grab the pitifully few decent bobbins. Bad bobbins made the work harder, the machine mucked up all the time, but there was never enough “goodies” to go round. It sickened Gwennie to join in that mad, vicious scramble. She always hung back and was left with an armful of rough-edged, half-broken fawn ones.

But it’s often what happens in their home lives that makes this book such a fascinating read, for here we are confronted with the reality of being a woman in the middle of the Twentieth Century; where working a strenuous factory job doesn’t excuse you from also having to keep a home, do the housework, prepare the meals and look after loved ones; where the lack of birth control means the threat of an unwanted pregnancy is a constant worry for anyone sexually active; and where men, often violent or abusive (or alcoholic), rule the roost.

The precarious nature of keeping a roof over your head is also a common theme. (In her “Introduction”, Hewett, who was comfortably middle-class and well educated, says that when she first arrived in Sydney from Perth she was shocked by the “poverty and sub-standard housing” in inner-city Sydney where, for the first time, she “mixed exclusively with the working class”.)

Inner-city Sydney

Bobbin Up is a fascinating portrait of inner-city Sydney at a particular point in time, with its slum landlords, tumbled down houses and dark alleyways.

Dawnie walked home through the long, asphalt lanes of factories, filled with managers’ cars, and the steady rattle of machinery. Past the little semis, with cracked plaster walls in yellow, cocoa and liver red, defending their privacy from the street with rows of murderous iron spikes.

It is also an intriguing examination of the working class and wears its politics on its sleeve. Hewett was a Communist Party member (when it was illegal) and edited its paper for a short time. She uses this experience in two chapters at the rear of the book, which focus on Nell, a Community Party member, who edits a bulletin — called “Bobbin Up” — that she distributes at the mill, informing the women of their rights. This eventually leads to a strike.

Here’s the lead story in the bulletin:

“W. H. Holler treats his two-year-old racehorses no better than he treats the women who sweat in his Alexandria mill. This week his strappers at Randwick went on strike — they said Holler was running his two-year-olds into the ground. As three-year-olds they were only fit for the scrap heap. It’s the same brand of greed that Holler uses in his spinning mills… only there it’s women, not horses he’s using up, in conditions not fit for a horse to work in.”

Today we might criticise someone from the middle-class writing about the working class because it’s not “lived experience” and because it’s not really their story to tell, but Hewett explains that at the time there was little, if any, working-class literature in Australia.

“The lives of such women remained a mystery. They could not write themselves, and they had no spokesperson to translate them into literature.”

Unfortunately, reading this through modern eyes, some of the vernacular and the working-class speech feels clunky and “wrong”, but I think the intention came from a good place. Hewett isn’t making fun of her subjects; she’s merely trying to convey them as authentically as possible.

Bobbin Up isn’t perfect, but it’s an impressive snapshot of another time and place, and the storytelling is conveyed in rich, descriptive language that often sings off the page. I really enjoyed being in the company of these complex, hard-working, vivid women, experiencing their struggles and small victories.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021, and my 1st book for #AWW2021. I also read this for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week (Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021) but ran out of time to review it in the relevant week. Better late than never, I guess.

And because Hewett was born in Perth, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 210 pages; 2020.

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel What Are You Going Through is a beguiling story that doesn’t really fit into a box. The blurb writers have tried to paint it as a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that.

This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain.)

It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.

Helping a friend out

What Are You Going Through is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged writer who has never been married or had children. She has an ex-partner who is a professor and well-known author, and when the book opens she (secretly) attends a talk he is delivering “based on a long article he had written for a magazine” about humankind’s death wish.

It was all over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure — that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.

This, essentially, is a foreshadowing of a predicament the narrator finds herself in when she agrees to be with her terminally ill friend at the end of her life. The end, however, won’t be from natural causes. Her friend has decided that she will take a lethal tablet at a time of her choosing because she’s seeking peace, not the pain and agony of a death from cancer.

The narrator agrees to help because “I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. And I would have needed someone to help me.”

A book of two halves

What Are You Going Through is a book of two halves. In the first, Nunez takes her time to build up the idea that all people really want out of life is to be noticed, to be seen, for others to understand what they are going through. And in the second, she recounts what happens when the narrator and her friend rent an Airbnb for a short holiday in which they will go exploring, eat out and generally relax before one of them will take a lethal drug to end it all.

There’s a lot to like about this book: the finger-on-the-pulse commentary about modern living and the craziness of our lives in general, the easy-going narrative style, the humour and the cool, calm intelligent voice of the narrator.

The meandering anecdotal style threw me at first, but once I warmed to it I loved not knowing what to expect next. That’s because much of what the narrator tells us is observational, a bit like a personal diary in which she recalls scenes she’s glimpsed, people she’s met and conversations she’s overheard.

On more than one occasion I was reminded of Helen Garner’s wonderful Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. (As an aside, Nunez and Garner seem to have similar writing styles and observational skills, the ability to create a whole scene or feeling from the briefest of detail. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that Garner’s novel The Spare Room is also about a friend dying from cancer.)

Despite the heavy subject matter, I rather enjoyed What Are You Going Through. Having read Nunez’s brilliant 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind earlier this year, I had high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 416 pages; 2019.

No sooner had I read the first few pages of Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind than I knew it was going to be one of my favourite books of the year.

It’s the kind of immersive, entertaining life saga I really love to read, and the setting — New York in the late 1960s — is so evocatively depicted I felt like I was really experiencing first hand that time and place.

Coupled with a confident, dazzling prose style and a brilliant cast of strong characters, I knew I was in safe hands and would thoroughly enjoy the ride.

A college friendship

The book charts the friendship between two wildly different young women who meet as college roommates at Columbia University in 1968.

Ann Drayton is an only child who comes from a rich, upper-class background but is so ashamed of her unearned privilege that she turns her back on it, beginning college life with one aim: to socialise and befriend people from the lower classes.

Georgette George comes from the other end of the social spectrum, has grown up in poverty, but has a “set of brains” and wants to make something of herself, if only to escape her underprivileged background.

The pair share a room, but it is an uneasy, almost one-sided friendship, for Ann is domineering, self-assured and politicised, while George is introverted, wary and lacking in confidence. But over time George, who narrates the story, grows to like her roomie, especially her unwavering acceptance of her, and the ways in which she opens up her world — and associated world view.

The intensity of the friendship does, eventually, come to a head, when the pair have a full-blown argument that results in a major falling out.

But that is not the end of the story, because some six or seven years after the fight, when neither of them has bothered to remedy the situation, Ann is arrested for the murder of a policeman. George finds this situation so unbelievable and alarming, she analyses their shared history in almost forensic detail, trying to unravel the clues that might indicate why Ann could commit such a heinous act.

Truly engaging story

The Last of Her Kind is ambitious in structure and utilises a pastiche of styles to create a truly engaging story, one that I kept thinking about every time I (reluctantly) put down the book.

It is an unflinching account of power and privilege in America, seen through the very personal lens of female friendship. As well as highlighting how our family history and early adult relationships can shape the course of our lives, it looks at how romantic idealism, martyrdom and activism can collide with outcomes we might not expect.

It’s a truly compelling story about all kinds of issues — social justice, race and poverty, to name but a few — but it does it in such an authentic and nuanced way it never feels heavy-handed. (The only bit of the story I wasn’t quite sure about was the chapter told from the point of view of a prisoner, which didn’t feel quite as convincing as everything that went before, but that’s just a minor issue.)

It’s very much a book about human nature and all kinds of interpersonal relationships between parents and children, as well as friends, siblings and lovers.

The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006, is Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel. Her most recent novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. I have promptly added it to my TBR.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Nora Ephron, Publisher, Setting, USA, Virago

‘Heartburn’ by Nora Ephron


Fiction – paperback; Virago; 192 pages; 2018.

First published in 1983, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is a black comedy about the break up of a marriage between a high-flying journalist and a celebrity food writer.

Recently republished as part of Virago’s Modern Classic 40th anniversary series, it was Ephron’s only novel (albeit a thinly disguised memoir about her own marriage break up with investigative journalist Carl Bernstein). She’s probably better known as the screenwriter of the Hollywood films When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), among others.

I came to Heartburn via my book group when it was chosen as our November read. It’s a brilliant comic read that transforms a personal tragedy into a laugh-out-loud farce. Honestly, don’t read it on your commute unless you like guffawing in public, it really is that funny.

But it’s tinged with sadness and a smidgen of desperation, too, and there are brief moments of poignancy that give the tale a very human touch.

Affair of the heart

The story is told in the first person through the eyes of Rachel, a cookery writer, looking back on the time in her life when, seven months pregnant with her second child, she discovered that her husband was having an affair.

She knows Thelma, the other woman, whom she takes great delight in describing as “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are kind of splayed”.

When her husband comes home and confesses that he’s in love with Thelma but denies they are having an affair, he expects Rachel to stick by him in Washington, where they live. But Rachel has other ideas. She flees to Manhattan to spend some time with her father, a cantankerous man with his own sordid track record of adultery, and from there she licks her wounds and works on her plan to win her husband back.

Intimate, self-deprecating confession

The book is written as a deliciously intimate confession, one that swings between revenge and heartbreak, shame and all-consuming anger, and gives us a glimpse into Rachel’s innermost thoughts, not all of them pretty.

“If I tell the story,” she says, “I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.”

It’s full of terrific one-liners and great put downs and is littered with non-PC opinions and much self-deprecating humour.

And because the way to a man’s heart, they say, is through food, it also features many recipes — for things such as vinaigrette, creme brûlée, key lime pie and sorrel soup — all of which play an important part in Rachel’s marriage and career.  (There’s even a helpful index at the back of the book should you wish to make the recipes yourself.)

It’s peopled with a cast of rather obnoxious, self-obsessed characters — everyone’s wealthy and successful and sleeping with people to whom they’re not married — the kinds of people who don’t take responsibilities for their actions and seek to blame others.

If you think this sounds like good material for a film, you’d be right: it was adapted in 1986 (Ephron wrote the screenplay) and stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I haven’t seen it, but if it’s half as good as the book it will be very good indeed.

Author, Book review, Canada, Claire Messud, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Virago

‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud


Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 320 pages; 2013.

While stories about angry men are a dime-a-dozen, it’s not often we get to read about angry women — and for that reason alone Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs stands out from the crowd. The protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is one of those people that has always done the right thing by everyone but now, 42, single and with no dependents, she’s beginning to wonder what good it did her. Instead of pursuing her dream to become a full-time artist, she’s settled for a life as an elementary school teacher — and this is now eating away at her.

But she is shaken out of her ennui by the arrival of a new student, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, whom she develops very fond feelings for, almost as if he was the son she never had. Before long she is enthral to his equally beguiling parents — Skandar, an academic from Lebanon, and Sirena, an installation artist from Italy — whom have moved from Paris to Massachusetts for a year. Together, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent an artists’ studio so that they can work on their individual projects, and at last it seems as if Nora can finally pursue her real passion.

The story is narrated five years after the arrival of the Shahids and it’s clear that much of Nora’s latent anger results from them. But what is it about this family, with whom she was so infatuated, that has left her feeling so used and betrayed? The reason isn’t for me to share here — you’ll have to read the book to find out — but let’s just say I didn’t truly understand the fuss.

But that’s kind of how I felt about this story in general — it features great character development, and there’s plenty of momentum in the narrative to keep one turning the pages, but I just didn’t care about any of these people — not the angelic boy, not the patronising academic, not the cool and detached Italian artist and especially not the contrary, self-pitying narrator at its heart. It’s an entertaining enough read — and thought-provoking, too — and yet, despite expecting to strongly identify with Nora (I’m of a similar age), I found her immensely infuriating and whiny.

I think Messud’s greatest achievement is in provoking such a strong response in the reader, for it’s not very often that I dislike a character so strongly. The thing I’ve been mulling over ever since is this: is Nora a victim or just very good at making bad decisions?

The Woman Upstairs was longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Josephine Hart, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘The Truth About Love’ by Josephine Hart


Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 256 pages; 2009.

I first read Josephine Hart, the Irish-born British writer, in the early 1990s. Her first two novels, Damage and Sin, were page-turners of the highest order. But I never got around to reading any of her later work. When I stumbled upon the last novel she wrote — The Truth About Love — in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of £1.99 it seemed an excellent opportunity to reacquaint myself with her writing.

A story about memory

Despite the somewhat soppy title, The Truth About Love is not romantic fiction. This is a powerful story about history, guilt and trying to move on in a world that never forgets. No surprise then that the two central figures in the book are German and Irish — one of whom is trying to forget the past; the other for whom history is everything.

The story opens in rather spectacular style when we are thrust into the disorientating thoughts of someone dying — “Get a priest and a doctor! Quickly! Quickly! Get a priest! Confession! Get priest first!” The entire first chapter is like this — all confusion and people shouting things at one another with only little snippets of information being revealed. I initially thought it was set somewhere on the battlefields of the First World War, only to discover it was somewhere in rural Ireland in 1962 — and later I was even more astonished to discover that it was a teenage boy who had been fatally wounded in an unexplained explosion in his family’s back garden.

That explosion — and death — haunts the O’Hara family for the entire novel. The mother, Sissy, never quite recovers from the loss of her son, despite her husband’s efforts to comfort and console her. And matters are only made worse when the local community begins to circulate rumours that the boy may have been making explosives for the IRA — although the family claim he was merely making a rocket.

Personal tragedy

While this family tragedy shapes the core of the novel, Hart manages to place it in a wider context by using it as a metaphor for the great tragedies of the first half of the 20th century — specifically the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, and the Irish War of Independence, where sometimes families were pitted against other families, and hundreds of men and women died.

There’s a very telling conversation quite early on in the novel, when Tom O’Hara, the grieving father, approaches his German neighbour about the possibility of buying a gate from him. The gate, imported from Germany, has a helmet on it and was much admired by Tom’s son who called it “the warrior’s gate”. Tom wants to put it in the back entrance to his garden as a kind of memorial, but his neighbour is reluctant to part with it. He does, however, promise to consider the idea.

“[…] thank you about the gate. Considering it, at least. Like I said, you’ve been a gentleman to me. I won’t forget.”
“You’re Irish, Mr O’Hara. Forgetfulness is not possible.”
“And you’re German, Mr Middlehoff. No doubt memory is a burden.”

Over the course of the novel this theme recurs over and over, like a mantra, as it infuses each character’s outlook and actions.

A story about Ireland

Not a great deal happens in the novel — it’s more character driven than plot led — but it has multiple narrators who take up the story in turn. Through this, we learn of Mrs O’Hara’s inability to get over her loss (in her own words) and of Mr Middlehoff’s exile and the strange love affairs he conducts when he thinks no one is looking. And, of course, we learn about his past and how he views the country where he has exiled himself, a kind of outsider’s view of Ireland in the 1960s.

Ireland’s more recent tragic history —  especially the IRA’s attacks on mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s — is taken up by the O’Hara’s daughter, Olivia, who leaves the country for England, where she marries and has children. Her first-person narrative, which begins somewhere around page 150,  looks back over the course of three decades and tells the story not only of Ireland, but of her family’s grief and Mr Middlehoff’s tangled past from a different perspective.

An intense read

The Truth About Love is by no means an easy read — and it is somewhat of a departure from the author’s earlier work. But there’s something about the prose —  fiery and elegant by turns — and her refusal to fill in all the gaps, so that the reader must make up their own mind about certain things, that reminds me very much of the best of Jennifer Johnston’s work.

It’s a very intense story, almost too intense, so that whenever I read it I began to feel claustrophobic. But with that intensity comes a power and an intelligence that marks this book as something rather special. Sadly, it was Hart’s last novel: she died from cancer in June last year.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Daphne du Maurier, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier


Fiction – paperback; Virago; 448 pages; 2011.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was first published in 1938 — and I may possibly be the last person on Earth to have read it. I decided it was time to find out why so many people — friends and bloggers included — count this novel as one of their all-time favourite reads.

Timeless classic

Rebecca is a timeless story about a young woman caught up in circumstances seemingly beyond her control, and while some have labelled it as either “women’s fiction” or “Gothic romance” it doesn’t really fit in with either description. Yes, it’s about women — or more importantly, the relationship between the sexes. And yes, it’s romantic. And yes, there are touches of the Gothic about it in the way the storyline is both scary and suspenseful.

But there are echoes of Jane Eyre, too, and of “country house” novels in which stately homes — and the people who run them — play a central role in the plot.

According to Sally Beauman, who wrote an afterword in the edition I read, du Maurier described the book as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower … Psychological and macabre”  — and that pretty much sums it up perfectly.

The tale of a young woman who marries an older man

The basic story is about a young woman — tellingly she is nameless — who marries a much older man, Max de Winter, who is above her station. She meets him when she is living in Monte Carlo, as a companion to an older and quite trying American woman she does not particularly like.

Max is a handsome, well-regarded gentleman with a large manor house called Manderley in England. He is in Monte Carlo trying to come to terms with the death of his wife, Rebecca, who was, by all accounts, a rather beautiful and popular woman prone to throwing lavish dinner parties.

When our narrator marries Max — against the advice of her boss — she must not only contend with a new life as a gentlewoman living in a style to which she is not accustomed, but she must also live in the shadow of Rebecca who represents all the things she is not: graceful, educated, confident and loved.

And from the very first (famous) line — “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” — we know that events have not played out as Max and his new bride might have wished. We get a further inkling of this when we discover that the stately home is now in ruins and that the story is being told from a “bare little hotel bedroom” in an “alien land”.

From the outset, du Maurier sets up a suspenseful premise: what events lead to Manderley’s ruin and what of the fate of those who lived there?

Flowery language

When I first began reading Rebecca I was worried by the flowery language and the overly descriptive passages, particularly of Manderley and its beautiful grounds. The word that immediately came to mind was “overwritten”.

In many respects, the prose felt as if it had been composed by a young writer wanting to impress her reader — and I’m pleased to see that Beauman addresses this in her afterword. She, too, uses the word “overwritten” but she believes it was a deliberate ploy by du Maurier to put the reader in the head of a young, easily impressed and not very well-educated narrator, who is amazed at the house when she first sets eyes upon it. I accept that that may well be the case.

Even so, I found the prose style slightly wearing in its eagerness and enthusiasm. And while I realise that Mrs Danvers, the evil housekeeper, is supposed to be our narrator’s nemesis and therefore the character we channel all our hate towards, I found her tiresome and a little too two-dimensional to be taken seriously.

That said, the terrific plot made up for these shortcomings. Du Maurier deftly scatters clues here and there to suggest that the much-loved Rebecca may not be all as she seems, but I seemed to miss most of them until they were pointed out (in a rather annoying way, it has to be said, by the narrator herself). This meant that the little twist in the middle caught me slightly off guard — which is always a good thing when, like me, you worry that you may be turning into a jaded reader.

Such an unexpected plot development turned what had been a fairly entertaining novel about a young woman readjusting her expectations of marriage into a page-turning mystery. I found myself racing to finish the book just to see how events would resolve themselves. The denouement, while slightly rushed and too neatly tied up, was satisfying.

A hugely evocative story

I can appreciate why so many readers clutch Rebecca to their hearts — it’s a well-crafted, hugely evocative story about married love and a young woman’s search for identity and acceptance. It’s filled with drama and emotion and is played out against a grand backdrop of the rugged Cornish coast and a beautiful stately home.

And du Maurier is an expert at putting us inside the head of someone who is floundering and deeply uneasy about her place in the world so we want to cheer her on and tell her that she’s better than she thinks she is!

While the story is memorable and will stay with me for a long time, Rebecca is at least 150 pages too long! But I am keen to explore more of du Maurier’s vast canon of fiction if only to see whether Rebecca is typical of her style.

‘Rebecca’, by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1938, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as an “immediate best seller, spawning many adaptations, serialization, movies, stage shows and copycat narratives”.

Author, Book review, Natasha Walter, Non-fiction, Publisher, Virago

‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ by Natasha Walter


Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 273 pages; 2010.

Every time I logged onto the office intranet this week I was greeted by the sight of Lucy Pinder’s breasts popping out of a very tiny bikini top. Lucy, an English “glamour model”, recently graced the cover of one of the lads magazines published by the company for which I work. This particular cover won an in-house prize (“cover of the month”), which meant Lucy’s “assets” got further publicity via our intranet homepage.

Now, I think I’m fairly unshockable and remarkably tolerant, but I was upset at seeing this woman’s hugely over-sized bust on my computer screen every day. It wasn’t the nudity that made me uncomfortable, it was the objectification of a young woman that offended me. That this happened in my work place, where I’m surrounded largely by men, made me angry, not least because I have a relatively senior position in the company and the last thing I expect to see as I go about my professional business is a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose.

And yet, if I was to complain about this, I’m pretty sure it would not be taken seriously. After all Lucy Pinder’s entitled to get her tits out, isn’t she? And surely it’s empowering, and liberating, for her, as a woman, to have the freedom to do so? She gets paid big bucks after all.

This is just one example of why I think Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a hugely important and timely book. I read it a few months ago now, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Walter’s argument is that we’ve all been conned into thinking that today’s woman has achieved economic and sexual equality. She claims that in 21st Century Britain we are experiencing a new wave of sexism, where a woman’s passport to success is not her brains, but her looks and, more importantly, her sexual allure.

She divides her book into two parts. The first looks at this “new sexism” in which girls are becoming sexualised at a younger and younger age (Walter dubs this “hypersexualisation”). She visits a nightclub where she witnesses a “Babes on the bed competition”; talks to pole dancers and prostitutes; and interviews teenage girls about their sex lives. From this she is able to argue that the growing commercialisation of sex has provided women with new opportunities to make money, but by the same token those that go down that route often do it, not because it empowers them or liberates them, but because they have no other alternative.

The second part of her book examines the reasons why this new sexism has occurred. Walter shows that we are increasingly being encouraged to believe that the inequality between men and women is not social but biological, that girls will always prefer pink to blue, and that they like playing with dolls rather than toy cars. She provides a critique of scientific studies that perpetuate the myth that there are innate biological differences between the sexes. These studies are disseminated by a relatively uncritical and lazy media that accepts the results at face value. (This study from last month is but one example.)

What I found particularly alarming was how quickly these studies begin to be accepted as part and parcel of every day life, so that if a woman, or indeed a young girl, bucks the trend she is made to feel as if there is something wrong with her. Walter’s argument is that biological determinism not only stifles and limits women’s choices, it also impacts on men’s choices too.

Living Dolls is a powerful book, one that is thought-provoking and incredibly easy to read. If there is any flaw it is that Walter’s hypothesis in the first part is based on a mere handful of interviews with young women, so her sample is not statistically significant. Nevertheless she raises important issues, the most troubling of which are her observations about the ways in which young girls are being raised in modern day Britain. When women are expected to look a certain way, think a certain way and conform to outmoded stereotypes is it any wonder Walter believes we’re raising a generation of living dolls “aiming for airbrushed perfection”?