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‘Howards End’ by E. M. Forster

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 302 pages; 2000.

First published in 1910, E.M. Forster’s Howards End is often cited as a masterpiece of 20th-century literary fiction. Even Forster himself claimed it was his best book (he wrote six novels, and this was his fourth).

Set during the Edwardian era, it’s a tale about the clash between town and country, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This is mirrored in the three different families which form the core of the story.

Three families

The well-educated and well-off Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, are half-German and live in London, where they can pursue their interests in the arts. Young, confident women — and with strong opinions — they are idealists who want for nothing.

The Wilcoxes, by comparison, are self-made pragmatists with an eye on social climbing and the acquisition of material possessions to cement their place in the world. They, too, are rich, but they are from new money. They have both a pied-à-terre and a country estate, the eponymous Howards End.

And then there is the lower-class Basts — Leonard, who is an insurance clerk, and Jacky, his older wife, a “fallen” woman whom he has “rescued”. This troubled couple is often short of money and struggle to get by, but Leonard is aspirational and loves nothing more than reading books and going to musical recitals, which is how he comes to meet the Schlegel sisters.

Complex plot

It’s a convoluted plot — heavily reliant, it has to be said, on coincidences to work — which brings all three families together.

I’ve not seen the 1992 film, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book, but I’m assuming most people will be familiar with the storyline. If you’re not, it goes like this:

Helen gets engaged to the younger son of the Wilcoxes, then breaks it off, and in the process Margaret befriends Mrs Wilcox, who leaves Howards End to her when she dies. Except the Wilcox family hide this fact from Margaret. Then — plot twist coming up — Margaret, for reasons I cannot fathom given she’s so independently minded and staunchly her own person, marries Mr Wilcox and moves to a new country estate with him. Meanwhile, the sisters drift apart and Helen does a runner, for reasons that become clear later on (I won’t spoil it here). Later, Margaret discovers that Jacky Bast was once her husband’s mistress, but she decides to stand by her man because that’s what she thinks is the right thing to do.

Yes, it’s all a bit dramatic. And I haven’t even mentioned the scandal near the end, nor the murder!

Compelling read

Fortunately, in Mr Forster’s safe hands, the narrative remains sensible — and compelling.

The characters are all wonderfully alive and interesting and enigmatic and flawed and, for the most part, their actions are authentic and understandable. Likewise, the dialogue, of which there is a lot, is excellent: every conversation, argument and intellectual discussion feels real rather than contrived.

Written at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time of great societal, economic, political and technological change (cars, for instance, were slowly replacing horse and cart), Forster captures England in a state of flux, where the new world is colliding with the old world, where the city is growing rapidly and encroaching on the countryside, where the traditional role of women is being challenged by the suffragette movement.

These big themes give the novel an intellectual weight that might otherwise be missing if Howards End was viewed as nothing more than a romantic drama.

Forster, for instance, looks at what responsibility, if any, the rich have towards the poor (the welfare state was in its infancy at the time of publication), and whether it is acceptable for the impoverished to pursue artistic interests, such as music or literature.

He also highlights the hypocrisy in society by comparing the attitudes to sex outside of wedlock for both men (acceptable) and women (improper to the point of being outcast), along with the limitations society places on women and asks if it’s fair to restrict their potential, intellectual or otherwise.

It’s a wonderfully rich, evocative and engaging read. I’m not quite convinced of its masterpiece status — the string of coincidences and the odd death at the end takes away from its credibility — but on the whole, I much enjoyed this book and have promptly gone out and bought a couple more of Forster’s novels.

This is my 12th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand so long ago that I can’t exactly remember when I purchased it but the price scrawled in lead pencil on the first page tells me I paid £2.50 for it. 

‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster, first published in 1910, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “truly a masterpiece, the novel has moments of real beauty and optimism”.

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‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2005.

Sometimes you pull a book from your shelves not really knowing what to expect and before you know it you’ve read 100 pages and are so absorbed in the story you’ve forgotten all sense of time. This is what happened to me when I began Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love earlier this week.

It is one of those wonderful stories that celebrates survival, love and literature, and cleverly weaves in a literary mystery with a moving story about unrequited love and grief.

Told from two divergent view points — a young girl mourning the loss of her father and an elderly Jewish man mourning the loss of his lover and the son he never got to know — it’s a wise and tender book framed around an original and inventive structure.

A literary mystery

At the heart of The History of Love is a mystery around a book, also entitled The History of Love. The manuscript, written by Polish man Leo Gursky about the woman with whom he had fallen in love, was considered lost during the turmoil of the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust. But, unbeknownst to Leon, it was published in South America under another man’s name at a later date.

Now, more than 50 years later, a single and much-loved copy of the book is in New York, where it is being translated by a woman who named her first child after the lead character in its pages. Recently bereaved, the translator’s task is a pleasant distraction from thinking about the early death of her husband, but for her daughter, Alma, it offers a chance to play matchmaker — between her grieving mother and the mysterious benefactor, based in Venice, who is paying for the book to be translated chapter by chapter.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Leo, now an elderly man living a solitary existence in a New York apartment block. He spends his days trying not to be invisible — deliberately spilling coffee when he goes out, for instance, and taking a freelance job as a life model for an art class — all the while dreaming of his lost manuscript and wondering if he might have been able to make it as a writer if it hadn’t got lost in the first place.

It’s a rather convoluted, albeit clever, plot that expertly draws these two narrative threads together, along with a third storyline that explains how the manuscript was plagiarised and published under a rival’s name.

Distinct voices

The book’s strength lies in its distinctive narrative voices. Both the teenage girl Alma and the elderly Jewish Leo, who tell their stories in alternate chapters, are wonderfully realised with recognisably different personalities and ways of thinking. The supportive cast of family and friends is equally well-drawn. (Alma’s troubled younger brother Bird is a particular delight.)

Through Alma’s and Leo’s day-to-day struggles we learn so much about human persistence, curiosity and love. It’s heartbreaking in places, particularly when you realise the scale of Leo’s loss (and not just in terms of a manuscript he had poured his heart and soul into), but it’s also full of wise and tender moments, and lightened by self-deprecating humour that often had me chuckling throughout.

And the ending, which draws everything so neatly and cleverly together, is a deeply satisfying one.

This is my 7th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand more than 10 years ago and it has lingered on my shelves ever since, surviving dozens of book culls along the way.

‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss, first published in 2005, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “sad and achingly beautiful book”.

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‘Excellent Women’ by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 238 pages; 1981.

First published in 1952, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is, indeed, an excellent novel.

Set in post-war London, it tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, unmarried and in her early 30s, who is an “excellent woman”— dependable, reliable and the type of person who puts others before herself. She’s capable and independent, having had to look after herself following the death of her parents, and now her life in a dreary Pimlico flat consists primarily of her voluntary work helping gentlewomen who have fallen on bad times, running jumble sales and going to church.

But Miss Lathbury’s quiet and settled life is thrown into turmoil when new neighbours, the Napiers, move in downstairs. Helena is an anthropologist; Rockingham is a lieutenant in the Navy. She’s having an affair with a colleague, Everard Bone; he’s a handsome, debonair ladies’ man who has spent 18 months in Italy charming a succession of Wrens.

When the Napiers befriend Miss Lathbury her first reaction is to remain aloof; she doesn’t want the hassle of making small talk with people she bumps into on the stairs. But eventually, she thaws toward them, is drawn into their rather busy lives and is thrust into a new social circle outside of her normal Christian one.

This brings with it various complications, but it also adds a frisson of excitement, for when Rockingham pays her attention it’s hard to know what his real intentions are. Then there’s Everard, who’s fallen out with Helena, and may well be casting a roving eye in Miss Lathbury’s direction, while her friend, the vicar, seems to be falling for his new lodger — the glamorous widow Allegra, who doesn’t seem to be as lovely as everyone thinks. Where will it all end?

A gentle comedy

The best way to describe Excellent Women is to say it’s a gentle comedy. It also has a dash of romance, a smidgen of scandal and a little bit of intrigue. This all adds up to a rather poignant and, at times, rather refreshing read, for in this tale of a spinster with no real desire to marry we find a heroine who remains true to herself while having her eyes opened to other ways of living.

Miss Lathbury doesn’t suffer fools — and most of the men in her life are exactly that. As the novel progresses, she increasingly becomes weighed down by the realisation that society expects her to behave in a certain way; that she’s burdened by being single. And yet, as she becomes immersed in the lives of the men in her social circle, she begins to long for something else, some greater meaning, even if she’s not quite sure what form that should take.

You can’t help but wonder whether she hankers for her previous life where “fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel” was the most she had to contend with:

But then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us — the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies: the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (Virago hardcover edition)

London life in the 1940s

As much as I enjoyed this simple story of a woman caught up in other people’s messy lives, I also enjoyed the period setting. This is post-war London where the city is dotted with bomb sites (one half of the church Miss Lathbury worships at is in ruins), rationing is still in place, religion offers a sense of community and purpose to people’s lives (the rivalry between High Church and Roman Catholics provides some of the more comic moments in this novel), everyone’s obsessed with class and pecking orders, and there’s nothing a good cup of tea won’t sort.

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Thanks to Claire from my book group for choosing this book to read. It was rather delightful and as thought-provoking as it was charming. Recommendations for other Pym novels to try are warmly welcomed in the comment box below!

‘Excellent Women’ by Barbara Pym, first published in 1952, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as an “exquisitely crafted work” full of “poignancy and comedy”. 

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‘Voss’ by Patrick White

Voss by Patrick White
1994 edition

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 464 pages; 1994.

First published in 1957, Patrick White’s Voss went on to win the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year. Some 15 years later White received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian to ever win the accolade, earning him a formidable presence in the Australian literary canon.

His reputation as a fine but difficult writer often puts people off trying his work (myself included), but every time I read a White novel (I’ve read four now, three of which are reviewed on my Patrick White page) I come away from the experience wondering what I was scared of. Yes, his books are hard work, and yes, the prose sometimes feels convoluted and old-fashioned. But he’s a terrific storyteller and everything about his work — his characters, his descriptions of people and places and atmospheres, his ability to capture people’s emotions and motivations and innermost thoughts — is masterful. You don’t just read a Patrick White novel, you become immersed in it.

The same could be said of Voss, the bulk of which I read in March as part of a Patrick White read along but then put aside (with just 30 pages to go) because work got in the way. I finished those last few pages on the weekend, which explains the long wait for a review I had planned to write two months ago.

An outback romance

Voss by Patrick White
2011 edition

Set in 19th-century Australia, Voss charts the journey of a German naturalist, Johann Ulrich Voss, keen to explore inland Australia. It is largely based on the exploits of Ludwig Leichhardt, a legendary Prussian explorer, who disappeared in 1848 while midway through an ambitious expedition to cross the continent from east to west. To this day, no one quite knows what happened to him.

Voss not only tells the story of that fateful expedition, but it also tells the (fictional) story of the woman he left behind. Laura Trevelyn is one of those Victorian women destined to be a spinster all her life. She’s plain and intelligent and doesn’t really fit in. No one much likes her, because she’s smart and outspoken at a time when women should be seen but not heard.

The pair meet through Laura’s uncle, who is the patron of the expedition, and while they do not form an immediate attraction, there is something about Voss that intrigues Laura. When he embarks on his adventure with a party of settlers, including a ticket of leave holder, and two Aboriginal guides, the pair conduct a romance via correspondence. Later, they communicate via shared “visions” — with Voss in the outback and Laura in Sydney — which gives the novel an other-worldly feel that riffs on the theme of spiritual connection with the land.

Two stories in one

The story is composed of two intertwined narrative threads; one that charts Voss’s journey inland and the pitfalls he must address, including drought, floods, starvation and near mutiny by his party; and another that follows Laura’s life in Sydney, where she “adopts” the orphaned child of a servant and later succumbs to an almost deadly fever that renders her not quite sane.

Both threads are highly detailed, with little evading White’s forensic eye. This makes for dense text, the kind that is so rich and multi-layered it can occasionally feel impenetrable. But it’s worth persevering, for his prose glitters with jewels waiting to be unearthed and the descriptions of the landscape and the expedition’s deeds are gloriously astute and evocative.

Next morning, while the lamps of friendship hovered touchingly in the dew and darkness, and naked voices offered parting advice, the company began to move northward, with the intention of crossing New England. It was a good season, and the land continued remarkably green, or greyish-green, or blue-grey, the blue of smoke or distance. These were sparkling, jingling days, in which sleek horses, blundering cattle, even the sour-heeled mules had no immediate cause for regret. Men shouted to their mates, their voices whipping the blue air, or else were silent, smiling to themselves, dozing in their well-greased saddles under the yellow sun, as they rubbed forward in a body, over open country, or in Indian file, through the bush. At this stage they were still in love with one another. It could not have been otherwise in that radiance of light. The very stirrup-irons were singing of personal hopes.

Of course, when the expedition finds itself in trouble and Voss is no longer seen as an angel but a living, breathing devil, the novel moves into darker, more tormented territory. White is not afraid to plunge his characters into life-or-death situations and to test their mettle and moral character. This makes for heightened reading, but occasionally the narrative plods along, perhaps mirroring the expedition’s own dull slog towards a destination that seems impossible to reach.

I found myself enjoying Laura’s story more than Voss’s, but even her narrative sometimes got bogged down in extraneous detail.

A powerful novel

There’s a lot to say about this powerful novel. From its richly evocative language to its clever structure, it deals with so many dual themes — good versus evil, intellect versus emotion, spirituality versus reason, Europeans versus indigenous populations, the tamed land versus the outback — that I could never possibly cover them all here.

While I can’t say I loved Voss, reading it was a fascinating experience. I devoured most of its 400-plus pages on a weekend getaway to the coast, including the 90-minute train ride there and back, because it’s the kind of novel you need to lose yourself in; you need to get to grips with the pacing, the characters and the dense prose style and you can’t do that if, like me, you usually read books in bursts of 30 minutes or so. I’m very glad I took the plunge to read it.

‘Voss’ by Patrick White, first published in 1957, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “both a love story and an adventure story, yet it is neither […] but the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness”.

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‘The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov (translated by Hugh Aplin)


Fiction – paperback; Alma Classics; 432 pages; 2012. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin.

When it comes to Russian literature, I’m woefully under-read. Indeed, I’ve only ever reviewed one on this blog — Ivan Turgenev’s First Love — and that’s really a short story, not a novel. So when my book group chose Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — billed as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature —  I was rather excited by the prospect. But the excitement, I’m sad to say, soon gave way to other, less favourable, emotions…

Two stories in one book

The Master and Margarita is a satirical fantasy composed of two intertwined narrative threads. In the first, the devil, disguised as a shape-shifting stage magician called Woland, visits Soviet Moscow and wreaks havoc on the cultural elite, punishing sinners and throwing people into prison. In the second, the story of Pontius Pilate in the days immediately before and after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, is described in the form of a book being written by a struggling Moscow writer.

These twin storylines are filled with a cast of strange and extraordinary characters, including “the master”, who is an unnamed writer befriended by Woland, and the master’s adulterous lover, Margarita.

The book is mostly composed of truly absurd scenes — including a black cat that walks on two legs and is capable of talking — prompting me to think, rather flippantly and with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, that Bulgakov wrote it when he was off his face on vodka. And yet, despite my aversion to magic realism, of which there is quite a bit in this hefty 400-plus page novel, I quite enjoyed some of the more fantastical elements, including the section in which Margarita transforms into a witch at Satan’s Ball and has an amazing time getting people to respect her.

But I struggled with the Pontius Pilate “novel”, which seemed to interrupt the flow of the (more interesting and mischievous) devil’s narrative.

A challenging read

I read this novel on and off over the course of the month (in between other reads) and found it was best to tackle it in large chunks — at least an hour at a time — instead of the usual 20-minute tube journey.

Overall, I found it hard work, certainly the first half which was “bitty” (and that second chapter, which switches from “modern” Moscow to ancient Jerusalem, really disoriented me), but I found the second half much more enjoyable and easier to read.

That said, a lot of the biblical stuff went over my head: it’s a very ecclesiastical novel and I wasn’t raised in that tradition. I wonder if I might have identified with it more/made links if I knew the Bible much better?

All in all, it’s a novel full of surprising moments (I will never look at a black cat the same way again) and one that took me right out of my comfort zone into a crazy, inventive world the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

Interestingly, The Master and Margarita was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime because it satirised Soviet life and highlighted the ways in which Christianity was attacked during the Communist period. You can read more about the author on his Wikipedia page.

‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov, first published in 1966 — almost 30 years after the author’s death — is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the book, which “blasted open ‘official truths’ with the force of a carnival out of control”,  would have resulted in Bulgakov being “disappeared” if it had been discovered during his lifetime.

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‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras


Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984.

I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.

The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15.

It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a schoolteacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.

In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between the first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, get an education and study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.

But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.

Search for identity

From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.

But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:

Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.

Surprisingly, the affair does not worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.

Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.

For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.

Beautiful melancholia

There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.

The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness  — “I grew old at eighteen” —  which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.

I really loved and admired this short novel. It was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and adapted for film in 1992.

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras, first published in 1984, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes the novel as “very cinematic”, claiming that the author was influenced by “the French nouveau roman of the 1950s”.

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‘Wise Blood’ by Flannery O’Connor


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2008.

Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, was first published in 1949. It’s a rather odd, slightly disturbing, tale set in America’s evangelical Deep South after the Second World War.

Return home

The story follows a young man, Hazel Motes, from Eastrod, Tennessee, who returns to the South after four years in the Army. We know little of his background other than his grandfather had been a preacher, his younger brother died in infancy and his other brother fell in front of a mowing machine when he was seven years old.

We also know that as a child he had wanted to follow family tradition and become a preacher, but somewhere along the line — most likely in the war — he has turned completely against religion and does not believe that Jesus exists.

When he arrives back home he comes across a “blind” preacher, Asa Hawkes, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath, and is so infuriated by their “message” that he decides to set up his own anti-religion. It is called The Church Without Christ.

“I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

He then buys a car (even though he doesn’t have a driving licence) and travels the streets looking for convenient places — usually out the front of a movie house — to preach his message, where he is generally given short shrift. When another man “adopts” his religion but calls it the Holy Church Without Christ things get complicated — and violent.

A comic novel — or a macabre one?

In the Author’s Note to my edition, Flannery O’Connor writes  (in 1962) that Wise Blood is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui. But I have to admit I didn’t see much that was funny and was often disturbed by the undertone of menace throughout and the ways in which the narrative often turned on violent or macabre events.

But there’s a lot to mull over here because even though the book is just 160 pages long, it’s jam-packed with ideas and issues and moves along at a clipping pace. I often had to re-read entire pages because I had missed a crucial piece of information and I think I could probably read the book for a second time and still not feel I had grasped everything to which the author alludes.

For instance, I’m still not quite sure of the purpose of a secondary character, Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old loner who befriends Hazel on his second day in town. Enoch believes he has a purpose but he doesn’t quite know what it is — and even when he steals a museum artefact as a “religious icon” for Hazel’s church, he still doesn’t know why he’s behaved in such a manner. Perhaps he’s a metaphor for blind faith, for simply following a religion without knowing why?

The role of the character of Sabbath Hawkes is much more obvious: she’s a temptress who Hazel initially wants to seduce. When he later changes his mind, she pursues him with a kind of religious fervour.

For such a short book, there is certainly a lot to think about. And as a reading experience, I was constantly uneasy and unsettled as I turned the pages. Hazel might be joyless, cold and uncaring — in fact, I might go so far as to say he’s psychopathic — but somewhere along the line, you begin to care about him, especially when he goes to extraordinary lengths to punish himself. That in itself — the ability of a writer to make you feel for a truly unlikable character — is a talent not to be underestimated.

I wouldn’t say Wise Blood is a fun book, but it’s certainly a wonderful Gothic tale that tickles the brain matter and I’m glad I finally found the courage to pluck it from my TBR where it has sat undisturbed for several years.

‘Wise Blood’ by Flannery O’Connor, first published in 1952, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is said to have been one of several American novels that have gone on to “define the so-called ‘Southern Gothic’ genre” since publication.

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‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 272 pages; 2005.

First published in 1970, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business is a Canadian literature classic and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

It is the first volume of the Deptford Trilogy, but can be read as a standalone novel. The title refers to the idea of a person being neither hero nor heroine, confidante or villain, but still being a vital part of a plot — without them, the denouement or resolution would not happen.

And that is the perfect description of the role with which our narrator, Dunstan “Dunny” Ramsay, fulfills — he is the “fifth business”.

A seminal moment

The novel opens by recounting a rather compelling and ultimately seminal moment in Dunny’s life: It is “5:58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908” and he is “ten years and seven months old”. He is returning from a sledding adventure with his friend (and occasional enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton and snowballs are being thrown. Hidden in one of the snowballs is a stone.

Percy throws this dangerous snowball at Dunny, who ducks to avoid it, and it hits a woman, walking nearby, on the back of the head. She cries out and then collapses to the ground. Her name is Mrs Mary Dempster and she is out taking a stroll with her husband, the local Baptist minister.

They do not see who threw the snowball — no accusations or confessions are made — but Dunny is plagued by guilt because of two shocking outcomes: Mrs Dempster is pregnant and the fall results in her baby being born prematurely; she also spends the rest of her life as a “simpleton”.

From this one incident, Dunny finds himself forever tied to three people: Percy, who threw the stone; Mrs Dempster, who he helped carry home on his sled; and Paul, the premature baby, who grows up to become one of the world’s leading illusionists.

The bigger picture

From this exciting start, the book suddenly expands into a wider view as we learn that Dunny is now in his early 70s and has recently retired as a teacher. In fact, what we are reading is a report to a headmaster in response to an “idiotic piece that appeared in the College Chronicle in the issue of midsummer 1969″.

It seems Dunny did not appreciate the portrait of himself and wishes to correct the impression that he is “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose”.

But what most galls me is the patronizing, dismissive tone of the piece, as if I had never had a life outside the classroom, had never risen to the full stature of a man, had never rejoiced or sorrowed or known love or hate…

The rest of the novel fills in the gaps by telling the story of Dunny’s life.

And he is right — if you can forgive the slight snobbery in his voice and his often hard-hearted tone (he feels no emotion on the death of his parents, for instance) — Dunny has done much more and experienced much more than the drab biography of him in the newspaper might suggest. Not only has he devoted 45 years of his life to teaching boys in a private school in Toronto and become a decorated war hero (the latter a point of embarrassment rather than pride), he has developed an interesting sideline as a hagiologist (a specialist in saints) and sold 10 books on the subject, some of them to extraordinary best-selling success.

He has travelled the world, not only as a soldier in the Great War — in which he was “frightened for three years”, mistakenly thought dead on the battlefield and awarded the VC “posthumously” — but in pursuit of knowledge about the saints he finds so fascinating.

Along the way he has fallen in love with various women — his affairs are recounted in the narrative — but has never been able to commit to anyone in particular, except perhaps Mrs Dempster, who he comes to believe is a religious saint after he sees her face on a Madonna in a church he seeks refuge in during the height of the war.

And he has kept in contact with Percy, almost his polar opposite, who becomes a very rich man focused on material gain, and constantly runs into Paul, who reinvents himself under another name to become a magician renowned around the world.

Problematic novel

I thought The Fifth Business a rather hit-and-miss affair, which may partly explain why it has taken me so long to pen this review (I finished the book in late January). I think there are two factors at play here.

First, because the narrative is essentially composed of a series of set pieces and “chapters” in Dunny’s life, the interest level (or entertainment value, for want of a better description) was not consistent throughout.  I enjoyed the early parts of Dunny’s life and I loved his experiences during the Great War and in the immediate aftermath, but other parts waned and when I put the book down I struggled to pick it back up again.

And second, I found the way in which all the women were depicted as problematic — and chauvinistic. I realise that is probably a reflection of the time in which the book was set (and written), but Dunny’s treatment of all the women who come into his life is so reprehensible (or alien) that I did not find him particularly empathetic.

He cannot understand his mother (and feels nothing upon her death), he puts Mrs Dempster on a pedestal, and he treats the nurse who falls in love with him during the war very badly indeed. The girl waiting for him at home is portrayed as empty-headed and husband-hungry, and another woman he meets in later life comes across as a vicious manipulator. They are all desperate and needy.

That said, I loved the eyewitness view of history presented here and being able to follow the way in which people’s lives play out — Percy’s rise to riches and Dunny’s complicated friendship with him is one of the novel’s highlights.

Similarly, Davies’ portrayal of small-town Canadian life, where alliances are forged depending on which church you attend, and how communities can band together (or pull apart) at times of need, is deftly portrayed. And its exploration of moral responsibility, the ties that bind us to people and places, and our diametrically opposed hunger for new experiences and the comforts of home, make it a high-quality read.

But I think it is fair to say I didn’t love Fifth Business enough to want to explore the two follow-up novels, The Manticore and World of Wonders. Others may feel differently.

‘The Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies, first published in 1970, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the novel is noted for its “adept dramatization of the spiritual and psychological theories of Carl Jung”.

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‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing about Michel Faber’s Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.

This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I’ve yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I’m not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

An unconventional lead character

First, let’s meet the main character, Isserley, who is “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. […] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. […] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are “hunks on legs”. She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can’t help “savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked”.

What happens to these men once they’ve been “caught” — or lured by Isserley’s big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score, I’m keeping completely schtum. Sorry.

An ‘issues’ novel

As much as I’m loathe to describe Under the Skin as an “issues” novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.

While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical,  Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.

A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.

And you really get a sense of Isserley’s pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She’s a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it’s hard not to feel empathy for her.

While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley’s adventures in her beat-up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.

Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I’ve come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that’s really saying something…

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber, first published in 2000, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as an “original story that defies simple generic classification — it is a thriller, a science fiction novel, and a lyrical portrayal of one individual’s struggle to make sense of the world”.

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‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 150 pages; 2000.

If you have ever read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, you will know that Jane falls in love with Edward Rochester, an ugly man with a mysterious past, whose wife has gone mad and is locked away. What you don’t know is how he came to marry his wife, Bertha Mason, and what made her so unwell.

That’s where Jean Rhys steps up to the mark. Rhys writes the prequel to Jane Eyre by telling the story of Bertha’s early years in Jamaica. She renames her Antoinette Cosway and explains how she came to marry an Englishman, who later takes her back to his homeland, where she was driven towards madness.

Of course, you don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea, but it does vaguely help to at least know a little of the storyline.

A novel in three parts

Wide Sargasso Sea is widely regarded as Jean Rhys’ masterpiece. She was 76 when it was first published in 1966 and had fallen into obscurity. I know of her largely through her early novels written in the 1920s and 30s, and can highly recommend Quartet and Voyage in the Dark — both of which are heart-breaking, full of melancholy and decades ahead of their time. I was expecting more of the same here but found the book very different in tone and style.

It is divided into three parts. The first is about Antoinette’s troubled childhood growing up in Jamaica in the early 19th century as a poor white Creole surrounded by richer natives, who looked down their noses at her family and called her a “white cockroach”. Violence, prejudice and madness abound. The first-person narrative is oblique and often confusing, and there are so many characters it is hard to get a handle on who is who.

The second part is far more entertaining and has a definite page-turning quality. Antoinette is now a young lady who is about to be betrothed to an unnamed gentleman from England — and it is he who mainly tells their story. The pair spend their honeymoon holed up in a remote house surrounded by lush jungle, with just themselves and their servants for company.

Perched up on wooden stilts the house seemed to shrink from the forest behind it and crane eagerly out to the distant sea. It was more awkward than ugly, a little sad as if it knew it could not last. A group of negroes were standing at the foot of the veranda steps. Antoinette ran across the lawn and as I followed her I collided with a boy coming in the opposite direction. He rolled his eyes, looking alarmed and went on towards the horses without a word of apology. ‘Double up now double up. Look sharp.’ There were four of them. A woman, a girl and a tall, dignified man were together. Antoinette was standing with her arms round another woman. ‘That was Bertrand who nearly knocked you down. That is Rose and Hilda. This is Baptiste.’ The servants grinned shyly as she named them. ‘And here is Christophine who was my da, my nurse long ago.’

Initially, their relationship is cold and distant but then it thaws into something rather rabid and sexual. But when rumours about Antoinette begin to circulate via letter, her husband loses all interest — and takes up with one of the servants instead.

The third and final part returns to a more oblique style of storytelling, and Antoinette takes up the narrative, this time from a locked room in a house in England, where she resides.

Literary masterpiece

It’s pretty easy to see why this book is regarded as a literary masterpiece and why it appears on so many school and university text lists. It is full of metaphors and symbolism and hidden meaning, and there’s a layer of subtext going on that needs to be excavated to fully appreciate.

It’s also ripe with social mores, political intrigue and sexual oppression. Its Caribbean setting is also important, not simply because of the tropical landscape which harbours dark secrets, but because of the island’s troubled racial history. The Emancipation Act might have ended slavery, but Antoinette, a Creole heiress, feels caught between two races — the white Europeans and the black Jamaicans — and doesn’t like being judged by either group.

There’s plenty of oppression, both racial and sexual, and while the story deals with dark subject matter, it is short enough not to weigh the reader down.

The characters — the cruel, cold-hearted, lust-driven husband; the independent, vivacious but troubled Antoinette; the loyal but opinionated Christophine, amongst others — are wonderfully realised and terrific company. And Rhys has such a way with language, particularly when it comes to describing the beguiling landscape, that Wide Sargasso Sea is a joy to read.

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys, first published in 1966, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it suggests that the novel’s structure “allows Rhys to make explicit connections between the story of Jane Eyre and the violent colonial history underpinning it”.