Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, BIPOC 2021, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Larissa Behrendt, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.

The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).

A painful past

In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.

The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.

Twin narratives

The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.

Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time,  but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.

By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.

But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.

Grand tour

The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.

Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.

Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.

This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.

Gentle humour

But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)

Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!

The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.

For other thoughts on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Brona’s at This Reading Life.

This is my 21st book for #AWW2021 and my 9th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, R.C. Sherriff, Setting

‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 336 pages; 2017.

If you are looking for a lovely, gentle story from a more innocent time, then please put R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September on your reading list.

This novel, first published in 1931, perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside. Not very much happens in the story, but it’s written in such a mannered, yet insightful, way, that it hardly seems to matter.

A long train journey

There’s a long build-up, introducing us to each member of the Stevens family — Mr Stevens, an office worker (we never really find out exactly what it is he does), his devoted wife Mrs Stevens, and their three children, Mary, 20, Dick 17, and Ernie, 10 — as they make their preparations for their time away, ensuring the milk order is cancelled, that their pet budgerigar has been given to the next-door neighbour to look after, that the gas has been turned off and everything is locked up.

Their journey to Bognor Regis, on the West Sussex coast, is described in exacting detail, including the walk to the train station from their terraced house at 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich, and then the long journey by train, via Clapham Junction, and then onwards to “Seaview”, the apartments they have taken every year since their honeymoon more than 20 years earlier.

Finally, he turned, and said rather lamely—“Well, here we are.” They had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start. With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey.

At Bognor Regis, they have their meals prepared for them by the elderly landlady, Mrs. Huggett, and their days are spent at the beach, playing cricket and swimming. They pass their evenings taking strolls along the promenade or visiting the amusement parlours on the pier. Occasionally, they listen to musical performances at the bandstand. Mr Stevens also sneaks off the local pub for a quiet pint, free from the constraints of his family.

It is all very quaint, predictable and safe, but the holiday is tinged with melancholia, for Mr and Mrs Stevens realise this may be the last holiday they enjoy together as a family because Mary and Dick are adults now — they have jobs and lives of their own — and Mrs Huggett’s establishment has become rundown and dated. (It’s only near the end of their holiday that the Stevens’ learn that they have been the only people to stay during the season — everyone else has cancelled and gone elsewhere; not for the first time, Mr Stevens wonders if his loyalty has been misplaced.)

Universal truths about travel

Even though this story is 90 years old and recounts a time when travel comprised what we would now call “staycations”, it is packed with universal truths: the plotting and planning that accompanies every journey, for example; the budgeting required; the nervousness about missing scheduled services (in this case trains, but in today’s modern world who hasn’t fretted about missing a plane or getting your boarding gate mixed up?); the mild panic when you realise you are more than half-way through your holiday; and the sadness you feel when it’s time to pack your suitcase to go home.

I particularly enjoyed Mrs Stevens’ thoughts about Clapham Junction, where they have to change trains, because I used to visit that station daily on my commute (for about two years) from Kensington Olympia and it is absolutely the worst train station in the world with its 17 platforms, crowds of people and confusing walkways (above ground and underground):

Hell, to Mrs. Stevens would be a white hot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.

Gentle humour

The story is written in a gentle-mannered tone but there’s a vein of mild humour running throughout. For instance, the holiday apartments are called “Seaview,” because “from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamp post on the seafront”, and to cure Ernie’s travel sickness…

Mrs. Stevens had tried starving the child: she had tried strong peppermints—to no avail. Ultimately she learnt of a good plan from her neighbour Mrs. Jack, whose little Ada was just the same. Mrs. Jack always carried on railway journeys, in her purse, two or three small paper bags. They could be quickly opened—easily applied and conveniently dropped out of the window. So adept had Mrs. Jack become that she boasted sometimes of getting the whole incident over before her surprised fellow passengers knew what had happened.

In another scene, Mr Stevens sits on a soft upholstered chair that practically swallows him whole:

Mr. Stevens, lacking his wife’s foresight, sat right back in his: he sank down and down until he felt his feet jerk off the ground as the edge of the chair straightened out his knees. Ernie watched his father’s struggles with mingled curiosity and dismay: he had a vague feeling that he ought to run and look for a life belt, but Mr. Stevens soon recovered himself, and was just in time to rise as Mrs. Montgomery came in.

There’s some great one-liners too. The sand is crowded with people “as tightly packed on their strip of beach as the blight upon Mr. Stevens’ beans”; a driver is described as looking like “the kind of man who drove ghostly coaches over precipices on dark, stormy nights”, and the pier, which is “black and gaunt” resembles “the skeleton of a gigantic monster with its front legs planted in the sea”.

The Fortnight in September is a real balm for the soul. It’s about an ordinary family momentarily escaping the confines of their mundane lives, but it’s also a fascinating historical look at the minutiae of domestic travel in a different era. I loved it.

UPDATE 14 September: Karen at BookerTalk informs me that this book has recently been BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. It has been serialized into 10 episodes, which are available to listen to for the next 3 weeks.

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

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

And it was.

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

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

A comedy of manners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A successful business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I liked about the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

My conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 195 pages; 2020.

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

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

Theatreland by the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

A breakdown in relations

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

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

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

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

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

If you liked this book, you might also like:

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

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

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘A Gun for Sale’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 192 pages; 2010.

First published in 1936, A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene is an oppressively dark crime novel about a British assassin who becomes a wanted man in England after he commits his deed on European soil.

In much the same way as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated the Great War, the murder has been designed to provoke a new world war which will make many men in England rich.

Murderous opening

When A Gun for Sale opens we are thrust right into the action. Raven, the English assassin with the harelip (which marks him as easily identifiable), is in an unnamed European country getting ready to kill the Minister of War. Things don’t go exactly to plan but he manages to escape detection after the murder of the politician and his secretary — though he doesn’t get rid of the weapon as he had been instructed to do so.

When he returns to London, he meets Cholmondeley, a fat man with a penchant for sweets, who double-crosses him by paying his £250 fee in stolen banknotes, which are traceable by authorities.

Raven now has to go on the run in his own country, but not without planning his vengeance on Cholmondeley, whom he follows on the train out of London to (the fictional) Nottwich. (Remember, he has a gun.)

Also on the train is a young woman called Anne, who is heading to Nottwich to begin working as a chorus girl in a pantomime. In a strange twist of fate (or should we say authorly coincidence?), Anne’s fiancé is the police detective in charge of finding Raven, and so all these characters are unwittingly drawn together in a complex plot involving corruption, betrayal, sex and murder.

The claustrophobic manhunt that ensues not only puts Anne’s life in danger, it makes Raven increasingly prone to commit more horrendous acts out of fear and paranoia.

Fast-paced tale

The fast-paced narrative is written from multiple perspectives in Greene’s distinctively clear and clean prose in which not a word is wasted.

The world conveyed here — dark, grim and often immoral — presents women as the mere playthings of men and sees war as a way for corrupt men to make vast amounts of money.

I read A Gun for Sale with a mix of fear and fascination. It’s not dissimilar to Greene’s more famous Brighton Rock, which it predates by a couple of years, in that it charts the disturbing outfall of one man’s violent behaviour on the people and community around him.

I normally love inter-war novels, but this one is pretty bleak and chilling. Perhaps its most interesting achievement (and one that I particularly admired) is the way in which it makes the female protagonist the star of the show and paints such a wonderful portrait of the killer it’s easy for the reader to both loathe and empathise with him…

I read this book for The 1936 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 12-18 April, 2021.

Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, London, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Finders, Keepers’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 320 pages; 2020.

Morally dubious characters are a mainstay of Sabine Durrant’s work, and Finders, Keepers, her latest novel, is no exception.

In this gripping story — which is right out of the Patricia Highsmith playbook — two women, poles apart in background and personality, develop a strange, obsessional relationship that culminates in a murder. As the pair dance around one another, their individual secrets are revealed one by one, in a carefully paced narrative filled with many a-ha! moments.

Told from the perspective of Verity, an eccentric woman in her 50s who makes her living working from home as a lexicographer for the English Oxford Dictionary, the story juxtaposes two narrative threads: a retrospective one that looks back on how Verity became friends with her neighbour Ailsa, and a current one that focuses on Ailsa’s new life awaiting trial for murder.

Murder by poisoning

When the book opens, Ailsa is staying with Verity after having spent several nights in a cell at the local police station. Someone has daubed “YOUR GUILTEY” in red paint on the front fence. We later learn that Ailsa’s husband has died, possibly from eating poisoned food, and that she has been charged with his murder. Her three children have been taken into care.

Verity, kind-hearted and eager to please, looks after her friend with unwavering devotion, the kind of devotion she had previously doled out to her aged mother, whom she cared for until her death five years earlier. Estranged from her only sister, Verity lives alone with only her dog Maudie for company.

Verity explains that when Ailsa moved in next door — after “13 months of drills and bulldozers, the clatter of scaffolding, the whining of saws, the bangs and shouts and music and oaths of the increasingly frantic builders” — it’s a relief that the renovations are over. She already knows that Ailsa, who works in HR, and her husband, Tom, who is a record company executive, have moved to London after a failed stint in Kent. She knows their taste in furniture and fittings (having seen it all delivered).

But their friendship gets off to a wonky start when Tom comes around to complain about the trees and ivy along the back fence (wanting her to cut everything back). Later, when she’s invited over for drinks (via a handwritten invitation on the back of a postcard), she drops by, unaware that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to convince her to clear up her garden.

This sets the tone for their friendship, though Verity seems genuinely unaware that she is being used or manipulated by both parties. Even when she begins (accidentally) tutoring their son, Max, who is struggling at school because of his dyslexia, Verity can never see it in herself to chase the promised payment.

Mutually dependent friendship

As the story unfolds and the two narratives, past and present, intertwine we begin to learn more and more about the ways in which these two women come to depend on one another, and we begin to see how Tom’s behaviour, bullying and rude, might have lead to his downfall.

Finders, Keepers is a clever, suspense-filled story, one that doesn’t follow all the conventional rules of the genre. It’s far from predictable and has the kind of satisfactory ending that makes you glad you took the time to read the book.

But it’s the characters that really make the story — the bitchy, manipulative Aisla, who is all sweetness and light whenever the spotlight is cast in her direction, is rather wonderful, yet it’s Verity, an oddball with her quirky interests, that gives the novel its real heart.

Author, Benjamin Myers, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

What a joy and balm for the soul Benjamin Myers’ new novel, The Offing, turned out to be! It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War, and I’d be really surprised if it didn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year.

Summer of love

The two main characters are Robert, the 16-year-old son of a coal miner, and Dulcie, an eccentric well-to-do woman who lives alone in a cosy cottage by the sea.

The pair meet by accident when Robert heads off on a solo trek with no real plan other than to escape a pre-ordained life in a Yorkshire coal-mining village, hungry to live life having seen what happened to boys not much older than himself who had gone abroad to fight for England. When he finally reaches the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay, he spots a vine-covered cottage.

The house was built of local stone and was covered by Virginia creeper that clung to it like an octopus to a rock in a storm, its tangled vines reaching tentacle-like around corners. I came upon the house from the rear and traced the strangulating plant’s root as it rose from the ground to run around the side of the building, its leaves fluttering in succession when a light breeze ran across it. It appeared as if in a dream.

Here he comes across Dulcie (and her large dog “Butters”) in her somewhat overgrown garden. She greets him warmly, as if it was perfectly normal to come across a boy on her private patch of land, and invites him to join her for a cup of nettle tea. During their one-sided conversation, for Robert is shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers unless it is to arrange odd jobs for which he’s paid in food and lodgings, Dulcie suggests he could help weed her garden.

He ends up staying the entire summer.

Close friendship

Over the course of the novel, the pair develop a close friendship and Robert blossoms under Dulcie’s tutelage, for want of a better word.

Through their conversations — filled with Dulcie’s forthright no-holds-barred opinions in her trademark colourful (and often laugh-out-loud funny) language — he learns about art and history and cooking and poetry, about compassion and empathy and pain and loss. He learns about the real world outside of Yorkshire and comes to understand that there were two sides to the war.

‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.’

As he gets to know Dulcie — and the people in the local village — he realises that for all her warmth and upbeat nature, she holds a terrible secret close to her chest and when he uncovers it, it serves not as an end to their relationship but cements their platonic love for one another even more.

Dulcie herself learns and grows from her relationship with Robert, whom she comes to regard as the son she never had.

And while The Offing is a lovely and heartwarming portrait of intergenerational friendship, love and forgiveness, it’s also a hymn to nature, beauty and the arts. Myers’ descriptions of the landscape, of the ocean, of the weather and of the transformative power of poetry are beautifully evocative, rich and lyrical. His sentences drip with vivid detail and yet his prose has a quiet, understated restraint to it.

The story is both humble and uplifting. It slips down like hot chocolate — smooth, rich and soothing — and brims with wit and wisdom. I loved it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng: Heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship that develops between a Chinese university student and the elderly lady who provides his lodgings.

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.