1001 books, Author, Book review, E.M. Forster, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘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. It is featured 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”. Even Forster himself claimed it was his best book (he wrote sixth novels, and this was his fourth).

Set during the Edwardian era, it’s very much 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 very 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 very much 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 take 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. Note, I have also added this review to my ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ page.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Julian Maclaren-Ross, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘Of Love and Hunger’ by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Penguin Classics edition, published 2002

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 204pp; 2002.

It’s always great to kick off a new reading year with a brilliant book, and Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger couldn’t be a more perfect start to 2019.

First published in 1947, it’s set in a seedy seaside town on the English coast (most probably Bognor Regis), shortly before the beginning of the Second World War.

It tells the tale of Richard Fanshawe, a 27-year-old door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, who’s struggling to keep his head above water and lives in fear of getting the sack. 

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock.

Unable to make the required number of weekly sales, he’s behind in his boarding house rent, and his bill at the local store, where he buys his cigarettes on “the tick”, is inching towards the £4 mark, which is a small fortune. 

He keeps kidding himself that his wealthy Uncle George might save the day by sending him a cheque in the post, but his landlady has already cottoned on to this and watches him collect his mail every day, hoping she can snare the “gift” before it’s spent elsewhere.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.
‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.
‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’
‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ 

New Penguin Modern Classics edition, published 2018

Meanwhile his personal life is slightly brighter, full of visits to pubs and cafes, drinking beers and coffee, playing pool — and occasionally winning a few quid for his efforts. Then, when his colleague joins the Navy and asks him to look after his wife, Sukie, what he imagines to be a chore turns out to be a pleasant surprise: Sukie is a lot of fun and great company. He later falls in love. But what will he do when the husband returns?

Voice of the age

Of Love and Hunger is narrated in Fanshawe’s engaging but cynical voice. He’s a troubled character living a hand-to-mouth existence, but you get the impression it hasn’t always been this way. In a previous life he lived in Madras, India, where he worked as a newspaper reporter, and now he fancies himself as a bit of a writer — if only he could find the will to put pen to paper.

His personal torment is revealed in bad memories, which are italicised in the text, reminding him not to get ahead of himself. He seems to be ever conscious of not cocking things up again, for he has been unlucky in love before and realises he’s made one or two bad decisions:

Yes. I’d lost Angela all right. Perhaps if I’d married her when I was home on leave that time, when she’d wanted me to, everything would have been different. I certainly wouldn’t have lost my job.

With the threat of war looming, there’s a dark, brooding atmosphere to the story, a kind of hopelessness about the future, and it’s hard not to foresee the writing on the wall for poor Fanshawe and his cohorts.

There’s not much of a plot, but the characterisation and the often humorous anecdotes he relays more than makes up for this. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in Fanshawe’s company and if this is any indication of the quality of Maclaren-Ross’s usual output, I’ll be seeing what else I can discover by this most impressive writer.

For another take on this novel, please see Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal.

This year I am going to try to read 40 books from my TBR (books purchased before 31 December 2018). This is the first of #TBR40.

1001 books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, George Orwell, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 352 pages; 2004.

How do you review a book that is a true 20th Century classic like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four without simply regurgitating all that has been said before? Is there really anything more I can add to the mix? Probably not, but that won’t stop me telling you just a little about this brilliant dystopian novel, first publishing in 1949, and why I love it so much.

For those of you who have never read Orwell’s masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly), it’s set in London in 1984. The city, which belongs to one of the world’s three superstates, is under Totalitarian rule and at perpetual war. Everyone lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother, children are encouraged to spy against their parents, and to even think “bad” thoughts is considered a crime.

Winston Smith, the narrator, works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting Times articles so that the ruling Party’s version of history, which changes on a daily basis, is always correct. But Winston is not like everyone else and considers that the continual surveillance and collective world view is oppressive and stifles individuality. He’s also alarmed by the number of people who are “disappeared” and re-written out of history because they haven’t toed the Party line.

When he meets the intriguing Julia and begins an illicit romance with her, he discovers that he is not the only secret “rebel”. But this liaison does not escape the Thought Police and Winston is thrown into prison, where the “secrets” of the Party are finally revealed to him.

I first read this book circa 1994 when I was studying journalism and I remember, quite clearly, the oppression resonating off the page. It was a dark, incredibly thought-provoking story, and with every turn of the page I could feel my whole world view being challenged on very many different levels: was history a true record of the past? was the news media so corrupt? were wars just a means to stimulate the economy and keep people in jobs? were the enemies of the West just a conspiracy invented to keep us living in fear?

Fast forward 15 years and I re-read the book as part of my book group last month. This time ’round, my brain, having already grappled with these new and alarming concepts, now concentrated on whether Orwell’s “predictions” had come true. And because I was less caught up in the overwhelming brilliance of the book’s scope and vision, I enjoyed the narrative, which is quite fast-paced, and the eloquence of the prose, which is sparse without ever becoming boring.

The thing that struck me most, however, was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book, not the least in the following passage:

He remembered better the rackety, uneasy circumstances of the time: the periodical panics about air-raids and the sheltering in Tube stations, the piles of rubble everywhere, the unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners, the gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour, the enormous queues outside the bakeries, the intermittent machine-gun fire in the distance — above all, the fact that there was never enough to eat.

Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK (in 2006, there was one CCTV camera for every 14 people).

By contrast, Orwell’s prediction that the future would be sexless didn’t quite come off, and even the notion that you only had to alter The Times newspaper to rewrite history seems laughable given today’s preponderance of media outlets and formats, including the internet and mobile phone technology.

But, on the whole, this is a remarkable book, a kind of warning shot from the past, that still resonates and which will continue to resonate long into the future. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you to do so, and even if you have, it’s worth revisiting just to re-experience Orwell’s amazing vision.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Sam Selvon, Setting

‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 160 pages; 2006.

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

So begins Sam Selvon’s bittersweet story about a group of West Indian immigrants living in 1950s London. It’s a truly evocative look at a city through the jaded eyes of a black man, Moses Aloetta, a veteran Londoner who somewhat reluctantly welcomes newcomers from his homeland and shows them the ropes. (“I don’t know these people at all,” he tells one of his friends, “yet they coming to me as if I is some liaison officer, and I catching my arse as it is, how could I help them out?”)

But having earned a reputation as a “good fellar to contact, that he would help them get place to stay and work to do”, Moses finds himself taking Henry “Sir Galahad” Oliver under his wing. Galahad is irrepressibly upbeat and optimistic; he’s also thick-skinned, turning up in the dead of a London winter wearing nothing but “an old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong” (crepe-soled shoes). He doesn’t even have any luggage with him.

The Lonely Londoners follows the ups and downs of Galahad, and others like him, who arrive in London, thinking the roads are paved with gold, but then find that life is tough, that everything is expensive and that the white population is wary of black faces (or “spades” as they are called throughout this book) despite the “open door” policy of letting citizens from the colonies settle in Britain.

There’s no real plot to speak of, because this is essentially a collection of vignettes about various immigrants and the different ways in which they adapt and change to suit their new environment. It’s quite dark and depressing in places, as you come to experience each character’s slow dawning that London is not the place they thought it would be, that it’s a bleak, alien town, far removed from the sunnier climes from which they came.

There’s a wonderful scene near the beginning of the novel which captures this sudden sense of alienation perfectly. Galahad is braving the morning rush hour for the first time and when he sees so many people bustling about the tube station “a feeling of fright and loneliness come on him all of a sudden”.

The sun shining, but Galahad never see the sun look like how it looking now. No heat from it, it just there in the sky like a force-ripe orange. When he look up the colour of the sky so chocolate it make him more frighten. It have a kind of melancholy aspect about the morning that making him shiver. He have a feeling is about seven o’clock in the evening: when he look at clock on top of a building he see it only half-past ten in the morning.

Anyone who has experienced a London winter for the first time will know this feeling well; the nights stretch into 17-hour extravaganzas and you’re lucky if you see any daylight at all if you work in an office. This feels alien enough without having to worry about where you’re going to live and work and whether you’ve got enough money for the bus fare!

Selvon describes this netherworld existence, including the cramped bedsits, visits to the dole queue (“a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up”) and the liming (a Caribbean expression for “hanging out”), so beautifully it’s easy to get caught up in the lives depicted here. But the best part is seeing how the city eventually works it charms on them, so that, in the end, they find themselves feeling at home, or, as Galahad puts it, “when the sweetness of summer get in him he say he would never leave the old Brit’n as long as he live”.

As you will have noticed from the quotations I’ve used, the book is written in a kind of Jamaican patois, or, as Shusheila Nasta writes in the introduction, “a creolized voice” which lends it a lovely, intimate, Calypso rhythm, and a sense that you really are in the heads of these Caribbean immigrants.

The Lonely Londoners is part of a trilogy; I’m looking forward to reading the next two as soon as I am able.

Author, Book review, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Shirley Jackson, USA

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Put the kettle on, grab yourself some snacks and make sure you’ve got no other plans when you curl up to read this book, because We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those delicious, atmospheric reads from which you will not want to be disturbed.

I was caught in the sway of this mesmirising novel, Shirley Jackson‘s last (it was first published in 1962 and she died in 1965), from its opening lines:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

How could you not be intrigued by that?

Sadly, it’s difficult to properly review this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you too much about the story. (A cursory glance at the blurb on this newly published Penguin Modern Classic edition does reveal one of the “secrets” but it doesn’t ruin the suspense.)

Basically, Mary Katherine, also known as Merricat, lives a secluded life with her sister and their bumbling, eccentric Uncle Julian, in Blackwood House, a Gothic-like mansion surrounded by woods on the outskirts of a village. Every Tuesday and Friday Merricat braves the wrath and scorn of the villagers (“The people of the village have always hated us”), who stare and gossip, to buy food and borrow library books. When she enters the grocery store the owner rushes to serve her before anyone else, while other shoppers stop what they’re doing…

holding a can or a half-filled bag of cookies or a head of lettuce, not willing to move until I had gone out the door again…

This sense of creepiness builds further when she has coffee in the local coffee shop, because

If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave.

It’s almost like whichever way Merricat turns, there’s an insidious, nasty reminder that she, and her family, are not wanted. But what did they do to earn this hate? The answer to this is the nub of the novel, so I’m not going to tell you here.

But essentially, the secretive, hermit-like existence that the Blackwood’s lead is disrupted when Charles, a long-lost cousin, makes an unexpected visit and settles in for the duration. Merricat, a wayward, naive and some might say decidedly kooky teenager, feels so threatened by his presence that she goes out of her way to make him feel particularly unwelcome — with intriguing consequences.

As much as I enjoyed this book and the oppressive, Gothic atmosphere it creates — think The Village of the Damned meets The Wicker Man — I did guess the main revelation before the half-way point. But even so, this is a thrilling read, and I can easily see why Shirley Jackson has never been out of print in her native America.

It’s not a horror story per se, because it won’t have you checking underneath the bed for monsters, but it’s a kind of twisted fairytale with a dash of black comedy and a pinch of mystery. Or, as Joyce Carol Oates claims in the Afterword, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a ‘happy ending’ is both ironic and literal, the consequences of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice — of others”.