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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

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.