Four excellent debut novels

October 25, 2017

Spain! Our holiday in sunny Andalucia seems like a different world now we are back in London and very much ‘back to school’. Ezra has just started going to a nanny share on the two days a week that Vita goes to nursery, and I finally have some proper time to think. Well, I say think, but really I mean sleep. These are probably the most expensive naps I will ever have, given the cost of double childcare, but I try to justify it with the lurking throb of shingles threatening to resurface and, more often than not, one child or the other wakes up screaming in the night, either hungry or with a nightmare.

Life has very much shrunk to a family scale, only every now and then I come up against the bigger reality, such as the other day when our greengrocer wouldn’t take my old pound coin, and only then did I realise we have shiny new ones. The other major event of recent times has been our first trip to A&E. Ezra dived off the climbing frame and I managed to catch him just in time, thereby saving a smashed skull, but dislocating his arm in the process. We were seen straight away, the arm was clicked back and we were back to normal within an hour or so. Thank you NHS.

Usborne shakespeareMeanwhile, Vita has become obsessed with Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet – we have this beautiful Usborne edition of Shakespeare stories – and so we spend most of our time playing at killing each other in various roles. I’m not sure this is especially healthy, but I am certainly enjoying revisiting the stories, and it leads to some funny comments, e.g. this morning when I explained that snoring Dad must be in a very deep sleep, and she said, ‘Just like Juliet.’

I have been reading various debut novels, which I always find so exciting – glimpsing these writers full of promise at the start of their careers. I wrote about four of them for a big review in last week’s Spectator. I was intrigued to see that so many of them engaged with the experience of migration – clearly the big issue of the day. Or, I ought to say, the bigger issue of the day, as opposed to how to launder a load of Ezra’s vomit out of every single piece of bedding in the house in time for bedtime. I am assuming you would rather read more about these novels than Ezra’s sick bug, so just click on the pic below to read the Spectator review – and I’d love to know if you too have recently come across any compelling fresh new voices.

Black Rock, White City

 

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Madame Zero

September 8, 2017

Madame Zero 1

This weekend, we will be decamping to Spain for a week, to rent a villa with some dear friends. ‘How wonderful that you will have a rest,’ say my friends who don’t have children. On said holiday, there will be six adults, and seven children, the oldest of whom is only three. Well, if not a rest, then at least a change and a lot of sherry.

I will report back, but couldn’t bear to go away leaving you with the luke-warm review of Nicole Krauss. So here is my review of Madame Zero by Sarah Hall, which was in last week’s Country Life. This new collection of short stories is electric and surprising. Just what the doctor ordered to chase away any September blues.

Madame Zero

 

Forest Dark

September 1, 2017

I keep on reading books about women who are struggling to manage the jostling demands of children, marriages, and careers. Or perhaps, it is just that this is pretty much all I can see in a book at the moment – a stalwart reminder that one’s reading of a book is so subjective and influenced by one’s current situation. I remember at university, in the midst of writing a thesis on Virginia Woolf, half-watching an episode of Friends with some other students. ‘It’s JUST like The Waves,’ I exclaimed, in a moment of epiphany. The others briefly looked at me, raised a few eyebrows and then returned to watching the telly. This is why I am really looking forward to seeing the gang at Emily’s walking book club on Sunday, to discuss The Group – we will all be coming at it from such different places, and I long to know what you all make of it. Of course, I am mostly fascinated by the bit at the end when Priss and Norine run into each other in the park and struggle to reconcile their entirely different parenting strategies.

Thank you so much for the many kind wishes of recovery from the dreaded shingles and the rest of it. I have been resting a great deal and seem to be on the mend, if still utterly exhausted.

I reviewed Nicole Krauss’s much-anticipated new novel, Forest Dark, in this week’s Spectator. The book is only partly about the struggle of motherhood/marriage/writing, but to my mind this was the best part.  Click on the pic below to read the review.

Forest Dark

Silver and Salt

August 8, 2017

Silver and Salt

A speedy post while Ezra naps and Vita is at nursery, in part to stop me from falling asleep as it seems that if I nap now, then I lie awake at night listening to the rest of the family snoring, panicking that I am wasting this short time when I could be asleep NOT sleeping and worrying about fidgeting in case it wakes Ezra up earlier than the early time which he wakes to feed, while feeling a fierce, very unhelpful jealous rage towards the sleeping bodies which surround me.

I have got shingles, for the third time in the last six months. It’s mother nature’s way of telling you to take better care of yourself, says the doctor. I do try, I say, wanting to ask: Did mother nature ever have to be an actual mother, looking after two small children over and above herself? Are you getting enough sleep? he asks. I’d like a blood test, I say.

It is too easy to fixate on the negatives – the lack of sleep, the shingles, the mess, the milk leaking out of sore boobs, and the laundry, the dementedness of it all. I don’t know how you have time to read anything at all, people say in bewildered admiration. How could I survive otherwise? I ask. I make the time as it is so essential, for me, to have that time thinking about something else.

So here is my review of the novel Silver and Salt by Elanor Dymott (I love that spelling of the name), which was in Country Life this week. I try to smile at the irony that essentially looking after two small children helped send the mother in the book completely mad.

Silver and Salt review

 

 

 

Eureka by Anthony Quinn

July 27, 2017

I know I know … I have been worse than useless at writing my blog and it feels too boring to apologise (again) or list the many reasons why (well, in fact, the many reasons all sprout from just two – Vita and Ezra). So I thought I’d try changing tack here and publishing links to things I’ve written elsewhere, or indeed Emily’s walking book club news. The thing is, I am managing to write a little bit, but all the links are currently somewhat buried on different pages of this website, whereas I thought if I were to try to make this more of a ‘feed’ as they say, it might work a little better. See how you like it? Let me know? Forgive me?!

Ahem, so kicking things off with my review of Anthony Quinn’s dazzling new novel Eureka for this week’s Spectator. Click on the cover pic below for the review.

Eureka

 

 

Earth and High Heaven

May 17, 2017

If life has its ups and downs, then life with two children has its UPS and DOWNS. I was going to begin with some of the laughably low points, but I found myself repeatedly pressing delete as I realised what grim reading they make – revolving around various combinations of poo, sick, boobs, and tantrums. And then the ups are all so saccharine – they make for even grimmer reading! So instead, here’s an UP which has nothing to do with children.

Many of you will know how much I adore and admire Persephone Books. Their smart, secretive dove grey covers hide a multitude of delights, and I’ve written about many of them here.

So what an up it is to have my name inside those very dear grey covers!

Earth and High Heaven 1

I was beyond honoured to write the Preface to Persephone Books’ newly republished Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, a little-known Canadian writer. It’s about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War in Montreal. It interrogates how we treat migrants, misogyny and anti-semitism while being an unputdownable story of love against the odds. I urge you to read the book; and to further the cause, here is my Preface in full:

*************************************************************************************

Earth and High Heaven 2The first time I read Earth and High Heaven, I kept on turning back to the beginning; I must have read the opening sentence at least a dozen times. As Marc and Erica’s story of love against the odds grew increasingly desperate, I was ever keener to clutch at a tiny piece of hope in the phrasing of the first line:

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met …

Surely, I pleaded, the ease with which Graham uses the plural ‘they’ and the casual turn of phrase imply a well-established couple, fondly looking back to when they first met. This was my shard of hope, and yet, as soon as Graham offers it, she withdraws it:

… for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September, 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaronson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was a Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes.

The hopeful ‘they’ swiftly unravels. Moreover, we are given Marc’s potted biography in sharp contrast to the concise description of Erica – ‘one of the Westmount Drakes’ – and we cannot help but fear the improbability of two people from such different worlds ending up together.

From the first sentence, Graham sets up a will-they-won’t-they tension that hooks her readers in agonising uncertainty until the very end of the book. A contemporary reviewer described it as ‘Romeo and Juliet in Westmount’, a parallel which isn’t lost on the novel’s protagonists. When Marc and Erica hear birdsong during their first weekend away together, Marc says: ‘Romeo and Juliet had a nightingale but all we get is a whippoorwill.’ Erica corrects him:

“Incidentally, it was a lark, not a nightingale – remember?”

She repeated softly,

“‘It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.’”

 Shakespeare’s lark is ‘so out of tune’ because, unlike the nightingale, he heralds the coming morning. Romeo and Juliet’s first night together will also be their last, so it’s no wonder the birdsong is full of ‘harsh discords and unpleasing sharps’. With this doom-laden omen called into play, we can’t help but worry that Marc and Erica’s time together will be similarly snatched away all too soon.

Graham’s choice of clans for her star-crossed lovers – Reisers and Drakes, Jews and Gentiles – is especially potent given the book’s timing. Written in 1944 and set two years’ earlier, rarely has the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Gentiles been so keenly felt.

Her decision to write so overtly about Canadian anti-Semitism was, however, both brave and unusual in the contemporary political climate. In the Canadian academic Max Beer’s study of Montreal’s response to the Holocaust, he argues that in order to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, which was becoming associated with Hitler, ‘the plight of European Jewry was camouflaged, hidden in a language that did not specifically mention the Jew’. So, for instance, Canadians argued against ‘refugees of Europe’ emigrating to Canada, rather than calling them Jews. Beer points out that the Canadian Jewish Community helped with this camouflage. They worried that ‘too much emphasis on Jewish suffering in Europe would lead not to sympathy but to an anti-Semitic backlash’, so the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler’s target was ‘sublimated to a theme that spoke of universal suffering under the Nazis’. After Kristallnacht, the editorial in the Montreal-based Canadian Jewish Chronicle argued:

To-day it is the Jews who have been reduced to serfdom, decreed into helotry, made lower than the worm. But to-morrow? … To-morrow it will be the Catholics, the Protestants, all Christians whose doctrine of love is anathema to the savages who have sprung up upon the seats of the mighty in Germany.

The international press was also complicit in masking the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust. During the War, the front page of The New York Times mentioned Hitler’s targeting of the Jews only six times, and the discoveries of gas chambers in 1942 were confined to the back pages.

In Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham defies this oblique treatment of the Holocaust. Marc tells Erica about his cousin, ‘shot trying to escape from a concentration camp’, and Graham has a habit of ominously referring to the ‘pre-war’ figure of sixteen million Jews, implying the devastating decimation which was ensuing. She also shows the appalling extent of anti-Semitism in Canada, listing the various Montreal establishments that ‘don’t take Jews’, and even compares it to Nazi Germany, when Erica challenges her father with:

“We Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far.”

Why, in a climate of reticence, and in what is ostensibly a romance novel, was Gwethalyn Graham bold enough to confront the plight of the Jews head on?

Graham believed that writers ought to engage with contemporary politics. In 1945, when an interviewer asked about her taste in reading, she declared that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a searing critique of Soviet Communism, was ‘the greatest novel of the last ten years’. From her first published article in 1936, “Women, Are They Human?”, which argued for the rights of married women to work outside the home, to her letter to the Montreal Gazette in 1960, protesting at the Canadian Prime Minister’s support of South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth, Graham’s writing reflects her life-long concern with social injustice.

Her biographer, Barbara Meadowcroft, describes Graham’s childhood ‘in a home where international events and social issues were discussed round the dining-room table’. Graham’s mother, Isabel Erichsen-Brown, helped to organise the Equal Franchise League to campaign for votes for women in Canada, then joined the League of Women Voters, which educated women on public questions. In the 1930s, Graham and her mother helped Jewish refugees and welcomed them into their home in spite of widespread anti-Semitism. Her father, Frank Erichsen-Brown, was a barrister who supported his wife’s causes; once, when an all-male audience was heckling a suffragist speaker, he silenced them then urged them to listen to her ‘extremely important message’.

Clearly, Gwethalyn Graham grew up with an awareness of social issues, and a sense of moral justice, for which she knew how to fight. She had also spent some time in Europe, when she attended a Swiss finishing school, and again in 1938, when she went to England, France and Switzerland following publication of her first novel Swiss Sonata, which drew on her experience at the finishing school. Swiss Sonata is set in January 1935, at the time of the Saar plebiscite; the school acts as a miniature League of Nations, with tensions rife between pupils from many countries and of different religions.

So Graham was more attuned to the problem of anti-Semitism than many of her fellow Canadians, but perhaps the reason for such a passionate argument against it can be found within the pages of Earth and High Heaven itself.

When Erica first meets Marc at her mother’s cocktail party, they immediately have an ease with each other, a feeling of connection. In the course of their conversation, Erica asks Marc where he lives and he tells her about his ‘awful’ rooming house. Erica suggests an alternative, but Marc dismisses it because, he says, ‘the janitor told me they don’t take Jews.’ This has a profound effect on Erica, as she realises how often she’s heard casually anti-Semitic remarks and seen signs against Jews ‘in newspaper advertisements, on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses, clubs, and the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians’. She reflects that ‘until now she had never bothered to read them’ because, as she explains to Marc:

‘You see, the trouble with me is that I’m just like everybody else – I don’t realize what something really means until it suddenly walks up and hits me between the eyes. I can be quite convinced intellectually that a situation is wrong, but it’s still an academic question which doesn’t really affect me personally, until, for some reason or other, it starts coming at me through my emotions as well. It isn’t enough to think, you have to feel …’

This is the great moment of awakening to injustice for which Graham prepares us in her epigraph from A.E. Housman’s collection of poems A Shropshire Lad. She quotes the moment when the speaker goes from ‘I slept and saw not’ to becoming aware of:

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation –

Oh why did I awake?

The words could just as easily be voiced by Erica, and also by Graham herself. Following a short and disastrous first marriage, Graham – like Erica – had an affair with a Jewish lawyer. Like Erica, she wanted to introduce this Jewish lawyer to her father, and, as in the novel, her father refused to meet him. Graham’s affair didn’t last, but her friend Joyce Tedman Austin described it as an ‘overriding passion’; her sister argued, however, that Marc Reiser wasn’t based on any particular affair, rather that ‘every man Gwen dated seemed to be a Jew’. Whoever is right, at some point a love affair with a Jewish man induced a similar moment of awakening in Graham, directing her passion for social justice towards Canadian anti-Semitism in this novel.

earth and high heaven

Gwethalyn Graham does not, however, confine herself to the Jewish cause. As soon as she has set up her opposition of Jews versus Gentiles, she complicates it. She shows that Montreal’s Gentiles are split into English and French Canadians – a divide to which Graham would return in Dear Enemies, her published dialogue with Liberal politician Solange Rolland, in which they sought a greater harmony between the two groups. Graham shows how English Canadians are further split along class lines:

[Erica] got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing … she had ceased to be one of the Drakes of Westmount and was simply Erica Drake of the Post’.

She also stages the perennially complex power play between men and women – noted in details, such as Erica’s irritation when her friend René orders lunch for her in a restaurant, and explored more deliberately, as when her father tries to persuade Erica to leave the Post in favour of the family company:

As a woman you can just go so far, and then you’re stuck in a job where you spend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Graham’s Montreal is not just a city divided between Jews and Gentiles, but one split by numerous, complex, jostling rifts. As Vicky, the thoughtful Canadian heroine of Swiss Sonata, reflects, ‘Isn’t it funny how people will subdivide themselves, no matter how little space they have?’

Graham sets up so many divisions in order to point out the paradox of how they are at once utterly meaningless, and devastatingly meaningful. At one of the novel’s crisis points, Erica’s mother – who, in a show of solidarity with her husband, refuses to meet Marc – asks Miriam, Erica’s sister, what she thinks of him. Miriam replies:

I can’t tell you what Marc’s like, except that he’s the same kind of person as Erica, he’s the other side of the same medal. They just seem to belong together, that’s all.

It is an intriguing image. Marc can be ‘the other side’ of a division to Erica, and yet they remain part ‘of the same’ thing. It encapsulates Graham’s urging us to look at the greater unity beyond petty divisions. Crucially, Miriam refuses to describe Marc: ‘I can’t tell you what Marc’s like’. Instead of the wealth of prejudiced generalisations with which Marc is burdened, and which cause these divisions within society, Miriam lets him speak for himself.

In Swiss Sonata, the headmistress reflects on her own shortcoming when it comes to understanding the girls:

One’s theories remain intact only so long as one generalizes from ignorance, and avoids particularising from knowledge.

In Earth and High Heaven, time and again, Erica attempts to persuade her father to stop generalising so that he might see Marc as an individual, not as a Jew:

‘But we’re not talking about “Jewish lawyers”,’ said Erica. ‘We’re talking about Marc Reiser.’

Erica is sensitive enough to realise that she too suffers from this affliction. When Marc tells her about his brother David:

She kept trying to dismiss the feeling that something about Dr. David Reiser did not seem to fit, and then, suddenly angry at her own evasiveness, she swung around and deliberately faced it. Her surprise was due to the fact that Dr. Reiser did not sound like a Jew.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect about our habit of seeing individuals through generalisations is that the person suffering from the discrimination can become complicit with it. Towards the end of the novel, Marc’s brother David tells him that when he was passing through Montreal, he decided to look up the Drakes to ‘see what it was all about’. After months of not being allowed to meet Erica’s parents or even set foot inside her home, Marc is astonished as David describes how he called for Erica and had a drink with her father. David tells him:

The point is that it takes two to play the game Drake was playing, and he couldn’t have got away with it at all if you’d behaved like an ordinary, intelligent human being, instead of like a Jew with an inferiority complex.

The critic Michèle Rackham calls this suggestion that Marc is partly to blame ‘unsettling’. It is, but it is also empowering. For if Marc is partly to blame, then he is also partly able to put it right. Rackham draws our attention to Marc’s lack of agency in the book, from when he stands around like a piece of furniture at the opening cocktail party, to when he tells Erica that, in spite of being a lawyer, in Montreal he feels he ‘can’t change anything’. Rackham argues that Marc is cast as the helpless Romantic heroine, whereas Erica – or ‘Eric’ as she is often called – is the hero, in her androgynous clothes, with her job at the Post, and her role as something of a ‘surrogate son’ to Charles. In that case, the great turning point of the novel is when Marc finally understands that he is in part to blame, that his actions aren’t meaningless, and so he can in fact be an agent of change. Gwethalyn Graham urges us not just to see other people as individuals but moreover for us all to act as individuals, rather than carrying on along the ‘particular groove’ society carves out for us.

earth and high heaven

The timing of Erica and Marc’s affair is precise: the four months from June 1942, when they first meet at a cocktail party, to September, when Marc is drafted abroad. Throughout the novel, Graham draws our attention to time passing, noting, for instance, that Marc and Erica talk to each other for half an hour at the opening cocktail party, and repeatedly highlighting the clock in Erica’s father’s office. This sense of time ticking is heightened by the War, which we hear rumbling relentlessly in the background, imbuing each moment with added urgency.

Yet Graham also shows us how time can be seized and stretched into something quite different. Each moment Marc and Erica spend together pushes against the boundaries of time as meted out by Erica’s father’s clock, and, conversely, every moment apart feels insufferably long. After their second meeting, they arrange to meet on the Wednesday for dinner, only for Marc to phone and ask to see Erica that very night instead. In showing us a love which refuses to be bound by time, Graham also gives us a love which is timeless.

It oughtn’t be a surprise to find that the novel retains its power. For how many of us reading Earth and High Heaven today, in a different continent, in a different century, feel that we know an Erica and a Marc, or indeed that there is an echo of Erica and Marc’s situation in our own? When it was first published, the novel was a hit not just in Canada, but it topped the American bestseller lists, was translated into eighteen languages, and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide. Its international success is testament to the story’s universal appeal, which is what Samuel Goldwyn must have seen when he bought the film rights for $100,000, planning to cast Gregory Peck and Katherine Hepburn as Marc and Erica (though, alas, the film was never made).

Since the Second World War, societies have grown infinitely more diverse, and yet we still all know people from different backgrounds who, like Marc and Erica, have struggled to be together in the face of prejudice – whether they practice different religions, are from different classes, or have different shades of skin. Gwethalyn Graham wrote Earth and High Heaven to confront the divisive prejudices that were all too prolific in Montreal in 1944, but – sadly – her call to arms resounds just as urgently in Britain today.

Gwethalyn Graham

My Cousin Rachel

February 27, 2017

‘How was the night?’ the husband asks in the grey gloamy light of not-quite-morning.

‘I can’t really remember,’ I say.

We lie there together in silence. The husband clutches his phone, ready to press snooze when the shock of the alarm next jolts. I wonder how I have managed to slump into such an uncomfortable position, and try to recall how many times Ezra woke up to feed and whether or not Vita was up too. Ezra is guzzling hungrily, snuffling with yet another cold he has caught from his older sister. Soon she starts shouting from next door: ‘Wake me up now mummy!’ It’s twenty past six. I prod the husband. He rolls out of bed. And so the day begins.

the-orchard-book-of-greek-mythsIt is usually better once we are downstairs. Ezra grins away all open-mouthed and sparkly eyed. Vita is happy showing off how she can get dressed on her own – ‘let me want to do it’ – and then there is the relative peace of breakfast, as she distributes pomegranate seeds among us (her current favourite fruit because it is pink and also because it is Persephone’s fruit, and we are reading the Greek myths together, and Persephone is her favourite). The husband necks a coffee and races off to work in the hope that he might be back for bathtime. I stack last night’s wine glasses into the dishwasher and feel dimly grateful for having splashed out on a very expensive face cream.

How was the night? I can’t really remember. How were the first two months? I can’t really remember either. It is a blur of smiles and tears and general wonder.

I last wrote here after a terrible few days in hospital before Ezra’s late arrival. (The birth, by the way, was great: The midwives came round. Vita went to bed and we listened to her on the monitor as she arranged all her animals into ‘families’. We hung out with the midwives and ate pasta and chocolate biscuits, and talked about books. The husband inflated the birth pool. Ezra came out with his hand by his cheek. Then we got into bed, and when Vita woke up the next morning, she climbed into bed with us and met her little brother.)

the-weirdstone-of-brisingamenWhile I was in hospital I was sorely stuck for something to read. I needed something wholly absorbing and extremely easy to divert me from the gruesome sound effects of the ward. I tried a few children’s books and had moderate success with Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but it only lasted an evening. I remember lying in bed the next morning puzzling over what to read, alighting on the solution of something by Daphne du Maurier and plotting an outing to a bookshop, but no sooner had this eureka moment occurred when the doctors came round and discharged me.

Over Christmas, the four of us decamped to my mum’s house. My old bedroom there is still lined with my childhood books, and as I was scanning the spines one evening I spotted the clump of Daphne du Mauriers. I picked up My Cousin Rachel and was soon suitably immersed. I now see that it is coming out as a film this year, so I feel pleasingly (and surprisingly) on trend.

Having recently re-read Rebecca for Emily’s Walking Book Club, I would say that Daphne du Maurier is pretty damn good at creating women opaque with a balance of mystery and menace.

my-cousin-rachelThe novel is narrated by Philip, an orphan who was raised by his cousin, confirmed bachelor Ambrose, who is very jolly and kind and rich. Ambrose goes off to Florence, where he meets and marries their distant cousin Rachel. He dies not long afterwards in mysterious circumstances, the implication being that Rachel might have murdered him. When Rachel then comes to Cornwall, we – like Philip – are prepared to hate her and distrust her. Philip, however, in spite of his prejudices, falls victim to her womanly charms…

Du Maurier couldn’t have made Philip more naïve, open and daftly innocent. He is also headstrong and impulsive, and one is frequently grateful that he (and his family money) is still under the control of his guardian for the remaining few months until he turns twenty-five. His cheeks are always aflame, he doesn’t take anything that he can’t ‘seize’, and he says idiotic things like:

‘I have a shrewd guess … that the blessings of married bliss are not all they are claimed to be. If it’s warmth and comfort that a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well.’

When Rachel laughs at this, he notes: ‘I could not see that it was so very funny.’

Incidentally, du Maurier seems to have been somewhat preoccupied with men’s love affairs with their country houses. In Rebecca, Max de Winter is undone by his love for Manderley, and losing the house – Rebecca’s final act of revenge from beyond the grave – is what leaves him stuck drifting around soulless hotels feeling so miserable. He is far sadder about losing the house than losing his wife.

Philip’s innocence is a foil for Rachel’s dark mystery. She is all poise and womanly charm, dwelling in her candlelit boudoir, brewing her murky tisanes, dressed in black. Poor Philip doesn’t stand a chance!

But Du Maurier’s great skill is that she is constantly setting up our prejudices and then undermining them. We think of Rachel as a murderer, deviously trying to cheat Philip of his inheritance and ensnare his affection for her. Somehow, Du Maurier manages to spin it so that as well as thinking all this, we doubt it and simultaneously see Rachel as a widow in mourning for her husband, as a lady who is kind and affectionate towards childish Philip, and we note her responsibility in insisting on returning all the family jewels that Philip impetuously gives her. We are forever oscillating between two wildly different interpretations of her – with different bits of ‘proof’ each way constantly surfacing. Even at the very end of the novel, Rachel remains ambiguous. We never know if she killed Ambrose and tried to kill Philip or if in fact she nursed them through terrible illnesses, perhaps even saving Philip’s life.

It strikes me that Rebecca too could be either devil or angel: she does all sorts of terrible things, but only if we believe Max de Winter, who eventually admits to killing her. Likewise, in Rachel we have a woman whose story is told to us by a man, only it is all the more obvious that Rachel is an enigma to Philip, as he – like us – oscillates between seeing her as guilty and innocent. Perhaps the point isn’t in deciding either way, but in that Du Maurier gives these women such powerful, unresolvable mystery. In so doing, she prevents the men in her novels from understanding or controlling them.

There is more to say about this book, which is very gripping, very gothic, very menacing and strange and brilliant. But I’m afraid it has joined the sleep-deprived blur of the past two months and I had better admit that, if you were to ask me much more about it, I would have to say, just like whatever happened last night, ‘I can’t really remember.’

daphne-du-maurier

Daphne du Maurier – looking suitably fierce and mysterious

Terms and Conditions

December 7, 2016

Or should I say term and conditions…

40 weeks came and went on Sunday – and the baby is now officially overdue. I think I would be feeling more relaxed about this had the past few weeks not been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Firstly, this whole waiting around thing is new for me. Vita was a week early, which took us by surprise and also meant that I was expecting this one to be early too. It’s odd how vague ‘feelings about’ things can soon cement themselves into indelible fact in one’s head. After Vita’s lovely birth, thanks to hypnobirthing, we are doing the same thing again (although this time we’re hoping for the added plus of a home birth). When the hypnobirthing lady came over a few months’ ago for a refresher evening, she, somewhat mystically, asked me when the full moon was nearest the due date. Babies have a habit of coming around the full moon, she said. I raised an eyebrow. It’s because, she said, there’s so much energy around then. The husband’s eyebrow remained raised. The labour wards are always busiest around the full moon anyway, she said, noting the eyebrows and then changing tack. Of course, then I had to look up the lunar situation, and discovered that the full moon was a couple of weeks’ before the due date. Right, I decided, that’s when the baby will come. I stopped even thinking of the due date being 4th December, and instead it was fixed to arrive on 14th November.

The day came and went, and on the following Monday I went for a routine appointment with the midwife. I think I might be having a few mild contractions, I said. Probably just Braxton Hicks, but they have been going on most of the morning. I stopped myself from saying anything about the full moon. She prodded my tummy. Humm, she said. Either the baby has got extremely low down in your pelvis and labour’s about to kick in, or it might have turned sideways. Would you mind popping down to the hospital for a scan, um, now? Nothing serious? I asked. Oh no, I’m sure it’s fine. Should I bring my hospital bag? Oh no, don’t worry, it’s just to check the position’s right.

I called the husband on the way to the tube. Just popping in for a scan. It could all be about to happen, they just want to check the position’s ok. What shall I do about the builders? he asked. I should say here that we have been getting cupboards put into our bedroom (so that when I spend most of the forthcoming nights in the bedroom, not asleep, it will be a nicer environment), and the building work ended up dragging on and on… None of us wanted them to be around during the home birth – least of all the builders, who looked increasingly pale every time they saw me. I don’t know, I said, you’re the architect.

At the hospital, the scan was done straight away. Thanks, I said – it’s amazing of you to squeeze me in like this. The doctor was unsmiling and had tattoos all up her arm. On went the cold jelly and up came the picture of the little one. The baby is transverse, she said. You are now a high-risk pregnancy. You cannot leave the hospital. If your waters break, the cord could be prolapse and you wouldn’t get here in time to save the baby. You must stay in the hospital until Sunday, when you will be 39 weeks, and then we will give you an emergency C-section. This was on Monday afternoon.

It was not a good moment. And the next few days weren’t good either. The first night was spent in the waiting room, as there was no space on the ward. (Presumably because of the full moon.) The antenatal ward, once I got there, is not a fun place to spend time. Aside from the fact that you are confined to a windowless purple-curtained cubicle, all day and night you listen to people doing one of the following things: arguing with their partner loudly; snoring loudly; watching telly loudly; or, worst of all, going into labour extremely loudly. Try to enjoy the rest, the husband said, as I grumbled tearfully on the phone to him after the second night of listening to labour screams going on from 3 to 8 a.m. He was running around manically trying to deal with his work, the builders (who had been dismissed then re-summoned), the washing machine, and ferrying Vita about.

Anyway, in the end, the clever baby managed to turn back into the right position all by itself. The doctors’ plan changed daily, as the baby slowly wriggled itself around, and by Friday I was released, and told we were back on for the home birth. No C-section, no induction, no turning by the midwife, no forced breaking of the waters, but back to the sanctuary of our living room and plan A. HOORAY!

Which brings me, at last, to books. For this was ten days ago, and – when not looking after Vita – I have been doing rather a lot of sitting around waiting, trying not to think about the baby not being here yet. The real worry is that if it is too late, I will have to be induced, and then I will have to go back to the wretched antenatal ward. And also, weirdly, the contractions have a habit of suddenly ramping up and then disappearing again, so that last week, early in the morning, the midwives arrived, the birth pool was semi-inflated, and Vita’s granny summoned to collect her, only for everything to return to ‘normal’ a couple of hours later.

So I have been in need of a good book: one that’s easy for my extremely distracted brain to dip into, and that will hold my attention. Having also finished all my work, this was to be the first book I would be reading entirely for pleasure for quite some time.

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And so I came to pick up the beautiful object that is the latest hardback published by Slightly Foxed: Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I know and love Ysenda’s writing from her Spectator columns and also from her very wonderful book The Real Mrs Miniver, which I wrote about here.

Her new book is all about girls’ boarding schools, from 1939 to 1979. Weirdly, I think this might be all the more interesting for readers who, like me, didn’t go to boarding school, for it is an astonishing anthropological study of a certain species, evident now as a grown woman who:

sleeps with the window wide open; feels homesick on Sunday evenings even though she is now at home; never touches cauliflower cheese; keeps an old address book in which most of the addresses have been there for so long that they don’t have postcodes; knows the Matins Collects by heart; fears unpopularity even among fully grown women in middle age; and still associates Friday with the smell of fish.

While of course there are moments of empathy, reading the book is more of a case of fascination with all the differences – there really was a time when girls woke up to find their hot water bottles had become blocks of ice, when they rebelliously – ravenously – tried to heat cans of baked beans over a candle flame in the dead of night, when they could choose between ‘cricket in the nets or dusting’ for their morning activity, and career prospects were known as ‘jobs’ in inverted commas because they were regarded as trivial, optional, and primarily a means to get a husband.

Ysenda has interviewed dozens of women about their boarding school experiences, and renders their stories largely verbatim, giving the book a documentary edge which makes it stranger than fiction. Listening to the stories in the words of these women makes you feel like you are there with Ysenda, having a cup of tea with them in their lovely kitchens, and hearing these treasure troves of memories which are solid gold to anyone with a curious bone in their bodies.

For instance, Maggie Fergusson recalls the snobbery of Mother Bridget, the headmistress of St Mary’s Ascot from 1956 to 1976. Ysenda reports that:

Mother Bridget … kicked off the first Latin lesson of the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: ‘Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.’ ‘Quite a few hands did go up,’ remembers Maggie Fergusson, ‘and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin … When my eldest sister Kitty came to look round,’ Maggie said, ‘it was pretty clear that Mother Bridget didn’t think much of us as we actually lived in Ascot, which wasn’t really good enough. She was saying to my mother, “Well, I can’t promise that we have a place for your daughter …” when one of the mothers with a big country house came into the school and flung her arms round my mother, as they were cousins. That changed everything. Mother Bridget said she would take Kitty after all.’

I found myself entranced and gripped by the book, in spite of the fact that there is neither plot nor main character. Gosh it’s such a weird world, I kept on thinking, as the pages seemed to turn themselves. Ysenda is extremely clever at finding the crucially revealing detail time and again, laying it out with such grace and skill, and then – rather then telling us what to think – just letting it speak for itself.

For instance, in her chapter about ‘pashes’, Ysenda notes how romantic girls used to be:

‘Oh, yes, pashes,’ Sal’s sister Georgina Hammick said to me when I reminded her of those long-forgotten schoolgirl adorations. ‘I do remember. You wrote poems to their eyebrows.’

She doesn’t need to point out how far a cry from today’s schoolgirl sexting this is.

The past has rarely felt like such a different country as it does in this book – mostly because the attitude to girls’ education has changed so much. The happiest school seems to be Hanford because girls could bring their ponies and there were such things as ‘galloping matrons’ who took them riding. ‘The entry of all examinations is purely optional’, states one prospectus, as a positive. In fact, a complete lack of academic ambition or concern is shown to be the rule everywhere except for Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which gets its own chapter. This results in endless funny moments: ‘Miss Fleming taught History and didn’t know any,’ said Amanda Vesey. Or, when Ysenda asked a group of Old Girls from Hatherop Castle if there’d been a lab in those days, she receives nothing but a blank look:

‘A laboratory?’ I expanded … ‘Oh that kind of lab!’ one of them said. ‘I thought you meant a Labrador.’

Smiles, laughs, gasps, frowns … My face has been well and truly exercised by the observations and recollections woven together in this extraordinary book. (Perhaps a good warm up for the labour to come.) It has been a lifesaver for this weird hanging around time, and I highly recommend it as something to occupy oneself during the similarly weird Christmas period which fast approaches. The only thing is, I’m not sure if someone who did actually go to boarding school during this time would find it a pleasant trip down memory lane, or an unwelcome return to a banished nightmarish world. Are any of you boarding school Old Girls? If so, please will you read it and tell me what you think? Finally, it goes without saying that any other tips for distracting myself over the coming ten days from the looming threat of induction and return to the antenatal ward would also be most welcome.

A pre-baby update

November 10, 2016

It has been a particularly long silence since my last post in July. JULY! It is hard even to think back to then – to warm sunshine and long evenings, and all the leaves being green.

‘The pram in the hall’ has long been to blame for women finding it so hard to find time to write. This has to be less of an excuse for me, now the pram is very much a pushchair and Vita is two (unbelievably) and we have a considerable amount of childcare. I wasn’t, however, prepared to find being pregnant again such a struggle. Due to some wonderful combination of luck, naivete, and spending a heavenly couple of months in Italy when Vita was ripening in my tummy, being pregnant first time round was pretty straightforward. Yes, there were a few aches and grumbles and moments of exhaustion, but there was always the chance to rest, and life seemed to go on pretty much as normal.

Not so this time round.

I suppose, once you come to think about it, it makes sense. Leaving aside the exhaustion of looking after a two-year-old (and childcare, wonderful though it is, doesn’t cover all the extra things like laundry and cleaning and nightmares and illnesses and sicking things up and throwing breakfast all over the room and refusing to nap and ripping off nappies …), there’s also the fact that I’m a couple of years older, and those couple of years have been relatively sleepless and physically draining. But I thought it would be like last time. So it has been shocking to watch my life, which had found a very happy new balance, turn, well if not quite upside down, then certainly sideways.

black-rainbowHave any of you read Black Rainbow by Rachel Kelly? It’s her memoir of suffering from post-natal depression, which she experienced soon after her second son was born. Rachel Kelly was a high-powered journalist at The Times, but soon spiralled into the depths of a terrible, utterly debilitating depression from which she was, somewhat miraculously, rescued by reading poetry.

Reading her book not only made me wish I had more patience and skill with poetry, but also made me think how dangerous it can be to try to do too much. Women today are lucky to be able to have careers and children. We all know that, for sure. We are less lucky, however, in that trying to do both – and trying to do them both well – can all-too-easily push us towards a nervous breakdown.

For me, what was already a bit of a juggle, with pregnancy thrown in too, became impossible. Things began to spiral, but luckily before the bad moments loomed too large, the husband succeeded in bossing me about into a much better place. This has meant that I’ve had to let some things slide. Social engagements have all been cut. Cooking has been swapped for Deliveroo. Writing the novel has been temporarily shelved. Work in the bookshop ended rather earlier this time round. And, alas, this blog has also been put to one side. Please forgive me?

Thank god, I have still been managing to read and to write. I hope you might have seen some of my bits of journalism? I always try to update the sections on the Emilybooks homepage with links, but in case you missed them, here are a few of the pieces of which I’m most proud. I would, of course, love to know your thoughts on any of them.

THIS piece in the Spectator about a mobile library for homeless people. I am especially interested in using books as a way in to challenging situations – if we can talk to one another about what we’re reading, then we can soon talk about so much more. I suppose I’d like to think of this piece as the third in a ‘series’ of sorts, coming after this piece for the Guardian about reading in prisons, and this for the Spectator about reading in the Calais migrant camp. I hope there will be more pieces to come.

waking-lionsTHIS interview for lovely website Five Books with author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen about contemporary Israeli fiction. She was brilliant at talking about how novels were so tied to politics, while remaining remarkably positive and inspiring. I really enjoyed, by the way, her novel Waking Lions.

While I’ve not been reviewing on here so much, I have been reviewing elsewhere, which has been wonderful. I was thrilled that both these books I reviewed for the Spectator went on to make the Man Booker shortlist – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. I’ve also been doing some paperback reviews for the Guardian Review. I should say that this is my absolutely favourite bit of newspaper, and so to be amongst its rustling pages has brought me an amount of pleasure wildly disproportionate to the modest length of my reviews. There should be a couple more coming out in the coming weeks, but here is my review of the especially brilliant novel Last Things by Jenny Offill. It’s also been really fun reviewing for Country Life magazine. Again, there are some more in the pipeline, but here is my review for them of the new Elizabeth Jane Howard biography by Artemis Cooper.

giving-up-the-ghostMeanwhile, Emily’s Walking Book Club has been thriving. Our last meeting of 2016 was last Sunday, when we discussed Hilary Mantel’s weird and really wonderful memoir Giving up the Ghost. We talked a great deal about ghosts, and childhood, and memories, and illness. We all loved Hilary Mantel’s amazing prose style – how clever she is to keep us so gripped, while inspiring daydreams and recollections of our own childhoods too. We were still in full flow as we came to the end of the walk, and I almost wished we could have set off for another loop of the Heath (though I think that might also have nudged the baby out…). It’s a knotty book that doesn’t offer a neat resolution or easy distillation of truth. You don’t get that ‘aha’ moment, where everything  neatly slots into place. As Mantel writes about her blotchy school essays, held together with bits of her mother’s embroidery silk:

Truth isn’t pretty, I thought, and the pursuit of it doesn’t make pretty people. Truth isn’t elegant; that’s just mathematicians’ sentimentality. Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind.

It’s a book full of truths, and therefore a messy one that inspired a great deal of discussion.

Other recent meetings have been to discuss Barbara Pym’s poignant but witty novel about getting old, Quartet in Autumn, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which everyone seemed to love revisiting just as much as I did. Getting out into the fresh air – especially when feeling so huge and cumbersome, being surrounded by friendly faces, and discussing such excellent books has been a real lifeline. I shall miss it over the coming months, while I have a break for the new baby, and am looking forward to taking it up again in the new year. There will definitely be a meeting in March, and perhaps even February – we shall just have to see how the new balance works out, once the baby arrives.

And I think the same ought be said for Emilybooks. While I would love to imagine finding the time to write about the many books I hope to read while feeding the new baby, who knows how it will all work out? It’s more likely that the baby will be latched to one breast while I am trying to control Vita, who’ll be marauding around the living room throwing her toys at us, or else my eyes will be too glazed from sleeplessness to be able to focus on print. I remain optimistic, but I must ask you to remain patient, and forgiving, while I navigate through such an uncertain, but ultimately very exciting, time.

 

My Grandmothers and I

July 27, 2016

It strikes me as a surprisingly common, though little remarked upon, fact that one’s grandparents form two very different pairs.

I suppose this seems especially pronounced if I think of my daughter Vita’s grandparents – one side Jewish and the other side descended from the Fascist Oswald Mosley. I can see it too with my own grandparents – one grandmother fled Vienna as a child in the 1930s, whereas the other came to London from a family long-established in Plymouth. It seems astonishing that time and again two people can come together from such different backgrounds, thus giving their progeny two very diverse sets of grandparents. A walking book club member informs me this is due to the psychological inevitability of shunning one’s own background and seeking its opposite in one’s partner. I would be intrigued to see if you too, dear reader, have noticed this phenomenon.

My grandmothers and IDiana Holman-Hunt wrote brilliantly about her childhood in which she was parcelled between her grandparents in her very charming memoir My Grandmothers and I, beautifully published as a neat little paperback by Slightly Foxed. There is a stark contrast between life in the Freemans’ well-staffed comfortable country house, and the Bohemian squalor of the Kensington abode of ‘Grand’ – the extremely eccentric widow of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman-Hunt.

Diana’s life with Grandmother Freeman seems relatively happy, if lonely. For friends, she has to turn to the servants, and ‘Cherub’ – the statue on the fountain – with whom she imagines flying across the gardens. When the servants club together and give her a teddy bear for her birthday, ordered especially from Selfridges, Diana’s affection for it is transformed from sweet to moving when we realise it’s not just because she has no real friends to play with but because her other presents are so inappropriate: her father, who is away in India, sends her a leopard skin, and her grandparents give her a string of pearls, whose beauty and value will turn out to be of help in years’ to come, but are far too sophisticated for a little girl to appreciate.

Life at the Freemans has certain quirky downsides – such as the torturous brace which Diana must wear to improve her posture, and the list of daily tasks which is pinned to her curtain every morning. We are also treated to Diana’s glimpses of the more adult world in which she inhabits – the butler is always drunk after lunch, and one of the maids gets pregnant. There is the added humour of the clash of her childish perspective and our adult understanding, such as when she writes about her uncle’s friends, the ‘jolies laides’ – she discusses them with the servant Fowler, who remarks, you can hardly ‘call her jolly and I doubt if she’s a lady’. The real sadness here, however, lies in Diana’s early understanding of the fact that she will only be appreciated if she is sufficiently entertaining, being urged to ‘utter’ and regale her grandparents with stories, or else be banished from their company.

When she’s sent off to stay with Grand, however, we realise how lucky Diana’s been. Though she immediately flings her terrible brace into the fire, she has entered a world where breakfast is usually a rotten egg, and where she has to sleep curled up on a tiny scratchy sofa – examples of Grand’s despising ‘Brother Ass’, the body, in favour of nourishing the mind.

Grand’s eccentricities are extraordinary. For instance, before bed, the maid lays out a complex trap of trip wires and bells, to catch any thieves after all the great works of art, and, Grand adds, to stop them being murdered in their beds. Terrified, Diana asks, then what?

‘You will spring out of bed and twirl this large wooden rattle, round and round, out of the window, and I will blow several short sharp blasts on that whistle tied to the end of my bed.’

Grand is horribly stingy, and Diana relates the horror of having tea at the Tate:

I always felt embarrassed with Grand asked the waitress for two cups and saucers and a jug of boiling water.

Grand would then produce her own bag of tea leaves and envelope of powdered milk. But her generosity to pavement artists is even more embarrassing:

If she spotted one, she would never pass him by, but would retire discreetly to a doorway, or press against the railings with her back turned to the passers-by. Then, to my confusion, she would lift her skirts to find the chammy-leather pouch of money which she wore concealed, suspended from her waist. Flushed with effort, she would at last approach the artist and hand him a piece of silver, saying ‘If you are ever desperate and need to earn a shilling, you can come and sweep the leaves out of my area and scrub my front door steps. My cook will give you a cup of soup. You need never starve, I am your friend.’

In showing her grandmothers’ many oddnesses, Diana Holman-Hunt is so good at capturing their exact manners and cadences of speech that this memoir of what must have been a very difficult childhood is transformed into a comic masterpiece. Moments of poignancy remain, however, such as when Diana’s train pulls into London and she sees a man standing beside her Grand, waiting to meet her:

‘That must be my Papa!’ I said, jumping up and down.

The train guard dispels her excitement by revealing it is in fact the Station Master.

As the book progresses, and Diana grows up, the balance in tone shifts. The funny, mad and charming portrait – albeit with glimpses of terrible sadness and loneliness – is abandoned as Diana begins to see the growing desperation of her situation. There is a garish flash of an episode where her father visits, rescues her from school and takes her out on the town. She has nothing to wear but her confirmation dress. Next, we see Diana on her return from a year in Germany; her father – seemingly bankrupt – was unable to pay the Baronin with whom she stayed and sent her a note advising her to return to Grand and get a job. Grand, meanwhile, has lost her mind. Diana, ever resourceful, sells her pearls, sleeps on the cold attic floor, and attends secretarial school, with scarcely enough money to eat. As no one has paid for her to be presented and ‘come out’, she is shunned by her other relations, and it becomes clear there is no one who can look after her and she has no means of survival. Salvation comes eventually when Grandfather Freeman writes to tell her she must come and stay with him (Grandmother Freeman has died). When she returns to their Sussex home, Diana gets drunk and falls into bed.

This drunkenness seems to me to be such a sad, bleak ending. It is as though Diana longs to return to the naivete of that childhood world of imagination and innocence, playing with Cherub and the servants, but now – as an adult, with her place in the world shown to be so precarious – the only way she can return to this state of oblivion is getting blind drunk. Not that the ending detracts from the book, rather it saves it from being all charming nostalgia and eccentricity, tempering it with the bitter note of tough adult reality. Those who want to know what happened next might find this obituary in the Independent enlightening (and reassuring).

Emily’s Walking Book Club greatly enjoyed My Grandmothers and I. One walker said they would have loved to listen to it on the radio, read by someone like Maggie Smith, which we all think would be brilliant. So, does anyone know a radio producer who might be intrigued? If so, please please send them a copy.

Diana Holman Hunt

Here she is, looking extremely glam.