Period Piece

April 13, 2018

The good news is that Ezra is well again. He is toddling about extremely happily. All test results have come back normal. The horrid blue PICC line, through which the daily drip of antibiotics was given, has been removed. We have one final follow up appointment at Great Ormond Street in a couple of weeks and then, let’s hope, no more hospitals for a while. He’s back at nursery, and I’m back to work (sort of). Thank you so much to the many of you who have been in touch with good wishes. It made a real difference, helping me not feel so alone in the mess of it all.

Of course, life never works out quite as smoothly as planned. Vita, perhaps unsurprisingly after everything that has happened, has become extremely clingy and is utterly distraught when it comes to saying goodbye – to me, the husband, or even to a friend. This morning, the entire street stared while she stood at the front door screaming blue murder after the husband cycling off to work. Dropping her off at nursery involves her fingers being peeled off my coat, while she kicks and screams. Apparently she is very jolly there all day, it is just the parting that is so traumatic. Traumatic for us both! Nights are still broken with one or the other of them (in fact, usually both) waking up at some point – Vita with a nightmare; Ezra with who knows what, while I administer calpol and panic that it is not just a tooth or a tummy ache but some other rare infectious disease. I have actually found myself – an agnostic – praying at bedtime for them both to sleep through.

So it is no real surprise that the dreaded shingles has returned. I got it three times last year, when particularly run down with lack of sleep and the rest of it, and now here it is again, that horrid burning sensation all the time, the feeling grotty and having to remember to take a million anti-viral pills every day, which don’t seem to have any effect at all. How one can hate one’s body for being so weak, when you need it to be strong!

At least reading and writing can be done from bed or sofa, where I have spent as much time as possible (though I fear not enough – life, with its laundry and tidying and feeding and ferrying about etc. continues).

Period Piece

While trying to rest, I have been hugely enjoying Period Piece by Gwen Raverat. The eccentric recollections of a childhood in Cambridge over a hundred years ago has been the perfect comfort reading, and I look forward to discussing it with everyone at Emily’s Walking Book Club on Sunday. Raverat writes about her father’s perpetual ill health with fondness, but I find I dread the children growing up thinking of me being so delicate and bedridden.

There are also lots of Raverat’s neat, witty illustrations:

Gwen-Raverat.-Boating-on-the-Cam-e1489099456715

This one shows how the ladies had to avert their eyes when passing the bathing places on the Cam, where all the boys ran around and swam naked:

These dangerous straits were taken in silence, and at full speed.

Raverat is very good at capturing the determination of childhood and how unbelievably unfair adult rules can seem. She rails against things like stiff impractical clothes, and being made to go to church. To avoid this latter imposition, she used to disappear to the top floor of the granary after Sunday breakfast, pulling up the ladders behind her afterwards:

You were cut off from the world by five ladderless storeys and you could quite reasonably pretend not to hear people calling from the garden below. We took lumps of sugar and hunks of bread with us, and sat on the floor in the top loft, under the roof, till all danger of church was over. The roof was beginning to fall in, and the ivy grew through the latticed window-holes, and pigeons lived up there and cooed deliciously. It was a mysterious, happy place, far from the world and full of new ideas, and it did me a great deal more good than ever church did. I still often dream of it, and then I am always just on the point of making strange and wonderful discoveries.

It is such a brilliant description of those secret places of childhood, where hours are spent daydreaming, far from the world. (Thank god there was no wifi then.) Sometimes I wonder if I ought just to let Vita disappear up into our attic and hide there daydreaming, instead of forcing her to go to nursery. I did try to work with her sitting ‘quietly’ beside me one morning, and we managed about half an hour before the insistent interruptions began.  (On the madness and difficulties of trying to combine work and motherhood, I highly recommend Helen de Witt’s strange and arresting novel The Last Samurai – my tiny review of it is in the Guardian Review here.)

Her Body and Other PartiesI have had a few reviews published recently, including one of some new short story collections in the Spectator. Gosh Jon McGregor is amazing – The Reservoir Tapes is a welcome, and astonishingly skilful return to the territory of Reservoir 13. And Carmen Maria Machado is such a bold new voice – definitely one to watch. You can read ‘The Husband Stitch’ – one of the best in the collection – here. and  you can read my full review of four excellent collections here.

More soon. I hope that next time I write, I might have had a good night’s sleep!

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On not reading

March 21, 2018

However hard it is to leave your kid screaming at nursery, it is a whole different level of difficult to leave him slumped and silent under a general anaesthetic, to help carry him in his tiny gown to the operating table, and then be ushered out of the room by a host of scrubbed up surgeons. What can you do for those impossibly long two and a half hours? You can barely read a twitter feed, certainly not a book. I spent most of it sitting beside his empty ward bed, with my eyes closed, counting my breaths.

I’m so glad to say that Ezra is getting better. In fact, I have just left him for a couple of hours at nursery (they were instructed to phone me if the initial scream lasted more than two minutes!). But he has been very unwell. And we have all been through the hell of it.

This is a books blog, rather than a blog about my family, but I would like to write about this experience, and I’ve not been reading much of late. For those of you who want books, then please turn to my feature – about private libraries – for the Financial Times Weekend here. For those of you who can stomach a bit more about what’s been going on, then read on.

The problem with raising a toddler is that there is almost always an excuse for something being up – teeth, a developmental surge, a reaction to the MMR vaccine, separation anxiety, a virus picked up at nursery …

Ezra is now fifteen months old, and started nursery in January. I remember when Vita began nursery, she picked up something slightly grim pretty much every week, so I didn’t think much of Ezra being in a bad mood for a couple of weeks. And then there was the MMR jab, and then there were three molars coming through, and then … and then I began to think hang on a minute, perhaps there is something else wrong. The thing is, he was confidently walking when he turned one, but stopped after getting a nursery bug, and didn’t start again. After 3- 4 weeks, I noticed that he had practically stopped crawling, and just wanted to sit on my lap. He didn’t seem too happy standing either, and would slump over the table or whatever it was he was holding on to.

He’s fine, said the GP. It’s just that his confidence has been knocked, since getting that virus a couple of weeks’ ago, and he is getting used to being separate from you. Send him back to nursery, you are being a very good role model to him by working, don’t feel bad about it.

We were going through a week where whenever we got Ezra up from a sleep he screamed, inconsolably, for about 45 minutes. The next day I picked him up from nursery and they told me he had cried pretty much all day. Although he was crying a lot with me too, I thought that if he really was missing me quite that much, I would take a few days off work and see if that helped.

Then next morning I took him to see a health visitor. They jotted his weight down in his red book and didn’t tell me that he weighed less than he did a fortnight ago. I explained the full situation. Take him straight back to nursery, she said, he is a perfectly healthy child. We talked for about twenty minutes. She didn’t think it was strange that he cried when taken off my lap, that he was uninterested in going over to the box of toys, and told me that most people ‘couldn’t afford the luxury of taking time off work’, like me. She said she’d call me in a week to see how I was getting on. I’ve not heard from her.

That was on a Friday. On the Monday I went back to the GP. By this point, Ezra was crying when I left him sitting down, and I noticed that he soon rolled on to his tummy to play. It was a different GP this time, and he paid me more attention. He doesn’t need to go to A&E, he said, there are no acute symptoms, but something does seem to be not quite right. I would like to see a paediatrician, I said. He phoned up the hospital and spoke to one. I got an appointment for that Wednesday.

I turned up to UCH children’s outpatients with everything written down on a postcard, ready to try again to convince a doctor that something was wrong. I am a second-time parent and seriously concerned about him, I began. The doctor looked at me, looked at Ezra, called in another doctor and then said: he needs blood tests now, and an MRI scan today; we’ll admit him.

That afternoon, we sedated Ezra for his MRI, and I sat in the dark beside the machine for the hour and a half he was in it. His ears were triply protected from the strange thudding rhythms of the scan, and he looked like a little space man, so small in that enormous machine. He is so small, I kept thinking. He is too small for this.

That night, Ezra fell asleep in the sling on me, and we were waiting to go on ‘home leave’ till the morning. Some of the blood tests had come back earlier on. The good news is it’s not muscular dystrophy, the doctor had said.

The night shift doctor came in. I’ve had a look at the MRI scan, she said. The good news is his brain looks fine.

I think I can see the problem. Do you want to sit down? she asks. There is a very bright patch on his spine. It looks to me like it could be an infection in a disc between the vertebrae, which might have spread into the vertebrae. This is treatable with a course of antibiotics.

There is a pause while I hear Ezra’s snuffly breaths on my chest and try to process exactly what she has said. I repeat it all back to her. Great, I say. So he just needs some antibiotics.

The doctor explains this would be six weeks of a daily dose of intravenous antibiotics. A serious medical procedure. That is, she said, if it is discitis.

And what if it isn’t?

Well it could be a malignancy. It doesn’t scream cancer to me, but we need the neurosurgeon at Great Ormond Street to look at it, and that won’t be until the morning.

Ezra and I got a cab home, in which I found myself, ridiculously, sending some work emails.

The next morning we were told it was almost certainly not cancer. They wanted Ezra to have a biopsy, partly to be sure, but moreover so that they could see which bacteria was causing the infection so that they could treat it with the right antibiotic. In the meantime, they would treat it blind. Ezra endured the first of five cannulas being fitted, and the first dose of antibiotics was given. This, combined with a constant rotation of calpol and nurofen, meant that by the next morning he was already a little better, clambering around the baby sensory room so much that it was clear a cannula wasn’t going to last long.

We were in and out of UCH for the next few days, and then got a bed at Great Ormond Street on the Sunday, for the biopsy to happen on the Monday morning. They would also insert a PICC line – a very long line that comes out of his arm and goes all the way into his heart. It would mean no more cannulas, and no more painful pricks for blood tests. It was a nil-by-mouth: we could wake him for some milk at 2am, he could have water until 6.30 am and then that nothing. By 10.30 am Ezra had flopped asleep on the husband’s shoulder as we walked round and round the ward.

He’s not going to have it today, a nurse ran up and said. You can give him something to eat.

What? Why? What? Why? When? But…

We will try to find a slot for him later this week.

After kicking up a stink and phoning UCH to get them to kick up a stink, we were scheduled for the next morning. That’s when I left him in the operating room.

That first trip to UCH outpatients was four weeks’ ago today. A nurse has been coming to our home every day to administer the antibiotic – it takes about an hour. She has taught me how to make up all the syringes and give it to him myself, so this week we have started to do it on our own, over breakfast. We have another two weeks to go.

We have weekly hospital appointments. Every time Ezra enters the treatment room – site of those early cannula fittings – he screams and makes a break for the exit. The doctors usually have to see us in the play room instead. They found two bacteria in the disc biopsy, both of which are normally found in the mouth. As it is so rare and weird for this to have happened, they are doing some further investigative tests to see if there is an underlying issue. We are waiting for the results for a complicated blood test that shows if there is something wrong with his immune system. We are back at Great Ormond Street for a heart scan on Friday. I am trying to concentrate on the fact that he is recovering well from the infection.

This weekend, Ezra started walking again.

Last night, I started reading again.

This morning, I started writing this again.

After a terrible time, I hope life is beginning to get back on track.

Here is that FT private libraries feature again.

And here is my tiny Guardian review of Xiaolu Guo’s excellent memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East:

 

Once Upon a Time in the East Guardian

 

Three true stories

January 11, 2018

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’ the husband asked on that day when it was suddenly snowing, just after Christmas.

We were on our way home from Norfolk, where we had spent a few days with my in-laws in a trio of rented cottages strung out in a row on the Broads. The drive up had been at night, the children fast asleep in the back, while the husband and I had a picnic and an actual conversation, alive with the excitement of a night drive away from the busy end of the working year.

FitzcarraldoThe drive down began at 9 a.m., ejected from the cottages to make way for the cleaners readying it for the next round of guests; it took four and half hours rather than the two it took to get up. As we sat in standstill traffic amidst the falling snow, while the children were unimpressed by the beauty of the newly whitened fields and were, instead, vociferously cross and hungry, I suggested we stop for an early lunch at the pretty market town of Saffron Walden, a mere 2.5 miles away. Only Google Maps went on to inform me that it would take 57 minutes to drive there. We were unable to leap off the motorway and forge across the fields, but instead would have to go halfway down the motorway to then turn around and head back north. I thought for a moment of the film Fitzcarraldo, when they carry the massive boat across the hill. Then I proceeded to dripfeed breadsticks to everyone in the car, while engaging Vita in an exhausting mash up game of The Lion King/Rome and Juliet, where I had to ‘be’, variously, Timon (the meercat), Mufasa, Tybalt and Juliet. The husband claimed to be too busy driving to be able to take part. This game was reaching its zenith, an hour later, as we entered London’s outskirts.

‘It says to get off here,’ I told the husband, who was consuming rather more than his allotted share of breadsticks.

‘You’re not being Juliet!’ from Vita in the back.

‘Sorry. I meant, we must turn off here to reach the Capulet’s house for the big party.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes. Then left, and left again.’

‘But where’s the Capulet’s party?’

‘And round the roundabout. Third exit. Here.’

‘Romeo wants to be at the party. Then we can dance together Juliet! Will there be sausages?’

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’

The problem with being so into words is that it has left me rather deficient spatially. So I am quite rubbish at driving and even worse at map reading. Now I resort to just repeating to the husband whatever the phone tells me, although it can still be tricky, at times, to get left and right the right way round. I have no idea why we were going around the IKEA car park, but luckily, the phone eventually got us out of there, and we were back on our way to the Capulet’s party.

At the moment, life with Vita is bursting with fiction. We are forever inhabiting warped adaptations of stories and films, roles being dealt out, lines performed, and ending usually in some kind of chase, dance, duel or being put to bed. So, unusually for me – a fiction nut, I ended 2017 reading books looking for a world more real than my own.

No Place to Lay One's HeadFirst of all, I read No Place to Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel. (This was to review it for The Spectator – here.) Frenkel was a Polish Jew, whose love of French literature led her to open Berlin’s first French bookshop in 1921. Life in 1930s Germany became increasingly difficult, and she eventually fled to Paris in August 1939 – just in the nick of. Frenkel describes the trials of a life in hiding, physical and also emotional: How hard not to have word of one’s family, not to know who to trust or whether you will ever be free, and not to lose the will to keep on going. Frenkel did eventually reach Switzerland, where she wrote this memoir in 1943-44, and I think the book owes much of its power to the events described being so recent. I’ve written about it at length in the Spectator review, but, briefly, what I found so intriguing about this book was Frenkel’s attempt to understand the people of France, a country she so obviously loved. She writes of the many who helped shelter her and those who bravely resisted the German Occupation, but also of the police who hunted down defenceless human beings ‘with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy’, and the many individuals who inhabited a darkish grey area – sheltering her but demanding extortionate rent, or suddenly threatening to turn her in unless she paid a vast sum. Of course it makes you wonder how you would act in the situation. For once, I feel that being Jewish almost lets me off the hook: I would be the one asking for shelter rather than having to balance the complicated equation of self-interest versus such high-risk help.

The Reading CureCloser to home, and every bit as brave, is Laura Freeman’s forthcoming memoir The Reading Cure. It’s coming out at the end of February, but Laura kindly sent me a proof, which kept me company over Christmas. (I should mention here that Laura and I are friends, ever since she commissioned me to write an article about my beloved tortoise (RIP).) I hope you have already read some of Laura’s wonderful writing in places like The Spectator and The Times – her journalism features beady-eyed observations, a razor sharp brain, precision of language and a dry sense of humour, that lets her wear her learning lightly.

And then comes this book, which she was so shy about, refusing to tell me anything about it until the deal was signed. And now I can see why. Laura writes bravely, honestly, inspiringly and very movingly about her long long struggle with anorexia, and how books got her through it. At the beginning, she writes that this is not about the ‘anguish’ of anorexia, but ‘about the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness and hunger’. But, for all the happy occasions of drinking real milk, inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or enjoying the homely comfort of a tin of sardines, thanks to Mole and Ratty, a sadness endures. Still, she can’t bring herself to eat chocolate. Still, the battle with that part of her brain which at its worst has brought her to the point of being too weak to be able to walk around the garden, continues. It is only ever in remission, never entirely cured.

I read this book at the end of what has been in some ways a very hard year for me. Post-natal depression is tough, however much counselling and support one has from professionals and friends. It is always helpful to read of someone else’s battles with the voices in their head, and reassuring to know that other people also live with black clouds threatening to break overhead. Laura agrees:

When I came to read Virginia Woolf, it marked the difference between feeling a coward and failure because I let myself be bullied by these voices, and drawing strength from knowing that others have had their demons, their galloping horses, their aches low down in the back of the head. Better to write about these things, then say: it is not a life sentence. It will not always be like this.

Important words to remember.

CharlotteFinally, I had another Holocaust book to review, this time for the Guardian (here). Charlotte by David Foenkinos is an unusual, intense and unbelievably brilliant novel inspired by the life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon. Tragically, this story doesn’t end like Frenkel’s in an escape to Switzerland, but in being gassed in Auschwitz, while pregnant. She did at least manage to leave behind her an extraordinary work: Theatre? A Song-play, a lightly fictionalised family memoir told via hundreds of paintings, drawings, texts and musical annotations, made during the two years she spent in hiding in the South of France. She entrusted it to her doctor with the words: ‘it is my whole life’. Charlotte has been a smash hit in its native France, and deserves to be one here too – it has the same feel as The Hare with Amber Eyes, and certainly left me itching to buy several copies to give to friends.

So three mighty, hardcore books in a row! I think I would have picked up some PG Wodehouse or something similarly daft to begin this year, if it weren’t for a proof of Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays sitting there waiting for its review to be written…

Do you have any reading ambitions or resolutions for 2018? Mine is to harness the combined power of childcare and coffee to read more, write more, and to trust more in the power of good words, well used. Even if that means we reach the Capulets’ party via the IKEA car park.

One last thing to say: Belsize Library have very kindly asked me to give a talk about building communities around books. If you happen to be free and in North London at 7.30pm on Thursday 18th January, please please come along and say hello. Here is the poster they’ve made:

Emily Rhodes Belsize Library 2

Emilybooks of the Year

December 14, 2017

It has been The Year of Ezra, for me, as his first birthday is this coming Sunday. It is uncanny to think back to this time last year when he was overdue and I was willing the labour to start, with hopes for the full moon, curries, sweeps, walks and the rest of it… Just think that there he was, all curled up and snug inside, and now he is out, roaring his way through the world, climbing on anything, raspberrying at anyone. Here he is, asleep (!), drawn by my mother-in-law, Xanthe Mosley.

Ezra asleep

Or perhaps it would be better to think of it as The Year of Two – of having two little people to care for, not sleep for, and, increasingly, have fun with.

The Sound of MusicI used to look back on a year and see it through a prism of books – various titles that coloured various times, remembering, for instance, the mood of a certain book read on holiday, or being transported by another one lazy afternoon, or gripped by a story into the small hours. Looking back on 2017, I seem to hear the year through film soundtracks, as Spotify has sated Vita’s appetite for, variously, The Jungle Book, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Annie, and – now we have caved into peer pressure – Frozen and Moana. The other night, trying to soothe Ezra through a new tooth, I wondered why he seemed so completely unimpressed by a sleepy rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, only to realise that he has barely listened to a nursery rhyme, instead the music of his babyhood has been a peculiar mix of Julie Andrews and Disney.

And when I think of books, it is mostly children’s books that spring to mind, as they have been read so often. Funny isn’t it, how children like to read the same thing over and over, whereas once we finish a book, we rarely pick it up again. Many of this year’s special moments have been during ‘quiet time’ with Vita, lying on the sofa with tiny toy teacups of chocolate, a strong coffee, and reading together. Here she is, ‘reading’, sketched by Xanthe a few months’ ago:

Vita quiet time

We have especially enjoyed Mog stories, Alfie stories, various Meg and Mogs, Blue Kangaroos, Beatrix Potter, and – wonderfully – The Greek Myths and now Shakespeare. Usborne shakespeareThank you Usborne for producing these wonderful editions which have allowed me to share these truly great and important stories with Vita. Currently we are very into Hamlet. Sometimes I worry that Ezra is going to suffer from a multiple personality crisis as he is forever being addressed as either: Horatio, Lord Ross, Kurt, Apu or Heihei – depending on what on earth we are ‘playing’.

I have certainly read fewer grown-up books this year than usual, but I am so glad that I have kept up some reviewing work and Emily’s Walking Book Club – two things that have meant I’ve HAD to keep reading, and thinking about books a little bit. So, for a rather abridged Emilybooks of the Year:

Madame Zero 1I still can’t stop thinking about Madame Zero by Sarah Hall. An electric collection of short stories, so alive, so wild, so current, so unexpected. It totally blew me away, and various stories in the collection continue to haunt me – I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Here is my review for Country Life.)

Other really good novels published this year, include:

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (here is my Spectator review) – a masterful portrait of village life disguised as an unresolved crime story. Very clever, very unusual, and it deservedly made it onto a few Prize shortlists this year.

Eureka by Anthony Quinn (here is my Spectator review) – brilliant fun romp of a novel set in 1960s London, which is actually making all sorts of intelligent points about Henry James.

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (here is my Guardian review) – a fresh talented voice: part coming-of-age in 1960s New York, and part struggling to be a parent in the present day. A very enjoyable, engrossing read.

Black Rock, White CityI also seem to have read quite a few novels in translation, which have been a treat. Particularly good discoveries have been two excellent debut novels that have sprung from the former Yugoslavia: Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric and My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. (Here is my Spectator review of them both.)

Two older novels, newly translated and published in English, that I loved are A Broken Mirror by Merce Rodoreda, which is a surprising Catalan classic and newly relevant, given recent political events; and The Last Bell by German-Czech writer Johannes Urdizil, brilliant short stories mostly set in Prague. (Here is my review of them both for Country Life.)

Lolly WillowesEmily’s Walking Book Club has been a saviour in what has, at times, been a very challenging year. Just knowing that I will be out on the Heath with a group of friendly readers, talking about a good book in the fresh air, once a month, has been an important thought to grasp in difficult moments.

For this, I have had the great delight of reading Loly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Oh what a wonderful novel – a sort of fictional Room of One’s Own, but it veers off into great wackiness when Loly, a spinster, actually makes a pact with the devil and becomes a witch! It sounds mad, but it is actually highly political and extremely brilliant.

Other great walking book club books this year have included Elizabeth Taylor’s minor masterpiece A View of the Harbour – oh how good she is at observing the small things, and Diana Athill’s memoir Stet – essential reading for anyone who has ever had anything to do with ‘the book world’.

Earth and High Heaven 2

My ultimate book of the year has got to be Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, newly published by Persephone Books with a Preface by me (which you can read in full here)!! This is such a beautiful, gripping, important and newly relevant book about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War.

A final word for podcasts, which have lightened the load of so much of motherhood, being there to listen to when hanging up the umpteenth load of laundry, clearing up the insane mess of a baby-led weaning tea; pushing and pushing and pushing the pram while the baby refuses to fall asleep; and during the night feeds too. In Ezra’s first week or two, I listened to various Radio 4 Reith Lectures. Through the fug of wonder at this brand new life, Atul Gawande was in my ear talking about dying, and checklists, and everything felt extremely profound.

I have, unashamedly, mostly stuck to literary podcasts, as a way of trying to cling on to that world, while feeling so immersed in another. The Guardian Books, Spectator Books (especially this one with Claire Tomalin), Vintage Books, and The Book Club Review podcasts have all been a treat, but a special shout out must go to the London Review Bookshop podcast, where you can listen to their exceptional, inspiring talks (like this one with Ali Smith and Olivia Laing), and Backlisted – which is a delight for all literary nerds, and has given me several titles for future walking book club books.

Happy reading, happy listening, and happy Christmas. Looking forward to more reading with you in 2018.

2017-11-05 11.55.50

 

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

 

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:

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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