The Other Elizabeth Taylor

April 11, 2016

The reason (yet again) for my lengthy blogging absence is due to the dreaded lurgi. When people tell you about the many tricky things that come hand in hand with having children (lack of sleep, abundance of mess, inability to enjoy a flight ever again…) why don’t they tell you about nursery bugs? More often than not, Vita goes to nursery, comes home, and a day later gets ill. Then follow a hellish few nights of fever and not sleeping, and then, just as she’s turning the corner, down falls the husband, and – soon after – me! Somehow, three weeks disappear and all you’ve done is either try to occupy the child, or try to get someone else to occupy the child while you are confined to bed.

In these instances, I feel it is best to disappear into some kind of other world. The husband and I watched all the Harry Potter films, and were practically talking to each other in spells by the end of it. I also managed to do a bit of reading and a tiny bit of – albeit rather feverish – work:

Here is my review of Deborah Levy’s powerful new novel Hot Milk for the Spectator. Here is my interview with the brilliant Tracy Chevalier about her favourite fictional trees for lovely website Five Books. And my review of Helen Oyeyemi’s bizarre and beautiful short stories What is Not Yours is Not Yours should be coming out in Country Life in the next couple of weeks. Watch this space, as they say. Also, a reminder that Emily’s Walking Book Club is meeting this Sunday to discuss Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, which is the most heavenly book– all about gardening, and marriage, and trying to evade one’s responsibilities.

When I last wrote here, I was on my way up to Moniack Mhor, a writers’ retreat in Scotland in order to take the writers on an Emily’s Walking Book Club special.

Moniack Mhor walking book club

We wandered through a beautiful beech wood and along a mossy glen, while talking about Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, which is about a girl who becomes a rather ridiculous writer.This is what prompted me to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the writer, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

The Other Elizabeth TaylorNicola Beauman founded Persephone Books, whose gorgeous grey-covered books include such gems as Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, Mariana by Monica Dickens, The Far Cry by Emma Smith, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (and many more). So I was rather in awe of this biography – not only is it about a great writer, it is written by a very amazing woman!

One of its great joys is that you can hear Nicola Beauman’s voice, very distinctly, throughout. It is full of asides and parentheses which make her opinion absolutely felt. It can be something as slight as: ‘At one the speaker goes on talking for too long, as speakers do …’ or, when discussing the somewhat unconventional name of Elizabeth Taylor’s first son, noting that it ‘must have caused comment at Atlast’, the home of her very middle-class in-laws.

Occasionally Beauman takes us off on a longer personal digression. Particularly moving, is when she writes about going to visit Ray Russell. Elizabeth and Ray had an affair which lasted for many years. In the Acknowledgements, Beauman notes that ‘she believed it was inappropriate to publish the book’ until after the death of John Taylor, Elizabeth’s husband, who authorised the biography. Then, ‘following his death, she submitted the manuscript to John and Elizabeth Taylor’s son and daughter: They are, alas “very angry and distressed” about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.’ One suspects that this is largely due to Beauman’s writing about Elizabeth’s affair with Ray, but surely a biographer is supposed to unearth these things? Not least because the hundreds of letters that Elizabeth wrote to Ray not only ‘chart an extended love affair’, but – crucially – ‘they reveal the development of a writer’s art over the decade that Elizabeth would call wasted because she was not published’.

I’ll quote Beauman’s aside about going to visit Ray at length, because I think it’s so powerful:

(Reading the letter Elizabeth would write to Ray only minutes after she had parted from him seems embarrassingly if not callously intrusive. Reading the letters in an upstairs room in Hull with the elderly Ray sitting and watching me copy them out, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes producing photographs, sometimes sketching me, was exhausting and depressing: exhausting, obviously because of the sheer physical labour involved in getting to Hull and then copying, copying, copying; depressing because one knew the sad end of the affair, yet one of the lovers was sitting there, his sadness written in every line of his body … I only rarely glimpsed the exhilaration that a biographer is meant to feel when he or she stumbles on a cache of papers; mostly I muttered over and over, “life is so sad”. How can one reconcile Elizabeth’s writing to Ray that “there were never two people so near to one another as we” with the sadness of what would then happen to the two of them?)

I’ve not read many biographies, so can’t say if this is the norm or the exception, but I loved how personal this one is. I had the same feeling as when I read The Hare with Amber Eyes and felt that I was on the journey of discovery hand-in-hand Edmund de Waal; or when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters, in which she writes about her awful struggles with L.P. Hartley’s family for her attempted, eventually abandoned, biography. I could almost see Ray sitting there with the ‘sadness written in every line of his body’, and absolutely shared Beauman’s ambivalence on discovering this cache of letters.

Another of the book’s great pleasures, is that we are taken on a tour of all Taylor’s work – her novels, and also her numerous short stories. Little synopses are given, and we are also informed as to where the story was published, how much was paid for it, and any gossipy ins and outs of the correspondence between Elizabeth and her editor. This is all fascinating. Again, Beauman’s personal angle is a treat – lovely to know some of her own favourite lines, to be told when she thinks something is influenced by E.M. Forster, and informed of possible real-life inspirations too. I particularly liked Beauman’s argument for Taylor to be appreciated as a modernist writer, pointing out that she writes ‘in scenes, in “moments of being”,’ rather than the traditional narrative of ‘and then and then’. She argues that critics have struggled to call Taylor a modernist because of her domestic subjects:

Virginia Woolf was a modernist but because she eschewed the domestic she could be labelled as such: Elizabeth, because she wrote about women and children and housework and dailiness, could not be.

Later, she makes a nice point:

When Elizabeth said, as she often did, that she wrote in scenes not narrative, perhaps she was suggesting that women have to write in scenes because narrative needs leisure and an uninterrupted run of time to write it.

She calls upon the example of Taylor’s character Beth in A View of the Harbour:

Because she has a pram in the hall her work has to be stitched together, it cannot flow uninterruptedly. When she looks at her books she knows that: “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

Reading this, while my own writing was so interrupted by family illness, I could only agree! (I also rather wished I had the help of a Mrs Flitcroft, even if I were to run the risk of her forsaking me …)

I loved The Other Elizabeth Taylor, just as much as I loved the two Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read. It left me longing to read more, and as soon as I finished it, I whizzed off to buy Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek. Heaven to have these two treats in store even if they will probably be read, alas, when we’re next all ill.

Elizabeth Taylor

Three things

March 7, 2016

Last week was an exciting one, because THREE pieces of my work were published in various places.

Spectator

Here is my piece about book thieves in the Spectator. Bookshops might seem like sanctuaries, but they are in fact full of thieves pocketing everything from Mr Men to Ottolenghi… And you can also hear me talking about it on the Spectator’s podcast here. I come in at 18.50, just after all the men have finished talking about the much more minor issues of Donald Trump and the EU.

Cockfosters TLS review

Then here is my review of Helen Simpson’s absolutely amazing collection of short stories Cockfosters, published in The Times Literary Supplement. Apologies for the pay-wall avoiding low-quality photo.

The Fishermen by Obioma

Last, but by no means least, I am thrilled to be writing for this lovely website Five Books. They have the ingenious idea of asking people to recommend Five Books on a certain subject, relevant to their own work. I talked to the very charming and intelligent Chigozie Obioma – whose debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – about boyhood and growing up. You can read it here.

I’d love to know what you think of them!

Now I am on a train on my way to Scotland to walk through the beautiful highlands while talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel for an Emily’s Walking Book Club special at writers’ retreat Moniack Mhor. Heaven. Happy March everyone. More soon.

Moniack Mhor

Reading Lolita in Tehran

February 22, 2016

Whats the story morning gloryWhen I was about twelve, I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I was a massive Oasis fan, and did all those classic pre-teen things like headbanging while jumping on my bed, sticking posters up all over my walls, and writing out lyrics in swirly patterns on pads of paper. As all true fans know, Definitely Maybe was a much better album, but I have a particular memory of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is the point of this (otherwise, you might think, rather peculiar) preamble.

I always used to beg to play my music in the car (sorry Mum) and I remember listening to this CD on one particular journey – we were just approaching the Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout – when my brother told me that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had sold so many copies that something like one in thirteen people in the UK owned it.

This fact blew my twelve-year-old mind as we drove past the wasteland where Westfield would one day be built. I thought of all the cars I could see, all the cars we’d passed during our journey, and considered the likelihood that the same album was playing in many of them. I thought of all the people in England who’d bought it, and wondered how many were listening to Wonderwall right then at the very same moment as I was. After that conversation, whenever I pressed play to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, I would imagine other fingers pressing play for the same CD all over the world.

This feeling of being overwhelmed by everyone everywhere doing the same thing as you, which happens to be something that you love, is how I feel now about book clubs. It works on two levels. Firstly, there is the joy of thinking of your own book club, and the various members reading the same book in time for the next meeting. As I read a wonderful sentence, I wonder what another reader will make of it, a reader who is possibly encountering it at the same time. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, there is the feeling of people all over the world being part of book clubs: the feeling that while Emily’s Walking Book Club strides across Hampstead Heath, a bunch of people are, say, sitting around a crackling fire in Derbyshire, or at a dinner table in Calgary … or around a coffee table in Tehran.

Reading Lolita in TehranThis is why I picked Reading Lolita in Tehran for the most recent meeting of the walking book club. I was intrigued to read about a book club meeting in very different circumstances.

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran as a memoir of her time teaching American and English Literature during the Revolution in Iran. It begins by focussing on the ‘book club’ of sorts she set up. Having resigned from the University, Nafisi invited her seven favourite female students to discuss literature every Thursday in her home. We are introduced to her students and the book begins with their discussion about Lolita. As Nafisi guides us through other works of literature – by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen – she steps away from the book club setting, and reflects on her time spent teaching, and reading more generally. An especially dramatic moment is when she puts The Great Gatsby on trial in her university class, and she writes movingly about holding vigil reading Henry James outside her children’s bedroom while bombs from Iraq drop nearby.

It’s an extraordinary period of history and fascinating to read Nafisi’s account of Iran at this time, to discover how exactly it came to be that the women found themselves having to wear headscarves, to read of the terrible ‘morality squads’, as well as details like the homemade vodka in which her husband indulges. Then there is the horror of reading about the suffering endured by many of her students and friends: various combinations of arrest, imprisonment, abuse, torture, rape, and execution.

Woven together with this portrait of Iran, are Nafisi’s readings of the various texts. A theme that runs throughout is the play between reality and fiction – Nafisi’s ‘active withdrawal’ from reality and escape into fiction, and literature’s power to help one cope with difficult circumstances by offering its different worlds.

She emphasises the importance of empathy, how a novel is ‘a sensual experience of another world’, in which you ‘hold your breath with the characters’, and that evil in literature is blindness: ‘the inability to “see” others, hence to empathise with them.’ Nafisi makes the point that:

What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).

Elsewhere, she uses Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to great effect. A student kept on following her to her office and telling her that Jane Austen was anti-Islamic and a colonial writer. Then:

One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure – you are different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute – decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!

There is an added irony here, because once Reading Lolita in Tehran was published and became such a success, it received some flak for exactly this – focussing so much on Western literature rather than Persian. (You can read more about this in this Slate article here.)

There is a third strand of the book, alongside the readings of literature and portrait of Iran – Nafisi’s own life, and the people in it: her family, friends and students. And I’m afraid I thought (and so did the rest of the walking book club) this was the book’s failing. We all confessed to finding it very hard to differentiate between Nafisi’s students, or indeed to ‘see’ any of the characters in the book. When there is a memorable instance of a student’s response to a novel – like Mr. Nahvi’s above – it is usually a student who is otherwise incidental. (I don’t remember Mr. Nahvi featuring elsewhere.)

The real flaw here lies with Nafisi’s seven students who come to the Thursday literature discussions. We are introduced to them in the opening pages of the book, but they don’t really develop. Various things happen to them: one gets married in Turkey, another has her engagement called off, one has a brother who is horrid to her, another a husband who abuses her, one of them has painted fingernails … but none of us could remember what happened to which woman, or any of their names. Nafisi makes a big point of her girls being able to take off their loose black robes and head scarves when they enter her home to reveal the individuals beneath, in jeans and t-shirts, with their own hair styles and colourful nails. Somehow the book doesn’t quite achieve this derobing, and the women remain swathed in vague blackness.

This is especially problematic as Nafisi makes such a good point about the importance of being an individual:

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes … My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.

She draws a comparison with the scene in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, when Cincinnatus is made to dance with his jailer, and waltzes with him in a circle around a prison guard. This complicity is the ultimate cruelty:

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other … There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

Finding the strength, courage and determination to remain an individual is vital for survival. This is exactly what Nafisi encourages her students to discover in literature: a private world where you can be free to think what you like. Only, Reading Lolita in Tehran is full of Nafisi’s own thoughts on literature, rarely are her students given a voice. And if their thoughts occasionally spill onto the page, then so little else is told about them, that it’s hard to see individual characters emerge from such few words.

Nafisi writes well about the terrifying feeling of ‘irrelevance’ which took hold of her under the new regime. Perhaps this book is too much a statement of her own relevance, rather a record of the voices of the many other women who were forced into silence.

Having said all that, I still think it’s a very thought-provoking and important book. I especially liked Nafisi’s comparison of Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance. As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on it. (Or indeed, on a teenage love for Oasis.)

Azar Nafisi

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

January 25, 2016

The Tiger who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

A very belated and very happy new year to you, dear reader. Today, the daffodils in the roundabout at the end of the road have burst into flower – Vita, in her pushchair, looked rather puzzled as I manically pointed to them in joy. Hooray, spring is on the way… and so, I hope you’ll be pleased to hear, are some thoughts on The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

I have been reading proper grown-up books – promise! – but I couldn’t resist writing about this children’s book. I think it haunts me so much because of a conversation I had in the bookshop, back before Vita was even thought about.

An elderly lady came in one day and asked me to find her The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Then she asked me to look up what year it was published.

I told the lady 1968, which felt slightly odd, because I suppose I’d always thought of it as sort of timeless – aren’t all classics? – and I briefly wondered what on earth children read before Judith Kerr created her tea-taking tiger.

The lady said that was the year she came to England from Czechoslovakia. A lot happened in 1968, she said. Then silence, as the full weight of her words sunk in, and I thought: what can I possibly say to someone who fled The Prague Spring? So I commended her on her choice of children’s book, telling her it was one of my favourites. The lady smiled and said it was one of hers too.

The Tiger who Came to Tea has become one of Vita’s favourites too. I have spent hours reading it to her over the past fifteen months, sitting together on the sofa, in bed, on the floor, usually in a static fuzz of exhaustion. In these peaceful moments of turning the pages together, I often think of the lady in the bookshop arriving in England in the same year that the tiger first arrived for tea.

Judith Kerr was a refugee too. She left Berlin in 1933, fleeing the Nazis with her parents – a journey she wrote about beautifully in her autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Children’s author Michael Rosen is not the only person to posit that her tiger could symbolise the Gestapo, who were likely to turn up at The Kerrs’ front door, unannounced and threatening. While the tiger certainly turns everything upside down, eating all the food and drinking all the drink, he also lets Sophie cuddle and stroke him, which makes me feel he is too friendly a tiger to be a Nazi.

Sophie cuddling tiger

Instead, I have come to think of the tiger as an outsider, like Kerr, and like the Czech lady in the bookshop. If the tiger does stand for a refugee asking to enter the country, then Kerr has picked a significant moment for his arrival, for surely there is no more quintessentially English tradition than that of tea?

T380 IM AW 21

Most of the book happens inside and the pages are white, pleasingly bright, as we move from Sophie’s kitchen to the bathroom, hall and living room. When Sophie’s Daddy decides they should go out for supper, however, we suddenly enter the world outside.

Tiger outside

It is always a shock when we turn this page and the background changes from white to black, as the world expands from Sophie’s home to the length of a street, but – crucially – the street is not scary. Though the world outside is dark, it is also full of light: there is the soft yellow glow of the street lamps, the lit windows of the houses, and the warm circle of the moon (you can’t quite see it in the pic above, sorry). There is a jolly red bus, and the colourful shop fronts of the High Street – a toy shop, a fishmonger, butcher, florist and dress shop – most of them with the proprietor’s names inscribed above. There is also a cat, stripey like the tiger, only shrunk down to a normal, less frightening, size. The world outside in 1968 – the world of the tiger and other outsiders – is shown to be not such a terrible, terrifying place after all.

If only the High Street today were such a cosy, comforting spot, lined with independent shops with pretty awnings. Instead we’d be more likely to find the cold strip-lighting of a supermarket, charity shop and a nail bar – not so rosy a scene. Similarly, at the start of the book when the doorbell rings and Sophie’s mummy wonders who it could be, the possibilities seem almost ludicrously outdated: the milkman, or the boy from the grocer on his bicycle with a basket. When the doorbell rings today, it’s probably a courier with an internet-ordered package, or the Ocado man, who is different every time.

In a way, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is about the wonder of shopping – for resolution only comes when Sophie and her mummy go shopping and replenish their supplies. Only Kerr’s portrait of consumerism in 1968, with its milkman, the grocer’s boy on his bicycle and independent High Street shops, is rather a lovely one, showing that shopping then wasn’t just about buying things, it was also a means of creating a community. (Where on earth, though, did they buy that tin of tiger food? Is this some weird forecasting of the online ‘everything store’ that was to come?)

When I read the book with Vita on my knee, nearly fifty years after Kerr wrote it, I mourn the loss of the feeling of safety and community which lights up the world outside. I think what a wonderful welcome the tiger is given in 1968, when he turns up to tea … and I think of the Czech woman who came to England then, and Kerr who arrived thirty-five years before, and the welcomes they received.

Next time the door bell rings, once we get over our disappointment at no longer having a milkman, we ought to wonder what sort of welcome we’d give a tiger who came to tea today.

Judith Kerr

Emilybooks of the year

December 23, 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read over the year. And, of course, as I look back over the books, so I remember the circumstances in which they were read: grabbing half an hour on a park bench while Vita snoozed in her pushchair, snatching a few pages in the bath before falling asleep from exhaustion, sitting in a cafe round the corner from the nursery trying to distract myself from thinking about her ‘settling in’ a.k.a. screaming her head off. I suppose these are all rather fraught circumstances for reading, and so it’s to be expected that I’ve read and posted far less than I would have liked. But when I think that the lack of books has been due to an abundance of Vita, I don’t feel quite so sorry about it as I might do otherwise. Besides, at least I’ve got to read such delights as Peepo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Meg and Mog and Lost and Found again, and again, and again.

The Fishermen by ObiomaWhile I may not have written about books on Emilybooks quite so much, I have at least been writing about them elsewhere. I adored Melissa Harrison’s nature-novel At Hawthorn Time, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, and I also enjoyed Lucy Beresford’s compelling novel about India, Invisible Threads, which I wrote about for The Spectator. I also read two books by Thomas Harding – Hanns and Rudolf, which I wrote about here, and his recent history of a house outside Berlin, The House by the Lake which I reviewed in the Christmas edition of The TLS here. (Quite a big piece!) I hope to have a review of Helen Simpson’s beautifully observed, funny and life-affirming new collection of short stories, Cockfosters, in The TLS early next year too. The best newly published book I read of the year was Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – an extraordinary debut novel, with such a powerful mythic voice. I wrote about it when it first came out, and then was pleased as punch when it went on to be first longlisted and then shortlisted for The Booker Prize, hurrah!

The Good DoctorEmily’s Walking Book Club has become something of a reading lifeline to me. Knowing that I will read one good book a month and then talk about it with such clever, kind and interesting people while stomping across Hampstead Heath – while all thoughts of nappies and bottles etc. are blown away for an hour or so – has been invaluable. Particular highlights have been Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – a beautiful Persephone Book about a father searching for his missing son after the Second World War in France; Iris Murdoch’s The Bell about a load of endearing oddballs living beside an Abbey; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – about life in a defunct hospital in the wilds of South Africa, and optimism versus cynicism, lies, race and gosh SO MUCH; and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld –  a horrible book about a very damaged young woman and what she’s running away from, which is also horribly good.

A Christmas Party by Georgette HeyerFor our last walking book club of the year, we discussed Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (originally published with the title Envious Casca), and it seemed at first to split people into two camps – those who loved it for all its silliness, and those who found it too silly to love. Within about ten minutes, we were comparing it to Downton Abbey, but our discussion then moved on to encompass Shakespeare, acting, family and much more and by the end of the walk we had all grown rather fond of the book and its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a vintage Christmas murder mystery, one of many which have been republished this year – I wrote about this publishing phenomenon and what it tells us about our reading habits (and ourselves!) for Intelligent Life here.

There have been other excellent older books that I discovered this year. Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – which takes about five minutes to read, only that five minutes will be one of the most intense five minutes of your life; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years – sheer bliss for when you need something a little indulgent; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown – ballsy and loud and inspiring; and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which was funny and brilliant and clever and actually made me hold my breath for an entire page and a The Uncommon Readerhalf. I also jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon – is there actually anyone who reads, who hasn’t read her? – and read the first book in the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It was brilliant, of course it was. I can’t quite place why though – Was it that the town was so well described, and the characters so recognisable? Was it that we all relate to the pain and the joy of that kind of intense unequal female friendship? I don’t know, I hope to read the rest of them in 2016, then think hard and then write about them altogether, but in the meantime the LRB bookshop has a podcast of a ‘Ferrante fever’ event which looks potentially illuminating – you can download it here. Also, I must urge everyone to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett over Christmas – it is a true delight, short, funny, life-affirming: all about The Queen discovering a love for reading. It will make you chortle while you sit there on the sofa groaning after too many mince pies, and apparently laughing is basically the same as exercise, so there you go, it’s a certain win.

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtI shall skip through the two real disappointments of the year. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – the first and worst book of the year, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014, which certainly wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t as good as all that, certainly not as good as Ali Smith’s How to be Both which was on the shortlist, and I suppose maybe I feel childishly cross about that. (Incidentally, Ali Smith has a fantastic new collection of short stories out this year too – Public Library.) Anyway, plenty of people disagree about both of these, so no doubt they are good books, just not good Emilybooks. Should you get stuck on a similar big long boring book, and find your reading slowing down as you begin to dread picking it up – JUST GIVE IT UP! Life’s too short. There are so many other better books you could be reading, rather than essentially not reading. To get back on track, I would suggest picking up a very addictive and exciting children’s book, such as one by Tonke Dragt: Pushkin published The Secrets of the Wild Wood this year and it is terrific – the husband adored it too.

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeSo, fanfare please, what is my Emilybook of the Year, if I had to pick just one? A difficult choice, but I think I would have to opt for Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, recently republished by Daunt Books. It is wonderful escapism, but has bite too – a dark edge that stops it being too airy and daft. Set in 1930s Peking, our heroine, the marvellous Laura Leroy suffers from acute ‘inhalfness’ – torn between the glamour of her life in China as a diplomat’s wife, while thinking about her children growing up without her in England. Though she seems wistful at first, she is in fact a dab hand at using a brick as a hammer, surprisingly realistic about love, and expert a cool head in a crisis, even a life-threatening one. Top heroine; top book!

 I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these books, or indeed your own books of 2015, if you feel like commenting below. So, what will I be reading over Christmas? Alas I won’t be curling up by the fire with a Christmas murder mystery (though to be fair, I have just read half a dozen of them for the Intelligent Life article) … but I will be seeking help in civilising the ahem ‘spirited’ little one from Pamela Druckerman’s life-changing (let’s hope) parenting book French Children Don’t Throw Food. Wish me luck!

French Children Don't Throw Food

The Member of the Wedding

November 18, 2015

I can’t tell you how delighted I was when someone got in touch out of the blue and asked me if I might do a walking book club for her friend’s hen party. Yes, that’s right, a HEN PARTY. An occasion which usually calls for things like shots, novelty straws, strippers, embarrassing games usually to do with sex, and pink garters… yet here was a lady wanting to organise a hen party where everyone would go for a walk and talk about a book. This was evidently my kind of girl. (You can read about my own very literary hen party here.)

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullersOf course I said yes please, and put my mind to choosing a good book. I settled upon The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers – short, wedding-ish, unusual, and absolutely bloody brilliant.

As the day drew near, I began to feel a little apprehensive. What if everyone turned up smashed? What if nobody liked books, or walks, and were all very cross at discovering this wasn’t actually a hilarious cover for a pole-dancing lesson? It was certainly pretty likely that nobody would have read the book. I scribbled down more notes than usual, prepared to summarise some bits, read other bits aloud, and thought of some suitably vague questions in an attempt not to exclude people who hadn’t read it. When I told friends about what the weekend held in store, they merely laughed and advised me to fill my handbag with rudely-shaped sweets, and booze, ‘just in case’.

You can imagine my relief, then, when the gaggle of girls (plus a couple of boys) turned up looking fresh-faced, full of beans, suitably studious, and with some very fetching dog balloons in tow. The bride looked perplexed. Nobody looked drunk. And to my astonishment EVERYBODY had read the book, even the bride – who had somehow been coerced into it without realising why.

So off we set across Hampstead Heath, the rudely-shaped sweets burning a hole in my pocket and now seeming wildly inappropriate. I was relieved that I’d also thought to bring along some less offensively shaped almond biscuits baked by the husband.

The Member of the Wedding took Carson McCullers (a woman – she dropped her first name ‘Lula’ when she was 13) five years to write and was first published in 1946.

Frankie wants to be a ‘member of the wedding’. She sees her brother, who’s just come back from Alaska, with his fiancé and realises:

They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.

Frankie wants to be part of something which, of course, she can’t be. It’s a desire that ripples through the novel. Frankie is left out by the older girls, who ‘said she was too young and mean’ to join the clubhouse where they have parties with boys on Saturday nights, but is also ‘too tall this summer to walk beneath the arbour as she had always done before’ with the other younger children. She is caught between youth and adulthood, not allowed to be a member of either. So McCullers lets her novel take the appealing form of a coming-of-age story.

‘They are the we of me’ is such a haunting phrase. Made up of single syllables, with a simple rhyme, it harnesses both the shining naivete and the fervent belief of childhood. It is painful in its purity. Here McCullers has put simply a feeling from which we all suffer – an acute desire to belong to something to which we feel a kinship. And, of course, the phrase conjures its shadow of impending exclusion.

These twin forces of connexion (McCullers spells it with an x) and exclusion are at play throughout the novel. They are there with Frankie and her brother’s wedding and there in Frankie’s in-between state of not-quite-child-not-quite adulthood.

They are also there when it comes to race. In Ali Smith’s superb introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, she points out that Carson McCullers railed against the racism of the American South even as a child, ‘yelling with rage at the taxi driver who had refused to take her parents’ black cook in his cab.’ Frankie is refreshingly colour-blind, having a close bond with her family’s black cook Berenice, and, when she walks through the town, McCullers writes that ‘she crossed the unseen line’ which divides it into its black and white areas.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a powerful scene when Frankie is sitting around the kitchen table with Berenice and John Henry, her much younger cousin. Frankie has determined to leave home and so:

On this last evening, the last time with the three of them together in the kitchen, she felt there was some final thing she ought to say or do before she went away.

The atmosphere is portentous, as though Frankie is just on the verge of a discovery, is about to say something of weight:

Strange words were flowering in her throat and now was the time for her to name them.

‘This,’ she said. ‘I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you would call the tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’

McCullers is canny in her choice of colours: green points to Frankie’s own greenness, her youth and naivete, and black could not be more loaded, especially as this is said to Berenice, the black cook. A little later in their conversation, Berenice says that she is ‘caught worse than you is’:

Because I am black … Because I am coloured. Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people. They done squeezed us off in one corner by ourself … Sometimes it just about more than we can stand.

So McCullers uses Frankie’s ‘flowering’ of new words and feelings and womanhood as a means of discussing racism. She shows that colour is a deceptive means of bringing people together: ‘we would agree’ on a tree being green, but ‘how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’

This idea of miscommunication and understanding different meanings from the same word appears again when Frankie meets a soldier. He asks her:

‘Who is a cute dish?’

We get the flirtation, but Frankie is puzzled:

There were no dishes on the table and she had the uneasy feeling that he had begun to talk a kind of double-talk.

This ‘double-talk’ gets a whole lot worse later, but I must avoid spoilers.

Really The Member of the Wedding is ‘double-talk’ writ large. It purports to be a simple coming-of-age story about twelve-year-old Frankie, but in fact Carson McCullers addresses racism, death, The Second World War, and, perhaps more profoundly, these universal ideas which are so painful to read about because they are so acutely observed: the fact that we all misunderstand each other, the fact that we all want to belong to things from which we are excluded.

We all had a great deal to say as we strode across the Heath on this literary hen party. The discussion grew especially impassioned as we talked about the violence that punctuates the book … but then, quite suddenly, everyone was laughing. I turned round to see what had happened, surely not everyone found the ‘cute dish’ pun as funny as all that?

A naïve dog had been charmed by a particularly attractive canine balloon. The dog was now sniffing the balloon’s bottom, looking disappointed and more than a little confused. Poor dog, I thought. No doubt, he had seen the doggy balloons and thought, They are the we of me.

dog balloon

Ali Smith

November 11, 2015

Last week, I went to see the magnificent, inspiring, funny, genius writer Ali Smith talk at the Hampstead Arts Festival. Her words are pure gold. I especially loved the way she talked about a book being alive because it is an organic object:

Books are spines and they are skins and they are tree, and when we open them up they are wings.

This poetic image hovered in sharp contrast to her description of the ‘flatness’ of reading on screen. She compared books to animals again later, telling us that an author must respect the life and the wildness of their work, and quoting John Berger:

You cannot look at a wild animal, a wild animal has to look at you.

Pure gold, I tell you!

She also talked persuasively about the perilous state of our libraries – the subject of her new book, a collection of short stories entitled Public Library. I wrote this up for Intelligent Life magazine here: Ali Smith’s Call to Arms

Public Library by Ali Smith

The Secrets of the Wild Wood

October 14, 2015

A man came into the bookshop the other day with a long white beard and extraordinary eyebrows. My jaw dropped and I only just managed to stop myself asking, ‘Are you the Master of the Wild Wood?’

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtYou see I was currently in the middle of Tonke Dragt’s wonderful children’s classic The Secrets of the Wild Wood, written in 1965 and now translated into English for the first time by Pushkin Press. This is the second book – the first was The Letter for the King – and continues the adventures of young knight Tiuri and his sidekick Piak across a magical land, questing and battling for good over evil. Most of the action of this second book takes place in the Wild Wood, where there are mysterious Men in Green and – even more mysterious – Tehalon, the Master of the Wild Wood.

The man in the bookshop was not Tehalon, I soon discovered. I had my doubts when I saw the bottle of vodka in his hemp bag, and these doubts were confirmed when he said, ‘The thing about libraries and bookshops is that they always have such pretty girls working in them.’ Oh dear, I thought, as I handed him his receipt while trying to make my wedding ring as visible as possible. ‘You’re all right,’ he continued, ‘but you should see the girl in my local library, she’s a f**king stunner.

Touché.

I have to say that this exchange rather unfairly clouded my opinion of Tonke Dragt’s character, but no matter, it remained an incredible book and one I recommend to all readers – both young and old.

As more seasoned readers of Emilybooks might be aware, I adore reading a good children’s book every now and then. Favourite occasions for indulging in children’s literature include Christmas, whenever I’m ill, or when I’m struggling to get engrossed in a more grown-up book. Since having a baby, my mind has been rather more prone to being all over the place than before. Free time is so precious and yet it is hard to enjoy it when one is so exhausted (STILL??!!!) and one’s brain feels quite feeble. This means that a book needs to be really great to keep me gripped, otherwise I don’t have the strength of either will or body to pick it up, keep going and before I know it I’ve stopped reading a book altogether and my only reading matter is a Mumsnet forum about teething.

So I put down the rather dry book that I’d been not reading for the past fortnight and picked up this instead. The Secrets of the Wild Wood is the best part of 500 pages and I read it in under a week. (I’m aware that this doesn’t sound quite so impressive to those of you without babies.) The story is gripping, the scale epic, and Tiuri a hero with nerves, flaws and feelings which make him very easy to relate to. But I suppose the true feat of the book is how Dragt’s world of quests and adventure, knights and mysteries, which is a million miles from my reality, can be so powerfully rendered, so utterly immersive that for that brief moment it felt entirely plausible that a character from her world could step into mine.

I adored both of Tonke Dragt’s books – and so did the husband. I should add that this last one is the only book he has read in months that isn’t a cookbook (an obsession with which I will not meddle as I am getting so many yummy dinners out of it). Now we both feel rather bereft of Tiuri, Piak, Lavinia and co. Oh Pushkin – has Tonke Dragt written anything else that you might translate? Please?

Tonke Dragt

Rubyfruit Jungle

September 21, 2015

Does anyone else think of September as being an enormous Sunday night? There’s that scary back-to-school feeling, and the need for new shoes and perhaps some snazzy new stationery. At least Vita seems incredibly pleased with the addition of a pair of shoes to her wardrobe. She has taken to trying to walk, very excitedly and proudly, hanging on to my hands while practising her peculiarly straight-legged stomp as far as she can (or my back permits) before sitting down and clapping her hands.

Vita is now at nursery two days a week, which is a change. This is so that on Fridays I can be back at work in the bookshop, and on Thursdays I can get some writing done. Last Friday was my first day back and it was wonderful. There were all these things I could do, like read a book, talk to people about books, rearrange books on tables … and I realised how much stronger I’ve got – books, even huge towers of them, are so much lighter and easier to manoeuvre than a wriggling baby desperate to show off her idiosyncratic goosestep!

Who knows how the writing will go, and whether I’ll return to the novel-in-progress, or start afresh, or spend the extra time pursuing journalism. Help, it feels far too scary to think about!, so instead let me point you towards my latest two articles: a piece I wrote for The Guardian about Odd Mondays … and another for The Spectator about the library in The Jungle migrant camp in Calais. I’d love to know what you think of them.

Anyway, all this September chat is to make the point that there are times in one’s life which can feel well maybe not quite like ‘turning points’, as that sounds so naf, but certainly like a change, as though you’re climbing up to the next step, with all its accompanying challenges. And for me, for some reason, this usually happens in September.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownSo it was very lucky that while Vita was settling in to nursery and I was sent off to sit downstairs or in a nearby café while she got used to it, ready to be summoned if she bawled, when I wasn’t biting my fingernails and suffering a horrid anxious sinking feeling , I read the perfect September book: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.

This is a novel with a brilliant, clever, ballsy, brave heroine, who is determined to succeed in spite of terrible circumstances and several knockbacks. And it’s very funny, right from the start:

No one remembers her beginnings. Mothers and aunts tell us about infancy and early childhood, hoping we won’t forget the past when they had total control over our lives and secretly praying that because of it, we’ll include them in our future.

I loved it from the first sentence, the way that ‘no one’ is given the possessive ‘her’ rather than the more common ‘his’ or the fence-sitting plural ‘their’. Obviously this is going to be a feminist book, I thought, and full of insight – although I fear it may be Vita who has total control over my life rather than the other way round – told in a chatty, conspiratorial way that made me instantly warm to Molly Bolt, our heroine. By the end of the first page, we learn that Molly is ‘a bastard’ and see her friend Broccoli’s notably uncircumcised ‘dick’. It sets the tone for the rest of the novel, in which there is a lot of bad language, and a lot of talk about sex, especially lesbian sex – so those of you who blush easily, you have been warned.

Molly Bolt tells her story, beginning in ‘a rural dot’ in Pennsylvania, where she is an illegitimate child, very poor, very bright and a vociferous tomboy. She falls in love with her classmate Leota B, and asks her to marry her. When Leota points out that girls can’t marry each other, Molly responds:

‘Look, if we want to get married, we can get married. It don’t matter what anybody says. Besides Leroy and I are running away to be famous actors. We’ll have lots of money and clothes and we can do what we want. Nobody dares tell you what to do if you’re famous. Now ain’t that a lot better than sitting around here with an apron on?’

From the start, Molly is determined to do what she wants and won’t let anyone get in her way. If what she wants is against the rules, then the rules are stupid and she’ll change them. She is quick to point out the hypocrisy of the adult world. If she and Leota love each other then why shouldn’t they get married? When her family move to Florida, her parents tell her off for using the ‘Colored Only’ toilets. Her father explains that here, ‘down South’, things are different from the North and ‘the whites and the coloreds don’t mix’. Molly says:

‘Daddy, that’s no different than up home in York. They just don’t put “Colored” over the bathroom doors, that’s all.’

Defiantly, she continues:

‘I ain’t staying away from people because they look different.’

Molly’s forever being called a ‘smart-mouth’ and told to shut up, but she refuses. She will speak her mind and certainly this reader is grateful for her persistence.

After High School, which Molly negotiates with aplomb, she gets a full scholarship to the University of Florida in Gainesville, ‘the bedpan of the South’. (She has to go there rather than to the better universities because they don’t offer her such generous scholarships.) Molly’s successful career there falls apart when her lesbian affair with her room mate is discovered, and the committee informs her that her scholarship ‘could not be renewed for “moral reasons” although my academic record was superb.’

It’s a kick in the teeth and Molly does what many of us would do, gets a bus home. Only, when she gets there her mother greets her with:

‘You just turn your ass around and get out … You never obeyed nobody’s rules – mine, the school’s, and now you go defying God’s rules. Go on and get outa here. I don’t want you. Why the hell you even bother to come back here?’

Molly, unfazed, leaves and determines to hitchhike to New York City, in spite of having only $14.61 in the world, reasoning ‘there are so many queers in New York that one more wouldn’t rock the boat’.

Even in New York, Molly won’t stick to the rules. Firstly she refuses to slot into the ‘butch and femme’ scene that dominates the lesbian scene, saying:

‘That’s the craziest, dumbass thing I ever heard tell of. What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation man?’

She refuses to be a wealthy older lesbian’s kept woman even though she is broke, and instead gets a partial scholarship to NYU film school, working nights at ‘The Flick serving ice cream and hamburgers in a bunnyesque costume.’ When she gets fired, she finds another job as a secretary:

I roared into the office in complete female rig – skirt, stockings, slip. I couldn’t cross my legs because some of the more obvious sperm producers would try to look up my leg, couldn’t put my feet on the desk because that wasn’t ladylike, and if I didn’t wear makeup everyone, including the boss, would ask me if I was ‘under the weather’ that day.

I love the thought of ‘roaring into the office’. From now on, I am going to roar everywhere and not worry about permanently looking ‘under the weather’.

Molly graduates from film school, in spite of everything, including the fact that all the equipment gets given to the men, only to find that none of the film companies will give her a job unless it’s as a secretary. It’s another setback, but, she says, ‘what the hell’, it’ll take more than this to stop her:

One way or another I’ll make those movies and I don’t feel like having to fight until I’m fifty. But if it does take that long then watch out world because I’m going to be the hottest fifty-year-old this side of the Mississippi.

Rubyfruit Jungle is a terrific novel about not giving up, and never compromising on what you stand for. It’s hard to succeed, and perhaps it’s harder for Molly than for most, but she keeps fighting. It’s an inspiration and exactly what you need to read in September – I can’t recommend it highly enough if you, like me, are in need of a little pepping up. Now, if I feel a little feeble, I think of roaring around like Molly and I think ‘Watch out world!’

Peking Picnic

September 4, 2015

Today feels like the last day of the summer. Now September is here, shoes and socks are back on feet, cheesy carb cravings return, holidays are over and everyone’s staring down the cold hard barrel of autumn. If you, like me, are in need of a little something to help you cling on to those long hot days with a last burst of escapism, might I suggest the glorious Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge …

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeI began reading Peking Picnic with an enormous Scotch egg, which was, I reasoned, rather an appropriate accompaniment. After a gruelling few days while Vita had struggled with a nasty virus, I was exhausted. Far too exhausted to cook supper, hence the oversized egg, which I consumed, along with the book and a large glass of whisky, in the bath.

Peking Picnic, written in 1932, is by Ann Bridge, the pen name of Mary Ann Dolling O’Malley, a diplomat’s wife. It is Bridge’s first novel and was an immediate success, winning the sizeable Atlantic Monthly prize. Ann Bridge went on to write several novels, which often featured the same winning combination of troubled upper-class heroine, social satire, and romance, all in a minutely observed exotic environment. As well as these ‘foreign office novels’, she wrote travel books, family memoirs and a series of detective stories. (I wrote about her very charming Illyrian Spring here.)

Back to the bath, where I wanted a Peking panacea for the hell of the last few days. I have rarely been so grateful for fiction being such an effective vehicle to a different life. This thing disguised as a paperback was in fact a pocket-private-jet-time-machine, ready to transport me to a louche world of cocktails and dressing for dinner, spiced with romantic intrigue. Yet the first sentence seemed to be a warning:

To live in two different worlds at the same time is both difficult and disconcerting.

Of course Ann Bridge doesn’t mean my two worlds; she is referring to the ‘inhalfness’ of her heroine Laura Leroy, stuck between the adult world of China, where she is a diplomat’s wife (like her author), and that of her children left behind in Oxfordshire. We first encounter Laura at a party, ‘but she was not really seeing any of it’, instead her gaze rests on a memory of her son playing cricket, sufficiently vivid to include:

the little freckles on the white forehead and the big ones on the bridge of that snub nose.

So at first Laura Leroy seems rather a wistful figure. She has ‘vague fits’ in which her mind drifts and she forgets she is mid-conversation; or else she seeks out solitary spots to sit and daydream about her children (though she is almost always disturbed by men telling her how ‘deliciously cool’ she looks in the heat).

Soon, however, we discover all sorts of unexpected characteristics beneath her willowy exterior. We first glimpse Laura’s ingenuity and efficiency when she consults a ‘profit and loss account book’ in which she keeps track of ‘lunches and dinners given and received’:

They are all written up in that, and when I am giving a party I can turn anyone up and see at once what I owe them, and work them off. I balance it once a quarter or so and start afresh.

I find this to be an inspiration, but Laura’s wide-eyed niece questions the insincerity of her system. Laura matter-of-factly responds, ‘It’s a job.’

Strictly speaking, it is not her job, it’s her husband’s. For an unofficial diplomat, Laura is certainly highly skilled: not only does she have her clever profit and loss entertaining system, but she speaks excellent Chinese, is adept at gleaning political information through the servants, and, as we see at the book’s climax, she remains calm in a crisis and is exceptionally good at thinking on her feet. Looking at it from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is a travesty that Laura isn’t drawing a salary, that her account book is used only for social engagements, not a wage.

The Peking Picnic of the title is no brief British jaunt into the countryside, with rugs, strawberries and Scotch eggs; it is a three-day expedition, involving donkeys, river-crossings, temple lodgings, and begins amidst rumours of oncoming war. We take in the sights, conjured with Bridge’s painterly eye – things are:

sharply coloured even in the distance under the pouring glittering brilliance of the intense light, detailed beyond European belief in the desiccating clearness of the bone-dry air of Central Asia.

Most members of the picnic party are at varying stages of falling in love with each other, and the expedition is very much an opportunity for musing about the nature of love. When asked if her husband is ‘the great love of your lifetime’, Laura says, somewhat disarmingly, ‘He’s one of the three’. She thinks extra-marital affairs are fine, providing the husband doesn’t suffer the cruelty of knowing about them and so long as she has ‘the intention of permanence’ with each lover rather than being merely ‘promiscuous’. Perhaps Ann Bridge, whose husband was something of a philanderer, wants to make the point that women can stray too, or maybe she wants to show that a marriage can work in spite of taking an unorthodox form.

It seems that everyone is a little bit in love with Laura Leroy, and who can blame them? The more time I spent with our heroine, the more I fell for her. In particular, I grew to admire her eccentric strain of practicality. One of my favourite examples of this takes place when they arrive at the temple where they are to sleep. Laura ‘set to work with a practised hand to arrange her few effects’:

Taking a couple of nails from her trouser pocket she drove them into the wall with a brickbat picked up in the courtyard, and hung her pocket mirror on one and her towel on the other.

I instantly forgave Laura the vanity of treasuring her pocket mirror for the tomboyish dexterity with which she happens upon a couple of nails in her pocket and hammers them into the wall. Later, when the picnic party gets into a tangle with a group of Chinese soldiers, Laura’s peculiar combination of charm, wisdom and nous makes her a brave and formidable heroine indeed.

On the face of it, a bunch of expat toffs and eccentrics going on an expedition and getting into a fix sounds like a daft storyline, but Bridge creates a substantial shadow to her lighthearted caper by reminding us of the perennially close presence of death. One of her characters grimly remarks:

‘You don’t get ill in Peking – you die; in about forty-eight hours, as a rule.’

At the temple, the picnickers witness a soldier murdering a monk, ‘plunging the bayonet into his body – once, twice, a third time’, until the dead body rolls over ‘with a horrible boneless collapse’.

Equally uncomfortable to read, though unintentionally so, is Bridge’s habit of passing observations, often ventriloquized through Laura, on ‘the Chinese race’. This was written in 1932, we must remember, before the full horror of thinking along such racial lines became unforgettably apparent. If it is an effort to get over the racial stereotyping, it is at least made easier by Bridge’s sympathetic, detailed and nuanced view of the Chinese.

For instance, we are informed that the Chinese use compass points for directions rather than left and right – ‘both a more civilised and a more intellectual way of giving directions than our own’. Laura observes ‘that loveliest of Chinese inventions, the small pipes bound to the pinion feathers of pigeons, so that the birds cannot fly without creating this ethereal music’ and wonders, ‘who would not love and honour a race which could devise a thing like that?’ When an American companion asks Laura if she thinks it strange or shocking that the Chinese use human beings ‘for the work of beasts’, she springs to their defence:

I don’t think hauling a cart or pulling a rickshaw is nearly as unhealthy as being a stoker on a liner, nor as dangerous as coal-mining, and it’s certainly far less demoralising than leaning against a wall all day and drawing the dole.

These moments of acute and surprising observation bring to mind the writing of another diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She travelled to Turkey in 1716 and wrote a series of extraordinary letters in which, with great panache, she turned Western prejudiced perceptions of foreign customs on their head. The two of them make me wonder if every diplomat’s wife holds such intelligent and unexpected opinions.

I began Peking Picnic in the bath, and finished it a fortnight later, snatching twenty minutes on a park bench while the baby napped in her pushchair. I’m sure I’m not the first mother to note the difficulties of reading with a baby: not only do you have a new person to nurture, entertain and keep alive, there is so much more to do by way of housekeeping, so much less sleep and, to cap it all, babies love nothing more than pulling off one’s reading specs! When reading time is so precious, choosing the right book is essential. Luckily, Peking Picnic could not have been better, for not only did it transport me so effectively to another – far more glamorous – world, but at the heart of this world is a mother who remains decidedly ambivalent towards it. Our heroine glides through the cocktails, parties, romance and adventure while her ‘spirit’ luxuriates in memories of her children. Yes, I adored escaping the domesticity of new motherhood to adventure in 1930s China, but it was reassuring and pleasantly life-affirming to think that wonderful Laura Leroy would prefer to be at home with her children after all.

Ann Bridge


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