Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Four excellent debut novels

October 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

Black Rock, White City

 

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Madame Zero

September 8, 2017

Madame Zero 1

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

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

Madame Zero

 

Forest Dark

September 1, 2017

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

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

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

Forest Dark

Silver and Salt

August 8, 2017

Silver and Salt

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

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

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

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

Silver and Salt review

 

 

 

My Cousin Rachel

February 27, 2017

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

‘I can’t really remember,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

daphne-du-maurier

Daphne du Maurier – looking suitably fierce and mysterious

My Grandmothers and I

July 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Holman Hunt

Here she is, looking extremely glam.

Brodeck’s Report

May 16, 2016

Spring must be here, because when we were on the Heath yesterday my yellow wellies were wonderfully redundant. In spite of the recent rain, the Heath was dry, the grass long, the air heavy with pollen, and the sunshine bright, and I rather wished I’d flung off my boots and run around barefoot.

walking book club brodeck

Emily’s Walking Book Club was discussing Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel. This novel came out in 2007 – not so long ago – and yet already it has all but disappeared from our cultural radar. Nobody in the book club had even heard of it, but, pleasingly, everyone was very glad to discover it. This is exactly what I want to do with the book club, and with this blog: bring people’s attention to really good books, which, for whatever reason, have been somewhat forgotten. Often these books are quite old, but Brodeck’s Report shows that even a decade can bring relative obscurity.

Brodeck's Report

The novel is set in a village somewhere around the Franco-German border, at a time which is hard to pin down: the blurb says ‘post-war’, and it certainly could be read as taking place after the Second World War, but Claudel is deliberately vague about this, and – as the book club noted – the only technology in the book is a typewriter, people travel on foot or by horse and cart, so it certainly has the feel of an older, somewhat mythical world. The book begins with our narrator, Brodeck, being tasked to write a report. His job is writing reports about the wildlife surrounding the village, collecting data on things like flowers and foxes. Only this particular report is on the murder of the Anderer, ‘the other’. This mysterious, flamboyant stranger recently arrived in the village: he was a man of few words but who talked to his animals, he wore strange clothes, carried old books, was always making notes and sketches of village life … and the people of the village have just killed him. In his account of the murder, Brodeck reveals a great deal more: both about his own life – including his survival of a concentration camp, which he calls the kazerskwir, or ‘crater’, and also how the village has struggled to survive enemy occupation.

It is easy to read Brodeck’s Report as a novel about the Holocaust. Brodeck’s Jewishness is alluded to, although most of the time he, and the other people who were taken to the camps, are referred to as Fremdër – which Claudel explains means ‘foreigner’, but:

… is ambiguous, as it can also mean “traitor”, or more colloquially, “gangrene”, or “filth”.

Claudel has chosen, however, not to make his story specifically about the Holocaust. His vagueness about time and place gives the story something of the feeling of a myth, fairy tale, or parable. When we were discussing it, many members of the book club referred to Rwanda, the current migration crisis, and also the book’s religious connotations. ‘Is the Anderer,’ someone put forward, ‘a Christ-like figure, who has to die to absolve the village for its sins?’

The point is that making the book only about the Holocaust and post-war France would be letting the rest of the world off the hook. Claudel’s novel examines what happens to humanity when it is pushed to the edge – and while the Holocaust is a powerful instance of this, it is not the only one.

Claudel also resists making the characters entirely good or bad. Brodeck’s first sentence tries to absolve him of any responsibility for the murder of the Anderer:

My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.

But we discover it’s not quite so straightforward as that. Even a man as good as Brodeck has done things of which he is ashamed. There is a terrible moment when he was crammed into the wagon being taken to the concentration camp and he drinks a flask of water belonging to a sleeping young woman with a baby, thereby saving himself and causing their deaths. He still feels terrible guilt for this act:

…this perpetual feeling of inhabiting a body I stole long ago thanks to a few drops of water.

Just as no one is wholly good, no one is wholly bad: the innkeeper who is complicit in the murder of the Anderer tells Brodeck of his haunting grief over the death of his own infant son. One of the most sinister figures in the book is the commandant’s wife at the concentration camp, or: ‘Die Zeilenesseniss “the woman who eats souls”’, who is ‘inhumanly beautiful’. Every day one of the prisoners was chosen to be hanged. The woman never missed a hanging, and she always came with her baby in her arms:

The baby was always peaceful. He never cried. If he was asleep, she would awaken him with small, patient, infinitely gentle gestures, and only when he opened his eyes at last, waved his little arms, wiggled his little thighs and yawned at the sky would she signal to the guards, with a simple movement of her chin, that the ceremony could begin. One of them would give the stepladder a mighty kick and the body of the “Du” would drop, his fall abruptly cut short by the rope. Die Zeilenesseniss would watch him for a few minutes, and as she did so a smile would appear on her lips. She missed nothing and observed everything: the jumps and jolts, the throaty noises, the outthrust, kicking feet vainly reaching for the ground, the explosive sound of the bowels emptying themselves, and the final immobility, the great silence. At this point the child would sometimes cry a little, I dare say not so much from fright as from hunger and the desire to be suckled, but in any case his mother would plant a long kiss on his forehead and calmly leave the scene.

It is such a disturbing image, this beautiful mother and child – clean, peaceful, calm, happy – watching this terrible ritual death. Claudel juxtaposes birth and death elsewhere in the novel too, with Poupchette, the joyful child of Emilia, Brodeck’s wife, born of a terrible act which has all but killed Emilia.

In Brodeck’s Report, we get everything: birth and death, good and evil, the very edges of humanity and all that comes in between. It was a very difficult (if also rewarding) book to discuss because there is so much in it, and all the ideas and issues are so big and bound together: guilt, responsibility, survival – huge questions of morality. But I think what makes the book so brilliant is that while it asks difficult questions, and scrutinises our behaviour so cleverly, it is not all bad and all bleak: Claudel shows us that however much evil there is in us, there is also – always – some good, some love, and some hope.

In other news, I hope you might like this piece I wrote for the Guardian about a very inspiring book club in a prison. And there was also this piece for The Spectator about why books are dangerous, and mustn’t be underestimated: I suppose they’re two articles looking at the power of books from opposite ends of the scale.

 

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

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!’