Posts Tagged ‘new books’

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 Fishermen

March 9, 2015

I adored the David Attenborough Africa series. There was the ferocious giraffe neck fight, the heartbreaking bit with the mummy and baby elephant (I shed a tear just writing that), and this inspiring moment of baby turtles scrambling down the beach to reach the sea:

This story of the turtles – so many of them hatching in such hostile conditions and only a very few of them, with a near-impossible amount of determination and luck, reaching the sea – strikes me as being remarkably similar to the fate of debut novels. Think of the miracle of a story hatching in someone’s mind. Think of all the thousands of ideas that hatch, and how few manage to make it into print without being picked off by the many hazards faced by aspiring writers. Once the debut novels have made it into the water, so to speak, they ought to be applauded, they at least ought to be read.

The Fishermen by ObiomaThe Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is one such baby turtle that reached the sea in rather beautiful nick. The bright jacket caught my eye and my interest was piqued when I saw it’s published by Pushkin Press’s ‘One’ Imprint, which produces just one book a year. When a publisher is that selective, you feel the book must be good.

The Fishermen is narrated by nine-year-old Ben, who tells us about his life with his brothers:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

With their father away, the boys go fishing together in a dangerous, forbidden stretch of river. I settled in to what I thought might be a kind of Nigerian Stand by Me, half-wondering when they would see their first dead body or get covered in leeches.

The oldest brother, Ikenna, soon starts to be tricky and rebellious, perhaps testing his freedom now the father is gone. Yet it soon transpires that Ikenna’s difficult behaviour is not part of the usual trials of adolescence, but goes back to one day at the river, when he was cursed by Abulu the madman. Abulu prophesies that he will ‘die by the hands of a fisherman’. The brothers have called themselves fishermen, so Ikenna is convinced that Boja, the nearest to him in age, will murder him. As the poison sets to work in his mind, Ikenna suffers more and more, driving a wedge between him and his family so that you fear the prophecy, unthinkable as it is at the beginning, might just come true. I shall leave the plot here for risk of spoilers.

Obioma writes beautifully, with an imaginative eye for metaphor that makes the book feel mythical, as though the story is bigger than what it purports to be. So it isn’t just a story about a particular family, it is a powerful novel about ‘family’. When the mother is upset at Ikenna’s behaviour, we get:

It seemed a part of her body, which she had got accustomed to touching, had suddenly sprouted thorns and every effort made to touch that part merely resulted in bleeding.

It’s a brilliant rendering of that close bind between mother and child – after all that child was indeed once a part of her body – and the pain that is felt when the child turns away. It is every bit as affective as Lear’s ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’.

I thought of Shakespeare again as Ikenna is increasingly derailed by Abulu’s prophecy. These words destroy him, just as Othello is destroyed by Iago’s plot ‘to ‘abuse Othello’s ear’ with words. Words drive Ikenna and his brothers to terrible actions they would never otherwise so much as consider; words have a terrible agency.

When the brothers first encounter Abulu the madman, Ben says, ‘He is like a lion’:

‘You compare everything to animals, Ben,’ Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. ‘He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman – a madman.’

Alongside their evil power, words are shown here to be a tool for making sense of things. Ben tries to understand what the madman is by comparing him to a lion, renaming him as something with which he is more familiar. Indeed each chapter begins with comparing a character to something, usually an animal:

Father was an eagle … Obembe was a searchdog … Ikenna was a python

When trying to understand the behaviour of his family, Ben uses this metaphorical power of words. In renaming his characters, he exercises the power of the storyteller. So Ikenna’s behaviour is less painful if it is rendered as the behaviour of a python; Abulu is not a terrifying madman if he is in fact a lion. It makes me think of Ursula le Guin’s haunting children’s novel The Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes of the power of knowing something’s true name. Her young wizard Sparrowhawk must learn the true names of things in order to have power over them. So Ben, in The Fishermen, renames the characters in an attempt to exert power over them.

We see, however, that unlike Ben, Ikenna resists the power of these renamings. He says in response to Ben’s calling Abulua a lion:

He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman…

Interesting this ‘you hear?’ inserted in there. In part it is a colloquialism – ‘you hear me?’ – but if it is read more literally as a verb it makes Ben a hearer, someone who receives information, rather than a speaker, who gives information. Ikenna hears the madman, and it is this hearing which undoes him. Luckily Ben doesn’t just hear, he tells: he turns the madman into a lion, his father into an eagle, Ikenna into a python.

A debut novel is a baby turtle. I’m delighted that this baby turtle has made it into the sea.

How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco

Marriage Material

October 21, 2013

Arnold Bennett is one of those authors who has long fallen out of fashion. Up till now, I knew him only for two things.

Mr Bennett and Mrs BrownFirstly, his depiction of character came under attack by Virginia Woolf in her brilliant essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. She responds to Bennett’s statement that there are no first-rate young novelists – this was 1924 – because none of them can create characters that are real, true and convincing. You can read the whole thing here, but for those of you who lack time or inclination, essentially Woolf takes issue with the way Bennett describes all the things surrounding a character rather than the actual character. She describes a woman – who she calls Mrs Brown – in a railway carriage and suggests how Mr Bennett would ‘sidle sedately towards’ her and give precise information about every little detail pertaining to her and yet somehow utterly miss her. She goes on to dissect, quite viciously, one of his novels and suggests that the character gets lost in all the detailed description of everything else:

we can only hear Mr Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines.

She compares his writing to a hostess talking about the weather at a party and then says that his novel-writing ‘tools are the wrong ones for us to use’. She says that writers of today, namely Joyce, Forster and Eliot, have to break with this tradition, and this is why there is all ‘the smashing and the crashing’ in Modern Literature. Joyce, she says, is:

a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows.

She concludes by saying that Bennett is to some extent right in that today’s novelists haven’t been able to capture Mrs Brown, but that they are trying and are, in any case, doing rather better than Bennett.

The other thing I know about Arnold Bennett is that I once had a very delicious ‘omelette Arnold Bennett’ at The Wolseley. (Thanks to one of my tremendously spoiling older brothers.) It is a heavenly creamy smoked haddock eggy concoction. Unbelievably rich and indulgent and you can’t quite believe you are eating it for breakfast. The dish was created for Arnold Bennett at the Savoy – where I expect you can still get it – and he loved it so much that he insisted on eating it everywhere. I do hope this nugget is squeezed into a Downton Abbey plotline. Apparently Virginia Woolf is making a cameo in this series, so getting someone to eat omelette Arnold Bennett would be a wonderfully oblique reference to the literary debate above!

I suppose the two stories cancel each other out – after Virginia Woolf’s laying into Arnold Bennett about Mrs Brown, I don’t much fancy reading his novels, but, then again, someone who could be the inspiration for such a delicious omelette does deserve a certain respect.

Marriage Material by Sathnam SangheraWell now I know a third thing. Bennett wrote a novel called The Old Wives’ Tale, which Sathnam Sanghera has reimagined as his wonderful novel Marriage Material. Reading Marriage Material has been a neat side-stepping of the Arnold Bennett dilemma. I have managed to get – more-or-less – the plot and substance of his novel, but by reading something which I suspect is rather better.

Marriage Material is written in two parallel narratives. The main story follows Arjan Banga, who returns to his family’s Wolverhampton corner shop when his father dies. He leaves behind his metropolitan, Guardian-magaziney London life as a graphic designer with white fiancé and smart flat (which features things like a painted blackboard ‘covered in slightly self-conscious messages’) to go back to Sikh provincialism – a run-down high street and local children ‘running into the shop just to shout “Paki” at my mum before running out again, a depressing urban version of Knock Down Ginger’. What initially seems awful, slowly reveals its allure to Arjan, who is caught between worlds – not quite white, not quite Sikh – and his struggle to tread the tightrope between them makes very good, thought-provoking reading. It’s not so very different from Francesca Segal’s The Innocents – another re-imagining of a classic novel, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of a segregated society. (You can read some more thoughts on Segal’s excellent novel here.)

Interspersed with Arjan’s story is our own discovery of his roots: the story of the previous generation who lived in that corner shop. Two Sikh sisters are growing up during the time of Enoch Powell and protests about Wolverhampton bus employees being allowed to wear turbans. One sister, Kamaljit, learns little English and is happy to leave school to settle down and be a good Sikh wife. In contrast, the other sister Surinder does very well at school, is always reading – be that novels or magazines borrowed from the shop – and wants to become a nurse. Needless to say, the two narratives, very satisfyingly, join up.

What’s so clever about the book is that Sanghera embraces all the clichés only to then explode them. Kamaljit doesn’t just marry any old Sikh but one who is from a lower caste, which is almost as outrageous as if she were to marry a white person. This caste issue comes up again and again – with some alarmingly sinister consequences – as Sanghera points out the racism practised between Sikhs as a counterpart to that of Powell’s of the 1960s and to that apparent in Wolverhampton in 2011. Sexism amongst Sikhs is also examined as another form of discrimination, not so different to racism. Perhaps most surprising is when a Sikh woman defends Enoch Powell:

‘His point that many immigrants didn’t want to integrate? Just take a look around.’

Marriage Material is full of subtle and nuanced arguments about racism and integration. It begs the question, just how possible is it to live happily as a mixed-race couple in 1968, or in 2011?

How would Marriage Material stand up to Woolf’s criticism? I suspect rather better than The Old Wives’ Tale, as I certainly felt I got close to Sanghera’s ‘Mrs Brown’. My only problem with the novel was that I felt Surinder was the its real achievement rather than Arjan, and so it was a little frustrating that she was given the backseat in terms of narrative. Surinder was conjured with such skill that I wanted her to walk to centre stage rather than be relegated to the wings – a great measure of success in creating a real and compelling character. I’m sure that even Virginia Woolf would approve.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

July 22, 2013

Me at Radio 2Exciting EmilyBooks news this week… I was asked on to the Radio 2 Arts Show to talk a little about bookshops, browsing and some good summer books. Should you want to share in this thrilling event, you can listen again here until Saturday (I’m about 1hr 30 min in) or  you can download it here for free for a month (when I’m about 50 mins in). (I know I look quite shiny in the photo – I’d just cycled there unusually speedily.)

The interview made me think rather a lot about the idea of a ‘good summer read’. My favourite books to read on holiday are books about going on holiday – so, for instance, Island Summers, which I suggested on the radio, and also any of: The Enchanted April, Illyrian Spring, As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning and Swimming Home.

The BBC assured me, however, that I needed to suggest a more varied selection. People didn’t want to listen to me talking about three books in which essentially the same thing happened. I could see their point, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how many wonderful reading opportunities the summer provides.

Essentially, the summer gives you more time to read. What you do with this extra time is up to you. You might want to read something long and meaty – like Wolf Hall or, as I suggested on the show, Zweig’s brilliant Beware of Pity.

It is also, I think, the perfect time to re-read – to go back to a treasured book and give some extra time to it, rather than endlessly pressing on with the new. Why do we only read books once, when there is so much to be gained from reading a book again? The book I suggested on the radio was Rebecca – one of the best books to re-read as your alliances really shift between the new Mrs De Winter and Rebecca as you grow older and less naïve!

The other thing that  has since struck me about a summer read is that it is important to feel you can indulge in reading something very easy and very enjoyable. The sort of book where you don’t luxuriate in beautiful language or struggle with intellectual arguments, but whizz through smiling and laughing and, should something interfere – such as a mealtime or a husband – then you long to get back to it as swiftly as possible.

Where'd you go BernadetteI think I’ve found the perfect new book for this: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Begun idly in a lunchbreak, when I picked it up to see what all the fuss was about, this was an inescapable pleasure to read.

Bernadette disappears two days before Christmas. This book is her teenage daughter’s piecing together what happened before her disappearance in an attempt to understand it. So we get a collage of emails, blog posts, notes, interview transcripts and a few explanatory asides. Perhaps it reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad, mixed with Bridget Jones’s Diary, mixed with a television series. (Incidentally, Maria Semple wrote for Ellen and Arrested Development.)

Bernadette is a strange and brilliant heroine. She is married to a Microsoft whizz and her daughter Bee is incredibly bright, but had a difficult start in life. We soon learn that Bernadette finds it hard to function in social situations and struggles with life in Seattle. She employs a Virtual Assistant to do everything for her – from booking restaurants to employing gardeners – and she despises the other mothers at her daughter’s school. She refers to them, rather wonderfully, as ‘gnats’:

Because they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.

The novel covers ground from Seattle to Antarctica, school-gate politics to architecture, Microsoft and mothering. What works so well is the way Semple tackles universal problems – incredibly annoying neighbours, husbands who work too hard, putting one’s life on hold for children – mixed with Seattle specifics. For instance, we get a wealth of funny insight into the world of Microsoft, where the employees are all itching to get a contraband iPhone.

As well as being funny and enjoyable, the book raises all sorts of interesting questions. Madness, for instance. Take the following example of Bernadette’s behaviour towards her next-door ‘gnat’:

From: Bernadette Fox

To: Manjula Kapoor

I need a sign made. 8 feet wide by 5 feet high. Here’s what I want it to read:



Galer Street Gnats

Will Be Arrested

and Hauled Off to Gnat Jail

Make the sign itself the loudest, ugliest red, and the lettering the loudest, ugliest yellow. I’d like it placed on the western edge of my property line, at the bottom of the hill, which will be accessible once we’ve abated the despised blackberries. Make sure the sign is facing toward the neighbor’s yard.

It’s pretty extreme – if very funny – behaviour and, on the face of it, seems quite mad. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that eventually, after a few episodes like this, Bernadette’s husband worries that she is mentally unwell and tries to get her institutionalised.

Unlike Bernadette’s husband, the reader grows to absolutely understand her behaviour. We have seen the run of emails and notes etc that have built up to Bernadette wanting to erect the sign. It is not just because her neighbour has insisted that she dig up all her blackberries using a specific machine at huge expense, but because her neighbour has crawled through the fence into her garden when she thought she was out, has pretended that Bernadette drove over her foot (and has billed her for it) and, moreover, along with the other ‘gnats’, has ‘done everything to provoke me into a fight over the past nine years’. Is it really so surprising that at last Bernadette has cracked?

Moreover, once we discover what’s happened to Bernadette before she moved to Seattle, it begins to make even more sense. She is a highly intelligent and talented architect, who, once her child is born, stops working altogether. It is as though all the talent and energy she used to put into creating has been warped into angry rants about her confining circumstances.

While Bernadette undoubtedly exhibits some eccentric antisocial behaviour, it seems utterly mistaken to try and institutionalise her for it. Added to which, the other characters are hardly straightforwardly normal. Take Bernadette’s husband, who insists on not wearing shoes at work, avoids conversations on the bus with noise-cancelling headphones, and travels with a ‘neti pot – the thing he uses to irrigate his nasal passages’. There is Soo-Lin, his admin, and a gnat. Her emails are full of irritating self-help acronyms, like VAV – Victims Against Victimhood, where they CRUSH any newcomers:

C: Confirm their reality

R: Reveal our own abuse

U: Unite them with VAV

S: Say sayonara to abuse

H: Have a nice life!

Everyone else seems so loopy that Bernadette’s behaviour seems relatively sane. And yet, as the plot thickens, we infer that beneath everyone else’s eccentric behaviour lie rational explanations. Everyone is mad. No one is mad. You could learn exactly this from spending a day in a bookshop.

I thought this a brilliant novel. Funny, unusual, unputdownable. It is a perfect summer read. And yes, I suppose it is about people going away on holiday, but surely, given that the holiday is to Antarctica, rather than somewhere sunny and European, that lets me off the hook.

Maria Semple

Island Summers

July 1, 2013

Swallows and AmazonsWhen I was a child, I adored the Swallows and Amazons books. I read them all once and then, discovering that I had been given them in the wrong order, read them all over again. How I longed to be like John, Susan, Titty and Roger, adventuring on an island and commandeering a boat. The Lake District became a Mecca for me, and my parents very sweetly agreed to take me up there on holiday and even gave me a sailing lesson. Needless to say, I was acutely disappointed with the unavoidable life jacket, grown-up sailing instructor and decidedly unromantic modern dinghy.

In spite of my best Lake District efforts, my childhood wasn’t remotely like Swallows and Amazons. But what I didn’t have by way of sea-faring quests, I made up for with imagination, transporting myself to all sorts of adventures between the covers of a book, or in a corner of the garden. I suspect that books and games are as close to adventure as most children get. I mean, growing up in suburban middle-class North-West London, what were the chances of really opening a cupboard door and finding Narnia, or having a whole island to explore with a band of siblings?

Island SummersWell, perhaps I had to rely on books and a lively imagination, but Tilly Culme-Seymour did actually have an island to maraud around when she was a child. Island Summers is her beautiful memoir of a Norwegian island, which – as family legend has it – her grandmother bought in exchange for a mink coat. Her grandmother made it a summer home for her family, and so Tilly grew up relishing its wild freedom, roaming around with a million sisters and one brother – swimming, crabbing, fishing, enjoying faintingly-hot saunas and long lazy ‘dyne’ (duvet) breakfasts out on the rocks.

In Island Summers, Tilly Culme-Seymour explores her family’s connection with the island. She imagines her pioneering grandmother Mor-mor, who used to frolic naked on the island, then her Mamma’s childhood, before looking back at her own memories of the island. The book closes after Tilly’s time at university, when, struggling to settle in London, she returned to the island with her boyfriend to survive the island’s isolation for the inhospitable end of winter.

Island Summers is like The Hare with Amber Eyes in that it pretends to be a family memoir but is in fact far more. It is in part a lesson on Norway, as glossed Norwegian words pepper the text – my favourite is Døgnvild, the ‘wild twenty-four hours’ created by the summer short nights – as well as descriptions of Norwegian Christmas rituals and Constitution Day celebrations.

Tilly Culme-Seymour is also a food writer, and much of what I loved about her book  are the memories of food, the passed-down recipes and recollections of island-inspired dishes. It left me immensely hungry as I devoured descriptions of delights such as sukkerkake made with island raspberries and whipped cream, chocolate-chip bøller and endless hot pots of coffee. Many of the ingredients are sourced on the island – such as wild raspberries, or mussels ingeniously snared on the brush of a broom, or freshly-caught cod. She thrives on a paradoxically wild domesticity, that is inspiring and also surprisingly comforting to read.

What really comes to the fore in Island Summers is childhood. It’s clear that both Mor-mor and Mamma made this island a paradise for children, a marooned wildness where imaginations could take root. Going back to the island after university, Culme-Seymour reflects:

Being in a place well known, with little in the way of novelty or distraction to capture the mind, allowed old memories to stir, sometimes resurfacing in bizarre and rambling dreams … I discovered it was not only I, but Paddy too, who in the solitude of the island roved through his past, and through childhood.

What a contrast to day-to-day life! Usually, we’re so busy getting on with things, rushing about, constantly surrounded by people. It’s so rare to have any time without little daily distractions, existential worries, or lack of sleep. We’re always so busy pushing forwards, that we don’t stop to dip into the store-cupboard of the past, pulling out old jars and bottles and inhaling the memories stopped up inside.

I often wonder what happens to all those years of experience – such a huge wealth of time – which dissolve into the present moment. If someone were to ask me for ten memories from when I was eight, for instance, I’d be hard pushed. It was consoling, reading the memory-thick Island Summers, to think that all those memories might be still there somewhere. It made me wish that I could have a month or so off, to go somewhere isolated and let them all float to the surface again.

Strangely, just as I’ve been reading this beautiful evocation of childhood, my mother made me remove a huge box of stuff from home, filled with old school reports and a few kept birthday cards and letters. I had rather a nostalgic evening as I read bits out to the husband, who thought I was a total swot. (Best not to dwell on the ones for P.E.)

juvenaliaAmongst the  reports, I also found what I think must be my first book – When I climbed Mount Everest with Hillary – a story written when I was about nine, complete with a not-so-beautifully-hand-drawn jacket. To summarise the plot: one day a letter arrives saying that Edmund Hillary is inviting boys and girls to climb Everest with him. Needless to say, I am one of the lucky chosen few, and dress very warmly, set off on the expedition, have lots of tea, take some photos and then return home. It is essentially what was to happen in my Gap Year, minus the dead celebrity mountaineer. Who knew I had such a prescient imagination? In this piece of what I will now pretentiously call juvenilia, I display a keenness to make detailed lists

I put on a balaclava, a vest, a teashirt, a jumper, thick knickers, some warm jeans, three pairs of woolly socks and a pair of sneakers

And then, in comparison:

Hillary was wearing a wooly hat 6 pairs of socks 2 vests 3 jumpers.

This extended to food too:

For my food I had yogart, chips, bacon, toast and eggs.

And then, revealingly, the last line:

Mummy was very pleased to see me again and gave me my best tea. (It was chocolate cake and sweets.)

Nice use of parenthesis.

I loved reading Island Summers, and found it transported me to the barren beauty of the island, and also to an accompanying luxurious spaciousness of time. Tilly Culme-Seymour captures a wonderful childhood of games and adventure. How special to have your own real treasure island, rather than just an imaginary one, and how lucky we are to be able to read about it, let it take shape in our own heads, with extra details no doubt supplied by our own childhood dreams.

Looking back through this box of stuff and reminded of other fantasies I had and games I used to play, I realised that what is so very special about childhood is that it doesn’t really matter where you have it or what you do. Yes, roving about wildly on an island sounds incredibly special, but hanging out in North-West London needn’t stop one from climbing the odd mountain. If only we kept hold of this wonderful land of the imagination as we grew up, life might stay every bit as exciting as it used to be.

Last Friends

May 28, 2013

Last FriendsFor all the wit that flashes brilliantly through its pages, Last Friends left me with a feeling of sadness. Sadness is a vague term, and I suppose it was a vague feeling. A malaise. Nostalgia. A sense of things that have gone, lives that have passed, ended, and how little survives them.

Last Friends is the final book in Jane Gardam’s magnificent trilogy about Raj orphan-lawyer Eddie Feathers, affectionately known as Filth – Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Gardam began with Old Filth, continued with The Man in the Wooden Hat (in which she looked at the story from the point of view of Filth’s wife Betty) and now she concludes with the story of Terry Veneering, Filth’s great rival in law and in love.

Gardam has a brilliant method of capturing the lives of her characters, building them up through flashes of memory, instances in the past that haunt them in the present. In Old Filth, Betty’s death prompts Filth ‘to flick open shutters on the past’, and so we learn about his life, from his childhood in Malaya, to his foster parents in Wales, to prep school and his early years at the Bar.

In Last Friends, both Filth and Veneering are dead. Who remains to flick open the shutters on their past?

Nobody really knows a thing about another’s past. Why should we? Different worlds we all inhabit from the womb.

So reflects Dulcie – one of the last surviving friends of Filth, Betty and Veneering. Her thoughts accompany us through a great deal of the book. The other ‘last friend’ is Fiscal-Smith, who begins as a tedious hanger on, but ends up coming across as quite endearing.

Do we all inhabit ‘different worlds … from the womb’? This question seems to me to be at the core of Gardam’s Filth novels. In each book, she looks at the same characters but takes a different angle. With this new slant, all sorts of alignments and symmetries, previously unseen, are revealed. It is the same world, and yet that sameness is made to feel alien; it is a different world, and yet it is revealed to be essentially the same.

In Last Friends, Gardam turns her authorial eye to Terry Veneering – Filth’s ever-present rival. She does this with tremendous skill, for throughout the other books Veneering has been cast with little sympathy. He is the antithesis to Filth, so we can’t help but dislike him. He is brash, drunk, loud, uncivilised. Added to which, he had an affair with Betty. What a genius Gardam is to turn this on its head and make us now understand Veneering, sympathise with him, even a little at the expense of our sympathy for beloved old Filth.

Veneering’s childhood seems indeed to be in a completely different world from Filth’s. He was born in the Northern village of Herringfleet to a coal woman and a Russian spy, disguised as an acrobat. And yet, these worlds aren’t so different after all. Veneering has a surprising meeting with ‘Sir’, Filth’s influential prep-school teacher. Indeed it is Sir who gives him his Dickensian name. There is also Veneering’s first glimpse of Betty – then Elizabeth Macintosh. And, just the day before this glimpse of Betty, he has his first case against Filth. Different worlds, but the same world; these lives were destined to cross with each other from the very beginning.

While Gardam looks back on Veneering’s beginning, this is really a novel about endings – and what comes after the end. These lives are over, and yet the novel is testament to the way Filth and Veneering live on in the memories of other characters. So long as Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are around, we feel that Filth and Veneering haven’t quite disappeared.

Although they are far from reliable memories. There is a poignant moment when Dulcie realises she can’t quite remember what her dead husband looks like:

Oh Willy! She tried not to think of Willy in case, once again, she found that hse had forgotten what he had looked lie. Ah – all well. Here he came up the stairs, his fastidious feet, balancing teacups. Deeply thinking. Oh, Willy! So many years! I haven’t really forgotten what you looked like. ‘Pastry Willy’ – but you grew quite weather-beaten after we came Home. It’s just, sometimes lately you’ve grown hazy. Doesn’t matter. Changes nothing.

Memories fade and then what are we left with? Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are painfully old too and not long for this world. Who will survive them? What will survive of this generation of wonderful characters?

To this end, Gardam brings in a younger generation. Anna and Henry have moved into Veneering’s old house, and plan to turn it into a B&B. They rifle through the attic, finding his old things, wondering at the stories which lie behind them. They also look after Dulcie very well.

Then there are moments like this, when Dulcie decides to get some eggs from the local farm:

There was a wooden box hung on a field gate. It had been there fifty years. You took out the eggs and left the money. Beautiful brown eggs covered in hen shit to show how fresh they were. Today she opened the flap of the box and there were no eggs and no money but a dirty-looking note saying, Ever been had?

She was all at once desolate. The whole world was corrupt. She was friendless and alone. Like Fiscal-Smith she had outstayed her welcome in the place she felt was home.

It is terribly sad. Living has changed from being a triumph of survival to a case of outstaying your welcome. Dulcie is so old that perhaps she’d be better off dead like Filth, Betty and Veneering. The world today is too ‘corrupt’ for these marvellous old creatures, who’ve lived such long extraordinary lives. These ‘last friends’ are the very end of that generation, and we are left thinking that once they perish, there will be nothing left of them.

Yet we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we have Jane Gardam, who preserves these lives with warmth, humour and respect. I long to re-read the other books now, and am quietly hoping that she might be persuaded to turn the trilogy into a quartet.

Jane Gardam

Just a little coda to say that I will – I hope – be survived by little Daphne, who has spent her first week chez EmilyBooks being particularly sweet. For those of you who are itching to see more of her, here she is attempting to eat my wellies. What can I say, we both share a love of all things yellow!

Daphne eating my wellies