“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis [subscription service; excerpt available to non-subscribers]: The Pickwick Papers was a Victorian publishing phenomenon. Originally envisioned as a series of sporting tales to accompany Robert Seymour’s engravings in a monthly magazine, the story soon took on a life of its own. Debut novelist Jarvis believes that a conspiracy between Dickens and his publishers covered up two key facts: Pickwick was primarily Seymour’s creation, and Dickens’s brash attempt to take it over was the impetus for Seymour’s suicide in 1836. At 800+ pages, this novel is chock-full of digressions – some amusing, others seemingly irrelevant. Jarvis started the project with the ambition of reading everything ever written about Pickwick. The results are exhaustive…but also a little exhausting.
Coastlines by Patrick Barkham: In his third nature book, Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham blends science, history, and biography as he travels sections of the British coast protected through Enterprise Neptune, a National Trust campaign celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His structural approach is unconventional: neither chronological nor geographical, but thematic. In sections on childhood, war, work, art, and faith, he highlights the many practical and metaphorical roles the coast has played in the British story. The choices of location often feel arbitrary and the themes are not quite strong enough to pull the book together, but Barkham succeeds in evoking the mysterious grandeur of the coast.
Two Lives by Sarah Bourne (& interview): A car accident causes Emma and Loretta’s lives to be intertwined in surprising ways as they negotiate loss, domestic violence and motherhood. There’s a great dynamic between these characters: Loretta vicariously relives her own experience of pregnancy through Emma. As time moves on, their relationship is more like Barbara and Sheba’s in Notes on a Scandal; secrets provoke a tacit power struggle. For a short book, it’s filled with heavy social issues. It loses points for poor cover design as well as frequent typos. All the same, this is a compelling story built around likeable main characters. It does what fiction does best: exploring the small moments that can change lives for good.
Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack: “Geography begins at the only point of which we can be certain. It begins inside. And from there, from inside, rises a single question: where am I?” Tallack muses. This is a beautifully introspective book about the search for home and identity amidst the changes of time and the trappings of place. The goal of traveling across cold northern places makes it reminiscent of Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum. However, a more telling comparison is with George Mackay Brown, chronicler of the Orkney Islands; like Brown, Tallack is interested in islands, both literally and metaphorically, as places of both isolation and authentic community.
Shiny New Books
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Sure to be one of the books of the year, if not the decade. Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. The reading experience might have been unbearable due to his suffering, but Yanagihara’s skill keeps you reading: the narration is matter-of-fact and revelation of Jude’s past is incremental, so distressing flashbacks are punctuated with more innocuous events. There is nothing ‘little’ about this book or the life portrayed. The novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living. Among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself. Yanagihara has instantly shot to literary greatness; this is Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize-winning material.
BookTrib: A preview of the PBS broadcast of Poldark, which aired on BBC earlier this year.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads (the rating is below each description).
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a gritty contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. Lish’s post-9/11 New York City is less melting pot than Boschian hell, a violent abyss lubricated with the sweat of illegal immigrants. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Full review in August 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Housebreaking by Dan Pope: This tightly crafted novel of adultery in dysfunctional suburbia is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children or the movie Far from Heaven, but with less memorable characters and storyline overall. The strategy of revisiting the same events of the late summer and fall of 2007 from different characters’ perspectives makes it feel slightly repetitive and claustrophobic.
In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi: In November 2007 Joseph Luzzi’s wife Katherine was in a fatal car accident; she had been eight and a half months’ pregnant, so within one day he entered “the wild uncharted terrain of being a single father and widower.” For several years Luzzi disengaged from fatherhood, throwing himself into his work – teaching Italian at Bard College, editing the proofs for a forthcoming book – while his mother did the hard work of childrearing. As Virgil was to Dante, Dante is to Luzzi: a guide through the hell of loss and into a vita nuova as he starts a new life with his daughter Isabel and, later, his second wife.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: Gilbert sets herself up as a layman’s creativity guru much like Anne Lamott does with Bird by Bird or Stephen King with On Writing. This is based on Gilbert’s TED talks, and it reads very much like a self-help pep talk, with short chapters, lots of anecdotes, and buzz words to latch onto. Her central tenet is “You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.” The voice and message are similar to Rob Bell’s in the field of contemporary theology: reminding readers that what is too precious for words should, perhaps paradoxically, be held loosely with open hands. Releases September 22nd.
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor: Emily Dickinson’s Amherst is an inviting setting, and the alternating first-person voices of Emily and the family’s Irish maid, Ada Concannon, are both well realized. However, the plot soon gets mired in the melodrama of a wrong done to Ada in the Dickinson household, which results in a crisis that – you guessed it – requires the reclusive Emily to leave the house. After reading, I remained greedy for more of Emily’s inner life and poetry.
Malignant Metaphor by Alanna Mitchell: A Canadian science journalist counters three misleading adjectives often applied to cancer: inevitable, preventable, and deserved. She personalizes her quest for knowledge through two family experiences. First her brother-in-law, having already survived prostate cancer, was diagnosed with untreatable stage III melanoma. Later Mitchell’s daughter had a thyroid cancer scare. In both cases, things turned out better than expected – proof that cancer is not a death sentence. Releases September 15th.
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan: A sweet, funny debut novel about a woman who tries to juggle all the elements of a happy life: finding the perfect job for a modern book-lover…but also being a good mother to her three children, supporting her husband after he loses his job at a law firm, and helping her mother care for her father as he suffers a relapse of throat cancer. It succeeds because its female first-person voice is immediately engaging. You like Alice and root for her. Releases August 25th.
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert: Much has been made of Walbert’s “Impressionistic” style. There is some beautiful writing here for sure, but I think it would lend itself better to short stories as there is not enough plot or character continuity to latch onto. Essentially the novel is about a set of New Yorkers in a Chelsea brownstone (chiefly Marie, an old woman who came to America from France after World War II) and their disparate memories and experiences.