My fourth title-based dual review post this year (after Ex Libris, The Still Point and How Not to Be Afraid), with Betty vs. Bettyville to come in December if I can manage them both. Today I have an early Helen Dunmore novel about the secrets binding a pair of sisters and an Elaine Feinstein poetry collection written after the loss of her husband. Their shared title seemed appropriate as Halloween approaches. Both:
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)
Nina, a photographer, has travelled to stay with her sister in Sussex after the birth of Isabel’s first child, Antony. A house full of visitors, surrounded by an unruly garden, is perfect for concealment. A current secret trades off with one from deep in the sisters’ childhood: their baby brother Colin’s death, which they remember differently. Antony and Colin function like doubles, with the sisters in subtle competition for ownership of the past and present. This was a delicious read: as close as literary fiction gets to a psychological thriller, dripping with sultry summer atmosphere and the symbols of aphrodisiac foods and blowsy flowers. From the novel’s title and opening pages, you have an inkling of what’s to come, but it still hits hard when it does. Impossible to say more about the plot without spoiling it, so just know that it’s a suspenseful story of sisters with Tessa Hadley, Maggie O’Farrell and Polly Samson vibes. I hadn’t much enjoyed my first taste of Dunmore’s fiction (Exposure), but I’m very glad that Susan’s enthusiasm spurred me to pick this up. (Secondhand purchase, Honesty bookshop outside the Castle, Hay-on-Wye)
Talking to the Dead by Elaine Feinstein (2007)
Much like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, my top poetry release of last year, this is a tender and playful response to a beloved spouse’s death. The short verses are in stanzas and incorporate the occasional end rhyme and spot of alliteration as Feinstein marshals images and memories to recreate her husband’s funeral and moments from their marriage and travels beforehand and her widowhood afterwards – including moving out of their shared home. The poems flow so easily and beautifully from one to another; I’d happily read much more from Feinstein. This was her 13th poetry collection; before her death in 2019, she also wrote many novels, stories, biographies and translations. I’ll leave you with a poem suitable for the run-up to the Day of the Dead. (Secondhand purchase, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)
Does one or both of these appeal to you?
In the past couple of weeks, we’ve taken advantage of the last gasp of summer with some rare chances at socializing, outdoors and in. Our closest friends came to visit us last weekend and accompanied us to a beer festival held in a local field, and this weekend we’ve celebrated birthdays with a formal-wear party at a local arts venue and a low-key family meal.
After my first installment of summer reads, I’ve also finished Klara and the Sun (a bust with me, alas) and the three below: a wildlife photographer’s memoir of lockdown summer spent filming in the New Forest, a record of searching for the summer’s remnants of snow in the Highlands, and an obscure 1950s novel about the psychological connections between four characters in one Irish summer. I close with a summer-into-autumn children’s book.
Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other by James Aldred (2021)
My second nature book about the New Forest this year (after The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell) has only sharpened my hankering to get back there and have a good wander after many years away. In March 2020, Aldred had recently returned from filming cheetahs in Kenya when the UK went into its first national lockdown. He had the good fortune to obtain authorization from Forestry England that allowed him to travel regularly from his home in Somerset to the New Forest to gather footage for a documentary for the Smithsonian channel.
Zooming up on empty roads and staying in local cottages so he can start at 4 each morning, he marvels at the peace of a place when humans are taken out of the equation. His diary chronicles a few months of extraordinary wildlife encounters – not only with the goshawks across from whose nest he built a special treetop platform, but also with dragonflies, fox cubs, and rare birds like cuckoo and Dartford warbler. The descriptions of animal behaviour are superb, and the tone is well balanced: alongside the delight of nature watching is anger at human exploitation of the area after the reopening and despair at seemingly intractable declines – of 46 curlew pairs in the Forest, only three chicks survived that summer.
Despite the woe at nest failures and needless roadkill, Aldred is optimistic – in a similar way to Ansell – that sites like the New Forest can be a model of how light-handed management might allow animals to flourish. “I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. … It is nature’s ability to help itself, to survive in spite of us in fact, that gives me tentative hope”. (Unsolicited review copy)
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy.
Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson (2017)
After the death from cancer of his wife Kitty, a botanical illustrator, Nicholson set off for Scotland’s Cairngorms and Ben Nevis in search of patches of snow that persist into summer. “Summer snow is a miracle, a piece of out-of-season magic: to see it is one thing, to make physical contact with it is another.” His account of his travels washed over me, leaving little impression. I appreciated the accompanying colour photographs, as the landscape is otherwise somewhat difficult to picture, but even in these it is often hard to get a sense of scale. I think I expected more philosophical reflection in the vein of The Snow Leopard, and, while Nicholson does express anxiety over what happens if one day the summer snows are no more, I found the books on snow by Charlie English and Marcus Sedgwick more varied and profound. (Secondhand, gifted)
A Shower of Summer Days by May Sarton (1952)
Although I’m more a fan of Sarton’s autobiographical material, especially her journals, I’ve also enjoyed exploring her fiction. This was my seventh of her novels. It’s set in Ireland at Dene’s Court, the grand house Violet inherited. She and her husband Charles have lived in Burma for two decades, but with the Empire on the wane they decide to settle in Violet’s childhood home. Gardening and dressing for dinner fill their languid days until word comes that Violet’s 20-year-old niece, Sally, is coming to stay.
The summer is meant to cure Sally of her infatuation with an actor named Ian. Violet reluctantly goes along with the plan because she feels so badly about the lasting rivalry with her sister, Barbara. Sally is a “bolt of life” shaking up Violet and Charles’s marriage, and when Ian, too, flies out from America, a curious love triangle is refashioned as a quadrilateral. The house remains the one constant as the characters wrestle with their emotional bonds (“the kaleidoscope of feelings was being rather violently shaken up”) and reflect on the transitory splendour of the season (“a kind of timelessness, the warm sun in the enclosed garden in the morning, the hum of bees, and the long slow twilights”). This isn’t one of my favourites from Sarton, but it has low-key charm. I saw it as being on a continuum from Virginia Woolf to Tessa Hadley (e.g. The Past) via Elizabeth Bowen. (Secondhand purchase from Awesomebooks.com)
And finally, one for the seasons’ transition:
Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak (2016)
A child and dog pair set out from home, through the woods, by a river, and into town, greeting other creatures and marking the signs of the season. “Hello!” the beavers reply. “We have no time to play because we’re making cozy nests and dens. It will be cold soon, and we want to get ready.” The quaint Americana setting and papercut-style illustrations reminded me of Vermont college towns and Jon Klassen’s work. I liked the focus on nature. (Free from a neighbour)
What books are accompanying you from summer into autumn this year?
Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.
Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)
A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.
“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”
“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)
I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.
In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.
The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.
Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.
Some favourite passages:
“he walks at the same time everyday summer and winter
early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)
“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)
With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.
Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)
“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.
One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!
Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.
This year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, respectively. Patting myself on the back!
(Earlier in the year, I had a feeling Maggie O’Farrell would win the Women’s Prize, but wasn’t confident enough to single her out; and I got the Wainwright Prizes all wrong.)
I watched both the Booker Prize (live) and Young Writer of the Year Award (pre-recorded) ceremonies online; not having to secure an invitation or pay £30 for the train into London has been an ongoing bonus of pandemic arrangements.
The Booker ceremony was nicely tailored to viewers at home, incorporating brief, informal pre-recorded interviews with each nominated author and a video chat between last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. When Evaristo asked Atwood about the difference between winning the Booker in 2019 versus in 2000, she replied, deadpan, “I was older.” I especially liked the short monologues that well-known UK actors performed from each shortlisted book. Only a few people – the presenter, Evaristo, chair of judges and publisher Margaret Busby, and a string quartet – appeared in the studio, while all the other participants beamed in from other times and places. Stuart is only the second Scottish winner of the Booker, and seemed genuinely touched for this recognition of his tribute to his mother.
I’ve attended the Young Writer ceremony at the London Library twice: in 2017, when I was on the shadow panel, and again last year. It was a shame not to be able to meet up with fellow bloggers and the shortlisted authors, but I appreciated hearing the judges’ thoughts on each nominee. Tessa Hadley said the whole shortlist was “so full of young energy.” Kit de Waal called Catherine Cho’s Inferno “an absolute page-turner.” All the judges remarked at how funny, cutting and original Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is. Critic Houman Barekat referred to Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire as “unabashedly earnest.” Hadley said Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is just the kind of novel she loves, a “delicate, full notation,” and Barekat observed that it is a timely reminder of the value of care work.
It was clear that, for the judges, all five books were terrifically accomplished and would be worthy winners. Still, the unanimous decision was in favor of Surge, which Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said is “remarkable for its passionate engagement and diversity of voices.” Bernard read “Hiss” (also up on the Granta website) and said that “poems can take on another life” through performance and short films, so the poet can’t predict whether they will stay in poetry or branch out into other genres.
Back on 18 November, I attended another online event to which I’d gotten a last-minute invitation: a “book club” featuring Tracy Chevalier in conversation with her literary agent, Jonny Geller, on Girl with a Pearl Earring at 20 and her new novel, A Single Thread. In 1996 she sent Geller a letter asking if he’d read Virgin Blue, which she’d written for the MA at the University of East Anglia – the only UK Creative Writing course out there at the time. After VB, she started a contemporary novel set at Highgate Cemetery, where she was a tour guide. It was to be called Live a Little (since a Howard Jacobson title). But shortly thereafter, she was lying in bed one day, looking at a Vermeer print on the wall, and asked herself what the look on the girl’s face meant and who she was. She sent Geller one page of thoughts and he immediately told her to stick Live a Little in a drawer and focus on the Vermeer idea.
Intriguingly, Chevalier stated that the deadline of her pregnancy determined the form of Girl with a Pearl Earring: she knew she had to keep things simple, with a linear narrative, one point of view, and spare prose. While the novel had a quiet publication in August 1999, a good review from Deborah Moggach helped, and it became a “word of mouth success,” never hitting #1 but selling continuously. Chevalier believes this was due to a rare coming together of story and writing; sometimes good stories are hampered by mediocre writing, or vice versa. She and Geller discussed the strange coincidence of two other Vermeer novels coming out at the same time (e.g. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland); she had the good luck of being the victor. The film version is “lovely,” she said. Geller has never forgotten Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 on set, leaving her gum in during a cast supper of spaghetti.
Chevalier’s actual Highgate novel, Falling Angels, didn’t borrow at all from her contemporary-set draft as it was set in 1900. Incorporating suffragette history, it felt like an untold story ripe for the plucking. Falling Angels has long been the one I consider my favorite Chevalier – as of last month, when we did The Last Runaway in book club, I’ve read all her work – but after this event I’m eager to reread it and GwaPE to see what I think.
Lastly, Chevalier and Geller talked about her new novel, A Single Thread, which was conceived before Trump and Brexit but had its central themes reinforced by the constant references back to 1930s fascism during the Trump presidency. She showed off the needlepoint spectacles case she’d embroidered for the novel. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken up a craft featured in her fiction: for The Last Runaway she learned to quilt, and indeed still quilts today. Geller likened her to a “method actor,” and jokingly fretted that they’ll lose her to one of these hobbies one day. Chevalier’s work in progress features Venetian glass. I’m already looking forward to it.
Like me, she moved to England from the Washington, D.C. area and has never lost the ‘accent’, so I feel like she’s a kindred spirit.
Bookish online events coming up soon: Penguin book quiz, followed by book club holiday social (a Zoom meeting with glasses of wine in hand!), on the 15th
Have you taken advantage of any online literary events recently?
According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June.
In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)
Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.
Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).
I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)
From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:
Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?
Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”
Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.
Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.
Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.
I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)
This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.
There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.
It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)
This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.
Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.
Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.
Some favorite lines:
“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”
“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”
Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.
Have you been reading anything springlike this year?
Sun, warmth and rival feelings of endlessness and evanescence: here were three reads that were perfect fits for the summer setting.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman (2018)
While on a beach vacation in 1995, a woman walks away from her husband and daughter and into a new life as an unattached waitress in Belleville, Delaware. Polly has been known by many names, and this isn’t the first time she’s left a family and started over. She’s the (literal) femme fatale of this film noir-inspired piece, as bound by her secrets as is Adam Bosk, the investigator sent to trail her. He takes a job as a chef at the diner where Polly works, and falls in love with her even though he may never fully trust her. Insurance scams and arson emerge as major themes.
I liked the fact that I recognized many of the Maryland/Delaware settings, and that the setup is a tip of the hat to Anne Tyler’s excellent Ladder of Years, which was published in the year this is set. It is a quick and enjoyable summer read that surprised me with its ending, but I generally don’t find mysteries a particularly worthwhile use of my reading time. Put it down to personal taste and/or literary snobbery.
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (1996)
My fourth Lively book, and the most enjoyable thus far. Pauline, a freelance copyeditor (“Putting commas into a novel about unicorns”) in her fifties, has escaped from London to spend a hot summer at World’s End, the Midlands holiday cottage complex she shares with her daughter Teresa, Teresa’s husband Maurice, and their baby son Luke. Maurice is writing a history of English tourism and regularly goes back to London for meetings or receives visits from his publishers, James and Carol. Pauline, divorced from a philandering husband, recognizes the signs of Maurice’s adultery long before Teresa does, and uneasily ponders how much to hint and how much to say outright.
The last line of the first chapter coyly promises an “agreeable summer of industry and companionship,” but the increasing atmospheric threats (drought or storms; combine harvesters coming ever nearer) match the tensions in the household. I expected this to be one of those subtle relationship studies where ultimately nothing happens. That’s not the case, though; if you’ve been paying good attention to the foreshadowing you’ll see that the ending has been on the cards.
I loved the city versus country setup of the novel, especially the almost Van Gogh-like descriptions of the blue sky and the golden wheat, and recognized myself in Pauline’s freelancer routines. Her friendships with bookseller Hugh and her client, novelist Chris Rogers, might be inconsequential to the plot but give Pauline a life wider than the confines of the cottage, and the frequent flashbacks to her marriage to Harry show what she had to overcome to earn a life of her own.
This was a compulsive read that was perfect for reading during the hottest week of our English summer. I’d recommend it to fans of Tessa Hadley, Susan Hill and Polly Sansom.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (2019)
The title is a snippet from Romeo and Juliet, which provides the setup and subject matter for this novel about first love during the golden summer of 1997, when Charlie Lewis and Fran Fisher are 16. Charlie thinks he’s way too cool for the thespians, but if he wants to keep seeing Fran he has to join the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative for the five weeks of rehearsals leading up to performances. Besides, he doesn’t have anything better to do – besides watching his dad get drunk on the couch and scamming the petrol station where he works nights. Charlie starts off as the most robotic Benvolio imaginable, but Fran helps bring him up to scratch with her private tutoring (which is literal as well as a euphemism).
Glimpses of the present day are an opportunity for nostalgia and regret, as Charlie/Nicholls coyly insists that first love means nothing: “love is boring. Love is familiar and commonplace for anyone not taking part, and first love is just a gangling, glandular incarnation of the same. … first love wasn’t real love anyway, just a fraught and feverish, juvenile imitation of it.” I enjoyed the teenage boy perspective and the theatre company shenanigans well enough, but was bored with the endless back story about Charlie’s family: his father’s record shops went bankrupt; his mother left him for another golf club colleague and took his sister; he and his depressed father are slobby roommates subsisting on takeaways and booze; blah blah blah.
It’s possible that had I read or seen R&J more recently, I would have spotted some clever parallels. Honestly? I’d cut 100+ pages (it should really be closer to 300 pages than 400) and repackage this as YA fiction. If you’re looking for lite summer fare reminiscent of Rachel Joyce and, yes, One Day, this will slip down easily, but I feel like I need to get better about curating my library stack and weeding out new releases that will be readable but forgettable. I really liked Us, which explains why I was willing to take another chance on Nicholls.
Note: There is a pretty bad anachronism here: a reference to watching The Matrix, which wasn’t released until 1999 (p. 113, “Cinnamon” chapter). Also a reference to Hobby Lobby, which as far as I know doesn’t exist in the UK (here it’s Hobbycraft) (p. 205, “Masks” chapter). I guess someone jumped the gun trying to get this ready for its U.S. release.
Favorite summery passage: “This summer’s a bastard, isn’t it? Sun comes out, sky’s blue if you’re lucky and suddenly there are all these preconceived ideas of what you should be doing, lying on a beach or jumping off a rope swing into the river or having a picnic with all your amazing mates, sitting on a blanket in a meadow and eating strawberries and laughing in that mad way, like in the adverts. It’s never like that, it’s just six weeks of feeling like you’re in the wrong place … and you’re missing out. That’s why summer’s so sad – because you’re meant to be so happy. Personally, I can’t wait to get my tights back on, turn the central heating up. At least in winter you’re allowed to be miserable” (Fran)
Plus a couple of skims:
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin (2018)
I’d heard about Hinton’s case: he spent nearly 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. In 1985 he was convicted of two counts of robbery and murder, even though he’d been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away at the time the restaurant managers were shot. His mother’s gun served as the chief piece of evidence, even though it didn’t match the bullets found at the crime scenes. “My only crime was … being born black in Alabama,” Hinton concludes. He was a convenient fall guy, and his every appeal failed until Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and author of Just Mercy, which I’d like to read) took on his case.
It took another 16 years and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Hinton was finally released and now speaks out whenever he can about justice for those on death row, guilty or innocent. Almost the most heartbreaking thing about the book is that his mother, who kept the faith for so many years, died in 2012 and didn’t get to see her son walk free. I love the role that literature played: Hinton started a prison book club in which the men read Go Tell It on the Mountain and To Kill a Mockingbird and discussed issues of race and injustice. Although he doesn’t say very much about his life post-prison, I did note how big of an adjustment 30 years’ worth of technology was for him.
I don’t set a lot of stock by ghostwritten or co-written books, and found the story much more interesting than the writing here (though Hardin does a fine job of recreating the way a black man from the South speaks), so I just skimmed the book for the basics. I was impressed by how Hinton avoided bitterness and, from the very beginning, chose to forgive those who falsely accused him and worked to keep him in prison. “I was afraid every single day on death row. And I also found a way to find joy every single day. I learned that fear and joy are both a choice.” The book ends with a sobering list of all those currently on death row in the United States: single-spaced, in three columns, it fills nine pages. Lord, have mercy.
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (2009)
Having moved away from Bristol, Cusk and her family (a husband and two children) decided to spend a summer in Italy before deciding where to go next. They took the boat to France then drove, made a stop in Lucca, and settled into a rented house on the eastern edge of Tuscany. It proceeded to rain for 10 days. Cusk learns to speak the vernacular of football and Catholicism – but Italian eludes her: “I too feel humbled, feel childlike and impotent. It is hard to feel so primitive, so stupid.” They glory in the food, elemental and unpretentious; they try a whole spectrum of gelato flavors. And they experience as much culture as they can: “we will learn to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat de-boning a Dover sole.” A number of these masterpieces are reproduced in the text in black and white. In the grip of a heatwave, they move on to Rome, Naples and Capri.
If I’d been able to get hold of this for my trip to Milan (it was on loan at the time), I might have enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. As it is, I just had a quick skim through. Cusk can write evocatively when she wishes to (“We came here over the white Apuan mountains, leaving behind the rose-coloured light of the coast … up and up into regions of dazzling ferocity where we wound among deathly white peaks scarred with marble quarries, along glittering chasms where the road fell away into nothingness and we clung to our seats in terror”), but more often resorts to flat descriptions of where they went and what they did. I’m pretty sure Transit was a one-off and I’ll never warm to another Cusk book.
DNFs: Alas, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley were total non-starters. Maybe some other day (make that year).
Have you read any summer-appropriate books lately?
A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.
I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.
Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.
“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”
“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”
Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.