Monday, 10 December 2018

SUFFRAGETTES IN FICTION: a round-up by Linda Newbery

Linda Newbery's own contributions to suffragette fiction for young readers are  GIRLS FOR THE VOTE, published by Usborne, and UNTIL WE WIN, Barrington Stoke.  

Perhaps it's surprising that there hasn't been more fiction set during the women's suffrage campaign - offering, as it does, strong roles for women with ample opportunity to show determination and physical courage and to defy expectations. The current centenary - 100 years since the Representation of the People Act granted the vote to women of property-owning women of 30 and over - has seen new publications, but my first choice, Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn, first appeared in 2011. I've shown the original hardback jacket here, as the paperback goes for romantic appeal, not even showing the suffragette colours or drawing attention to the theme.

I found this a really absorbing read, excellent on period detail and attitudes to women's roles, especially for ambitious women like main character Constance who wants to be a surgeon but whose family's limited finances are directed to her brother. She's poised to marry professional cricketer Will, but they fundamentally disagree over her campaigning activities and her refusal to promise to obey as part of her marriage vows. Constance goes to Holloway Prison and endures force-feeding but withdraws from the suffragette movement in horror when some of its more extreme supporters begin to use bombs, endangering life. Later, working as a wartime nurse, she goes beyond her role when she intervenes to save a life, at the risk of jeopardising her own career. Characters are strongly and sympathetically drawn, especially Andrew Tamberlain, a famed cricketer at the end of his career. A friend of Will's, he's introduced as a minor character but later becomes a significant ally to Constance, his fate interweaving with theirs in quite unexpected ways. By the end, accompanying them, you'll feel as if you've been on an epic journey.

All three of these novels take us to prison and through the ordeal of force-feeding. In Ajay Close's A Petrol Scented Spring I almost felt I'd been through it myself, so graphic are her descriptions. In a Perth prison, Dr Edward Watson is one of the few doctors willing to force-feed hunger strikers. Such invasive brutality may seem the unlikeliest start to a seduction, but Dr Watson finds himself increasingly drawn to Arabella, the defiant woman he tortures daily; he engages her in conversation, fascinated by her implacable will. The narrative, moving back and forth in time, is shared between Arabella and Donella, Dr Watson's wife, who marries him in 1916 in ignorance of his prison activities. Ajay Close's writing is animated and assured, with occasional humour alongside the grittier details.

In Jon Walters' Nevertheless She Persisted, Nancy doesn't shrink from detonating bombs. One of a pair of sisters, both sexually abused by their father, she takes up work at Holloway as a warden. But, fascinated by glamorous detainee Daisy Divine, an actress known as 'The Duchess', she's soon passing notes between prisoners and eventually finds herself on the wrong side of the cell door after adventures involving subterfuge, disguise, safe houses and the procurement of explosives. Sister Clara, meanwhile, ponders marriage to the too-conventional Ted at the cost of giving up a career in which her ability has been recognised. This novel stops short of the outbreak of war but leaves Nancy relishing the new freedom she's found in her activism and by dressing in men's clothes.
Young adult fiction has seen some excellent new publications this year and last, plus a welcome reissue. Sally Nicholls' Things a Bright Girl Can Do  is a substantial novel interweaving the stories of three young women - Evelyn, May and Nell - and introducing a range of attitudes and class backgrounds. Most suffragette fiction centres on the WSPU, but here's a wider view that identifies the differences between the various organisations. Evelyn joins the WSPU while May, a Quaker and staunch pacifist, favours the East London Federation of suffragettes, Sylvia Pankhurst's campaign against sweatshops and for fair conditions for working women as well as for the vote. Her new friend / lover Nell, from a poorer background, takes up work in a munitions factory for reasons May fails to understand: Nell is trying to support her large family. We follow all three characters through the war and beyond, to the point where new opportunities open up for them.

Sheena Wilkinson's Star by Star is set in Ireland in 1918, but sweeps both back to the war and forward to the new opportunities opening up for capable young women like Stella. Daughter of a campaigner who died in the flu epidemic that follows the war, she's excited by the forthcoming election and determined that no one eligible should miss their chance to vote. Sent to Ulster to live and work at her aunt's boarding house, she befriends a stricken army Captain - thus Wilkinson deftly takes the  reader back to the war years - and makes a discovery about the father she's never known. Readers will strongly identify with the resourceful, well-intentioned Stella and with the practical and moral dilemmas she faces, and will hope that she finds a role to suit her talents.

Julie Hearn writes with freshness and vivacity in Hazel, one of three novels that form an attractive family saga over three generations (though each can be read alone). The dashingly-named Hazel Mull-Dare is the daughter of Ivy, the pre-Raphaelite beauty and painter's model who was titular heroine of the previous book. Here we start with the dramatic death of Emily Wilding Davison in a novel that looks at various manifestations of power, privilege and emancipation.

Teenage fiction as involving and immediate as these three captivating novels will leave young readers in no doubt of the importance of voting as soon as they're of age - even if current political upheavals haven't already convinced them of that.
Finally, here's one for my ever-increasing reading pile: Old Baggage, set in 1928 when the vote was extended to all women but looking back to the suffragette years. It's by the versatile Lissa Evans, who was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal this year with her children's book Wed Wabbit. If anyone's read it, do please leave comments below - also on any other suffragette fiction you'd like to recommend.

Adult fiction:
A Petrol Scented Spring is published by Sandstone Press.
Half of the Human Race is published by Vintage.
Nevertheless She Persisted is published by David Fickling Books.
Old Baggage is published by Doubleday.

Young adult fiction:
Hazel is published by Oxford University Press.
Star by Star is published by Little Island.
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is published by Andersen.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Guest review by Hilary McKay: FRÄULEIN SCHMIDT AND MR ANSTRUTHER (Being the Letters of an Independent Woman), by Elizabeth von Arnim

I grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire, the eldest of four sisters in a very small house. My entire family read books like starving wolves eat their dinners, reading was my first great escape. The second was St Andrew's University. After a variety of jobs I settled down in Derbyshire to write books, which has just about kept the show on the bumpy road these last twenty-five years or so.

Every few months, when the books in my home are heaped too high, horizontal above the vertical in the bookcases, sprawled across too many tables, at avalanching point on my desk, I have a cull. A horrible cull. I have to be in a bad-tempered, planet-saving, if-I-don’t-do-this-who-will mood to manage it, but it happens.

A year or two ago, Fräulein Schmidt was one of the victims. It was time. Her glue no longer held her together: her pages were yellow, and even worse, loose. She was quietly biodegrading, the tattiest of all my tatty green covered Viragos, and so off she went, too shabby for a charity shop, straight into paper recycling with the cereal boxes and bills.

I lasted about six months without her, before I went out and tracked down a replacement.

I would like  Fräulein Schmidt to live next door to me and come round often and borrow my books and lend me hers, and make me laugh and gather up my courage on dark days and rush outside with her on bright ones to appreciate the lovely, ludicrous, luminous corner of the planet in which we find ourselves planted. She is a heroine with a talent for friendship, she is one of those people you find in books who instantly make you feel better without making you feel needy. She is, if you ask me, but no one ever does, because it is one of the books I have never been able to get another soul to read, the very best of Elizabeth von Arnim.

Fräulein Schmidt is Rose-Marie, aged 25 at the start of the book, which is an epistolatory novel, all the letters being from Rose-Marie to the eponymous Mr Anstruther. Rose-Marie lives in a small, dull German town named Jena. Her mother is dead, her step-mother is dour and sour, her father is a professor and he suits Rose-Marie very well. He has a twinkle and a very nice way with words, and they love each other, but he does pipe on, as she says herself, rather too much about Goethe. And he never seems to earn anything in the way of money. Therefore, to make ends meet, the family take in rich English students who wish to learn German. Mr Anstruther is one of them, and one Tuesday night, at end of his year in Jena, Mr Anstruther kisses Rose-Marie.

Oh dear.

Or perhaps, why not? Reading between the lines (and in this book at least half of the story is between the lines) Rose-Marie is certainly as worthy as any Cinderella of meeting Prince Charming and going home to the castle, it could be a fairy tale…

One of Rose-Marie’s many qualities is her honesty. Her wit, intelligence, courage, resourcefulness and common decency are all based on her honesty. It is the rock which upon she stands in order to view her world. And so she writes to Roger, who is also Mr Anstruther, but Roger for the time being:

‘Do you know I’m poor? Of course you do. You couldn’t live with us for a year, and not see by the very sort of puddings we have that we are poor.’

She is anxious to have this understood, that she, Rose-Marie, loves him but is poor, and can bring no money to the marriage he has so rashly proposed. But perhaps it doesn’t matter, it certainly doesn’t to Rose-Marie, and of course it must not to Roger. After all, does she not remember, very clearly, what was said:

‘…the words rained down on me on Tuesday night between all those kisses… Roger, did I hear wrong, or were they not “Lovely-lovely-lovely” ? And always kisses between…’

We have to believe, given Rose-Marie’s honesty, that she didn’t hear wrong. This is the unexaggerated truth. She heard it, and for a few breathless chapters, she believed it.

It isn’t a fairy tale, or if it is, at this point it ends and real life begins. The sudden long silences from England, the Anstruther family expectations, the arrival in Roger’s life of a proper English Miss Cheriton. And more Rose-Marie courage:

‘I agree to everything. You must do what your father has set his heart on, since quite clearly your heart is set on the same thing. All the careful words in the world cannot hide that from me. And they shall not. Do you think I dare not look death in the face? I am just the girl you kissed once behind a door…’

Illness follows, and the further disasters, and suddenly Rose-Marie is no longer in Jena, but half way up a mountain, a good long walk out of town, with no one but her father and Joanna, their rambunctious maid, for company, and nothing but her own resources to save her from despair.

This is where the story really takes off.

Rose-Marie is a survivor, her resources are phenomenal, she has no interest in self pity, her goal is happiness for herself and those she loves, and by way of potato planting and neighbours and bean fields and books and much hard work she sets out to find it. In between she is still writing her letters to Roger (who has become Mr Anstruther again). She writes at first to prove that he has not flattened her, that she is still standing, so to speak. And because she believes, despite their different worlds, that in some way they can help each other and be friends. He writes because he is the sort of man who cannot quite let go. He’s dumped her for his English miss, but he not comfortable with himself. He wants Rose-Marie to soothe his conscience and understand him. He wishes very much to be understood, even when Rose-Marie writes: ‘I’m sorry you think me unsympathetic. Hard, I think was the word, but unsympathetic sounds prettier.’

She does sympathise, but not always, and not very much. He is so ludicrously privileged and so ridiculously sorry for himself. He cannot resist pronouncing on her world. Joanna’s wages, for instance, shock him completely. The amount Joanna earns in a year, he says, wouldn’t keep him in gloves and ties for a month.

‘There must be,’ writes Rose-Marie very plainly in return, ‘stacks of gloves and ties constantly growing higher in your path.’

Nevertheless, he can be well meaning, clumsily sometimes, but trying as best as he can. After her step mother dies, for instance, she says, ‘Your letters since you knew have been kindness itself,' and he is distressed to think she has so little money, more distressed than Rose-Marie, who is not grateful at all for his pity, remarking: ‘There is always a secret satisfaction in the soul of him who pities. He does hug himself…’

And she tells him about her new resolve to become vegetarian, which is not without difficulties:

‘For dinner, by which time I am curiously shakey,' she writes, 'we have salad and potatoes and fruit and lentils because they are so good for us (it is a pity they are also so nasty)...’

Vegetarianism is not something Mr Anstruther can approve of either, nor is Rose-Marie’s enjoyment of a neighbour's son, playing exquisitely on a violin. He enquires as to whether any other lodger has replaced him. He seems to be worrying a lot, unlike Rose-Marie who writes: 'The future looks quite pleasant to me- quite bright and sunny. It is only empty of what people call prospects, by which I take them to mean husbands, but I shall fill it with pigs instead.'

Which does not console him at all.

This book delights me. It comforts me over and over. I like so much the humanity and courage and brains of Rose-Marie (who between all her other endeavours is busily writing a book, and making a very good job of it). I love how she make friends with little Vicki, who arrives to live next door with a broken heart and is brilliantly engineered into happiness. I admire her warmth. I especially pleased to see the unworthy Mr Anstruther finally brought to his expensively tailored knees. There is so much in this book to love, so many instant character sketches, so many turns of phrase, so many moments of clear sight, and jokes, and triumphs.

Then, finally… But you must read it and decide for yourself. There is a point where the letters stop and become single sentences, and an ending which one reviewer claimed "would send hordes of young men travelling as fast as they could towards Jena.’

Well, as Rose-Marie so often remarked herself, perhaps…

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther is published by Virago.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Guest review by Dennis Hamley: EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh, ELMET by Fiona Mozley and EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson

Dennis Hamley has been writing for an unconscionably long time. His first book was published in 1962. Since then he has written more books than he can count, including The War and Freddy, Hare’s Choice, Spirit of the Place, Out of the Mouths of Babes, the six novels in the sequence of medieval mysteries The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, Ellen’s People and Divided Loyalties. He now writes mainly as an independent author, with his own imprint, Joslin Books. The Joslin de Lay sequence is about to be republished in paperback.

He is at present writing, with painful slowness, a novel which has found a different publisher, The Second Person from Porlock, a sort of riff on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Writers in Oxford, of which I am a member, have an annual Not the Booker evening in which members of the panel each introduce a shortlisted novel, comment on, praise or traduce it, estimate its chances and then rush home to put on the TV and find out if they were right. I’ve been on the panel for the last three years. I’ve been wrong for all of them.

For this review I had intended to deal only with Elmet by Fiona Mozley, about which I spoke - enthusiastically favourably, to the evident annoyance of some among the audience – last year. This year I introduced Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. However Elmet was still reverberating round my mind when I started to write this review. And this made me think back to 2016, when my book was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Suddenly all three seemed to mesh together.

The book choices panel members make are entirely arbitrary: it’s first come, first served so there was no suggestion that I was looking for a pattern. But suddenly, I was finding unexpected connections, common themes, similar relationships in these novels. God knows I’m not suggesting any form of plagiarism: here are three astonishingly original works offering experiences uniquely different from anything I have read before, written by authors who, I believe, can truly be called brilliant. I even began to wonder if I had accidentally hit upon a new genre. 

First of all, Eileen. Eileen is the narrator and she tells us straight away what the novel is about. ‘This is the story about how I disappeared.’ She lives in New England, in a town so featureless that it is referred to throughout as ‘X-ville’. She has a deranged alcoholic ex-cop father who fears that even the slightest noise means a hoodlum is about to burst in. Eileen works days in a young boys’ prison and spends her nights driving aimlessly, except for shoplifting, round X-ville in her father’s old Dodge. She secretly lusts after a prison guard, a passion which eats her up but of which he is completely unaware. And she pulls no punches about herself: this is a novel about self-loathing.

The first part of this novel is set in 1964 when Eileen is in about as dreadful and repellent a situation as you could imagine. Yet this is superb writing: magnificently controlled and with a relieving level of black humour. And soon we gather that it is reminiscence, because as she writes she is now in her seventies and somehow has attained everything she could possibly dream of – wealth, a place in an elite society and a significant hint of personal history in that she never knew what good food was until she met her second husband. A disappearance indeed - and we are hustled on towards it with the knowledge that the main narrative takes place within one week.

So how does this peripeteia come about? A new counsellor, Rebecca, comes to the correctional facility. She is beautiful, confident, everything Eileen is not. Eileen is soon completely infatuated with her. This is not returned, but as a result, Eileen is drawn into a crime which compels her disappearance. An action which to say the least, is morally disputable leads to her abandoning the Dodge on the high road behind her with a compromising item left on board. She hitch-hikes to New York and whatever strange events she will undoubtedly meet there.

So the theme shows a horribly dysfunctional family situation between extremely disturbed people leading to an ambiguous escape. 

Enter Elmet. Fiona Mozley’s first novel drew much praise but much criticism as well. I felt it undeservedly ended up as the ugly duckling of the 1917 shortlist. The setting is about as far removed from X-ville as you can get. Elmet was the last of the old Celtic kingdoms, finally conquered by the Angles in the 7th century. It stretched across Yorkshire, from the Calder Valley eastwards to Selby. Ted Hughes lived in it, at Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge, and wrote a cycle of poems about it in his Remains of Elmet. For centuries it had the reputation of being a refuge of lawlessness, crime and outrage, where normal rules did not apply. In Mozley’s Elmet it still has. A wild land which plays by its own rules.

Fiona Mozley’s unsettling, gothic and very noir novel is set in the present day. Yet it still seems to be acted out in the Middle Ages, even though Elmet’s eastern boundary is the East Coast main line, which becomes the symbol of escape (quick complaint – the Pendolino, the tilting train, only runs on the West Coast main line because of the curves round Shap, and never on the much straighter ex-LNER route. I do wish authors would get railway facts straight). Once again, a dysfunctional family tries to survive, by twisting reality to its own ends. Cathy and Daniel are brother and sister looking after their Daddy, cossetting him, cutting his hair and seeing he is comfortable, not out of fear but fierce caring love. ‘Daddy’ though, is entirely the wrong title for this fearful, strong law unto himself. He is a bare-knuckle boxer, part of an underground sport controlled by rapacious landowners. Because he is the best of all local fighters, they use him as a sort of gambling cash cow.

But Daddy and his family are playing a dangerous game hidden just beneath Elmet law – which is a sort of home-made shariah controlled by the landowners. The family lives in a house Daddy built with filched materials on ground which was not his. They live a primitive life very close to nature, of foraging and hunting. For the long periods when Daddy is away fighting, Cathy and Danny have to fend for themselves, which they do effectively. Cathy, the elder is a strong character who takes charge and Danny accepts her authority.

But this arrangement is frail. Daddy is not the fighting pawn that the landowners hope he is. He has broken the tyranny of their private legal system and the relationship must break as result. There is a conclusion of harsh, even appalling, certainly tragic, violence which, in retrospect, is inevitable from the outset of the novel. And as a result, the frail equilibrium on which the lives of Danny and Cathy has been based is broken irretrievably.

So, is the conclusion nihilistic or a sign of hope? Unlike as in Eileen, there is no suggestion of a more contented life as a result. Danny is making his escape from Elmet alone. He is looking for Cathy, who has disappeared. His only way out is the railway. Has she gone north or south? He makes a guess and starts the long trek along the tracks towards York. Another dysfunctional family, another unlooked for but inevitable crisis and another ambiguous escape. 

And so to Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. I have to say that in the end, although I found it the most challenging of the three to read, I also found it the most satisfying, although for a large part of the novel, especially at the beginning, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I had already picked up from the pre-publicity that it was a retelling of Oedipus Rex but for at least half of her novel I was thinking ‘well, you could have fooled me.’ But by about page 100 I was suddenly clear about it. It is a sort of transgender version and I realised what it was that had obscured it for me.

This novel is a stylistic tour-de-force. I love the word ‘liminal’ but I don’t think I completely knew what it meant until I read Everything Under. The setting, as it is with the other two novels, is more or less identifiable. It is near Oxford, partly on the Isis, partly on the canal. Everybody lives on boats and, as the main character is a lexicographer working on a dictionary, it must be somewhere within commuting distance of OUP. But there’s never going to be an Everything Under tour of the city and its surrounding waterways. Once again, we have a separate ‘other’ reality in which normal rules do not apply.

Even so, Everything Under is a brilliant title. To me the whole distillation of reality was somehow misty, elusive, as if all seen from ‘under water’. Actuality was, as it were, refracted. Meanings, events, and motivations were presented obliquely: the reader constantly has to work hard. Many might not have the patience. But those who have will get a really rewarding experience. The novel’s idiom is flowing and seductive and yet it is needle-sharp in transmitting the significance of actions and consequences and I found it almost mesmerising.

Gretel works as a lexicographer because her early life with her mother on board a houseboat was close, exclusive and led to the development of a private language, with words such as ‘harpiedoodle’ and ‘effing’. Is lexicography a connection with the ‘real’ world? Certainly it’s almost the only feature of the novel which is not liminal. But her mother disappears and Gretel spends years looking for her, until she receives information that she has been found and goes to check. Yes, this has been a dysfunctional relationship, but the full extent of this dysfunction only appears gradually and there is still a long way to go.

Meanwhile other characters not so much drift as materialise into the story, for example Margot, who later resurfaces as Marcus, Charlie, Fiona the transgender medium who, like Tiresias, ‘old man with wrinkled dugs’ in the play by Sophocles, gives a terrible warning. They seem to appear and disappear in a strange dance, into which the underlying Oedipus retelling – which in the end is complete and satisfying in the sense that we recognise how well, though strangely, it has worked – is fulfilled.

And below it all lurks the ‘bonak’, a mythical entity – spirit or monster? - which lurks under water and is responsible, so they say, for all the misfortunes which befall the river and canal folk. Although at the end it appears to have been caught, cooked and eaten and its gamey flesh seems to be rather enjoyed.

The salient Sophoclean features – the abandonment, the patricide and the incestuous sex – appear almost incidentally, almost, as in Horatio’s words, ‘casual slaughters’, and this is of a piece with the ruling liminality. But as I closed the book I felt that I had read something with a wonderful structure, a real sense of form, because, though the story could reach out beyond itself with further consequences, they were not part of it. There was no more to say. I had a real feeling of completeness.

I was pleased that, at the end of our Booker evening, the audience decided that Everything Under was the book they most wanted to read. Nothing to do with my presentation. It’s just that, of these three remarkable books which share strangely similar themes and structures, this was, to me, the best and I feel sad that it did not win the 2018 Man Booker prize.

Eileen is published by Vintage.
Elmet is published by John Murray.
Everything Under is published by Vintage.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE OF ABEL MORGAN by Cynthia Jefferies

Yvonne Coppard is a writer of children’s fiction, non-fiction for adults and occasional columns and articles in a variety of publications. She is currently a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working with businesses and public service organisations to promote clear, understandable English in written communication. See more on her website.

In 1660 Christopher Morgan returns from war and exile in Europe to reunite with his wife and start a new life in rural England. But his hopes for the future are blighted by events that leave him bereaved, impoverished and struggling to care for his young son, Abel. Christopher becomes reluctantly complicit in the activities of a violent and unscrupulous smuggler, Daniel Johnson. Eventually, he finds the strength to take a stand against Daniel: soon afterwards, Abel goes missing.

Here the novel divides into two narrative strands that together weave a heart-wrenching, epic story following the fortunes of Christopher and Abel through the years and across the world. Christopher searches relentlessly for his son. A false lead takes him to Constantinople, where he rescues a young Irish slave boy from a terrible fate but does not find any clue to his own son’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Abel believes that his father is dead and that he has no-one left who cares about him. Enslaved, first to a fisherman and then sold on to a pirate ship, Abel embraces the pirate life and concentrates on survival, whatever the cost. He eventually gains freedom and fortune and settles in Jamaica. He has learned to concentrate on his own survival, whatever the cost to his soul and spirit.

The historical settings for all the locations have been well-researched. Constantinople comes to life so vividly, you can almost smell and taste it. The tale is often dark, but the pace has light and shade and the main characters are convincing and worth the reader’s investment. More than once, Christopher comes tantalisingly close to finding Abel, but is thwarted by timing or circumstance. Both characters lurch from one peril to another; time and again they are beaten down by fate and circumstance. They are forced to battle with malevolent forces, both within themselves and without. And yet they rise, and rise again, finding unexpected crumbs of kindness or an extended hand from a stranger, even in the cruellest of circumstances. The reader’s hope is never quite lost.

There are many satisfying themes in this novel for those who seek them. Love and loss, the compulsion to connect; the fragility of moral integrity under pressure; the possibility of redemption and the triumph of the human spirit over unspeakable odds are among them. But most of all this is a refreshingly old fashioned, action-packed historical story.

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is published by Allison and Busby.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Guest review by Graeme Fife: JITTERBUG PERFUME by Tom Robbins - an appreciation

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. In spring 2019, Thames and Hudson will publish a revised edition of his books on the French Alps. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy books from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.' 

‘Quantum physics suggests a universal balance between immutable laws and random playfulness.’


Some critics don’t take Tom Robbins seriously despite the persuasive force of his intellectual quick-stepping, his discursus on mysteries of the spirit, his challenge to lazy thought, because he is playful and comic. Robbins finds this puzzling. ‘Comic writing is not only more profound than tragedy, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to write’. Thus an exchange in Jitterbug Perfume:

‘The universe does not have laws.’

‘It has habits.’

‘And habits can be broken.’

Jitterbug Perfume skips between mediaeval Bohemia, Paris, New Orleans and Seattle. Its cast: a one thousand year-old janitor, a genius Seattle waitress, the proprietress of a New Orleans perfumerie, two old-school French parfumiers, a whacko doctor, founder of the Last Laugh Foundation for the exploration of immortality and brain science. And Pan, for his ‘pranksterish overturning of decorum…his leer and laughter when we took our blaze of mammal intellect too seriously’. When Christ was born, they say, the cry went up: ‘Great Pan is dead’, and no wonder that the humourless authoritarians of the church, horse-whipping childish mockery and a propensity to fun with the cured leather of doctrine, identified sulphur-eyed Satan as a revenant of the cloven-footed, horned, shaggy, sulphurous stinky god of panic, a male divinity associated with female values. And there’s the rub. Wild Pan, the embodiment of Nature’s green fuse, represents the dichotomy in our human nature, between the unruly impulses of our desires - for example, susceptibility to the seduction of perfume - and the timid reserve enjoined by the strictures of pious comportment and polite conformity. Wild shagginess against refinement. Into that dichotomy, as a nymph in this novel says, religion drove a wedge, and ‘Christ, who slept with no female…who played no music instrument, recited no poetry, and never kicked up his heels by moonlight, this Christ was the perfect wedge. Christianity is merely a system for turning priestesses into handmaidens, queens into concubines and goddesses into muses’.

Is that playful or serious? Comic or tragic?

In the comedy of Jitterbug Perfume, as in all Robbins’s work, there is a fervent drive to reappraise what we may, laughingly, call received wisdom. The thousand year-old janitor (you’ll have to read the novel) concludes that whatever else his unprecedented life had been it had been fun, ‘he’d grown convinced that play – more than piety, more than charity or vigilance – was what allowed human beings to transcend evil.’

Not jokes. Jokes are sterile.

Robbins is clear on that, and however you characterise the humour – ‘They fell asleep smiling. It is to erase the fixed smiles of sleeping couples that Satan trained roosters to crow at five in the morning’… ‘She needed help but God was in a meeting whenever she rang’… ‘the sky over Seattle resembled cottage cheese that had been dragged nine miles behind a cement truck’ - it subverts, teases, prises and jostles sclerosed prejudice out of its hermetically sealed plastic wrappings.

Robbins unashamedly takes an intellectual blowtorch to the convention forbidding author’s point of view. He intervenes, he broadcasts paradox and animadversion with fiery delight and carefree disdain for accepted practice. He writes with the exuberance and mischief of a Lord of Misrule riding a Harley Davidson through the small towns of the Bible Belt and calling the god-fearing citizens out to a carnival jitterbug with a rowdy band and a celestial firework display, votaries of the great god Pan on bar duty.

But where (I hear you say) does the perfume come in?

‘Perfume, fundamentally, is the sexual attractant of flowers, or, in the case of civet and musk, of animals.’ The argument proceeds: perfume as the smell of creation, signal of Earth’s regenerative powers. No wonder the church equated perfume with sin, stench with holiness. Even Satan, downwind, recoiled from the odour of sanctity. For the perfume that masks body reek is an implicit invitation to sexual licence.

Robbins begins – and ends - Jitterbug Perfume with that most intense of vegetables, the beet. Its pollen is the base note for a scent which permeates the entire novel, a joyous fantasia on immortality and the logical impasse of death: a verifiable fact with elusive meaning or else meaning applicable to any thought process that seems if not reasonable, at least excusable.

‘The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold onto your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means:




PS It’s also a cracking story.

Jitterbug Perfume is published by No Exit Press.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Guest review by Jon Appleton: CLOCK DANCE by Anne Tyler

Jon Appleton is a freelance editor and writer based in London.

A new novel by Anne Tyler is an event for legions of readers the world over – myself included. Her detractors lay a charge she has claimed herself: that she ends up writing the same sort of book each time. The Baltimore setting, the indecisive men, the domineering mothers (she is always much harsher on her female characters), the messy congress of family life across the years are all familiar ingredients. But for me, her novels are far more exciting than comfort reads. I eagerly anticipate her books thinking, ‘How will she do it this time?’

If you haven’t discovered Tyler’s work, I’d describe each as an alchemy of subtle shifts in her characters’ lives and their urgent, all-consuming desire for change – which is achieved to different degrees in different novels. (Maybe that’s the factor that helps determine people’s choice of their favourite Tyler novel, or perhaps whether one book is less satisfying than another.) In Clock Dance, Tyler waits until the very end before twisting the story away from the path it would seem to be taking. But she leaves us shaken many times before that.

Clock Dance is the story of Willa Drake, whom we first meet in 1967 as a child who smooths over the ructions created by her volatile mother; who helps shield her sister from their father’s weak attempts to keep the household running. Willa is far better suited to adulthood so, after a longish chapter, we meet her in 1977, as a student making a trip home with the man who is to be her first husband.

The first violent nudge towards change occurs on the flight – her seatmate pulls a gun on her, an incident which is hidden from all around her and ends without drama but which revisits her, meaningfully, years later. We jump then to 1997, when she loses her husband in a car crash. Twenty years later, we see her taking another flight, this time to Baltimore with her pompous second husband, Peter.

Willa’s purpose is to help care for an ex-girlfriend of her grown-up son who is recovering from a gunshot wound. Arriving in Baltimore, Willa and Peter find Denise in hospital, while Denise’s young daughter Cheryl (not Willa’s granddaughter, but why not? - Tyler’s characters are often impulsive), is running the household (a task that seems to fall to her generally). As the chapters unfold, Willa and Cheryl form a bond – Tyler is as good at evoking the frustrations of youth as those of late adulthood – but it’s not the only new relationship Willa tentatively pursues that pushes her away from her old life towards something new.

The 1967, 1977 and 1997 chapters conclude a little before the middle of the book when the story jumps to 2017 and starts again at Chapter 1. Everything has happened already but we’re still hungry for every insight, every laugh, every lump in the throat Tyler offers. It’s as if these weeks in Baltimore are Willa’s chance to work through her past and potentially emerge at the end as the person she wants to be next. They are delightful and show Tyler on top form.

In a recent interview, Tyler said, ‘I love, as a reader, to be trusted to get what happens in between times. I don’t need to know about every year.’ When I first read The Beginner’s Goodbye I decided it was a chapter short. (It has nine, when nearly everything she’d written up till then had ten or twenty.) But then, even without re-reading, I realised I was wrong. As I thought about the book, everything I needed to know was there.

The gaps in Clock Dance are revealing. We don’t see Willa’s self-indulgent, often nasty mother after 1967, but we’re all too aware of the shadow she casts. We see so little of Willa’s sons, but we learn that the flipside of being a ‘predictable’ mother, as Willa has deliberately styled herself, is being one from whom it’s all too easy to detach yourself. Tyler’s skill is such that we don’t always need the words – their absence is imprinted in the spaces between.

Clock Dance is a playful, funny and engaging novel from possibly our finest living novelist. It isn’t my favourite – try Back When We Were Grown-ups, Earthly Possessions or A Patchwork Planet – but it’s a book I wouldn’t be without.

Clock Dance is published by Vintage.

Monday, 29 October 2018

WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau

Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is currently working on her second adult novel. The Key to Flambards was published this month by David Fickling Books.

The word Walden has come to mean a great deal: the rejection of materialism; a retreat from society into natural surroundings; a search for uncomplicated contentment. This much I knew without having read Thoreau's book (Walden, or, Life in the Woods, to give its full original title), but at last I have, and am struck by how much it chimes with current preoccupations. 

In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau went to live in woods near Concord, Massachusetts, building a single-room cabin on land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. "I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." He stayed there for two years, two months and two days, later recording the experience as the journal of a single year.

Thoreau and his anti-establishment ideals found new relevance in the 1960s. He was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes on the grounds that they financed slavery and the US - Mexico war, later writing an essay, On Civil Disobedience, which not only influenced Martin Luther King and Gandhi but echoed through anti-Vietnam War protests and the flouting of authority in the hippie era. The 60s, too, saw a revived interest in transcendentalism, a movement to which Emerson introduced Thoreau and which stressed individualism and intuition rather than adherence to religious doctrines and rituals.

In Buddhist fashion (he is greatly influenced by Indian spiritual writings) Thoreau explains how we clutter ourselves with possessions and responsibilities to the extent that we prevent ourselves from enjoying what we have. Rejecting the work ethic that's a central component of the American Dream, he says "we have become the slave-drivers of ourselves", and writes of the "seemingly wealthy, but most impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters." Productivity and economic growth are often seen as intrinsically desirable, but at what cost? Today we should certainly add: at what cost to the environment, as well as to ourselves?

Thoreau records details of his diet and plant husbandry, claiming that only thirty or forty days' work in a year were needed to support himself. Although not strictly vegetarian - he regularly caught and ate fish from the lake - he wrote, "I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food." In hunting and fishing, he finds "something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh ... when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially ... It cost more than it came to." He sees a future in which the human race no longer eats animals, which is certainly pertinent today: it's becoming clear that the planet simply cannot sustain meat-eating as the norm in the affluent countries of the world.

Some of the most beautiful writing in Walden describes the waters of the lake at various times of year, and the birds and animals who inhabit it. Thoreau's deep interest in the natural world led to the making of detailed observations of what we now call ecosystems - long before ecology became a distinct scientific discipline. In particular, he was interested in how forestry regenerates after individual trees have been destroyed by fire; his notes on this have proved to be of lasting worth. Another area in which he was a forerunner of today's concerns is in identifying the mental health benefits of exposure to the natural world. "I have been anxious to improve the nick of time ... to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment." This "living in the moment" is the essence of mindfulness.

Walden was not and is not to everyone's taste. Thoreau has been derided for merely playing at self-sufficiency, regularly returning to his mother with his laundry; Bill Bryson dismissed him as "inestimably priggish and tiresome".  E.B. White, quoted by John Updike in a new introduction, was an admirer, but conceded that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if "all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected". (And, I might add, classics scholars - the text is liberally scattered with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology.) The tone can be preachy, and he is given to making the same point several times, as in the chapter on Economy. Thoreau can be patronising, as in his famous pronouncement that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." To a modern ear he is misogynistic, rarely mentioning women.

But I'll forgive him all that, because it seems to me that Walden speaks as clearly to our time as it did to its own - possibly even more so.

Walden is published by Empire Books.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Guest review by Stephanie Butland: A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline

Stephanie Butland has written four novels, including Lost For Words and The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae. She lives in the north east of England where she writes in the studio at the bottom of her garden, and walks on the beach in all weathers.

My relationship with this book began in the best possible way. I was chatting to Jo, a bookseller in Waterstones in Newcastle, and admiring her table of what she considered to be underrated novels. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which I had thoroughly enjoyed, was on there. So was A Manual For Cleaning Women, short stories by Lucia Berlin, a book I’d been recommending to anyone and everyone since it was given to me as a gift. Jo picked up A Piece Of The World and asked, “Have you read this? It’s amazing.”

Reader, I bought it. And I started it, idly, while having a coffee that afternoon. It’s a novel based around American artist Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated painting Christina’s World, which I recognised in the way you’d recognise the Laughing Cavalier if he passed you at the bus stop, but had no real knowledge of. I read it, hungrily, in all of my spare moments over the next few days. And I finished it, with the happy/sad feeling that comes when something is over, but it’s enriched your life, and you are so very glad that you found it. (See also: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and Parks and Recreation on microwave mug cakes.)

This novel is a life of Christina Olsen, the woman in the foreground of Wyeth’s painting. She was born into a farming family in Maine in the early 1900s, and had an undiagnosed degenerative condition: in Baker Kline’s imagining of her life, it gradually eats away at her mobility and her confidence, and she becomes as good as imprisoned in her family home. When a friend brings the then-unknown painter Wyeth to visit, he is inspired by both the farm and Christina herself, who becomes a muse to him.

If it sounds as though nothing much happens, well, I suppose it doesn’t, but that’s kind of the point. Christina’s world, as portrayed in Wyeth’s painting, is both spacious and eerie, both lonely and comforting, and the novel feels, to me, like a prose rendition of the characteristics of the artwork that inspired it. As we follow Christina’s story, in memories and flashbacks, we’re sucked into her world; the storytelling is compelling enough to make you hold your breath. And the writing is simply beautiful.

“… I put my hand over his, and he lays his other hand over mine. I feel the way I do when I lose something – a spool of thread, say – and search for it everywhere, only to discover it in an obvious place, like on the sideboard under the cloth.”

And oh, what a wonderful narrator Christina is. Made bad-tempered by constant pain and all of the ways she is unfulfilled, she alienates others and rejects all help. And she does not care. She has decided her own limits and she lives within them and she resents them. And I loved her and respected her for it. She doesn’t try to please people; she can be cruel, dismissive, and awkward. But she knows herself, understands herself, and is honest with herself and with us. I think that might be my favourite thing of all about this novel. It made me feel - trusted.

“All at once I am so tired of this-of the constant threat of humiliation and pain, the fear of exposure, of trying to act like I'm normal when I'm not- that I burst into tears. No, I am not all right, I want to say. I am fouled, degraded, ashamed, a burden and an embarrassment.”

I read a lot of books, and I love a lot of books, and often even the books I love I forget almost as soon as I’ve read the last page. This book has stayed with me. (Literally as well as figuratively. It’s still on the bedside table; I’m not ready to shelve it.) It’s partly because I admire the writing so much - there isn’t so much as a misplaced syllable from start to finish - but it’s also because the way Christina Baker Kline evokes the world she writes about makes it genuinely unforgettable. She asks us readers to listen to Christina’s voice and, if we do, the rewards are rich. 

A Piece of the World is published by Borough Press. 


Monday, 15 October 2018

Guest post by Dawn Finch: A SWEET, WILD NOTE: WHAT WE HEAR WHEN THE BIRDS SING by Richard Smyth

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and former librarian who is possibly best known for her role in many national library and literacy campaigns. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for children, and her non-fiction books are used in almost every primary school in the UK.

I am what might be called a casual birdwatcher. I have quite a bit of knowledge, but not as much as some. I can identify a good number of birds, but am often left baffled by extraordinary bursts of song, or by a dazzling flash of something feathery as it passes me by. I own many books on birds, but still prefer the kind of birdwatching that might be better described as “bird listening.”

As a very small child I loved to listen to the birds, and still sleep with my window open so that I can hear the dawn chorus, but I’m extremely bad at identifying birdsong. I am not alone. Despite the fact that birdsong is quite literally the soundtrack of our lives, most of us can only identify a few of the singers. We are lifted and inspired by birdsong, but can’t name the bird that is mastering the chorus.

In Richard Smyth’s wonderfully eccentric little book, A Sweet, Wild Note, he takes a look at the human relationship with birdsong and how it has inspired poets, writers, musicians and artists of all fields. In this beautiful book the author explores how we hear birdsong and what it means to us. He takes us from “some kind of crow” to the complex scientific matters of actually describing birdsong. We meet the poets who argued over what a nightingale actually was, and elegantly stroll through the world of birdsong to the emotionally loaded issue of keeping songbirds in captivity.

Smyth’s style is somewhat meandering, and eclectic, and that works well in a book that is as charming as the songs it explores. It is an enjoyable experience as it almost feels as if you are at a select gathering listening to a wonderful lecture. After reading it I felt that I wanted to quote many things from the book, and to get hold of many of the other books he has mentioned as sources. The book is a friendly read that never drifts into arrogance or pretention.

A Sweet, Wild Note has left me not only with a greater understanding of birdsong, but also a keener ear and a new appetite for finding out more. A lovely book that is also well packaged with a gorgeous cover by Lynn Hatzius and illustrated throughout by Tim Oakenfull. The whole makes for a very pleasing read that I know I will return to many times.

A Sweet, Wild Note is published by Elliot and Thompson

Monday, 8 October 2018

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: BAD GIRLS, A HISTORY OF REBELS AND RENEGADES, by Caitlin Davies

Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson writes both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. She has won many awards, including the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year. Her most recent novel Star By Star, winner of the CBI Honour Award for Fiction, commemorates the centenary of women’s suffrage.

I love fiction, and perhaps best of all I love stories set in institutions. Especially women’s institutions, and especially in the past. I thrill to books about closed communities, with their intense relationships, their special rules, their sense of being worlds apart and worlds unto themselves. My PhD was on fiction set in girls’ schools and colleges, and my work in progress is about a working girls’ hostel, but you could add to that a obsession with convents, hospitals (Call The Midwife scores twice here) and of course prisons. And I am not alone. The success of dramas such as Orange Is The New Black testifies to an abiding fascination with women who break the rules and how society deals with them.

My own first memories of being politically aware involve prisons. I remember the IRA hunger strikes of 1981, and very shortly afterwards seeing women from Greenham Common being sent to prison. This coincided with my learning about suffragette prisoners in the 1910s, so I always knew that prisons were complex spaces. As a student and later as a writer I have spent time working inside prisons, and know that they are places bristling with stories, often harsh and horrifying, always reflecting the world outside as well inside their walls.

So when I heard about Caitlin Davies’ forthcoming Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, some time before publication, I was really excited about it. Because even more than fiction I love social history, especially the history of women’s experience. Sometimes when I feel a bit storied-out I reach for social history as a kind of palate-cleanser. I knew this book was going to tick a lot of my boxes, and when it arrived I was almost scared to start reading it; I had invested so much interest and expectation in it. I’d also rashly agreed to review it for this blog before I even started reading it.

But I needn’t have worried. A quick glance at the contents page was enough to reassure me that this was very much my kind of book, with chapters on subjects ranging from Victorian baby farmers to spies in World War Two, and of course a detailed and horrifying section on the treatment of suffragettes. There are also sections covering sex and relationships, medical matters, and the changing regime at Holloway. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched, with a successful balance between telling the overarching factual story of Holloway as an institution and exploring some of the individual characters and events who found themselves incarcerated – or dependent on Holloway for their livelihood. It is dense with detail but always readable and engaging.

Davies writes fascinatingly about the women who worked as warders, and the changing demands of that role from Victorian times until more or less the present day. (Holloway closed in 2016.) I was surprised to learn that many of the wardresses were in fact sympathetic to the cause of suffragette prisoners, though this sympathy was not encouraged, and in fact the opposite was suggested in the press. As Davies says, ‘The press preferred to portray them in opposition to the suffragettes, for… a prison full of inmates and wardresses who wanted the vote was a frightening prospect.’

The book raises important questions about what constitutes crime and punishment, and the extent to which this is determined by changing social mores. Women are particularly vulnerable to this, as their crimes and misdemeanours are sometimes less clear-cut than male crime, and very prone to shifting notions of morality. I had imagined that the prison regime would have been harshest in the nineteenth century, growing gradually more humane, but the truth is more complex than that.

Bad Girls joins my library of non-fiction about women’s experiences in the past, and I know I’ll return to it many times. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in social history, especially women’s history.

Bad Girls is published by John Murray.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: THE SALT PATH by Raynor Winn

Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offenders. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

On one level, this is a book about a couple who walked the South West Coastal Path, non-stop – all 630 miles of it. As you can see, it has a beautiful cover whose design places it firmly in the section of bookshops with books about nature and our relationship to it.

And indeed and of course, it is about nature – but not primarily so. It’s not a piece of finely judged, carefully crafted nature writing, though there is some of that here too. It’s the searing story of a couple whose home and livelihood and hopes for the future are suddenly torn away from them, and who decide, pretty much on impulse, that the only thing they can do, the only way they can literally and figuratively move on, is to walk, carrying with them all that they have – which is almost nothing.

The story begins, Ray tells us, when she and her husband Moth lose everything at the end of a court battle after an investment goes badly wrong. What makes this even worse is that Raynor eventually finds a document which she believes will prove that they are innocent of blame, but doesn’t submit it in time or according to the correct procedures: they cannot afford legal representation (and of course, legal aid was pretty much abolished some years ago), and they fail to find their way through the complexities of the law without it. And even worse than that: the person who recommended the investment to them and is now suing them is an old and dear friend of Moth’s, so that he feels a sense of hurt and betrayal. As a result of losing the case, they lose their home, a Welsh farmhouse which they have lovingly restored over many years; and the livelihood which goes with it.

And as if this isn’t enough, just after the verdict, Moth is diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative illness: they are in their early fifties.

Raynor Winn tells the story of how, as they hide from the bailiffs in the cupboard under the stairs, she notices a book in a packing case. It’s called Five Hundred Mile Walkies, and it’s about a man who, many years before, had walked the South West Coastal Path with his dog. And it’s this that gives them their idea.

When I read this, it seemed quite shocking to me – absolute madness. Moth is in constant pain, sometimes he can’t even get up. They have the grand sum of £48 a week coming in, they have virtually no other money: they can’t afford even to buy decent equipment. Neither of them is strong enough to carry much weight – in fact it’s practically a military manoeuvre even to get their rucksacks onto their backs. And yet, and yet… what else can they do? And what sort of an indictment of our society is it that they face such limited choices? Their two children are at university and in no position to help (though, in a reversal of the normal rôles, their worried daughter sends them a new phone and instructs them that they must keep in close touch); friends do what they can and offer temporary accommodation, but cannot, in the end, give them their lives back – this at least offers them a reason to move on, literally as well as metaphorically.

And so off they go. With a flimsy tent, inadequate sleeping bags, a single change of clothes, a thin towel and a toothbrush – and Moth’s battered and beloved copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf: a fitting companion, with its theme of a battered hero fighting against evil monsters and against time itself.

It’s very sobering, to read of how difficult it is to live on so little. They can only afford to buy the most basic foodstuffs – meals are delights such as pot noodles, or rice and a tin of peas or mackerel. Sometimes, even water is difficult to come by. Washing is usually impossible – there’s plenty of sea, but for one thing that’s salty, and for another, the cliff path is usually high above it. I’ve seen bits of that coast path, and it’s very precipitous. There are endless setbacks, yet even so, somehow they don’t just keep going, but Moth becomes stronger; and the experience of being so very close to nature teaches them to live in, and treasure, each moment. They have numerous encounters along the way, some of them strange, many of them comic. Quite early on, they ask for information at a tourist office in Combe Martin – and are puzzled by the reaction of the ladies behind the counter.

     'The ladies shuffled, nudging each other, giggling.
     “Of course, it’s a pleasure to help. Just go to the grocery store up to the left. They’ll do cashback for you, Mr Armitage, but they weren’t expecting you yet.”
     “Sorry, I’m not Mr Armitage.”
     The ladies looked at each other conspiratorially.
     “No of course not, that’s okay, our secret, we won’t say a word.”
     Moth looked back in bemusement…'

This keeps happening: people keep mistaking Moth for this mysterious Mr Armitage. Well – Moth might have been bemused, but I wasn’t. In 2015, the poet Simon Armitage published a book about his travels along the South West Coastal Path. The idea was that he would walk a stretch, and then pay for his board at a pub or whatever by doing a reading of his work. He’d done this before in the Pennines. I bought the book, because I’m familiar with some bits of the path, particularly the first part from Minehead, but to be honest, much as I admire his other work and the TV programmes he’s done, I was a little disappointed in this book. It felt as if he was just going through the motions (sorry!): as if he was doing it because it seemed like a good idea for a book, not because it was something he was really enjoying. And the reaction of the people Moth and Ray meet, as well as the book itself, make it clear that the whole thing was very carefully planned and organised for the poet: there was no jeopardy involved. But for Moth and Ray, there most certainly was. They were living right on the edge in more ways than one.

This is a remarkable book: it’s a searing reflection on what is to be homeless and poor; an account of a first-hand experience of being as close to nature as you can get; and a tender story of a relationship which survives some incredibly difficult tests. In the end, one of the people they meet offers them a place to live: they come through. The last word belongs to Raynor herself.

     'At last I understood what homelessness had done for me. It had taken every material thing that I had and left me stripped bare, a blank page at the end of a partly written book. It had also given me a choice, either to leave that page blank or to keep writing the story with hope. I chose hope.'

The Salt Path is published by Penguin.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Guest post by Rhiannon Lassiter: THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES by Catherynne M. Valente

Rhiannon Lassiter is an author of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, magical realism and psychodrama novels for juniors, middle grade and young adults. Her first novel, Hex, was accepted for publication when she was nineteen years old.

Rhiannon’s favourite authors include Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Mahy and Octavia Butler. Her own novels explore themes of identity, change and transition. Her ambition is to be the first writer-in-residence on the Moon.

I like high concept fiction. A lot of my time is spent searching for the Big Idea that has enough in it to sustain me for an entire novel. That’s true of me as a writer and as a reader. So I was immediately drawn to Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, a title that clearly references a concept crossover that is so brilliant it’s incredible it hasn’t been done before.

The Vagina Monologues was an episodic play written by Eve Ensler in 1996, twenty year ago. It was groundbreaking work focusing on women, sexuality and violence. 'Fridging' is a concept with an even longer history but the term was popularised in 1999 by Gail Simone though her website Women In Refrigerators, which compiled a list of female characters in comic books who were killed off as a plot device. 
Valente herself is an award-winning author, a recipient of the Tiptree award for The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden and the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She’s been on my list of authors to explore for some time but this was the first book of hers I’ve read.
It took me some time to get hold of a copy because it was published in the US first and there is no electronic edition, perhaps because the paperback format makes significant use of illustrations by comic book artist Annie Wu.
As a high concept novel with an idea that sold me instantly, it completely delivers. It launches the reader into an invented superhero universe, one with its own original superheroes, super villains and everyone in between. Page Embry, the narrator of the first section is dead “the deadest girl in Deadtown” who lives – or rather doesn’t – in a pocket dimension, a suburban hell, with all the conveniences of modern unlife. She is the President of the Hell Hath Club, a coffee-klatsch of women scorned. During the course of the book, these six women tell their stories, with intermissions for Page to introduce them and enjoy some soul music at the Lethe Café.
The writing is snappy and savage. These women had lives, hopes and dreams, before their stories came abruptly to an end when a villain put a full stop to them. The men they loved were superheroes, and these women’s deaths have served to motivate their next big plot action or their need for revenge. But the women themselves have been forgotten, or were never considered that important, bit part players in a bigger story.
It must have been a huge piece of work to - as Valente mentions in the acknowledgements - “(create) an entire superhero universe to make a point” and yet it’s done with considerable wit and elegance. The reader’s knowledge of this invented universe is largely assumed by the narrators, and it is at once original and recognisable. Characters like Grimdark, a Batmanesque figure, Proessor Yes who is Headmistress of St Ovidius’s School for Wayward Children, or The Arachnochancellor are completely believable creations. The world they inhabit is a superhero universe that hangs together or doesn’t with the right combination of techno babble and magical effects.
The individual chapters work well as monologues, neatly encapsulating the stories of these women: tragically comedic, well paced, mixing foreshadowing and self- reflection. I did wonder if the individual voices were sufficiently differentiated. If you pick up the book at a random page can you tell if it’s wayward child Julia Ash or conceptual artist Daisy Green speaking? And unfortunately, I mostly couldn’t. I think it’s a weakness in the book, although it may be that Valente was going for this precise effect: six women, speaking with one voice. But it’s not a very diverse cast; self-described as “mostly very beautiful and very well read and very angry” but also predominantly white and middle class. I think Valente could have gone further here to give us a richer palette of voices.
The chapter I think is most different is the one from the point of view of wise-cracking Pauline “Polly” Ketch, a villainous sidekick with more than one Bad Daddy. Her section stands out for her sparky villainy although she’s probably the most deluded of the characters, the one who believes her lover and murderer will return for her and bring her back to life. Spoiler, he doesn’t.
That brings me to my other criticism of the book, which again is feature of the authorial intention. There is no redemption arc for these women. They have been variously dead-ended or flatlined, destined to spend eternity in clothes picked out by relatives for them to wear in their coffins. Their monologues and their conversations all concern a world which they won’t be returning to. And although they have created a small semblance of a live for themselves with drinks and music and friendship, their stories have nowhere to go, their monologues end where they began, in Deadtown.
It has to be this way because that’s the big idea of the book. Women in superhero stories are typically foils to men, used and abused to further a male plot of action and violence. We are told from the beginning that Page can’t change. But it makes for a depressing read, despite the wit and sparkle. You want the women to rise up and start again, to see them re-enter the fascinating universe Valente has created. But they can’t and don’t and the book would be weaker if they could. It’s frustrating.
I’m glad to have read this book and I will look for more from Valente who I sense is an author coming into her own superpowers.  I recommend it highly. But I’m not sure how much it would stand the test of a re-read. It does what it says on the tin and it does it well and with flair. If I was left wanting a little bit more, perhaps that’s a sign that I need to read more of her work.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Guest review by Savita Kalhan: A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

Photo: Mal Woodford
Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She got the writing bug when she was teaching in the Middle East, where she lived for several years. Now living in North London, she runs a teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, and writes for children.

Her debut novel, The Long Weekend, published by Andersen Press, is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. Her new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published in May by Troika Books. ‘This is an unflinching, multi-layered exposition of male privilege, male abuses of women, and the clash of cultures. With hard-hitting clarity it also shows how girls are silenced, made to feel ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of wrongs done to them. Ultimately this is a poignant personal story of a girl’s fight to rebuild and re-connect with herself and those who love her after a truly harrowing experience.’ Love Reading 4 Kids

Some stories stay with you forever; they leave an indelible mark on you, leave you wanting for more, for the story to never end, for the writer to never stop writing. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is such a book for me.

It was also the work that had the most profound effect on me and my understanding of the country of my birth, its customs, traditions and people.

Mistry did not start writing until after he had left India with a degree in Maths and Economics from the University of Mumbai. He emigrated to Canada to work in a bank. It was some years later that he decided to pursue a degree in English and Philosophy, and it was then that he started writing stories. He won the Hart House literary short story prize two years consecutively. Tales of Firozsha Baag was a collection of short stories set in an apartment block in modern day Mumbai. Then came Such a Long Journey, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won many others. Later, after it was adopted as a University text in Mistry's old university, it was to come under attack by extremists and was withdrawn despite a huge outcry.

A Fine Balance is the book of his that I truly love. It stands the test of time. As a portrayal of life in Bombay in India during the 1970s, it is, for me, without comparison. I've lent out my hardback copy to friends, who, with the exception of one person, have absolutely loved it. The one exception's pronouncement on it was: 'Good melodrama' - which was tantamount to blasphemy in my eyes.

The sad fact of the matter is that the everyday lives of the characters may well have seemed like melodrama to him, as though the author had simply sensationalized the harshness of his characters' lives for the sole purpose of giving the reader something more than a portrayal of the humdrum nature of abject poverty. For all the harsh realism contained within its pages, and there is much, the novel is one of carefully, almost poetically, crafted prose, which forms a story that is memorable and harrowing. It is far removed from the magical realism of Salman Rushdie's work, also originally from Mumbai, yet there is something magical in each page of this book, and even the most minor character you stumble upon within its pages is treated to the magic of his penmanship.

A Fine Balance was shortlisted for the Booker prize, has won countless others, and even made it onto Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. It hasn't been to everyone's taste. Germaine Greer hated it and said it in no way resembled the India she had come to know after spending all of four months there. Others have criticized Mistry for appropriating a turbulent time in Indian politics to meet his own ends and the needs of his characters. Personally, I don't understand this criticism, unless such critics balk at the atrocities of those times coming under public scrutiny after such a long period. In A Fine Balance Mistry explores the inherent inequalities of the caste system, extreme poverty, high level corruption, and life during the turmoil of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, and the sterilization programme, and the 'Beautification' policies, which led to the forced removal of street-dwellers into indentured labour. His characters are drawn from many Indian communities including the Parsi, Hindu, Muslim communities; from Untouchables to Prime Minister, from beggars to thieves; but there are four central characters of different backgrounds and histories, and it is through their hearts and minds that the story is told.

It is a tale of a Parsi woman, Dina, two tailors and a student from the north, four disparate people whose lives, outlooks, preconceptions and prejudices are fundamentally changed over a period of time after their first meeting. Tragedy exists at the heart of each of their stories, it permeates each page, yet the resilience of their spirit sits right next to it, tempering it. 'You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair' - and quite simply, that is exactly what Rohinton Mistry does.

His work speaks to me as an Indian, but it is universal in scope and in its depiction of humanity. He is, above all, a writer who plunges you, heart and mind, deep into his stories, where you remain submerged until the final page has been turned and you come up, gasping for air.

'... his sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without drawing attention to the stitches' - this is a line spoken by one of Mistry's characters, and perhaps best describes the mastery and craft of Rohinton Mistry himself.

In A Fine Balance he has created a complex and tightly-woven tapestry of humanity at its best and at its worst. For me the book is a literary masterpiece. It is a story you will never forget. His most recent novel Family Matters was published in 2002, but I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I am still waiting for Mistry’s next story.

A Fine Balance is published by Faber.