Monday, 15 April 2019

Guest review by Ian Beck: STASI 77 by David Young

"... the constant fear of being observed, followed or overheard runs like a strong thread throughout ..." 

Ian Beck is the author and illustrator of many books for children. He has also illustrated books by Adele Geras, Rose Impey, Geraldine MaCaughrean and Philip Pullman. He has published several novels for young people including the Tom Trueheart series, Pastworld, The Haunting of Charity Delafield, and The Carmody Casebooks. He recently revisited his iconic illustration to the cover of Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reimaging it for the cover of Elton’s final world tour programme. His most recent picture book is The Magic Hour published by Tate Gallery in March of this year.

It is 1977 in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik of East Germany. The anti-fascist protection barrier (to give the Berlin wall its official title) will still be standing for another 12 years. Major Karin Muller of the Kriminalpolizei has been recalled from holiday to investigate the suspicious death of a party official. As with the three previous books in the series (Stasi Child, Stasi Wolf and A Darker State) her enquiries are never straightforward. There are always deeply hidden crosscurrents and darker motives. The shadowy hands of the Stasi, the state secret police, are close  behind her at almost every turn.

Karin has an odd kind of relationship with her country and its politics. Frequently frustrated at her attempts to get to the truth and yet, in passing, admiring the architecture of their brave ‘new world’, feeling at one point in the centre of a new development that ‘Marx himself would be proud of what they had achieved’. However, she can still deplore the qualities of the official ersatz coffee, Kaffe Mix. It comes as a delightful, almost ecstatic shock when in one scene she ís covertly served a cup made from real coffee imported from the West.

The party official has been found suffocated by smoke inhalation. What at first might have been seen and dismissed as an accident is soon revealed to be murder. A similar killing of another party official is reported, and further murders using the same modus operandi. Karin sets off with her assistant, Hauptmann Werner Tilsner (with whom she has shared the odd dalliance in the past) who says, ‘I’d much rather be getting dirty hands than shuffling paper and pushing pens.’ However an interview with the widow of one of the murdered men is made difficult through the presence of a Stasi official who censors certain questions and forbids particular lines of enquiry. It seems that the Stasi are taking a very keen interest in what appears at first to be a routine case. Even those officials and colleagues who she has been able to trust in the past now seem at times to be untrustworthy, even perhaps capable of physically doctoring evidence. Who can Karin Muller trust? In the end, perhaps, only herself.  

The narrative is interrupted at certain points with the testimony of a French prisoner in WW2. A fisherman from the Isle de Re, he was in the resistance with his two siblings, ‘a band of brothers’. They have been caught and shipped to Germany as slave labourers, known as Zebras, for their striped uniforms. They work in terrible conditions tunnelling for the secret V1 and V2 rocket bases, flogged and starved and treated as barely human by the Kapos in charge of them. The horror of their story, each time it appears, provides a vivid and continually worsening counterpoint to the main thrust of the investigation. Karin seems especially vulnerable this time round. Her twins, aged seventeen months and mostly looked after by her grandmother Helga, are a sensitive pressure point, a possible bargaining chip for any officials out to thwart her investigation if it gets too near the truth. The narrative constantly circles the very dark secrets of Germany’s past in WW2. Karin is from the generation born too late to be held responsible for what happened in the war: as one of the characters says to her at one point, ‘You are too young to bear the guilt’. Later in the narrative a series of immediate post-war debriefing interviews between a major in the American forces and a member of the Nazi party are transcribed, throwing more light on the darkness at the heart of the book and its shocking conclusion. 

David Young writes with admirable clarity and atmosphere. The day to day details of East German life, the suspicions and petty inconveniences, the constant fear of being observed, followed or overheard runs like a strong thread throughout. Interviews might be conducted at an especially unpopular bench at the Zoo. Older buildings and their history are evoked: ‘Like many of the Republic’s older structures, bullet hole damage from the Second World War was still evident in its brickwork’....indeed that damage is not only physical but runs deep into the structure of the state itself. This gripping and satisfying read is a worthy conclusion to the Karin Muller series. It is also fascinating to read of the true deeply moving and shocking events behind the story in the author’s note at the end of the book.

Stasi 77 is published by Bonnier.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Guest review by Harriet Evans: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

 "To my mind one of the great English novels of the 20th century..." 

Harriet Evans is the Sunday Times bestselling author of eleven novels. Her last book, The Wildflowers, was a Richard and Judy Book Club selection and a Kindle No.1 bestseller. She lives in London with her family and enjoys sloe gin, feminism, Game of Thrones, and anything illustrated by Shirley Hughes. She is on Twitter @HarrietEvans. Her new novel, The Garden of Lost and Found, is published on 18th April.

I hardly feel qualified to write a review of a book as good as this; but if it means one more person reads this criminally neglected novel then so much the better.

Twitter is a good place for writers, if you know to mute or block accounts that will needlessly rile you when a long day alone at the computer stretches ahead of you (why follow Piers Morgan if you don’t have to? Why?) I have found a lovely community on Twitter by curating my timeline so that I see mainly tweets from people who like talking about good books and in particular books by women, which was how the great Lissa Evans came to recommend Lolly Willowes to me.

Two facts: there are more women writers published today than men, and more women buy and read books than men, yet there is still a huge imbalance in the reception and influence of books by women. (Ask the man next to you at dinner who knows everything about modern literature if he’s read Anne Tyler.) The books we write need to be boxed into a genre, filed neatly away. Historical fiction. Romantic fiction. Chicklit. And this packaging is now being applied restrospectively to authors like Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith. It means books like Lolly Willowes will be rediscovered, but in a cosy ‘vintage’ way, and not given the attention that is their due.

All this is to say that Lolly Willowes is to my mind one of the great English novels of the 20th century and it is shameful that its reputation hasn’t endured. My copy is a gorgeous new edition from Virago with a brilliant illustration which you see here of a cat and an English village (and a top-notch introduction from Sarah Waters). But I think the type is a shade too fluffy for how complex a book it is. Still, it gets across the very great enjoyment to be had from this story of female emancipation, witchcraft, family and mansplaining. (Yes, it really is about all those things!)

It is the story of Laura Willowes who in 1902, upon the death of her beloved father for whom she has been keeping house in Somerset, moves in with her brother and sister-in-law in London to assume the role of devoted unmarried sister and helpmeet. Time moves on (it is one of Townsend Warner’s many skills as a novelist that the rapid passage of time is dealt with so gracefully) until after the Great War when Laura, buying a bunch of perfect chrysanthemums in a Bayswater grocer’s one evening, is suddenly overcome with the absolute conviction that she must live where they came from.

‘They smelt of woods, of dark rustling woods like the wood to whose edge she came so often in the autumn of her country imagination. She stood very still to make quite sure of her sensations. Then: "Where do they come from?" she asked.

"From near Chenies, ma’am, in Buckinghamshire."'

One of the joys of the novel is how certain the quiet, dreamy Laura is of what she wants in life and how tough and deep is her intelligence (during the war she helps by doing up parcels at the Post Office four times a week. ‘She did them up so well that no-one thought of offering her a change of work’ – the experience of millions like her.) After establishing in one of the novel’s most enjoyable scenes that her brother has mishandled her inheritance so that she has no means of living independently, she demands quite briskly that he reinvest in something that pays a tiny dividend and moves to Deep Mop, a village in the Chilterns where all is not quite what it seems…

I am going to be bold and not say what happens when Laura moves to Deep Mop, other than that it is wonderful, wild and really weird. Townsend Warner is in total control of her material throughout and that gives one a dizzying sense of excitement as the plot hurtles forwards. There is a delicious depth of detail to the writing (‘A hot ginny churchyard smell’ is one of many descriptions of the English countryside perfect in its evocation of place.) The Mitfordian English social commentary is spot-on and the knowledge of what is to come makes rereading it an absolute hoot. But, also, it gets across its graceful point about the worth and inner life of British womanhood in the last century devastatingly well. I would not trust someone who didn’t love this book. It’s a good test. Please, I beg you, if you haven’t read it, try Lolly Willowes.

Lolly Willowes is published by Virago.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf

"A multi-layered, timeless story, taken at a measured pace that allows the reader to settle in and get involved..."

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 the small mid-West community of Holt, Colorado, Tom struggles to care for his two young sons, Ike and Bobby, when his wife’s depressive illness leads her to abandon them. Victoria, seventeen and pregnant, is thrown onto the street by her abusive mother. Elderly brothers Raymond and Harold live a quiet life with only each other for company and little experience of the world away from their farm. Maggie, a divorcee living with her father, will be the catalyst for the connection of these unfolding stories.

The tale is set in a time that feels old-fashioned modern but is never explicitly referenced. This subtly reinforces one of the main themes: the mysterious nature of the human connections that bind us all across time and distance. Haruf crafts a multi-layered, timeless story, taken at a measured pace that allows the reader to settle in and get involved; it’s almost like catching up with friends over afternoon tea. The number of central characters and the switch between four different viewpoints is unusual and may irritate some. But for me, it worked and seemed to underscore the seasonal, rhythmic pattern of a rural life. The characters came off the page immediately: distinctive, individual and real, they pulled me into their lives. Even the more minor characters have depth and leave an impression after they have gone.

There is plenty of light and shade in the narrative. Raymond and Harold agree to take in Victoria but the three of them seem to have no common ground and the set-up is precarious. Ike and Bobby are left to roam free; while their adventures and perspective brings warmth and humour, their childish naivety and lack of supervision leads them into real danger. Tom, a teacher, faces up to a bully but finds himself, his job and his family threatened.

My heart was in my mouth at times, worrying about what would happen to these fragile, lovable people. But it is hope and not despair that suffuses the book. I found it haunting, joyous and suspenseful in turn. It is a proper human story, told without flashy literary devices or controversy; the whole construction is delicate, yet masterful. Plainsong is one of the few books of the last decade that will stay with me, and which already I want to read again.

Plainsong is published by Picador.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Independent bookseller feature No.6: Borzoi Bookshop, Stow-on-the-Wold: SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME by Lars Mytting

"Don't rush it - you could miss the vital hints which help solve the mystery."

I am Aloÿse Packe and I have worked for the independent Borzoi Bookshop in Stow-on-the-Wold for the past 29 years. The shop has been in the town since the late 1970s. During this time there have been three owners and twice as many shop dogs. There have been too many changes to go through here but some of our customers are still the same and they certainly appreciate our quirky individualism. We have just moved premises within Stow, so please don’t think we have closed - we have just moved. We are the official bookshop for the Chipping Campden Literature Festival held in May; we hold regular book signing events, and we run a successful book club for Daylesford Organic. We love to chat to our customers about books, as Linda will testify, so please drop in.

I chose The Sixteen Trees of the Somme because it has tremendous all-round appeal. I have read it twice. Usually I find this an annoying thing to do but I enjoyed it just as much the second time round. In fact I found so much more in the detail.

Lars Mytting, the author, is better known in the UK for his best selling non-fiction book Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Wood plays an enormous part in this atmospheric family saga spanning the twentieth century.

Edvard is brought up by his grandfather on a remote farm in Norway. Following his grandfather’s death in 1991 Edvard decides to delve into the mystery of the death of his parents in France where, as a small boy, Edvard went missing for four days. Intertwined with this is the story of Einar, Edvard’s great uncle, a skilled cabinet-maker who was estranged from his family. The story moves to Shetland where Edvard meets Gwen Winterfinch, a young aristocratic Scottish girl, whose own family story is entangled with Edvard’s. Together, they travel to France hoping to find the truth about a missing inheritance. The chapters set in France are poignant and deeply moving. It is appropriate that the paperback edition was released in October 2018 as we remembered the end of hostilities in 1918.

Through the descriptive passages on wood we discover the link between the main characters. Trees have deep roots. The idea of a family tree is deeply symbolic.

To begin with the book moves slowly but take heed – every little piece of information fits into the jigsaw puzzle (rather like stacking wood). Don’t rush it – you could miss the vital hints which help solve the mystery. Ponder on the love story – attractive, wild, girl versus the sensible committed girl next door. This book may not stand the test of time but it is a really good read.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is published by MacLehose Press. 

Monday, 18 March 2019

ONCE UPON A RIVER and THE BINDING, by Diane Setterfield / Bridget Collins, reviewed by Linda Newbery

"Caught in the spells cast by two exceptional storytellers..."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication is The Key to Flambards, and she is currently working on an adult novel.

I'm feeling selfish for bagging two such enticing books - but how could I resist? I read both during the dark winter nights and slow mornings of January and early February; usually an early riser I stayed later in bed, happily caught in the spells cast by two exceptional storytellers.

Diane Setterfield is best known for The Thirteenth Tale, though my preference is for Bellman and Black, the story of a Mephistophelean bargain involving a rook and a funeral parlour. Her new novel Once Upon a River has a clever title, suggesting folk tales and traditional telling, a story passed from mouth to mouth with changes as it goes, mysterious and possibly miraculous events, and an invitation to put ourselves in the hands of a knowing and confident narrator. All that, and everything that’s added by the river setting, with its associations of timelessness, constancy and meanderings, of the rhythms of the season, occasional breaking of bounds and – here – either barrier or conduit between this world and others. The key events of Setterfield’s tale take place at the year’s marker-points: solstices and equinoxes, starting on a cold midwinter night. “As the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap.”

The opening pages are reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage: an inn on the Thames not far from Oxford, the potential for flooding and even a baby placed in the care of nuns. But that baby is not the focus of attention. Instead, the regular drinkers at the Swan – gravel-diggers, cressmen, bargemen – are startled by the arrival of a half-drowned, injured stranger, carrying what at first is taken for a puppet but is soon discovered to be the body of a four-year-old girl. There’s a further shock when nurse and midwife Rita (the nunnery orphan, now adult) discovers, after an improbable length of time and against all initial evidence, that the little girl is alive.

Who is she? As we meet the cast of characters, we learn of three competing claims. Is she Amelia, stolen from her wealthy parents, the Vaughans, two years ago? Is she Alice, daughter of the negligent Robin Armstrong, drowned by her desperate mother? Is she Ann, sister of Lily White, a disturbed young woman who’s been persuaded that she’s responsible for her sibling’s death? The child, recovering, remains mute, offering no clues to her identity. Soon after the rescue she is taken to live with Antony Vaughan and his fragile wife Helena; yet this happens so early in the tale that we know there must be more to unravel, and she remains “the girl” throughout the narrative. Only Bess Armstrong with her “seeing eye” detects what the girl really wants, though readers are unlikely to guess the final surprise.

While we engage with various characters, the links between them become apparent, twining and tightening. It’s an atmospheric and compelling tale of love, loss and loyalty which in spite of its playfulness will engross readers in the stories of reluctant lovers Rita and Daunt, in the anguish of the troubled Lily and in kindly Robert Armstrong’s search for his missing granddaughter. And who could resist a man who grieves for an intelligent pig, stolen from him two years ago and still sorely missed? As the pages thinned I found myself not wanting the story to end, but Setterfield kindly dismisses us: "It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?"

Bridget Collins won the Branford Boase prize for her first young adult novel, The Traitor Game, and went on to publish six more for that age group, but without making the impact her talents deserve. This, her first adult novel, has been published with a great splash, immediately reaching the bestseller lists. The premise is a clever and beguiling one: binding someone's memories into a book is a way of permanently removing guilt or trauma. Permanently, that is, unless the books are burned ... And the "binding", we realise, isn't always for the sufferer's benefit. The setting is - like Setterfield's - in a world both like and unlike ours, vaguely Victorian, and in what could be Hardy's Wessex; there's enough sexual abuse, corruption and manipulation to keep the bookbinders fully occupied. Books themselves - especially those that have been sold, rather than kept hidden in locked cupboards or vaults - are viewed with suspicion. "They're people's lives ... Stolen. Sucked out. It's a kind of magic ... a dirty, sordid kind of magic."

The three-part structure starts in the middle. A young man, Emmett Farmer, is recruited as apprentice to an elderly female bookbinder, Seredith, who recognises in him the necessary gift. Learning the crafts of tooling, marbling and finishing (gorgeously described), he doesn't penetrate to the heart of the mystery until he's sent to the home of the Darnays, where he discovers that one of several books destined for their vault has his own name on it.

To discover why he's been 'bound', we return to his family home, where a love triangle develops - so tenderly, yearningly told - between Emmett, aristocrat idler Lucian Darnay and Emmett's sister Alta. Bridget Collins is wonderful on the tentative approaches and withdrawals, the shy glances, the misgivings and self-doubts of sexual attraction. Forbidden love, that staple of romantic fiction, acquires a new potency here through our awareness that only one - or, initially, none - of the participants is aware of what's happened between them. The idea of brainwashing, more commonly found in science fiction or political dystopias, is given unusual and powerful treatment here. If you knew that you'd been 'bound', and there was a way of recovering your lost memories, would you choose to? Or would the fear that you'd committed some terrible crime persuade you to remain in ignorance?

As the story gathers pace and urgency it raises issues of repression and self-knowledge, power and abuse. With its lushness and emotional sweep and the tight focus on the youthful main characters, on emerging sexuality and defiance of conventions set by elders, this captivating story could have continued Bridget Collins' impressive run of teenage novels. But the switch to adult fiction has successfully - and immediately - brought her storytelling prowess to a wide and appreciative audience.

Once Upon a River is published by Doubleday.
The Binding is published by The Borough Press.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth and TROUBLES by J G Farrell

"At this uncertain time of questioning or trumpeting the RuleBritannia mythology, a good moment to revisit two novels about faded glory..."

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. This year, 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.'

At this uncertain time of questioning or trumpeting the RuleBritannia mythology, a good moment to revisit two novels about faded glory.

‘On the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy there were at that time many men of Kapturak’s sort.’ [He’s a cynical businessman.] ‘All around the old Empire they started to circle like those cowardly black birds that can see someone dying from an enormous distance…No one knows where they come from, or where they’re bound. They are the feathered brothers of Death, his heralds, his companions and his camp followers.’

Joseph Roth’s novel chronicles the slow decline of a great empire through the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, taking its title from the march composed by Johann Strauss Junior in 1848 to celebrate the Austrian army’s recent Pyrrhic victory over their insurgent Italian subjects in Piedmont which marked the beginning of the end of Austrian supremacy in the Italian peninsula. Roth described the march, which became an unofficial national anthem and a favourite of the army, known for their impractical white uniforms and Ruritanian incompetence, as ‘the Marseillaise of conservatism’. Here he explores the delusions and misprisions which underpin the clinging of a people to the mendacious fantasies of their questionable past glories.

The book opens on the battlefield at Solferino as a silvery noonday sun breaks through the grey-blue haze separating the opposed armies. The first Trotta, an infantry lieutenant from an obscure village in Serbia, heroically saves the life of the Emperor by stopping a sniper’s bullet with his own shoulder. He’s awarded the army’s highest military honour and ennobled to Baron, a title which makes him feel decidedly uncomfortable. He dissuades his son, who is more drawn to the social distinction the inherited title will confer, from joining the military, seeking to alert him to the vanity of mere rank. However, the second baron encourages his own son to join the cavalry and indulge in the snobbish high status with which that will invest him.

Defeat in WW1 reduces the great sprawl of royal and imperial Austro-Hungary to a by-water, a tawdry parish, the once brilliant capital Vienna a truncated relic of its grandiose past, poverty for most, a slump into Weltschmerz and apathy for the glitterati. Whereas in Berlin they say ‘situation serious but not desperate’ the insouciant Viennese say ‘desperate but not serious’.

Roth delivers a work of intense narrative power, a brilliant evocation of that era of transition between the lost, imagined glory, and the deflated pomp, a penetrating insight into the human condition, the ant negotiating a mogul field of molehills.

JG Farrell’s Troubles, set in Ireland, begins where Roth’s novel ends, in the fraught atmosphere of 1919, when the infamous Black and Tans joined the fight against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence. Asked about his choice of historical context, Farrell said: ‘the reason why I preferred to use the past is that, as a rule, people have already made up their minds what they think about the present. About the past they are more susceptible to clarity of vision’. Current trumpery purveyed in the ‘take back control’ clamour would suggest otherwise.

Major Archer, returned from the war, arrives at the Majestic Hotel on the coast of Wexford, in south-eastern Ireland, as a guest, hopeful of confirming engagement to a woman he met on leave. Her father, the elderly owner, Edward Spencer, is the last scion of an old Anglo-Irish landowning family, Unionist in politics and, like the building he occupies, ‘beginning to go to pieces’. For the hotel itself is dilapidated, an anachronism, a toppling bastion of colonial power. The Protestant Spencers are, necessarily, at odds with the Catholics of the village in which the hotel is situated, but, more significantly, represent a doomed outpost of British rule in an Ireland of increasingly strident calls for liberation. Locals throwing stones to smash the windows. The threat of impending violence swirls - the gathering menace of Sinn Féin - and, in the dying pages of this fine elegiac novel, the imperious edifice of the Majestic Hotel succumbs to fire: ‘…the ceiling of the writing room descended with an appalling crash, ridden to the floor by the grand piano from the sitting room above. For hours afterwards a white fog of plaster hung in the corridors through which the inhabitants of the Majestic flitted like ghosts, gasping feebly’. It’s as though the besotted dream of the heyday is rent in cackling mockery of the benighted souls who’ve clung to its thin pretence for so long, refusing to see through its tatters.

The Radetzky March is published by Granta.
Troubles is published by New York Review of Books.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Guest review by Anna Wilson: UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver

Anna Wilson started out as a picture book editor at Macmillan Children’s Books and went on to be an editor at HarperCollins. She has also freelanced for several years as a fiction editor for Bloomsbury, Puffin and Hachette children’s book publishers. Her writing career began twenty years ago with a picture book, published for very young children. Since then Anna has published over 38 books for children and young teens including picture books, short stories, poems and fiction series. Her books have been chosen for World Book Day and been shortlisted for the Hull Libraries Award and the Lancashire Book of the Year Award. Anna’s recent young fiction series Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire is published by Stripes. Her memoir Missing the Boat is her first adult book.

Anna also gives talks, runs writing workshops in schools and teaches at Bath Spa University on the BA and MA creative writing courses and is a tutor for the Arvon Foundation.

Unsheltered contains two interlinking stories, both set in and around the same house in Vineland, New Jersey and both containing elements taken from real life events. One storyline takes place in 2016 as Trump (referenced as ‘The Bullhorn’ rather than by name) is banging his fist on the campaign-trail podium; the other unfolds in 1871 when Vineland was a community conceived as a Christian utopia by the landowner Charles Landis to give shelter to citizens shaken by the aftermath of the civil war. Kingsolver skilfully interweaves these stories, using the house as a metaphor for ideas built on shaky foundations and for the collapse of ideals and mores taken for granted in both the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries. If this makes the novel sound dry, there are far more ingredients to whet the appetite. This is, at heart, a story of two individuals struggling against similar themes in eras which turn out to be not so different from one another as they might at first appear.

The novel starts in 2016 with Willa Knox. Willa is a woman with more than her fair share of problems: she has inherited a house which, we learn in the first line of the novel, is in such poor shape, ‘The simplest thing would be to tear it down.’ Not only this, but her academic husband Iano has recently lost tenure, forcing the family to move into the ‘shambles’ of a house, her heartbroken adult daughter has come back from Cuba in need of shelter and Willa’s son’s wife has committed suicide, leaving a new born baby in need of love and care. Willa is also caring for her ailing and cantankerous father-in-law. Willa and Iano have worked hard all their lives to provide for their family, but this is not enough. As Willa says, ‘It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore’. But she is strong (at times, perhaps, unbelievably so) and manages to keep her head while all about her, including, one could argue, the house, are losing theirs. She is a journalist and puts her powers of investigation to good use in digging into the archives to find out if the house can benefit from a preservation grant to stop it falling down.

Back in 1871, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has moved into the house with his new bride and has taken up a post at the local school. He soon runs into problems when he dares to mention Darwin’s theory of evolution in class – something which goes very much against the accepted orthodoxy of the Christian community. He finds solace in friendship with his neighbour, the ‘amateur’ naturalist Mary Treat. Treat, like Landis and his Vineland community, really did exist in 1870s New Jersey and Kingsolver had the benefit of sifting through an incredible amount of correspondence between Treat and Darwin when writing her novel. Nineteenth century Vineland’s blinkered reactions to advances in science versus the accepted status quo tally well with the backdrop to a twenty-first century America which lauds a man who could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him’. Indeed, this comment is mirrored by the storyline that unfolds around the real-life murder from which Landis escaped conviction in 1871.

Sometimes split narratives can be unsatisfactory: readers can find themselves preferring one over the other and skipping ahead to get to the story that holds their attention more. I didn’t feel this way, as both Thatcher and Willa held me captive. My only criticism would be that Kingsolver likes to push a point home and sometimes uses her characters as speechifiers, allowing them to stand on their soap boxes for a beat too long. I felt this particularly in the conversations between Willa’s son and daughter who have chosen opposing routes in life: the one as a capitalist wealth-maker, the other as a hippy dreadlock-wearing drop-out. However, the novel ends on a gentle, hopeful note and I was sad to say goodbye to both strands of the story and the engaging characters that people it.

Unsheltered is published by Faber & Faber.