Monday, 10 August 2020

Guest review by Katherine Langrish: THE GOLDEN RULE by Amanda Craig

"The novel is about relationships destructive and supportive, and learning to see people for what they truly are..."

Photograph by Jo Cotterill

Katherine Langrish is the author of a number of historical fantasies including the trilogy West of the Moon, anDark Angels (Harper Collins). Her most recent book is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (The Greystones Press), a collection of essays on folklore and fairy tales based on her award-winning blog of the same name.

In the middle of a bitter divorce triggered by her husband’s affair, struggling to support herself and her five year-old daughter while working as a cleaner, Hannah is forced to spend money she hasn’t got on a railfare to Cornwall to visit her dying mother. Hot and thirsty in the standing-room-only carriage, her luck seems to change when rich, elegant Jinni invites her into the air-conditioned first class and offers her chilled water, chilled white wine – and confidences. Strangers on a train, the women have more in common than appearances suggest: they both feel like killing their husbands. When Jinni suggests that if they swap victims they could get away with it, Hannah agrees. But nothing is quite what it seems. Meshed in a web only partly of her own making, Hannah soon doesn’t know which way to turn.

This was a novel I really couldn’t put down, and not only for the strong story-telling. Amanda Craig has a cool eye for social nuances: the comfort mixed with prickling disquiet of fitting back into family and community you’ve tried to leave behind, the hurtful, casual ignorance of rich folk about what it’s like to be poor, the vitriolic exchanges of marriages gone sour. There’s also a wonderful sense of place and identity: the Cornish countryside and people in all their contradictory moods.

Above all the novel is about relationships destructive and supportive, and learning to see people for what they truly are. Since not being fooled by appearances is a fairy tale theme, it gave me great pleasure to discover the briar-rose tendrils of more than one fairy tale twining through the narrative, and references to children’s literature too. The classic book Green Smoke has captured the imagination of Hannah’s little daughter Maisie: all about a friendly Cornish dragon, who lives in a cave. But of course caves and dragons can be dangerous…

As I reached the end I realised that the writer with whose work I’m most drawn to compare The Golden Rule is Daphne du Maurier. She too told strong stories with strong characters in strong, often Cornish settings: her books live and are loved. Du Maurier has sometimes been belittled as a Gothic novelist, though why ‘Gothic’ should be regarded as in any way derogatory I do not know: frankly what was good enough for Charlotte and Emily Bronte ought to be good enough for anyone. Richly textured, modern, contemporary, literary, The Golden Rule  treads confidently in their footsteps.

The Golden Rule is published by Little, Brown.

See also: The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig, reviewed by Adele Geras

Monday, 3 August 2020

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: THE STORY OF THE BRITISH ISLES IN 100 PLACES by Neil Oliver

'The author declares, "This is my love letter to the British Isles." It's this emotional response that makes the book such an engaging read.' 

Ann Turnbull has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a young adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at

I've long been a fan of Neil Oliver's archaeology programmes on TV, but had not read any of his books until I was given this one for Christmas. 
It's a large, heavy hardback of over four hundred pages. I read it slowly, a chapter a day, looking up map references and photographs, and feeling frankly astonished that there were so many places in Britain that I'd never visited, and some I'd never even heard of. This is not a travel guide, although it will inspire readers to visit many of these places. It is very much Neil Oliver's personal response to the wonders of the British Isles.

He describes how all the islands were once part of a great land mass that later separated from continental Europe. The book is arranged chronologically, and the first chapter takes us to Happisburgh in Norfolk where, in 2013, archaeologists found the footprints of five people - two adults and three children - who were walking there in the mud some 950,000 years ago. I remember seeing a reconstruction of these footprints in an exhibition at the British Museum - the adults moving forward, the children criss-crossing as they scampered about. When the people (who were not Homo Sapiens) walked here, these islands were still joined to continental Europe. Aeons had passed before the events in the next story, the cave burial of the so-called 'Red Lady' of Paviland - a young man who died about 34,000 years ago.

The story progresses through time, between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Here are rock carvings, axes, henges, ships, castles, bridges, churches, battlefields, an ancient tree, and even a chapter about an unknown place: the site of the Battle of Brunanburh - a critical battle, which ensured the permanent divide between Scotland and England. The people of Britain are here too: Captain Cook, Mary Anning, King Alfred, the Brontes, Robert Burns, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Penlee lifeboatmen, and many more.

The book ends at Dungeness on the Kent coast - a final chapter drawing the threads together, in which the author declares, "This is my love letter to the British Isles." It's this emotional response that makes the book such an engaging read.

The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is published by Bantam Press.

Monday, 27 July 2020

FOURTH ANNIVERSARY: a special Q&A with Celia Rees about her new novel, MISS GRAHAM'S COLD WAR COOKBOOK

"There is a definite magic in that first moment when the ideas begin to swarm together ..."

Celia Rees is a leading writer for Young Adults with an international reputation. Her titles include Witch Child (shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize), Sorceress (shortlisted for the Whitbread - now Costa - Children's Book Award), Pirates!, Sovay and Glass Town Wars. The chance discovery of an old family cookery book has now taken her writing in a new and different direction. In 2012, she began researching and writing her first novel for adults, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, out now. Here she answers questions from Adèle Geras and Linda Newbery. 
Twitter: @CeliaRees Instagram: @celiarees1

Linda: The idea of using recipes to conceal coded messages is such a clever one, used to brilliant effect throughout. How did you think of it?

Celia: I found a battered old cookery book among my mother's effects and was both intrigued and moved by the handwritten recipes that I found inside. I recognised my mother's writing, my aunt's and what I took to be my grandmother's but I'd never seen the book before. It was pre-war and must have belonged to my grandmother, then passed to my aunt and on to my mother who must have kept it when my aunt died. I'd been executor for both my aunt and my mother and had found no letters. These recipes were the only written connection between these women. There was something I wanted to write about in that but I didn't know what it could be. Years later, I was in the Imperial War Museum with my daughter. We discovered that the British Zone in Post War Germany had been a hotbed of spying. My aunt had been there. Could she have been a spy? On the surface, the idea was ridiculous. My respectable, Head Mistress maiden aunt a spy? But then again, it was perfectly possible. She had led a bit of a hidden life... If she was a spy, how would she pass on messages? I thought of the handwritten recipes passing between women. The two ideas connected and I knew I had a book.

Adèle: Apart from the personal link of the recipe book, can you identify what it was that drew you to the story of some of the things that went on both before and more especially after the War? It's not a subject I've seen written about before.

Celia: I began to research Germany in the immediate post war period and was shocked by the utter chaos: the widespread physical destruction, the lack of even the most basic foodstuffs and the millions of displaced persons there from all over Europe. The Germans call midnight on 8th May, 1945, 'Stunde Null' - Zero Hour. In and amongst all this, there were Nazi fugitives hiding in plain sight. They were being hunted but not always to be brought to justice. The Allies were looking for useful Nazis even before the war ended, not just rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun, but others, too. Anyone who might be useful because the world was turning, the Cold War starting and Germany was the country where the erstwhile Allies met. I found this intensely interesting. By one of those chance things, on a visit to the Jewish Museum in Paris, I saw a chilling group photograph of doctors and nurses lined up outside a hospital, a mental facility, part of the Euthanasia Project which was devoted to systematically killing patients deemed 'a life unworthy of life'. I knew almost nothing about this and found it deeply shocking and I thought it should be more widely known.

Linda: How did you find the confidence to write about this period and these settings, with so much complexity involving the different factions, protocols and motives? What was the most difficult thing to find out?

Celia: I did a lot of reading and didn't start writing until I felt I was in command of at least the basic facts and knew where to go if I needed to know more. The most difficult things to find out were the details of the day to day lives of the people living and working in Germany. There are plenty of books about various aspects of Post War Germany but not many which tell you how much the butter ration was or how a billet was organised. I had to go to the Imperial War Museum and read the letters and diaries of women working for the Control Commission. The food was difficult, too: finding menus, dishes, recipes. I'd set myself a bit of a challenge with that!

Adèle: This novel is what's known as multilayered. Several time frames, quite a few different narratives going on at the same time. Did this give you any particular problems? Did you go through various versions before arriving at the ideal order?

Celia: I didn't have a problem with the framing device, that was always set. If I had a problem, it wasn't so much with the order of events but the order of telling, especially the flashbacks, which couldn't be jettisoned because they carried vital backstory that the reader needed to know. The trick is to know where to put them, then weave them into the thought patterns of the close third person narration in a way that seems entirely natural and doesn't disrupt the main narrative thrust. That took a bit of working. For a while I had a reader who didn't like flashbacks and that made things difficult!

Adèle: One of the things I most love about this book (and indeed about all your writing!) is the care and love you give to things like descriptions of clothes and settings. Did you have to fight editors about keeping this detail intact? In my experience, they sometimes want to cut a lot of that.

Celia: We share that, Adèle. I love all those details. There was a brilliant exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, Fashion on the Ration and a great book to go with it by Julie Summers and that was a huge help. It's strange how things like that pop up just when you need them. I like researching clothes and makeup. It's fun and I can spent all afternoon on the internet chasing down the right hairstyle or shade and make of lipstick, but these kinds of details help to accurately evoke the period. Clothes, hairstyles, makeup, jewellery, accessories are important in other ways, too. They tell you a lot about the woman wearing them and at a time when so much was rationed, where and how she acquired them tells you what is going on at street level. I didn't have too much trouble from my editors. Luckily, they could see the value of that kind of detail.

Linda: In similar vein, I was struck by the scenes of utter devastation in the cities and suburbs - you describe them so vividly. Were these derived from photographs and first-hand accounts, and where did you find them?

Celia: My aunt had photographs of ruined cities and ships half submerged in harbours. Some she'd sent to my mother, so I remember seeing them as a child, others I found in her effects. There are plenty more on the internet. One thing people did was take photographs of the devastation. Touring the ruins was quite the thing to do. I also found eye witness accounts of Hamburg and Berlin, so I had those for reference.

Adèle: Is the Swiss hotel based on a real hotel?

Celia: Yes, it is. The Beau Rivage Palace. I haven't been there but it looks fabulous! I bought a vintage post card and trawled their website. The wonders of the internet!

Linda: You obviously visited Lübeck for research - did you visit other settings for the novel, for instance Vipiteno Sterzing?

Celia: I did visit Lübeck, also Hamburg and Berlin but I didn't get to Vipiteno Sterzing. Again, internet to the rescue: tourist information and TripAdvisor, also Google Maps and Google Earth. I did cheat a little bit and put a lake where there is no lake...

Linda: Often, when a writer is researching, something crops up that's a gift to the plot, or that's useful thematically. Did you come across any unexpected bonuses of that kind?

Celia: There is a definite magic in that first moment when the ideas begin to swarm together. After that, you are on a journey and it is remarkable how things pop up, exhibitions that are on just the right subject, a chance find in a bookshop or the person you just randomly met and who is actually from Lübeck and whose aunt and uncle still live there and would love to show you round the city. The most surprising the thing was how my aunt's seemingly unremarkable life and character lent itself so perfectly to this kind of novel, especially when I found a box of bullets hidden in her writing case. I took that as a Sign! Maybe she had been a spy after all...

Adèle: If this became a movie (which it should!) who would play Dori, Edith, Kurt and Harry? (Ps. I know who I'd like to play Elisabeth: was in The Night Manager.)

Celia: Endless hours of idle speculation... Well, and they are a bit disparate but I think Anna Maxwell Martin would make a good Edith, Rachel Weisz as Dori, Thomas Kretschmann as Kurt, Cate Blanchett as Elisabeth (although, agree Elizabeth Debicki if Cate unavailable) and Ben Whishaw as Harry - I had a photo of him pinned to my board!

Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook is published by Harper Collins.

Photograph of Celia Rees at Compton Verney, by Linda Newbery. Compton Verney is the setting for many a conversation about books in progress, and also where Writers Review was first hatched, four years ago.

Monday, 20 July 2020

FOURTH ANNIVERSARY round-up: our Books of the Year (so far), by Adèle Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery

Now we are four! That's four years' worth of great reviews and recommendations, all by authors or independent booksellers. Huge thanks to all those who contribute - we couldn't do it without you. Here Adele Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery choose their favourite reads of the year so far (not necessarily newly-published).  


All three of us could have chosen The Mirror and the Light, but Adèle bagged it first ...
Adèle: The timing of this novel's publication was fortunate. It came out in March, just before lockdown and it's been keeping thousands of readers happy for a very long time. I thought I was going to race through it, because I'd loved both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but it took me weeks because I was so bound up in following the pandemic as it unrolled that I only read it at night, in short sessions. Everything you've read about it is true: it's a wonderfully exciting story written in the most dazzling prose by a writer at the height of her powers. The word that kept coming into my mind was 'richness.'  There's an abundance of everything and I do think it ought to have been shorter, but overall it's a marvel. I compare it to Christmas pudding, which is one of my favourite desserts. I adore it, especially with brandy butter, but can only ever eat one helping at a time. It's very rich, just like this book.


Linda: The Garden of Vegan, by top garden designer Cleve West, could have been written specially for me. Increasingly, alongside his high-profile design career, Cleve puts his energies into campaigning for animals. His book covers so much of importance: green gardening, animal welfare, sustainability, veganism, simple appreciation of wildlife and our environment. I hope it'll find its way into the RHS shops and be recommended in gardening magazines.

Diary of a Young Naturalist  by Dara McAnulty is another delight. Dara is an autistic teenager from Northern Ireland whose blogging about wildlife and the threats it faces has attracted support from Chris Packham and Robert Macfarlane. He records his fifteenth year in close and eloquent observations of the natural world in which he finds both intense joy and escape from his social difficulties, including being badly bullied at school. A wildlife presenter and campaigner for the future? “This churning in me, it’s got to go somewhere."


Adèle:  Magpie Lane has been one of the Books of the Lockdown and I take some of the credit for its success because I've been Tweeting about it like mad, and retweeting every word of praise of it I find. I raced through it, ('s a frying onions you hold in one hand as you cook!) and have subsequently read Lucy Atkins' previous novel, The Night Visitor, which is also very good indeed. I was attracted to Magpie Lane because it's set in Oxford in the house of a Master of a College and it involves elements of the Gothic and a narrator who may or may not be unreliable but is certainly spellbinding. It's also a love story and a mystery. I adored it and can't wait to read Atkins' next novel.


Celia: I have to confess to not having read much during lockdown. A lot of my reading was taken up by The Mirror and The Light which Adèle snaffled. Pre-Covid, most of my reading time was spent gobbling up Mick Herron's Slough House Series. Mick Herron makes John Le Carré's spies and spymasters look like James Bond and Q.  The novels have their own argot with Suits and Stoats, Dogs and Achievers and the eponymous Slow Horses who are are stabled at Slough House in a grimy, grungy area of London far from their Secret Services' HQ in Regent's Park. They are a bunch of cock up merchants and misfits with drug, alcohol and anger issues, working under the jaundiced eye of Jackson Lamb who supervises them toiling over a never ending stream of totally pointless tasks that have been set in the hope that they will give up, resign and therefore not qualify for redundancy. They are there because they do not follow orders and in each book it is this that saves the day. 

Through the series, Mick Herron explores and uncovers the devious, back stabbing duplicity, chicanery, cover-ups and mendacious ruthlessness of modern British political life. From a boy hunted because of something he should not have seen involving a  Royal, to Brexit and the underhand doings of a ruthless senior politician who hides his true nature behind blustering, boyish bonhomie, this is the nearest thing we have to a satire of our times. The books are constantly unsettling: achingly funny scenes become shockingly violent and visa versa. There are many reversals of fortune for the Slow Horses and Mick Herron is as casually violent with his characters as they are as spies. There is also a reverse morality. Jackson Lamb who appears to have no moral sense is true to his Joes - his agents. Those above them are exposed as having no moral compass at all. I must confess to feeling rather bereft when I finished Joe Country, which I thought was the last in the series but a quick look on Amazon shows me he's published another one, Slough House. I missed that in all this Covid business  - I'm off to order it now.


Linda: The Golden Rule, Amanda Craig's new novel, kept me hooked with its twistiness, its likeable, brave central character, Hannah, and its mainly Cornish setting. Gothic overtones of Jane Eyre and Beauty and the Beast combine with a plot that owes something to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. As always, Amanda Craig is sharp on details of rural poverty and class inequality. Equally gripping was Celia Rees' impressive first adult novel, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook - more next week, in a special Q&A with Celia to mark publication.


Adèle:  This is not the done thing at all: reviewing a book by a friend of yours, but I've done it for years and I will defend my right to put before readers books that I enjoy, whether I happen to know the writer or not. Mostly, the same few books get into everyone's hands so when I can recommend a book I know many, many people will love, I do so whether I know the writer or not. The Secrets Between Us, by Judith Lennox, shares with Judith's other novels a wonderful sense of time and place and a story about relationships which all of us can understand and appreciate. She's also very good at houses and clothes and details of every kind, which I really appreciate. In this book, a woman discovers after his death that her husband had a second, entirely other family....I'm not saying any more than that, for fear of spoilers. It's set in and around the Second World War and that adds to the drama. There's love and anguish and disappointment and triumph. I think it's terrific.


Linda: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, had been on my wish list for ages, since I kept seeing it recommended on various people's life lists. Lockdown was the perfect time to read it - or rather listen to the audio version, read by David Horovitch (translated by Archibald.Colquhoun). Set in 1860s Sicily, it's the story of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio, in his mid-40s and presiding over his family and wealthy estate. The rise of Garibaldi and the move towards unification threaten the luxurious way of life he's loth to change, yet he sees potential to adapt in his young soldier nephew, Tancredi. In some ways Don Fabrizio isn't an admirable character, but his reflections, self-justifications and thoughts of the future, together with sumptuous descriptions of palaces, social gatherings and the sweltering summer landscape, make for a compelling read.

Finally, Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell. Until I started it I'd have thought that Hilary Mantel had the Women's Prize in the bag for The Mirror and the Light, but this must surely be an equally serious contender (and I should add that there are three shortlisted titles I haven't yet read). It's a sensuous, intense imagining of the life of Shakespeare's wife, Agnes - relating her first meeting with the man only ever referred to as 'the tutor', 'the son', 'the husband', and the death of their son, Hamnet, at the age of eleven. Rich with detail of domestic life and with searing insight into love, death and grief, this is a joy from the start to its perfectly-pitched ending.

What are your best reads of the year so far? Please tell us in the comments!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, reviewed by Celia Rees

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, reviewed by Anne Cassidy

Monday, 13 July 2020

FOURTH ANNIVERSARY special guest: Amanda Craig, with THE FELIX TRILOGY by Joan Aiken

"Joan Aiken was not only a prolific author for adults as well as children, she was also a uniquely gifted one"

Amanda Craig is a novelist, short-story writer and critic. After a brief time in advertising and PR, she became a journalist for newspapers including The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, winning both the Young Journalist of the Year and the Catherine Pakenham Award. She still reviews children’s books for New Statesman and literary fiction for The Observer, but is mostly a full-time novelist. Her seventh novel, Hearts And Minds, was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, and her eighth, The Lie of the Land, was a Radio 4 Book At Bedtime. Her new novel, The Golden Rule, is inspired by both Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train and the fairy-tale of Beauty and the Beast.

When a writer becomes famous for one book, it’s a kind of curse. Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is so well-known that its publication in 1962 has tended to overshadow the over 100 other books she wrote in her lifetime.

Yes, Joan Aiken was not only a prolific author for adults as well as children, she was also a uniquely gifted one, writing ghost stories, fairy-tales, romances and thrillers. The TLS praised her “wild imagination”, which is a rather double-edged compliment and not, in fact, correct. Though deeply influenced by the Gothic, Aiken was a formidably disciplined and inspired story-teller whose elegant prose is as instantly recognisable as it is witty and beautiful. The daughter of the Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Conrad Aiken she had a poet’s eye, but also a dry sense of humour and a rare common sense.

Although the twelve-volume ‘Wolves’ sequence takes place in an alternative eighteenth century in which James the Third is the King, the Felix trilogy is set after the Peninsular War of 1807–1814 and sticks to our own history. The first book, Go Saddle the Sea, is narrated by a boy who is, as far as he knows, the illegitimate son of a British officer in Wellington’s army and a Spanish noblewoman, both deceased.

When we first meet Felix, he is running away from his cold, rigid grandfather in Castille. His spiteful aunt Isadora makes his life a misery, he hates his boring lessons and the only people who have given him love and warmth, Bob the crippled English groom and Bernadina the cook, are dead. He determines to go to England and, with nothing more than an indecipherable letter and a battered copy of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey to help him, seek out his father’s family.

The idea of a small, blond twelve-year-old boy crossing the gigantic mountainous Picos de Europa with just an obstinate mule and his own wits to aid him is irresistible, and so is Felix himself. Small and repeatedly told that he looks “like a day-old chick,” his only gift is for music and making friends. Humorous, unswervingly courageous and kind he changes the fortunes of everyone else he encounters. He stumbles on a lethal feud between two mountain villages, and by helping a poor man in his desperate pilgrimage to ask for a saint’s help to cure his paralysed little daughter, both cures the child and prevents murder. Escaping corrupt officials and superstitious villagers, rescuing pigs in a flood, avoiding bandits and shipwreck are all part of his adventures. Throughout, his odyssey is as much internal as external as the mischievous child becomes a man; in Go Bridle the Wind, he rescues a girl disguised as a boy who becomes the love of his life. Felix’s fictional DNA seems to be in every boy hero one encounters in contemporary authors of the quality of Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Anthony McGowan, Tanya Landman and Cressida Cowell, but his charm is unique. You can see something of it when, told by a priest that he has been brought by God’s will to a place, Felix says,

“I thought he was probably right, and I felt very friendly disposed towards God, Who had put this notion of scaring off the murderers into my head, and Who must have enjoyed the joke as much as I had. It now struck me that Father Tomas, who had so often told me so often that God hated my wicked ways, very likely had the wrong notion of God altogether, and I wondered this had not occurred to me before since Father Tomas had been wrong on so many other points, and it struck me, too, how often a dark, dismal, and frightening idea is believed above a cheerful and hopeful one.”

Who can resist such ebullience? He eventually discovers he is both an English Duke and a Spanish nobleman, but the real treasures are those of love and honour.

Set in the same period as Sharpe’s War and Poldark, it seems inexplicable that nobody has turned The Felix Trilogy into a TV series. Packed with drama, high emotion and great characters, it would make an outstanding television drama for adults as well as children. But above all, it should be reissued and read by a new generation.

It is simply too good to lose.

The Felix Trilogy is published by Puffin.

See also: The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig, reviewed by Adele Geras

Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Monday, 6 July 2020

Guest review by Graeme Fife: WHAT A CARVE UP! by Jonathan Coe

"This exceptional novel is funny, shocking, merciless. But there is great tenderness in it, too ... "

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. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, is published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy 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.'

Some reflections on satire.

The acidulous Roman poet Juvenal, a satirist of ferocious bile, no great smiler, described the subject matter of his work as a farrago of all human activity – wishes, fears, anger, pleasures, joys – and the Latin word satura, meaning a hodge podge stew, seems to have some radical links with satire itself. Jonathan Swift spoke of the driving force of his own satire as saeva indignatio, savage, as in wild beast, indignation as in rage at the unworthy. Imagine the satirist’s tools as medical instruments: the scalpel of intelligence, the lancet of insight, the defibrillating pads of indignation and the saline drip of laughter, denounced by the tyrant King John – ‘that idiot, laughter…a passion hateful to my purposes’. O, how the swaggering, dimwit bully hates to be scoffed at. (White House: copy.)

To this design of scrutiny, the investigation of human corruption, enter Jonathan Coe, a writer of formidable skill, brio and intelligence. This exceptional novel is funny, shocking, merciless. But there is great tenderness in it, too, a tenderness expressed in the lives of certain of the characters who are unwittingly caught up in the main action of the story which centres on the activities, sinister and deeply immoral, of the members of two generations of the Winshaw family. Landed not-quite toffs, rich, unprincipled, influential and without a single Brownie point for decency among them.

You know, by now, that it is never my policy to outline the plot or substance of the narrative of a book. No spoilers. Simply, this is a glorious treat. The Winshaws form a gallery of grotesques, in the best tradition of all blistering satire from Aristophanes on. Coe holds nothing back in his dissection of grubby motive, calculating greed, shallow flamboyance, cynical exploitation, misuse and abuse of those whom they might call necessary victims of their manipulation, and if this begins to sound rather too bitter, be assured, the aloe of Coe’s fury is most adroitly sweetened with a generous frosting of riotous humour. It’s almost beyond me to restrain myself from quoting a particular example of that humour which packed such a jolt, a full volley of outrageous self-absorption, in one of the Winshaw nasties. No, you must find it yourself and enjoy the delicious moment, the shattered glass, as it were.

It’s not often that a novelist cites such an extended list of books – of reference and description – in the acknowledgements, but it’s very clear from the text itself, that Coe has carried out meticulous research into various areas which demand a high level of precision in the matter of the narrative and in the cruel detail of what is being perpetrated by the villains on whom the focus rests. The sale of arms, the corruption of the food chain, the lies, falsehoods and blatant contradictions of popular journalism, the contamination of morals, an undercurrent of mystery about the death of one of the Winshaw sons, all overlaid with the bilious sheen of hypocrisy, the ruthless profiteering…

The title comes from a film whose storyline frames the plot of the novel. It’s a trope of a connection but one with which Coe plays a mischievous game of hide and seek. Secret doors, labyrinthine subterranean passages, mirroring the devious miscreance of the family, in a Gothic pile stuck on a windswept moorland in Yorkshire, a decrepit butler who’s served the family for years, his crumbling physique pointing up their moral decadence, and an ageing maiden aunt, who may not be as daft as the family claim her to be, banged up in an institution by a malevolent brother.

Into the picture come innocents drawn in for various reasons, hapless, but not stupid, participants in the drama that clutches at them with grasping and fraudulent purpose, reckless criminality cocooned in the PPE of privilege and money, but insulated by their innocence. If the villainy doesn’t quite brush off them, it doesn’t cling and their very contrasting humdrum existence stands as a relieving foil to the dark antics of their would-be tormentors. It’s part of Coe’s deft brilliance that he avoids all sentimentality, that his characterisation is considered, rounded, truthful. Grotesques, I say, yes, but all entirely credible, if written large, as satire must always be to deliver the full force of dismay. Can people be so depraved? Is it really true that fortunes are made out of the misery of many by a grasping few? Do tyrants actually think along the lines of never missing the opportunity presented by a disaster? Is lapis lazulis blue?

Coe’s novel is a cracking story, a novel of great humanity, a perfect exemplar of the true satirist’s propulsion: saeva indignatio.

What a Carve Up! is published by Penguin.

More reviews by Graeme Fife:

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham
West of Sunset by Stuart O'Nan
Adolfo Kaminsky: a Forger's Life by Sarah Kaminsky
Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Monday, 29 June 2020

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT by Hilary Mantel, reviewed by Celia Rees

"I doubt I'll read a better book this year, or any year."

Celia Rees is a leading writer for Young Adults with an international reputation. Her titles include Witch Child (shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize), Sorceress, (shortlisted for the Whitbread - now Costa - Children's Book Award), Pirates!, Sovay and Glass Town Wars. The chance discovery of an old family cookery book has now taken her writing in a new and different direction. In 2012, she began researching and writing her first novel for adults, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, to be published by HarperCollins in July, 2020.
Twitter: @CeliaRees  instagram: @celiarees1

For me, Hilary Mantel is the consummate writers' writer. She has such great range from Beyond Black, through A Place of Greater Safety,  to the The Mirror and The Light, the final part of the Wolf Hall trilogyshe conducts daring experiments with style; her use of language is deft but precise and she effortlessly handles complex historical events and great casts of characters with consummate skill. There seems to be nothing she cannot do. In choosing to present real events and real people through the guise of fiction, she inevitably invites criticism from a certain historians, criticism she handles with panache and brio, as if to say, 'bring it on!' She lends courage and conviction to any writer of historical fiction. It is our right and our duty to shine a new light on what is known of the past, bring long dead time to life. 

Hilary Mantel
I studied Tudor history for 'A' level and at university. For me, Thomas Cromwell was a soulless bureaucrat, ruthless and machiavellian, responsible for the destruction of the monasteries and the death of Anne Boleyn. But worse than that, he was an uninteresting, shadowy, backroom figure, as colourless as his Holbein portrait, which might as well be in black and white. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy changed my view of him instantly and forever. The unusual use of the third person present tense, allowing the reader to be simultaneously both inside and outside his consciousness, brought him roaring into life. We enter into him, thinking with his mind; seeing with his eyes The details are provided by Hilary Mantel's immaculate and meticulously detailed research which is reflected through the mirror of her imagination and ruthlessly and perfectly tailored to the tale. There are no 'info dumps' here. The known facts are amplified by what could have happened, what was possible, what was likely. 

Thomas Cromwell - Hans Holbein 

The novel is framed by two executions. The first of Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantel takes the well known fact that Anne Boleyn was be-headed with a sword and makes it starkly graphic and very real by adding that sword was made fromToledo steel. Cromwell would know this, being the son of a blacksmith. In turn these two things, the death of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell's lowly origins, will be the cause of his downfall. The book abounds with these kinds of skillful interweavings, sometimes stretching between all three volumes. It is as carefully crafted and honed as sharp as the Toledo blade. 
Anne Boleyn
There is so much here. So much more I could say about The Mirror and The Light.  Mirrors and light flash throughout the novel. Speculum Justiciae, ora pro nobis – mirror of justice pray for us – is inscribed on the executioner's sword. This central exchange between Henry and Cromwell gives the book its title:

Your majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light to other kings. 
Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light.”

Henry is cast as a living specula principum, the model for all princes,when he is anything but and the image of the bloated and ageing King reflected back to him in the eyes of the the young Anne of Cleves is the moment of truth which causes her rejection and Cromwell's ultimate.demise.

It is is a long book, 882 pages, as dense and rich as chocolate ganache. It took me through the first weeks of the lockdown. I'm usually a fast reader but I found I could only read a bit at a time. To say I didn't want it to end would be an understatement. It is another testament to Hilary Mantel's skill that, although you knows what is going to happen, the end approaches with slow, inexorable heart-in-mouth dread. 

I doubt I'll read a better book this year, or any year. Thank you, Hilary Mantel.

The Mirror and the Light is published by Fourth Estate.

See also: A Place of Greater Safety reviewed by Jean Ure.