Monday, 14 June 2021

Guest review by Berlie Doherty: A ROOM MADE OF LEAVES by Kate Grenville

"Grenville is a terrific storyteller and has an unerring sense of descriptive language..."

Berlie Doherty
writes novels, plays, stories and poetry for all ages, and is translated into over twenty languages. She has written over 60 books, including her best-selling Street Child and much-loved Blue John, several of which have been dramatised for radio, television and the stage. She has won many awards including the Carnegie Medal twice (Dear Nobody and Granny was a Buffer Girl, both of which were set in Sheffield). Her subjects cover many different genres, from folk and fairy tales, ghost stories and love stories, fantasy and historical fiction to enduring contemporary family novels. She lived in Sheffield for many years and now lives in Edale.

You can visit her website at  

I only recently came across the Australian author Kate Grenville, through her wonderful book The Secret River, which must be one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in the last few years. Since then I’ve been catching up with her many other novels, and I was really pleased to know that she has recently published a new book, A Room Made of Leaves.

I was a little disconcerted at first when I understood from her preface that Kate Grenville hadn’t in fact written this book, but curated and edited it from an eighteenth century manuscript written by the wife of the infamous John Macarthur, a British soldier serving in a pioneer settlement in New South Wales. Kate Grenville read through the manuscript with some difficulty, as the handwriting was faded in parts and crosshatched to save paper. She says, I have not altered the manuscript in any way …

I was deluded for a short time.

In fact, the whole novel is about truth and deception, pretence and forbearance.

The focus of the novel is the relationship between the real life Elizabeth Macarthur and John Macarthur, known as the pioneer of the wool industry in Australia. He was by all accounts an unpleasant man who had the reputation of being quarrelsome to the point of being vindictive, and was highly ambitious.

As the novel begins, Elizabeth, the daughter of a Cornish clergyman, is clever, wilful, and sexually aware. A moment spent behind the hedge with a young John Macarthur shapes the rest of her life. She is pregnant, and is forced into the deceit of a loveless marriage from which there can be no escape. There is no more seduction, no more romantic love. Before the year is out the Macarthurs travel to Sydney. During the long, dreadful journey on the convict ship Elizabeth gives birth to her baby, who dies. On board the ship, her husband is arrogant, bullying, hateful and uncaring. All this is historically documented.

In a series of letters sent to her cousin and friends in England, the real Elizabeth related the course of the relationship, and the rise to power of her husband. In the novel, her letters are deceits, heavily disguising the emotional truth. Her husband disgusts her in every way, but because he reads her letters, she can only write the opposite.

The heroine is determined to make the most of her new life in the strange, hostile environment she has been brought to. The landscape is scrubby and harsh, with thick clumps of grass like sharp blades. Their crude dwelling is close to where the marines and convicts are placed:

There were times when the screams could be heard all over the settlement …. Hunger and desperation, anger and fear, loss and yearning for home, brought out all that was worst in everyone. It was a place of sniping and slander and barbed rumours ..

Later in the book Elizabeth has a secret sexual relationship with William Dawes, an astronomer and botanist who keeps himself apart from the marines and soldiers. His hideway is the room full of leaves, a place of calm and natural beauty, and here she finds relief from the sterility of her marriage and the loneliness of her situation. In her encounters with him she observes but never comes close to the First Nation women and children who are his frequent visitors.

A Room Full of Leaves is familiar territory to Grenville and her readers. We have visited the settlements before in The Secret River and The Lieutenant – and met some of the characters. Grenville is a terrific storyteller and has an unerring sense of descriptive language. Macarthur’s character is powerfully drawn; he is morally brutal, yet infantile. He has no understanding of his wife, yet she understands him completely. In her quiet way, she controls him.

However, I was disappointed. I didn’t have any real sense of the presence of the First Nations, mostly simply figures who stroll through the settlement and appear and disappear at will. In the same way, the convicts are merely there, as a backdrop, and even Mrs Brown, a convict maid who becomes a companion, tells us little about the unbearable situation that these settlers find themselves in. I also find it hard to believe in Elizabeth’s relationship with Dawes as a love relationship rather than as a sexual one.

Elizabeth herself is resilient and resourceful. In England at that time she could have graced the living-rooms of Jane Austen’s novels. But what does she do every day? What on earth must it be like to adjust to the demands of daily life in that alien landscape? She survives, she’s strong, she makes the most of her life and the farm that she has created. She loves it, in the end. But I don’t feel I know her. The novel has left me in awe of a superb writer, but still hungry.

You can read my review of Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War and Lilo Beil’s Shadow Time Stories in my blog

A Room Made of Leaves is published by Canongate.

It also features in a recent independent bookseller round-up, Her Story not His Story, by Madeleine Smith of P G Wells in Winchester.


Monday, 7 June 2021

Guest review by Graeme Fife: HOUSE OF GLASS - the Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family, by Hadley Freeman


"Staying alive is the great challenge but a challenge with untold emotional consequences, nor does it always end well ..."

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.'

When Hadley Freeman visited the apartment in Miami where her paternal grandmother, Sara, had died twelve years before, she was 28. Knowing that Sara had had a lifelong interest in fashion, Freeman, a staff fashion writer at the Guardian, thought there might be material for an article.

Then, at the back of one closet, under the gowns, a red shoebox. Another pair of ‘slightly battered kitten-heels sandals’? No. It was stuffed with photographs – family members known to her, others unknown – letters, memorabilia of her grandmother and three brothers…a scrappy piece of paper on which a pencil drawing, signed Avec amitié, Picasso…

Suddenly an article about fashion was blown away. Now she confronted a much bigger story: Jewish refugee from a Polish shtetl, fleeing hunt-and-kill-the-Jew pogroms after the First World War, settled in Paris, older brother a couturier, further exile in USA and marriage to a man she didn’t love, clinging to the sophistication of Paris, memory of an elegant woman who had seemed rather adrift…

Thus began some fifteen years of research for a memoir in which she had no confidence that it would be published, even read. She constantly asked herself: ‘Why should anyone be interested in my grandmother’s story when there are so many other stories out there?’

By her own admission, so much of the background she had to explore as the context for her grandmother’s story was unfamiliar. She, a Jew born in Manhattan, even had to Google Kristallnacht, one of the most notorious events in Nazi persecution of her people. I say her people because it very soon became apparent that a memoir centred on the life and experience of her grandmother, thence her parents, three brothers, cousins, also in Paris, must draw in an account of what happened to other Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe. Suddenly, the wider remit seemed unutterably daunting. How to garner all this? Her answer to anyone seeking advice in such a predicament – from her own methods, at first stumbling, gradually more assured – is: ‘seek help’. Professional friends assisted and encouraged, put her in touch with others who filled in gaps and indicated other avenues to pursue.

Having been very self-conscious about her lack of expertise, Freeman has shown herself to be an investigator of rare tenacity, acute instinct, intelligence and insight. She remains dismissive of this, but needlessly, for she has written a book meticulously researched and wonderfully light in touch. The closely observed detail never swamps the story.

For a long time she struggled with structure – so many elements to draw together, how to marshall them? Overcoming that difficulty, hard as it proved, results in a format which seems obvious, natural: four people, four temperaments, four pivotal events or circumstances affecting their fate. Moreover, from the individual narratives radiates the compelling, wider story of countless others caught up in the same horrors and moral perplexes.

At a time when denunciation, immanent danger, treachery are commonplace, misleading someone need not always be malicious; it may be the only means of by-passing naivety, ensuring safety. So, in one instance, here. It comes down to survival. Staying alive is the great challenge but a challenge with untold emotional consequences, nor does it always end well. Sara was unhappy, in a sorrow perpetuated by a deeper grief; nevertheless, her survival meant that Freeman herself could be born. Such realisation – of the sacrifices which lead to new life and vigour – doesn’t come without a toll and Freeman describes addressing certain chapters of the story as very painful, like ‘pushing at the bruise’. (The great French journalist, Albert Londres, described the journalist’s role as ‘sticking the pen nib in the wound’.)

This book is a triumph of balanced narrative, of emotional honesty, of integrity. When certain journalists and some in high office flex to their own vanity and lie and misconstruct for their own devious purposes, Freeman is honourable. She eschewed one story at request and gave members of her family power of deletion. Her father did delete…two identical adverbs.

Reconstructing a story to which you were neither eye nor ear witness risks charges of fabrication – of what was said, done, thought. Unless a writer evaluates what witnesses say impartially, sympathetically, perspective is limited. A memoir’s validity ultimately rests on the openness and self-effacement of the memoirist and this memoir rings true. I also applaud the plain-spoken, unsentimental, brisk prose style. It’s a wonderfully readable book, the characters are well-drawn, real, vital. The background sweep of historical context has a diaphanous clarity. This is a book for our time and for a whole people.

House of Glass is published by Fourth Estate

Graeme is a regular reviewer here. See more of his choices:

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan

Bright Day by J B Priestley

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon


Monday, 31 May 2021

Independent Bookseller feature no. 13: John Newman of The Newham Bookshop, IN MEMORY OF MEMORY by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale


"Part travelogue and part philosophical, social and historical enquiry, written with intelligence. wit and great perceptiveness."

John with colleague Vivian Archer
The Newham Bookshop was established in 1979 by local parents as part an educational charity, as a non-stigmatising gateway to literacy and numeracy support for adults and a source of income for the various projects. We have always been underpinned by values that are inclusive and which celebrate diversity. THE focus is on multiculturalism - valuing everyone and learning from each other in a vibrantly diverse part of East London. We are community-focused, supporting local and London-wide events, conferences and festivals.

I've personally been involved with the shop since the mid 80’s, first as an employee in 1989, then children’s buyer. Vivian Archer, manager since 1987, encouraged me to return to bookselling when John and Jean, stalwarts of the children’s shop, retired. I have never regretted the move for one moment and despite the almost ceaseless changes within the industry I never ever wake up reluctant to go to work! 

We've been supported by many authors over the years, with regular events and signings. One of our earliest and most important supporters was the late writer and compiler of oral histories Gilda O’Neill, who was always generous with her time and never missed an opportunity to point people in our direction. Benjamin Zephaniah and Michael Rosen have also been hugely supportive, giving us the confidence to develop the events which are now integral to our business. More recently we've enjoyed working with a host of locally-based authors, including Courttia Newland, Onjali Q. Rauf, Salena Godden, Irenosen Okoji, Vaseem Khan and Luan Goldie. It's a must for bookshops to cultivate relationships with authors and illustrators and develop ways of working together.

During these periods of enforced isolation over the last fourteen months I have found myself slowing down and as I have adapted to having less choice about how I spend both my working and social life. It has also occurred to me that I have rediscovered a sense of freedom to do two things I have not immersed myself in as thoroughly since childhood, namely being outside in nature and being inside with a book. I have had so much time to walk, read and reflect on both of these activities without distraction for long periods and it has been both a solace and a boon in these sad and difficult times. Suddenly books that I might have put aside to read later were being read and digested.

Into this unexpected space I received a proof copy of this particular book and I knew I wanted to revisit it when I was kindly asked to submit a review as I had found it both stimulating and engaging for a number of reasons. As a lover of books, it is difficult not to be drawn to Fitzcarraldo Editions, an imprint that takes its name from the typeset it uses and which houses pages between blue or white covers which just to hold is an aesthetically pleasing experience.

I studied history as an undergraduate in the late 1970’s and within this I had also taken a course on the Emancipation of the Jews in Europe taught by the late Chimen Abramsky. At the same time, I knew little about the day to day lives of Russian Jewry in the late Tsarist and Soviet periods. Stepanova’s family lived through and ultimately her branch of her family survived these times although others were victims of Pogroms and the Holocaust itself. How they did so is revealed through shared memories, correspondence and other artefacts.

The book began in the author's mind when aged ten but the major impetus came when the author engaged with the contents of her late Grandmother's Moscow apartment which provided links to a journey across time and place to locate members of her family and the worlds they inhabited. What follows is part travelogue and part philosophical, social and historical enquiry written with intelligence, wit and great perceptiveness.

Stepanova, in partnership with her English translator, has created a wide ranging, beautifully written exploration of a family history which links to major events and social history in Russia and parts of Europe where her ancestors and their descendants studied and made lives for themselves over the course of the Twentieth Century. There are enlightening sections on the large numbers of Russian women, including her own great grandmother, who studied medicine in Paris before the First World War as well as a son’s moving letters to his mother from the Siege of Leningrad. Stepanova seems to question how does one put these lives into the context of their times and how do we know whether in relation to Post Memory if “things were better back then”

W.G Sebald is something of a torchbearer as Stepanova introduces links to other personages and their artistic legacy which often coincide with my own interests and preoccupations as does the writing of Sebald himself. These memorably emerge as essays within the book taking in themes which include the self-portraits of Rembrandt and photographer Francesca Woodman and the art of Joseph Cornell. Perhaps most movingly, Stepanova revisits Charlotte Saloman’s haunting “Life? Or Theatre” a work that I first encountered when I saw some of the original paintings in Amsterdam in 1988. The essays had me turning to my bookshelves and Googling images of the works under discussion

Anecdotes are many and I have no space to share them here but they seem to reveal as much about the human condition as anything else and highlight the impact of family secrets and links to personal histories we can perhaps all identify with. What survives does not always link us reliably or definitively to the past as Stepanova herself discovers. “Here is time passing, the human is washed away but objects keep their outline” Maybe it is the tangible things that matter most. I certainly think so as although I have my memories and photos aplenty I am best able conjure up one of my own grandmothers each time I use her bone-handled tomato knife.

In Memory of Memory is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions 2021

Read more independent bookseller features:

Books and Ink, Banbury (now Winchcombe)


Saturday, 29 May 2021

Bank Holiday extra! Guest review by Jonty Driver: ... WITH MRS TUGENDHAT TO THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, by Jim Ring, illustrated by Decca Faire


"poking fun at pretence, pomposity, pusillanimity and various modern institutions and habits"

Jonty Driver has kept himself busy in lockdown working with a local firm, Artwrite of Rye, to produce four booklets of his poems, some illustrated by himself, and a card, The Slave-Bell at Doornhoek, a poem and a painting. The booklets are: Image & Image, some old photographs & a dozen unrhymed sonnets; The Journey Back; The Chinese Poems, 1979-2020; and A Winter’s Day at Westonbirt & other poems. All are available from Artwrite. See more on Jonty's website.

With Mrs Tugendhat to the Undiscovered Country 
is best described as a literary romp. It’s not really satire, though there is a great deal of poking fun at pretence, pomposity, pusillanimity and various modern institutions and habits.

A BOAC flight goes missing (note: BOAC, despite this being 201–). For three months the ‘plane sits undiscovered and out of fuel on an airstrip on a volcanic island (Xanadu, of course) – and the redoubtable Mrs T. comes into her own, as a usually benevolent (in her view) despot.

In the meantime, the Chairman and Director-General of the airline go to Corfu to co-ordinate what they hope will be discovery and recovery. Their chapters are told in the third person. Mts T. tells much of the main story herself; and a young companion, Sisi, supplements the narrative with letters to her father as she sets about to follow his example by making money from the other passengers.

There is a host of characters of various nationalities, some individual, some merely groups; there is a cat called Alexa and a dog called Louis, and a mysterious Control Tower with only a cat-flap by way of entry.

As befits comedies, all’s well that ends well and Mrs T.’s status is confirmed. It’s great fun, with lots of literary and political jokes, not I think intended as edifying or educative: a good holiday read, I’d say, even if I were catching a non-BOAC flight to get there.

With Mrs Tugendhat to the Undiscovered Country is published by WriteSideLeft.

Monday, 24 May 2021

Guest review by Lesli Wilson: SPARE OOM AND WAR DROBE by Katherine Langrish


"Imagine revisiting a magical place you loved as a child, a place that engrossed you so much that you had to revisit it again and again..."

Lesli Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Lesli Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century.

It is a very risky business to write about such a much-loved children's book series (to say nothing of films, but I like the books way better) as C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. I used to think I was the only child who ever walked hopefully into wardrobes (I chose my grandmother's rather small one, which did, however, have a moth-bally fur coat in it). Of course I wasn't alone. Katherine Langrish was one, for a start. I should think many thousands of kids did. Langrish also wrote her own Narnia stories, based on the stories that Jewel the Unicorn tells Eustace and Jill in the dying days of that world. She was trying to create more magic, but discovered that the hard work of writing made that difficult. This is a different way in, and whether she recreated the magic for herself, she certainly succeeds for the reader of her book.

Imagine revisiting a magical place you loved as a child, a place that engrossed you so much that you had to revisit it again and again, and even when you went back as an adult the enchantment still gripped you, almost in spite of yourself. Now imagine that you go there with a guide, a guide who has always found it as exciting and enchanting as you did, who is able, not just to walk you back along those old paths of thrilled delight and sadness, mountains, forests, seascapes, but who has extra information you didn't have when you went there - but whose information increases your understanding without threatening to spoil the magic; explains without explaining away.That's how I felt when I was reading From Spare Oom to War Drobe.

Langrish shows us the roots of many of the stories' motifs. The green serpent-witch who abducts Prince Rilian is rooted in the Lindwurm dragons of Norse (and Germanic, incidentally) legend and North of England folk songs, but also in the 'Dame of the fine green kirtle' in a Scottish fairy tale. Aslan's How, in Prince Caspian, so much resembles a Neolithic passage-grave in Ireland, that Langrish reckons Lewis must have known of it, if he didn't visit it (Lewis being a Northern Irishman, born in Belfast). Langrish is well-versed in a wide range of folk tale, this being the theme of her Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog, and the author of a previous book about myth and legend. In addition, she supplies the answer to something that has puzzled me for about 60 years: why it is important, in writing King Peter's challenge to King Miraz (Prince Caspian) to put an h in abhominable (ab homin in Latin, inhuman) Though maybe, I think, it is all too human to murder for a crown.

None of this destroys the wonder of the books. That it doesn't is partly due to Lewis's artistry; he used these themes and images and set them to work in his own story, in his own way. But what we learn from Spare Oom to War Drobe is how no story, of any kind, exists in a vaccuum. All of us who write are swimming in the sea of motif and poetry that has been washing around in the human psyche since language began and the first stories were told; before that, probably, for in the basement of the psyche, as in Jung's dream of descending there, which is recounted in the introduction to this book, there are images and moving objects that stem from pre-verbal times. I am not strictly speaking a Jungian, but I'm quite sure there is such a thing as the collective unconscious.

Langrish even refers to The Waste Land, in terms of the rich infiltration of other writings into Narnia. I would reference the Four Quartets myself, because that poem enchanted me from a very young age, when my parents got the record of Eliot reading it. But there's nothing self-consciously post-modern about Narnia.

We are also reminded of the genuine sadness that infuses the books, particularly when Digory, in The Magician's Nephew, asks Aslan for 'something that will cure Mother', and Aslan's answer is 'Grief is great.' Lewis lost his mother as a boy; when I read The Magician's Nephew, it wasn't very long after I had been taken to say goodbye to my mother in hospital, lying on the pillow, weak and white-faced, like the mother in that book. Luckily, my mother, like Mrs Kirke, did not die after all, but the resonance went to my heart; there are terrible things that adults, with the best will in the world, cannot protect children from. Children need books that boldly acknowledge the pain of that.

Of course the books have aspects that are repellent to modern readers. Langrish doesn't feel that the book is misogynistic, as some have claimed, pointing out that the initiative is often taken by female characters, in particular Lucy, but also the resourceful and skilful Jill. The portrayal of the Calormenes, however, is loathsome, and Langrish as an adult is repelled by it. As for the demonisation of progressive schools, pacifism, vegetarianism, and the glorification of corporal punishment as a means of developing character – well, it was a different age.

But I so agree with Langrish about the dreadful ending of The Last Battle. I read that book with a sense of mounting outrage – though now, reading her account of it, I can see the link between the confusion of truth and falsehood there and what we see going on in our own times. Like her, I hated the idea of a Narnia that was expanding, and the constant travel to a bigger Narnia – what was the point if you couldn't linger? And though I know more about neo-Platonism now than I did, I still think it has been far better described by Plato himself and theologians like the Quaker Isaac Penington. But I also disliked the way in which Aslan morphed into the He who was ubiquitous in church services. Langrish was a child brought up in conventional Christianity, but for her also Narnia was never an allegory of the Gospels. What she does point out is the disturbing parallel between the use of lies to gain power in that final book and the issues that trouble us nowadays.

I referred to the Four Quartets earlier; in its last stanzas Eliot writes that the end of all our exploring should be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time. Reading this book took me back to the children in the apple tree, to the child I once was, (lying on my stomach and eating apples,like Polly in the attic, in The Magician's Nephew) and yes, it has helped me to understand so much more about that place than I did when I first went there.

 From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self is published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Katherine Langrish's Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is reviewed on this blog by Penny Dolan.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Guest review by John Bowers QC: FALL, THE MYSTERY OF ROBERT MAXWELL by John Preston

"John Preston brings Captain Bob back to life ..."

After attending state school in Grimsby, John Bowers was called to the Bar in 1979 and took silk in 1998. He has practised primarily in employment law and human rights. He has written or been the co-author of fourteen books on employment law. He has been Principal of Brasenose College Oxford since 2015. He also sits as a Deputy High Court Judge.

It was always the roar of the helicopter which first gave away the that He was coming; then there was the entourage of lackies including Sir Peter Jay, and finally there was the Booming Voice. When I started out as a barrister, I was regularly ushered into the presence of Jan Hoch, who had by then become (after four other name changes) Robert Maxwell. But it would not just be myself in the luxurious upper floor of the Mirror Building (inevitably renamed Maxwell House); typically in the next room would be a group of trade union negotiators, in another Bulgarian ambassador and in a third some hapless executive who had not been dropped off by the side of the M40 road miles from anywhere. Maxwell would be speaking almost simultaneously Bulgarian, German and English. A butler would be hovering nearby with delicious canapés. The same scene would play out at his stately home Headington Hall, curiously owned by Oxford City, which I also visited when conducting a case about of all things his wine cellar.

Maxwell was a brooding presence, someone who thrived on chaos, but a man who could also by turns be charm personified. Nowadays, he is best known as father of his youngest daughter Ghislaine who languishes in a Brooklyn gaol because of the alleged activities of another monster.

John Preston (whose last book on Jeremy Thorpe was turned into a TV drama) brings Captain Bob back to life in his 300-page thriller Fall. The book is based on interviews with hundreds of people who knew him including members of the family. Preston places at centre stage the family background (most of the family died in the Holocaust). His own father was a violent man.

Preston quotes Bob Bagdikian, Dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. who said “Neither Caesar nor FDR nor any Pole has commanded as much power to shape the information on which so many people depend,” but it was not enough for Bob; he wanted to beat the man with the same initials as he, Rupert Murdoch. It was the ongoing rivalry with Murdoch who was usually one step ahead. It was this rivalry that led to his precipitous fall financially and ultimately from his boat.

Richard Stott, one of his editors, said that “it was the uncertainty and deep insecurity of the true outsider, a man who feels he has been precluded from the world of others and had therefore determined to build his own, with his own rules for his own game”.

Maxwell determined that he was going to be Prime Minister but although he was MP for Buckingham for two terms, the highest public office he reached was as head of the House of Commons Catering Department, the ultimate thankless task.

The Fall is published by Viking.

More reviews by John Bowers:

Tribes by David Lammy

Monday, 10 May 2021

Guest review by Claire Cox: AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE by Beryl Bainbridge


"It’s Bainbridge’s unrivalled ability to conjure this period of history, the scarred city of Liverpool, its social attitudes, its deeply traumatized, impoverished citizens, with such unerring detail and dark humour that makes this novel a dynamic and memorable read."

Born in Hong Kong, Claire Cox now lives and works in Oxfordshire. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University, where she won the Blackwell’s Prize for best student. She’s currently a part-time research student at Royal Holloway, studying poetry and disaster. Her poems have appeared in magazines, including
Ink Sweat & Tears, Magma, Lighthouse and Butcher’s Dog. She’s co-founder of ignitonpress, based at Oxford Brookes University’s Poetry Centre, and is an editor there. One of three winners of Primers: Volume Five (Nine Arches Press, 2020), Claire has also won the Alastair Reid Pamphlet Prize with A Book of Days (Wigtown Festival Company, 2020). She was project poet for the Clean Seas Odyssey voyage, 2018, investigating marine plastic pollution. Her article ‘Mourning the Present: Towards a Quantum Elegy’ was published in Exclamat!ion: An Interdisciplinary Journal (Volume 4, 2020).

Set in post-war Liverpool, this sharply-observed novel follows the intrigues of a down-at-heel repertory theatre company in the lead up to their Christmas production of Peter Pan. Told through the eyes of Stella, the teenage assistant stage manager, Bainbridge cleverly counterpoints Stella’s feisty naivety with the seedy sexual misconduct that’s rife within the troupe, and which unfolds with tragic consequences. Stella, brought up in a boarding house by her concerned Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily, is finally confronted by her own troubled childhood in unexpected and devastating ways.

In a counterpoint to the plot, the whereabouts of Stella’s absent mother is intriguingly handled, as is the fraught mother-daughter relationship. Here, Bainbridge sows the seeds of an underplayed, but deeply emotional element in what is, otherwise, a searingly unsentimental portrayal of humanity’s pettinesses and vanity.

The cast of characters is extensive and deftly drawn. Banbridge has a knack of picking exactly the right telling details to describe her creations in a way that gives them substance and vibrancy. Even the incidental characters offer a richness of texture and serve to underscore the impoverished, slightly sinister mood of the novel, from the young woman wearing a man’s jacket over ‘a gaudy satin slip streaked at the hem with blood’, and the ‘boy with ringworm throwing stones at a cat on a wall’, to the chap in a duffle coat ‘who wore a monocle and flashed a sardonic smile as though he were a member of the SS’.

The description of Stella’s decision to take an impromptu bath sums up Banbridge’s thoroughness in evoking this period of history, one imbued, more likely than not, by her own experiences of post-war Liverpool: paraffin from the chandler’s shop has to be fetched for the stove, which in turn needs to be lugged up two flights of stairs to the bathroom, and a blanket nailed to the window. The view from the bathroom smacks of veritas: ‘a bombed house with the wallpaper hanging in shreds from the chimney-breast’. This description is followed, of course, by another darkly appropriate observation, as here in the back alley ‘sometimes women, no better than they ought to be, lured men into the ruined shadows.’

This acute sense of place continues elsewhere in the novel with finely drawn glimpses of the cityscape. Again, in these descriptions nothing is unsullied. Even symbols of hope or redemption become tarnished: ‘the unfinished transept of the rose-pink cathedral smudged the high white sky.’ These moments work as a backdrop, offering a distant perspective against which the busy entanglements of the protagonists play out. In this respect, Bainbridge is creating a drama within a drama; the performance is one of our foolish mistakes set against the stark scenery of a ravaged world. And the further her plot develops, the more apparent becomes the inexorability of fate, the consequences of tainted actions across the generations that are the life-blood of the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. As with these ancient stories, the costs are inescapable and unflinchingly told.

Ultimately, though, it’s Bainbridge’s unrivalled ability to conjure this period of history, the scarred city of Liverpool, its social attitudes, its deeply traumatized, impoverished citizens, with such unerring detail and dark humour that makes this novel a dynamic and memorable read.

An Awfully Big Adventure is published by Abacus.