Monday, 15 July 2019

Guest review by Julia Jarman: HOTEL DU LAC by Anita Brookner

"I loved the clear-headedness, the humour, the questions it raises..."

Photograph by Linda Newbery
Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

I’ve been thinking about love lately, partly because that’s what I’m writing about at the moment, and it seemed a good idea to re-read Anita Brookner’s novel about a romantic novelist. It won the Booker Prize in 1984, controversially, with Malcolm Bradbury among others dismissing it as slight and unworthy; his word was ‘parochial’. But Linda Grant described it recently as ‘the perfect novel about romantic love and how the idea of it can shape or deform your whole identity’ and I rushed to find my copy, eager to learn.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot as one of the many pleasures of the novel is the slow revelation of what happened before spinster-appearing Edith Hope, aka romantic novelist Vanessa Wilde, arrives at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland. She has committed a social gaffe, causing her friends – if friends they are – to dispatch her to this old-fashioned respectable establishment to re-think and possibly to mend her ways. Women’s friendship and the pressure to conform and play the game of life as lived by those friends is a sub-theme. Tweed-skirted and cardiganed, Edith is not what she seems. Edith has a lover, a married man to whom she writes long letters from exile, and at first we think he is her gaffe, but no. There is something else.

Edith’s clear-headedness is expressed in clear prose, her romantic heart in emotional sighs – there’s a lot of ‘Oh David!’ - and descriptions, sometimes lengthy but not to be ignored. They’re never just description but reveal the character and relationships of the perceiver or perceivers; when for example Edith and Mr Neville, a fellow guest, walk by the lake at sunset and turn back, ‘unwilling to witness the ritual extinction’ you know there’s something amiss. This isn’t a novel of bright colours, well only here and there; there is a lot of grey, three on page one, setting the tone, but this is not a dismal book. Things liven up.

Edith, aka Vanessa, is clear about what romantic fiction is. She is, she says, recycling the tortoise and hare myth: ‘In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie of course. . . In real life, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market . . . Hares don’t have time to read.’

I loved this: the clear-headedness, the humour, the questions it raises. Is Edith a tortoise or a hare? We are left wondering, but she is surely both. She is a man’s mistress after all – a hare in tortoise’s clothing? As she intimates and demonstrates in this novel, real life is much more complex than the stories she writes, but she does not write them cynically. She is not scornful of her readers, (except for one perhaps), recognising that they, like her, need romance in their lives, that they need to believe one can adore and be adored, that love can last, that longing will end in fulfillment, that there is, if only in stories, a happy ever after. Edith believes in love and hopes for it. Edith Hope? It’s a risky belief though in real life, and even more so in later life. Edith, in her late thirties, is scornful of Mrs Pusey, a septuagenarian and an avid reader of her books – she is reading one unaware the author is sitting nearby – and sees her as gross and absurd with her declaration that she is an unashamed Romantic, boasting how she was worshipped by her late husband, and still flirting while spending his money. It’s a harsh portrait, but only slightly less harsh is her depiction of Mr Neville, a declared un-Romantic. ‘Without emotional investment one can do as one pleases.’ Both are depicted as shallow and materialistic, lacking something vital, lacking love, as are the other clients. Hotel du Lack? Perhaps it is Mrs Pusey’s hypocrisy Edith despises, using romance as a cover for a love of shopping, and not her age. I hope so.

Anita Brookner said modestly of her own books they were ‘quite nice but unimportant’. But if the mere idea of romantic love ‘can shape or deform your whole identity’ then a novel exploring its power in a variety of brilliantly drawn characters and relationships, can’t be dismissed as trivial, not by me. Hotel du Lac is deceptively simple and in its own way profound. It doesn’t explore the many splendours of love but it does show with poignancy and humour the greyness of lives in whom it is missing.

Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Guest review by Leslie Wilson: MILKMAN by Anna

"Milkman is great literature - it's not just the people who are negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should. It tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else."

Leslie 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. Leslie 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.

'There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were 'our shops' and 'their shops.' Placenames. What school you went to.. There was a person's appearance also, because it was believed you could tell 'their sort from over the road' from 'your sort this side of the road', by the very physical form of a person. There was choice of murals, of traditions, of newspapers, of anthems, of 'special days,' of passport...'

As a young married woman regularly visiting my husband's family in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, I could never wear my gold cross, and once, when I was packing, my husband told me not to take with me a very nice scarf I'd bought for myself, because it was green, yellow and white. Republican colours. Not only would this have annoyed the Unionist friends and relations, but it might have drawn unwelcome hostility in Protestant areas, which was a far worse prospect.

My Presbyterian mother-in-law was deeply disapproving when she found Irish cheddar in our fridge – as for butter, she might have bought Kerrygold if the alternative was no butter at all, but she'd have whipped the wrapper off and put it in the butter dish so it remained anonymous. Living in the middle-class suburb of Castlereagh, she was far removed from the embattled areas ruled by the paramilitaries, yet fear was a very real thing. If the policeman up the road, who taught my husband to drive, got a parcel in the post and didn't know who it was from, he took it down the garden to open it in case it was a bomb (how much good that would have done him, I don't know). If, at my mother-in-law's, there was a knock at the door after dark, there'd be apprehension, though she'd usually relax and say: 'It'll be Willie MacDowell.' That was the milkman, looking for his money.

There is such an ordinary milkman in this novel. 'Real Milkman' is outside the usual politics of the area – though he has been tarred and feathered by the paramilitaries. 'Real Milkman' won't have any part of the war; he sticks up for the underdogs of the Catholic community, rescuing the narrator a couple of times, and it becomes clear, after the Army shoot and wound him, that he's the focus of the erotic longings of half the middle-aged women in the area, including the narrator's mother. The man of the title, however, the probable-paramilitary, is just 'Milkman.' He delivers fear, but no milk.

The narrator (we never know her name or anyone else's) is a young woman; her habit of walking about the streets reading a book alienates her community, not because it's dangerous, but because she's become 'different', pretentious and 'haughty', as her oldest friend tells her. When 'Milkman' begins to stalk her, practically everyone (including her mother) refuses to believe that she's not his mistress. The novel charts her growing isolation, even from her 'almost-boyfriend', who is a boyfriend in any sense (she spends time with him, she spends the night at his house) except for commitment. She walks on shaky ground and 'almost-boyfriend,' though she's attached to him, and terrified by Milkman's threat that he'll put a bomb in his car, is another unstable paving slab.

The situation invades every aspect of her life, like chronic pain: 'Physically, too, it got tiring, all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting.. Just as with the milkman at the end of the day at home when I’d do my checking under the bed, behind the door, in the wardrobe and so on to see if he was in there, or under it, or behind it; checking curtains too, that they were firmly closed, that they weren't concealing him this side of the glass or that side of the glass, I realised things had reached the point where I was now checking to see if the community was concealing itself in those tucked-away places too.'

It's a story about Northern Ireland, or any other place of internecine conflict, but it's also a story about women, about the way they're always blamed, particularly if they don't conform. It did also make me think of the way older Protestant friends of my husband's family used to sit round saying: 'There'd never be all this trouble if they hadn't had the Civil Rights marches; that's what got it all started.' You could connect that to US complaints about Black Lives Matter. Never mind that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland had real, significant grievances, that Protestants as well as Catholics were aware of this and wanted them redressed, and that the resurgence of the IRA was due to attacks on Catholic communities and Catholics living in mixed communities ('Get out or be burned out). If you're an underdog, of whatever denomination, religion, ethnicity or gender, any protest will be seen as 'uppity' or evidence of madness, as the local feminists in 'Milkman' are seen, as the 'haughty' narrator is seen when she parades her unseemly erudition through the streets. As the suffragettes were seen, once upon a time.

That's not to say that Milkman is schematic; it's absolutely not. It's about one young woman, with a strong, compelling voice, and you want to know what becomes of her. Right from the beginning she had me hooked. And in spite of the not-naming of characters, they all walk off the page. It makes one realise that names are, after all, just labels, and it's as easy to call a young man 'almost-boyfriend' as it is to call him Sean. Its brilliance lies in its almost chatty stream of consciousness narrative style; you feel directly addressed by the narrator, confided in, drawn into her world and the repetitiousness demonstrates the ways in which our environments impact on us all - most painfully and bitterly when that environment is a traumatic one. Yet though the narrator is desperately hurt, terrified and beleaguered, she mitigates the darkness of the narrative with humour. The action takes place in '70s Belfast, yet it transcends any single situation, and powerfully demonstrates what long-term conflict does to the human psyche.

There's an episode where the members of a French class the narrator attends get angry because the teacher reads them a description of the sky. 'Why is he complicating things with fancy footwork, when all he needs to say is that the sky is blue?' The teacher gets them to go to the window and look at the sunset sky, which seriously discombobulates the narrator: 'For the first time I saw colours..blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours arriving, all colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue.'

You could take this as a description of the failure of so many of us to notice what's really around us, or as another case of hostility towards cultural preoccupations that seem 'haughty' to the majority, but it also describes the shut-down condition of people who live in fear, in a war situation: 'all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting -'

In the Northern Ireland of that day, ugly armed vehicles patrolled the roads on a regular basis, your bag was searched every time you went into a shop, there were Army checkpoints to search your vehicle. It was a state of guerilla war. Once, walking through apparently peaceful Newcastle with my husband, our young children, and a friend and his young children, we came upon a soldier in combat uniform, crouched behind a suburban hedge with a submachine gun. If you live in such a situation and you want to keep living normally, or pretend you're living normally, the imagination - 'the subversiveness of a sunset' - becomes a traitor, because it opens your eyes and life is only tolerable if you keep them at least half shut. I've seen that in refugees I've encountered, and in my own mother, who in her teens had dealt with multiple traumas from the war and the Nazi period by deciding to feel nothing at all, like the condition of numbness which gradually creeps over the narrator of Milkman.

Her world is more like my mother's experience than the middle-class world I encountered in 70s and 80s Northern Ireland; the community Anna Burns's narrator lives in is run as an almost totalitarian fascist state, with its informers (to the paramilitaries as well as to the police and the army), its deadly kangaroo courts and punishments. It's regularly invaded by the army; once they shoot all the neighbourhood dogs for giving warning when the patrols are coming; they shout sexualised abuse and threats at the women of the neighbourhood, as well as shooting both real Milkman and the eponymous Milkman of the title in the end (not a spoiler, Milkman's death comes in the first line of the novel). They shoot a lot of other people too. 'Before Milkman, they had shot a binman, two busdrivers, a road sweeper, a real milkman who was our milkman, then another person who didn't have any blue-collar or service-industry connections.. Then they played down the mistaken shootings while playing up the intended shooting.' An army media spokesperson talks about 'a job well done.'

If you don't find this believable, read about the recent Ballymurphy inquest, not much reported in a mainland obsessed with Brexit. Ten unarmed people were shot dead there in 1971, including a priest and a mother of eight children. A veteran has testified to the inquest that some of the Army were 'psychopaths' and 'out of control.' One soldier retrieved the skull of one of his victims and used it as an ash tray.

The Belfast Telegraph said recently that anyone participating in power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland ought to have read Milkman.. I read it while spending a week in Northern Ireland. We drove through the suburbs and the centre of the city, and you could tell the Catholic areas from the Protestant areas by the placards for the local elections. The only party that displayed placards everywhere was the Green Party. Other places were neatly divided into Sinn Fein or SDLP (Catholic), DUP or Official Unionist or Alliance (Protestant). There were the Protestant murals, there were the Catholic murals, one from the new IRA, proclaiming THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. The previous week, these boys had 'accidentally' murdered Lyra McKee in Derry.

Yet much has changed since the Good Friday agreement. (It's worrying that mainland politicians seem to think that agreement is past its date stamp and can be ditched, a vexatious block to their desired Brexit.) Northern Ireland has its troubles, but it's no longer at war. This is due to years of dedicated, courageous hard work by a multitude of, ordinary people, church men and women, politicians, skilled and dogged negotiators. That work mustn't be betrayed, lest the warfare return. Milkman is great literature, and it's not just the people who are negotiating power sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should read it, because it tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else.

Milkman is published by Faber.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Independent Bookseller Feature No.8 : Sam Read Bookseller of Grasmere. CREWE TRAIN by Rose Macaulay, reviewed by Will Smith

"Macaulay’s novel is a revelation - one that I’ve pressed on friends, bookshop browsers and even Grasmere’s village book group."

I work part-time for Elaine Nelson as a bookseller in the shop. Sam Read's has sold books in Grasmere since 1887. Sam Read established the shop and it passed out of the Read family in the 1950s. Since Sam's daughter Helen Read retired, there have been four owners across the decades. Elaine has owned the bookshop since 2000. We sell books of all genres for adults and children, with a specialism in books relating to the Lake District. We run monthly events, and often work with the village primary school and the village book group to spread bookish joy across Grasmere. In 2019, we'll be working to promote more events and workshops with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England via Great Place: Lakes & Dales.

I fervently believed Rose Macaulay’s 1926 novel Crewe Train would be a satire about train travel. Having often taken trains with an obligatory change at Crewe, I was rather in the mood for such a book. Reading the novel, republished by Virago Books in a beautiful new edition in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite there being no train travel to speak of and no depictions of Crewe, Macaulay’s novel is a revelation and one that I’ve subsequently pressed on friends, bookshop browsers and even Grasmere’s village book group.

At first I knew little about Rose Macaulay either. I’d been drawn to the book through a broader interest in interwar fiction and once-popular but now broadly neglected writers. Macaulay’s name came up when I was looking at winners of the Femina Vie Hereuse prize, an award which partnered with a French national literary prize and was judged by a panel of prominent female writers and critics. Other books which won the prize are much better known today, say Stella Benson’s Cold Comfort Farm, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or E M Forster’s A Passage to India.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie. Denham is the daughter of a reclusive English clergyman. Mr Dobie has been widowed and decided to flee in self-imposed exile to Andorra with a seven-year old Denham, before remarrying. Years pass. Upon the clergyman’s death (he barely lasts the first few pages of the novel) twenty-one year old Denham is taken in by her Aunt Evelyn and reintroduced to English society. Denham is now a character who does what she wants and doesn’t understand why other people don’t. As a result, she’s a strong role model for us all.

On first seeing London, Denham wonders to herself why so many people live there: "Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere?"

After this, Denham’s introduction to the city’s social scene is painfully funny. Meeting Arnold Chapel, partner in her uncle’s publishing house, Denham’s conversations strive towards the practical. Her understanding of the book world is dismissive, painting some problems for Denham’s future romantic attachment to Arnold. Denham would NOT like this review, or to discover she was in a book, given her opinion that "Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable."

What Denham does have is a spirit of adventure. This isn’t manifest in being seen to adventure, but in living quite privately in the moment. If you’re interested in boats, secret caves, maps, motorcycling tours and feminism in the 1920s then this book is for you.

A kindly yet chilling nemesis is present throughout in the form of Denham’s Aunt Evelyn, whose continual interference in real life and through the pages of her unpublished novel wreak havoc with many lives. Our village book group spent quite a time discussing possible outcomes for Denham beyond the book’s pages, with a real divide between those who felt more or less hopeful for her. The book itself makes room for lots of comedy despite the narrative sadness in Denham’s struggles to remain one who does not "take any trouble".

Alongside Crewe Train, Virago has also republished Macaulay’s post-Second World War novel The World My Wilderness. More recently, the small independent publisher Handheld Press has reissued the cutting satire of the post-First World War One civil service, What-Not. It’s a shame that more of Macaulay’s work isn’t available. Shortly after reading Crewe Train, I tracked down a second-hand copy of Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures (Victor Gollancz, 1935) in Carlisle’s Bookends. The book is a miscellany of short essays on activities and subjects Macaulay enjoys, the very existence of which hints at her stature in the public mind of the time. Topics covered include Booksellers’ Catalogues, Hot Bath and Taking Umbrage. One such piece, on Bathing shows Macaulay describing three swims in different locations, each an immersive attachment to swimming in the outdoors. One swim is in the River Cam:

"The sun tops the pollard. I throw off blankets and night clothes and slip from the bank into the cold stream. Spreading my arms wide, I let the flow carry me…"

This is, for me, is the experience of reading Rose Macaulay.

Crewe Train is published by Virago.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Guest review by Jon Appleton: AN HONEST MAN by Ben Fergusson

"For me, the closest parallel is a Stephen Poliakoff drama. Fergusson’s novels have all that wit, elegance and attention to detail."

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

‘The whole world had become unstable, the things that I believed, however laughable it may seem, to be permanent – my girlfriend, my friends, my family, my understanding of myself – had begun to shift. And I had the uneasy feeling that I was just old enough to see these things shifting for the first time, a snapshot of a much longer cycle, a split second in the inestimable history of my own deep time.’

It’s a moment that startles practically every eighteen-year-old, but the voice here is Ralf Dörsam’s, looking midway through his account of his summer in West Berlin, in 1989, living with his respectable parents and goofy younger brother, awaiting the results of exams that will send him to England – his mother’s birthplace – to study geology.

By now, we know he’s living through the Cold War and that the Berlin Wall will fall before his narrative ends. We know he is a parent and has married – but to whom? It’s a question that propels us through this exceptional thriller that’s as much about love as espionage.

An Honest Man is Ben Fergusson’s third novel, following the award-winning The Spring of Kasper Meier and The Other Hoffman Sister. His subject is Berlin, his adopted home, and he sets his novels at different periods of time, in the same house, Windscheidstrasse 53: a nineteenth-century apartment block which bears the scars of war but thrums with the complex, ambiguous relationships of its current inhabitants.

The story starts with Ralf idling his time away with his close group of friends – Stefan, Petra and his girlfriend Maike. It’s the kind of friendship group that thrives on shared interests – they make geeky field trips out into the forests around Berlin studying the natural world – as much as compatibility or attraction. It’s difficult to hide in such a close group, as Ralf finds when he is lured away by his fascination – and growing love – for Oz, a slightly older man, who has begun making a habit of parking his green Mercedes outside Windscheidstrasse 53, watching. Ralf wants to know why.

In Berlin in 1989 suspicion is everywhere and Ralf has form. A childish spy game for Stefan offered Ralf the chance to indulge in his one-sided obsession with his neighbour Tobias. But then Oz reveals his true intent: beneath his cover of a ‘brown-skinned newsagent’s son’, he works in surveillance. He believes that Tobias might be an agent for the East German government. Will Ralf help Oz prove Tobias’s guilt? Of course he’ll do it for love.

Once Ralf starts watching in earnest, so much else is revealed to him, including things about his own family which equip him with the power to destroy it. He gains the capacity to destroy his relationships and himself – will he go to university or stay in Berlin? Will he give up on Maike or will he choose Oz? Or will the choice be taken away from him? His life is unravelling just at the point where tensions all round – amid his own personal circle and the wider political sphere – are tightening. His own safety and security are compromised.

Beautifully done, An Honest Man is exciting, often funny, truthful and enlightening. The fact that Ralf is a geologist is no coincidence – it’s as if millions of years of seismic changes in the make-up of the earth happen to him over a period of weeks. Meticulously researched, it’s full of colour – here’s the food, clothes, TV, etc., of West and East Berlin thirty years ago. It’s a sparky flashback for fans of Deutschland 83 or 86. For me, however, the closest parallel is a Stephen Poliakoff drama. Fergusson’s novels have all that wit, elegance and attention to detail. Like Poliakoff, he celebrates maverick – or subversive or even deviant – behaviour in outwardly unassuming people.

But then, as Ralf painfully learns, once you realise your bedrock, your family, is just like everyone else’s, certainly no better, then you have to follow your heart wherever it leads. In turbulent times the pursuit of honesty might be the only way through.

An Honest Man is published by Little, Brown.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Guest review by Sara Collins: A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan

"That rare thing: a novel of breathtaking ambition that actually achieves its aims."

Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years in Cayman, before admitting that what she really wanted to do was write novels. She studied Creative Writing at Cambridge University, winning the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize, and began to write a book inspired by the idea of 'writing a Gothic novel where the heroine looked like me'. This turned into her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton (reviewed here by guest Stephanie Butland). 

A Visit from the Goon Squad stitches together thirteen stories spanning years, places and people: from 1979 to 2021; from New York to Kenya; from Sasha, a kleptomaniac who steals from people but not from stores because “their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her", to her boss, Bennie Salazar, a record company executive who “sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee – as an aphrodisiac she suspected – and sprayed pesticide in his armpits”. The novel opens with Sasha confessing to her therapist about bringing a date home and stealing his wallet, then we meet Bennie in the next chapter: disillusioned, dissolute, scribbling a list of his most shameful memories -- lunging to kiss a Mother Superior on the mouth, being interrupted in the toilet by a woman he’s lusting after (“Kissing Mother Superior, incompetent, hairball, poppy seeds, on the can”) -- that Sasha mistakes for song titles.

Can we understand each other? From the opening therapy session, to the story told by Sasha’s pre-teen daughter entirely via Powerpoint, to the truncated text messaging of the final chapter (“if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?”), this is the question the novel poses. It catalogues the impossibility of true connection, yet at the same time its real charm lies in offering us glimpses of the fleeting intersections of the people in Sasha’s and Bennie’s orbit (children, lovers, friends, bosses), shuffling these mere snapshots and assembling them into a full picture of their lives. Sasha and Bennie are compelling characters -- flawed, selfish and vulnerable, they are the main subjects of this extended meditation on the effect we have on each other, even if only in passing, as well as on how we create music, and on love, family, ambition, and ageing. The book is about their lives and how they come to be in the state we find them in but each story builds an equally fleshed-out sense of the secondary characters as well. We learn as much about them by how they see and speak about Sasha or Bennie as we do about Sasha and Bennie themselves.

What really sets Goon Squad apart for me is the shape-shifting quality of its prose. From powerfully lyrical (Egan describes Sasha’s urge to pilfer an unattended wallet as feeling herself “contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite”) to character conjuring (“I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery”) to sucker punching (“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around). On her publisher’s website, Egan says she began the book by following her curiosity from one character and situation to the next, which is the way one ends up reading it too. That curiosity is rewarded by a feeling that one has moved through time with the characters, and therefore lived with them and learned with them as well. Reading it, one feels immersed in a world that is always changing, the dizzying experience of being held captive by that rare thing: a novel of breathtaking ambition that actually achieves its aims.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is published by Corsair.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Independent Bookseller Feature No.7: Sevenoaks Bookshop. TOMORROW, by Elisabeth Russell Taylor, reviewed by Fleur Sinclair

"...delivers a devastating blow, the memory of which will stay with me forever. But this should not be reason not to read it. On the contrary..."

Fleur Sinclair took over ownership of Sevenoaks Bookshop in November 2015. The shop celebrated its 70th birthday in 2018 and was crowned best UK Independent Bookshop for the South East region. Every inch of the shop is filled with brilliant new books for adults and children; there is a cafe; they host a wide variety of author events; a regular lunchtime book club; 
run several writers’ groups; a young readers review programme; a children’s festival; and they recently launched BOOKMARK magazine, written exclusively by children, for children, all about books. More here. 

Although it was originally published in 1991, Tomorrow reads like a modern classic from much earlier in the 20th century. In just 148 pages, it paints not only a brilliant portrait of the main character, Elisabeth Danziger, but also a vivid picture of place and time. The main setting is a hotel on Mon, a tiny island on the Danish coast, the narrative moving between the novel’s present, 1960, and before and during the Second World War.

Every summer Elisabeth spends a week in the same hotel, following the same routine, fulfilling a promise made before the outbreak of war. The week shapes the novel, each day a different chapter as we move through the present and remembrances from the past. Elisabeth has moved ghost-like through the same itinerary for so long, she has no reason to suspect this week will not be exactly the same as all the others.

Other guests are also regulars, and their characters skilfully created, with reasons for their little absurdities perfectly plausible and deftly unveiled. I love a hotel novel. There is something about behaviour played out against an implacable, impersonal backdrop that heightens character by contrast. A line from the novel, ‘…rain on holiday – so much wetter somehow, than rain at other times’ is as true of the hotel guests as is it of the weather. But this particular hotel was once a summer retreat owned by Elisabeth’s family before the war, adding extra layers of both familiarity and distance.

I have to admit that the cover of the edition published by Daunt Books in 2018 is tremendously seductive - a distant figure swimming beneath cliffs on a bright blue day. There are exquisite descriptions of nature, a love so blindingly huge as to overwhelm, but there is also tragedy in the extreme. In crisp, clean, dignified prose, Tomorrow delivers a devastating blow, the memory of which will stay with me forever. But this should not be reason not to read it. On the contrary, as time marches on and people with first hand experience of terrors faced during the Second World War are no longer with us, novels as well-written as this serve to expand our powers of empathy and shape our response to current events.

The novel begins and ends with a poem by John Henry Mackay, the opening line:

And tomorrow the sun will shine again

It is tremendously poignant, giving the perfect title for a novel shaped so much by the past; a past refusing to loosen its grip on the characters, when as readers we desperately want to release them into the sun.

Tomorrow is published by Daunt Books

Monday, 3 June 2019

Guest review by Linda Sargent: THE ORCHARDIST by Amanda Coplin

"...draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants."

Linda Sargent is a writer who works as a publisher’s reader (David Fickling Books since 2002). She has published short stories and articles and her first novel, Paper Wings, appeared in 2010; she is also the author of Words and Wings, a training guide to creative reminiscence work, available as a free download from her website.

“I think we become desensitized to almost everything in life, especially those things that are part of our routine, that we encounter daily. The only way to shake ourselves awake and experience novelty in the everyday is to engage consistently with an art form. Art makes us see the world – right down to our smallest, most intimate experiences – with new eyes.”

So responds the author in the question and answer section at the back of this powerful and evocative first novel, one of my top choices for this year; and I’m sure it will remain there. Set, for the most part, at the turn of the twentieth century in the fertile valleys of the Pacific North-west, it centres on the life of William Talmadge. He is the orchardist of the title, arriving in the valley with his mother and sister in the late 1850’s; we follow his life as he plants and nurtures his fruit orchards of apples and apricots and establishes a home. At first, after the death of their mother, it’s just him and his sister, but one day while out gathering herbs in the forest she disappears and so, at seventeen, he is left alone, his only companionship gleaned from the native American horse-breakers, and specifically the elective mute, Clee (also bereft of family), and Caroline Middey, the healer and midwife from the nearby small town where he goes periodically to sell his fruit.

And so Talmadge (for this is how we know him by now) is, for the most part content tending his trees and expanding his acreage to include the forest and other uncultivated sections of this beautiful landscape, in some respects keeping it for and in memory of his lost sister, nurturing it in the way he is no longer able to nurture her. Until, one day two very pregnant, very young teenage girls, hungry and almost feral, arrive and begin to steal his fruit. From here on Talmadge’s life is changed and disturbed. With the girls comes violence, fear, loss and ultimately a kind of revenge; but what also comes is love and a deepening and most moving warmth between the principal characters. One that draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants and where the stars are “so thick you could walk right into them...”

It is, overall, a story of nurturing and great humanity – and I loved it.

The Orchardist is published by Orion.