Monday, 8 August 2022

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: THE MASTER by Colm Tóibín

"Henry James was such a consummate observer, and Tóibín gives us this in spades."

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, set during the English Civil Wars. Both titles are now available in paperback.

One of the delights of reviewing for Writers Review is that one can choose any book for adults. Although we all, as writers, wish to see our most recent novel given as much favourable publicity as possible - sales, after all, are vital - there is something very pleasing, to me at any rate, about seeing one of my earlier books being appreciated. Perhaps that is why I am so often drawn to earlier works of authors I admire.

There is much to admire about Colm Tóibín's work. I first read The Blackwater Lightship, and was immediately captivated. But I had a fine copy of The Master on my shelves for a while and neglected to pick it up. Was it the subject? The Master is about Henry James, who I read voraciously in my teens and early twenties. Had I finished with James? Was he no longer interesting to me? Did I enjoy Tóibín so much only because I liked it when he wrote of Ireland, the land of my mother? How we so casually reject gems waiting patiently for our attention!

I had not finished with James, and Tóibín had many insights about him. But The Master is a novel. So who is the master here? Both men inhabit these pages. Characters, whether real or imagined must dance to the writer’s tune. James was a man of the mind, and Tóibín inhabits that mind to stunning effect. No one can truly know what thoughts inhabit the corners of another’s brain, but Tóibín is impressive at conjuring what might have been there.

We follow the Master as he travels from London, where Oscar Wilde is having more theatrical success than he, to Italy and France. He moves through society, lauded by many who invite him to more gatherings than he can cope with. He strives to remain polite to those who irritate him but often longs for solitude. He moves from place to place, haunted by memories, as are we all. It is hard to settle. He has no wife, no home of his own, but has no wish to return to America. He is a drifter in Europe, living in his mind.

I absolutely loved this novel. I was in James’ mind, travelling with him, relieved with him when he found the perfect place in England in which to finally settle. Henry James was such a consummate observer, and Tóibín gives us this in spades. We learn about the people he meets, his dearest friends as well as those for whom he has little time. His perhaps conflicted sexuality is there, love is there, grief at the loss of those most dear to him. He is not a perfect man, but he does his best.

Running throughout the novel is his work. He is having trouble with his hands, engaging a man to take dictation, which works wonderfully well. He is writing short stories, and when not writing them, thinking about them. It is this that most impressed me about an highly impressive novel. As with all writers, James’ life informs his work, and his work informs his life. The two are bound together in a private dance which only he, and we, through reading the novel can experience.

Leonard Woolf, in I think the second volume of his autobiography, Beginning Again, describes how even when quite traumatic things happen there is a corner of his writer’s mind which observes with interest, and stores away what he has seen or heard to be perhaps used at a later date. Woolf thinks that this splitting of the mind to enable both the observer and the experiencer is common to writers, and I think he is right. Tóibín describes it beautifully in The Master. It is just one of the things that gives this novel such great depth and I commend it to you.

The Master is published by Picador.

Cindy is a regular contributor to Writers Review. Here are some of her recent choices:

Monday, 1 August 2022

Sixth birthday round-up: Adèle Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery

Adèle, Celia and Linda share the books that have impressed them so far this year.


Tansy Devoy
 by Anne Fine.  A disclaimer: Anne is a friend, but alas, many of my closest friend are excellent writers (cf Linda Newbery and Celia Rees of this parish). This tale is of a social worker trying to find out whether the young girl she's investigating is sad or bad. Is the way she's behaved seemingly since the day she was born the result of nature or nurture?  We don't find out till quite late in the story what Tansy has done and along the way, we meet teachers, family and see what effect Tansy has had on everyone she's met. Fine grabs your attention with her first person narrative and you can't stop reading. I loved it.

Bad Actors
by Mick Herron: I've been a passionate Herron fan since the appearance of the first novel in his Slough House series, Slow Horses. This has now been turned into a wonderful TV series on Apple TV. I'm so glad that this has catapulted the denizens of Slough House to the top of the spy genre pile. I adore these books, because not only are they exciting and hilarious, but they're also some of the best-written books I've come across in a long while. The beginning of Slow Horse is knowingly  Dickensian. I'm delighted at Herron's success. It's very well-deserved.

Left on Tenth: a second chance at life
by Delia Ephron. Readers of this blog will know how much I love Delia Ephron. I reviewed her novel Siracusa and I do still recommend that, especially if you're  going on  holiday any time soon. This book is non-fiction and it's just as brilliant. It begins with the death of Delia's beloved husband. After becoming a widow, Delia finds love again and it's this late love that gets her through the terrible disease that strikes her. The writing of this book tells us at the outset that cancer was overcome, but the oonclusion is: love helps enormously. Delia's sister, Nora Ephron, died of cancer and that haunts Delia as she lies on her sickbed. It's a warm, heartfelt, funny and terribly sad story but most of all it proves the truth of Larkin's words: "What will survive of us is love."


Regenesis: how to feed the world without devouring the planet 
by George Monbiot. Like many readers, I know and admire George Monbiot as environment writer for The Guardian and as an eloquent speaker and campaigner. This being a subject close to my heart, I bought a copy on publication. I didn't know that his background is in zoology, one of many areas in which he's tremendously knowledgeable. Regenesis looks at our farming systems and how we must urgently move away from intensive animal farming (though as I know from experience, it's an uphill struggle to convince people to change long-established eating habits) if we're to have any chance of reducing carbon emissions, and how we must understand and respect the soil and its complex ecosystems if we're to avoid exhausting its potential for growing crops to feed us. A must-read for those of us who recognise that business as usual will destroy the planet. 

by Alison MacLeod has been reviewed here by Jane Rogers and it was on her recommendation that I read it. What a tour de force! Daring, original and wide-ranging, it moves from D H Lawrence's death in Italy, back to his stay in a Sussex artistic community and forward to the Lady Chatterley trial. Another thread portrays Jackie Kennedy in the months leading up to her husband's election as President, and her interest in the novel which FBI chief J Edgar Hoover tries to use as a gambit against Kennedy's campaign. Wonderful, eloquent writing throughout. I shall look out for more by this bold, accomplished author.

Derek Jarman's Garden: After seeing photographs and reading about Prospect Cottage, I at last visited in July and was captivated both by this iconic garden and by the unique landscape and atmosphere of Dungeness, with the nuclear power station looming in the background. On my return a friend lent me this book: Derek Jarman's notes, reflections and poems, the last book he wrote before his death in 1994. Weakened by illness he finds inspiration in the garden he's shaped, collecting stones, driftwood and rusted metal to make sculptures and pebble garlands. "A cold, grey day. I write the poems, and while the poems form the rain blows in. Slowly the puddles gather at the roadside. Then, as the day draws to a close, sunlight floods the Ness and the wet shingle glistens like pearls of Vermeer light." Photography by Howard Sooley lovingly captures the uniqueness of the garden and its maker.

I couldn't possibly leave out Mother's Boy by Patrick Gale (I think we all loved this, but I got here first). It's based on the life of Cornish poet Charles Causley, relating his childhood, adolescence and naval experience, Charles's viewpoint alternating with that of his devoted mother Laura. Patrick Gale has described this as ‘a story of someone becoming a writer’, and although Charles was musically talented too, we see his early efforts at drama win him popularity in service life, where he became a coder first at sea (difficult, as he was hopelessly seasick), then in Gibraltar. He lived an uneventful life post-war, living with his mother until her death in a small Cornish town, but Gale draws on the poetry to enlarge on his inner life and sexuality, while Laura, in his depiction, has her own story. A poignant, absorbing read, as readers of Patrick Gale will expect. Read our Q&A with Patrick here.


The Wrath To Come: Gone With The Wind and The Lies America Tells
 by Sarah Churchwell: I have long admired Professor Sarah Churchwell for her fearless writing and journalism; her powerful and distinguished work as historian and academic. The Wrath To Come examines the American Civil War and its legacy through the lens of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind and David O. Selsnick's subsequent film adaptation. Margaret Mitchell, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, from an antebellum plantation and thus slave owning family, published Gone With The Wind in 1938. The novel sold a million copies in the first six months of publication and remains one of the best selling novels of all time. The film was similarly successful. It won a slew of Oscars, including Vivian Leigh for her Scarlett O'Hara and is one of the highest grossing films ever. This huge success has promoted both film and book to 'cultural phenomenon'. Everyone has seen it, read it, or at least heard of it. Rhett Butler's 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn' tops the list of the most famous movie lines. The trouble, as Sarah Churchill sees it, is the whole novel is based on romantic myths and lies about the Confederacy, the Old South, the Lost Cause. It deliberately ignores the realities of slavery, of a slave owning society with its implicit assumption of White Supremacy and its legacy of routine violence, judicial and actual, against African Americans. It is all there in the novel, but it is mediated by Mitchell. Sarah Churchwell looks with different eyes. She teases myth from reality and forensically demonstrates how the extraordinary success of Gone With The Wind, book and film, amplified these myths down through the years, becoming one of the defining stories  America tells itself and making it possible for a Confederate flag to be unfurled in an insurrectionist storming of the Capitol, a place where it had never flown before. Some things cannot be consigned to History. Some myths have to be debunked.     

Dead Lions
by Mick Herron. Like my fellow Writers Reviewer, Adèle Geras, I am a huge Mick Herron fan, and I would have been reviewing Bad Actors, if she hadn't got there first. I'm re-reading his second book, Dead Lions and I may re-read the others. I rarely re-visit anything but I have to confess to gobbling his books too quickly the first time round.  The novels are extremely funny and hugely entertaining, the closest we've got to a satire of modern politics, politicians, apparatchiks and Whitehall obfuscation and general incompetence. As he says, 'In the past couple of years, no matter how far you push [the story], something stupider and even worse is going on in the real world.' Herron's novels are the opposite of the conventional spy novel, although he acknowledges a debt to Le Carré: 'John Le Carré gave me permission to become a writer - he showed me you could invent an entire world, invent its language, too.' Like Adèle, I am mighty pleased to see Mick Herron enjoying such well deserved success and thoroughly enjoyed the Apple TV series and Gary Oldman's playing of the appalling Jackson Lamb, the boss of the Slow Horses. Not exactly an overnight success, Dead Lions was turned down by his first publisher. Herron jumped ship, found a publisher who could see the potential and who was willing to give the books another chance. He describes himself as a 'rescue author'. I like that. 

The Power of The Dog
by Thomas Savage. During lockdown, I joined a book club run by my friend Julia in South Wales by the magic of Zoom, I'd never been in a book club before and it was a new experience to read books I would not necessarily have chosen. One of these titles was The Power of The Dog. I had seen and enjoyed the Jane Campion film, as had the rest of the group (there was some discussion as to whether Benedict Cumberbatch has the legs for a cowboy) and I welcomed the chance to read the book that had inspired the adaptation. My first surprise was to discover that the book was written in 1967. The author was Montana born and ranched raised so the novel, set in 1924, is his lived and remembered experience. It casts an unusual and authentic light on another of America's myths about itself, 'The American West'. As a Western novel, it is out of time. There are motor cars and wirelesses. It contained none of the tropes of the traditional Western. This is a real world and it's  changing. The two brothers, George and Phil, reflect this. George is a prosperous, modern rancher, he has a wife, a house, meetings with the bank manager. Phil hankers for a romanticised past that may never have really existed. He is full of contradictions: classically educated, he won't even wash before eating. His overt, über masculinity is an elaborate cloak for his homosexuality which is ultimately his nemesis. A clever book and an impressive movie. Thank you Book Club for making me read it.  

Don't miss our special birthday guest post by Michael Arditti!

Monday, 25 July 2022

Sixth anniversary special guest: MICHAEL ARDITTI chooses THE RECTOR'S DAUGHTER by F M Mayor

"F B Mayor stands as a link, both stylistic and historical, between Jane Austen and Barbara Pym."

It's our birthday - today we are six! Since July 2016 we've posted 328 articles by an impressive array of guest authors and independent booksellers, with features including round-ups, anticipated reads, virtual awards and Q&As with authors. As usual on our anniversary we feature a very special guest; this year we're delighted that novelist and dramatist Michael Arditti has kindly written this piece for us about a great favourite of his.

Michael Arditti has written twelve novels and a collection of short stories. He began his professional career writing plays for the radio and stage and has worked extensively as a literary and dramatic critic. His novels have been short- and long-listed for several major prizes. He has been a Leverhulme artist in residence at the Freud museum, a visiting professor at King’s college, London, and was awarded an Honorary D Litt from the University of Chester. His most recent novel is The Young Pretender.

F M Mayor doesn’t feature in my copy of The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, although she surely merits a place between children’s writer William Mayne and Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. The unjustly neglected Mayor (1872 - 1932) wrote a collection of stories and three novels, of which The Rector’s Daughter is generally considered her masterpiece.

The Rector’s Daughter was first published in 1924 by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and, in an early chapter, the protagonist, Mary Jocelyn, is taken up by a London artistic coterie, which is surely based on the Bloomsbury Group. The novel was well received, and Mayor was compared to three of her literary heroines: George Eliot, Mary Gaskell and Jane Austen. All of them, incidentally, are referenced here: Mary reads to her father from Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life; she alludes to ‘the Cranford ladies’; more obliquely, a maid is named Mansfield.

Mayor insisted that the book wasn’t autobiographical. Although a spinster who, in later life, divided her time between her parent’s home in Kingston and her brother’s house at Clifton School in Bristol, she had a far more active and eventful youth than Mary, having been one of the first women to matriculate at Newnham College, Cambridge, and enjoyed a brief career on the stage. What she does have in common with her protagonist is the clerical background. Indeed, whereas Mary is merely the daughter of a clergyman, the octogenarian Canon Jocelyn, Mayor was the daughter of one and niece of several others, including the Cambridge professor of Moral Philosophy, John Grote.

This ecclesiastical heritage suffuses the novel and gives it its authenticity. The village of Dedmayne (the name is a clue to its character) is defined as a series of negatives. It is ‘insignificant’, ‘without a station’, ‘ugly’, ‘treeless’, ‘on the way to nowhere’ and, most damningly, ‘the social advantages of Dedmayne were on a par with the scenery.’ Mary and her father are the only gentry in the village and act as moral and social arbiters of its rigidly stratified community.

Mayor allows 35-year-old Mary even fewer physical attractions than Charlotte Bronte allowed Jane Eyre. ‘Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair. She had her father’s beautiful eyes and hid them with glasses. She was dowdily dressed.’

Although the rectory is staffed with a cook, housemaid and coachman, Mary is little more than a drudge, caring for her mentally ill sister, Ruth. When Ruth dies, Mary devotes herself to her father, who shows few signs of gratitude, let alone affection. Her life changes when Robert Herbert, the son of one of the Canon’s old friends, takes over the neighbouring parish of Lanchester. Mayor skilfully delineates Mary’s attraction to him, which she hardly dares admit to herself. After one of the most tentative love scenes in literature, Mary is convinced that an understanding exists between them. Then, on a short visit to Buxton, Herbert meets, falls in love with and becomes engaged to the brittle social butterfly, Kathy Hollings.

Mary behaves with absolute propriety, calling on the new Mrs Herbert, who patronises her. She feels utterly isolated, unable to confide in her one girlhood friend, Dora, who is visiting her sister in China, where (in a phrase that would not get past today’s sensitivity readers), ‘the natives are just like children.’ Afraid to admit that Herbert kissed her to her father, whose enjoyment of Scenes of Clerical Life is marred by knowledge of George Eliot’s adultery, Mary is left to deal with her desolation alone.

The second part of the novel shifts its focus from the rector’s daughter to the vicar’s wife. Mayor expertly depicts the wretchedness of the Herberts’ marriage, from which Kathy flees to the Riviera with her malevolent sister-in-law, Lesbia (in this case, the name is not a clue!). There, something occurs, which it would be unfair to disclose, but which effects a sea change in Kathy. These passages inspire Mayor’s finest prose and reveal her deepest sympathies, as she endorses Mary’s belief that ‘Mistakes sometimes turn out right in the end.’

Notwithstanding its excursions to London, the Riviera and Southsea, The Rector’s Daughter is steeped in a village life which was old-fashioned even at the time of writing. Virginia Woolf may have published the novel, but its subject, style and concerns could not be more remote from The Voyage Out and Night and Day, which had appeared, respectively nine and five years earlier, let alone Mrs Dalloway, which appeared the following year. Nevertheless, the book is a middlebrow classic, and F B Mayor stands as a link, both stylistic and historical, between Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.

The Rector's Daughter is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Michael Arditti's The Young Pretender is reviewed here by Adèle Geras.

Monday, 18 July 2022

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson


"There is joy, there is humour, there is sorrow: here is Life, writ large in all its complexity."

Yvonne Coppard
is a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer of fiction for children and adults. See more on her website.

Sometimes, there is a fine line to be drawn between the craft of beautiful writing and the pompous display of a writer’s skill. The Elegance of the Hedgehog invites you to choose which side of the fence you favour. Its publication provoked heated discussion. It seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it read. Certainly, it’s a book that demands proper attention, not one you want to pack for a lazy beach read. The joy of this book is the portrayal of the eccentric and entertaining characters; also in its cultural and philosophical references and entertaining observations of people and society. This novel made me stop reading and think for a while. If you want a thrilling, can’t-put-down book, look away now. This one take time and effort.

Renée Michel is the concierge for the eight fashionable apartments at No 7, Rue de Grenelle in Paris. To the residents she is the drab stereotype of an uneducated, middle aged woman with little self-awareness and few aspirations. She wears dreary clothes, eats cheap food and watches daytime TV. She is reliable, good at her job, but she lives a small life. Renée fosters this perception because it’s good for business, but she is hiding in plain sight. She is an autodidact, an acute observer, well versed in art, philosophy, music, literature and gourmet dining.

In one of the upper floor apartments, twelve-year old Paloma Josse lives a privileged life with her parents and sister. But she too, is playing a stereotype while hiding her real self. Like Renée, Paloma is much more intelligent and observant than she seems. Her outlook on life is both precocious and pretentious. She hates the world she has been born into and has decided to end her life on her thirteenth birthday by burning the apartment down, unless she is presented with a compelling reason not to. Meanwhile, Paloma has her suspicions about Madame Michel not being quite what she seems.

When a new tenant, the fabulously wealthy and cultured Ozu Kakuro, moves into the building an unlikely but deep bond develops between the three characters. Comfortable with each other, they reveal something of their true selves and undergo a degree of personal transformation.

There is joy, there is humour, there is sorrow: here is Life, writ large in all its complexity. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is worth the time and effort – and a shout out to Alison Anderson for a superb translation, too.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is published by Gallic Books.

Yvonne is a regular reviewer here. For more of her choices, see:

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan by Cynthia Jefferies

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Monday, 11 July 2022

Guest review by Jane Rogers: THE SENTENCE by Louise Erdrich


 "The Sentence of the title has multiple meanings, which go on reverberating right to the end: but I won’t say any more about that. Go read!"

Jane Rogers has written ten novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Man-Booker longlisted and winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012. Other works include Mr Wroe's Virgins (which she dramatised as a BBC drama series), and Promised Lands (Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award). Jane also writes short stories, radio drama and adaptations, and has taught writing to a wide range of students.

Her latest novel,
Body Tourists, is now available in paperback, and reviewed on this blog (see below). For more information, see Jane's website.

Erdrich is the Pulitzer-prize winning author of no less than 17 novels, and I’m ashamed that I haven’t read one of them till now. The Sentence, which was on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist, has sent me scurrying for her backlist.

Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and owns Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore. Elements of the novel are clearly rooted in this biography, since most of the action takes place in a similar Minneapolis bookstore, which specialises in books by and about indigenous people. The first person narrator, Tookie, ends up working at the store, and real Minneapolis comes crashing into the narrative when coronavirus hits,  George Floyd is murdered, and the city becomes a war zone.

Tookie is a one off; tough, funny, sarcastic, prickly, thoroughly off the rails (in her early life, at least), and convinced she is unlovable. She reminds me a little of the cranky heroine/narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. (One of many books which Tookie recommends to the reader.)  Chapter one charts her hilarious route to a ten year stint in prison for stealing a corpse whilst under the influence of various drugs and an unrequited passion for a horribly manipulative woman.

In prison she becomes a reader. The book changes tone and settles down to a steadier kind of story, when she comes out of prison in 2015. There’s a ghost, Flora, with a complex plot which provides the pretext for increasingly strange behaviour on Tookie’s part; there are bookstore friends and colleagues; there is the ever-lovable Pollux, the man who arrested her and eventually marries her; and all these are expertly drawn. But what fascinated me most about the novel was the insider view it gave me of Tookie’s Potawatomi world-view. For her, the veil between the mundane and the supernatural is thin; she is alert to signs and tokens which mean nothing to me; her cultural identity means she experiences life differently, and it feels like a great privilege to be let into that.

Here she is talking about Flora, the customer who has died;

Flora’s stubborn refusal to vanish began to irk me. Although it figured. She would haunt the store. Flora was a devoted reader, a passionate book collector. Our speciality is Native books, of course, her main interest. But here comes the annoying part: she was a stalker – of all things Indigenous. Maybe stalker is too harsh a word. Let’s say instead that she was a very persistent wannabe.

As you can see, it’s all in the tone; Tookie’s deadpan humour and her matter-of-fact honesty.

I’ve mentioned the novel’s plotting and characters, but I should also flag up its crafts-womanship and poetic skill. The Sentence  of the title has multiple meanings, which go on reverberating right to the end: but I won’t say any more about that. Go read!

The Sentence is published by Corsair.

Jane Rogers' Body Tourism is reviewed here.

Jane is a regular contributor to Writers Review. Here are more of her choices:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

On dramatising No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe for radio

Monday, 4 July 2022

Guest review by Sue Clark: REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL by Nina Stibbe


"Humour is as hard – some would say harder – to pin down on the page than so-called serious stuff ... That’s why, when comedy works, it is such a joy."

Sue Clark’s comic fiction, Note to Boy, was published in 2020 and received a PenCraft Award for Literary Excellence. She’s been a writer virtually all her professional life. Before her first novel, she was a comedy scriptwriter for BBC radio and TV, as well a journalist, copywriter, PR and jill-of-all-writing-trades. Note to Boy has been described as ‘both funny and tragic’, ‘warm, funny and life-enhancing,’ and just plain ‘terrific.’ She’s currently working on her second novel, another comic creation. Find more on her website and on Twitter: @SueClarkAuthor

I love all kinds of comedic writing – novels, plays, films, TV shows, stand-up routines – bring them on! However, one thing I can never get my head around is why comedy is so often dismissed as a lesser art. As anyone who’s ever tried writing it will confirm, humour is as hard – some would say harder – to pin down on the page than so-called serious stuff. I know. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying! That’s why, when comedy works, it is such a joy.

In Reasons To Be Cheerful, Nina Stibbe manages the extraordinary feat of writing a comic novel that makes you laugh, while reflecting quite deep thoughts about what it meant to grow up in the English provinces in the 1980s. I’m aware, as I write this, that all views on books are subjective, and those on humorous books particularly personal. What tickles my funny bone, may bring yours out in a nasty rash. You may not agree but, for me, Reasons To Be Cheerful is that rare thing, a comedy triumph.

I picked up Stibbe’s book up during the darkest days of the pandemic, mainly, I confess, because of its title. In dire need of cheering up, I hoped this tale of eighteen-year-old Lizzie Vogel, aspiring writer and guerrilla dentist, as she navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, might hit the spot. I wasn’t disappointed. I laughed – once I read the description of trousers worn hoisted high in the “European way” I knew I was in for a treat – but I was also bowled over by its moments of insight.

Winner of both the 2019 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for Comic Fiction and the 2020 Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) prize, Reasons To Be Cheerful takes Lizzie, also the subject of two of Stibbe’s earlier volumes, Men at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, to the brink of womanhood.

The book teems with entertaining, richly observed characters and absurd situations, mainly centred around the goings-on in the dodgy dental surgery in Leicester. The characters are comic creations, true, but comic creations with depth and heart, whom you mostly care about and are invested in.

Lizzie herself is wonderfully bright and idiosyncratic, rivalling Adrian Mole for endearing naiveté and know-it-all pretension. Like him, she has ambitions to be a writer. I might be wrong, but I feel her character was inspired, at least in part, by the young Miss Stibbe, since they apparently share a love for words and an interest in teeth.

The story, told in Lizzie’s voice, chronicles her chaotic family, and a disparate gang of friends and work colleagues. These include: Adèle, her gloriously uninhibited mother, who believes, “a thoughtful visitor should aim to be fifteen minutes late … and slightly drunk”; Lizzie’s boss, Mr Wintergreen, a monstrous and incompetent dentist who employs Lizzie as his assistant and creepily insists she holds his cigarettes to his mouth for him as he smokes; and Andy, the boy who delivers the dental plates, and becomes Lizzie’s first boyfriend and the object of her sexual desire, though he prefers birding.

The less pleasant side of the 1980s is acutely and dryly observed, from the fashions – one character sports “apricot hair and matching lipstick” – to odious Mr Wintergreen’s racism and Lizzie’s sexist-but-hilarious list of Things Men Don’t Like Women Doing, which she fantasises about sending to a women’s magazine. It includes: “… having a dog, talking about sport, laughing loudly, spending money on fripperies, disagreeing with them, chatting on the phone, climbing trees, talking about dogs, mowing the lawn in flip-flops ...”

Stibbe has the knack – shared by writers like David Nicholls and Kate Atkinson – of holding up a humorous mirror to everyday life without teetering over into caricature. She clearly loves her characters and wants you to root for them – apart from Mr Wintergreen. And every now and then she drops in a line or two that touches your heart and, mid-guffaw, you find you have something in your eye.

To be able to locate that bittersweet spot where absurdity meets truth, and a belly laugh catches in the throat is a gift given to few writers. Nina Stibbe, I believe, has it.

A lesser art, indeed!

Reasons to be Cheerful is published by Penguin.

Sue Clark's Note to Boy is published by Unbound.

Monday, 27 June 2022

Guest feature by Mark Davies: the best books about Lewis Carroll

"My appreciation of Carroll's versatility as a mathematician, photographer, inventor, diarist and letter writer has grown steadily over the years."

Mark Davies
is an
 Oxford local historian, and the only Oxford guide endorsed by the Lewis Carroll Society. He has helped shape Oxford’s annual Alice’s Day since the first one in 2007, and has participated in French, Dutch, Canadian, Brazilian and British TV and radio documentaries, most notably for BBC 2 and BBC Radio 4. His interest is mainly the many Oxford realities which are hidden away within the apparent fantasy of the ‘Alice’ books, an angle which has enabled him to lecture on this internationally famous topic as far away as Assam in India. "Subsequently, my appreciation of Carroll’s versatility as a mathematician, photographer, inventor, diarist, and letter writer has grown steadily over the years. My fascination with Carroll was initially raised not on account of his books but because of the importance to him and his story-telling of the River Thames, Oxford's waterways having been my original (and continuing) main local history interest. It is because of its diverse watery associations that I became intrigued by Oxford Castle, and republished my book Stories of Oxford Castle in 2017. My biography of the Oxford pastry cook James Sadler, the first Englishman to fly, embraces quite a different element, however!"

After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold: a teasingly insightful glimpse of the Victorian Oxford of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the two protagonists – and yet they aren’t! Yes, there is an Oxford University don with a penchant for photography, and yes his favourite subject is a ten-year-old local girl, and yes the text is scattered with subtle Wonderland and Looking-Glass references, but this is otherwise a quite different, very cleverly contrived, story. Structured as the inner thoughts of the main characters, After Such Kindness engagingly explores the dilemmas posed by the unusual friendship between a mature clergyman bachelor – Arnold convincingly captures Carroll’s playful sense of humour – and an inquisitive and trusting young girl, while sustaining a lurking sense of foreboding through to a thought-provoking finale.

The Looking Glass House
by Vanessa Tait: this fictional interpretation of the creation of Alice’s Adventures is seen from the viewpoint of a constant, yet largely unremarked, fixture during these critical years: the Liddell family governess, Mary Prickett. The Oxford context of the time is convincingly depicted, and some of the burning issues of the day – Darwinism and Nonconformism, for instance – are interwoven with the more immediate tensions within the Liddell household, interpreted by an author who has more right than anyone to comment because Tait is the great-granddaughter of the real Alice herself. To sustain the pace she condenses the real events of 1857 to 1863 into a single fictionalised year, drawing on many well-known facts and suppositions – including Carroll’s rumoured amorous interest in Miss Prickett – and some lesser known details from her own family’s archives.

Lewis Carroll's England
by Charlie Lovett: although this guide to the many English towns and cities associated with Charles Dodgson, the author of Alice, is now more than 20 years old, it remains the most accessible and comprehensive Carrollian guide for the literary tourist. Lovett, a former President of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, provides admirably clear directions accompanied by over 200 illustrations and photographs, many coming from his own extensive collection. To quote from the cover text, Lovett takes the reader ‘from the tiny Cheshire village of Dodgson’s birth to the Surrey hillside that provides his final resting place … on a journey through Victorian Britain like no other’. True enough, and in between come locations in, most importantly, Yorkshire, Rugby, Oxford, London, the Isle of Wight, and Eastbourne.

Lewis Carroll's Diaries: The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson 
by Lewis Carroll: actually, it is ten books, covering 1855 to 1897 (with a reconstruction of the missing journals of April 1858 to May 1862 – their disappearance being the cause of countless conspiracy theories!). These diaries are the principal source of practically every piece of Lewis Carroll/Alice analysis that has ever been published, and provide a uniquely revealing chronology of the genesis of one of the world’s classic works of literature. These volumes mean that the enigmatic genius of Lewis Carroll is not the sole preserve of academics or historians; through them, he becomes accessible to us all. Transcribed and fully indexed by Edward Wakeling, a renowned world expert, whose extraordinarily detailed and insightful bibliographical and contextual notes provide an unparalleled insight into Victorian Oxford (London, Surrey, Yorkshire, Sussex, and more).

Some of these volumes are hard to get, but there are some remaining copies at the Lewis Carroll Society if interested.

Lewis Carroll: Photographer
by Helmut Gernsheim: mention the name ‘Lewis Carroll’ and most people will immediately think of the two Alice books. Very few would equate the name to Charles Dodgson, the photographer. This, however, is the aspect of the multi-talented Oxford don which Gernsheim, a professional photographer himself, appraised in his 1949 first edition for the very first time, concluding that Dodgson was ‘the most outstanding photographer of children in the nineteenth century. Many of the black and white plates substantiate this claim, but equally, Dodgson’s mastery of this new invention enabled him to meet and photograph (sometimes uniquely) numerous famous writers and artists, as well as many Oxford contemporaries. As an aside, Edward Wakeling’s 2015 Catalogue Raisonné is a comprehensive listing of every one of Dodgson’s hundreds of known photographs.

Mark Davies' Stories of Oxford Castle is published by Oxford Towpath Press

Mark Davies' Alice in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford is published by Signal Books