Book reviews

Compellingly unsettling: Catherine Eisner’s ‘A Bad Case’, from @saltpublishing …

EisnerI first encountered the work of Catherine Eisner in 2008, when I read Sister Morphine (also published by Salt) and it absolutely blew me away. I was convinced at the time that it was a major, very important novel and the comparatively modest success that it has enjoyed since then has not caused me to change my mind. I still believe that it will be ‘discovered’ by a much larger audience, including some discerning and influential critics, much in the same way as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces finally achieved the (sadly posthumous) attention it deserved.

A Bad Case has strong links to Sister Morphine, picking up on some of the same themes and even exploring further the lives of some of the same characters. Both works consist of a series of discrete but linked short stories, a format which I find very appealing. It enables the author to expand the sometimes constricting form of the short story whilst taking advantage of the fine discipline that it imposes, simultaneously giving the characters more depth by setting them in a shared context.

I have to confess that, although I by no means belong to the school of thought that opines that an author’s biography and his or her work are inextricably linked (i.e., you can’t understand the one without the other, a wonderful excuse for prying), Eisner herself intrigues me almost as much as her work. This is because she is profoundly knowledgeable in so many different fields: she understands the pop scene of the 1960s; she obviously knows a lot about the publishing industry; she exhibits more than a passing acquaintance with a wide range of ‘mind-altering substances’; she is erudite, although she wears her learning lightly, pronouncing telling mots justes upon the giants (and some of the minnows) of Western civilisation’s authors, artists and musicians across many centuries; she understands Latin and several European languages besides English; she has an acute ear for dialect (in A Bad Case, southern Irish, especially) as well as the varying cadences of speech that derive from differences in social standing; and, if she has not lived among the British aristocracy, she has clearly had opportunities to observe it at first hand. Wow!

But it is not Eisner’s accomplishments as a polymath that most fascinate me. I am hooked on her work because she writes with a vigour that both contributes to and has pushed the boundaries of an outstanding literary tradition. I don’t have a single word that encapsulates what this tradition stands for, but I can list some of its luminaries. They are Jonathan Swift (though Eisner’s indignatio is more of the jocosa than the saeva variety); Somerville & Ross and Samuel Beckett. Elements of A Bad Case also remind me of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. It is not lost on me that all of these writers are Irish, but although Eisner is clearly interested in Ireland and Irish characters, I doubt that it is because she has Irish blood herself. I think it is because her strong sense of the inescapable absurdity of fate, her ability to communicate the disgusting terribleness of the human condition, her knack of pulling off some elements of the supernatural while staying just this side of credibility and her wonderful power with words, all interlaced with robust black humour, happily also epitomise the best of Anglo-Irish writing.

So to the writing itself. Eisner may often be tongue-in-cheek, but the subjects she chooses are harsh. They include false imprisonment (I found A Room to the End of Fall, the first story in the volume, of particular interest, because my next novel, The Crossing, also explores false imprisonment, though in quite a different way.), paedophilia, treason, espionage, adultery, suicide and madness. The cover of A Bad Case quotes Kate Clanchy, who says that Eisner’s writing is ‘slightly, scarily deranged’. Although I understand perfectly what Clanchy means, this is not my reading of Eisner’s work. The characters may be deranged, but not the author. She pays them the compliment of presenting their world through the prism of their own outlook and sentiments, which have been conditioned by their often adverse experiences. If the reader can’t keep up, that is too bad: if there is one thing Eisner never does, it is patronise her readers by pandering to some notion of sparing their refined sensibilities. If the reader feels unsettled, that is good. If, despite understanding the richly conflicting, occasionally brutal and always uncompromising world that Eisner paints, the reader also laughs out loud, that is perfect. I have no better words to express my admiration than to say again: Wow!

Over the past few years I have played an Eisner guessing game with a friend. (I do hope that if Catherine Eisner reads this, she won’t be offended!) It’s only half serious and has its roots in our first reading of Sister Morphine, when we were each convinced that ‘Catherine Eisner’ was a pseudonym for someone much better known in the world of literature. If we’d taken bets on it, he would have lost, because his preferred candidate has since died. I’m still half-convinced that my own prospect is the correct one: I may never find out the truth. However, if you are also intrigued, I know that there is only one way for you to get closer to it: by reading Sister Morphine and A Bad Case, if possible in that order. I heartily recommend both of them to you, as I am certain you will not be faint-hearted.

Paul McVeigh, a strikingly original voice…

The Good SonIt’s some time since I wrote a book review. I’ve recently read several books that I’ve meant to write about, yet somehow events have overtaken me. But this book is so brilliant that I don’t want to try to offer excuses!

Set in the Belfast Troubles, The Good Son tells the story of Mickey Donnelly’s last summer holiday before he goes to ‘Big School’. McVeigh cleverly captures the texture of the Ardoyne by presenting the tale entirely through Mickey’s eyes, but in such a way that the reader gets glimpses of the sinister adult world that exists in a kind of parallel universe to the squabbles, make-believe and silly but cruel playground fights that are lived with such intensity by the children of the neighbourhood. Mickey’s narrative is at once extremely funny and full of pathos. He tries to be brave and to help his mother and little sister and is often wise beyond his years, but the ten-year-old that he is reasserts himself when he least expects it, often at the most inconvenient moments.

McVeigh’s portrayal of a poor Irish Catholic family is a modern take on the classic Irish story. It belongs to a literary tradition that includes the work of James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and Frank O’Connor, yet McVeigh speaks with a strikingly original voice of his own. Mickey’s Mam isn’t Stephen Dedalus’s sainted martyr of a mother or Sean O’ Casey’s dignified but tragic Juno, though her character shares elements displayed by both, but she’s also a boisterous daughter of the slums, not above slapping her small son ‘because she feels like it’ or giving him a good tongue-lashing, yet also full of love and care for all her four children, including Mickey’s detestable elder brother Paddy. She even shows some kind of residue of affection for the ne’er-do-well husband and father who flits in and out of their lives, a masterful depiction of the classic Irish drunkard. She holds down several dead-end jobs that just about provide her family with subsistence, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Secretly, she is also helping the paramilitaries, though whether she is being coerced into this is never quite clear.

Above all, it is the dialogue in this novel that holds the reader spellbound. McVeigh manages to convey the lilt and dynamic cut-and-thrust of the Belfast dialect without overdoing it with too much local fussiness (his judicious repetitive deployment of a handful of words, such as ‘scundered’ and ‘lumber’ is extremely effective).   Also brilliant is his use of nicknames to show the child’s universe that Mickey inhabits: Ma’s-a-Whore, Measles, Fartin’ Martin, Glue Boy and Glue Girl, Wee Maggie. Mickey’s world is fragmented, a large dollop of drab reality mixed with small sips from the many forms of popular culture that he drinks in indiscriminately to nourish his imagination: Doris Day, John Wayne, Darth Vader and Yogi Bear all make unexpected appearances in The Good Son.

I can’t write any more without giving too much away. I’ve read The Good Son during the course of this weekend. I can’t claim to have completed it at one sitting, but I did resent every moment that I had to put it down to get on with the more mundane realities of my existence. ‘You must read it’ is what I really want to say!

A review of 2014? No, a review of the best British poetry of 2014!

How does one write a review of an anthology of poetry that will do justice to all its poets and encourage readers to want to taste its fruit? Let me dangle that last word, tantalisingly close, on one of the boughs of Salt Publishing’s latest collection of compressed experience and knowledge, The Best British Poetry 2014. Ah, the temptation of the succulent flavours of sixty-six authors, when insinuated into the conscious and the sub-conscious by Guest Editor Mark Ford, whose introductory blandishments would out-Satan Satan (‘What would Milton or Tennyson make of this poem?’ he asks.). He doesn’t, however, sell the fruit individually, but tells us, to make such a selection as this, that he goes on his ‘nerve: a poem rings one’s bell, or it doesn’t.’

So here I am, already reaching out to taste and try, knowing that not all Ford’s choices will ring my bell, for an anthology is a single collection to appeal to many and, as editor, he can’t please everyone all of the time. And, in a sense, I have the same problem; if I single out individual poets, then those omitted may well feel slighted, even if I explain patiently that my preferences are the ones which chimed with me.

What’s my solution? To say that I’m delighted with the range of poems here and I’m going to highlight one, purely because it sums up for me what the whole is all about. It’s ‘Girl to Snake’, which didn’t just ring out at me; it waved its clapper in my face!

Apart, of course, from the poems themselves, one of the best features of the Salt ‘Best Poetry’ selections is the section of potted bio.s, which include comments about each of the poems by their respective authors. Abigail Parry didn’t need to say much about ‘Girl to Snake’, which speaks plentifully all on its own, though she admits to an ‘attraction’ to poems about ‘transgression, particularly when they feature smooth-talking animals and particularly when the poem’s on the side of the transgression.’ Tantalising, indeed.

Since the poem consists entirely of a girl talking to a snake, the creature itself does no smooth talking, but ‘Ropey Joe’ is seductive, nevertheless, and insinuates himself into the household; he’s ‘thin enough

To slip beneath the door and spill [his] wicked do-si-do

In curlicues and hoops across the floor.

There is an unmistakeable sense of naughty fun in this, though Abigail Parry says quite clearly that she didn’t intend it to be an ‘overtly sexual poem’. And she’s correct: the sexual symbolism and some gorgeous double-entendres are there all right (and, in slang terms, equally relevant to drug-taking!), but what she captures is the desire for knowledge that overwhelms a girl on the cusp of adulthood; she is desperate to make sense of the things that she has heard of, that appeal because they are forbidden, that constitute a ‘wicked line of dominoes’ in our post-lapsarian world. And she will taste… and she will find out… and the knowledge, however dangerous, will be preferable to the ignorance of innocence.

Parry’s inclusion of the colloquial appellation ‘pal’, her choice of a monologue, her use of those lists to which I’ve recently referred, her deft handling of monosyllables for pace, her command of metre and her deliberate play to the ear all cohere to make the poem ring true and capture that moment in a girl’s life when she simply must step away from the tediously tame reality of the domestic safety her parents have created.

And that’s what you get with this anthology: a tantalising verse crop of fruit on the tree of knowledge, dangled by Mark Ford for our delectation and designed to appeal to our taste and our sense of adventure in a poetic world that has darkness and sadness and pain and disease and war and death and destruction and sex and drugs and vice… and delight. Of course, Milton and Tennyson (and, especially, Blake) knew perfectly well that the things on the knowledge side of the world make much more interesting subjects for poetry than innocence.

Is anything beginning to chime with you yet?

The Best British Poetry 2014, available from Salt Publishing here.

A quest for the truth: Catana Tully’s ‘Split at the Root’

Catana Tully with her sisters Judith, left, and Adela, right.

Catana Tully with her sisters Judith, left, and Adela, right.

An autobiography which challenges the reader’s perceptions of things is always going to be worth reading; when the life itself is rich in experience and narrated with flair and refined prose, the whole book won’t fail to impress. I read Catana Tully’s ‘Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity’ over two days, mesmerised by her account of her upbringing, at first in Guatemala, by a German couple who split her from her birth mother and re-grafted her upon the stem of their family, though without formally adopting her.
Catana with her birth mother

Catana with her birth mother

Catana with her German mother

Catana with her German mother

The delicate handling of this chronological narrative, covering the whole of the author’s life, ensures that the circumstances are viewed from Catana’s perspective as she grows and matures, not with the benefit of hindsight from her position today; her subjectivity, stage by stage, therefore limits perspective and obliges the reader to examine personal attitudes to what happens and to the various characters who appear in Catana’s story. As a writer of crime fiction, I’m only too aware of the power of suggestion, implication and withheld information, and I found myself exploring what was being given without too much absolute certainty as to the validity of my deductions; Catana Tully plays the reader with supreme skill and the surprises continue to come again and again, right to the very end. This process, of course, ensures considerable empathy with the growing girl, but Catana doesn’t pull punches with her presentation of less appealing features of her developing character (gosh, she had some temper!).
I’m very reluctant to provide here much precise information about the narrative, as to do so would undoubtedly spoil others’ experience of reading it, but I will say that issues of (not in any order) heritage, culture, language, skin colour, prejudice (and I don’t just mean racial), origin, family, relationships, love, duty, education, psychology and adoption are presented for scrutiny in the most unobtrusive way, woven into the fabric of the story so skilfully that the mind continues to work on them long after the reading is complete.
This is a narrative which was clearly painful in the telling, for it lays bare the very nature of Catana herself and must have caused her considerable anguish, but her sense of humour and her great good sense both shine through, so that I was left with a feeling of great joy in the celebration of the self and the huge significance of personal identity. ‘Finding oneself’ is a pale way of depicting what this book is about, for it doesn’t shrink from shattering stereotypes and stereotypical ways of looking at and dealing with the world in the process of a quest that is quite overwhelming in its complexity.
Have I overwhelmed you with all this? I hope not, for the narrative is very readable indeed and the experiences which the book charts are fascinating, stimulating and often delightful. This is not a book that has an axe to grind or a message to pound home: it is a glorious tribute to the individual, in all her multi-faceted forms. Do read it; you will not be disappointed.

Saying ‘thank you’ to @jennyoldhouse and @JennyBurnley1, two lovely Jennies!

This summer, events and commitments have seemed to conspire to restrict the time I had become used to spending on blog posts and engaging with others on the social media, by which I really mean Twitter, because, try as I might to be active with it, I can’t feel very comfortable with the lumbering mode of global communication that Facebook always proves to be to me.   Even Twitter has found me out as a tweeting dilettante, never spending long at all up there amongst the flocks in the branches, but flitting in and out in sharp bursts like a swallow.  So, first, may I apologise to loyal  friends who must think me at best unreliable and, at worst, not a friend to them at all.  Some of you (you know who you are) have put up with my scant regard for relationship consistency with huge patience and unstinting support in my absences, for which, please do accept huge thanks for keeping this bird in flight.

In the context of all this, I should like to make as public a declaration of thanks as this blog permits to a wonderful pair of Jennies, who, separately and at different times, could almost be assumed to have been acting in collusion to make me feel good about myself and about my novels.  They have joined a wonderful group of reviewers of the first two DI Yates books who have taken much trouble both to read them and then to provide splendidly constructive and insightful commentary upon them.  The DI Yates page on this site quotes them verbatim, which is my best way of saying ‘thank you’.   However, Jenny Lloyd, who has reviewed both books, and Jenny Burnley, who has just reviewed Almost Love, have yet to find their comments transferred here (I’ve been remiss about this and I’ll be rectifying it shortly!) and I’m thus giving them a post to themselves by way of appreciation.

Both Jennies have been absolutely consistent in their celebration of other writers’ and bloggers’ work, mine included, and I’d like them to know just how much I value such selfless enthusiasm for writing about and spreading what they read, which helps so many people on the networks.  I’d also like to say how much I enjoy their work, too.  Thankfully, their qualities are shared by many of my virtual friends and acquaintances; they do epitomise the best of good social media practice, which means that they are always a pleasure to talk to.

I imagine that readers of this post will readily understand how I feel upon reading such reviews as these two, not just because they are so positive, but because their insights are so very thoughtful.  Here they are:

Jenny Lloyd, on In the Family:

While laid up with an injury, the days can seem interminably long. What I needed was a book that would take my mind off the pain in my knee and the stultifying boredom that comes from sitting in one place for too long. I’d just finished reading The Luminaries (an 800 plus page book I would never have got round to tackling if I hadn’t been laid up). Then my daughter found the lost charger for my Kindle while looking for something else (as always happens). Browsing through some of the titles, I came across In the Family by Christina James, a book I’d bought some time ago, immediately following my reading of the author’s other book, Almost Love.
There is always a risk, after reading a really good book by an author, that one’s expectations will be disappointed by the next one. So it was with fingers crossed that I began In the Family, hoping I would enjoy it as much as Almost Love. I needn’t have worried, though. If anything, I enjoyed this one more.
In the Family has all the ingredients which one expects from a crime-thriller but it is the author’s skill which takes these ingredients and turns them into a crime-story bristling with mystery and suspense, written with intelligence and deep psychological insights. And the characters! Some of this family’s characters you would not want to meet, let alone be related to, but the author portrays them so well I now feel I have met them all and they linger in my memory still. Essentially, I felt the central theme of this story explored how damaged people can result in damaged families with devastating consequences for any children involved.
The gist of the story; a skeleton is found buried alongside a road and Inspector Tim Yates is called in to investigate. The remains are that of a young woman, Kathryn Sheppard, who disappeared thirty years before. As Tim and his team unravel what happened to Kathryn, the Atkins family’s past comes back to haunt them.
I devoured this book in two days; not because I had little else to do but because I honestly couldn’t stop reading it. My measure of a good read is: how much I don’t want to stop reading to go and do something else; how much I relish picking it up again; and how much I don’t want it to end. In the Family scored top marks on all counts.
I feel I must thank Mrs James for the thoroughly enjoyable two days I spent captivated by her story. The Luminaries may have won the Booker Prize last year, but for me In the Family was the better read. Mrs James has a third novel coming soon; I will be first in the queue to buy!

Jenny Burnley, on Almost Love:

This excellent crime thriller weaves a complex story around the main characters of Detective Inspector Tim Yates and Alex Tarrant, following the inexplicable disappearance of Dame Claudia, a celebrated archaeologist with a mysterious past. In a weak, alcohol-fuelled moment, Alex, married to the boring, but dependable Tom, allows herself to be seduced by the dastardly Edmund, a dangerous, unlikeable character. This adulterous liaison is central to the story, which moves along at a cracking pace. The reader is drawn along deeper into the story, demanding to know the all-important answer to ‘whodunit’ and how. This quest required reading late into the night to unravel the mystery and see what happened next. Suspects abound in Almost Love and there is plenty of action, tension and suspense, with many clever twists and turns. The characters are exceptionally well-drawn, with close attention paid to human foibles and weaknesses. As the story unfolds, a dramatic late twist leaves the reader breathlessly awaiting the next D.I. Yates novel.

Thank you, Jenny and Jenny.  You have jointly ‘made my summer’ and I know that your good offices as discriminating reviewers benefit many authors and make them feel very good about what they do.  Thank you, too, to all those other wonderful reviewers and readers who have supported my books so far.

As good at putting the case for the defence as for the prosecution…

Apple Tree Yard

[Please be aware that I’ve included here precise reference to some key events in this novel, though not plot detail.  If you fear your future enjoyment in reading Apple Tree Yard may be at risk, read the novel first – you won’t be disappointed – and come back for my review!] 

I became a fan of Louise Doughty’s work almost by accident, when I was given a copy of Whatever You Love, a very distinguished novel and a brilliant study of obsessive grief, and was so impressed with it that I reviewed it on this blog.  Subsequently, I have read Stone Cradle, set in my native Lincolnshire, and this summer I made a point of buying Apple Tree Yard before I went on holiday.

Apple Tree Yard is a truly magnificent work, shortlisted for the Specsavers National Book Awards 2013, and it certainly merits a prize.  It doesn’t exactly fit into the crime genre (just as Stone Cradle isn’t ‘just’ a historical novel), but it is about at least two crimes and, possibly, about several others, depending on how you choose to read it.

This last point holds the vital key to the novel, because this is a book that manages to capture the ambiguities, generosities and tyrannies of the relationships that it describes and also succeeds in conveying that, although no human is perfect and some will commit atrocious acts of perfidy, betrayal, cowardice and cruelty, it is impossible to define anyone as simply good or evil. Even sleazy George Craddock, victim of a horrific murder but also perpetrator of an appallingly brutal crime, is shown to have vulnerabilities and a father who loves him.

The story begins, rather shockingly, with an act of consensual sex between the narrator, Yvonne Carmichael, an attractive middle-aged professional woman, a scientist, and a man who has just picked her up during a visit to the House of Commons. She does not even know his name, but allows him to penetrate her in the vault of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which he has offered to show her on what she understands quite clearly to be a flimsy pretext.  There is great skill in the way in which this encounter, which triggers the rest of the plot of the novel, is presented.  On the one hand, it could be viewed as a grubby sexual exploit between two people who are addicted to risk; on the other, we don’t question Yvonne’s claim that she believed it was an act of mutual tenderness.  Despite the fact that she doesn’t know her lover’s name and at this stage does not expect to meet him again, the reader is persuaded that this is not just a lustful fumble in the dark: it ‘means’ something.  Finally, she does not spare herself some wry reflections on the absurd indignity of the situation: how she has to hobble along with one leg out of her tights, one foot out of her (elegant) boot; how her ‘lover’ – she calls him ‘my love’ throughout the novel – wordlessly passes her his handkerchief to enable her to deal with the physical detritus of their congress.

Yvonne could be seen as a woman who has been taken advantage of by a predatory male, a woman naïve in her assumptions about his motives, despite her intelligence and education. Yet she proves not to be entirely wrong about him, even though it becomes evident that at first he did merely regard her as a quick lay, a conquest that he more or less took on as a personal bet with himself that he could do it.  As gradually becomes clear, Yvonne makes use of him, too (and in the most extreme of ways, as we discover in the final sentence of the novel).  Furthermore, the two other men who are described in detail, Guy, Yvonne’s husband, and George Craddock, who is an academic she meets through her work, both also take advantage of her.  Of these three men, Guy is the gentlest, yet also the most selfish.  He says that he loves her and is fiercely protective of the family life they have built together, but he refuses to give up the young mistress with whom he is conducting an affair that compromises him professionally.  Yet it is Guy who stands by Yvonne when she is accused of being an accessory to murder and Guy who cares for her after the trial, despite the fact that she has done to him the one thing that he always said that he would find unforgiveable: humiliating him in public.

The reader is always on Yvonne’s side, but the author shows that we’re not always expected to think that she is right; it’s clear that she behaves badly, too. There are mitigating circumstances.  As the court case unfolds, we discover that her son has bi-polar disorder, that he fights her off when she tries to help him, that she stalled her career for many years (despite, it is implied, being as able as, or more so than, her husband) to raise her family and that now she is the person at the centre of the family who has to try to hold it all together whilst also holding down a demanding and financially insecure job.  This sounds a bit like an addition to the already large literary dossier of women’s complaints about being treated unequally, but it is less clear-cut than that, just as the encounter in the vault could be viewed either as a sordid seduction by a stalker or a joyful, life-affirming act of freedom.  I don’t know whether Louise Doughty studied rape and stalking cases in order to write this novel, but of one thing I am sure: if she were a barrister, she would be equally good at putting the case for the defence or the prosecution.

Yvonne’s treatment by George Craddock can’t be defended: it is hideous and brutal. The sequence of events that it unleashes reveals the strengths and foibles of all the main characters.  The trial is described with forensic accuracy (Louise Doughty acknowledges help from various legal authorities in her depiction); the descriptions of how a jury operates chime exactly with my own experience of jury service earlier this year.

I realise that I may have made Apple Tree Yard sound like a gloomy book, but it isn’t at all.  Partly because of the author’s dexterous use of language and partly because there is a rich vein of dark humour underpinning the whole story, it is a bright gem, a novel that captures the privileges and drudgery, the ecstasies and ironies and, above all, the ambiguous moralities of modern middle-class life.  If you haven’t read it yet, read it now!

An anniversary I always remember…

Elizabeth Wood

Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandmother’s birth.  She was born on 9th August 1892, which means that if she were still alive she would be 122 today.  That is 164 days younger than the age attained by Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified person who ever lived, who died in 1997 (though a Bolivian man called Carmelo Flores Laura, still living, is reputedly 123).  I like to think, therefore, that she could still be alive and vying with Signor Flores Laura for the distinction of being the oldest person in the world.

My grandmother actually died on 9th February 1979, when she was eighty-six and a half.  She outlived all of the famous people who are listed as having been born on the same day as she except for one: Thomas Fasti Dinesen.  I’ve never heard of him – I’m indebted to Wikipedia for this piece of information – but apparently he was a Danish recipient of the Victoria Cross who died on 10th March 1979, about a month later than my grandmother.  Significant events that happened on her actual birthday include that it was the day that Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a two-way telegraph and (of more interest to me and perhaps to readers of this blog) the first day of the trial of Lizzie Borden, the celebrated American murderess.

Every year when this date comes round, I pay a small, silent tribute to the strong, elegant and feisty woman that my grandmother was.  She was in domestic service all her working life, a period which began when she was fourteen and did not end until she was seventy-four, with a very short break for the birth of my mother.  She started her career, Tess of the d’Urbervilles fashion, as a poultry maid, working for an elderly lady in her native Kent.  During the First World War, she trained as a nursery nurse at Bart’s Hospital and worked in London for more than a decade, looking after the two daughters (one was adopted and much younger than the other) of a Scottish diplomat.  She then moved to South Lincolnshire to take up the post of housekeeper to Samuel Frear, the last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers.  He lived at a large house called The Yews.  It’s still standing, just off the main Spalding-Surfleet road.  During the Second World War, after Mrs Frear’s death, she moved to Spalding to another housekeeping job, this time working for the Hearnshaw family.  They lived in a substantial three-storey house in Pinchbeck Road.  Her final post was as lady companion to a very old lady called Mrs James, who lived at The Laurels in Sutterton. 
Sausage Hall
Sausage Hall, the house that features in the next DI Yates novel (to be published on 17th November) is partly based on The Laurels.  I can remember visiting my grandmother there when I was a small child.

When Mrs James became too ill to be cared for at home, my grandmother finally retired, to 1 Stonegate in Spalding, one of three mews houses built in 1795.  These houses have since been renovated, but when she lived there they had hardly changed since they were new: the toilet was at the end of the short back garden path and, although she had a bath, it had been installed in the kitchen: there was no bathroom as such.
This house (the one on the right of the three in this picture) suited her well, because it was a short walk from Spalding town centre and just over the road from Spalding Parish Church, which she attended several times during the week and up to three times on Sundays (always clad in hat, gloves and stockings, even on the hottest of days).

As it happens, I’m just reading Servants: a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge.  This is a meticulously-researched book.  Although accessible, it is much more scholarly than many books I’ve read on the subject, which often fall into the trap of reading like a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
Many of the things that Lethbridge describes remind me of my grandmother’s accounts of work in the world of domestic service, but with one exception: she clearly never found the work demeaning and, although she must have been respectful towards her employers, she certainly did not kowtow to them.  In fact, she gave me the impression that, in her day, trained servants were in such short supply that she could pick and choose whom she worked for and certainly earn a respectable salary.

My guess is that this was not because Lethbridge (or, indeed, my grandmother) has exaggerated the nature of the employer-servant relationship, but because my grandmother generally worked in a stratum of society not much covered by Lethbridge’s book: that of the upper-middle classes.  Thus my grandmother was neither subject to the rules and strictures that servants in the grand stately homes had to observe, nor was she obliged to suffer the petty tyrannies and hard labour imposed by a ‘jumped-up’ lower-middle class mistress who could afford only one servant.  The people for whom she worked were kind, enlightened, appreciative and wealthy enough to be able to pay for charladies, gardeners, maids-of-all-work and outsourced laundry services.

This is not to say that my grandmother did not work hard; I’m certain that she did.  I know, for example, that when she was working for the Hearnshaws, she was accustomed to cook Christmas dinner for sixteen people.  But the work that she did was appreciated and she had time to devote to her own preferred leisure activities: reading (especially geography books, a passion with her), fine embroidery and Christian worship.  Each year her employers enabled her to take an annual holiday, either at the seaside or walking on the Yorkshire Moors.

She lived a long and useful life and, I think, it was overall a happy one.  Reading Lucy Lethbridge’s book (which I thoroughly recommend), I am grateful to those long-gone employers for the way that they treated her.


John le Carré on top form… but I still miss Smiley!

A Delicate Truth

I’ve been a fan of John le Carré’s for a very long time, especially of the Smiley novels.  I know that Smiley had to be put out to grass when the Cold War finished, but – I imagine like le Carré himself – I mourned his eclipse and secretly I’ve always hoped that Smiley will enjoy some kind of reinvention one day.  In the meantime, his creator has had to tackle the problem of how to write about espionage and amoral acts of skulduggery without the wonderfully ambiguous backdrop of East-West relations to sustain him.  (This leads me to hope, in passing, that perhaps in some future book he may take as his topic Putin’s Russia and its significance for present-day relations between the East and the West.)

Meantime, I’ve been a faithful reader of the post-Smiley le Carré novels, but I have to confess that, although every one of them is skilfully put together and tells a cracking tale of intrigue, mystery, vice and complicated modern moral issues, I haven’t enjoyed any of them as much as the chronicles of the lugubrious George Smiley and his flawed but semi-likeable nemesis, Karla.  It was therefore not exactly with misgiving, but with a resigned knowledge of knowing more or less what to expect, that I began to read A Delicate Truth.

Oh me of little faith!  This novel is a masterpiece.  It begins in Gibraltar, with a man who is only half in the know masquerading as someone called ‘Paul’.  He has been persuaded to carry out an assignment that seems to consist of very little except several days of near-terminal boredom spent in a seedy hotel, followed by one burst of swift, strenuous activity, handsome remuneration and repatriation.  Paul is mostly in the dark about the true nature of the assignment, yet he accomplishes it (rather gracelessly), picks up his financial reward and goes home to his comfortable middle-class, Middle England existence.  He is a little uneasy that something about the assignment didn’t exactly go as planned, but he soon persuades himself to forget about it.

Fast forward three years.  Paul’s identity and his home circumstances are gradually revealed.  Another man who was involved in the assignment turns up at his house and his club and then mysteriously ‘commits suicide’.  Paul is challenged with some uncomfortable assertions about what it was that went wrong in Gibraltar and has to swallow his cowardice and inclination to turn a blind eye to find out if they are true.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as that would spoil it for those who have not yet read the book – which I recommend them to do at the earliest opportunity.  I’ll therefore conclude by saying that A Delicate Truth shows le Carré in top form again.  He’s created a subtle and complex group of characters who together grapple with that most fundamental of issues, the nature of good and evil.  As I’ve said, it’s a masterpiece.

Nevertheless, I’d still love to believe that one day I might enjoy a further dose of old Smiley!

This best-laid plan of Mister Gove… awry!

Of Mice and Men


I have been following with interest and more than a degree of indignation Michael Gove’s latest attack on teachers.  This time it has been directed at their choice of the fiction to be studied by GCSE English Literature students.  Mr Gove seems to be determined to outstrip UKIP by including non-British (albeit anglophone) novels as part of the current general political witch-hunt to root out anything or anyone that does not originate in these islands and to take one of his regular side-swipes at the teaching profession in the process.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about Of Mice and Men, of course.  But I would question whether Mr Gove has a right to thrust his own idiosyncratic dislikes and preferences on to those whose daily occupation it is to teach or to set examination syllabi.  It seems to me that he should respect the judgment of the teaching profession, which has a collective understanding not only of the needs and capabilities of students in modern, multi-cultural schools, but also a profound appreciation of what makes those students ‘tick’.  It is all too common for people to think that they are experts in teaching, just because they have themselves been to school, though I’ve always been surprised by the arrogance of this assumption.  It’s easy to look back on one’s own school-days with (possibly spurious) rose-tinted spectacles, as Mr Gove apparently frequently does, but this hindsight is about as relevant to what is going on now as asserting that a woman’s place is in the home or that shops should not open on Sundays.

As it happens, something good has come from Mr Gove’s latest outrage, in my own household, at least: until this week, I was not familiar with Of Mice and Men, though we have a copy of it in the house;  I have read other novels by Steinbeck, including The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, but somehow Of Mice and Men had passed me by.  I mentioned this to my husband, who offered to read it aloud to me in the evenings.   He completed it in three sessions.

My husband is an inspired reader-aloud as well as being a very fine teacher.  I realise that it’s in no small measure owing to this that he held me spellbound throughout, but I was also entranced because of the quality of the book itself.  As readers of this blog may have deduced, I have several English degrees and, even more to the point, am a lifelong avid reader (though I don’t think this has made me blasé in any way – I’m always looking forward to the next book), but I still found this novel exceptional.  I know that it will stay with me.  It is deceptively simple (not clunky or clumsy, as Mr Gove avers).  It belongs to the ancient tradition of the fable.  Because I had the privilege of listening to it, the characters appeared to me in more heightened relief than if I had been reading it myself.  I saw them as clearly delineated as if they had been woodcuts in an early printed book.

Like all classic fables, Of Mice and Men explores fundamental issues of right and wrong, masculine and feminine (in the widest sense – for example, some of the ‘archetypal’ feminine characteristics are displayed by George, one of the two protagonists) and the nature of the damage that humans inflict on each other – through mental and physical oppression or unthinking prejudice.  That Curley’s wife has no name is intentional.  Characterised as a ‘tart’ by the bunk-house ‘swamper’ Candy and even by the normally perceptive George, she is in fact as lost and lonely as the drifting ranch-workers, the disabled Candy and the despised ‘nigger’ Crooks, who is not allowed in the bunk-house.  The troubled existence of the mentally-retarded Lennie, a man cast loose upon an uncaring world with no-one to protect him except George once his tough but sympathetic Aunt Clara has died, points up the flaws of a society in which people lead such a brutalised, hand-to-mouth existence that there is little room for true humanity.  Only a few exceptional individuals, such as George and the hieratic and god-like Slim, are able to show compassion.  Yet it is also a funny novel, even if in a bittersweet way.  Steinbeck achieves this in part through George’s oft-quoted vision of the ‘little place’ (‘An’ rabbits, George!’) that he and Lennie are going to buy  – which turns out to be every casual ranch-worker’s shared dream – and in part through the everyday ironies and minor triumphs and disappointments that make up the lives of these untutored folk.  The character of Aunt Clara is a touch of genius: although she never appears ‘on stage’, she acts as a forceful presence throughout, chiding, chivvying and cherishing Lennie to the end.

After my husband had finished reading this novel to me, we had an impassioned conversation about the purpose of teaching literature and what this means in a comprehensive school where the students’ abilities range from very gifted to what can be expected from those who come from deprived homes where reading is not encouraged at all.  He said that part of the magic of Of Mice and Men is that the book appeals to students across the whole ability spectrum.  The brightest ones can pick up all the nuances and ironies in which the book abounds – almost every word has significance in this, one of the most sparingly written works I’ve ever come across – and even those who struggle with basic literacy can derive a real sense of achievement from empathising with its characters.  This is why teachers choose it: not because it represents a ‘soft’ option, but because, at different levels, it holds magic for everyone.

Its magic certainly worked on me.  I feel the richer for those three evenings during which my husband read it to me (He ‘does’ American superbly, by the way!).  I hope that this will be the start of a new tradition in our household, in which we read to each other on a daily basis.  But more than anything, I hope that our teachers of English, embattled and increasingly circumscribed by rules and random strictures as they are, will somehow be able to discover another novel that holds such universal appeal now that Of Mice and Men will be no longer available to them.  My message to Mr Gove is to make no mistake: this will not be as easy as it sounds.  Today’s students do not want to share in his childhood nostalgia.  They have lives of their own to lead and sensibilities that can certainly be touched by literature, but not necessarily through the books which he endorses.  He doesn’t understand how young people now can be intellectually stimulated: why would he?  But he doesn’t need to: this country has an admirable army of more than 600,000 teachers, all of whom know better than he.  Listen to them, Mr Gove.  Just listen.  And perhaps ask someone to read to you Of Mice and Men aloud.

Thank you, Annika, for choosing this for me…

The Book Thief

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

I know I am the latest in a very long line of people to say this, or something like it, but here goes: The Book Thief is a monumental yet delicate and extraordinarily beautiful novel.  It is the sort of novel that stays with your forever once you’ve read it; the sort of novel that you know you’ll want to read again.  (For me, very few novels make it into this category.)

Why is it so amazing?  The publisher’s blurb gives almost nothing away: Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street.  Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp.  Liesel steals books.  This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  This sounds intriguing, but conventional.  Yet another tale about the Second World War, you might think, made slightly unusual (but not unique) by being told from the point of view of a German child.

Some of the narrative is indeed presented from Liesel’s weltanschauung; the remainder, from the viewpoint of an altogether more shadowy and amorphous character, Death himself (or herself – Zusak is not sexist about this, so we don’t actually find out whether Death has a gender).  Strangely, given Liesel’s tragic background (she watches her little brother die during a train journey and shortly afterwards is brutally separated from her mother, her father having already ‘disappeared’) and Death’s status, one of the most striking things about this novel is that every sentence is written with love.  Death itself loves his or her victims and reflects ruefully on the absurdities that have put them in his / her way.  The far-from-perfect characters are all drawn with love, so that the reader is made to appreciate the best in them: Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s fat, irascible and scatological foster-mother; Frau Holtzapfel, the niggardly neighbour who pays Liesel with increasingly scarce groceries to read to her; Max Vandenburg, the rather cowardly Jewish refugee taken in by the Hubermanns at great personal risk to themselves and the mayor’s wife who owns a large library and whose mind has been permanently impaired by the loss of her son during  the First World War – all are drawn by the author with love.  The greatest of this authorial love is lavished on Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s playmate and would-be childish boyfriend, and Hans Hubermann, her stepfather. But even Hitler is portrayed with sidelong glints of love.

The author himself seems to be as much a painter as a poet.  He writes more emotively about colour than any other writer I’ve encountered.  Not only does he assign unexpected colours to things both animate and inanimate, but he seems to attach values to them.  Hans Hubermann’s repeatedly described silver eyes are full of sterling worth; black is the colour of incomprehension and confusion; the rights of white to be considered a colour are tenaciously asserted.  Colours are even turned into verbs: “The sky was beginning to charcoal.”

Of the many paradoxes that make up The Book Thief, the greatest is that it is an overtly moral tale that neither preaches nor follows an accepted moral code.  It achieves this both despite and because of the small moralising paragraphs, always presented in bold, that on one level resemble parodies of the ‘lessons’ in Victorian morality tales, on another set in shorthand the tone of the next scene: “A Portrait of Pfiffikus.  He was a delicate frame.  He was white hair.  He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouth – and what a mouth it was.”

The contradictoriness of morality that the book captures throughout is displayed in the title.  Liesel is herself the eponymous Book Thief, yet the reader never believes that her theft of eight selected books one by one at longish intervals during her childhood is immoral.  In some ways each theft is life-affirming, though ironically the first is of a gravedigger’s manual, stolen for comfort before Liesel  is able to read and therefore understand its contents.  Hans subsequently teaches her to read by ploughing through this book with her during the long nights when her nightmares drive away sleep, because he refuses to leave her to suffer them on her own: so the act of reading, celebrated throughout the novel as the great life-affirming skill that is also often Liesel’s saviour, grows out of a damp tome of death and a young girl’s horrific sense of loss.  Each book that she steals teaches Liesel more about life – not always because of its contents: sometimes it is because of the circumstances in which the book is acquired – so that each theft marks a milestone in the process of her growing-up, her loss of innocence.  Finally, she receives as a birthday present a book that has been written especially for her, a hymn to her goodness concealed within an ironical yet harrowing account of the rise and rise of ‘the Fuehrer’.

At the macro level, The Book Thief symbolises the story of a nation trying to make sense of what happened to it and therefore understand how it managed to lose its way.  It is a story of the riches that may be found in poverty, the generosity towards others that may yet be found within the hearts of those in extreme danger, the puzzle that is life itself.  It also affirms, strongly yet subtly, pervasively yet unobtrusively, that there is nothing, was nothing and never has been anything inherently ‘bad’ in the German race.  Germans, then as now, came in all the myriad colours of morality, just like the members of every other race on the earth.

I’d like to offer my very great thanks to Annika for choosing The Book Thief for me.

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