Monday, 23 April 2018

Guest review by Paula Knight: THE OUTRUN by Amy Liptrot



Paula Knight is an author, illustrator and comics creator. She has illustrated over 60 children’s books and written three picture books.

Her latest book, The Facts of Life, is a graphic novel memoir for adults, published in 2017 by Myriad Editions after six years in the making. An extract of it reached Myriad’s inaugural First Graphic Novel competition in 2012, chosen by judges including Ian Rankin, Corinne Pearlman and Steve Bell. She was awarded an Arts Council England grant for the work.

Paula is currently exploring new ways of working within her limits of being semi-disabled due to chronic illness. She is also an enthusiastic amateur photographer interested in nature, wildlife and abstraction. The former and latter are likely on a creative collision course - albeit tethered in sketchbooks waiting to be set free.

IG (Illustration): @paulajkstudio
IG (Photography): @paulajknight
Twitter: @Paula_JKnight
www.paulaknight.co.uk


As a city dweller who nurses romantic notions of living somewhere less peopled, I’d been meaning to read this for a while. I’ve long been interested in ‘overcoming adversity’ memoirs since reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography in my twenties. I’m also a wildlife lover and bird-fan (albeit not a fully fledged twitcher), so there was much to absorb me in this book.

Liptrot’s memoir is set in Orkney and London, and springs from a backdrop of extremes: her father’s mental illness; her parents’ separation; her mother’s subsequent religious fervour; and the author’s struggles with addiction. The opening pages take place on Mainland’s airstrip: Her father is waiting to be taken to a mental institution in Aberdeen as her mother arrives to introduce his newborn daughter (Liptrot). This sets the tone and premise for her story - one of leaving and returning, excess and retreat.

The book continues with Liptrot’s return to the island after a young adulthood spent partying in London. A mingling of childhood memories with exposition of the island’s landscape and wildlife is not only a backdrop to her story but the very fabric of it. The prose is pure without being flowery or too sentimental, and her close knowledge and respect for the wild Orcadian landscape is evident. She recalls memories of rural life and how, as a teenager, she yearned to spread her wings. Migrate she did - and the book tells of her chaotic life in London descending into alcohol addiction, difficult relationships, lack of direction and a distressing adverse event that is the catalyst for her return to Orkney in search of healing.

The narrative structure moves between how she spent her time on the islands and how life unfolded then imploded in London, including time attending AA meetings.

What I found most gratifying about this book was how Liptrot makes sense of her life in the seamless connections between nature and the human condition, and the enlightenment that can be gained from recognising these introjections of states. She likens the destructive action of ‘shoaling’ waves eroding the cliffs to the physiological effects of alcoholism on her body, which exacerbated seizures; and how geological tremors felt by islanders were tied up with the myth of the destructive Stoor Worm. Facts about Orkney are intertwined with folklore, mythology and stories of shipwrecksm suggesting that Liptrot is similarly washed up in this landscape from her own personal storm. Although some metaphors are explicitly explained, there is plenty of room for readers to make their own connections. For example, Liptrot engages in conservation work counting the elusive corncrake by listening for their calls at night. I interpreted this as a metaphor for personal desolation - a casting around in the dark for reassurance from at least one solitary voice confirming that life is still thriving in the gloom. The corncrake doesn’t want to be found, but it is a human need to know that the world is in order with everything in its rightful place. This is the crux of how Liptrot sets anchor - by engaging in nature; in what is real.

The tug of love between urban and rural life is what stitched me into the core of this book. The damage wreaked by alcoholism in the wilds of a heaving city versus retreating back to the expansive skies of her Orkney homeland in search of recovery is perhaps a cliche. However, Liptrot explores this in a way that throws out assumptions of rural romanticism as healer and city life as destructor. I appreciated how nature was not offered on a plate as a magical cure-all and that she makes clear that recovery is an ongoing process.

Liptrot writes about being drawn to ‘the edge’, and throughout the course of the book she at once moves geographically closer to it and metaphorically further from it: By eventually choosing to inhabit one of Orkney’s most northerly islands, Papa Westray, her deep immersion in the natural world facilitates her turning away from a life lived on the edge of self-destruction. It’s truly a human/ nature story - one that defines how the two are in no way separable.

Despite being left with no illusions as to the potential challenges of life in a remote and wild location, I still found myself searching Orkney house prices on the internet for a few weeks after reading The Outrun. The book confirmed a distinct notion that it’s as plausible to suffer loneliness living in close proximity to millions of human beings as it is on a far-flung island with mainly wildlife for company. The latter seems more palatable to me.

The Outrun is published by Canongate. 

Read our review of Paula Knight's The Facts of Life here.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: IVY & ABE by Elizabeth Enfield


Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offender. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

Ivy & Abe tells the story – or rather, stories – of the eponymous characters. I almost wrote ‘couple’ there, and they usually are a couple, but not always. For this is one of those books that explores the idea that what happens is not inevitable, was not always ‘meant to be’. In a way, it’s a comforting notion, that if everything is fore-ordained – if Fate rules supreme – then we really don’t have to worry very much about the choices we make: everything will be as it will be.

This beautifully-written book begins in 2026. By chance, Ivy and Abe, both in their seventies, meet in a supermarket. They realise that they knew each other when they were children; they were the closest of friends, but then one family moved after a tragedy and they were separated. They get to know each other again, and become close in a way they were not with their previous partners: they feel that they are two parts of a whole. They marry, and have a precious, albeit very short, time together.

The next episode takes place in 2015, with the characters younger now. Once again, they meet and part. And so it goes on, moving backwards through the years, until they are children again and we learn why Abe’s family moved away. At each stage there's an encounter, sometimes intense, sometimes fleeting – in one, Ivy, distressed, is helped by a kindly stranger (Abe). He puts her into a cab and pays the fare, and gives her his card, while assuring her there is no need to get in touch. She intends to, but the card is lost and the chance for them to properly meet each other is lost. In another, there is a passionate affair, and so on.

Other motifs recur. There is a lorry carrying hay bales, which has an accident. This has varying consequences. One time, Abe is driving back from a meeting with Ivy and witnesses the accident. The police later contact him, and so his wife (always Lynne) discovers that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and that he is having an affair – and of course, her discovery has consequences. Another time, it is Abe’s mother who witnesses the accident, cradles a dying victim in her arms, and is so overwhelmed by the experience that the course of her life changes completely. We must all have thought at some time, What if? What if I’d left the house a moment earlier? What if I’d chosen to be somewhere else that day? What if the road hadn’t been icy? And so on. That’s one of the things this book is about.

Another motif is the hereditary illness which blights Ivy’s family. Another is Abe’s job: he designs fountains. One of them, which recurs several times, is modelled on a clock: it’s a sort of meditation on time. And very early on, the author introduces the concept of quantum entanglement:

“It’s to do with the behaviour of particles, tiny ones, like electrons, that have interacted in the past and then moved apart…they say that even if they end up millions of miles or galaxies apart, they still continue to be affected by each other. Tickle one and the other dances…”

Later, this is picked up when the eruption of the Icelandic volcano has kept Ivy’s husband, Richard, out of the country when she needs him with her for a significant hospital appointment – which in turn leads to that episode’s very brief encounter with Abe. She sees the ash on her windows, and wonders: could particles from another part of the world really settle here so quickly?

The concept of the book reminds me of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. That, too, explores the what if notion, by positing a number of possible futures if events had conjoined in a different way. It plays out on a different stage: instead of focusing on the lives of ordinary people, it considers what might have happened if, for instance, a certain girl had been in a certain café in the 1930s with the intention of shooting Adolf Hitler; and it plays out against a background of social change.

This book is quieter, perhaps. But Elizabeth Enfield explores beautifully the way in which so-called ordinary lives play out: she reflects on how relationships change at different times of our lives, on what shifts things from one direction into another.

Recently, I went to a Magritte exhibition. Magritte was a surrealist, and I’ve never really ‘got’ surrealism. But as I wandered round, I came to see that it really didn’t matter whether I got it or not: I just needed to look. And then I saw what a marvellous painter he was. And my reaction to this book was a bit like that. At first I thought, yes – great fun for a writer to play with different possibilities in this way, to try out different stories for her characters, but really, for the reader, what’s the point? But actually, I think the point is that this is a structure which allows Elizabeth Enfield to explore and reflect on life and all its variousness – and what could be more worthwhile than that?

Sometimes, you want to experience waves crashing on the shore, or a waterfall tumbling over rocks. But if you’re in the mood for a still, quiet, clear pool, this is the book for you.

Ivy & Abe is published by Michael Joseph.






Monday, 9 April 2018

Guest review by Katherine Roberts - CAVE IN THE SNOW by Vicki Mackenzie


Katherine Roberts’ latest novel, Bone Music, invokes the spirit of the 13th century Mongolian steppes to tell the story of Genghis Khan’s rise to power… no Yetis, but it does have wolves! Published by Greystones Press.

In 1976, many years before Buddhism became trendy in the West, a fishmonger’s daughter from the East End of London retreated to a cave 13,200 feet up in the Himalayas, where she spent the next 12 years of her life meditating with only the wild creatures for company. Her name was Diane Perry, though today she is better known by her Buddhist name of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Cave in the Snow  is the fascinating story of Diane’s life up until 1998, when the book was published, by which time she had emerged from her cave with her new name to embark upon a fierce schedule of talks across the world to fund her new project: building a nunnery for young Buddhist girls. Happily, the funds were raised, and the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery now exists in the Kangra Valley of northern India, close to the seat-in-exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


Diane Perry’s lifelong quest for spiritual enlightenment resonates with me as an author. We spend months, sometimes years, in our metaphorical caves working on our writing projects with only our characters for company, and then emerge blinking into the world to talk about our published books. The book ‘called’ to me from a local charity shop bargain box, not because of its cover (which on my edition is strangely prosaic with its photograph of Tenzin Palmo, dressed in her Buddhist robes, standing beside what I think must be the Tibetan flag), but because of its evocative title coupled with the interesting blurb on the back. How could a woman raised in the East End of London in the aftermath of the Blitz survive alone in a cave in the Himalayas for so many years? Why did she feel the need to retreat there? And what did she discover during her long and lonely years of meditation?

In Tenzin Palmo’s own words, referring to a period when she worked at the Department of Employment to raise funds for her return to India prior to entering her cave: “I felt very sad - there were all these middle-aged guys saying ‘What have I done with my life?’ and young married people with mortgages, already trapped.” Authors also tend to view society like this, from the outside as detached observer rather than as part of the group, and it can be dangerous to look too long or too deeply at what actually matters in life. Shortly afterwards, Tenzin Palmo entered her cave, but not before carrying out a few essential renovations with the help of the locals to give it some proper walls and a door she could close against the elements and wolves. As she says in the book: “It was a very pukka cave.”

Tenzin Palmo did not write in her cave. She read her Buddhist texts and meditated in her box-bed, which was not big enough to allow her to lie down. She grew vegetables outside in the summer months, and - like St Francis of Assisi - was visited by the animals and birds of the mountains. She conversed with wolves, saw the prints of the elusive snow leopard outside her cave in the snow in the depths of winter, and also a huge footprint that may have belonged to the legendary Yeti. It seems she also survived possible breast cancer, and a serious eye infection. And, through all these hardships, she thrived.

It must have been a profound experience, and I kept wishing that Tenzin Palmo had written this book herself, rather than having to read her story secondhand. But Vicki Mackenzie has written a clear and faithful account based on her interviews with Tenzin Palmo, and part of the allure of a spiritual quest is the difficulty of capturing such a mystery in words. Perhaps the best any writer can hope to do is sketch down the bones, and leave it up to the individual reader to supply the flesh and the colour. If you are curious to know more, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is still teaching - see her website for details.

Cave in the Snow is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Independent Bookseller feature No.1: Sam Barnes of BOOKS & INK, Banbury, picks IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear


This is the first post in a new occasional feature - we're inviting independent booksellers to tell us about their favourite books. A big thank you to Sam Barnes for starting us off! If you're an independent bookshop and would like to join in, please contact us - we'll be very pleased to welcome you.

Sam Barnes is the owner of Books & Ink Bookshop, an independent bookshop in Banbury with second hand, antiquarian and new books. Sam opened the shop in 2005 and runs it full time, with a bit of help here and there from family! When not cataloguing stock and running the shop, Sam’s a voracious reader, an occasional review writer, a collector of Edward Ardizzone books and ephemera, and loves to get out exploring the great outdoors with a pair of walking boots and a camera. The bookshop is open Tuesdays to Saturdays but the website is open 24/7.

Sunday 3rd September, 1939, 11:15 am: Neville Chamberlain declares that Britain is now at war with Germany. People across the country sit gathered around wireless radios to hear the pronouncement. Maisie Dobbs joins her dearest friend Priscilla and Priscilla’s family to hear the devastating news; adults, all affected in some way by the previous war, exchange anxious glances with one another, while Priscilla’s teenage boys react in a more excitable way.

This is the opening scene for the 13th Maisie Dobbs mystery from Jacqueline Winspear; a historical mystery series based on the eminently likeable psychologist and private investigator, Maisie. Turning back the clock to book one, the series begins with Maisie setting up her own private detective practice in London in 1929. An independent, self-employed young woman setting up in professional practice in the 1920s - brilliant; I loved Maisie straight away. From the beginning you sense in Maisie a sensitivity, spirituality and sadness - all lending to her interesting and empathetic character - and as the novels progress, she develops into an investigator with a talent for solving crimes where compassion and understanding of the human psyche are frequently involved.

In this novel, frequent mention is made of Maisie’s backstory; her time spent as a frontline nurse in France during the 1914-1918 war and before that, her time spent in service as a young girl before she met a mentor who steered her onto her career path as private investigator. Both elements are important in the story, as thoughts of the first war are uppermost in the minds of everyone old enough to remember, and Maisie’s time in service regularly proves useful to her in her detective work, with her unique ability to find common ground with people of all social backgrounds.

Maisie is called upon by the Belgian Embassy to investigate the murder of a Belgian national, a refugee in Britain from the first war. A police investigation has been launched but, because of the pressures on the security services, the police are content to conclude an open-and-shut case of violent robbery. The Belgian Embassy aren’t happy with the conclusion and hire Maisie to do further digging.

It’s a time of upheaval in London; streets and playgrounds are quiet as children have been evacuated to the countryside; the skies are filled with immense floating shadow-creating barrage balloons; people are nervous and many men and women who came through the first war at great cost and personal sacrifice are now having to endure seeing their barely adult boys sign up to the forces. Maisie’s father and stepmother, living in the Kentish countryside, have some evacuees billeted with them; one of whom is a nameless silent little girl who arrived on the train from London but who does not appear on any records. Amidst trying to solve the case of the Belgian refugee before more murders take place, Maisie and her assistants also take it upon themselves to try and find out the story of the lost little evacuee, to see if they can find a living relative and work out where she has come from and how they can best help her. Themes of loss and displacement are to the fore in this mystery, making the story feel very relevant today, with the plight of refugees, and refugee children in particular, being uppermost in the thoughts and hearts of many.

Jacqueline Winspear creates believable and empathetic characters and paces her stories just right for the theme - page-turning but not at the expense of characters, descriptive writing or historical interest. Maisie comes through each case with grace, humility and prowess - not always successful in her cases but always changed in some small or subtle way, developing with each novel into an interesting and warm human character. While not ‘cosy-crime’ exactly, the series are a light read and the crimes not dwelt up on in great depth - no gore, no terror or forensic uglies. I can’t read (or watch) that sort of crime; it leaves me with an ingrained fear for days. I’d recommend Maisie Dobbs to even the most crime-sensitive readers - and, in fact, all of the readers I’ve recommended Maisie to in the bookshop, have come back for more doses, so that’s a pretty good testament.

In This Grave Hour is published by Allison & Busby.




Monday, 26 March 2018

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NOVEL by Adele Geras


Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

The novel is in rude good health. Millions of people all over the world buy novels, read them, discuss them, take them out of libraries, pounce on them in charity shops, borrow them from friends and discover them on Kindles. Money is being made by lots of publishers and even a few writers. There are novels to suit every taste out there and even the Literary Novel, (by which I mean a book that isn’t immediately classifiable as crime, romance, sf, horror, spy or whatever) is being read avidly. I give you, off the top of my head, Atkinson, Tyler, Strout, Mantel, Perry, Toibin, Hollinghurst, St Aubyn, Amis, Ishiguro, Roth, McLaverty, and on and on. You can add others, I’m certain. Please note: I know there are many, many people who do not read novels at all. If they want stories, they have tv and movies and games and other ways of accessing narrative. This piece however is about novels.

I’m prompted to write not so much by Will Self's pronouncement in an interview with Alex Clarke from the Guardian that the novel was doomed as a culturally significant thing, as by a discussion on Twitter started by Eva Dolan (a very good writer of thrillers) about people tending to shy away from the difficult, the challenging, the experimental etc.

I suspect that this reluctance to engage with such works has something to do with this kind of book being as Eva puts it, very light on plot. She says: I can't think of many novels with no plot at all. plenty light on plot but think the reader collaborates in finding one, almost like seeing faces in clouds.

I'm afraid that doesn't cut the mustard for me. Print that has to be scrutinized and gone over and puzzled about must yield a story at the end or it ceases to qualify as a novel. I contend that anything that tries to do away with PLOT can be very many things but a novel isn't one of them. It might be a prose poem or an essay or meditations about this or that subject but it's emphatically NOT a novel.

PLOT is to a novel what a foundation is to a building: necessary. A sine qua non. All the rest: roof beams, walls, plaster, décor: every single other thing slobbers away into mud if you haven’t laid down a foundation. Where novels are concerned, that foundation is a plot.

Some believe that there are 7 templates for Available Plots (see Christopher Brooker's The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories. He contends that all stories fall within 7 categories, which may or may not be true, but I'm not discussing that now. I only want to say this: a novel needs a plot.

This can be extraordinarily simple. Very many books of greater or lesser literary worth can be boiled down to: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Many more can be summed up as: man in danger, man fights danger, man overcomes danger. Plots can also, of course, be terribly complicated, like Bleak House, for instance. They can be full of satisfying twists and breathtaking surprises. They can be every sort of thing to every sort of writer but they have this in common. They are WHAT MAKES A READER TURN THE PAGE. They are the “what’s going to happen next?“ engine that drives the whole machine.

I’ve been a reader for almost 70 years. I read a great deal, though less so these days with the advent of the Box Set. Many long form narratives on television are better than lots of novels. I’ve never been a dutiful reader and have always given up a book if I was bored, except when I had to study it. I can’t tell you the number of readers I’ve spoken to who tell me, sighing: "Well, I feel I do have to get to the end but I’m not enjoying it...”
What they probably mean is: they are not engaged with this book because the plot is non-existent and there’s only so much fine writing a person can take before needing someone to root for, someone to hate, someone to fear and with any luck all of the above. They want talk and interaction between characters. They want conflict. They want passion. They may want quantities of sex and violence if sales figures are anything to go by. They want A THREAD OF SUSPENSE to pull them through the timeline of the novel. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Will the curate turn up for tea tomorrow? can be as exciting in good hands as who killed the body in the library?

And that surely is the point: in good hands. Another variation of one of my favourite mottos: it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. Let me take Marcel Proust as an example. Here is someone who’s generally thought of as being on the plotless side of the literary fence. We do, after all, spend many, many pages right at the beginning of the novel waiting for Marcel’s mother to come and kiss him goodnight... but as the story develops, we are caught up with the plot lines of very many characters who interact with one another and whose stories intertwine most satisfyingly. The same thing can be said of the 12 volumes in Anthony Powell's sequence of novels, known as A Dance to the Music of Time. Each one is a story on its own and when you've read all twelve, they form a dizzying perspective of plots, like a intricate jigsaw of society perfectly slotted together; a kaleidoscope of many lives, moving through time together.

You may like reading the domestic, the historical, the futuristic, the dystopian, the soppy, the thrilling, the mind- crunchingly intellectual, the short, the long, the funny (please don’t forget the funny) the sentimental, the zany, the socially committed, the preachy, the off the wall... you name it. You might like any of these kinds of novels, but if what you're reading has no plot, then it can't be called a novel. Which, of course, is absolutely fine.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Guest review by Mary Hoffman: BIRDCAGE WALK by Helen Dunmore




Mary’s first book, a YA novel, was published in 1975. Since then she has written 120 books, mainly for children and teenagers but lately also a couple of adult novels under pseudonyms. After graduating in English Literature from Cambridge and spending a couple of years studying Linguistics at UCL, Mary wrote courses for the Open University for five years but then went freelance. She recently started The Greystones Press, a small independent publishing house, with her husband. Mary’s books have been translated into 30 language and won some prizes. She runs the popular History Girls blog, which can be read every day. Mary lives in a converted barn in West Oxfordshire with her husband and three demanding Burmese cats. Her three daughters are all grown up: one is a writer, one a theatre producer and the youngest, a designer, is sailing round the world. Mary has four grandchildren and her latest picture book, Pirate Baby, is dedicated to the two on the boat.

Helen Dunmore’s death last year was a great loss to the world of literature. She had written fifteen novels, four short story collections, eight YA novels, seventeen books for younger readers and twelve poetry collections.

The last of these, Inside the Wave, posthumously won the Costa Book of the Year prize, announced at the beginning of this year, an award that met with universal approval and poignant pleasure. Helen Dunmore was, in words of the cliché, much loved. But clichés are sometimes true and no-one has a bad word to say about her, whose death at 64 robbed her friends and readers of surely more fiction and verse.

So what of her final novel, Birdcage Walk?

The ambience of the story is immediately arresting: Bristol in the late 18th century, a time when it was a meeting place of radicals, many producing political pamphlets and other ephemera. It was also the site of a property boom and canny developers were building grand terraces above Clifton.

One woman, Lizzie, the daughter of radical Julia Fawkes, forms a link between the two since her marriage to John Diner Tredevant, one of the speculators building a terrace above the gorge. That is an uneasy in-law relationship and Lizzie is torn between the political ideas she has been brought up on and the capitalist ideology that underlies the source of her husband’s potential wealth.

Helen Dunmore herself wrote two months before her death (Guardian, 4th March 2017: Facing mortality and what we leave behind) that she wanted to acknowledge the people who leave no mark on history, no legacy of written words: “Historical record does not know them but fiction can imagine them.”

Of course, at that stage she was aware of her terminal diagnosis and she does leave a great legacy of writing in so many genres but Julia Fawkes is a fictional unknown, whose overgrown grave is found by a man walking his Jack Russell in a rather awkward present day Prelude to the novel. Birdcage Walk is a path leading to a graveyard in Clifton, Bristol, where Dunmore had walked and explored for forty years.

The discovery of Julia’s grave leads the unnamed seeker to research on the Internet and in local archives but although he can find details of Julia’s second husband, Augustus Gleeson, nothing of her life remains. And the dog-walker fades out of the story, not returning at the end to add the second bracket to the framing device.

Still the main story doesn’t begin straightaway. After the Prelude there is a kind of prologue, in 1789, in which a man buries a woman in a deserted glade rear a river. Only eight pages and three years later does the action of the novel proper begin.

Lizzie wakes in a post-coital dawn and extracts herself from her husband’s heavy embrace. This is the powerful, strong John Tredevant, who prefers to be called Diner and who wants plenty of sex but no children. We know from the beginning that he has a temper and is possessive about his wife, not wanting to share her love with a child.

But a child there is and it’s not because Diner forbears to satisfy himself in other orifices or that Lizzie forgets her mother’s advice about what to do with a little sponge and some vinegar. It is Lizzie’s own mother, the great Julia Fawkes, who has the child, a boy, and the tragedy of his birth leaves him in need of mothering.

Diner is jealous of the love Lizzie lavishes on her little half-brother and issues a series of ultimatums. It is clear that all the women in the story are afraid of him and Lizzie’s true alliances are with Hannah, her mother’s old servant and young Philo the Tredevants’ own maid. There is a sort of conspiracy of sisterhood among the women to keep Diner pacified and the baby Thomas (named for Tom Paine, as the son of two radicals) properly cared for.

Meanwhile, Lizzie and Diner have moved into one of the terraced houses he has built – what we’d now call a “show home” - to encourage buyers but the terrace and the pavement outside it are incomplete, suppliers are demanding payment, the workers are threatening to down tools and buyers are not forthcoming. None of this is good for Diner’s temper and Lizzie lives in an atmosphere of brooding menace.

At the same time, in Paris, the deposed King Louis has gone on trial. Lizzie is living in a time of great change both personally and publicly. It seems almost inevitable that she will meet someone else and she does: a young man being sheltered by her stepfather Augustus. Will Forest is everything that Diner is not – tender, a poet and interested in Lizzie’s opinions.

And into this powder keg of high emotions is dropped the match of Diner’s dead first wife, Lucie. Her godmother turns up, asking to see Lucie’s grave.

This must be Helen Dunmore’s last novel and it is laced through with forebodings about death. Because of her previous prize-winning output and the sadness at her loss, we want it to be a masterpiece but unfortunately, it isn’t.

It is, as you would expect, very well-written and often fascinating but the construction is off -putting and the prologue of the man burying the woman leaches all the tension out of Diner’s story. There are little nods to other treatments of the same theme, as when Diner says of Lucie, “one may smile too often,” evoking Browning’s My Last Duchess and “all smiles stopped together.”

In her Afterword, Dunmore says, “I am writing not only about a particular period of history but also about the ways in which the individual vanishes from historical record.” This is where the interest of the novel lies, in the imagining of Julia Fawkes as one of those “lost people,” albeit a fictional one, whose mark on history disappears like a fingerprint in kneaded dough but whose influence lives on.

Her Words Remain Our Inheritance is carved on Julia Fawkes’ headstone. It might as well stand as Helen Dunmore’s own epitaph.

Birdcage Walk is published by Windmill Press.

Read Writers Review's tribute to Helen Dunmore here.



Monday, 12 March 2018

EDUCATED reviewed by Adele Geras





Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

The cover of Tara Westover's Educated  is striking. The passage quoted on the back of the book tells you something of what this memoir is about: the author's journey from Idaho to a PhD from Cambridge, a path strewn with astonishing descriptions of life in her extraordinary family. It also demonstrates some of the power of Westover's writing style: plain, sinewy and elegant, all at once. 

You couldn't make it up... that's what people say when what they've read or seen takes them aback to such an extent that they find it an effort to (in another popular form of words) get their heads round it.

I read Educated about two months ago and I'm still thinking about it. It's been universally praised. I predict that it will be on every shortlist it can possibly be on. It will be passed from one friend to another and anyone who reads it will come away moved, touched, horrified and above all knocked sideways by Westover's gift for telling her story in such a powerful and resonant way. She writes most beautifully, with a gift for conveying at the same time the terrible, violent, abusive things that attended her childhood and family life and at the same time, the tenacity of the bonds she feels binding her to her parents and siblings.

She sees them clearly as they are: a man and a woman adhering to a Survivalist Mormon belief so powerful and paranoid that the children are unregistered with school or any other government agency and have spent their entire lives working in their father's scrapyard (with no Health or Safety supervision) or, in the case of the girls, helping with their mother's herbal remedies for family and neighbours. Westover's mother is a self-taught midwife and in thrall to her narcissistic and overbearing husband. Some of her siblings are more sympathetic than others, and one brother is a brutal abuser. The physical harm described in the book is startling and deeply shocking. If this were fiction (you couldn't make it up) your editor would say: you can't put that in your novel. No one would believe it. But it did happen to Westover and how she escaped her family and gained a brilliant PhD from Cambridge University can be seen as an (again, scarcely believable) happy ending.

But Cambridge is not unalloyed bliss. Tara Westover has suffered greatly and hasn't been in contact with most of her family for years.

I finished this book full of admiration for its courageous and hugely talented writer and I hope very much that she finds happiness in her life from now on. I can't wait to read her next book, whatever it turns out to be, and I can safely say that if you start reading Educated, you will not be able to put it down. And you certainly won't be able to forget it.

Educated is published by Hutchinson.