Book Review: The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene – a riveting story, artfully crafted

I’d heard a few recommendations of this 2014 novel set in a New England school. You get to the middle and suddenly you can’t put it down, people told me. And yes, in a way, that was true.

The Headmaster’s Wife is the story of a marriage in trouble, set in the enclave of a small private prep school, a claustrophobic world where privacy and personal freedom can be in short supply. Tradition holds sway at Lancaster, an exclusive boarding school for wealthy students aiming for Ivy League universities. A few scholarships bring in students from poorer backgrounds, such as Betsy Pappas, a brilliant student from a small town north of Lancaster, the product of hippy parents, and Russell Hurley, a plumber’s son who is there because he’s so good at sport.

Not so, Arthur Winthrop. He’s the son of a Lancaster headmaster, and the grandson of a Lancaster headmaster, and carrying on in the same family tradition (a good literature degree from Yale and a teaching career), is now the headmaster of the title. We catch up with Arthur at the start of the book when he’s lost his way. Walking through Central Park in the snow, he has some sort of mental breakdown, removes his clothes, before finding himself in police custody and requested to explain his behaviour.

The story flips back to his obsession with a student, Betsy Pappas, who is not only attractive, but really gets Russian literature. Meanwhile his wife plays a lot of tennis, or spends time in their son’s room, missing Ethan who has disappointed his father by joining the army instead of going to Yale. The succession of Winthrops as Lancaster headmasters will likely end with Arthur.

And she thinks perhaps that is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass… They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.

While the Headmaster’s Wife is about the Winthrops and their marriage, there’s also a mystery/suspense element that keeps you hooked. Communication problems, suppressed feelings as well as power and its abuse hover in the background. I was also reminded of that often quoted line from Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse”. You know the one.

To say more would spoil one or two surprises that give the book the impetus that keeps you reading. The story structure is original, and you can’t help but admire the clever storytelling, the fine writing, but the book will tug at your heartstrings too. I was glad of the recommendation to pick this up, as it’s a quiet, unassuming looking book that would have otherwise escaped my radar. The Headmaster’s Wife scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison – a compelling historical novel set in rural England

I’ve heard so much to recommend this novel and the setting of 1930s Suffolk also was appealing. It’s the story of Edith Mather who is fourteen during the summer of 1934 and everything’s gearing up towards harvest time. Her parents are tenant farmers with the help of John, who survived the battlefields of WWI, and Doble, their old farm hand. Edith’s brother Frank helps too and at seventeen is courting a local girl, his future mapped out for him. Older sister Mary is already married and has a baby, so Edith’s future seems set to follow in a similar direction. Alf Rose on a neighbouring farm already has his eye on Edie.

Then Connie FitzAllen arrives on the scene, visiting farms to research the old rural ways, with plans to write a book – her articles appearing in journals as Sketches from English Rural Life. Her fear is that farming traditions might be lost as mechanisation becomes widespread, farmers’ wives buy bread from the bakery instead of making their own and the conveniences of canned goods change the way people prepare meals. Connie takes a shine to Edith, who shows her round the village, and helps the visitor any way she can. To be fair, Connie lends a hand with the harvest, but what is her secret agenda?

Sketches from English Rural Life –

There is surely no better repast than country dishes, innocent of the fashions of the modern age. They may not be refined, but here there is good, wholesome food such as may be found on every English farm where butter is churned by hand, cheese is made, and bread is daily baked.

The story is told through Edith’s eyes and she’s an engaging narrator. She’s intelligent – her old teacher would have liked to see her study further, giving her exercise books to encourage her to write. But Edith’s needed on the farm. There’s all that laundry every Monday, and the chickens to care for as well as all the work to help bring in the harvest. It seems everyone has Edith’s time organised for her, including the incomer, Connie. No wonder she’s getting into a bit of a state.

But then all the characters are interestingly complex. Edith’s father seems to be under pressure – making the farm pay isn’t easy. There’s the depression after all, and he’s one of those typical men of his time who bottles up his feelings, resulting in sudden rages. Edith’s mother suffered as a girl as her mother was considered a bit of a witch. Connie is also complex, with her intense fondness for both Edith and her mother, her ability to charm even the stolid menfolk with her talk of politics and new ideas, though not at the expense of rural traditions, of course.

And then there’s the countryside. Harrison describes it in lush detail that makes you feel you are there, not just the flora and fauna as she sees it, but how it changes with the seasons, or even as day turns to night. She has a very distinctive voice and it doesn’t surprise me that her website describes her both a “novelist and nature writer”.

Our barley was well along now, flaxen from a distance and with the beards tipping over almost as we watched. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still-blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Then the sound of the cornfields would alter: dry, they would susurrate, whispering to Father and John that it was nearly time. The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks.

But in this idyllic setting there are darker dramas afoot, a hint that one war has past leaving its scars on people, while we are aware of another just around the corner. The characters meanwhile have their own more immediate issues creating so much strain that things seem set to boil over. This causes enough tension to sweep the reader along towards an ending you might not quite be prepared for. It’s a great historical read – a combination of characters you can feel for, great writing and a brilliant recreation of time and place. I can see why All Among the Barley has been so well reviewed. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about so it’s another five star read from me.

Book Review: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – an atmospheric historical drama and the perfect ‘quiet’ read

I recently came upon a post on Twitter asking readers to name their favourite ‘quiet’ books.. Among the recommendations were lots of my favourites and quite a few more I’d not heard of. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was there, and Barbara Pym, as well as Anne Tyler and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April. And I thought, yes these are the authors that I read again and again. Now I can add The Narrow Land to the list – a book about the small dramas of people thrown together on Cape Cod during the summer of 1950.

Among the cast of characters is Ed Hopper. He’s the much-loved American painter who produced similarly quiet pictures of people and cars and architecture, the most famous of which is probably Nighthawks, showing late-night customers at a city diner. Ed and his wife Jo live in New York with a holiday house at Cape Cod. They make an odd couple, he’s very tall, quiet, solemn even, while she’s short, emotional and talkative. When we meet them they are in their sixties. Ed has the artist’s version of writer’s block; Jo anxiously quizzing him about possible subject matter, while regretting the sacrifice of her own artistic ambitions to further Ed’s career.

We also meet Michael, the ten-year-old German orphan adopted by a kindly New York couple after their own son’s death. He is sent for two weeks’ holiday with the Kaplans, a well-to-do family who support the charity that has rescued orphans like Michael. Mrs Kaplan is a Lady Bountiful type of character who is renting a large house on the cape with her daughter, Katherine, who is ill, and her glamorous daughter-in-law, the widow of Mrs K’s only son. As well as enjoying the benefits of a holiday by the sea, Michael will be company for Mrs K’s grandson, Richie.

Michael has plenty of demons – memories of the horrors of his war, the loss of his nationality, his language, but also the fear that his new parents won’t want him back – they are moving house and expecting another child. Then there’s fitting in with the tony Kaplans, knowing what to say and do. Richie, soon to be despatched to a new boarding school is chatty and excessively well-mannered, but also suffering the loss of his father.

When Jo tries to shoo the Kaplan’s from the beach in front of the Hoppers’ house, what begins as a seemingly awful social gaffe becomes the catalyst that throws the two households together. Everyone’s intrigued to meet Ed, who cringes at the thought of social engagements. But it’s the two lost and lonely boys who seem to connect with the artist and his wife. While Jo tries to make up with the Kaplans for her earlier bad manners, Ed roams around looking at buildings, their windows and doorways, sketching, walking and thinking. There’s a woman too whose image he can’t quite shake and feels he’s seen her somewhere around here before.

The Narrow Land is a slow burn of a read, with chapters named after some of the planets in Holst’s famous suite, a record loved by both Ed and Katherine. Stars are aligning, perhaps. Little by little, we get to know the characters and they are all written with immense sympathy though each have their faults. Against this, the wider story of the middle twentieth century and an America rebuilding after the war, while a new war in Korea is on the horizon. The characters are also battling it out – Ed and Jo bicker and walk out on each other, Michael and Richie don’t get along either. Only Katherine can soothe the troubled waters it seems, but she’s got her own battle on her hands.

In the background you have the Cape Cod summer, the wind riffling through the long grass, the boats on the water, the long, languid evenings. Did I mention this is also the perfect winter read? I particularly enjoyed the insight you get into Ed Hopper’s paintings, his artist’s eye, his struggles to find the right subject matter. Visual images, music and lingering scents of cigarettes and cologne add to the immediacy of the book, often seen through Michael’s point of view, the perfect impressionable young narrator.

The Narrow Land is an accomplished and spell-binding drama, easily a five out of five from me. It’s also the 2020 recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and as such qualifies for one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat winter reading programme: Read a Prize Winning Book. Put this ‘quiet’ novel on your to-read list.

Book Review: The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien – an Irish classic perfect for a library reading challenge

Our public library is running a winter reading programme called Turn Up the Heat. There’s a kind of bingo card of different reading challenges, and every time you log a completed challenge, you go into the draw for prizes. So much fun! One of the challenges is to read a book published in the year you were born. In spite of thinking there’d be hardly anything published in a year so long ago, I quickly found three books to choose from I was happy to read.

The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding, a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, is a book I’ve read before, probably more than once, and I have a copy on my bookshelf. But I felt this one lacked the element of challenge I was quite looking for. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is one of the books in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ series of twelve books. I’ve been meaning to reread them for a while now, but as the one from my birth year is number five in the series, I demurred. Then I happened upon The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. A book I’ve always meant to read, and not too long. Perfect.

I was quickly caught up in the story of fourteen-year-old Caithleen, who is worried about the return of her father, missing for days if not weeks with the money he was meant to use on paying bills. We’re on a farm near Limerick, and the father has a terrible temper, and a tendency to go on benders, returning home to beat his wife. This sounds kind of morose, but in spite of the dreariness of life in a small village, Caithleen is a charming narrator. She’s naive, but friendly and kindly. She has a terrible hoodlum of a friend, Baba (Bridget), and the two get up to all sorts.

Cait is romantic in nature, and in spite of a family tragedy, dreams her way through life, yearning after Mr Gentleman, the name given to the Frenchman with an unpronounceable name who lives in a nearby manor house with his wife. Baba just wants to have fun, sometimes at Cait’s expense. Baba is dark, dainty and pretty, which makes tall, red-headed and eventually ‘Rubenesque’ Cait feel inferior. They have a challenging relationship, but kind-hearted Cait remains loyal through all Baba puts her through.

The book is divided roughly into three parts, the first with the girls still at the local school, and Cait’s family situation disintegrates to the point where Baba’s parents feel obliged to take her in. The second has them at a convent school, where Cait shines academically, and Baba gets them into trouble. In the third section, the two escape to Dublin where Baba is sent to a secretarial college and Cait to work in a grocery store. They live for their nights out on the town, Baba urging Cait on to have fun, while Cait writes letters home to Mr Gentleman.

Edna O’Brien writes in a way that is both amusing and entertaining, but also puts you in the time and place. 1960s Dublin is full of all kinds of traps for young girls; the sexism is horrific, so you can’t help admiring Baba’s mother who is worldly wise and does what she feels like, even hiding the chicken dinner from her husband in her wardrobe so there is more for her. It’s a bit like an Irish Nancy Mitford novel – loads of fun, mad characters and brilliant social commentary, but lurking beneath it all a layer of darkness. You can’t help feeling that with the 1960s ready to get going, there will be more choice for young Irish women, but you’ll have to read the next book (The Lonely Girl) to find out.

I’ve always enjoyed classic literature – it’s such a dilemma whether to read the next hot new release or a book that’s remained in print for decades or more. So it’s good to mix them up. I’ve enjoyed a lot of more recent Irish literature, so I appreciated The Country Girls as a book that made an impact at its publication, inspiring the generations of Irish writers, particularly female ones, that followed. Apparently The Country Girls trilogy was so shocking at the time, it was banned and even denounced from the pulpit. Another challenge in Turn Up the Heat is to read a biography – I might be tempted to give O’Brien’s, A Country Girl, a try.

Book Review: V for Victory by Lissa Evans – a witty, heartwarming read about the war at home

I seem to have a thing for historical novels at the moment and I’m lucky to be spoilt for choice. This novel loosely follows on from two other books by Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, both of which are terrific reads. The main character who features in all three is a boy called Noel who only appears briefly in Old Baggage, but is a young evacuee in Crooked Heart when Vee takes him in.

Vee has had a hard upbringing and knows the value of looking after yourself, with an eye over your shoulder in case someone catches you out. She’s a grifter in the earlier book, and now she has as secret as well as a new name, masquerading as Noel’s aunt, a Margery Overs. It’s the only way she can still be Noel’s guardian, and the two are inseparable.

In V for Victory, Noel and Vee are living in Hampstead, in the house where Noel lived with Mattie, an elderly former suffragette and Noel’s godmother (and also the main character in Old Baggage). Mattie has left a lasting impression on Noel, making him an eager student and likely to quote chunks of literature and even Greek at any moment. It might make him sound a trifle old for his fifteen years but his bright, cheery curiosity soon wins people over.

Such as Winnie, the chief fire warden he meets when out trying to buy a textbook from a recently bombed stationery shop. Winnie’s story is a subplot loosely threaded with the main story and gives a glimpse of the experiences of women left behind by husbands in the forces that they hardly remember.

Winnie’s Emlyn has been in a POW camp since Dunkirk. Now we’re approaching the end of the war, she’s wondering what it will be like to see him again, dreading the mail in case there’s another boring letter outlining imaginary colour schemes for an imaginary house, or garden plans. In the meantime she’s become a confident and able young woman who’s found her feet with her war work, emerging from the shadow cast by her glamorous twin sister.

But the main story focuses on what happens when Vee witnesses an accident involving a US Army truck driver and has to report to the coroner’s court. Vee is terrified of having to lie under oath that she’s Margery Overs. But there’s a happy outcome when she becomes the recipient of treats from the US Army stores and invitations to go out with defendant, Corporal O’Mahoney. You can’t help feeling Vee’s secret will be discovered sooner or later, though.

But most of the fun in this book centres around the odd-bod bunch of boarders Vee has taken in to make ends meet. She selects them carefully so that they can double as tutors for Noel, in place of school. Dr Parry-Jones teaches Noel chemistry, biology and ‘accuracy’ (her steady gaze seemed to see and expect only the truth); Mr Reddish, who once dreamt of a stage career teaches literature and is always on the brink of a recitation; Mr Jepson, a journalist who lost an ear in the previous war, takes care of history and mathematics. Dinner time conversations are always a hoot.

Similarly, there’s plenty of lively banter between Winnie and her fellow wardens in their Post 9 Nissan hut. Evans has such a knack with dialogue, it is easy to imagine these characters and what they sound like. And the wartime drudgery: making meals go further out of rations (fortunately Noel is an inventive cook and they have chickens); the lack of heating; the queuing; the interrupted train services; the end of war fatigue. Not to mention the constant listening for V-2 rockets which fall from the sky with little warning.

It all comes together in a book that captures the time with humour and empathy – a delicate balance to get right – and adds up to a perfect wartime novel. There’s plenty of competition in this genre, but V for Victory stands out for its quirky scenarios and unlikely heroes. I hope Evans has a few more up her sleeve. This one gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

I thought this novel was going to be about a man facing down cancer, but it’s actually a coming of age story, bracketed by what might be a very treatable cancer diagnosis and a new relationship. And music. I love novels that take you on a journey of your own. With Take Nothing With You, I found myself visiting YouTube to discover or rediscover the beautiful cello pieces described in the book.

Eustace lives with his parents in an elegant inherited house in Weston-Super-Mare. His parents run it as a rest home, which makes for Eustace, their only child, an unusual childhood. While he must be quiet and not disturb the guests, he is also left a lot to his own devices. It’s a family living in a kind of genteel poverty; they never go away on holiday because they live at a seaside resort – what could be nicer?

As he grows up, a cello concert is a revelation and brings Carla, his new music teacher into his family’s world. Carla is warm and intuitive, passionate and generous. She spots a talent in Eustace and fosters it, as well as striking up a fond friendship with Eustace’s apparently friendless mother. You get a lot of music detail as Eustace learns about fingering and the complexities of playing solo or with a group. If you like classical music this is really interesting and Gale has the insight of an accomplished musician. As Eustace develops musically, he also becomes aware of his sexuality and this forms another thread in the story.

Eustace is a sensitive character who always seems to be just missing out. At the start of the book he has just fallen in love, while receiving a cancer diagnosis. His education is full of missteps as well. The reader wants him to reach out and grab life with both hands. In the background, his parents’ restrictive lifestyle, strains upon their marriage, his mother’s moment of recklessness all affect the story in interesting and dramatic ways.

Patrick Gale writes with warmth and wit creating a brilliant story arc that captures the man that is Eustace, as well as the boy. The subordinate characters are just as interesting, each empathetic in their own way. And the settings: the Somerset seafront town, the music school in Scotland, plus the 1970s, are evocatively created here too. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to read this, but it was a complete joy because Gale is such a beautiful writer. And I am delighted to see that he has a new novel out early next year. This one scores a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Felicity McLean’s debut novel novel has been described as The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. Set in small town Australia, the book is told in two time frames, and begins when Tikka Molloy returns home to reconnect with her sister Laura who isn’t well. She can’t stop thinking, had they did the right thing twenty years ago when their friends, the three Van Apfel sisters vanished. She looks back on that sweltering summer when she was eleven and the events that led up to their disappearance.

Tikka is a great child narrator – she reminds me a little bit of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, if we’re thinking of book comparisons here. She’s smart and imaginative and comes from a loving family. At the corner of their street live the Van Apfels and Tikka and Laura spend a lot of time there as the family has a pool. The Van Apfels attend a fundamentalist church – their dad, though outwardly genial, is particularly strict and this causes tension with his wayward thirteen-year-old daughter Cordelia.

There’s a lot of Tikka trying to make sense of her world and understand what’s going on with the grown-ups, and the tension that seems to lurk at the Van Apfels. There’s a new teacher, Mr Avery, who has a mysterious past that may have included a stint in prison – as rumour has it. So along with the simmering heat there is plenty of simmering tension as the school plans its big, Showstopper concert at an outdoor amphitheatre, for which Tikka has written her own skit and where events build to a climax.

In true Aussie Noir style, the landscape plays a big part in this novel. The mangroves around a brackish estuary create a sinister backdrop (Tikka complains of an unpleasant smell); the empty landscape beyond; the heat bouncing off the tarmac. It all adds to the mood and tension of the book. And there is a hint of the unreliable narrator about Tikka. How accurate are her memories from childhood? Even now as an adult she still can’t help looking for Cordelia (Cordie) at railway stations, at busy intersections, her blonde head just disappearing around corners, failing to stop when called. The Van Apfel girls may have disappeared that summer, but a part of Tikka seems to have been lost as well.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is an impressive debut, a character driven mystery that is also quite the page-turner. There is plenty of humour with the way McLean re-imagines childhood, the rivalry between sisters and between classmates, the rumours and the secrets, the superiority of the older kids. This balances out the sadness of what happens and the feeling of lost innocence which runs through the story. Not a long book, McLean’s novel is well worth picking up, and heralds a promising new author to look out for. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

Escaping to a Greek Island where you can live cheaply for a year just so you can focus on your art, bask in the sun, swim and enjoy the delights of love, food and wine – what an idyll. Hydra in 1960 was just such an island, captured here in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson. Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston are established on Hydra and help out newly arrived artists eager to take a break from the rat-race to finish their novels, paint or create poetry.

It is where eighteen-year-old Erika holes up, still grieving the death of her mother and escaping a volatile father, London rain and the typing pool. With her is her boyfriend, emerging poet Jimmy, and brother Bobby and his girlfriend. There’s a connection with Charmian through Erika’s mother, and an expectation they can find a cheap house.

Madly in love, Erika doesn’t mind doing the donkey work – making sure they have clean water, meals and fetching ice to keep their food fresh. Charmian takes pity on her and encourages her to write – she sees in Erika a daughter figure, but also the watchfulness of a budding writer.

And there’s plenty to see – in particular the twenty-five-year-old Leonard Cohen, fresh off the boat with his guitar, eager to finish his first novel. But he’s distracted by Scandinavian beauty, Marianne Ihlen who is caught in a disastrous marriage with Axel Jansen, himself an enfant terrible of the literary world in Norway.

As well as a hub for expats coming and going, Charmian and George’s house becomes a second home to Erika. But the pair have financial problems, drink too much and argue a lot, George has poor health and issues with jealousy. Ah, the lives of the bohemians. Shaking off conformity and the rules of the nine-to-five working life, this enclave of creatives explore many new freedoms, break each other’s hearts and live like characters from bacchanalian scenes on a Grecian urn.

Samson has done a mound of research to bring these artists to life, helped no doubt by the records made not only in their writing, but in the pictures of Time-Life photographer, James Burke. The novel is in many ways a social history, highlighting the emergence of the counter-culture era that would turn into the swinging sixties, but also the feminism that waits in the wings.

And boy is it needed as several key female characters are left holding the baby, wiping the weary brows of their men, playing muse and ignoring their own careers. There is a lot in the book to think about as you read about the endless parties, the infidelities and drunken escapades. In the background the conservative local Greek population must have been pleased with the extra business garnered at the time the sponge industry was drying up, while shaking their heads at the various improprieties.

There are a lot of names – you might want to keep the Internet handy. I struggled to keep up with the different personalities that swept through. But I felt a strong sense of being there; Samson describes the island using all five senses and this alone makes the book really quite wonderful. A four out of five read from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.