Book Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner – a post-war story and bookish delight

When I picked up Bloomsbury Girls, I hadn’t realised that it follows an earlier novel, The Jane Austen Society. The newer book continues the story of bright, young thing, Evie Stone, who is now fresh out of Cambridge and a bit miffed.

Evie has been passed over for a research position, and for a male graduate who isn’t half as clever. This is 1949 and women have only recently been allowed to be conferred degrees, so she shouldn’t be surprised. Turning up in London for a job interview, she administers first aid to the manager when he collapses. While he’s recovering, they’re a man down, so Evie finds herself hired.

Soon settled in on the third floor, Evie has to catalogue the mass of rare books bought at auctions by Frank Allen, one of the owners. She has an ulterior motive, but the lack of order makes finding any particular book quite challenging. Fortunately Evie has a quick and methodical mind.

The other ‘girls’ of the title are aspiring author Vivian Lowry and unhappily married Grace Perkins. Grace loves her work at the bookshop – it’s a place she can escape a husband who has had a breakdown and who makes her life a misery. If it weren’t for her two young boys, she would leave him. At the shop she has a good friend in Vivian, who since losing her fiancé during the war, has become an angry young female, pouring all her feelings into the notebooks she carries with her.

Also on the staff is Alec McDonough, who is head of fiction and who has a fascination for Vivian. He too is an aspiring author, but any chance he and Vivian might share their work are hampered by the sparks that fly between them, occasionally romantic, but mostly they’re darts of fury from Vivian. Ashwin Ramaswamy is down in the basement, studying tiny organisms among the shelves of science and nature books.

Ash is also disappointed, having come from India to make something of himself, but struggles with the racism he experiences in London. It isn’t surprising that he and Evie become friends. They’re both up against it. Meanwhile, Lord Baskin, with his financial interest in the shop, finds more and more excuses to pop in since Grace arrived on the scene.

While there are several romantic threads to the story, the main thrust of the plot concerns Evie’s secret mission and to achieve her aims, help comes from a few surprising quarters. Will Evie find what she is looking for? Can Grace begin again and find happiness for herself and her boys? Will Vivian overcome her anger and succeed as a writer? Is there any hope for women to achieve their dreams in post-war Britain?

The novel includes some real-life characters, including Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett and Peggy Guggenheim. They’re nicely brought to life as they interact with Evie and her colleagues. It all comes together in a light, feel-good read packed with warmth and humour. And there’s a smart literary quality too, giving you the impression that the author really knows her twentieth century literature.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read The Jane Austen Society – although I for one will be hunting down this debut novel. Bloomsbury Girls is a fun, satisfying story – a four star read from me. There’s another book, Every Time We Say Goodbye in the pipeline, but not out until next year. Clearly, Jenner’s an author to watch.

Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – a tense and evocative story from the Italian Renaissance

This novel is inspired by the Robert Browning poem ‘My Last Duchess’ as well as the historical figure of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, who met an untimely death at the age of sixteen, supposedly murdered by her husband. I hadn’t known anything of the real duchess, but remember reading the poem in English Lit classes at uni and not realising it at the time that the duchess described had died so young.

It’s a shocking story in anybody’s book – Browning’s Dramatic Lyrics or this one, and so I demurred while The Marriage Portrait sat on my bedside table, distracting myself with every other book until, with nothing much else to read I finally picked it up. I shouldn’t have worried, having enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s books enormously in the past and it was only a page or two before I was engrossed in the story, as well as in awe at the writing.

Lucrezia is a difficult child, the least favourite it seems in her family, and as she grows she seems a thin little thing, quite unlike her lively, dark-haired older sisters. She’s smart though, sitting in a corner where the children are taught their lessons, but learning much faster the Latin and Greek, the history and geography than her siblings. Her real talent is art, although she could be a master spy the way she sneaks around the palace, listening at doors.

When her older sister Maria suddenly dies before her wedding can take place, Lucrezia is promised to Maria’s fiancé instead, to unite the grand houses of Medici and Ferrara, even though Lucrezia is only thirteen. She’s a spirited child, who likes her freedom, but also cherishes the safety of her home – her life has been a sheltered one. So at the time of her wedding a couple of years later, she is ill prepared to be the docile wife of a powerful ruler.

The gown rustles and slides around her, speaking a glossolalia all of its own, the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics, and Lucrezia would like to cover her ears, but she cannot.

O’Farrell makes Lucrezia interesting, believable and vividly real, a complex character, as is her new husband Alfonso, who is on the surface so charming and solicitous, but also desperate for the heir that will secure his position. The book begins with Alfonso whisking Lucrezia off to a hunting lodge, away from the prying eyes of his palace, and where Lucrezia feels he is to do away with her. She has seen this other side to him before – the merciless capacity for violence, the lack of forgiveness. Will Lucrezia succumb and give in or will she fight back for her survival?

Sixteenth century Italy is brought to life – a time of a flowering of the arts which are lushly shown here in paintings, architecture and music. The intense richness of the language, vividly present tense, mirrors the gorgeousness of this Renaissance world. Yet this is also a time when well-born young women are just pawns on the chessboard of power to be married off by their fathers. Like Lucrezia they may have little idea of the politics around them or what will be expected of them.

This makes the novel a tense and gripping read as the story bounces between the hunting-lodge present where the moments tick away until Alfonso will act against his duchess, and the back-story that fills in Lucrezia’s life and how she has come to be in this predicament. It all seems so much more vivid because of the way O’Farrell writes – the intensity of Lucrezia’s feelings, the undercurrents that pass between characters, as well as the sensory details – the feel of fabric on skin, Lucrezia’s painterly eye that sees every colour and shade, the shock of seeing mountains for the first time, the descriptions of the music Alfonso gets lost in.

The Marriage Plot is a book that delivers on every level, giving you a glimpse into the past, an edge-of-the-seat story, as well as gorgeous writing. It isn’t surprising it’s been selected for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longest – I’ll be eager to see if it makes the shortlist, announced on 26 April. It will also be interesting to see what O’Farrell comes up with next. This book gets a full five stars from me.

Book Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby – the story of the famous writer’s sister

When Jane Austen died, she left thousands of letters sent to family and friends, of which many were destroyed by her sister, Cassandra. This is the Miss Austen of Gill Hornby’s novel. The story begins with the elderly Cassandra visiting the vicarage where her long-dead fiancé grew up, the home of her very dear and also departed friend Eliza.

Jane and Cassandra both wrote to Eliza, and Cassandra is sure there must be a cache of letters somewhere, full of heartfelt disclosures and secrets, as well as (knowing Jane) waspish comments about other family and acquaintances. It is imperative that Cassandra finds these before they are made public. Cassandra was the carer and confidante of Jane in life, and now, twenty years after her sister’s death, she wants to preserve her good name and not allow Jane to be the subject of speculation and gossip.

And so here she is at the vicarage where as a young woman, she farewelled her beloved Tom on a voyage to the Caribbean, a chance for him to win a living from his patron and secure the means for he and Cassandra to marry. Memories come flooding back and the story dips back in time to those early years and the promises she made to Tom before his departure.

Meanwhile Eliza’s daughter Isabella is rattling around in the vicarage with her grim but loyal servant Dinah, her father the vicar having recently died. Isabella has the job of finding somewhere else to live as well as packing up all the chattels and furnishings that have been a part of her life since childhood. But Cassandra is appalled to see that Isabella doesn’t seem to know how to begin, obviously so ground down by years with an autocratic and belittling father she has a complete lack of initiative.

So we have two story threads here: Cassandra’s efforts to encourage Isabella to find a house with her other spinster sisters – for what could be more pleasant than to live with sisters?; and the early years of Cassandra’s own life with her beloved Jane as revealed by the letters she finds.

I listened to Miss Austen as an audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson and if there is a Juliet Stevenson fan club out there, I should probably become a member because her reading is utterly superb. She brings to life the characters so well along with the nuances of tone in the writing, the conversations and voices of Jane and Cassandra, plus all the peripheral characters ,to recreate the Austen sisters’ world.

There are multiple characters – the girls had five brothers, plus friends and new acquaintances, which echo some of the themes and interactions from Jane Austen’s novels. Gill Hornby has done a really good job with this, and while there are many novels out there that pay homage to Jane Austen, mostly through further stories about some of her much-loved characters, this book about Cassandra is one of the better ones I’ve come across.

Of course we can’t expect a raft of happy endings here. Jane Austen didn’t live long, and the Austens struggled to find a permanent home after their father died. Neither Jane nor Cassandra ever married and there seems to have been both grief and a sense of missed opportunities over this. And yet, Hornby sneaks in a rather charming and amusing ending to the story, casting the truculent Dinah in a whole new light. Cassandra herself is wonderful company and as an elderly unmarried woman, a believable and refreshing heroine. Miss Austen is a four out of five read from me.

Reading the Classics: Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy Part 1 – The Great Fortune

This round of the Classics Club Spin sent me off to Romania, 1939, for the first of six books that are based on Manning’s own experiences, and which are combined together as her Fortunes of War series. I have only read the first book: The Great Fortune , which is a decent, meaty read for a number of reasons.

The story begins with a train journey. Newley weds, Guy and Harriet Pringle are on their way to Bucharest in Romania. Guy teaches English at a Bucharest university as part of a cultural programme sponsored by the British government. He’s met Harriet during the summer vacation and married her before bringing her to the Balkans just as Germany invades Poland.

So when the Pringles arrive at their hotel, Harriet is confronted not only by persistent beggars, many of them deformed from birth to help their earning potential, but also an influx of Polish refugees. Harriet and Guy are temporarily staying here until they can find a flat, because Guy has always tended to couch surf among his wide and varied set of acquaintances. He’s a popular young man who thrives on interacting with others, talking literature and politics into the small hours.

Guy’s also a devotee of Marxism which he sees as a potential solution in a country where the peasants are struggling under a powerful elite. Romania has a strong economy with plentiful resources, among them a highly productive agricultural sector. But with a war starting up, much of this produce is exported and the ensuing hike in the cost of living puts a terrible strain on the poorest. Meanwhile the Pringles hob-nob with assorted academics and civil servants at various plush restaurants.

As Harriet passed between the tables with Clarence, there was a little murmur of comment: first that she should make this public appearance with someone other than her husband, then the common complaint that English teachers – they were all regarded as ‘teachers’ – could afford to come to a restaurant of this class. In Rumania a teacher was one of the lowest-paid members of the lower-middle class, earning perhaps four thousand lei a month. Here was proof that the English teachers were not teachers at all but, as everyone suspected, spies.

We get another view of Bucharest society through the eyes of Prince Yakimov, also newly arrived, who has fallen on hard times. It isn’t clear quite how he comes to be in Bucharest, except that he needs to make his remittance last a bit longer and the city seems cheap. He hasn’t a clue how to earn a living. Yakimov is technically British, his father having escaped Russia at the time of revolution, but now drifts from hotel to hotel living on credit. His finely tailored clothes, his name and good manners soon have him invited to parties given by the aristocracy, in the hope they can fleece him at cards.

But mostly this is Harriet’s story. The poor girl has to get used to sharing Guy, not only with his many friends, but also with Sophie, who’d hoped to marry Guy herself, and therefore acquire a British passport. Other characters include gloomy Clarence, Guy’s colleague, who soon takes an interest in Harriet, and Guy’s boss, Inchcape, who has been put in charge of British propaganda for the Balkans. The story bubbles along full of lively conversations on the political situation, the locals as well as relationships and anything else – often very lifelike and stimulating dialogue.

Olivia Manning has masterfully recreated a time and place in a way that seems very vivid – she was similarly married to a British academic at a Bucharest university, and this shows in her descriptions of the people of the city, its buildings and parks, its cafés and restaurants. You really feel you are there with Harriet and you suffer with her all the anxiety of fitting in and waiting for Guy to come home. All the while, events are taking a turn for the worse with the outbreak of war. She worries she will never be able to return to England, that Hitler will invade Britain, that Hitler will invade Romania.

Running through the book is a wonderful cast of characters, and a smattering of dry humour. Harriet is one of those quiet observers who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but is often stuck with odd company and not much to do. Scenes with Yakimov offer a mix of hilarity and desperation. The story is set over four parts but comes together nicely towards a strong conclusion, with Guy deciding to produce a Shakespeare play. This brings out the best and worst in the members of the cast, all taken from his friends and colleagues.

I really enjoyed The Great Fortune, although it wasn’t a book to rush through, requiring lots of concentration to keep up with who was who. But I still hope to read more in the series, including Manning’s follow-up books that make up The Levant Trilogy which describes the Pringles’ life in Egypt as the war rages on. Manning also wrote a number of stand-alone novels that could also be well worth checking out – she’s a terrific writer. The Good Fortune gets four stars from me.

Book Review: The Bookseller of Inverness by S G MacLean – a stunning Scottish thriller of intrigue and revenge

It’s hard for me not to feel a lump in my throat when reading a book that describes so vividly the events around the Jacobite uprisings that aimed to put a Stuart back on the throne. The butchery and barbarism of the government forces at the Battle of Culloden, the subsequent hunting down of Jacobites through Scotland and the harsh penalties enacted on those that were captured, including the ‘traitor’s death’, are hard to read about without feeling, well, rather cross.

With The Bookseller of Inverness, S G Maclean brings this history to life. It’s a murder mystery set in the Highland city of Inverness, the bookseller of the title, Iain MacGillivray, a veteran of Culloden who has somehow survived, though scarred both physically and mentally. He’s a brooding man of thirty-four, silent and dour as he runs his shop and lending library, coming to life a little at dances where he’s a popular fiddler.

Iain’s world is turned upside down and he is hauled out of his melancholy when several events happen in rapid succession. A stranger is found murdered in his bookshop – he’d previously been fossicking for a book he was desperate to find. And we have the return to Scotland of Iain’s father, Hector, who if found by the authorities will surely face death for his connection to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender.

On his desk lay a dirk like the one he had once habitually carried, before the bearing of arms or the wearing of tartan had been forbidden to Highlanders. Tied to the hilt of his knife, though, was a white silk rosette. Iain’s heart began to quicken. It was the white cockade, as worn in his own blue bonnet and in that of practically every other soldier of the prince’s army in the ’45. The white cockade, the most recognisable of all the Jacobite symbols, on the hilt of the knife that had been used to cut the throat of the man sitting dead in his locked bookshop.

Hector tells Iain about The Book of Forbidden Names, which has coded messages revealing traitors to the Jacobite cause. These are not just people who have sided with the government, but those who have ratted on the prince’s followers leading to their capture. Both sides would give their eye teeth for this book, including the victim found in Iain’s shop. Iain thinks he knows where another copy of the book might be, and soon more bodies turn up. It seems there is a killer out there with revenge in mind.

The novel is a brilliant murder mystery/thriller, but it is also an evocative imagining of Inverness in the 1750s, and boasts a wonderful cast of characters. There are the Grandes Dames, the elderly women who gather in Iain’s grandmother’s parlour who add a lighter tone to the story with their gossip; Mairi Farquharson, Iain’s grandmother rules the roost and is fearless in her standing up to English soldiers; Donald Mòr, Iain’s oddball bookbinder, is a master craftsman but spends most of the weekend either drunk or in the cells; the mysterious Ishbel MacLeod, the confectioner and her adopted son Tormod who hangs out with Donald.

Iain’s father Hector is a marvellous invention, a risk-taker and flirt, who in his sixties shows no signs of slowing down. Iain has a difficult time reining him in. There are some nasty English soldiers garrisoned at the town to collect rents and supposedly manage any Jacobite stirrings, but there are good army officers too.

MacLean has done loads of research and adds a lengthy bibliography at the end of the book. Here she explains also about the divisions within the Scots, those for or against the Jacobite cause, those who changed sides and those clans who were divided. Like all good historical fiction, her novel makes you want to read more about what really happened.

The background to the novel may sound a little grim, but The Bookseller of Inverness is a rollicking adventure laced with dry Scottish humour. There’s a bit of romance and the storyline has plenty of interesting twists. Iain is a bit of a hot-headed blunderer, not your Poirot kind of sleuth, and gets himself into some odd corners, but with people like his crazy bookbinder, Donald Mòr, at hand, he manages to get away with it. Underneath his terse manner lies a fierce loyalty to his family.

It would be terrific to think we might join Iain again for another mystery and some more Scottish history, but this book seems to be a stand-alone novel. And the ending leaves things nicely tied up too. But we can live in hope. I enjoyed it so much I’m giving it five stars, and can’t wait to read some more from S G MacLean.

Book Review: Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson – a story from flapper era set in London’s seedy Soho

I find it so easy to slip into a Kate Atkinson novel, whatever the storyline, because the writing is just so smart. In Shrines of Gaiety, the main focus of the story is the goings-on of a family of nightclub owners in 1920s London, overseen by the matriarch, Nellie Coker. A Scottish woman widowed young and with a family to support, she’s done a few dodgy things to make her fortune, intent not only on supporting her children, but advancing them in society.

We meet Nellie as she’s leaving after a short stint in Holloway, the London prison for women. One of her nightclubs had been raided and liquor found being sold on the premises. Usually she gets a tip-off from a policeman – Inspector Maddox from Bow Street police station – but not this time. Is Maddox still loyal? There’s someone else sniffing around – a gangland boss who’s keen to get his hands on a set of nightclubs and settle an old score.

Observing Nellie leaving Holloway is Chief Inspector Frobisher, the detective tasked with cleaning up Soho’s nightlife and the rot that has set in at Bow Street. With him is Gwendolen, a librarian from York who is on the hunt for two young girls who have run away to London to go on the stage. London has a habit of swallowing up young women and a few have been turning up dead, fished out of the Thames.

Gwendolen is an interesting character as she has the fortitude of someone who has nursed during the recent war, but post-war life has been a little tame, living in genteel poverty with her listless mother. When her mother dies, she discovers an inheritance which gives her the freedom to travel to London, where she can explore a new life. The missing girls set her off on a mission. Both Frobisher and Nellie Coker offer Gwendolen interesting opportunities.

As well as following Frobisher’s policing, and Gwendolen’s snooping, we meet the younger Cokers: eldest son Niven, who is battle hardened from the war, unflappable and smart. His sister Edith is Nellie’s natural successor, practical, though not as pretty as her sisters. But something has unhinged Edith lately. With their Cambridge education, Betty and Shirley are primed to marry into the aristocracy, though they also lend a hand with the clubs. Younger son Ramsay is rather effete and an easy victim of anyone trying to get at Nellie, but nevertheless has literary aspirations. Young Kitty at eleven suffers from neglect and is largely uneducated while no-one notices that she’s also in danger.

‘Give Mr Frazzini a box of chocolates, will you?’ Nellie said to Betty.

Nellie sold the boxes for fifteen shillings each but bought them wholesale from somewhere in the north for a shilling a box, all prettied up with ribbons (a penny each) by soldiers disabled in the war. The dance hostesses made a great fuss of persuading their partners to buy the boxes for them and then, after a few chocolates had been eaten, the boxes made their way back to the storeroom they’d come from and were refilled, ribbons adjusted, and sent out to be sold again.

The narrative bounces around all of them, as well as Freda and Florence, the two missing girls, creating a giddy plot that will keep you on your toes. I’ve heard this book described as Dickensian, and I suppose it is with its varied cast of characters, and the way the criminal element rubs shoulders with the law, the sudden reversals of fortune – there’s even a gang of women pickpockets. The story paints a picture of the mad excesses of the 1920s, the jazz and the flappers, the endless partying as everyone tries to forget the recent war.

I enjoyed this book enormously because the writing is lively and amusing and you really can’t guess what will happen next. The situation looks dire for the stray women caught up in the seamy side of Soho, but even those with money can lose everything on the turn of a card. Help and goodness are in short supply but come from unexpected quarters. I chuckled my way through the book at some points; nervous for particular characters at others. At the end of the book, Atkinson gives potted histories of what happens next to all the major players, which may please or annoy some readers I confess to being a little annoyed but it’s still a four out of five stars read from me.

Book Review: Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale – an imagined life of Cornwall’s favourite poet

I’ve read a ton of novels by Patrick Gale – I love his writing for its warmth, perception and the characters. They’re always shown with all their flaws, and yet they make for oddly likeable company. Gale reveals what makes them them interesting and ordinary at the same time.

Like Charles Causley, Cornwall’s favourite poet – the subject of the latest Gale book, Mother’s Boy. The story takes us back to the early part of the twentieth century, and the courtship of Causley’s parents, both of them working in service: Laura as a maid in a small household and Charlie who drives a pony and trap for a local doctor. They marry while World War I is getting up steam and see little of each other for years. Charles is born in 1917, his father shipped home eventually, but with TB.

The story clips along through the years, with chapters about Charles’s early life as a boy in Launceston while his father is still alive, school life and his knack for language, a talent for the piano and his discovery of poetry. There are two unlikely friendships, the butcher’s boy who once bullied him and Ginger, the annoying boy who followed him around and listened outside as Charles practised on the piano. His mother’s thrill to find Charles a safe job at a desk; Charles’s disappointment that he won’t be continuing his education.

Then another war, and Charles’s acceptance into the navy as a coder. There are several chapters that progress the war, and Charles’s romantic connection with two men. Each chapter shows a new discovery or aspect of the war through key events or changes to Charles’s life, the novel finishing a few years after the war.

Parallel to Charles’s story is Laura’s, working away at her little laundry business, her days ruled by the weather and the rigid timetable required to get it all done. Her love for Charles is a constant. Fortunately for Laura, the ache of missing Charles while he is away at war is tempered by the evacuees she takes on, the Americans setting up bases around the town and later the prisoners of war who inhabit one base once the soldiers have headed across to France.. So we get an interesting glimpse of the war at home.

And while she suffered, Charles was either out at his play-reading group or rehearsing with his dance band or drinking beer with friends, or else he was shut in his room, stabbing away at his typewriter or listening intently to the radio, as often not to some programme about the international situation and politics, which made her head spin if she tried to follow it, and telling her to knit more quietly.

The two main characters are so nicely drawn, so empathetic, that you feel you know them well. Charles is refined and educated, a lover of good theatre and literature, his working class mother often bemused by the things he says. The story ambles along through the years with sudden events that make you really feel for mother and son; some happy moments but also the tragedies that you’d expect because of the war.

You get a strong sense of what it was like to be born different, both artistic as well as gay in a time and place when such things were problematic; and yet Charles manages to be true to himself in a way that works for him. But at what cost? The story pulls you along, each chapter adding something new on both an intimate scale as well as within the wider world. I thought I’d close the book and think, yes that was an interesting read and very true to its subject matter. And then wham! The final scene, in its quiet living room setting, quite blew me away. There was a lump in my throat. There were tears.

Patrick Gale’s novels often have a way of creeping up behind you, leaving you a little stunned, but in a nice way. His author’s notes reveal that Causely was often asked why he hadn’t written a full memoir, not just the few autobiographical fragments that remained after his death in 2003. Causley’s reply was that it was all there in the poems. The poem Angel Hill, quoted in full at the end of the book, could be a case in point and ties in beautifully with Gale’s novel, particularly that final scene.

Mother’s Boy is a stand-out novel by an accomplished writer whose work never disappoints. If you like this book, it is worth checking out the author’s notes on his website wihich add detail and some interesting photos. You can tell that Charles Causley has become close to his heart, and Laura too. I love books where you feel the author has poured his heart into a story. I feel this is the case here and why it gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: Haven by Emma Donoghue – a novel about the dark side of devotion and selfless obedience

Every time I pick up a novel by Emma Donoghue, I am amazed by the variety of subject matter as well as the deftness of the storytelling. Haven is her latest book and follows a band of three monks who set out with a few provisions to establish a monastery on an island off the south-west coast of Ireland.

Donoghue takes us back to the seventh century when Arrt, a priest visiting a monastery, has a vision calling him to take with him two monks to set up a retreat on an island. God has shown him which monks to take: Cormac, an elderly, battle scarred monk and the teenage boy Trian. Arrt is a scholar and has a charismatic way about him, so he soon convinces the two to throw in their lot with him, even though they each seem an unlikely choice for such a mission. Feeling chosen gives Cormac a new lease of life and for Trian, sent away from the world by his parents, it also seems a blessing.

For Arrt, the dream is everything and God must have a special purpose for the three. They set out on a perilous journey by boat down the river Shannon and out into the Atlantic Ocean. They fetch up at a rocky outcrop, the Skellig, inhabited by a mass of shrieking seabirds, but for people as inhospitable a place as you could imagine. The island is all steep pinnacles with very few flat areas and very little soil, the single tree an ancient rowan, barely clutching onto life. It is here they are to build a chapel, with only the barest of necessities and as Trian soon finds out, dedicate themselves to copying out the scripture.

So. In open ocean, drifting blind now, and with no way to stop moving through the dark. It is Artt who’s brought them to this extremity, and it’s too late for doubt. ‘Never mind. We won’t founder,’ he assures them. ‘We travel in the palm of God’s hand.’

Trian discovers an interest in observing the birds and the natural world around him. He is tasked with finding food, fishing as well as capturing the tame auks and puffins that are to be a large part of their diet. He is always hungry and earns the pity of Cormac, who lacking physical agility has the knowledge they need to start a garden and build their chapel.

Arrt is a hard task master, always finding fault, even with himself, convinced that this is all God’s will, however difficult things get. He always has as piece of scripture to justify his decisions. How the men are affected by illness, the demands of changing seasons and Arrt’s excessive piety creates a tense read. The characters of the three monks couldn’t be more different and each in his own way is battling demons and at times each other. I found myself drawn into the book, in spite of the grimness of the story – the battle for survival, the demands of faith, the merciless slaughter of wildlife.

Haven is inspired by Skellig Michael, where monks at this time did in fact set up monasteries, building beehive-like structures using the hard slate of the island. It’s also the setting for a scene in the Star Wars movie: “The Force Awakens”. Delving online you can’t help but be amazed by the island and its history and you can see how Donoghue might have imagined this story. It has stuck with me days after I finished the book and I’m sure it will linger in my mind for some time to come. I listened to Haven as an e-audiobook, superbly read by Aidan Kelly – it’s a four star read from me.

Book Review: Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – a haunting tale of shipwreck and survival

Who isn’t fascinated by survival stories? I mean look at all those Survivor series on TV. But Survivor doesn’t dump its contestants in a locality like the Auckland Islands – windswept and rugged, and at 360 km south of New Zealand, inhospitable to say the least. In her latest book, Cristina Sanders explores the true story of one of New Zealand’s most intriguing shipwrecks and the fate of the fifteen survivors who washed ashore there.

In 1866, the General Grant was sailing from Australia to Britain, carrying assorted cargo including a quantity of gold as well as some of the miners who had worked for it. Among them, Joseph Jewell, is planning to use his bundle of nuggets to buy a holding in Devon and build a future. He is recently married and his young wife Mary, the Mrs Jewell of the title, the only female survivor. But before we get to that, the novel describes Mary making friends with the other families on board, the wives and their children, while Joseph works his passage as a seaman.

This sets the scene for the terrible events of the shipwreck as the General Grant is driven irrevocably towards cliffs and sucked into a cave which cripples the ship and causes it to sink. If it hadn’t been dark, if there wasn’t such a swell, the lifeboats might have been launched in time to save more of those onboard. Cristina Sanders brings the horror of the situation to life and you’re there with Mary as she is pushed overboard by Joseph and dragged into one of the lifeboats, while around her the women and children she’d got to know are lost at sea.

It’s almost a relief when the ‘lucky’ fifteen make land. But now the real work begins – the fight for survival. With very little food salvaged and biting cold, the fifteen not only battle the elements to stay alive, but also despair and pessimism. And Mary, the only woman, as well as young and attractive, feels the horror of her situation, particularly as her husband, hampered by depression, withdraws from her, leaving her to the predatory glances and overtures of the miner, Bill Scott.

Mrs Grant and the wreck of the General Grant is unflinching in its retelling of what might have happened, based on a load of research and a few letters recovered from survivors. The book includes a picture of the Grants in their hand-stitched sealskin clothing – the seals are vital for food as well. It’s either seal meat or shellfish and the energy expended to stalk, kill, butcher and cook the unappetising mammals is all there for the reader. Over the year and a half the survivors remain on their island, they get quite proficient at feeding themselves, building huts and expand their diet. But Mary can’t help wondering, will they ever be rescued?

We had all been living so long in such danger that our group fermented in a broth of obligations and duties and cares as we got through each day. All the tensions, each disappointment simmered; we lived so bound to each other and slept all packed together every night.

You get some intense scenes – the battle to start their first fire with a handful of matches and damp kindling will have you chewing your knuckles. And the book explores the way leadership shifts as the old hierarchies seem no longer relevant. Mr Brown, the first mate, struggles to stay sane and it’s the miner James Teer, Mary’s lifeboat rescuer, who helps them pull together. The characters of the survivors are reflected in the way they each respond to events large and small, while the thought of all that gold lost on the ship taunts them.

Mary is a well-rounded character and engaging narrator, dealing with a multitude of situations and emotions, as well as expressing a watchfulness around the motives of the others. The writing is brilliant – evocative and immediate, and brings the situation to life beautifully. Its a great story and there are scenes here I shall never forget. Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a glimpse of Soviet Russia through the eyes of a wonderful character

This is one of those books that is so entertaining, charming and moving that you know when you’ve reached the last page it’s going to take some time to recover. I was so immersed in A Gentleman in Moscow, it completely took over my life. I almost wanted to go back to page one and read it again.

The story chronicles the period the Former Person, Count Alexander Rostov, spends in house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. From his sentencing in 1922 he is to be housed in a small attic room – quite a change from his normal luxurious suite on the second floor – and as “an unrepentant aristocrat”, should he ever leave the hotel, he is to be shot on sight.

Having learned from his godfather, that a man must master his circumstances to avoid letting them master him, the Count sets about making a new life for himself. His good manners, charm and gift for storytelling stand him in good stead. So does his infinite knowledge of how things are done. Fortunately the Metropol is the perfect setting. Both the hotel and the Count present echoes of the past, as the changing regime of Soviet Russia builds itself around them.

Decades pass as the Count makes friends among the guests, including Anna, a glamorous actress, a little girl called Nina and the staff of the hotel – Marina, the seamstress from whom he learns how to sew on a button, Emile the chef who can do anything with his knife and Andrey, a former circus juggler turned maitre d’. 

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me the most.”

This is a book of small incidents, anecdotes and the marvellously good company that the Count offers the reader. Cultured and well-read, it’s a feast – mirrored by the delicious sounding meals that Emile produces in his kitchen. But the story builds to a brilliant finish, and you have the sense that all the small stories and incidents reconnect with other parts of the book, that it’s all important. In the background, people vanish without a trace, or have their lives changed for ever by the politics of Stalin. Both the Count and the Metropol must adapt, rethink and regroup to survive.

This is such a wonderful book – I wanted to rush through it to see what happened but at the same time lingering over each scene, savouring every morsel. I could put it on my list of best reads for 2022, but it’s certain to be on my best books for the decade as well. And it doesn’t surprise me that there’s talk of a screen adaptation, due to star Ewan MacGregor. I’ll be keen to see the splendour of the Metropol in vivid technicolour. The book gets easy five out of five from me.