Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – an unforgettable character and a thought-provoking story

I picked up Convenience Store Woman for another challenge in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme (see previous post). This challenge requires you to read a book in translation. I could have picked any number of nail-biting, atmospheric Scandi-noir mysteries, but opted for a Japanese novel instead. And this one’s been on my radar for a while.

The narrator, Keiko Furukura, isn’t like anybody else she knows. She has no idea how to fit in and this is apparent early as a young child. Her parents and sister worry about her – she has no friends – because she just can’t seem to pick up the norms of social interaction. Strangely, when Keiko is a university student, she is rescued by the opening of a convenience store. She applies for a job and soon she’s learning how to greet customers, what to say to invite them to buy, how to mirror the appropriate facial expressions to be good at making sales. The store’s training regime leaves no room for the randomness of individual personalities.

At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine in society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.

But now, eighteen years later, Keiko’s still at the convenience store, doing a job normally filled by immigrants, students and transients looking for a stop-gap position before moving on. She’s had several managers including Mrs Izumi, a woman of the same age. It’s OK to have a job in a convenience store if you’re married with children, it seems.

Keiko checks out the brands of Mrs Izumi’s shoes and discovers where she shops so that she can buy similar clothing. She copies the slang she learns from other co-workers to sound more natural. This comes in handy as recently she’s been meeting up with some old classmates. But even though she’s learnt to parrot socially acceptable phrases and dress stylishly, her women friends still nag her about her job and not having a husband. The pressure to change forces Keiko to do something drastic.

Convenience Store Woman is a clever social commentary, almost an anthropological study of the conventions surrounding human behaviour, seen through the eyes of someone outside the norm. It is at times very funny, capturing the excruciating awkwardness of Keiko who would probably not arouse so much concern if she had a ‘proper’ job. She could just be a likeable eccentric – even though it is her shop job that has given her a place in the scheme of things. It makes you realise how society depends on everyone doing things a particular way, which is also a little disturbing.

Convenience Store Woman is a quick read, partly because it’s a small book, but also because it has you racing through the pages to see what happens next. And it’s so entertaining. Keiko is such a brilliant character, more interesting than likeable, but she’s someone you want to cheer for. The book is the English debut for Sayaka Murata who has written many books and won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s premier literary award. Her next book in translation, Earthlings, also looks well worth checking out too. Convenience Store Woman gets four out of five from me.

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: French Braid by Anne Tyler – a warmly insightful novel capturing the little cruelties of family life

A new Anne Tyler novel means a new family. This time we’ve got the Garretts: Mercy and Robin, parents to Alice, Lily and David. Again we’re in Baltimore which in Tyler’s world always comes across as a sensible, solid kind of city, oozing with good old-fashioned American values. But then that might be because the scenes are mostly in homes, often around a meal table.

French Braid begins with the next generation when Serena and her boyfriend James are waiting for a train to take them from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Serena thinks she’s spotted her cousin, but isn’t sure. She won’t even go up to Nicholas to see if it’s him, which James finds perplexing. How can you not know your own cousin? What kind of family is this? It’s a simple snapshot from ordinary life that displays something deeper, something Tyler does brilliantly. Have a look at the opening scene of The Accidental Tourist for the way Tyler shows a marriage in trouble. The Garretts seem to have become fragmented over the years, going for long stretches of time without meeting or checking in on each other.

Flip back to 1959 and the Garretts – Robin, Mercy and co. are off to the the lake for a summer holiday. You can tell they don’t do this often as Robin wears his work shoes and black socks when walking to the lake in his bathers. His mission is to teach David, a tender boy of around seven, to swim. His older sister Alice is helpful but bossy, and fifteen-year-old Lily is ensconced in a holiday romance. Mercy spends so much time painting at the kitchen table, she doesn’t notice what’s going on with her kids.

By the end of the holiday, Lily is heart-broken and David is withdrawn. Lily gets over the heartbreak, but David seems to withdraw further through the book, into his student years and beyond. Meanwhile, Mercy sets herself up with a studio a mere walk from home, complete with a divan and finds a new freedom as an artist. We’re through the sixties and out the other side by now, and the times they are a-changing. Tyler describes the fine line between loving your family and wanting to be your own person.

Morris. Mercy filed the name in her memory. So many unexpected people seemed to edge into a person’s life, once that person had children.

Like many of her books, French Braid appears to be a fairly simple story, full of everyday events that anyone might recognise. And while you don’t always like what the characters do, you can’t help warming to them as people. They could be members of your own family. Tyler has that knack of showing them in scenes full of humour, and yet simmering beneath it all is the potential for heartbreak. The burdens of little cruelties that the characters carry with them from childhood.

French Braid is a small book but perfectly formed. Everything is pitched just right – the naturalness of the dialogue, the plotting which rips through the years but still seems to keep you close to the characters, the way the things that are never talked about are at least as important than the things that are. It’s another gem from Tyler and gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks – a stunning historical read with a strong emotional pull

Sebastian Faulks regularly delivers an engrossing read, beautifully written and meticulously researched, often about some interesting aspect of history. The history never takes over the story – it’s always about the characters – but it gives you a very well imagined stage upon which the characters reveal themselves.

Snow Country is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which, Human Traces, completely passed me by. Published in 2005, Human Traces is about two friends, one English, one French, both fascinated by the workings of the mind. They go into psychiatry together, develop an asylum in Austria. Of course, Austria is where Freud worked, Vienna the birthplace of psychoanalysis. But Europe is about to be torn apart by the First World War.

Picking up Snow Country, it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the first book – Faulks fills you in with everything you need to know, through the eyes of its two main characters. Anton escapes his bourgeois upbringing and his parents’ plan for him to take over his father’s sausage empire to study philosophy in Vienna. He starts submitting articles to newspapers, with an eye to becoming a journalist. Here he meets Delphine, a piano teacher, older and more sophisticated than Anton, but perhaps her charm lies in the secrets she hides. World War One intervenes and the two are separated, leaving Anton at sea emotionally as well as traumatised by his experiences at the front.

Lena couldn’t be more different from Delphine. Barely literate, she’s the child of an alcoholic mother who scrapes a living doing menial work and occasional prostitution. But Lena has the determination to make something of herself and sets her sights on Rudolph a law student who finds her a job for a respectable clothing merchandiser. Through Lena and Rudolph we get a snapshot of the political situation in Vienna post-war as the Nazi regime comes to power in Germany. While Rudolph is a politically active idealist, Lena lives for the moment, is open-hearted and spontaneous.

The stories of Lena and Anton eventually converge at an asylum by a lake, the Schloss Seeblick where Lena, escaping Vienna, takes a job, and where Anton is to research an article. The setting is oddly calming for both of them and drives each of them to dare to plan a different future. Anton has thoughtful conversations with Martha, the daughter of one of the asylum’s founders, now a trained psychotherapist.

…I have come to have a low view of the human creature, the male in particular. He seems to be a deformed animal.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We are obsessive,’ Anton said. ‘We appear to have bigger brains than other creatures, but we behave in a way that’s contrary to our own interests. These harmful passions that drive us mad with love or with the need to slaughter one another. We don’t seem very well … evolved.’

As you might expect, Faulks takes the reader to some interesting places, such as the building of the Panama Canal, a huge undertaking that risks the lives of its labour force daily. Anton covers the story for a newspaper, as well as a murder trial in Paris. There’s a strong emotional pull too – both Lena and Anton are in their own ways broken hearted, suffering tragedy or loss. It’s a very moving book, as well as historically interesting, and gives you a lot to think about.

Snow Country isn’t the kind of book you race through to see what happens. The writing is such a joy it is worth taking your time over it. But you can’t help wondering how much of what is going on here is a set-up for the third book. I envisage World War II will have a part to play. In the meantime I am curious to check out Human Traces, and hope we don’t have to wait another decade or two before Book Three. This one gets a four and a. half out of five from me.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – another foray into the world of Lucy Barton

Olive Kitteridge is the book that won Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer Prize and the eponymous character has turned up other books, more recently in Olive, Again. Many readers love Olive for her frankness, her daring to be difficult and determination to be herself. However Lucy Barton is just as interesting. We’ve met her before too, so Elizabeth Strout has had plenty of time to get to know her and explore what makes her tick.

Lucy ‘comes from nothing’ according to her late mother-in-law, Catherine, and it’s true in a way. Lucy’s parents were terribly poor – her father suffering from PTSD following his war service; her mother, hardened by her situation, showed no affection for her children. Lucy had escaped her small town by winning a scholarship to college and has rarely returned, making a name for herself as a writer and now living in New York.

But it’s Lucy’s marriages that are the main focus of this book. Her first was to William, and it is with William that she has two grown up daughters. But William has a roving eye, and as soon as the girls finished their schooling, Lucy left him. William has remarried more than once and when his latest, much younger wife leaves him for another man, he decides to look into his family background. He has recently discovered his mother had left a baby daughter as well as her first husband before her marriage to William’s father. He plans a visit to Maine to meet this sister and asks Lucy, now a widow, to accompany him.

When William met me at LaGuardia Airport I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short. A little bit this broke my heart. He wore loafers, and his socks were blue, not a dark blue and not a light blue, and they showed a few inches until his khakis covered them. Oh William, I thought. Oh William!

The novel follows the road trip William and Lucy make through Maine, throwing up facts about William’s family and the complicated woman that was his mother. There are a few surprises here, but the book also delves into Lucy’s own marriage to William, which was often problematic for her as she had no sense of how to be a wife. She describes her more recent marriage to David as easier – the two being similar in having emerged from a childhood where there was no popular culture at home, no television or radio or any sense of what the world outside was like.

Written in the first person from Lucy’s point of view, we get a very intimate look at how Lucy thinks, her interactions with others and her relationships with her girls. The book is peppered throughout with her dialogue with William which is very like a couple who know each other well with all the gentle bickering and home truths. There are glimpses of Lucy’s relationship with Catherine, who buys her a a set of golf clubs for her birthday when she expressly asked for a book voucher – but Catherine always thought she knew best.

Oh William! is a short novel, often humorous and very real. It has a gentle storyline and while there are no twists or cliff-hanger chapter endings it kept me reading because every page is such a joy. The writing is so straight-forward and yet it feels crafted. By the end of the book you know Lucy and William so well, they could be your family. I think this is Elizabeth Strout’s secret weapon and why I love her books so much – they leave you with this feeling of warmth as if you’ve just been to visit a favourite aunt. Oh William! gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin – sibling relationships under the spotlight

This is one of those books that you think will be about one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. The back-cover description talks about a tragedy one fateful summer, but exactly how that tragedy evolves doesn’t emerge until much later. And then there’s the title. Mmmm. I guess it might be true that we all read a different book when we pick up the same novel, but The Last Romantics is beguiling on several levels.

Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m quite keen to be beguiled now and again, and The Last Romantics is also very appealing. The story opens in 2079, when we meet Fiona Skinner for the first time. She’s a very elderly famous poet onstage at a writer’s event before an audience of adoring fans. The young interviewer asks Fiona about the origin of her most famous love poem, a question she’s avoided for years. But it takes her back to the beginning, when she was a young child and the novel slips into the distant past.

We’re back to 1981, and Fiona describes her family following the death of the father. Fiona’s only four, but her brother, Joe, is old enough to be hurt and furious, while their mother is lost, unable to react at all. Two older sisters make up the family, Caroline who is gentle and sensitive, while eldest sister Renee at eleven takes on the responsibility for them all. She’s the one who makes sure that homework is done, clothes are washed and there’s food on the table, while their mother shuts herself away in her room for the best part of three years, a time that becomes known as The Pause.

We follow this family over the decades but mostly it’s about the relationship between Fiona and Joe who was her childhood hero. You can see the effect The Pause has had on all of them on the kinds of people they become, but always it is Joe who is the most fragile, swinging from being the man with it all to being on the brink of disaster. Fiona is one of those characters who is a watcher and observer, cataloguing her sex life with different men in a hugely popular blog. She’s the perfect narrator as she analyses her family interactions and looking back sees where she went wrong.

In a way this is a story of regrets, but families can be tough and eventually forgive and rebuild. The book has that gentle humour that you see with siblings – the elbow digs and eye-rolling. And the early pages capture the family through Fiona’s young eyes, the meaningful moments and human frailty caught in the gaze of an innocent. It is a novel that ebbs and flows as the years progress, a little flagging at times and full of events at others – which makes it more like real life in some ways. There’s sadness in the book but you can see how this inspires the poet that Fiona becomes.

I really enjoyed the book over all. It’s real and yet has an ephemeral quality as Fiona, an at times unreliable narrator, misreads the people who love her. Love is a key theme, in all its forms but family love mostly, and what happens when you put it to the test. If you want a different kind of love story, The Last Romantics is well worth picking up. It’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte – a stunning novel about love, war and snow

I’d been saving this book for a dry spell, thinking it might be a special kind of book and I was right – it is. The Tolstoy Estate is set mostly in the middle of the Barbarossa Campaign, Hitler’s ill-fated attempt to beat the Russian winter and the huge volley of soldiers fighting to keep the Nazis out of Moscow. It’s the late autumn of 1941 when we catch up with Captain Paul Bauer, a surgeon assigned to a field hospital which sets up shop in Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s old home. It’s a smart move – the Soviet army is never going to bomb a literary shrine.

Oozing disgust and obstruction at every turn is Katerina Dmitrievna, the curator at the estate, who is a fiercely loyal Soviet citizen. She never misses a chance to remind Paul and his equally loyal Nazi commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Metz, that they are doomed. The winter, fast approaching, will be the death of them – their uniforms just don’t cut the mustard. If you needed convincing, Tolstoy captured brilliantly the defeat of Napolean’s army in War and Peace. Paul, somewhat dazzled by Katerina, accepts from her a copy of the book in German from Tolstoy’s own library. He read it as a boy in the last war from which his own brother did not return.

“…it was a bit late, five months into Operation Barbarossa, to be fretting about safety, personally or otherwise… If the Greatest Warlord of All Time had had any regard for human life, he would not have provoked a contest whose savagery made France seem in retrospect like a war of flowers.”

While the story follows the events of the six weeks Metz and his surgical team spent at Yasnaya Polyana, and the struggle of the German army to take the city of Tula, this is much more than a war story. Through a wide array of the characters, all brilliantly different from each other, we watch how people thrown together in an extreme situation cope. How they rub off against each other and how the difficult conditions make their idiosyncrasies stand out. Weidemann, the second in command is devoted to his gramophone, Metz develops an obsession with Tolstoy’s ghost while Captain Molineux plays practical jokes, often very offensive ones but charms his way out of trouble.

In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, with its varied characters and dry, fatalistic humour. Bauer consoles himself with War and Peace and thoughts of Katerina. Both are caught up in the middle of regimes that interfere with any attempt to determine their own futures.

…at night he took to lying in his bedroll and blankets, engrossing himself in War and Peace. As usual he found it consoling. Whatever the fate of individuals might be, Tolstoy seemed to say, the rhythms of life would remain the same. The young would be foolish, hopeful and wild, would fall in love and out of it, become sadder, maybe wise. Some would meet their deaths sooner than others, yet there would come a day when everyone engaged in the struggles of their age would without exception die, bequeathing the world they had made to those strangers, their children, who would struggle to change it again.

The Tolstoy Estate is a wonderful read and Conte has done plenty of research to supply the details that make the book so vivid, including the harrowing surgery that Bauer and the other medics perform in terrible circumstances. I might add that as an often squeamish sort of reader when it comes to gory details, I was not put off by any of this, and found it added a lot to the story and helps round out Bauer’s character. The story was engrossing and gripping as war stories tend to be, but also because you know that battling the Russian winter, the survival rate for these men is slim.

I loved this book so much so that once I’d finished it I’d have been happy to start it all over again. It is well deserving of its short-listing for the Walter Scott Prize last year – I usually manage to find a gem among this yearly line-up, and this one was stunning. Conte is an Australian author, his first book (The Zookeeper’s War) winning the 2008 Prime Minister’s Award. The new book is only his second, which attests to the time Conte has taken to create his best possible work. The Tolstoy Estate gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks doesn’t write happy novels but there is much joy to be had in reading them. The writing is wonderful, the characters flawed but interesting with enough of their history that you can see why they are the way they are. With On Green Dolphin Street we have three people, each of them bright and talented, but who are struggling with other people’s expectations of them and the politics of their time.

Mary lost her fiancé in the Africa campaign of World War 2. She didn’t think she’d ever fall in love quite like that again. Then she met Charlie, a dazzling young man who made everyone laugh and the room come alive. We catch up with them a decade or so later, married and living in Washington where Charlie’s a career diplomat at the British Embassy. It’s 1960 and we have a sense of a world where things are beginning to change.

Charlie had been an officer in the war, and still remembers all the letters he’d had to write to the loved ones of his men fallen in battle. At work a lot depends on Charlie too, all that glad-handing, maintaining a perpetual state of exuberance while his finances are shaky to say the least. It’s not surprising that he self-medicates with alcohol.

Then there’s Frank, a journalist fighting his way back into political reporting after an FBI probe deemed him unsafe a few years before – the McCarthy era hadn’t been kind to the press. Frank still dreams of all the enemy soldiers he had to kill in the war, remembering all the chilling details. He considers all the men he sees on the street, wondering if they too are murderers. The thoughts are fleeting as Frank is too busy with an upcoming election. Old hand Richard Nixon is poised to win, if only he can hold off newbie John Kennedy. But it’s the young buck who looks so much more assured on television.

The election provides an interesting backdrop to the main drama of the novel: a love triangle, triggered by the party when Frank met Mary. The story of their affair adds a lot of the dramatic moments through the book, fraught with difficulties of distance (Frank in New York based at the NY Times), and all the people who depend on Mary, particularly her children, but also her parents in England (Mary’s mother is ill) and not least of all, Charlie, who is struggling to keep himself together.

Ultimately it is Mary we most feel for as it is Mary who has to decide the fate of all three. With no career of her own, in spite of a university education and her mother having been a doctor, her role in life is to be the perfect hostess, wife and mother. Under this facade is a seething mess of feelings. In their own ways it’s not so different for Charlie and Frank, the secrets, the emotions. No wonder there are a lot martinis and scotch going down. Goodness, such a lot!

I was very moved by On Green Dolphin Street. It could have been a little maudlin, but it all seemed so real, the characters so intense and believable, and the politics of America in the midst of an election resonating with today. Lovers of New York will be enchanted by Frank’s informative tour of the city. Throughout, we have Faulks’s nice way of prose, though he likes to show off his vocabulary (describing a little boy peeing off a balcony as ‘micturating’). It’s a very minor quibble in a novel that is in all other ways memorable and superbly crafted with an ending that took my breath away. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: Actress by Anne Enright

Some authors you read for the story, and others you don’t care so much what the story is, you just love them for the writing. Anne Enright falls into the latter category, and this is probably why she’s won awards and has been reported in the Sunday Times as ‘One of the most significant writers of her generation.’ She’s kind of literary then.

So I was mad keen to grab her new book, Actress, as soon as it came my way. There are a lot of minor characters in the book adding a cast of theatre and film people, but mainly it’s about Nora FitzMaurice, now in her sixties, looking back at her relationship with her mother, the celebrated actress of stage and screen, Katherine O’Dell. The book wonderfully conjures up the world of drama, film producers, agents and artistes of various kinds seen from the point of view of the young, fatherless girl who watches from the wings.

It’s not a happy story. Katherine is soon revealed has having descended into some kind of madness, peaking with her shooting a producer in the foot, before dying well before old age, her career having died long before. Nora is also a little adrift – emerging from her teens somewhat promiscuous and beginning to wonder who her father might have been. In the background we have a glimpse of the Troubles – a chunk is set in Dublin in the 1970s – and there’s plenty of that dry kind of Irish wit which is at its best when it is self-aware. This is particularly so with Enright.

The play may have been about homosexuality, or heterosexuality, or it may just have been about loneliness. It was certainly about a young curate who flees, after a difficult day, from the kindness of a busty, frilly-bloused, female parishioner. The role was played by an Englishman because, rumour had it, no Irish actor would take it on.

For much of the novel, I was reading thinking this is just a bunch of interesting aspects about the famous actress – her growing up with her theatre parents, her time in America, her marriage – balanced with Nora’s delving into her mother’s life, revelations of her own affairs and eventual settling down. How Nora has to step up and be the parent when her mother goes mad and during her final illness, the quirks of their relationship.

I laid the carton on the table, very casually, and she pretended, very casually, that they were not there. I am ashamed to say that I enjoyed it a little. Two hundred fags sitting between us, a blue oblong of desire.

Then about three quarters of the way in there was suddenly a pivotal moment and the story, the structure and everything else came together and it occurred to me that I’d been distracted by the smart writing and intriguing anecdotes. I had failed to notice the big things happening – the way fame and beauty and talent can be gobbled up mercilessly by the less-than-scrupulous with ruinous effect. And that what everyone really wants is just to be loved – I wonder if that isn’t what Enright’s books aren’t aways about one way or another. And so beautifully told in a way that’s very real and personal but universal too. Just perfect. So it has to be a five out of five 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.