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.

Book Review: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge first appeared in the eponymous novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for author Elizabeth Strout. A local personality in the small Maine town where Strout sets her books, Olive makes brief appearances in several other books so it isn’t surprising there is a new book about Olive. She seems to be one of those characters who has plenty more to say.

Olive used to be a school teacher in Shirley Falls, so that everyone seems to have a recollection of her in the classroom. Olive is loud, unfailingly honest and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So I imagine she would have been a formidable teacher, and probably effective. She’s also sharp when it comes to seeing what’s going on with people and capable of surprising moments of kindness.

In Olive, Again, we catch up with Olive now widowed but with a new relationship on the cards with ex-academic Jack who drives a sports car and can be a bit of a snob. The book treats us to a series of episodes in Olive’s life which read like short-stories and which overall create a picture of Olive’s later years, now in Crosby, Maine. There’s a story about how she attends a baby shower – not really her kind of do at all – and somehow ends up delivering a baby in a car. We have her and Jack having dinner in a restaurant called Gasoline, where they bump into an old flame of Jack’s; another when Olive’s son Christopher visits with his wife and young family and the argument that ensues when Olive tells him about Jack.

Other stories are about entirely different characters – the old man who goes for a walk while remembering a girl from college who committed suicide and then does something exceptional; there’s the elderly couple who learn to accept the difficult news their daughter has to tell them. Some feature Olive as well so we see her from other people’s eyes. We even catch up with Jim and Bob, the two lawyer brothers from the novel, The Burgess Boys, and their problematic marriages.

Lives of quiet desperation seems to be a recurring theme, but there’s also humour, particularly around Olive, and hope too. Often there are turning points in people’s lives as well as the questions: Was it all my fault? Where do I go from here? Olive herself has plenty to feel sorry for, but seems capable of learning, accepting and moving on. Along the way she touches the lives of others one way or another. It makes for a very compelling and thoughtful collection. I was happy to return to small-town Maine and see what Olive has been getting up to again and I really enjoy Strout’s perceptive, character-driven storytelling. Like Olive, she doesn’t pull any punches. A four out of five read from me.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

It took me a while to figure out why there’s an image of a sunset on the cover of Milkman, Anna Burns’s 2018 Man Booker winner. This is a novel about about a young girl’s battle to stay safe and sane in a divided and violent town that is probably Belfast, circa 1978. She’s eighteen, and with her habit of walking while reading pre-twentieth century fiction, is steadily becoming one of those ‘beyond the pale’ people who don’t fit in.

The young narrator has already lost one brother to the ‘troubles’ and a sister to exile, her late father was plagued by depression, so she keeps her head down and her mouth shut where possible. When a senior member of the paramilitary known as ‘the milkman’ takes an interest in her, she draws fury from her family and neighbours even though she does her best to avoid him. He’s over forty, married and with veiled threats against her ‘maybe boyfriend’, is clearly stalking her.

The novel follows the girl’s battle to be herself in an environment marred by terrorism and reprisals, where you have to watch what you say and do, even what you buy (nothing that comes from that place ‘over the water’). Meanwhile the milkman is never far away, and her fears for what he will do next disrupt her life, and she becomes increasingly withdrawn. She even stops going to French classes, where one lesson their teacher has them look at the sunset, something she once did with maybe boyfriend, and which isn’t the sort of thing people tend to do.

Yet the book is oddly humorous. The quirky narrative style takes a bit of getting used to -with long, complex, stream-of-consciousness sentences and paragraphs that go on for pages at a time. But they bring you inside the mind of an engaging, smart and aware young person. Oh, and did I mention the characters’ names? Well, there really aren’t any. As with ‘maybe boyfriend’ people are referred to as ‘third sister’, ‘first brother-in-law’, ‘tablets girl’. It kind of adds to the disconnect the girl has with her world or possibly it helps the characters see themselves as blending in, not standing out. Names can be revealing.

Essentially this is a historical novel, but unlike most historical novels, the specifics of places, dates and names of personnel are missing in favour of creating the feeling of the time and circumstances. I cannot imagine reading anything else that recreates so well the effects of sectarian violence on ordinary people, and particularly women. The rumours, the assumptions of guilt, a fear of loving in case the beloved is killed or imprisoned, the need to conform, the lack of sunset appreciation.

Read Milkman when you have some time to sit and concentrate; when you can get into the feel of the writing and let it draw you into its world. If you can read it with that Northern Irish lilt in your head, even better. It’s a worthy award winner and for me a four and a half star read.

Review: Miss Garnet’s Angel (kind of Eat, Pray, Love in half the time)

If you haven’t discovered Salley Vickers, she’s well worth a go for novels that explore the complexities of the human psyche while telling an entertaining story. Her first book is Miss Garnet’s Angel, a witty yet haunting novel about a retired school-teacher and the overwhelming effects visiting Venice has on her.

Julia Garnet decides to visit Venice in winter when the accommodation is half the price of the summer season. She and her old chum and housemate, Harriet, had planned to travel together. When Harriet suddenly dies, Julia on a whim decides to make the trip alone. Italy in general, with its Catholic traditions, emotional art and jaw-dropping beauty is an odd choice in many ways for Julia, a prickly, buttoned-up Englishwoman and paid-up member of the Communist Party.

However Venice is a revelation – the gorgeous churches and cathedrals, the quiet watery decrepitude, the food, wine and other indulgences. Julia falls in love with Venice, and in particular a little church near her digs – the Chapel of the Plague, and through its art becomes besotted with the Archangel Raphael and his story.

Salley Vickers really knows what makes people tick. Julia has had an upbringing lacking in love and thinks she is unloveable, and really not all that likeable either. Her stay in Venice sees her connect with other people, open up her heart, and even indulge herself a little.

Julia is a great character for the reader because Venice shown through her eyes is like seeing beauty through the eyes of someone recently cured of blindness. There’s plenty of humour in her interactions with others: the attractive, silver-haired Carlo, the American Cutforths who are much nicer to Julia than she really deserves, her CP friend Vera, who answers Julia’s requests for biblical texts and fears all that popery will have a bad effect on her friend.

Woven through Julia’s story is the biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel. Tobias, sent by his blind and dying father to collect a debt, is looked after on his journey by a guide who turns out to be Raphael. There are clever connections with Julia’s journey of discovery and the plot evolves in unpredictable ways.

Miss Garnet’s Angel first came out around twenty years ago and Vickers has added some terrific fiction to her list (Dancing Backwards, Cousins, The Cleaner of Chartres). Her first novel is timeless, original, full of heart, humour and brilliantly paced, pared down writing. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

the gunnersRebecca Kauffman’s second novel reminds me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction (Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton …). Perhaps it’s because The Gunners is set in a small town in the eastern US, and it’s characters are battlers. We are invited into their world when they are children, and then later as adults to see how they’re faring, and to look at the ongoing effects of the past on the present – something else Strout does.

The main character, young Mikey Hennesy, discovers at the age of six that he is blind in one eye. Well, he kind of knew that but thought it was normal. He lives alone with his dad, a quiet, unsmiling man who works at the local abattoir. Dad doesn’t take Mikey for an eye test, and the boy carries on as before.

Mikey is a lonely child but is rescued by Sally, who he meets on the school bus. Both children are a bit lost, and so begins a friendship. When feisty young Alice decides to set up a gang of kids meeting at an empty and decrepit house, she invites Mikey and Sally to join. They call themselves The Gunners after the name on the letter-box and stick together through most of their childhood. Continue reading “Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman”

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

ehGosh, how do you begin to try and describe a book like this one? The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like a cross between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery – say The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Hollow – and a story from Dr Who. Or maybe one of those old computer games where you have to find your way out of a labyrinth, but keep losing your life and have to start again.

The book opens with the main character running through the woods by night, desperate to save Anna, whoever she may be, while there’s a killer on the loose. He’s lost, but worst of all, he doesn’t know who he is either. He looks down at his hands and they are the hands of a stranger. He eventually finds safety in a crumbling stately home called Blackheath, and learns his name is Dr Sebastian Bell.

The next time he wakes up he’s someone else again – a pattern that repeats itself over the following days. Continue reading “Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”

Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

greenwoodsWho wouldn’t want to live in an English rural backwater where there’s a little branch railway-line long since mothballed just asking to be restored? You could join a small society of passionate enthusiasts and dedicate all your spare time to finding engines and carriages, refurbishing and reupholstering and essentially going back in time.

In The Last of the Greenwoods, Zohra Dasgupta is a young postal worker, whose best friend Crispin has roped her into a group of railway restoration buffs. She’s only 25 and lives with her parents over their corner shop so seems an unlikely candidate for a pastime you’d imagine to be enjoyed largely by male retirees. The railway runs through Crispin’s father’s land, what there is left of it, formerly an estate of some standing. Crispin lives here with his father in a crumbling ruin of a once splendid mansion, camping out in a still liveable corner. Continue reading “Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall”

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.

And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.

One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ

But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case. Continue reading “Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan”