Book Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Clare Chambers writes the kind of novel that I particularly like, finding the unique in ordinary characters, rounded out with gorgeous writing full of perception and wit. We hadn’t had anything new from her for a while, so when Small Pleasures appeared I let out a whoop of joy and wasn’t in the least surprised to see the book make the Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list. And of course, when I got my hands on a copy, I devoured it.

Small Pleasures is set in southern England in 1957 and is based around two unrelated events which really happened that year. The first is a rail disaster introduced on the first page of the book as a newspaper report dated 6 December, in which two trains collided in thick fog, leaving 80 dead and many more wounded. But over the page we skip back to June with another story from the North Kent Echo, which is where Jean Swinney works as a reporter.

It’s a small piece on parthenogenesis under the dramatic headline: Men No Longer Needed for Reproduction! Scientists have been studying reproduction in frogs and rabbits, the story says, developing embryos without fertilisation by sperm, and hinting at the possibility that this could take place in larger mammals, even humans. The article elicits a mailbag full of letters, including one from a Mrs Tilbury who states her daughter was born ‘without the involvement of any man’.

Jean’s role on the paper is largely what might once have been called the ‘women’s pages’ – household hints and reports on weddings. Not surprisingly, she’s tasked with making contact with Mrs T – the nature of the story is a bit too delicately feminine for the mostly male newsroom. Jean soon warms to Gretchen Tilbury and her daughter and learns that in the months around young Margaret’s date of conception, Gretchen was a teenager suffering from immobilising rheumatoid arthritis and the patient of a nursing home.

As Jean tries to piece together the facts around Margaret’s birth, encouraging the mother and daughter to take part in a scientific study, her world is suddenly expanded by the Tilburys’ friendship, including Mr Tilbury – Howard – who is kindly and perceptive. She visits the family out of office hours, which is often problematic as Jean also cares for a malingering, agoraphobic mother in a kind of genteel poverty. Theirs is a life of small pleasures indeed.

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands …

We are definitely in post-war Britain here. London is the victim of those terrible pea-soup fogs, and unmarried women are expected to look after ageing parents, relinquishing their independence. People are always making do with less it seems. Even Jean’s handy hints column is a little depressing:

Never throw away an old plastic mackintosh. The hood cut off will make a useful toilet bag. The large back panel may be used to line a suitcase to ensure safety from damp should the case get wet when travelling.

But as Jean begins to enjoy her new friendships – a godmotherly relationship with Margaret, as well as the possibility of happiness of a deeper kind – the reader cannot quite forget the image of that rail crash reported on page one. Sooner or later that event is going to raise its ugly head, a bit like Chekov’s gun. For me this gave the book an almost unbearable suspense, and the pages flew by.

Small Pleasures is a brilliant novel if you like stories about lives of quiet desperation told with charm and understanding – Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler spring to mind. I felt absolutely wretched for Jean at times, hopeful at others. Chambers always makes you really care about her characters and I finished the book knowing that the story will stay with me for days afterwards, and it has. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: Run by Ann Patchett

Another book-fair find, this earlier work by Ann Patchett is well worth picking up. Bracketed between an opening chapter describing how the late and lovely Bernadette Doyle came to acquire a statuette of the Virgin that looks just like her and a chapter decades later when one of her sons is about to receive his degree, most of the story takes place over a couple of days during a Boston winter.

Ex-mayor, Bernard Doyle loves going to political lectures but his two adopted sons, Teddy and Tip, aren’t so keen. Doyle has high hopes for his sons – the political ambitions he was unable to achieve himself. We catch up with Tip in the university lab where he studies fish, waiting for Teddy who is always late. Snow is falling as the two rush to the seats Doyle has saved for them to hear Jesse Jackson.

Later in the street, Tip pleads with his father to return to his lab then steps blindly into the path of a car, saved at the last second by a woman who pushes him aside. She is hit and badly injured, the family gathering round her to wait for the ambulance, while her young daughter, Kenya, tries to keep her warm and be the responsible adult at only eleven. As her mother is taken off to hospital, and there is no one else to care for Kenya, the Doyle family are drawn to this spirited and practical young girl and find themselves stepping in. While they wait for news of the woman’s prognosis, they all discover connections they couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Told from the varying viewpoints of Tip, Teddy, their older brother (the prodigal Sullivan), as well as Doyle, Kenya and her mother, surprises are revealed in conversations brought on by the accident. In many ways it is a small story, just a day or two during a bitterly cold Boston winter, but there are links far back into the past. It all comes together to create a very original and engaging story – some things you won’t see coming – with themes around what makes a family, racial inequality, honour and reputation as well as what we might do for the ones we love.

Patchett draws characters with great empathy, showing their faults and weaknesses, as well as their yearnings to do better, the love and the friction they share with family members. And as with her more recent books, Commonwealth and The Dutch House, she’s great with how she writes about siblings. Overall, it’s a very satisfying read, well written and nicely put together. It’s always worth checking out the back catalogues of authors like Patchett (this one is from 2007). Run is a four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: Mum and Dad by Joanna Trollope

Sometimes when you come to a hiatus in your reading, something a little familiar is just what you need to get going again. Mum & Dad is the twenty-first novel by Trollope dealing with everyday life, family and relationships. You might say they follow a well-worn path. Often a couple, their family or friends, are tested by some bolt from the blue, leaving them to dig deep, examine themselves and their relationships with those around them to find a way forward.

In the case of Mum & Dad, the family is the Beachams, an old family going back to the Domesday Book, with a more recent tradition of naming their first born son Gus. Monica Beacham, who loathed her domineering father-in-law refused in a rare act of defiance and so named her first son Sebastian. If only Monica had continued to be more of her own person, as forty-plus years later we find her with her husband in Spain, where Gus has become an award-winning wine-maker and at seventy-tree is a grumpy old man. And at the start of the book, a grumpy old man who has just had a stroke. Think bear with a toothache.

Monica finds herself in a panic – how to manage the winery and deal with Gus, a husband from whom she has become increasingly estranged. At least she has Pilar, her faithful housekeeper and then there’s younger son Jake who seems only too willing to abandon his life in London to rush out to help her. If only her older children were on board with that idea. Parked in English boarding schools when their parents moved to Spain, while younger brother Jake got to stay with Mum and Dad, there is an undercurrent of resentment. It doesn’t help that Sebastian’s wife Anna just doesn’t get along with Monica – Anna is too controlling, Sebastian never taken seriously by his now teenage boys, Marcus and Dermot. Lately Sebastian feels Anna doesn’t much like him anymore. He’s a bit of a sad sack.

Monica also has a niggling guilt over her daughter Katie, who was miserable at her boarding school, and must have felt abandoned by her parents while Monica played the dutiful wife. Katie has since thrown everything into her career – she’s a successful lawyer – but her family of three daughters sometimes comes off second best, while she and partner Nic seem to be growing apart. But how can you be a good mother if you don’t have the experience of being cared for as a child?

As Monica and her three children have been all slowly drifting towards various kinds of discord and disaster, the catalyst of Gus’s stroke shocks them into all into taking stock. Eventually all three will visit their mother, with or without their spouses and children. They’ll have to connect with each other to find out what’s really going on and things may get a lot worse before they begin to get better. It’s a classic Trollope story, but also a very satisfying one. What makes it work for me are the characters. Not only do they have depth and interesting interplay with their families, they each grow and develop through the book. They’re not always all that likeable, but they seem very real.

I whizzed through Mum & Dad, enjoying the enfolding drama and the settings which switch between London and Spain. And as I read, I remembered that the other thing I like about Trollope is that her books are easy to relate to, picking up changing social conventions and idioms. She shows really well how different generations within a family see things and what they can teach other, even the youngest has her say. Trollope’s books only come out every couple of years, but when they do, I know I will find them worth the wait. A four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I thought I already knew about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), thanks to all those English and American writers who went there to fight and wrote about it later. Then there was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica which I remember studying at one time. But really I hardly knew anything. I certainly didn’t know quite how brutal it was.

Isabel Allende’s new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, gave me a lot more insight, I am happy to say. It is mostly the story of Victor Dalmau, a medic on the Republican (Communist) side, glad he doesn’t have to fire a gun. He learns so much in the harsh reality of battlefield surgery and makes a name for himself by restarting a young soldier’s heart who has been left for dead. He’d like to finish his training as a doctor, but as the war ends, it becomes a fight for survival, with Republicans fleeing across the border to France to avoid slaughter.

Among the refugees is Roser, a promising musician who lived with Victor’s family. Roser is carrying the child of Guillem, Victor’s brother. Guillem is most certainly dead and chance to start a new life in Chile forces Victor and Roser to marry. Chile needs musicians more than it needs doctors, but the two make a new life together, and the novel follows their hard work and difficulties, their successes and new friendships. Among these is Felipe del Solar, who introduces Victor to Salvador Allende who is eventually to become President of Chile. Felipe also introduces Victor to his beautiful sister.

Chile is kind to the Dalmau family, but waiting in the wings is another Fascist insurrection and it seems a bit like history repeating itself. Another round of mysterious disappearances, of killings and concentration camps. Isabel Allende weaves into the story of ordinary people some major events and at times the book read more like non-fiction than fiction. This worked well for me and saved me the trouble of constantly reaching for the Internet, as it filled in all the factual stuff you needed to know in an accessible way.

Among the real people who make an appearance is Pablo Neruda, Chile’s famous poet. It is Neruda who had described Chile as ‘a long petal of the sea and wine and snow … (with) a belt of black and white foam’. Neruda, as Chile’s consul in Paris, organises the ship that brings the Dalmaus to Chile and fittingly his poetry introduces each chapter, e.g.:

I have slept with you
the whole night long
while the dark earth turns
with the living and the dead
("Night on the Island" - The Captain's Verses)

Allende deals with some big themes in her book – displacement, nationhood, the effects of war, family issues and so on. But it is also a love story and the way she writes this is with much humanity, sensitivity and tenderness. You can’t help falling in love a little with the characters themselves – especially gentle, hard-working and reliable Victor and fiery, clever and determined Roser. Allende shows us what is both ordinary and special about each of them.

This is such a stunning book, handling some really terrible scenes from history with a lightness of touch but still making them real. I frequently felt a lump in my throat as I read. A five out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

There was a time when I was an avid Jane Austen reader adding an Austen novel to my reading talley each year. And then there was such a plethora of TV and movie adaptations and they were enjoyable, sure, but somehow my interest waned. Then along came the Austen Project – four modern novels based on four Austen novels, written by well-known authors and kicking off with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility.

I’d quite liked Trollope’s version; it was fun but the characters were annoying. Perhaps the characters in the Austen were too – it’s not my favourite Austen by a long chalk. So I forgot about TAP altogether. And then I happened upon Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice. Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much I could have sat down and read it through all over again.

Eligible is set in Cincinnati, mostly, with episodes also in New York and California. Mrs Bennett is excited about a certain Chip Bingley who has come to town as an ER doctor at a Cincinnati hospital. Chip is the recent star of a TV reality series called Eligible (somewhat like The Batchelor), where he broke down in tears during the last episode, unable to choose a bride between the two lovelies who made the final. With five unmarried daughters, Mrs B’s keen to orchestrate a social event where they can meet Chip.

Journalist Liz Bennett has been living in New York for years along with her yoga instructor sister Jane but both are recalled to Cincinnati to help when their father has heart surgery. They can’t rely on their mother to feed him a healthy diet and their younger sisters, still living at home though well into their twenties, are useless. Mary spends her time in her room working on her PhD, while Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with working out and don’t even have jobs.

Liz is really the only one who doesn’t need a top up from the Bank of Mom & Dad, and she is appalled at the state of repair of the Bennett family home. When medical bills make it seem impossible to hang onto the house that has been in the family for generations, Liz steps in to try to persuade her parents to sell and the younger Bennetts to get paid employment.

Then there’s the rest of the P&P cast. Darcy, of course, another high flyer at the hospital but with the original snooty disposition we have come to know and love so well; Jasper Wick(ham), a former colleague, best friend and married lover of Liz; Charlotte is Liz’s old friend from home, too plump to attract a Chip Bingley, but a career whizz nevertheless. Women can do anything as we know, in spite of failing on the marriage market, a sentiment emphasised by long-term feminist and women’s rights campaigner, Kathy de Bourgh. Liz has been trying to interview Kathy de Bourgh for her Women Who Dare column for what seems forever.

Throw in an African American realtor and a trans gym owner and you have plenty more to send Mrs Bennett into a spin. Much comedy ensues and the story builds to a brilliant reality tv finale which rounds the story off nicely.

Curtis Sittenfeld has captured all the silliness of modern life in a way that fits the Pride and Prejudice story beautifully. We’ve got the witty dialogue, the terrific characterisation, the misunderstandings and miscommunications you’d expect, all suitably updated. I’d forgotten how much I loved the original and want to read it again. For this and several hours of wonderful entertainment I’m going to give this one a five out of five.

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The blurb of this book says Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is ‘utterly beguiling’ and well, I’m not going to argue. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is beguiling in spades. But wonderful too. On the surface it’s a kind of whodunit about a real event, the bombing of Scotland Yard in 1884 by Irish nationalists.

Twenty-five-year-old Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton is a telegraphist for the Home Office – his abandoned skill as a pianist has trained him well for the quick interpretation of cables – when reports of planned bombings of official locations around London come through. Back home at his meagre room in Pimlico, Thaniel discovers a strange but beautiful watch among his effects – a watch that doesn’t work until towards the bombing that almost kills him, but saves him just in time.

Grace Carrow has a watch too. She’s in her last term studying physics at Oxford, hoping to discover and measure the existence of ether, the substance Victorian scientists believed to be the vehicle for light. Light travels faster than sound so it was thought that while sound travelled through air, light must travel through a different substance to make it quicker. Grace is out to prove it, but struggling, not only with something that in the end didn’t pan out, but also her destiny as the daughter of a lord to settle down and marry well.

But all Grace wants is a basement somewhere full of bunsen burners and test-tubes. She’s had to cut off her hair because she accidentally set fire to it, which is kind of convenient for when she sneaks into the male-only library dressed as a man. I like Grace.

These two main characters eventually become connected through a third – you guessed it the watchmaker of the title. Thaniel, wanting to find out more about his watch, hunts him out and finds an enigmatic Japanese artisan, Keita Mori. Mori is also of noble birth and we get a picture of his heritage in Japan which Pulley creates beautifully here. There are further Japanese links – a model village nearby in Knightsbridge and Grace’s friend at Oxford, the dandyish Matsumoto.

And then there’s the clockwork. Mori not only makes beautiful watches, he creates flying insects and has an articulated octopus that steals socks. While the police are wondering if his handiwork is behind the bomb-making terrorising London, Gilbert and Sullivan are rehearsing The Mikado, set to debut at the model village. There are layers of music – which incidentally, Thaniel can see in colours – dazzling magical effects, fireworks, clairvoyance and even modern art incorporated into this complex, delightful and (that word again) beguiling story.

It is so easy to become swept away with all the visual images here, the elegant writing and the Victorian and Japanese settings but you need to have your wits about you to keep up with the plot as Pulley also plays with time and memory. But even if I do feel as if I’ve missed a few important details and a reread may be in order, I can’t help feeling that this has been a particularly pleasurable entertainment. The sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, is already on my ‘to read’ list for 2021. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Survivors by Jane Harper

It’s hard not to be disappointed that the new Jane Harper isn’t set in the outback like The Dry and The Lost Man. She uses the relentless heat and harsh environment of that setting in a way that adds suspense and atmosphere by the bucketload. The Survivors sweeps us off to Tasmania and a coast that has seen scores of shipwrecks with tides that can catch out the unwary. A different environment, but still there’s that sense of danger.

Though for most of the inhabitants of Evelyn Bay it’s just the place they call home and where many make enough of an income from the tourists that visit every summer. It’s the place where Kieran grew up, but he’s made a new life in Sydney with Mia, who knew Kieran at school. The couple have returned with a baby in tow to their childhood home to help Kieran’s parents pack up and move to a nearby town. Kieran’s dad has dementia. The family are still haunted by a tragic event that took the life of Kieran’s brother, Finn, and almost Kieran too, for which he feels survivor’s guilt and more.

But this was a dozen or so years ago, and Kieran has a family, a new life, plenty to be getting on with. Another death, a murder no less, threatens to drag the earlier tragedy back into everyone’s thoughts. For at the same time that Finn and his friend had been attempting to rescue Kieran, Gabby, a fourteen year old girl and Mia’s best friend, disappeared, her backpack washed up days later. When Bronte, a young waitress, is found murdered on the beach, questions arise about why the death of Gabby wasn’t investigated properly all those years ago.

Harper really understands how to work small-town prejudices, the tendency to make connections where there are none, to leap to conclusions. The emotions run high in this book, particularly around Kieran and his family, but also on the appearance of Bronte’s parents. You can’t help but feel a parent’s anguish of losing a child. Then there’s all the guilt Kieran feels for the events that led to the earlier tragedy, particularly as he remembers the laddish behaviour, the sexism and one-upmanship he and his mates indulged in. One can’t help hoping he’s a better man now.

The Survivors is another brilliant read by Jane Harper – it doesn’t really matter where she sets her books, because it’s the characters and the way we connect with them that really drives the plot. And living in a country with treacherous coastlines everywhere you look, it was easy for me to visualise the setting and imagine the danger. And yet…. I just love the buzz of reading about the outback and I’m kind of hoping to return there with the next Jane Harper. Still, this one scores and easy four 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.