Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancĂ© Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon – a beguiling psychological dramedy

You never quite know what you’re getting yourself into when you pick up a Joanna Cannon novel. Each is unique, but there’s a few common themes. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has two young girls concerned with the disappearance of a neighbour and what unravels in their cul-de-sac during a simmering 1970s summer. Three Things About Elsie is set in a retirement village with its elderly protagonist trying to keep a grip on reality while haunted by a secret from the past. A vein of dark humour runs through both books and it is the same here with A Tidy Ending.

Linda just wants to be like other women she sees in the catalogues delivered to her new house, addressed to Rebecca Finch. Rebecca used to live in the house Linda and Terry have just moved to – just around the corner from their old house. In her early forties, Linda’s either wearing the same old housecoat she’s had for decades, or clothing from the charity shop where she works part-time. According to her mother, she’s just too ‘big boned’ to aspire to anything more glamorous. But surely there’s more to life than pushing the hoover around and fish-fingers for tea.

Although she’s married to Terry, it’s a lonely kind of marriage and Linda doesn’t have any friends. She tries to suggest going for a coffee with Ingrid down the road, but Ingrid just never quite has the time. You can’t help wondering if it’s because of something that happened to Linda when she was a child and the terrible events around the death of her father. Meanwhile, a young woman has been strangled nearby. There’s nothing like a murder to get the neighbours talking and Linda and her mother are soon swept up in speculation. Even Terry, normally sat in front of the telly watching sport, takes an interest.

The story follows the extraordinary lengths Linda goes to make friends with Rebecca Finch. Meanwhile another girl is murdered amid talk of a serial killer lurking in the neighbourhood. We learn more about Linda’s childhood in Wales and what happened to her father. Threaded through the narrative are chapters that seem to be set in a ward for the mentally ill. There are a lot of loose ends to tie up before any hint of the story’s ‘tidy ending’.

There’s a tinge of humour running through Linda’s narrative and even though she’s not the easiest character to like, you can’t help feeling some empathy for her. Will she manage to sort out her life and get what she wants or is she doomed to be misunderstood, disliked or even stuck in ongoing mental care? The characters around her – the fussy, demanding mother; the nosy, busy-body neighbour Malcolm – are beautifully observed, but it takes a lot of concentration to keep up with what’s going on in the story. So even though Linda is such an awkward character, you can’t help wanting to know what happens to her and you race towards a stunning and unpredictable ending.

I love the way Joanna Cannon combines sharp psychological observation with clever plotting and she’s done it here again. I’m not quite sure what genre this – is it a ‘domestic’ thriller? A dark comedy? Or something unique of Cannon’s own devising. Whatever it is, she’s a breath of fresh air – original and hugely entertaining. A Tidy Ending scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta – a warm-hearted novel about finding family where you least expect it

I picked this book up as it was recommended by a librarian, my final task in the Turn Up the Heat winter reading challenge at the library. The Place on Dalhousie came out in 2019, and I am reminded a little of the first book I read by Marchetta – Looking for Alibrandi, published in 1992 – with its strong Australian sense of place and memorable characters.

In the recent book we have three main characters flung together by circumstances trying to make the best of things. Rosie Genarro is a care-giver in rural Queensland when she meets Jimmy in the middle of a natural disaster. He’s part of the rescue team when Rosie has to get her recalcitrant elderly client out of her home before floods destroy it. Two years later she’s back in Sydney with a baby, living in her parents’ house. Only her parents are both dead – Rosie’s still mourning her father – and she’s in a stand-off with her stepmother, Martha, over who owns the house. Jimmy is nowhere to be seen.

Martha is also still grieving Seb, who according to Rosie, she married far too soon after the death of her mother. Martha has a high-pressure job, and is desperate for some leave. She’s also a prickly, difficult woman, and sharing her home with her step-daughter and her unsettled baby is ramping up her stress levels. Somehow she gets dragged into a netball team with her old schoolmates, coached by a faded footy star and former schoolgirl crush, the once more single brother of one of her mates.

When Jimmy finds his long-lost phone, he discovers he’s also a father. He travels to Sydney to meet his son and perhaps to make things right with Rosie. It’s not all plain sailing, though. He’s working in the mining industry in Perth, bunking in with friends on the weeks he’s rostered off. Rosie is distrustful and it will take a lot to win her over. Both are very young and have dreams of a new career path – Rosie as a midwife; Jimmy as a paramedic. But study is expensive and so is renting a place in Sydney. They are really up against it.

As I said, Marchetta is really strong on characters. I loved Martha’s netball mates, and the awkward friendships Rosie makes with the two other misfits from a mother’s coffee group. Even the house – the place on Dalhousie – has a personality. It epitomises all the family love that has gone into turning it from a the rundown ‘worst house in the street’ to something special. No wonder neither Martha or Rosie want to part with it. The story builds to a brilliant ending with a couple of nice twists.

Marchetta is a dab-hand with smart, funny dialogue, capturing the characters and also the voices of Australians of European descent, particularly the Italians. Martha’s of German descent so there’s that too. You get a great sense of place, whether it’s rural Queensland or suburban Sydney. Now that I’ve read her first book and much more recently her latest, I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything in between. I’m giving this book a four out of five.

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a heart-warming debut that will have you cheering

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, which includes among its three main narrators an octopus. Marcellus the GPO (great Pacific octopus) inhabits a tank at an aquarium where he has a good view of humanity as it comes to peer at him. He may be missing sea life in the raw, but he’s learnt a lot about people, their weird sense of humour, their ugly eating habits, their lack of perspicacity. He hasn’t a lot of respect for the human race as a whole, but forges a bond with Tova, the seventy-year-old cleaner who each evening wipes the smears from the glass of his enclosure and at one point rescues him from disaster.

Tova is at a crossroads. She has been recently widowed but still rattles around in the house her Swedish father built, which is full of memories. The loss of her son at the age of eighteen is something she’s learnt to live with, if only she could understand what happened on the night he disappeared. Her friends think it’s time for her to find somewhere smaller, but maybe it’s time to think about a retirement home. After all there’s no one to take care of her when she gets too old to manage herself. However, the chatty Scot, Ethan, who runs the local store would be very sorry to see her go.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away, in California, Cameron is in a bad way. At thirty, he can’t seem to hold down a job, his Jeep has been repossessed and he seems to be running out of chances with his girlfriend. He’s bitter and resentful, still smarting since his mother abandoned him when he was nine. When his Auntie Jeanne gives him a box of his mother’s things, a lack of options has him heading north to Washington State in search of his father. With luck he’s the wealthy property developer Simon Brinks and Cameron can touch him for year’s of child support.

Over the course of the novel, all four characters’ stories collide and Cameron, Ethan, Tova and even Marcellus will help each other get to the truth. It isn’t difficult to guess what’s going on and the author uses dramatic irony to keep the reader turning the pages. You want to shout at the characters, especially Cameron, who has a lot of growing up to do, but also Tova, telling them not to be so hasty, or have another look at that clue. Marcellus is in the same boat as us, figuring things out long before the humans do, but then octopuses are remarkably bright creatures.

In an odd way Marcellus is the hero of the tory, and how Van Pelt makes this work is really charming. He’s a talented escapologist – just why are so many sea cucumbers disappearing? wonders his keeper – and a collector of glittering trifles. But time is not on his side and this adds to the tension.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is an altogether heart-warming read, well put-together with some interesting facts about sea creatures sprinkled through the story. I loved the North-West Pacific coastal setting, a fitting place for an aquarium, and the nosy but kindly locals. I’ll be looking out for Van Pelt’s next book. This one gets a four out of five from me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: 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: Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson – a warm-hearted novel about turning points and second chances

Youngson’s first novel, Meet Me at the Museum, was a thoughtful, enlightening and romantic story told in letters between its two main characters. It was a big hit and I’ve been looking forward to this second book, set on the canals of England between London and Chester. Three Women and a Boat (US edition: The Narrowboat Summer) follows Eve, Sally and Anastasia who band together when each is at a turning point in their lives. They are complete strangers to begin with, when Anastasia needs somewhere to stay in London for cancer treatment. Sally and Eve, each independently and suddenly adrift from their normal lives, chip in and offer to help.

Eve has been dumped from her job in engineering. Sally is walking away from her marriage. Neither knows what they want to do next when they meet up on a towpath and rescue a howling dog, trapped in a canal boat. Anastasia returns to her boat to find two strangers have smashed a window to free a dog that didn’t need freeing. Maybe it’s the lure of life on the canals, or perhaps it is Anastasia’s vivid personality, but the two younger women find themselves agreeing to do her a favour.

While Anastasia is in London staying in Eve’s flat, her houseboat, the Number One, needs to be ferried to Chester for repairs. Eve and Sally have to rapidly get up to speed on handling the boat and the tricky business of canal locks as well as get used to living together in a tight space.

A lot of the story is about the women on the boat, and you get heaps of detail about locks and tunnels and how to navigate them, which is interesting. The summery canal-side scenery gets a mention too and you’re soon drifting along with Eve and Sally as if you’re with them on the trip, having a nice break away from it all. It’s a slower pace but there’s lots to do. Then there are all the interesting characters Eve and Sally get to know – people who have made a life on the canals in one way or another.

The story is narrated by Eve and Sally in turn, as they evaluate their lives and think about their options. We get their points of view of other characters, in particular, Arthur a tweedy old friend of Anastasia’s who is also oddly secretive, as well as Billy and Trompette whose boat, the Grimm, is aptly named as Billy is a gifted storyteller. The women warm to Trompette who at only nineteen has a talent for creating wonderful knitted garments – surely she could study design and make something of her life.

You read on, wondering what decisions the main characters will make about what to do next. Eve and Sally change during the course of the book, enough to learn what really matters to them. If you’ve always had a hankering to ditch the treadmill of the nine-to-five job and the mortgage repayments this might well resonate with you. But just to keep the plot simmering Youngson throws in a few twists as well.

This is a very different book to what I was expecting in that it is quite philosophical, thoughtfully written and doesn’t follow too much the usual rules that seem to govern novel plotting. It’s a breath of fresh air in so many ways, and while it’s a fairly light read, like her previous book, it marks Youngson out as an interesting author with an original voice. I particularly loved the characters who seem very real, the kind of people you’d like to meet for a catch-up over coffee. All in all this is such an enjoyable read – a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan – a brilliant, warm-hearted comedy

I love a funny novel, particularly a character driven comedy like this one, which I also imagine would make a terrific movie. Like many comedies, its main character, in this case Simon Larsen, is in trouble. The Covid crisis hit him hard financially. For the last eighteen months he’s had to deal with losing the family home, his architectural business and his self-respect. Now, once he’s got the kids off to school, he struggles to get off the couch. He adores his wife Tansey, who has stepped up as the breadwinner, but if only her family weren’t so superior.

These are the Schnabels of the title: Tansy’s sister Kylie who is career-driven and blunt to the point of rudeness; brother Nick, a good looking former footie star who is forgiven everything by doting mother Gloria. It is always Gloria who calls the shots, and who makes Simon feel even more of a failure.

The Schnabels decide it’s time to hold a memorial service for Tansy’s father who died two years ago but didn’t get the usual send-off because of Covid. They also decide the best place to hold it is in Tansy’s friend Naveen’s garden. But the landscape gardeners Naveen had employed have abandoned the job and left him high and dry. So Simon is asked do the work instead. He’ll earn some cash and get himself off the couch. He has a whole week to accomplish the job so no pressure.

The story is set over the week leading up to the memorial service as events occur to derail Simon’s plans to work in Naveen’s garden. The book begins with Simon’s first day on the job – only Simon’s late because he and Tansy are at the train station. Tansy wants to catch a glimpse of Monica who is arriving by train for the service. Monica is Tansey’s half-sister, the younger offspring of the father who did a bunk, the child he stayed around for. The reader can’t help but wonder why there’s all this effort to create the perfect memorial service for the man who had so little to do with Tansy, Kylie and Nick, the man who ran out on Gloria.

Tansy only wants to see what her younger sister looks like, but bubbly, affectionate Monica ends up catching a lift, and somehow staying with Tansy and Simon. The Larsens live in a poky, two-bedroom flat, but Monica soon settles in, a big, confident personality, determined to make the most of her time in the city. Meanwhile the pressure is on Simon to get on with Naveen’s garden as more and more disasters throw him off-course. Along the way, snippets of Simon’s former life emerge, and in spite of all the disasters, the true character of Simon begins to shine through.

Dinner with the Schnabels is a very Australian comedy – we’re in Melbourne – but the themes are universal. The Covid crisis and its economic fallout, the hero with his one shot at redemption struggling with his demons, the importance of family and the way that blood is thicker than water, even if you don’t always like them very much.. The story builds to a surprising and satisfying ending, as Simon deals with curve-ball after curve-ball. Simon himself is a terrific narrator, far from perfect but oddly likeable. The prose is smart and witty, the dialogue always entertaining. I loved this book and now want to read everything by Toni Jordan. So this novel definitely gets a five out of five from me.

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.