Book Review: The Offing by Benjamin Myers – an unlikely friendship in post-war England

This is one of those small novels that deals with some big things and ties them together in a beautiful package – the perfect little book really. The Offing is told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard starting off in the summer of 1946. The world has been turned on its head by war and people are still struggling to get back to normal life. Robert, a Yorkshire coal minder’s son, is destined for the pit, but before his exam results arrive, he decides to pack a sleeping bag and some spare socks and explore the land beyond his home town. He picks up odd jobs here and there, and turns up one day on Dulcie Piper’s doorstep.

Dulcie lives near the sea, surrounded by fields, with a vegetable garden, a larder full of delicatessen items she’s cadged in various ways, and more than a few overflowing bookshelves. She’s an eccentric, getting on a bit, with only Butler, her German shepherd for company. When Robert appears, hot, thirsty and in need of a meal, she invites him to tea and he stays on for his first experience of lobster. And so begins a rich and rewarding friendship.

Any reader would imagine that Dulcie has life well sorted – she’s pretty self-sufficient, grows and forages the ingredients for wonderful meals, has her books and memories. But as Robert stays on and helps around the place – fixing up the garden that is threatened by weeds, and later rebuilding a dilapidated summer-house – he slowly teases from Dulcie her story. And it’s one of tragedy. Dulcie on her part introduces Robert to literature, finding the poetry that will light up Robert’s world and help him consider a life beyond the pit.

‘They made us read Shakespeare.’
‘The sonnets?’
‘Romeo and Juliet, I think it was.’
Dulcie screwed up her face. ‘That’s not poetry,’ she said. ‘That’s archaic drama, written to be performed on theatre stages, not read aloud in stuffy classrooms. Presented incorrectly and out of context it will put you off for life, but a good poem shucks the oyster shell of one’s mind to reveal the pearl within. It gives words to those feelings whose definitions are forever beyond the reach of verbal articulations.’

Dulcie’s conversations with Robert encourage him to think and be more expressive, while revealing all kinds of interesting anecdotes – the time she met D H Lawrence; memories of visiting Germany with her lover before the war. This is balanced by Robert’s experiences of the natural world, his encounters with deer and badgers as well as his thoughts about Dulcie. Nature is rendered vividly as summer wanes into autumn with all the colour and drama you could ask for, set against the shadow of an all-too-recent war.

I can imagine that this novel would make a lovely little film, and maybe that’s because of the way Benjamin Myers builds memorable settings and interesting characters. It’s a gentle read, taking its time to draw you in, but the writing is exquisite. You’ll want to pick up a poem or go for a walk in the countryside after this. Maybe eat something fresh out of the garden. It reminded me of those classics that evoke the English countryside as a foil against which human behaviour plays out – Thomas Hardy, L P Hartely and Laurie Lee, and probably D H Lawrence, spring to mind. As I said before it’s the perfect little book, with a perfect little score of five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife makes me want to pick up Pride and Prejudice again, as it revisits the story of Lizzy Bennett’s friend, Charlotte Lucas. As you may recall, Charlotte is twenty-seven when she meets Mr Collins in the Austen novel. She is too plain to have sparked any interest from a suitor and without a dowry is doomed to spinsterhood. When Collins fails to snare one of the older Bennett girls, he settles for Charlotte, and she for him.

Greeley’s novel picks up the story several years later, showing Charlotte as the young mother of baby Louisa, living at the parsonage on Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate. Collins is still cringingly sycophantic towards his benefactress, passing on her advice to his wife about how to raise a baby and other domestic affairs. Lady Catherine is just as bossy and overbearing as ever. Charlotte passes her days quietly avoiding her husband if she can, but for the most part contented in her lot. She’s a sensible and pragmatic sort of girl.

When Lady Catherine bestows some rose bushes on the young couple, local farmer, Mr Travis, is given the job of ripping out a stump and preparing the flower bed. Charlotte chances upon him in the garden early one morning, Travis sweaty with exertion, Charlotte lugging a restless Louisa, both of them tousled and not yet dressed for the day. Travis and Charlotte strike up a conversation and as summer merges into autumn, a friendship develops.

The story is very much within the mind of Charlotte as she discovers feelings she has never experienced before and considers what it might be like to marry for love instead of convenience or duty. She had always said to herself she wasn’t a sentimental sort of person, but Travis has made her less than steady and distracts her thoughts. It is soon obvious he feels the same way for her.

The novel is very heartfelt and sympathetic to Charlotte and the sad events of her life she has had to hide from others. It examines the difficulties of being expected to live up to society’s expectations and how even the comparatively comfortably off can struggle to meet these demands. The powerlessness of women comes through again and again to say nothing of the poor, dependent as they are on the bounty of the likes of Lady Catherine, who will only see what she wants to see. She is such a loathsome creature, you want to shout at her.

I was a little disappointed that the scope of a couple of seasons gives Charlotte little opportunity to change her lot although we leave her with renewed determination – pragmatic yet again. But the novel brings rural England in the Regency period nicely to life, and you can’t help getting caught up in the emotions that run high. I was a little doubtful about the use of present tense, but soon got used to it – it doesn’t have to read like Austen, after all, and the storytelling nonetheless sounds authentic, only marred occasionally by the odd Americanism.

I love the character of Charlotte Collins – she has such a good heart, while striving in small ways to be her own person. She definitely deserves to have her story told at least as much as those Bennett girls that keep popping up in Pride and Prejudice sequels. The Clergyman’s Wife is Molly Greeley’s first book, a three and a half out of five read from me. I shall definitely seek out her next, The Heiress, which takes another shadowy character from Pride and Prejudice, poor Anne de Bourgh, the daughter of ghastly Lady Catherine, a seen-and-not-heard character who spends entire scenes, lolling on a chaise longue, often asleep. It will be interesting to see how Greeley wakes her up.

Book Review: The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

You never know what you’ll pick up at a second-hand book fair, but I’m glad I spotted this 2011 novel by Natasha Solomons. The Novel in the Viola is the story of Elise Landau, a plump and rather spoilt nineteen-year-old, not obviously talented like her musician sister, Margot, and opera singer mother, Anna. It is 1930s Vienna, and the Nazis are starting to make things difficult for Jews in the city. As Margot and her husband prepare to escape to the United States and her parents apply for visas to join them there, Elise has no choice but to try for a place as a maid in an English household. Expressing herself in her ‘fluid’ English, she writes, ‘I will cook your goose’. A Mr Rivers of Tyneford offers her a job as parlour-maid and the means to travel.

Elise is determined she will hate England, missing her family desperately, cherishing Anna’s pearls, while learning how to wait at table, lay a fire, polish the silver, all the while running from task to task. Dawdling is the privilege of the moneyed classes, it seems. Mr Rivers is unfailingly understanding, a widower with one son away at Cambridge. He was charmed by Elise’s letter and takes her surname, Landau, to be a good omen, having a fondness for the books by one Julian Landau who Elise admits to being her father. Mr Rivers’s library has all of his books. She doesn’t tell him that her father has entrusted her with a carbon copy of his latest novel, secreted inside an old viola of Margot’s.

Letters from Margot admit their parents struggles to obtain visas, while rumbles of war make things tense in England. But there is light relief when Kit Rivers arrives home for the summer, enchanting everyone around him, particularly the young women, including Diana and Juno, from the local nobility, and even Elise. Not only does Elise gradually fall in love with Kit, but with the countryside around her. She has never lived by the sea before, and suddenly finds she can’t imagine life away from it. Natasha Solomons writes some gorgeous descriptions of this little corner on the Dorset coast and weaves into the story the changing seasons and rhythms of rural life.

The book is full of a terrific characters: snooty Diana who drops acid with every utterance; Art the chauffeur who likes four-legged creatures better than two-legged ones; Mr Wrexham, the butler/valet who wears his tailcoat throughout the most difficult times refusing to let standards slip – to name but three. But it is Elise who is the stand-out character here, losing her puppy fat, and adapting to the difficult role of being not readily accepted upstairs or below, but somehow finding a place in the household. She grows up a lot but never loses her independent streak, her passion.

Solomons has dipped into her own family history to help bring Elise to life, inspired by her great-aunt Gabi Landau who managed to escape the persecution of Jews in Europe by becoming a mother’s help in England. Apparently many refugees arrived in England on a ‘domestic service visa’ leaving their cosseted lives behind them for the challenges of life below stairs. Key aspects of the war drive the plot – particularly reports of brutality to Jews by the Nazis but also the privations of life for those in wartime England, Dunkirk and the war in the air. It is also a record of what life was like in rural England, the customs that knitted the social classes together before the war changed things forever.

It all adds up to a very compelling and yes, sad, book, full of atmosphere, interesting characters although the more emotional moments did seem a little overwrought at times for my taste. But then there was the music, a theme which also pervades Solomons’s The Song Collector, a novel which throws a light on another interesting aspect of English cultural history. Solomons is definitely an author on my watch-list and overall this book didn’t disappoint. A three-and-a-half out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

Set in Wiltshire in 1922, The Hiding Places is a mystery which throws together two unlikely allies. When Donny Cartwright is accused of murder – he was caught holding the bloodied murder weapon – the police, unable to find any other suspects, look no further.

Not that the police are sloppy. Inspector Blackman likes to know ‘the why’ of a crime, and Donny didn’t have any reason to commit murder. But Donny, once a talented youth with his heart set on studying engineering, has returned from the war a damaged man. Mere days before, he’d lost control and smashed to pieces two rose bushes at the Hadleighs’ Manor Farm where he works in the garden.

Donny’s teenage sister Pudding (she was a tubby child and the name sort of stuck) is determined to prove Donny’s innocence – he said he didn’t do it and that’s enough for her. Pudding also works at Manor Farm, taking care of the horses, though her father, the local doctor, thinks she has university potential. But with Donny to care for and now her mother showing signs of dementia, she’s not going anywhere.

Oddly enough everything seems to have started with the discovery of an old doll at Manor Farm. Irene Hadleigh has had trouble settling in as the new wife of Alistair Hadleigh. Alistair’s Aunt Nancy dotes on her nephew but is chilly and supercilious towards the incomer. Irene has escaped a scandal through her marriage but is still broken-hearted. So to please her, Alistair’s having the old schoolroom made into her study. When they pull off the mantlepiece and clear out the chimney, the discovery of the doll creates a sense of unease among the workmen – could the doll have been cursed?

The story recounts Pudding and Irene’s gradual friendship through their determination to uncover the murderer. Surprisingly they are both good for each other – Pudding with her chatter brings Irene out of her shell and even gets her riding. Having something important to do gives Irene a bit of backbone. Gradually events from the past make their way to the surface and a bundle of secrets, simmering jealousies and evil intent emerge.

I raced through The Hiding Places, which turned out to be the perfect read for a day of torrential rain. There are some wonderful secondary characters, including PC Dempsey, who has a soft spot for Pudding; Dr Cartwright, Pudding’s troubled father who valiantly tries to put on a brave face but doesn’t always succeed; and young, nature-loving Clemmie, forever mute, who could have stepped out of Hardy. In fact, the atmospheric rural setting, the relentless heat of summer, the distinctions of class also reminded me of Hardy, but maybe with a little less impending doom.

As for the story, there’s a decent sort of twist towards the end that will have you flipping back through the book thinking, ‘How did I miss that?’ The plot then powers on to a satisfactory ending, not Hardy-like at all, thank goodness. Webb is an accomplished storyteller, and with complex characters plus a nice way with prose, there is a lot to enjoy. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel set around the Bubonic Plague of 1348 if I hadn’t embarked on a reading challenge. You had to read a book about a pandemic and dodging dystopian themes I plumped for this historical novel – its tagline: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

Venturing into The Last Hours, I found myself thoroughly swept away into Middle Ages Dorseteshire. Of course I remember all those creepy, atmospheric crime novels of Walters I’d enjoyed years ago so knew she could spin a yarn.

Here we’ve got a dysfunctional family – at its head, lord of the manor, Sir Richard Develish. Bawdy, cruel and lacking any subtlety of thought, he believes he keeps his serfs productive by the threat of violence. But it’s his clever wife, Lady Anne, who works with the serfs to ensure productivity is high for the area, all the while keeping her husband’s potential to harm in check. It helps that she can read and he can’t.

Unfortunately, their daughter, Lady Eleanor, takes after her father in stupidity and general nastiness. At fourteen she has beauty and a small dowry. The plan is to marry her off to a local lord’s son in the hope that the union will win Sir Richard preferment, but the lad is said to be sickly. The story begins with Sir Richard setting out to visit his future son-in-law to see for himself. He is accompanied by his steward Gyles Startout and a small team of armed men to guard the dowry but when they arrive, it is soon obvious that people are falling sick.

Gyles, who acts as eyes and ears for his master and mistress, quickly spots there are good reasons to leave hastily, and the party take flight. But by the time they reach home, everyone is ill or left to die, except Gyles. Bringing news of her husband’s death, Gyles nurses the remaining soldiers and stays on the far side of the Develish moat, quarantining himself. Meanwhile Lady Anne decides to bring in all the serfs from their village to keep them safe. It’s effectively a lock-down.

Lady Anne is pretty smart, and maybe just a little before her time. She learnt to keep the sick separate from the healthy when she was growing up at a convent so keeping the world at bay and shoring up the moat are sensible moves. As well as good practices in hygiene, Lady Anne has taught many of the serfs to read, including tall, dark and handsome Thaddeus Thurkell. Growing up a serf and a bastard, young Thaddeus was maltreated by his adopted father, but fortunately rescued by Lady Anne. Now he’s her right-hand-man. As well as Gyles, it’s Thaddeus Lady Anne turns to for advice about protecting her people, and what to do when supplies run low.

The Last Hours is a rip-roaring read, full of danger and acts of valour, intrigue and secrets. You also get a good picture of social conditions of the time. The role of women as chattels of their landowning husbands. The place of serfs, often at the mercy of harsh laws and crueller masters and their priests who reinforce the status quo. Memories of the Norman conquest of barely three hundred years before still fester with those of French descent having the upper hand and often reviled for it. But times are a-changing and maybe all that is needed is a plague to sort out the sheep from the goats, the survivors from the doomed and to auger a new way of doing things.

I suppose I’ll find out in the sequel, The Turn of Midnight, now on my to-read list. The Last Hours is a tale of endurance and human ingenuity with characters you want to cheer for and all the suspense you need to keep you whipping through its 550-odd pages. A surprisingly quick read and an easy four out of five from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Lockdown Reading 2: Dead in Devon by Stephanie Austin

I was inspired to grab a handful of murder mysteries to get me through lockdown, a time when you mightn’t feel like reading anything too demanding. Dead in Devon is the first in Austin’s series featuring Juno Browne, Domestic Goddess for hire (housework, dog-walking, and random odd jobs). We’re in cosy mystery territory here, so the heroine is a natural busy-body, primed to solve the murder.

The setting is the pretty Devon town of Ashburton, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Titian-haired, twenty-something Juno has no family and makes a basic living with her bright yellow van. Old Nick has a dodgy reputation in the antique trade and wants Juno to work for him. When he’s murdered, Juno believes that those two Russian thugs she discovered putting the frighteners on Nick are the culprits.

The police, good cop Inspector Ford and bad cop DC (Cruella) DeVille, don’t have a lot to go on – Nick had obviously ripped off someone, and with his previous custodial history, had friends in low places. But Juno has become fond of the old fellow and can’t help investigating.

The traders Nick did deals with may offer clues and include Paul, a handsome furniture restorer, Albert (Piano-teeth) Evans and one of Juno’s cleaning clients, snooty Verbena Clarke. Then there are Nick’s estranged children, Helena and Richard, who accuse Juno of being a gold-digger. The cast of characters also includes Morris and Ricky, a gay couple who hire out costumes to drama companies around the country. They are the perfect confidantes for Juno and encourage her romantic efforts by helping her with outfits picked from famous plays and musicals. Even the dogs Juno walks have interesting personalities.

Austin adds plenty of pace balancing sequences of lively dialogue with action scenes so there’s plenty here to keep you amused. She has made much of her background in amateur theatre and knowledge of antiques to add colour to the story. My only quibble was that I more or less guessed the perpetrator, but it was all so entertaining I didn’t mind too much. Three and a half 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.

Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summerMany readers will remember Helen Simonson’s popular debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s a contemporary story about a man recently widowed who rescues a golf-course from developers and has a second chance at love. The Summer Before the War is similarly set in rural England, but the war of the title is World War 1. Protagonist Beatrice Nash has recently lost her father but through a well-connected but disapproving aunt secures a position to teach Latin at a grammar school in Rye.

Beatrice aims to be self-supporting, to earn a living through teaching and writing, and to never marry. She’s a striking and interesting character, in a book full of interesting characters, including Agatha Kent, who takes Beatrice under her wing and helps her settle in. She sends her nephew, Hugh Grange, to collect Beatrice from the station and the two strike a slightly awkward friendship.

Hugh is in his last year of training as surgeon under the brilliant Sir Alex Ramsey, who has a lovely young daughter, Lucy. She has many admirers among Ramsey’s students, but Hugh rather hopes he could be the frontrunner in the race for her affections. He has a dream of taking over Ramsey’s busy London practice and Lucy would be the perfect wife. Continue reading “Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson”