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 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: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: Akin by Emma Donoghue

It is hard to imagine Akin was written by the same author who created mega-selling Room, shortlisted for the Booker and made into a movie in 2015. Room is a novel told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy held captive with his mother in a room custom built by a psychopath. Akin is quite a different style of novel, narrated by Noah, a retired science professor about to take a trip to Nice to investigate a few years in the life of his mother during World War II. What the two novels do have in common is Donoghue’s amazing skill with characters, an ability to get inside their heads to tell a story.

Noah is a New Yorker, scholarly, urbane and without any family – his wife, Joan, died some years ago and he has recently lost his sister. Mere days before he is due to depart for Nice, a social worker contacts him to ask if he can be the temporary carer for Michael, the eleven-year-old son of his late nephew. There’s nobody else, it seems. So suddenly Noah has a travel companion, a stressed and grieving boy from Brooklyn, who doesn’t know much about good manners but is streetwise when it comes to drugs and violence. The perfect odd couple.

Akin is a novel of many layers. The most obvious one is the story of Noah and Michael and what begins as a grudging acceptance of each other and how this develops into something more. Blood is thicker than water fortunately because there are lots of bridges to build here.

Then there is the story of Noah’s famous photographer grandfather, Père Sonne, and Margot, his mother, who stayed behind in France during the war, sending Noah to New York and his father. This has rankled with Noah, he was only three, and why did she leave with his sister a strange collection of photographs from her war years? The pictures are part of Noah’s luggage along with his grandfather’s famous fedora. Noah’s visit to Nice is about discovering the past and coincides with his eightieth birthday; now with Michael in tow, he is forced to think about a different kind of future.

Noah begins to fit together his mother’s story, with help from Michael who is unsurprisingly nifty on the ‘net. We learn more about Nice during the war, where a resistance group, the Marcel Network, saved over 500 Jewish children from the concentration camps. What was Margot’s connection? Was she a resistance fighter or a collabo? Noah is terrified the snapshots prove the latter. Michael also knows about ‘snitches’ and there are connections with the drug deal that was the undoing of his father, and the reason his mother is in prison. So many layers.

And then there is the story of Nice itself. Noah is the perfect tour guide. He speaks French and translates it for the benefit of Michael, often playing with words and meanings in an interesting way. We visit restaurants where they serve delicacies such as testicules de mouton panés (crispy fried sheeps balls) and tête de veau avec langue (calf’s head with tongue), while Michael holds out for for American hotdogs and chicken nuggets. There are stories about the Roman occupation of Nice, of saints and angels. Nice is a rich and colourful place.

Akin takes its time, slowly pulling you into Noah’s and Michael’s developing relationship and the story of Nice as well. It’s a book to savour, but it’s gripping too with plenty to entertain – a five out of five read from me.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

Does anyone write about the human condition with as much heart as William Nicholson? Reading his novels always gives me the impression that he loves his characters as if they were family. He brings us their stories, but also their frailties and dreams, as if he’s been through exactly what they’re going through himself. Often set against an interesting background of political or social upheaval.

In the case of Motherland we start off in the middle of World War II. It’s 1942, and three characters meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, both Larry and Ed fall for Kitty when they meet her in Sussex. She’s an ATS driver, a job she enjoys, while Ed’s a Royal Marine commando and Larry, who’d rather be painting, is a liaison officer with Combined Ops under Mountbatten. Ed and Larry both went to the same school and are each other’s oldest friends, which makes this love triangle even harder to navigate.

Kitty chooses Ed, who is dashing and exciting, but also has a darkness to his nature, probably a problem with depression. Meanwhile Mountbatten and his team are planning a raid on Dieppe, using the commandos and the Canadian Infantry stationed nearby. Larry begs to go, even though he doesn’t have to fight, and he and Ed are caught up in one of the worst military disasters of the war. Thousands of casualties, and while Ed is made a hero, an accolade he loathes, Larry has to come to terms with his lack of bravery in the heat of battle.

The effects of Dieppe on all three, but particularly Ed and Larry, resonate through the book, as each settles into life post-war. Ed struggles to find a vocation and Kitty has to give up work, expected to devote her life to husband and child. Larry tries to make a go of painting, at the risk of disappointing his father who wants him to join the family banana importing company, which had made their fortune.

Mostly the book seems to be Larry’s story. We are with him as he witnesses the effects of the partition of India in 1947 (he briefly joins Mountbatten’s lot again), and later, the exploitation of workers in Jamaican banana enterprises. We have a window into his heart and his abiding love for Kitty, but also onto some of the big events of the 1940s. There’s a collection of supporting characters who each are well-rounded and have their own issues: Kitty’s ATS friend Louise who has never had as much luck with men as Kitty and decides to marry the owner of the estate where the troops are stationed – ineffectual but kind-hearted George. There’re the women in Larry’s life who just aren’t Kitty. Each gives us a glimpse of the narrow roles men and women played in mid 20th century society, and the problems entailed in wanting something else.

Motherland has characters that appear in other books by Nicholson, such as Ed and Kitty’s daughter Pamela who is a protagonist in Reckless, set against a backdrop of 1960s London and the Profumo Affair, while news of the Cuban Missile Crisis has everyone on edge. Another great read and evidence that Williamson loves his characters enough to give them more books. I’m happy with that. Motherland is a three-and-a-half-out-of-five read from me.

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd

restlessWilliam Boyd is one of those rare writers you can trust to turn in a taut and thrilling plot while paying attention to the fine craft of writing. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant and his characters multi-faceted. So it is with Restless,  first published in 2006, and later dramatised by the BBC.

The story spans two eras, the most recent taking place during the heatwave of 1976 as  Ruth visits her mother, Sal, in the Cotswolds and finds cause for alarm. Sal is showing paranoid behaviour to the point of pretending she needs a wheelchair.  She hands her daughter a packet with the start of her memoir, detailing events going back to 1939 and her recruitment into Britain’s secret service.

I can see what the BBC saw in Restless. It’s got a lot going for it and not just pleasant locations which would look attractive on the small screen: Oxford in the heatwave of 1976; Scotland (where Eva has secret agent training and changes her name); London during the blitz; New York in winter; and New Mexico and even Paris get a look-in too. Continue reading “Book Review: Restless by William Boyd”

Series Round-up 2: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear

 

9780749022341-to-die-but-once-pb-wb-2664I confess to a love-hate relationship with Maisie Dobbs. To Die But Once is her fourteenth and latest outing in Winspear’s post World War One mystery series which sees Maisie investigate the disappearance of a young apprentice painter. We are now into the early stages of World War Two, and young men have gone off to fight yet another war to end all wars, their loved ones biting their nails at home and fearing the worst. As Maisie makes her way to her office for the start of another day, she spots the local publican in the street and instantly recognises a troubled soul.

Maisie is an investigating psychologist, who helps the police from time to time, as well as the secret service, but her private work is her bread and butter. She pops into the pub for a chat and soon learns that Phil Coombes’s younger son has disappeared. His job painting air-craft hangars for the RAF should see him safely through the war, but he hasn’t been in touch for over a week and before that was complaining about headaches from paint fumes. Continue reading “Series Round-up 2: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear”