Review & Recollection: ‘The Morbid Age’ by Richard Overy

IMG_20150403_185423Though not wishing to morbidly dwell on it, I must first say that my grandmother recently died. I have to say that because it is most of the reason I read this book. I found her death very affecting, which isn’t in any way unusual since she was a close relative, but in actuality I really wasn’t close to her. In fact I hardly knew this woman, and most of what I knew about her I had learned second-hand from my father (she was his mother) – and there were never many positive reports. Even during my own few childhood experiences of her she was never particularly warm, and I have heard of periods in my parents’ life together in which my grandmother was a pretty severe and vocal critic of my mother’s relationship with my father. My parents are still together forty years later, and despite my grandmother’s cruelty they both cared for her in her final years.

In these later years Grandma became more volatile as her memory lapsed and her body weakened, and I could see her shrink and change each time I would travel down to Cornwall to visit my parents. My mother would tell me stories of how Grandma would sometimes confuse her for one of several very committed carers or nurses who regularly visited her, and sometimes even have conversations with my mother about relatives and friends who were long dead, almost confessing to cryptic family secrets before the fog eventually lifted. Grandma would mentally travel back in time within her own turbulent history, believing she was surrounded by old familiar faces and stuck in the middle of a fraught scandal, the secret of which she has taken with her to the grave. Her deterioration and her death has made me realise how little I really knew about her. I don’t believe that in talking to her more during her life I would have found out more or ever understood why she was so unkind to my father, but I felt that I could find more about her formative years through the photographs she left behind, in third-hand stories about her and her family, and in books about that period in history, thereby keeping my distance from her raw emotional edges in a way I think she would have felt proper.


Left to right: my grandmother, a family friend, and her mother

My grandmother was born a year before the end of the First World War, and in her early twenties by the beginning of the Second. Her formative years took place between two of the bloodiest wars in our history, and she lived in London for all of this time – at the centre of cultural drama during the 1920s and ‘30s, and then of the terrorising dogfights and air attacks of the 1940s. My knowledge of this period is disappointingly limited to a handful of facts gleaned from secondary school lessons and Hollywood movies, so Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age was the perfect education. Sure there are tales of glamorous parties filled with jazz and coke dancing alongside those of poverty and unemployment, but these were symptoms of a greater problem that arose with the devastation left by the end of the First World War – one of how a society can survive a trauma as unexpectedly heavy-handed as this one. The British people believed that civilisation itself could not bear another injury so great, and lived with the anxiety of it every subsequent day.

Overy details the shell-shocked mood of the British in several cleanly organised chapters, each discussing a vital area of importance: the desperate economic situation post WWI which nursed a massing interest in communism and socialism; a growing understanding of genetics and birth control which led a disturbingly large number of people to take a great interest in eugenics; the desire for self-assessment on a wide communal scale brought on by a rising interest in psychoanalysis; the Spanish Civil War and it’s effects on a widely encouraged absolute pacifism throughout Britain; and the rise of fascist power in Europe and its effective quelling of the peace movement. The Morbid Age presents the reader with the intricacies of the mood changes and undeniable passion (both good and bad) of the British people during this period, and the final imperative point that nothing much has changed – we are still now incredibly easily swayed and manipulated by media and politicians, only now we are far less likely to join a society or committee to communicate our feelings. Unless of course it has something to do with Jeremy Clarkson’s career.

The picture of tense chaos that Richard Overy paints is captivating, and my only complaint is that he focuses too much of his attention on the highly privileged classes of the period, though I can see reasons for doing so. Despite this, his writing is…perfect. I honestly loved the way this was written. There were certainly moments where I needed a breather, unable to catch up quick enough, hampered by my modest intellect, but I could still find the moments when the author’s own opinion slipped in through a good-humoured but sardonic tone, although he rarely revealed a clearly defined personal agenda. At some points there are names dropped in connection to certain odious activities I won’t detail here, which gave these passages an almost tell-all quality that was compelling to me. I also commend Overy’s defence of Neville Chamberlain – a man demonised by historians for favouring appeasement at the risk of many European lives, and someone I have also felt was weak and morally careless. He positions Chamberlain in his rightful context: a period in which a huge proportion of the population genuinely felt that another war would literally end civilisation. He was far from the only appeaser, and he strove for peace until peace was no longer an option.

I don’t think this book has told me any more about my grandmother, and I would have been foolish to think it would, but I think it has put her in her rightful context. She grew up in a sort of limbo, a time of panic and scaremongering public voices, living in the shadow of a war she couldn’t remember. She was the daughter of a German immigrant during a time when that would have been a frightening thing to be. She was a young woman after Marie Stopes had widely publicised birth control and sexual health. Would she have seen the peace protests through Trafalgar Square? Seen the shops and offices campaigning for Spanish aid? What was she thinking when war was declared? It all fascinates me as much as it did when I first opened the book, and although no one will never be able to answer any of my questions, I feel like my eyes have been opened a little wider. My grandmother wasn’t just a stern old battle-axe. She was once a young woman caught in a strange time. She was the sum of many parts, each as rich and affecting as the other, just like anyone else.



Review: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

IMG_20150112_214209~2I yet again splurged a little while ago, and bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis that I’d had my eye on. I’d never read anything of hers before, but there was something strange drawing me to this book, and even now I have no idea exactly what it was. I read the blurb while milling around in a bookshop and then made a note to look her up, and the more I read about her, the more I wanted this collection.

When I finally made room in my reading schedule to crack this open (at around 730 pages it felt like a commitment, as I was determined to read it in one go and not take pauses between stories that, given my history, could last months), I found something I wasn’t expecting. I fell utterly in love with it. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read anything by Davis before. Inwardly kicking myself for being so myopic in my literary diet, I jumped from story to story, and by the time I reached the second book in the collection (Almost No Memory) I could no longer doubt that this woman was a genius. Then around halfway through the second book I was considering abandoning my boyfriend to go and seek Davis out, convinced that she was in fact my soulmate.

The book consists of four pre-existing collections of short stories: Break it Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant ((2001), and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). Each book consists of intriguing variations on story content, but also what really constitutes a short story. I was recently told by a friend that a short story must be structured using the classic 7 or 8 point arc (or less, if you’re being really dull), which allows a story to build, then climax, then end with a satisfying denouement. He told me that all successful stories work this way. I disagreed, as I felt this didn’t allow for much flexibility – it didn’t give a writer room to create a piece of work that is abstruse and unconventional, because sometimes that’s the only way to explain something complex and unusual to your readers. It reduces all stories to fairytales, when sometimes that isn’t what you need. Although Lydia Davis does use this structure in some of her stories, I found that in this collection this classic arc is hardly ever employed, and it is the richer for it. Davis evidently leans towards a more liberal understanding of storytelling, and aligns a lot of her stories closer to poetry, some stories being a single sentence long, some being 20 pages. Some of her stories have a conclusion, but most don’t. Many of them have a climax where it’s expected, but more don’t.

Through her sparse and subtle emotionally charged pages, Davis consistently encourages you to look beyond the page, to think outside of the proverbial box. To be honest, once you get to Samuel Johnson is Indignant you’ve pretty much thrown out the box, and when you finally reach Varieties of Disturbance you’ve put the box on a pyre, spoken the funeral rites and lit the match. There are certain stories across the collections that stand out for me, particularly the very opening tale of ‘The Fears of Mrs Orlando’ – a bigoted old woman who wanders through her life on the very verge of all-out hysteria because of her remarkable racism. It is where Davis is at her best – she never once condemns Mrs Orlando, and instead presents her often deranged concerns as base fears. She leaves the rest up to us. Without ever explicitly giving any detailed analysis of Mrs Orlando’s assumptions and actions, she shows us how pitiable she is. No matter how much we detest the way she thinks, it is clear that she carries with her an insurmountable weakness that will colour her every movement, and prevent her from honest happiness. Davis’ understated syntax does everything it needs to; her style isn’t romantic or dramatic, because the events themselves are – particularly the small, inconsequential ones. I envy this more than is really reasonable, as my vague attempts at story writing usually result in a lot of talk and not enough substance, and I often wish I could imitate the same terse and gutting literary rhythms, but I’ve found that no matter how hard I try my brain simply doesn’t work this way.

Davis expertly navigates the minute and intricate moments that pull together our lives. She highlights odd moments that seem meaningless when viewed as a whole, such as catching a mouse in the kitchen or sitting through a long car journey, and finds the moments within these moments that perfectly capture former or future pain. She targets her characters’ reactions, the tiny micro-expressions that give us all away – the twitch of an eyebrow or the nibbling of a lip that broadcast whether we are sad or nervous or irritated or amorous. She clings onto all of the tedious details people remember of each other, particularly acquaintances, and uses them to construct the lives and values of her characters. A lot of the time these stories are comical, and sometimes genuinely made me laugh out loud. A little while ago I read an old interview with Davis in which she mentioned that she hadn’t realised until she attended a reading that her stories were often incredibly funny, which I enjoyed. I like that they are really just observations to Davis, and if people say or do something hilarious it’s often completely unintentional. We all really are this ridiculous.

Despite my only recent acquaintance with her writing, I love Davis’ prose like a dear old friend (of which I have few, given the brutal effect ageing has had on my childhood bonds). On the page she is cunning and sardonic, and through some stories she seems to offer a smile to you from the corner of her mouth while a secret trick lurks behind it, and through others she’s poking at your ribs, waiting for you to cry. It often feels like Davis is handing her stories to you with rough edges and incomplete, like she has scrawled a stanza of swiftly devised heart breaking poetry on a warm stained napkin, and left you to decipher her handwriting and wonder what she could have been thinking when she penned it. I have been irrevocably moved by this collection, and I think I can honestly say that Lydia Davis is now one of my absolute favourites.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is published by Penguin, and is available in all good bookshops.

Review: ‘Heroines’ by Kate Zambreno

IMG_20141011_110348I’d been trying to get myself in the mood for this ever since a friend gave it to me for my last birthday. We both refer to ourselves as feminists, but whenever we speak about feminist issues I always feel a little guilty for being too mainstream, too unimaginative, and still unintentionally bogged down in the expectations of my society. I almost rely on her to pick me up on these things, to shame me into thinking less laterally, and I think this is just one example of how infinite and multi-faceted feminist theory is. Every person has a completely unique perspective, as with any area of political theory, entirely dependent upon their individual experiences and backgrounds, whether you are black, white, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, working class, middle class, upper class, Southern, Northern, British, American, Somali, Swedish, male, female, etc etc etc. It is all important, and every person’s perspective can inform any other’s for the better.

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is far more than an inquiry into the shining beginnings and bitter ends of the wives and mistresses of the Great Writers of the modern age. It’s a deeply personal investigation into Zambreno’s own life and role as a writer, as mirrored in the lives of the women whose work was (and often still is) neglected and passed over by critics because of their gender. Their ovaries. Their XX chromosomes. They were considered mad and unstable, and frequently became so as a result of the strange restrictions put upon them. This is Zambreno’s experience of life, which informs her position as a feminist – she has experienced the diagnosis (and mis-diagnosis) of various mental conditions, and has naturally gravitated towards the treatment of mental illness amongst women. The concept of female ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century was a very singular and spectacularly damaging prognosis that could be offered to any woman deemed not quite up to scratch by her peers and men-folk. The origins of the word suggest that the very womb itself is our enemy, a mischief-maker, as well as a burden for any man who dares share a life with one. Zambreno candidly discusses the brutality of menstruation, the pain and mess that women wade through every month, and the abhorrence of the men who witness it. She expresses the disappointment and shame often felt when a male partner is so openly disgusted or bemused by an event that is so intrinsically bound to female life, and while reading her words I could hear myself making the same point in unison.

In Heroines Kate Zambreno examines the turbulent literary experiences of people like Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield (among many others) and their unique, but also tragically commonplace, treatment at the hands of their male competitors. Their key competitors were unfortunately also their husbands and lovers – the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles, and Leonard Woolf – privy to the emotional mechanics of these women and always with a tenacious doctor at hand. Zambreno makes it painfully clear that these men had altogether too much power. She tells us of her Heroines’ stratospheric literary peaks, times in their lives where they could do nothing but write, in stark contrast with their hellish lows, incarcerated, begging for a pen and paper.

Zambreno’s style emulates the modernist prose of the period she writes about, slipping in and out of spleeny automatic writing, the blood and sweat of it, though I sense that this is her usual style. It is not calculated mimicry, but an intimate method used by many women before her to express things that often feel inexpressible. She writes articulately about her own concerns with writing as a profession and how this relates to her fears of falling into the same patterns of her Heroines, as she moves with her husband to parts of the country she has no desire to live in, as witness to his increasing professional success. At times she seems to spiral into an emotional chasm, acutely aware of the sacrifices she has made for him and fearing failure of any flavour. There is something so familiar about her grievances, yet my experiences haven’t been the same, or even comparable. There is just something sort of universal about some of her fears, something inherently reassuring about reading another woman’s voice set completely free.

As a small aside, I can thank Kate Zambreno for reminding me of some of the writers I was so fascinated by several years ago, while I was studying at Goldsmiths. Her occasional references to the work of Kathy Acker, Clarice Lispector and ecriture feminine take me right back to my final year at university, when I took a module titled ‘Writing, Gender & Anxiety’ and wrote my final dissertation about Helene Cixous and Lispector’s seminal Hour of the Star. Thinking of Hour of the Star instantly makes me feel bleak and sort of hollow, because although it’s a masterpiece, it’s just so unbearably sad. It’s also a wrench for me as I no longer have my dissertation anywhere. It’s completely lost, swallowed by my deteriorating laptop a few years ago, so all I have is this fading memory of it, and I genuinely (melodramatically) consider this a personal tragedy.

Although I don’t feel like the sentiments in this book are entirely revelatory, it does feel important, like a milestone. I think it feels important because not enough people write like this, with such fierce candor about how it feels to be a woman caught in the binds of a patriarchy, and with unabashed anger over the treatment of female artists of the past – it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, these wrongs can never be righted. All we can really hope for is that things will improve for future generations. Zambreno thankfully ends on a positive note: an encouraging treatise on the future for literary women. She implores us to write, and write, and write, and write… Because we have plenty to say, and so many women are still fighting to be heard.

Heroines is published by MIT Press and is available from all good bookshops for £12.95.

Review: ‘The Visitors’ by Simon Sylvester

IMG_20140913_170641I went on a bit of book buying binge recently, scooping up a few newish titles by writers I hadn’t heard of and I’d read good things about. I now see the error of my ways. Well, that may be a bit dramatic, but I was sorely disappointed by the latest instalment from my aforementioned Book Binge, which was The Visitors by Simon Sylvester.

The Visitors mostly takes place on the fictional Hebridean island of Bancree where there have been a series of unusual disappearances of beloved locals, and the story is brought to us by 17 year old resident Flora (or Flo to her friends, of which – she is wont to tell us – she has few). Flora is bored by her life on Bancree, and cursed by the itchy feet that I think many of us who grew up in remote areas often are. Her boyfriend abandons her for the wild landscape of Bristol Uni, while Flora is just starting her sixth year at a school in a mainland town near to Bancree. The school where she regularly clashes with grouchy and emotionally simple girls, naturally envious of her much-noted independence and reportedly handsome boyfriend.

To be honest, I got this far through it and started questioning who this book was actually targeted at, already doubting my choice. Optimistically believing it would soon morph into the moody thriller about mysterious disappearances in the wilds of the icy Scottish wilderness that I’d read about, I persevered. The tale plodded onward with some exciting episodes involving a school project about mythical sea creatures, casual run-ins with locals, and a pretty weak smattering of stilted dialogue more suited to an evening listening to The Archers than the literary thriller this was purported to be.

Amongst all of this small town angst appear the focus of Flora’s narrative: mysterious Aisla, also 17 years old, and her phenomenally attractive father. They arrive without warning, moving into an abandoned house on an even tinier island across from Flora’s home. Flora and Aisla strike up a close friendship, seemingly bound by their shared unusual-but-attractive looks and the fact that they are the only teenagers on the island. Not a hell of a lot to go on, but hey, who am I to judge?

The father and daughter team baffle the neighbourhood but shunning any real social interactions, but don’t seem to be doing too much harm so the friendship between the girls flourishes – apparently off the page, as there is very little detail given. I could have forgiven Sylvester a lot of the clunky plot if he had only dialled down the dialogue, and spent more time on the girls’ friendship – I wanted to invest in it and know what they liked about each other, what drew them in, other than their pretty faces.

The way that the teenage girls were characterised was one of the things that most irked me about The Visitors. They seemed to be so two-dimensional, like they had been plucked out of any other throw-away teen novel/TV show/movie. It was all so lazy. And nobody thought to explain to Sylvester that there is no direct correlation between how a young woman looks and how interesting she is, or that 16 and 17 years olds can terrorise each other over a lot more than their handsome boyfriends.

To be a little fairer to the author (it is, after all, his debut novel), he clearly used his ability to describe a scene with a poetic dexterity that captured the sense of the damp chill in the air, and really brought the islands to life. There were times when I could really see the grey and changeable horizon from Bancree, and these moments were there to be treasured because soon enough they would be swallowed in the fug of cliché and the pedestrian plot that fills the rest of the book.

Using Flora’s school project as a conduit there are also unexpected flashes of fantasy in the story, and some of the chapters are pleasantly interrupted by short folk tales about selkies. Although they feel a little crowbarred in, they are a nice touch and modestly told, and add an intriguing tangential mystery to the plot. The final push contained an almost overpowering wave of drama, not entirely fitting with the molasses-like pace of the rest of book, but concludes with a disarmingly warming epilogue that despite myself I really enjoyed.

I have learned one thing on my rip-roaring adventure in bad literature: don’t trust everything people tell you, even if it’s 50:1 in favour of the book. Go with your gut, and always read the first page before buying. I mean, I could be completely wrong about this book – read it and let me know.

The Visitors is published by Quercus, and is available to buy in hardback for £16.99.

Review: ‘In the Approaches’ by Nicola Barker

IMG_20140902_184013I was cruising the Not the Booker 2014 longlist a couple of months ago, keen to read something I’d never heard of. I was itching to stretch my cognitive muscles outside of my comfort zone, wary of wedging myself in a reading rut. Along came the brilliant Nicola Barker and her latest novel, In the Approaches; a lively, even manic, tragicomedy set in 1984, steered by the emotionally (and geographically) turbulent experiences felt by a small group of people living in a small town on the Sussex coast.

The novel is constructed of a string of monologues from our three (or four, if you count Teobaldo, the incensed parrot) major characters, all bringing their own perspective on events that take place during 1984. They are united in their peripheral experiences of a family that came to live in the village some 12 years previously: the artist and IRA sympathiser Bran Cleary, his troubled wife Kalinda ‘Lonely’ Allaway, and their young daughter Orla Nor Cleary, the living saint tainted by thalidomide. Little Orla seems to have touched the lives of everyone around her (and those much farther away), and none more so than Carla Hahn, who acted as Orla’s ‘nurse’ until her death. Carla is frequently antagonised by the cynical Franklin D. Huff, a love interest and former journalist over from America to decipher and scrutinise the events surrounding the Cleary family, while solving a few personal mysteries of his own.

The character truly experiencing the torment of standing ‘in the approaches’ is poor old Clifford Bickerton – former squeeze of Carla’s, and a character plunging headlong into a nervous breakdown, constantly criticising the ‘cow Author’. It is not for us to know who the Author is (whether or not she is Barker), only to speculate. At once the Author could be Barker breaking through the pages and communicating directly with her character, expressing her self-doubt or pride through a Clifford shaped vessel, or she could simply be the fevered imaginings of an increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied member of the cast. I find both devices interesting, and this ambiguity only makes them more so.

A key theme running through In the Approaches is the concept of religion alongside, or versus, spirituality. As an atheist I can become sort of caustic in a discussion about religion, and at times I did feel mildly irritated by Barker’s seeming assumption that a degree of faith is a given, a necessity. Everyone in the novel has been touched by Orla and her pious deeds, either while she was alive or years after her death, and everyone at some point experiences a sense of something ‘other’ – be it fate, prayer or ghosties. It was something I found hard to get on board with, but I admire Barker’s ability to keep a subject like this plainly non-sickly. There were definitely pointed sections of the novel that provide us with the occasional lunacy of religious fanaticism, but it seems clear that Barker is falling on the side of the ethereal.

Barker’s prose is playful and tricksy, and above all, fun. She uses parenthesis with a compulsion, which on the surface makes her seem lost in her own storytelling, but in fact enfolds the reader in each of the character’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. In what initially felt like a pretty eccentric style, Barker presents internal ruminations to us in a way that makes perfect non-linear sense.

In the Approaches is, at its bare bones, a romantic comedy. And a pastoral mystery. And a family drama. But delve a little deeper and it’s much more – it’s a weird investigation into the connection between personal distress and faith, a literary and linguistic challenge, and a slapstick romance populated with embarrassing bum jokes. I recommend it because it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and because it’s triggered my Nicola Barker binge. Next up: Darkmans.

In the Approaches is published by Fourth Estate, and can be found alongside Barkers numerous other novels in all good bookshops for £18.99.

And here for a little extra: an interesting article about the author herself

A Misspent Childhood: Books I Wish I’d Read as a Child, and Well-Loved Books Worth Revisiting

IMG_20140826_210620Recently the memory of a book I was given as a child by my Dad re-emerged while I was telling a colleague an anecdote. He loves classical history, and I mentioned this obscure book that I had been given when I was around 11 or 12, that I don’t believe I fully understood at the time. I was edging my way into more adult literature around this time, and one day my Dad handed me The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith – something he had read as a child and loved. His copy was well worn, proof of his affection for it 30 years earlier, and as any child might I idolised my father and took on his recommendation. I have a strong recollection of thumbing the fragile pages while we were on an excessively long holiday in California, sitting in the back of a rental car zipping across the Mojave Desert, listening to TLC on my trusty Walkman.

As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t really get it. There were whole chunks of the book that I remember being hilarious, but others that just sailed past me. After lending the book to my friend I was inspired to re-read it, convinced that I would have far more patience now. I opened it for the first time in 15 years, and sensory memories came flooding back to me when I touched the grainy pages and out fell an old ratty cotton bookmark I’d shoddily embroidered as a child.

The novel was written in 1931 about a wealthy eccentric American, Hunter Hawk, and his insufferable family, and reads like something between an Evelyn Waugh satire and a Neil Gaiman romp. With great effort, Hunter has perfected a method of turning people into stone statues, and with the help and magic of ‘The Little People’ he also learns to turn statues into flesh and bone, causing no end of havoc. While being comical, Smith often alludes to the corruption of wealth, the mindless parties, drug taking and heavy drinking that fills these people’s lives, and there is no small amount of romantic confusion that pivots around off stage sexual encounters. I’m no longer surprised that this book didn’t click with me when I was 11.

It really is a treat – an escapist, screwball delight that has you wrapped up in the pleasures of the gods. Smith knew exactly how to throw you off course, and give you the sensation of being carried away by a circus – all reason and rationality lost along the way. I’m so glad I picked this up again, and it’s such a shame that there is pretty much nothing by him in print any longer. It’s likely that this will be the only novel by Thorne Smith I’ll ever read.

Reading this reminded me of the things I chose to read as a child, and the things I ignored that I really shouldn’t have. I wish I had been a more adventurous reader as a child, as I feel sure that my 11 year old self would have truly loved books like Howl’s Moving Castle or His Dark Materials (as I certainly do now as an adult), and I wonder how reading books like these back then would have changed me. I would love to go back and visit myself, and hand me a copy of The Call of the Wild or The Wizard of Earthsea and wait for my reaction.

While thinking about the books I wish I’d read, I also considered the books I deeply loved as a child that I could get something completely different out of now as an adult:

BoyDahlBoy by Roald Dahl

I think anyone who grew up around Great Missenden, like I did, feels a special sort of connection with Roald Dahl in an almost possessive or territorial way, as he was a well know local. We used to drive past his home on the way to school, and I would stretch in my seat to glimpse the famous gypsy caravan through the bushes in his garden. I loved Boy because, unlike Dahl’s novels, it felt like reality with a lick of adventure, and not the other way around. He used to play tricks on locals and family members to pass the time, and detailed the brutal corporal punishment at his school that I always felt thankful wasn’t mine. I still feel emotionally attached to this biography, and I would love to have a read of it from the other side of my childhood.

Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the--001The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I only recently found out that the novel was pre-dated by the radio series – I had always assumed otherwise. I remember listening to the series in the car on long journeys when I was small, when the main attraction was the silly words and names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, and then reading it some years later (after watching the 80s TV series too). I feel that Douglas Adams’ sense of humour influenced my own, and it’s again something I feel mildly territorial about as it feels so valuable to my formative years. It would be great to give it another read through, to see how little I probably remember.

silly verseSilly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan

I loved Spike Milligan so much, from his riotous part in The Goon Show (another car journey treat), and his various TV shows that must have been repeated on the BBC when I was small, to his surreal drawings, and of course his poetry. I think revisiting his children’s verse is vital, as well as the vast collections intended for adults, to recapture the eye watering giggles they inspired in me 20 years ago.

emily-bronte-wuthering-heightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I felt there was a bit of an absence of female writers/female characters on my list, and I’m still wondering why that is. However, Wuthering Heights got me around 14 years old, and I have re-read it 2 or 3 times since. It really shaped how I felt about love and romance for a long time, making me believe that anything I may have felt for someone that was less than earth shattering really wasn’t worth the bother. A dangerous notion in the hands of a teenager, and probably the reason for my very romantically unsuccessful adolescence…

only-you-can-save-mankind-2Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

This was my opener – the gateway book which would lead me to the harder stuff: Discworld. It seems as though Discworld overshadows a huge amount of Pratchett’s other work which, although inevitable, is sort of sad. The Johnny Maxwell series grabbed me instantly as a child – the nonsense and chaos, combined with adventures that seemed tantalisingly possible. These are some of the few novels Terry Pratchett set in our reality, and they really are so much fun, as well as offering an alternative world-view integral to broadening children’s minds.

Review: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

IMG_20140802_164751I found Suite Française a struggle. Not because it’s difficult to understand or hard to read, but it becomes an emotional wrench to pick up a book on a sunny day and contemplate the realities of the experience of war. This of course makes it all the more important to carry on picking it up each day, sunny or not, and plough through. 

Suite Française is a fictionalisation of the early days of occupied France during WWII, seen through the eyes of several individuals, strangely and obliviously connected to one another. It is broken into two parts (although the intentions were for it to eventually be five, the author’s life was tragically cut short before she finished by the very war she wrote about), the first covering the defeat of France and the mass exodus from Paris, and the second covering the beginnings of life under German rule in rural France. Némirovsky describes her multiple subjects’ moods and decisions in fine detail with such unassuming grace that they feel truly present, like people you might have met before. They feel tangible and familiar, especially those characters that are immediately repugnant – you don’t want to believe that this is how someone could react in these circumstances, but at the same time it seems all too depressingly possible.

Irène Némirovsky illustrates this incredibly well, making me genuinely terrified of myself. I want to know what principles I would cling to once my freedom has been taken and my life is in danger, whether my hopes that I would be brave and idealistic are in fact foolhardy and smug, and that realistically I would still get stroppy in shop queues or moan about not having jam for my toast. Némirovsky’s narration of people’s torturous and recalcitrant snobbery in the direst of circumstances is when she is at her most interesting. I find it interesting that given Némirovsky’s own thoroughly middle class (if not upper middle class) roots, spanning from her childhood in Kiev to her adulthood in Paris, she is so scathing of the selfish and callous nature of the Péricand family in the first part, ‘A Storm in June’, and even more so of the Viscountess de Montmort in the second part, ‘Dolce’. Their unwillingness to share what they have with those less fortunate around them is implied as abhorrent.

Because of these characters and others, I find it hard to reconcile the criticisms laid out against Irene Némirovsky. She is regularly painted as an unrelenting anti-semite, and was plagued by self-loathing because of her own Jewish background. There appears to be plenty of evidence to confirm this, such as her association with French politicians on the far-right and pleading letters sent to Marshall Pétain (Prime Minister of Vichy France) in which she affirms her ‘dislike’ of Jews. However, during this period she was in great danger under the vicious anti-semitic laws sweeping across France and was evidently doing anything she could to protect herself  and her family, whether her pleading statements were genuine or not. It is even more tragic then that these desperate and potentially shaming tactics did not work, and in July 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz where she died a short time later.

Although discussion of her dislike of the Jewish people may seem irrelevant when talking about Suite Française as there are no Jewish characters in the novel, it does still hold some weight. The very absence of Jewish characters is conspicuous, given Némirovsky’s experiences as a Jew in Vichy France, and her known allegiances with collaborators casts an interesting light on the characters Lucile and Bruno in ‘Dolce’. Lucile lives with her mother-in-law in the small town of Bussy, awaiting news of her husband who is currently being held as a prisoner of war. Bruno is a German Officer who has been allocated a room in their house to stay in during the German presence in Bussy. Bruno is a very sympathetic character, although we rarely get a true glimpse at his political beliefs. He is all honour and chivalry and charm, with a dash of exciting musical proficiency, which of course draw in lonely Lucile who constantly second guesses her affection for him, while they involuntarily become closer and closer.

I am always fascinated by any story that remarks on the shades of grey in any situation, and perhaps naively I believe that no one is ever entirely bad or entirely good. This is probably why I enjoyed ‘Dolce’ so much, as this is expertly handled (however you might feel about Némirovsky’s intentions); the perception that many German soldiers had been swept up into a war they may not necessarily agree with or want to fight in, just as the French soldiers had. She gives Bruno a humanity not often afforded in depictions of German soldiers during this period, making the blossoming romance between him and Lucile even more fraught and morally confusing.


Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts as Lucile and Bruno

It’s interesting that the film adaptation of this book will be released imminently, as while I was reading it the thought that this book would be unfilmable had crossed my mind, due to the amount of characters and individual histories told. It’s understandable that writers and director Matt Charman and Saul Dibb have chosen to draw their focus on ‘Dolce’, as it contains the most developed and engaging characters, and the fascinating relationship that builds between the occupiers and the occupied. The casting looks like it will do the characters justice (Michelle Williams as Lucile, Matthias Shoenaerts as Bruno, Kristen Scott-Thomas as Lucile’s mother-in-law), and I definitely look forward to seeing the book realised on screen, but I can’t help but feel it will be hard to eke out the same emotional experience I had with the book. It really is a masterpiece, and I would recommend reading it even when it makes you despair, and make sure you question everything, from Madame Péricand’s snobbery and Bruno’s ambiguous moral compass, to Irene Némirovsky’s own desperate and tenebrous pleas for her life.

 Suite Française is published by Vintage, and available in all good bookshops for £8.99.