Shadows of the Workhouse

Jennifer Worth's second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, was her follow-up to the immensely popular Call the Midwife, and this particular cover is obviously trying to trade on the success of the BBC series. However, for this volume, it's actually quite misleading! There is not ONE baby or birth scene in Shadows of the Workhouse, despite the smiling midwives and bonny babes pictured on the front.

There was more to Worth's work in London's Poplar in the 1950s than delivering babies, and in her second book she tells the stories of people she visited as a home nurse (intercut with a poignant episode involving Sister Monica Joan, a ninety year old nun accused of jewellery theft). Worth departs from her personal memories (which is why I hesitate to call this book a memoir) to narrate the experiences of a brother and sister who grew up in the grim environment of the workhouse before rediscovering one another in their teens, and an old soldier with whom she forms a touching bond.

If the popularity of Call the Midwife shines a light on this forgotten and horrific element of social history, that can only be a good thing. In some ways the shadows of the workhouse still fall on social policy -- the notion that poverty is a sign of moral failing or laziness, the disregard for human dignity, the ignorance and disdain of those more fortunate, have all crept back into public discourse. Shadows of the Workhouse is a good reminder of where that path ultimately leads.


Shakespeare: The World As Stage

There are few more engaging companions on a non-fiction journey than Bill Bryson. I have gone with him happily on trips around Australia, explorations of the history of the English language and the domestic home, and many others. So it was a canny move by the publishers of this Eminent Lives series to hire Bryson to deal with what must surely be their most problematic subject: William Shakespeare.

The problem is that although Shakespeare left behind the richest body of work in the English language, he left us almost zero information about his personal life. Not even his birth date is certain. This hasn't prevented a tidal wave of speculation about his loves, career, even his identity; as Bryson points out, it's not that the world needs another book about Shakespeare -- it's that this series does.

If anyone is skilled at spinning an interesting tale out of a bare handful of recorded (and contested) facts, it's Bill Bryson. And Shakespeare: The World as Stage tells us a lot of very engaging stuff about the Elizabethan theatre, publishing, London, class and religion in Shakespeare's time. But -- and this is not Bryson's fault -- it tells us next to nothing about the man himself. It is truly amazing that so much mystery still surrounds this most luminous of literary figures. Was he gay? Why did he leave his wife their 'second-best bed'? ( I suspect a coded message...) What was he up to in the 'lost years'? We don't even know for sure what plays were written when, or even in what order.

I'm still glad I read it, though, because it succinctly filled in some useful background to the events of  Antonia Forest's The Players and the Rebels. Which reminds me, I still need to get The Player's Boy! I feel a Christmas present coming on...


Life After Life

Every novel I've read by Kate Atkinson has been a treat*, and Life After Life is no exception. A perfect middle-brow read, it teems with ideas and juicy story-lines, as well as a killer conceit. I had a lot of trouble putting this novel down and raced through its 600 pages in a couple of days.

What if you had the chance to live your life over and over, until you finally got it right? Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and dies, the cord wrapped round her neck. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and lives, because the doctor arrives just in time to save her. We see Ursula's childhood and later life play out, with each forking path of chance explored. Sometimes these paths reconnect, sometimes they lead to wildly divergent outcomes. One of Ursula's lives takes place in wartime Germany; in another, she marries an abusive conman. Her adulthood takes place in the London Blitz -- plenty of opportunities for untimely death there. It's a measure of Atkinson's skill that the necessary repetitions and backtracks inherent in her scheme don't become tedious; half the fun is picking out the variations from the life before.

It hadn't occurred to me until I read a review this morning that Atkinson might be playing with the whole idea of the author's power to play God -- to bestow good fortune or many kinds of suffering. The character of Ursula herself seems to possess a growing awareness of her cyclical journey -- in one life in particular, she is actually calculating her own destiny. But then there is a coda that doesn't make sense in that narrative, planting doubts about whether this is really Ursula's "true purpose"; is there any such thing?

Characters talk of reincarnation, but Ursula's experience is not quite that; she lives the same life over and over, not one life after another in different bodies. But this book certainly fleshes out all those delicious or terrifying 'what if' ruminations that all of us indulge in from time to time.

* though I did feel that the Jackson Brodie series ran out of steam slightly towards the end.



After the publication of Boneland, Alan Garner said that he regarded all his nine novels as really one novel: after reading Thursbitch, I think I understand what he means.

Thursbitch (named for a valley in the Pennines) is an adult novel. It grew from a (real) memorial stone by the side of a track, which reads Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snow storm in the night in or about 1755; the print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.

From this mysterious seed, Garner weaves a double tale, of two couples separated by time: Jack and Nan Sarah in the eighteenth century, and Ian and Sal in the twenty-first. Jack is the guardian of an ancient rite, and a jagger -- a travelling trader; Nan Sarah is his wife. Ian is a scientist and a priest, Sal a geologist; they were once a couple, but now Ian is Sal's carer as she grows slowly weaker from a degenerative illness. Their twinned stories, of faith and ritual, different kinds of knowledge, illness and grief, cross and divide through time but not through space, echoing and united in this place of grim power with its standing stones and ancient springs.

I found many resonances with the later Boneland, which also centres on a grief-struck and suffering man, as well as Red Shift, which also uses the technique of parallel narratives. Though Thursbitch is a slim novel, there is much meat to chew on. One day I will read all Garner's novels back to back. What a rewarding experience that will be.


The Pattern in the Carpet

Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet is one of those strange unclassifiable books that give marketing departments a headache. Part memoir, part history, part reflection, it's been subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws, which is as good a summary as any.

Margaret Drabble was possibly my first adult author crush; I read The Millstone at about fourteen and recognised myself in the character of Rosamund, solitary and almost pathologically independent, scholarly and paranoid about causing any kind of inconvenience to others (Rosamund, as I did too eventually, breaks out of this diffidence when she has to defend her baby). I've read most, but not all of Drabble's novels over the past few decades. I was vaguely irritated by The Pure Gold Baby, which I found meandering and unsatisfying.

The Pattern in the Carpet was also meandering, but perhaps because it wasn't a novel, this time I found its detours charming rather than annoying. Drabble reminisces about her childhood, about the satisfactions of jigsaws and puzzles and their history (beginning with 'dissected maps' as an educational tool and gradually becoming purely pleasurable time-wasters). Many authors are apparently addicted to jigsaws, finding their purely visual meditation an effective antidote to wrestling with words. I have found this myself (though lately I've taken up piano and knitting as similar non-verbal occupations).

This memoir is itself built up from interlocking pieces, jumping from the origins of children's books to the appeal of twee rural nostalgia to the sad biography of Alison Uttley to conversations with London taxi drivers to Roman mosaics to the incredible flower collages of Mary Delany, in short, entertaining chapters.

I was very sad to learn that Drabble's daughter Becky , who is mentioned several times in the text, died of cancer earlier this year. This added an extra layer of poignancy to the text. The Pattern in the Carpet is not quite the slim stocking-filler that Drabble initially envisaged, but it was a diverting and intriguing journey.


Openly Straight

Confession: I didn't really expect to enjoy this book much. I really bought it for Evie, because I thought it seemed like the kind of book she'd like (and indeed she is just about to read it). I thought it would be one of those overly earnest, American YA novels where all the characters are impossibly witty and everything is heavy with feels. (John Green has a lot to answer for!)

And early on, Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight did seem to be that kind of book. But gradually I started to realise, this is actually really good. Emotional, yes, but subtly so. Witty dialogue, yes, but also moments of excruciating awkwardness. Funny, and complex, and interesting.

I happened to notice the back flap and saw the imprint 'Arthur Levine.' Aha! My very own US publisher, an imprint with excellent taste in manuscripts. Hastily I consulted the acknowledgments and saw a thank you to Cheryl Klein, pearl among editors. With such a pedigree, how could Openly Straight fail to be good?

The novel has a great premise. Rafe is sick and tired of being 'the gay kid' at his school. He's sure the label is getting in the way of his getting to know people properly, and he's not even getting a boyfriend out of it! So when he crosses the country to change schools, he decides that at Natick, he won't be 'the gay kid.' Not going back in the closet, just not telling people unless they ask him directly (standing in the doorway, as he puts it). He just wants to be 'normal' for a while.

But of course things are not that simple. Yes, he gets to experience being 'one of the boys' without the complication of his sexuality getting in the way. But when he starts to make real friends, when he finds himself falling in love, it's his lie of omission which starts to get in the way.

This is a really terrific book and I thoroughly enjoyed its bittersweet exploration of labels, identity, acceptance, friendship, love and celebration.


The Bell Family

Ah! Reading a Noel Streatfeild novel, even one I haven't read before (amazing to think that such a book exists...), is like slipping into a lovely warm bath. The ultimate comfort read!

The Bell Family began life as a radio serial on the BBC, and it contains all the familiar Streatfeild ingredients: money worries, family fun and quarrels, a child who wants to become a dancer. The Bell family live in a London vicarage and finances are tight. Alex and Cathy are the patient, loving parents; Paul, the eldest son, wants to be a doctor, but his grandfather is pressuring him to join the family business; Jane would be a dancer if only there was money to pay for her training. Ginnie ('Miss Virginia Bell') is impulsive and always getting herself into scrapes, and Angus is the youngest, musical and funny. The last member of the family is the adored dog, Esau, and then there is Mrs Gage, another familiar Streatfeild character, the comfortable, down-to-earth family helper, who appears to work as a full time cook and housekeeper for little more than love alone.

The Bells seem to live in roughly the same area of London as the setting for Call the Midwife, and at roughly the same time, though their troubles are far less severe than those described by Jennifer Worth. The genteel poor is a category Streatfeild is very comfortable with, and so am I! The delightful Shirley Hughes illustrations are the perfect complement to the gentle story.

Apparently there is another book about the Bell family. But given it took me this long to find the first volume (thank you, Brown & Bunting!), I doubt that I'll ever be able to track down the sequel.


The Adventure of English

It's taken me a long time to get through this volume -- not because it's not interesting, but I became a bit bogged down in the latter stages. Based on a TV programme Melvyn Bragg made in the early 2000s (which I would really love to see!), The Adventure of English is a journey through the history of our language, its diverse origins, the moments when it was in most danger of being overtaken, its many divergences and meldings, and its likely future as a global tongue.

I most enjoyed the first part of the book which traced the Old English, Norse and Norman roots of the language we speak and write today. I have read heaps of histories of the English language and perhaps now I've reached my limit! The place where I stuck was probably around the chapters on American English (sorry to my American readers, if I have any...) But there were some really interesting chapters on black English (which I was reading, coincidentally, when we watched Twelve Years A Slave the other night), West Indian English, accent snobbery and Indian English. But of course I turned eagerly to the chapter on Australian English and found it full of inaccuracies, so perhaps I should take the rest of Bragg's insights with more than a grain of salt!