5.8.21

Smoky-House

 

Smoky-House is definitely a minor Elizabeth Goudge, but for a long time it was the only book of hers that I actually owned -- I think I received it as a Christmas present when I was about nine. Unlike Linnets and Valerians or The Little White Horse, my real favourites, I haven't reread Smoky-House for decades, but I was surprised when I pulled it from the shelf to see how well-thumbed it was -- lots of page corners have been nibbled, which is a sure sign that I read it many times.

I'd forgotten most of the plot, which involves smuggling and the assistance of the Good People, but there were a couple of unexpected details which had stayed vivid in my mind. One was the plain second daughter Genefer (I'd never seen it spelled like that before) and her dresses of soft pale butterfly orange and blue; the other was the angels who stand round the bedposts of the children and watch over them as they sleep.

Four posts to my bed,
Four angels round my head.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Bless the bed I lie upon.

For several years I used to pray this at bedtime, and imagine my own watchful angels. This little prayer caught my fancy, but there is a LOT of poetry in this book, which I could do without. There are the usual wise, resourceful animals, courageous children (including the compulsory naughty youngest), a vigorous Squire to marry the sweet eldest daughter Jessamine (that's her on the cover) and various magical beings. There is also the figure of the bitter Fiddler, who is very similar to the character of Sebastian Weber in The Heart of the Family, though the Fiddler finds his redemption far more easily than poor Sebastian. 

Not one of Goudge's best, but I'm still fond of it -- and just look at that pretty 1970s cover!

2.8.21

The Labyrinth & One Whole and Perfect Day

 

At first glance, these two novels, which I read simultaneously, may seem very different. One Whole and Perfect Day is a young adult book published fifteen years ago; The Labyrinth is an adult literary novel which has just won this year's Miles Franklin Award. But as I read them together, I found more and more common elements.

Both are written by Australian women authors, born only a few years apart (I have just discovered that Judith Clarke sadly died last year). Both books are set in New South Wales -- Perfect Day in Sydney and Katoomba, The Labyrinth partly in Sydney and partly in the fictional coastal town of Garra Nalla. Both books centre on women, one a teenager, one at the other end of life, who are both struggling with family history and stumbling toward making sense of their lives. Though they are written in very different styles, I found the books chimed together in their compassionate approach to human frailty, forgiveness, and the drive to create (in Lily's case, a party to bring her fractured family together; in the case of Erica, to build a labyrinth).

One Whole and Perfect Day is naturally lighter in tone, and skips between a large cast of characters before wrapping up with a neat and satisfying ending. The Labyrinth is more sombre, a reflective and character-driven novel rather a story-centred one. Lohrey has said she was interested in the efforts that humans make to fulfil their spiritual needs, even after religion has lost its force -- for Erica, the creation of the labyrinth becomes a spiritual quest which draws in her neighbours and begins to resolve her difficult past.

I enjoyed immersing myself in these very different but overlapping worlds, created by two wonderful Australian women authors who both deserve your attention. (And thanks to Chris and Pam for lending me The Labyrinth.)

29.7.21

A Time of Gifts


 I had never read Patrick Leigh Fermor's classics of travel writing, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Written when Fermor was in his sixties, the memoirs describe a journey he took in 1933/4 when he was just 18, when he decided to walk from the Hook of Holland all the way to Constantinople. This first volume ends when he reaches Budapest.

It took me a little while to settle into Fermor's flowery style:

Massed shadows, tilting down from the sierras, filled the bottom of the canyon. Here the Danube followed a winding corridor which expanded without warning to giant circular ballrooms and closed again just as abruptly; and for leagues on end this widening and shrinking ravine was empty of all but a cottage and a barn or two and a scattering of lonely towers and hermitages, all crumbling to fragments. They broke through the forest mass, disintegrating on vertiginous spikes of rock high overhead...

His evocative narrative takes us into a vanished world of clogs and swastikas (the Nazis had just taken power in Germany). I especially enjoyed Fermor's encounters with strangers and new friends, all vividly described, and the landscape and nature writing is beautiful -- surely Fermor created the template for literary travellers everywhere? I was less enthralled by long passages on obscure middle European history (something I know zero about, and alas was not inspired to explore further) and some of the raptures on architecture made my eyes glaze over.

It was astonishing to reflect that Fermor was only eighteen when he undertook this massive trek across Europe, and his confident, unconscious privilege glows from every page. He's prepared to rough it along the way, sleeping in barns and woods when the weather permits; but he's equally welcome as a guest in shabby schlosses, where threadbare nobles pour him brandy and expound on medieval history. He never seems to feel himself in danger, and while he is certainly grateful for the hospitality he finds almost everywhere, he also takes it for granted that he should be sheltered and fed. He only starts to wonder where he might sleep once darkness falls; as a slightly older female backpacker in Europe fifty years later, I was fretting about the next night's bed as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning. And while his pockets are also often close to empty, he is secure in the knowledge that there will be money waiting for him down the road. He sees and sympathises with the poverty around him, but he is just a visitor in the world of hunger and cold.

I wonder how the same journey might have been experienced by a woman, or indeed anyone but a young, healthy, middle class white man? Still, I'm glad Fermor could share his long, colourful walk with the rest of us.

26.7.21

The Mitford Murders

 

Of course I couldn't resist buying Jessica Fellowes' The Mitford Murders. I love me a between-the-wars murder mystery, and the addition of the Mitford family was an extra layer of jam on top. Fellowes is the niece of Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, and she has also written the book companions to the series, so I felt she would be familiar with the period and probably benefit from her uncle's researches. Also, I found the midnight-and-gold cover of this edition very appealing. So I plunged in with high hopes.

I don't feel too bad saying this as The Mitford Murders is set to include six volumes (one for each sister, five down, one to go) and there are murmurs of a TV series, but I finished the novel feeling rather more ambivalent than when I began. It took me a long time to finish (the chapters are very short and I was interspersing with other books), and on the whole I enjoyed the experience. There was one of those serendipitous cross-over moments when I was also reading So You've Been Publicly Shamed and Max Mosley popped up (son of Diana Mitford), and there was another reference to the artists' colony at St Ives (how did I survive so long without knowing about it?)

The central protagonist of The Mitford Murders is the fictional Louisa Cannon, who comes to work as a nurserymaid for the Mitfords and becomes chummy with eldest daughter Nancy. Louisa and her admirer Guy begin investigating the death of a former nurse on a train -- based on a real unsolved murder case. But the Mitford family are of course real people, and so was Florence Shore, the murder victim. In the end I felt quite queasy about this uncomfortable blend of history and fiction, especially when the murder case is 'solved.' I spotted the central twist a long way ahead, and there were a couple of niggles with the writing that bothered me ('face like a punctured beach ball' leapt out at me, in a novel set in 1920, when beach balls weren't invented till 1938 -- yes, I did look it up, but it just felt wrong when I read it and it pulled me out of the story.)

So while I wish Jessica Fellowes well, and good on her for obviously striking a chord with lots of readers (and publishers!), I don't think I will be checking out any more Mitford Murders. Maisie Dobbs covers much of the same ground and perhaps with more integrity.


22.7.21

The Family at Misrule

 I didn't realise until recently that there were sequels to Seven Little Australians. My grandparents sent me a TV tie-in copy to PNG in the 1970s which I still have (very tattered now, see below) and the death of Judy made a huge impression on me -- it's one of the most moving scenes in Australian literature. I never saw the TV series but I wonder how they handled it.

So The Family at Misrule was completely new to me. At first I was a little confused, as the action picks up five years after the end of the first book, and all the youngest members of the household are now known by different names! The General has become Peter, Baby is now called Poppet and there is a new baby called Essie (bringing the total rather heartlessly back to seven). Again each member of the tribe gets into some scrape or other, some of them pretty serious -- someone runs away and is effectively missing for months, someone else narrowly avoids an unsuitable marriage. It's usually loving, sensible Meg to the rescue.

I was a little taken aback by one quite snobbish episode where impressionable Nell is steered away from a nouveau-riche, vulgar set of new neighbours -- it was quite jarring to read (on top of the almost-unsuitable marriage with a different neighbour!) how improper the association was considered to be, on not massively persuasive grounds... Honestly I couldn't see why Nell couldn't play tennis with them occasionally and it might have averted the later disaster. 

Because of course there is a later disaster, involving a contagious disease. It was quite harrowing to read this part of the book -- the anxious checking each member of the family for symptoms, Pip scrubbing himself in the river in an attempt to cleanse himself of germs, the hit and miss ordeal of waiting to see who will 'pull through' or when the fever will 'break.' Vaccination, people! Remember how bloody lucky we are that we don't have to routinely go through this torment and the loss of children.

And I did miss Judy, who was always the most appealing member of the bunch.



18.7.21

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Let me start with a gripe -- the official title of this book is Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. But the comma is nowhere to be seen, either on the front cover or the spine, nor even on the frontispiece, which replicates the front cover. I DON'T LIKE IT.

I did, however, very much enjoy the book itself. Academic Helen Kelly launches into a brisk, confident set of arguments which I didn't always agree with, but certainly provided much food for thought. She contends that far from being an author of genteel, well-mannered romantic comedies, Austen was a sharp, astute and sometimes controversial writer about important social and political issues. According to Kelly, the delay between the novels' composition and their eventual publication means that much of their pointed contemporary references were lost -- and two hundred years later, we modern readers definitely don't understand the context and clues that her first readers might have picked up.

Kelly convincingly argues that Mansfield Park is indeed all about slavery (despite some readers claiming that Austen totally ignored the issue) and particularly the hypocrisy of the church in owning slaves overseas; that Pride and Prejudice is quietly radical in its rejection of automatic class superiority; that Sense and Sensibility takes a hard look at money; while Emma carries a barely concealed subtext about the land enclosures of the time and the very real consequences for the poor (Kelly argues that this makes Mr Knightley a disturbing villain rather than a hero).

I don't know enough about Austen scholarship to judge all of Kelly's claims, and sometimes she does seem to draw very big conclusions from rather flimsy evidence, but it has certainly made me consider Austen's novels with a fresh eye.

PS I had just started reading this book when I realised that the TV that happened to be on in the background was showing a documentary about Winchester Cathedral -- Jane's burial place. Serendipity!

30.6.21

Elsewhere Girls

 

An Australian middle grade, body-swap, time slip novel -- could there be a book more solidly up my alley? Penned by two of our most accomplished authors in Nova Weetman and Emily Gale, and written in alternate voices, Elsewhere Girls centres on 21st century Cat and early 1900s Fan, who have mysteriously swapped times and bodies while swimming in Sydney's Wylie's Baths. 'Fan' happens to be Fanny Durack, destined to become Australia's first female Olympic gold medallist in swimming, and a fierce fighter for the rights of women to compete on a par with men. Cat is also a swimmer, but a little less committed than Fan.

There is a lot of fun to be had with the girls' bafflement with the times where they've landed, adjusting to their new families, new expectations, strange technology (or lack thereof), weird clothes and all the rest. But there is a deeper level to Elsewhere Girls as both girls gain a fresh perspective on their own circumstances and each decides what she really wants.

This book must have been so much fun to write. It's probably the first time I've encountered a book set (partly) during the pandemic, though there is only one fleeting reference to 'the virus'. It must have been difficult to decide how much to acknowledge recent history and it's hard to believe that Fan could have escaped hearing about Covid altogether. Luckily Fan never masters the internet enough, or is too modest, to think of googling herself! Likewise, Cat decides not to tell her new family about the approaching war, so both girls remain in a domestic bubble largely untouched by world history (I can absolutely understand the authors' decision to take this approach -- letting in global concerns would have made this a very different kind of book).

Elsewhere Girls is a super, always engaging, thoughtful, funny and sweet novel, and I loved it.

28.6.21

So You've Been Publicly Shamed


Six years after its first publication, Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed remains an important book. Ronson was moved to write about the phenomenon of Twitter pile-ons, like that faced by Justine Sacco, who made a joke in very poor taste about AIDS and Africa before boarding a plane, only to turn on her phone on arrival and discover that she was the world's most hated woman and that she'd lost her job. Years later she was still suffering the fallout from a thoughtless, stupid (and yes, offensive) tweet. Is shame something that we feel, or something that others can impose on us? What about when that shame is disproportionate to the offence? 

Generally I'm not one for joining in pile-ons, though I'm pretty sure I may have added my pebble to the heap a couple of times (though probably only for Donald Trump, who seems to be essentially unshameable). As Ronson points out, the reason why 'public shaming' was abandoned as a legal punishment (think being put in stocks) not because it was ineffective, but because it was too cruel.

Ronson interviews many people on both sides of the shaming divide, including a psychologist who believes that all violence stems from an experience of shame or humiliation. That gave me pause for thought. Ronson didn't link this idea specifically with domestic violence, but it certainly chimed with what Jess Hill said in Look What You Made Me Do

Weird link alert: I'm also reading The Mitford Murders, a novel by Jessica Fellowes featuring the Mitford family, and one of Ronson's interviewees happened to be Max Mosley, son of Diana Mitford, who was subject to an attempted shaming over a 'Nazi sex dungeon' -- oddly enough, the shaming didn't work and he continued his life with almost no consequences.* Ronson initially wonders whether this was because Mosley himself refused to feel ashamed, but later decides it was because of the nature of the scandal -- no one cares about consensual adult sexual activities these days, however kinky. Racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, will however, bring down the full weight of public judgment.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed is full of interesting and pertinent ideas in a world where social media has claimed the power of the mob. It's also highly readable, funny and sometimes sad.

*Edited to add: I didn't realise when I wrote this post that Max Mosley had recently died. Another coincidence.

24.6.21

From Spare Oom to War Drobe

 

 My Kindle is building up quite a collection of books about Narnia that I was too impatient to order in physical form -- Planet Narnia, The Magician's Book, and now From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish.

Langrish, herself a children's author, revisits the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time since childhood, bringing her own fond memories, but alert for newly adult awareness of Lewis's prejudices, and armed with an impressive scholarly background that can trace Lewis's literary and philosophical influences with convincing accuracy, from Edmund Spenser to E. Nesbit. She discusses each book in turn, remembering the emotional impact of each, but doesn't let Lewis off the hook. 

Interestingly, she acquits Lewis of charges of sexism, citing the strong, capable and intelligent female characters who lead most of the adventures (I agree), but she comes down hard on the 'Susan problem.' However, there is abundant evidence of lazy and inexcusable racism, and some muddled thinking around religion, along with the uplifting and magical passages that made Langrish (and me) fall in love with Narnia in the first place, especially the luminous imagery of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and affectionate journey through Narnia.

19.6.21

World's End in Winter


 I like Monica Dickens' work but I didn't read her children's books when I was young, I was more of a Monica Edwards fan. However, in 1976 I did receive a Follyfoot annual, replete with colour photos lifted from the TV show, so I knew that existed (no TV in PNG and I'm not even sure if Follyfoot was screened in Australia).

World's End in Winter is book three in the World's End series and I struggled a little in the beginning; Dickens can be an elliptical writer and she didn't drop many clues. For example, it took me a few pages to work out that John, Peter and Oliver are all horses, not children, and that Lester belonged to a different family. Gradually it became clear that World's End is a ramshackle household of four children, well-meaning but rather ineffectual parents, a kind of foster teen and a host of animals -- dogs, horses, cats. I can see that this would appeal strongly to a certain kind of child but I was not that child. When I was ten, I preferred animals neatly sequestered in stables and outside, not roaming around everywhere.

The plot focus of World's End in Winter lies with a child outside the family altogether -- nine year old Priscilla, confined to a wheelchair since a horse-riding accident two years before, and whose family seems to have given up on her rehabilitation. With encouragement from the World's End children, Priscilla learns to ride again and almost unwittingly regains her mobility. (Dickens dedicates the book to Riding for the Disabled.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Priscilla's horrible competitive parents who refuse to believe she can be helped; the high comedy episode when Priscilla nearly drowns when her wheelchair goes into the swimming pool (that sounds awful but it is very funny); and the underlying anxiety about scraping together enough money to keep this chaotic household functioning. Neighbours are kind, children are resourceful, the animals are all characters in their own right, and issues of life and death and responsibility are faced squarely. But I'm still not sure that World's End is a place I would like to live in.

16.6.21

Madame de Pompadour


 I was very excited to discover a first edition of Nancy Mitford's life of Madame de Pompadour (minus this lovely cover, unfortunately) on the shelves of Footscray Savers recently -- published in 1954, purchased by one Dorothy Cassells, according to the flyleaf, at the Austral Book Shop in Collins St, Melbourne. A little morsel of history.

My knowledge of Madame de Pompadour was confined entirely to the Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, so you can imagine I learned a great deal from this sparkling biography. Despite being a big fan of her novels, I haven't read any of Nancy Mitford's biographies of famous figures from history (the Sun King, Frederick the Great etc). I'm not sure how rigorous Mitford's research might have been by modern standards, though I know she did work hard on these books and she certainly seems very familiar with the people and places she discusses. She has a lovely gossipy tone which makes the book extremely readable, almost as if she were personally acquainted with all the characters involved, and she has no scruples about passing judgement on them, labelling this statesman an incompetent fool, and that lady of the court a silly little miss who should have known better.

From my background of utter ignorance, I can't judge how accurate her analysis might be, but it has certainly given me a sense of the period and the people (though the chapters about wars struggled to hold my interest), and I loved all the little details about hidden staircases, the inside jokes and quarrels and extravagant gifts and building projects, and the insanely complex etiquette of the royal court. And The Girl in the Fireplace does seem to have got some details right -- there were no clockwork assassins, but it really did pour with rain on the day Reinette's body left Versailles for the last time.

14.6.21

The Heart of the Family

 

I had to cave and buy the final installment of Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family chronicles on the Kindle, though I hope to pick up The Heart of the Family in material form somewhere, somehow, one day. Perhaps even more than the previous two volumes, The Heart of the Family lacks what you might call a plot -- it consists almost entirely of conversations, some in rooms, many in the woods between the two households of the Herb of Grace and Damerosehay. It's almost like reading a book of sermons as various pairs of characters ruminate on pain and sin, death and love, divine grace, guilt and prayer and penance.

The war is over, and Lucilla, the queen of the family, has abdicated her royal seat at Damerosehay to the family of her beloved grandson David. However David is wracked with self-torture at his recent narrowly-avoided infidelity; his newly acquired secretary Sebastian Weber is carrying wounds of his own, having lost his own family in the war, and hating David for his blessings. The eventual reconciliation between these two men forms the core of the story, but there are ancillary family dramas as Lucilla, at 91, meditates on death, other grandchildren fall in love or decide careers, and another baby is on the way. 

As Susan Green recently remarked, Elizabeth Goudge is not a sentimental writer. Despite the apparent extreme smallness of her canvas, she doesn't spare her characters torment, cruelty or harrowing self-reproach; but she always offers them some redemption. There are huge themes here, but there is also humour, delight and beauty, and as always a keen and appreciative eye for small children and dogs, which helps to leaven the weight of the deeper reflections. This is probably not my favourite Eliot story, maybe I read it too fast for the philosophy to sink in properly, and I should probably return to it when I need to.

7.6.21

The Winds of Heaven

Judith Clarke's The Winds of Heaven was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (thank you, Suzanne!) We have very similar taste in books and I really loved this novel. 

Mostly set in the Australia of the 1950s and early 1960s, The Winds of Heaven traces the story of two cousins, Clementine and Fan (Francesca) who are separated by distance but linked by an unbreakable bond. Clementine, bolstered by loving, supportive parents, is a clever girl who powers through school and ends up at university, but Fan is hobbled by poverty and rural isolation, a cruel mother, and difficulty reading and writing, though she is just as clever as Clementine. The two girls' paths diverge, they lose touch, but they never forget each other.

This is a moving, poignant story. For me, it also contained one of those serendipitous moments that really make you wonder if there is a higher power, a reading god if you will, guiding you from one book to the next... Fan is haunted by a poem by Henry Vaughan which begins, They are all gone into the world of light, which is a line of poetry that I've used for years in writing workshops without ever knowing the rest of the poem. And then the very same day I came across the phrase the world of light again in Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family.

Fan and Clementine's lives are filled with criss-crossing memories, dreams, and images of each other just like this, often in each other's thoughts though seldom physically together. I think I'll be remembering this book for a long time.
 

3.6.21

The Essex Serpent

I think The Essex Serpent is the only example of me seeking out and reading a book purely as a result of reading a Twitter rant from the author (Sarah Perry). I stumbled across an impassioned thread by Perry about women and science and the nineteenth century and how critics had scoffed that her novel was implausible... that was enough for me to track down The Essex Serpent (and just check out that gorgeous cover).

Apparently this novel is to be made into a TV adaptation, starring Claire Danes (who, I'm sorry, is too delicate to be forthright, tramping Cora Seaborne, but hey) and that's something to look forward to. Cora is newly widowed, with an eccentric young son, when she relocates to a village in Essex and befriends the family of the local vicar, Will Ransome. The lives of the two households and Cora's London friends (including gifted surgeon Luke Garrett) intertwine and become uneasily influenced by the legend/rumour of the 'Essex serpent,' a Loch Ness monster-style beast which may or may not be lurking off the coast, a long-lost dinosaur or a manifestation of half-formed fears and desires.

The Essex Serpent was certainly an atmospheric, haunting read, and a perfect candidate for TV, with its rich cast of characters and multitude of ideas. I was particularly touched by the portrait of tubercular Stella Ransome, with her collection of blue objects and her otherworldly euphoria. And if the casting of the series doesn't match my own personal imaginings, that just makes it more interesting.

 

1.6.21

Watching the English

 

Published in 2004, anthropologist Kate Fox's tongue in cheek book, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour was an entertaining and enlightening read. My father is English, so I'm not sure if some of these 'rules' were passed to me genetically or through upbringing, but a lot of this book rang very true. I think some of these social rules have been transmitted to Australian society, but other aspects seem to apply specifically to the English (as distinct from the Scots, Welsh etc). 

Fox theorises that much of what she terms the English 'social dis-ease' (her central defining characteristic of the English) derives from living on a crowded island. An obsession with privacy, rigid rules of fairness and courtesy (an overuse of please, thank you and sorry; a notorious obsession with queueing), a preference for understatement and modesty, all might plausibly spring from a need to protect oneself from the proximity of others. (Indeed, Fox sees interesting parallels with Japanese society, also a crowded island.)

This is something that probably hasn't travelled to Australia -- with plenty of room to spread out, Australians can afford to be more friendly (not a universal rule, I am well aware, and one mostly applied to 'people like us.') But an emphasis on humour, which Fox sees as a distinctively English way of being in the world, I think has travelled down under -- self mockery, taking the piss, irony, wordplay, all seem just as characteristically Australian as characteristically English.

Some aspects seem more uniquely English, such as a preoccupation with class markers (not defined by money or occupation, but by language, taste and attitudes), and a tendency to 'Eeyorishness' (as indicated by the phrases 'Typical!' and 'Should have known...'). But the typically English social awkwardness and discomfort with expressing emotions publicly, certainly seems to have been passed down through my family. Typical. Should have known.

18.5.21

The Gaps

 

Reading Leanne Hall's superb young adult novel, The Gaps, was a multi-layered experience for me. Set in a girls' private school, Balmoral, The Gaps explores the effect of the abduction of one of the students, Yin Marshall, on two of her classmates, popular Natalia (who used to be Yin's best friend) and newcomer Chloe.

The Gaps is sensitive and nuanced, tracing the ripples of Yin's abduction on the school community, the survivor guilt, the pain of uncertainty, the prurient horror, and the trauma of loss. Hall is especially good at sketching in the wider social background through which these teenage girls move -- the white noise of stranger danger, unsolicited male attention, body policing, social media pressure, advertising. Chloe and Natalia are two very different characters but their responses to Yin's disappearance are truthful and powerful. 

The extra layers for me came from the fact that Leanne Hall and I went to the same school (a few years apart), and the geography of 'Balmoral' was intimately familiar to me -- the quadrangle, the walkways, the bathrooms near the science labs, the Great Hall. (In fact, my house was called Balmoral...) And our school did experience a tragic abduction some years after my time. Even though I'd left the school and didn't know anyone involved, I did feel a particular stab of horror and protectiveness around that event  just because we'd worn the same school uniform. 

Maybe that awareness gave The Gaps an added depth for me, but even without that shared background, this is a very accomplished, layered and heartfelt novel, perfectly pitched and perfectly timed. Highly recommended.

14.5.21

Macbeth Through the Ages


I've hung onto so many books over the years just in case my children wanted to read them (nuh, they read Harry Potter instead) or might need them for school or uni (alas, all my feminist classics still languish on the shelf untouched).

But this year, Ms 16 is using my old school copy of Macbeth for Year 11 Literature! I can't remember which year we studied Macbeth. It may have been Year 11 as well, because we did Antony and Cleopatra in HSC and I'm pretty sure Romeo and Juliet was Year 10 (I have fond memories of reading Mercutio in class). The margins of my copy are well covered in pencilled notes from almost forty years ago (I just wrote thirty, and had to recalculate -- can I really be that old??)

Ms 16 says some of my notes have been very useful. There is a list of themes on one of the back pages which has proved handy, apparently. Other notes have been merely amusing (I'm starving!!) or cryptic (Jim 4 PD). I like the idea of my 16 year old self communicating across the gulf of years with my unimagined daughter. 'Yeah,' says Ms 16. 'That is kind of cool.'

10.5.21

The Serpentine Cave Revisited

 Just a quick note to say that anyone interested in the artists of St Ives, especially Alfred Wallis (as discussed in my previous post on Jill Paton Walsh's The Serpentine Cave), should check out episode 2, season 1 of Tate Britain's Great British Walks, which sees host Gus Casely-Hayford and guest Miriam Margolyes visit the town and its landscapes, and discuss Wallis's art and his legacy. Available on ABC iView now!


How do you like that for synchronicity?


Wintering

 

I love this cover, I would happily hang it on my wall. Katherine May's Wintering is another recommendation from Susan Green. We don't often disagree on books and Wintering is no exception. It's true, not all of us are in a position to be able to retreat and hunker down when times are tough, but it's also true that often that is exactly what we need. I think of all those antique novels where the protagonists are sent away to "rest" in the country (usually at the farmhouse of some elderly former nanny or a distant relative) or to "recover" by the seaside. Long walks, fresh air, plenty of fresh food usually does the trick and our sufferer is back to their old selves.

I liked the descriptions of northerly winters with their snowy landscapes and cosy firesides, though seasons in our hemisphere don't follow that stark course (thank goodness -- I remember my sole Scottish winter when the sky seemed to press on the top of my head like a leaden lid and daylight only lasted about four hours, I couldn't stand it and had to run home to Aussie summer). I liked the account of restorative winter swimming, which is apparently extremely beneficial for both physical and emotional health, and something I heard recommended a couple of years ago by Wim Hof devotees at a mind-body-spirit festival. I'm not brave enough to take the plunge, though I am trying feebly to at least briefly douse myself in cold water under the shower most days.

I even liked that Katherine May ended the book by admitting that she hadn't managed to include everything she'd planned -- she didn't travel as far or interview as many people as she intended. But adjusting our expectations of ourselves is part of "wintering" too, something that many of us experienced during last year's lockdown. (And I'm very aware that having a "good lockdown" is also a highly privileged experience.) But maybe it's time to see that slowing down, just hanging out at home rather than rushing in all directions, finding time for slow activities like cooking and knitting and jigsaws, can be healthy, rather than lazy and self-indulgent. I'm all for wintering. 

6.5.21

Maisie Dobbs


It's interesting to compare this (early) cover of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs with later editions which blazon MAISIE DOBBS in huge font and print the author's name in much smaller type. Because after almost twenty years and fifteen books, Maisie Dobbs has become a brand.

Susan Green alerted me to this series and as we share a similar taste in books, I lost no time in checking out this first volume from the library. It's obviously well-thumbed, always a good sign, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I was glad Sue had warned me that Maisie's improbable backstory takes up more space in the pages than the mystery itself. Unlikely as our heroine's rise from housemaid to university student to psychologist/detective in between-the-wars London might be, I'm willing to suspend disbelief because it's such a cracking premise and full of possibilities. 

The 1930s has always fascinated me, ever since I got hooked on All Creatures Great and Small and Love in a Cold Climate as a teenager. It was a time of intense political passions, looming danger and uncertainty, reaching into the future but also rooted in a simpler past. I look forward to seeing where Maisie's adventures will take her.

27.4.21

A Parcel of Patterns


It's so strange, the threads of connection that run between books and between books and life. I didn't know that A Parcel of Patterns is about the plague: fear and contagion, ignorance and suffering before a mysterious sickness. I didn't expect to read the same Biblical quotation that featured in The Serpentine Cave: He that shall lose his life shall save it. (Same author, though, so maybe not that surprising.) EDITED TO ADD: I forgot, there was also a mention of herb-of-grace ('herbygrass') in this book, too.

Jill Paton Walsh's novel (apparently a YA novel, but though the narrator Mall is young, this book doesn't seem to be especially pitched at young adults to me, let alone children!) covers the same story as Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, but in a more straightforward way (and with far fewer pages!) Dare I say, I prefer Jill PatonWalsh's version? (And I wonder if Brooks ever read it.) This is a short but very moving book, which of course carries extra resonance at the moment, mired as we are in the midst of a global plague of our own.

Mall's home, Eyam, is a real place, and the story she tells is true. In 1665, plague was brought to this isolated rural village in an infested packet of clothing patterns (hence the title) and struck down so many its inhabitants that the villagers decided to cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Perhaps as many has eighty percent of Eyam's people died before the pestilence passed. The horror of the sickness is intensified because the villagers have no idea what causes it, or how to protect themselves -- they light fires, sweeten the air, try charms and prayers. Some live and most die, but can you blame them for seeing God's judgement in the random outcomes? There is no gore here, but the sudden illness and deaths are all the more powerful for being simply recounted. Jill Paton Walsh's ability to tell her story in 17th century style prose is masterful.

But it's worth remembering that even with all our modern scientific knowledge and understanding, plague and viruses still have the power to strike terror and anguish over us all.

23.4.21

Henrietta's House


I adored Elizabeth Goudge's books as a child -- The Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians were two of my especial favourites, but I also had Smoky House (due for a re-read actually) and enjoyed The Valley of Song. I don't think I have ever read Henrietta's House before, though I was familiar with the characters from the Torminster books, like The City of Bells, which were written for adults, though I read them as a child too. Girls Gone By, who have published this reprint, thoughtfully supplied a précis of The City of Bells to bring forgetful readers up to speed.

As usual with Goudge, there is not a huge amount of plot in this book. Most of the action takes place over the day of Henrietta's adopted brother Hugh Anthony's birthday picnic (Hugh Anthony is another variant of the strong-willed red-haired child who so often appears in Goudge's fiction -- surely based on a real person??) Various parties wind their way up into the magical hills, become lost, encounter strangers and eventually end up safe and happy in Henrietta's dream house which has been kitted out by her father. 

I can imagine as a child, I would have been utterly enchanted at the idea of a house of my own, furnished to my exact specifications -- in fact I remember I used to spend many happy hours picking out furniture and drawing floorplans of my ideal house, so I really would have loved this story. It has a deliberate fairy tale flavour, a book to escape into and be comforted. Henrietta's House is not a challenging read, but it is a warm and happy one.

19.4.21

The Serpentine Cave


 Thwarted in my efforts to find Jill Paton Walsh's books for younger readers, A Parcel of Patterns and Goldengrove, I settled on this 1990s adult novel, The Serpentine Cave, instead. It's another story of mothers and daughters, and the conflicts between art, love and motherhood. As the book opens, Marian's mother Stella is dying; Marian and her own adult children, Toby and Alice, must deal with what Stella has left behind -- a muddled legacy of debts and secrets and lots of (mostly unsuccessful) paintings. Most pressing of all is the secret of Marian's father -- who was he, and is he connected to a traumatic childhood memory?

A few clues lead Marian to the Cornish town of St Ives, which was a fishing town and an artists' colony. It also happens to be the place where my cousin and her family live! It has amazing light, Caribbean-looking beaches and surf, and I believe it's still a hub for artists and musicians. Would you believe this is the UK?

I had a lovely time googling images to match the setting of the novel. Though it's primarily a fictional story, The Serpentine Cave also contains true events, centring around a lifeboat tragedy in 1939 that killed twenty-one men and devastated the community -- not just those who lost husbands, sons, fathers and breadwinners, but men who declined to take their spot in the boat and were thus saved, and had to carry the burden of survivor guilt thereafter. I'm not sure whether including real people, speaking in their own words, in the novel distorts or enhances the integrity of the story. However, as with all Jill Paton Walsh's books that I've read so far, The Serpentine Cave is beautifully written, and insightful on the costs and joys of creativity and love.

(Serpentine refers not the shape of the cave (or the shape of memory) but to a greenish kind of local stone. So there you go.)

9.4.21

The Searcher

 

There are five reserves at my local library on Tana French's latest novel, The Searcher, so I'd better hurry up and return it. Like her other books, the Dublin Murder Squad series and The Wych Elm, The Searcher centres on a dark mystery -- in this case, what has happened to Trey's missing brother, Brendan? Trey enlists the help of Cal, our narrator, an ex-Chicago cop who has retired to the Irish countryside to rebuild his life after a stressful career and a broken marriage, and reluctantly Cal agrees to assist.

Even French's most urban novels always have one eye on the power and mystery of the natural world, and Cal's chosen village, Ardnakelty, is remote, rural, and overlooked by brooding mountains. The young people are fleeing the area, and most of those left behind are either tough, bitter old men or relentlessly gossipy and communal women. Cal tries to fit in but he's never quite sure how well he's doing; as he grows closer to desperate Trey, and closer to the heart of the mystery, the gaps between his world and the village world begin to widen.

This is a book about gender, about being outcast and the price of conforming. Expectations are flipped. There is unexpected and inexplicable violence. As always with Tana French, while the mystery is the engine that keeps the story pumping, the true satisfaction lies in the careful, vivid evocation of place and the deep exploration of character. There are things we need to know about Cal's past that we don't find out until quite late in the story; he has thrust down some uncomfortable truths far out of our sight, and his own.

Slowly, Cal works on the abandoned house he is renovating. Whether he will ever succeed in making a home there, or in the village whose secrets he has uncovered, we will never know for sure.

6.4.21

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

 

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a LOT of fun! I was alerted to its existence a few years ago but couldn't find it anywhere, until it popped up recently (while I was searching for something else entirely) on Brotherhood Books, and I giggled and cringed my way through it.

Diana Wynne Jones knows the world of high fantasy backward, upside down and sideways, as revealed in entries like this:

SCURVY: Despite a diet consisting entirely of STEW and WAYBREAD, supplemented only by the occasional FISH, you will not suffer from this or any other deficiency disease. It is possible that, while on the Tour, you absorb vitamin C through the pores of your skin.

 She  mercilessly skewers not just the tropes of the genre but also the writing, pointing out OMTs (Official Management Terms) throughout, eg galley overseers will be brutal, monastery libraries will smell mustily of old books, and Runes of Power will glow in the air

It's all very funny, but I was mortified to realise how many boxes I had ticked in my own forays into fantasy. To name a few, I included LEATHERY-WINGED AVIANS, a TALENTED GIRL who SAVES THE WORLD with MUSIC, MIND-SPEECH, an OLD RUINED CITY which is also an ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECT, PIRATES, an OTHER CONTINENT, and a TEMPLE with ornate pillars (OMT) and an elaborately tiled floor. Oh dear!

Highly recommended. However, if I'd read this before I embarked on the Chanters of Tremaris, I don't think I would have finished one volume, let alone four 'brochures', as Wynne Jones calls them. I would have died of shame!

30.3.21

Inheritance

 

I have wanted to read Carole Wilkinson's Inheritance since it was published in 2018, particularly as it shares some common ground with Crow Country. Both books are upper middle grade time travel stories set in rural Victoria, both dealing with family secrets and crimes committed against the Aboriginal people -- in my book, a murder, in Inheritance, a massacre -- both featuring young female protagonists who make friends with Aboriginal boys to explore the past together. But Carole Wilkinson's spin takes the story in an intriguing direction of its own.

In Inheritance, the ability to travel through time has been passed down through the women of Veronica's family, using a magical handful of stones and a special place (a weak spot in the fabric of space-time). I absolutely love the idea of generations of women criss-crossing through time and the story of Nic's mother was especially surprising (though I did find myself wanting a clearer resolution at the end). I also loved the huge, neglected mansion of Yaratgil which is Nic's more tangible inheritance. After a slow-ish start, the story gathers pace once Nic discovers the mysterious boarded-up Rose Room and cracks the secret to time travel, and it gains immense gravitas with the horrific massacre of the local people around which the plot revolves.

There can never be too many books that help to uncover the shameful, almost forgotten history of the 'settlement' of Victoria, in reality a swift and bloody invasion. This is a terrific story, both enjoyable and uncomfortable, as all the best fiction should be.

25.3.21

The Herb of Grace

 

The Herb of Grace continues the story of the Eliot family a few years on; the war that was looming in The Bird in the Tree has ended, leaving pain and exhaustion in its wake. Nadine has left David and gone back to her husband and children (not that she ever actually left them) and this time the story centres not on Lucilla's old house of Damerosehay, but on the equally lovely and historic inn, the Herb of Grace, which Nadine's war-weary husband George purchases almost on a whim. Poor bloody Nadine has no say in the decision, obviously. 

The old inn welcomes and protects the whole family, including eventually Nadine herself (she just has to accept and surrender, like she did in the last book) and the two mysterious newcomers, Annie-Laurie and Malony, who are hiding some very dark secrets. I do feel for Nadine, the mother figure, who has sacrificed so much for a life that she doesn't really enjoy. I would love to see her have some outlet for her creativity beyond beautifully decorating the rooms and being a perfect hostess! (She does gain some fulfilment in her friendship with Annie-Laurie, but still.)

I think I've worked out why the Eliot Family trilogy is so peaceful to read -- there is no action at all! Almost every scene is someone thinking about their life, or people talking to each other, usually in a beautiful woodland setting or a lovely old room, described in minute detail. The drama comes from the interaction of different personalities or from an inner struggle. Even Annie-Laurie's very dramatic backstory is given to us in conversation, in retrospect. I don't say this in a disparaging way, it is a real gift to carry a whole novel (let alone a trilogy) without leaning on action and plot, and it's clear that these novels are much loved and often returned to. They are meditative to read and spiritually refreshing, a great source of comfort and strength for many readers, including me.

22.3.21

Mythos

 

Every generation needs its own re-interpretation of these ancient stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, which, together with the Bible, form the bedrock foundation of Western culture. Who better to hold your hand through this complicated landscape than Stephen Fry, erudite, funny, articulate, a lively companion who is quite prepared to throw in a footnote about language development or his own personal history if it will illuminate the stories he is telling? Prometheus stealing fire for humanity, the war of the Titans, Pandora's box (or jar) of evils, Midas' greed backfiring as literally everything he touches turns to gold, Pygmalion falling in love with his own creation, Narcissus and Echo -- these stories are part of the fabric of our history and art, a common language of the West.

Mythos was such a hit with the younger daughter that she has gone on to devour the follow-up volumes, Heroes and Troy. Even as I write this, I'm thinking that I can see a gap in the market for Fry to re-tell Bible stories in the same way -- I would have loved my kids to have the same basic knowledge of Biblical myths and stories as the younger one has been able to gain about Greek myths from this book, though I was too wary of the religious baggage that goes with them to do much about passing them on myself. The stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the wisdom of King Solomon, David and Goliath, the parables of Jesus, are also part of the assumed knowledge that's been carried through our European cultural history, reference points for art and literature that a lot of secularly-raised kids today won't understand. Or maybe that's just my children.

How about it, Stephen?

11.3.21

Eleanor and Park

 

It's taken me a long time to catch up with Eleanor and Park. I enjoyed Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell's second novel, but Eleanor and Park is even better. I should say that my younger daughter had already read it and wasn't too enthusiastic -- she found Eleanor unlikeable and the ending anti-climactic -- so I was a bit wary going in; but I was completely sucked into Eleanor and Park's story, their friendship that turns to romance, and their family difficulties.

I enjoyed the fact that neither of them are conventionally gender conforming -- Eleanor is a big girl, and wears quirky men's clothing, while Park experiments with eyeliner and hair gel. But their clear appreciation of each other's physicality is delightful. I also enjoyed the mid-80s setting and music, which reflected my own adolescence. Eleanor has a frankly ghastly home life, with the sinister presence of her step-father, Richie, a catastrophe waiting to explode. Park, in contrast, has a loving and supportive family, though his father struggles with Park's seeming lack of typical masculinity.

This is a really good, moving, YA romance. I'm not surprised it's been such a hit (though not with my daughter). The cover of my copy, seen above, is not great -- there is no way that neat, slim silhouetted girl could be Eleanor! Read the bloody book, cover designer!

4.3.21

The Bird in the Tree


I think I must have read Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family Trilogy at some point, because parts of this book did seem familiar; or perhaps it's just a sense of familiarity with the world of Elizabeth Goudge. The first thing that Goudge's adult books demand of the reader is to slow down. Her pace is leisurely, her descriptions rich and detailed, but never in purple prose; she layers her portraits of characters and pictures of landscapes in deceptively simple brushstrokes that build up a vivid, vital image.

A random example: 

As Caroline stood gazing the Japanese anemones were like fallen moons beyond the grey trunks of the oak-trees and there was a soft mist of mauve where the autumn crocuses were growing in the rough grass. The fires of autumn had already touched the leaves over her head, and spun from twig to twig and from bush to bush was that exquisite silver filigree of dewy spiders' webs.

The isolated old house and its garden, the marshes, the shipbuilding village of the Hard, the woods and fields are all painted for us with such loving attention that we are forced into mindful imagining (although there will be some readers who turn away in boredom, I suppose). And her character portraits are equally tender, compassionate and clear-eyed.

Having said all that, the central story of The Bird in the Tree strikes the contemporary reader as somewhat bewildering (it's set in 1938). George and Nadine's unhappy marriage has broken down; their three children have gone to live with their strong-willed grandmother, Lucilla, in her lovely old house of Damerosehay; meanwhile Lucilla's adult grandson David and Nadine have fallen passionately in love. Lucilla, when she discovers this development, is determined to put a stop to the relationship and persuade Nadine to return to George. A modern reader will find this inexplicable. Why should Nadine and David's proposed marriage mean that George will lose his children? Why should David have to give up Damerosehay, which he loves? Why the hell shouldn't David and Nadine be happy together? Why should Nadine have to return to a marriage that makes her miserable, just because Lucilla did, long ago?

However, once one accepts the premise of the conflict, the exploration of self-sacrifice, selfish passion, pain, duty, faith and the demands of love is carefully and sympathetically laid out. As Susan Green commented here recently, Goudge is 'not a fluffy writer.' She is not sentimental; she recognises the agony of grief and the torture of doing the right thing, which applies in so many circumstances, even if the situation of this particular novel might not seem to justify the pain required. Life is not easy, but it can contain moments of joy. And there is always a sprinkling of humour in Elizabeth Goudge.

'Life is rather an unhappy affair, dear,' said Lucilla. 'And it's just as well to face the fact. It's essentially sad, woven of grey stuff; yet embroidered with such bright flowers.'

One thing I discovered from reading The World of Elizabeth Goudge is that Damerosehay is based on a real house, now sadly demolished. Thank heavens its beauty has been preserved in these loving books.

1.3.21

The Late Scholar

 

The Late Scholar, the fourth of Jill Paton Walsh's novels based on Dorothy L. Sayers' characters, returns Peter and Harriet to Oxford, the setting of perhaps their best-loved adventure, Gaudy Night (it was definitely the one I loved best), the book where Harriet finally allows Wimsey to persuade her to marry him. With Harriet teetering on the acceptance of love, Gaudy Night was more romantic than Busman's Honeymoon, where they sickeningly consummate their long courtship.

Anyway... it's always lovely be back at Oxford, even with murder victims dropping like flies, and what seems like a very personal connection to Harriet, as each murder echoes a plot from one of her books, which in turn echo Wimsey's previous cases (this neatly absolves Paton Walsh from having to come up with a murder method of her own). The plot turns on a choice St Severins college must make, between selling a valuable medieval manuscript to buy land, or keeping the manuscript and going broke; the members of the college are evenly divided and Peter, as Visitor to St Severins, must help them decide, as well as stem the growing body count and track down the missing Warden.

The subtext of the book concerns what is most valuable: knowledge, property, money, truth? Tradition and duty or personal preference? Harriet and Peter's eldest son has decided not to follow in Peter's footsteps and go to Balliol; instead he chooses the much more practical option of agricultural college. I must admit I didn't really see what the fuss was about with this one, since their second son seems pretty keen to go to Oxford, and as Peter is a second son himself, it's hardly smashing a family tradition if the eldest son doesn't go. But in general I enjoyed the philosophical musings.

The only Walsh/Wimsey I haven't managed to find so far is Thrones, Dominations. I've relished these extensions to the Dorothy Sayers universe, so I'll definitely keep an eye out for that one.

26.2.21

A Long Way Home


I went to see the movie Lion when it came out in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Dev Patel's performance (and his outstanding Australian accent!) So I was interested to read the autobiographical book by Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home, on which the film was based.

It really is an extraordinary story. Aged 5, Saroo wound up on a train that carried him across India to the city of Kolkata. Unable to tell anyone where he'd come from, he survived on the streets for several weeks before entering an orphanage and very shortly being adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania to begin a new life. Though happy and grateful to his new family, he never forgot his old life and as a student, began a painstaking search on Google Earth for the town he'd left so many years before, with only a half-remembered name and some geographic markers for guidance. 

It was startling to learn that Saroo had vastly underestimated how far he'd travelled to wind up in Kolkata; he was searching the wrong part of the country, and only by chance came across the tiny railway station with the landmarks he remembered. His account of how he managed to reconnect with his family (his mother had never moved, in case he did one day find his way home) and discovered the truth of what had happened that fateful day, is very moving. 

Saroo had garbled the name of his neighbourhood, the name of the town he'd travelled from, and even, most startlingly, his own name -- his family knew him as Sheru. Reading A Long Way Home made me want to go back and re-watch Lion, which brought the lost little boy's experiences so vividly to life.

23.2.21

The Growing Summer

 

I found this copy of Noel Streatfeild's The Growing Summer in Savers in Footscray, where my big girl has moved. While she was hunting for novelty glasses and board games to furnish her new flat, I was scouring the book shelves. 

The Growing Summer is dedicated to Elizabeth Enright, which is a lovely touch. Enright's books often centre on children exploring their environment and developing their independence, and this novel shares that flavour. The rather sheltered Gareth children are abruptly shipped off to their great aunt in Ireland (topically, their father is researching a 'microbe' that 'might start an epidemic' in the 'Far East' and then falls dangerously ill himself).

Great Aunt Dymphna is highly eccentric, lives in a near-ruin of a big old house and leaves the children very much to their own devices, expecting them to cook and clean and amuse themselves; which over the course of the summer, they gradually become capable of doing. There is an added complication in the form of a mystery runaway boy whom the children shelter, and while his presence provides the excuse for secrecy and drama, he is quite peripheral to the heart of the story which concerns the growing self-sufficiency of the family as they learn to cook, to fish, to do laundry and generally look after themselves.

Poetry-loving Great Aunt Dymphna introduces her nephews and nieces to the 'quotation game' where each player in turn recites a line of poetry, and the next player has to offer a quote where the first word starts with the same letter as the last word of the previous player's quote. Weirdly, I was simultaneously reading Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death, where Harriet and Peter play the same game!  It was the only time I've come across this somewhat esoteric pastime (and I doubt very much that any child of this generation would be capable of playing it -- with the help of Google, maybe!)

21.2.21

Songlines

 

Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly was an impulse Kindle buy because I couldn't wait to read it. It's the first in a series of six books introducing Indigenous knowledges to a general reader; other titles will explore topics like astronomy, medicine, land management and architecture and design.

Margo Neale, who has co-ordinated the whole series, is a Senior Research Fellow and Principal Indigenous Advisor to the Director of the National Museum of Australia. Lynne Kelly is an Australian academic, an expert on orality and memory systems, and she draws in many other examples of oral and indigenous cultures from around the world, including Native American, Inuit and Pacific Island learning and knowledge systems.

However, the primary focus of the book is on Indigenous Australian knowledge. I first came across the concept of The Songlines in Bruce Chatwin's book of the same name, and though it's an imperfect and incomplete account, it lit a fire in my imagination which has been burning ever since. Neale and Kelly's book might be less poetic, but it is more authoritative, and fills in some of the blanks that Chatwin couldn't access. It sketches out the way that Aboriginal Australians connect landscape, story, dance and song in a rich web of knowledge, weaving together geography, history, morality, obligation, law, plants and animals, water and weather, stars and seas, and have passed on that knowledge through 60,000 years, generation after generation. There are stories which remember the eruption of long-extinct volcanoes and the existence of long-drowned islands.

I felt overwhelmed with envy reading this book. What an incredible way to live! Imagine being wrapped in such a deep, rich culture, accessible to every member of the community to some degree through performative dance, song, art and story. That is surely the way that humans are supposed to live, in a world drenched in meaning and deeply connected in every facet, moving securely through the universe. And all that knowledge, all that meaning, is still there for all of us to plug into if we choose. What an amazing privilege to be born in this ancient land.

19.2.21

The World of Elizabeth Goudge

 

I ordered The World of Elizabeth Goudge from Girls Gone By. Goudge was one of my favourite authors as a child (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians, Smoky House) and I also read some of her adult titles which my mother must have borrowed from the same library. I enjoyed them too, though some of the  content would have gone over my head; but I do remember the lovely atmosphere of the Cathedral books. More recently I got hold of The Dean's Watch, a masterpiece which I think I must have also read when young, as so many bits chimed in my memory.

Elizabeth Goudge is such a joyful, sensitive writer, and her later books are deeply spiritual, compassionate and forgiving. Perhaps it's not surprising that the daughter of a clergyman would be preoccupied with spiritual matters, but note that I'm using the word spiritual rather than religious. In Goudge's work, solace is often found in churches and wisdom in vicars, but there is surprisingly little overt religiosity -- it's the tranquillity of ancient buildings, the beauty of nature, the faithful love of animals and the very human qualities of kindness, laughter and forgiveness that ultimately give salvation.

The World of Elizabeth Goudge is part biography, part travel guide, part personal reflection, as Sylvia Gower journeys around the various towns and counties where Goudge lived and worked. Elizabeth Goudge enjoyed a relatively peaceful and uneventful life, embarking early on her writing career, but she did live in various parts of England, as well as visiting Jersey where her mother's family lived. She took deep inspiration from all these places, in fact the notion of place and belonging is particularly strong in her work and one of the elements that drew me in, even as a child. 

This book has convinced me to go Goudge hunting. Many of her books are still in print and I think I might try to collect as many as I can.

16.2.21

A Presumption of Death

 

I enjoyed A Presumption of Death very much. I think was the first of Jill Paton Walsh's forays into Lord Peter Wimsey territory and it's excellent. Sensibly Paton Walsh realises that Harriet Vane is the better part of Wimsey-world, and for most of the book, Harriet is detecting alone at Talboys during the war while Peter is off doing mysterious Top Sekkrit spying stuff in Europe. 

During the war, Dorothy Sayers wrote various magazine columns purporting to be letters between members of the Wimsey family, discussing their wartime activities; Paton Walsh has used this material as a canon source for their whereabouts and attitudes, which provides a solid foundation for the story. There is lots of well-researched detail about rationing, black market shenanigans, spy fears, evacuees and so on -- the one nit I would pick is that Peter refers openly to sending a coded message to Bletchley, at a time when Bletchley was super-secret and I doubt he would have mentioned it even to Harriet and Bunter (though Bunter no doubt knew all about it already -- hm, perhaps it is excusable? No secrets from Harriet, obviously!)

Elements of the central mystery were enjoyably guessable, and the relationship between Harriet and Peter is beautifully depicted. It's so nice to see them working together, very much in love but not sickeningly so; it's the rock solid partnership hinted at in Busman's Honeymoon, and thoroughly satisfying.

14.2.21

The Stones of Green Knowe

 

First published in 1976, too late to make it into the Mt Hagen library, The Stones of Green Knowe remained unknown to me until adulthood, and rounds off the series with a look forward rather than backward in time, as young Roger d'Aulneaux, in 1120, becomes the very first child to live in the brand new house that will become Green Knowe.

He discovers the two immeasurably ancient stones on the hilltop which will take him briefly forward (or once, terrifyingly, backward) in time, so he can see what will become of the new stone house of which he is so proud. He meets Linnet and Toby and Alexander, Susan and Jacob, and Tolly, and there is a lovely scene where all the children are able to gather together across time.

However, there is a melancholy undertone to this final book. Moving forward to Tolly's time, Roger is dismayed to notice the devastation of the wildlife -- so few birds and animals, hardly any insects, the wild profusion of plants disappeared. If it was this bad in 1976, one can only imagine how horrified Roger would be in 2021 (unless there has been some rewilding at Green Knowe). And the books ends on an abrupt, brutal note as the ancient stones are uprooted and carried away. It's not a comforting note to end on, rather like the catastrophic ending that The Last Battle provided for the Narnia books. And like The Last Battle, I think if I'd read The Stones as a child, I would have avoided re-reading it. But I do enjoy the glimpse of twelfth century life, seeing the first carving of St Christopher and the newfangled wall-fireplace, and Roger is a worthy ancestor.

12.2.21

A Nursery in the Nineties

 

I ordered A Nursery in the Nineties because someone in the Antonia Forest Facebook group mentioned it, and it turns out that the pertinent section comprised just one short chapter out of 53 in this memoir by Eleanor Farjeon.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known as the author of The Little Bookroom (after which our beloved Melbourne children's bookshop was named) and also the words to the hymn Morning Has Broken (which I sang regularly at school assemblies), but she also wrote poetry, plays, history and biography. Much of A Nursery in the Nineties tells the stories of her father (emigrated to New Zealand, admired Dickens, worked as a journalist), and her mother (from an American theatrical family) before and after their marriage; the last part deals with Nellie's own childhood. Her family moved in theatrical and literary London circles, and many of the names she drops are forgotten now, but she enjoyed a happy, secure and creative upbringing along with her three brothers. She includes plenty of fascinating quotidian detail about Edwardian life which is worth reading (though the family histories drag on a bit).

The chapter that most interested me (and the whole reason I bought the book) is called TAR, standing for Tessie-and-Ralph, a game she and her older brother played (with occasional input from their younger brothers) for over twenty years. She and Harry would pace for hours, narrating and acting out stories of their own invention based on their favourite characters -- originally Ralph and Tessie, from a children's play they saw when Nellie was five. Harry would announce, 'We are X and Y' (perhaps from The Three Musketeers, Greek myths, or any other story that had gripped their fancy) and then he and Nellie would plunge into absorbing parallel lives, until Harry was forced to halt the game by declaring 'We are Harry and Nellie' again.

Farjeon says that this private game absorbed so much of her attention and emotional life that it really became her life, far more real and vivid than her everyday existence, and reflects that ultimately it was quite unhealthy.

I had no desire for new adventures, friends or experience, outside this powerful game. When I should have been growing up, it was a harmful check on life itself, for its imaginative extension did not include natural knowledge. Because of it, I was never aware of my own sex until I was nearly thirty years old, and it took least ten years more for emotional crudeness to get abreast of mental ripeness.

What an extraordinary admission! Though Farjeon credits TAR with turning her into a writer and giving her 'flow of ease,' it's notable that she never married or seems to have had any adult relationship. The Facebook reference came up during a discussion of Antonia Forest's Peter's Room, which also deals with a group imaginative game which spirals out of control, and which in turn references the Bronte's Gondal games and writing.

This is a topic of particular interest to me. Though I didn't share it with anyone else, all through my childhood and teenage years I had a similarly absorbing and addictive private fantasy life. Unlike Eleanor Farjeon, I deliberately renounced it at eighteen (though there were many later lapses), I think because I realised that the potential dangers that she describes above might be lying in wait for me. I'm trying to write about this experience now. If anyone knows of any similar stories, I'm all ears!

10.2.21

An Enemy at Green Knowe

 I'm reading faster than I can blog at the moment! An Enemy at Green Knowe is probably my least favourite of the Green Knowe books (I was interested to see that someone in the comments nominated it as one of their favourites). Frankly I find it quite creepy, and I don't like the idea of sinister spirits hanging round Green Knowe. The book made from a dead bat that flaps and rattles in a closed drawer; the invisible something that slithers down an outside wall; the battle between the maggots and birds, birds and cats, cats and snakes (though I love the scene when Ping calls up the ghost of Hanno the gorilla to help them); the washing line pegged with dead birds... Horror piles upon horror as Tolly, Ping and Grandmother Oldknow are besieged.

Perhaps the most disquieting episode is when Mrs Oldknow falls into a trance on the river, the hypnotic spell only broken when the boys hang the druid's stone around her neck. I hate the thought of Green Knowe and Grandmother being so vulnerable, even if she and the boys triumph in the end. Incidentally, it's the scholar Mr Pope who finally banishes the demonic Melanie, which is perhaps another reason why I don't enjoy their victory as much as I might.

It's very well done, and someone who enjoys horror and witchcraft more than I do would probably relish the battle between good and evil; but I prefer Green Knowe to be safe and impregnable!

7.2.21

The Attenbury Emeralds

 

Having discovered Jill Paton Walsh, I've found myself stymied in my search for her children's books. But I did discover (I think I was vaguely aware of these before but steered clear because I didn't realise how good a writer Paton Walsh is) the three books Lord Peter Wimsey books she wrote, using the characters of Dorothy L Sayers. The Attenbury Emeralds is actually the last in the series, but it doesn't matter.

I suppose this counts as fan fiction, but it's definitely superior fan fiction. In some ways I preferred The Attenbury Emeralds to the later Wimsey novels, which to my mind became a bit arch -- all those bits in untranslated French! Harriet and Peter's love talk! But Paton Walsh takes a sensible, down to earth approach to Sayers' characters, keeping the best bits (Harriet's intelligence and compassion, Peter's wit and sensitivity) and ditching the embarrassing excesses. And if the mystery itself is a little lacking in Sayers' ingenuity, it's a bargain I'm happy to make.

The Attenbury Emeralds is divided into two parts. In the first, Peter and Bunter re-tell Wimsey's first case to Harriet (a wartime story, featuring the horrific bombing of the Cafe de Paris during the Blitz); in part two, highly coincidentally, the emeralds re-emerge in a continuation of the old mystery. The coincidence is awkward, but the setting is really well done -- after the war, when social norms have been upended and the lines between staff and employers are blurring. Bunter and his wife sometimes eat at the same table as the Wimseys, and their children are friends; the elite conventions of wealth and title are more burdensome than ever. It's the personal story of Harriet and Peter's adjustment to circumstance rather than the mystery itself which hooked me into this book. I can't wait for the next two.