A Stitch in Time


I think I must have picked up almost all of Penelope Lively's children's books over the years, starting with my all-time favourite, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, when I was about nine. So I'm not sure how 1976 Whitbread Award winner A Stitch in Time has eluded me for so long. I thought I must have read it at some point, but I couldn't remember any of the details of the book this time round, so maybe I hadn't!

It's pitched as a time slip story, but it isn't really. Solitary Maria comes to Lyme Regis (having recently watched Ammonite, I could picture this very clearly) on holiday with her parents, and becomes intrigued by a former Victorian-era inhabitant of their house, a young girl called Harriet, who seems have mysteriously disappeared before reaching adulthood. The creak of a lost swing, the bark of an invisible dog, a shadowy face glimpsed in a window, all provide clues into the past; but in the end, it's the present that Maria is able to fully enter, making connections with the boy next door and his family tribe, and making friends with her own mother.

A Stitch in Time is a very gently paced book, more of a meditation on the links between past and present than a true time slip novel. There's not much in the way of incident, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, the hints of humour and shy Maria gradually coming out of her shell. This is a sweet, quiet, comforting book.


The Chosen

To my delight, I discovered my old copy of Chaim Potok's The Chosen on my book shelf, inscribed with my name and Year 12 class number. I don't think I'd picked it up since doing HSC many years ago. Looking for an image to include with this post, I came across a very recent article written by the director of the film version, celebrating the movie's 40th anniversary. Synchronicity! I've never seen the film, I hope I can find it somewhere.

Typically for Chaim Potok's novels, the story is slow-paced, but dense with detail and atmosphere. This was my first introduction to the world of Hasidic Judaism and on my first reading, much of Danny's world was a mystery to me -- the patriarchal community (women barely appear in the novel), the centrality of Torah, the almost mystical reverence for the rebbe, Danny's father. The book centres on the friendship between two boys: brilliant Hasidic Danny, destined to follow his father as leader of the community, but drawn to secular studies; and Reuven, observant but not extreme, who is ironically called to become a rabbi himself. The four way relationship between the two sons and the two fathers structures the novel.

The Chosen is set during and after the Second World War and it was odd to read of the death of President Roosevelt one day and the next day, see the same event portrayed on Band of Brothers (which my husband has been re-watching). It's really strange how often these threads of connection arise with my reading! I don't remember being struck by the almost complete absence of women in the book on first reading, even though I was at an all girls school, but it was glaring to me this time around. Now I want to revisit Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev, which I don't remember much about except that I found it moving, strange and intriguing.




I read all of John Wyndham's books in high school, but haven't returned to them since. My memory of 1968's Chocky, his last published novel, was that it was very creepy, but I didn't find it frightening this time round at all. Perhaps my memory was clouded by the fact that I tried to write my own version of a Chocky story, which my mother read and worried that I'd developed schizophrenia!

Chocky is the story of 12 year old Matthew (narrated by his concerned father) who seems to have an invisible friend (always a fascination of mine); however 'Chocky' seems to have access to knowledge and abilities that Matthew himself doesn't possess. The family doctor is no help, a psych consultant brushes off their anxieties, Matthew's mother is in denial, but gradually his father becomes convinced that Chocky is real. But exactly who or what are they?

You read John Wyndham for the ideas and the plot rather than for character development, but I had forgotten how thin his characters are. I'd also forgotten the strand of casual misogyny that runs through this novel. Much like Nevil Shute's On the Beach, of similar vintage, women exist in this world purely as anxious mothers, whose 'irrational' fears need to be soothed by their calm, sensible husbands. Some prescient predictions by Chocky, though; if only we'd listened...


A Natural History of Ghosts

I heard Roger Clarke speaking on a podcast and immediately ordered his book, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. It arrived just in time for Halloween -- perfect timing!

The back cover poses these questions: What explains spectral sightings? Why do we fear the supernatural? Why are some people or cultures more likely to experience hauntings than others? And what proof is there?

All fascinating and intriguing questions, which unfortunately Clarke doesn't explicitly address until the final chapter. The bulk of the book deals with historic cases of ghost sightings -- particularly stories which took on a life of their own (if you'll pardon the pun). So we learn about Hinton Ampner, a Tudor house that suffered from an eighteenth century haunting so severe that it became impossible for anyone to live there; the house was eventually demolished. There is the hysteria around the ghost of Cock Lane,  later proved to be a fraud; a cursed submarine of WWI, Victorian seances, fake clairvoyants and earnest investigations.

Clarke grew up in a haunted house and has devoted much of his life to trying to see a ghost; he examines the historical evidence with admirable objectivity, though he is clearly a believer. His attitude is that while fraud exists, it doesn't mean that ghosts don't also exist; even if a medium has indulged in fakery, that doesn't mean that they haven't also experienced genuine psychic phenomena.

In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories  that we tell each other about them.

I must admit I find this attitude a reasonable one. I've never seen a ghost either, and I probably wouldn't like it if I did, but my mother-in-law has seen one, and my daughter, as a small child, claimed to have seen an unexplained figure in our kitchen. The final chapter of A Natural History of Ghosts was the most satisfying for me, as Clarke traces the changing history of ghost sightings, from an ancient Roman tale of a ghostly apparition, wrapped in a white burial shroud and shaking chains from wrists and ankles (the absolute original cliche of a moaning phantom!), to monks and nuns dispossessed by Henry VIII's seizure of church property, through to modern era photos and spooky sound recordings (the YouTube series Unsolved Supernatural has some delicious examples of the latter). 

I can't explain what ghost experiences might be, but I'm not game to insist that everyone who has seen or heard or felt a ghost is a liar. Maybe one day we will find out for sure.


The Giant Under the Snow

I learned about John Gordon and The Giant Under the Snow through a Facebook group about Alan Garner, and I'm amazed that I had never heard of this book or this author before, because it is very much my cup of tea. First published in 1968, The Giant Under the Snow follows three children who discover a huge mysterious figure in the woods, with an ageless guardian figure called Elizabeth Goodenough who watches over him. Soon the three friends, Bill, Arf and Jonk (short for Jonquil, which I adore!) are being pursued by a sinister warlord and a terrifying black dog, along with the creepy faceless 'leathermen.'

The Giant Under the Snow is light on plot (it's basically a chase story) but thick on atmosphere. Elizabeth gives the children small backpacks which enable them to fly, and the flying scenes are detailed and evocative, as the three learn to control their new gift and fly over the darkened snowy landscape by night. It reminded me of Penelope Farmer's The Summer Birds, published a few years earlier, and also Alan Garner's Elidor (1965), where the children also become guardians of precious relics. Giant and Elidor both feature the half-demolished streetscapes of slum clearances, a spooky setting for a world between myth and the everyday.

This book slots in very comfortably with other 1960s authors like Penelope Lively who were also exploring deep history and myth. Gordon also wrote The House on the Brink which also deals with an Arthurian figure, so I'm intrigued to track that one down, too.


Three Women

 An unusual book for me, in that it is very adult! Lisa Taddeo's Three Women caused quite a stir when it was published a couple of years ago, for its frank and explicit exploration of female desire through the life stories of three women -- one who has sex with other men for her husband's pleasure, one who is having an affair with a married man, and one young woman who was abused by her high school teacher. Taddeo spent eight years working with the women, so these portraits are extremely intimate, sometimes sad, sometimes shocking.

The story I found most gripping was (perhaps not surprisingly) the high school student, Maggie, who ended up suing her teacher -- you can find pictures of the court case online -- after he was awarded Teacher of the Year in North Dakota. The gradually unfolding story of his grooming her, her growing crush on him, the abuse (which she experiences at the time as a love affair), and then her sense of betrayal, is incredibly poignant and painful. 

At the beginning of this book I wasn't sure if it was going to be my cup of tea, but by the end I was totally involved, and bitterly sad for Maggie. All three women are straight, cis, able and white; it would be interesting to hear similar stories from diverse points of view.

Occasionally the writing strives little too hard to be interesting, as when 'the wild black water [of a secret waterfall] rushes... like a vibrant truffle.' Sometimes less is more!


Seventeen Against the Dealer

 Seventeen Against the Dealer, the final Tillerman book, is not an easy read. It's great to bring the focus back to Dicey, now in her early twenties and embarking on her big dream, a boat-building business. But Dicey, always so resourceful and self-sufficient, is still young and raw; it's painful to read about one thing after another going wrong, as she loses her precious tool collection (uninsured), agrees to take on work she can't yet manage, and trusts people who don't deserve it. Dicey's way has always been to barrel on, to work hard, tackle the problem in front of her, and then work harder; but she needs to learn that that isn't the only, or even the best way, to handle life. Perhaps the most painful lesson of all, which we see unfolding before she does, is that she almost loses faithful Jeff by taking his loyalty for granted. And in neglecting her family, she almost loses Gram, too.

This is a satisfying conclusion to Cynthia Voigt's masterful Tillerman series, though I still think Homecoming is my favourite of them all. This last book is about taking chances, and making the most of the chances you're given, and also about picking yourself up again if those gambles don't pay off. Seventeen Against the Dealer also prompted me to cook jumbalaya, which was delicious! I'm looking forward to revisiting the Tillermans again in another ten years.


Books That Saved My Life

 I've always enjoyed Michael McGirr's book reviews in The Age, and also Bypass: The Story of a Road, a gentle road trip. He is a humane, compassionate and thoughtful commentator, a man of faith who teaches English at a boys' private school (lucky boys).

In Books That Saved My Life, McGirr reflects on forty books, in short chapters of a few pages each, that have touched or inspired him over a lifetime of reading, some fiction, some poetry, some memoir, some non-fiction. He interweaves his observations with some biographical information about each author and some personal anecdotes about the place of each book in his life, how he discovered it, or the person who introduced him to it. It's like reading a bunch of pithy newspaper columns, perfectly weighted and structured, or taking recommendations from a trusted and well-read friend.

There are lots of books here that I'd never heard of, as well as plenty of old friends, who I enjoyed viewing in a fresh light, from Harry Potter to Jane Austen to Heart of Darkness (blerch) -- plenty of female authors, too. If you were embarking on a serious reading program, you could do worse than take Michael McGirr as your guide.