February was another strong month of reading. I finished Grossman’s 850-page epic Life and Fate, which will definitely feature in my year end list. The second book of the Pilgrimage series, Backwater, was excellent too, and my other favourites were the Moore and the Mortimer.
So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first four books you can click on the links.
DEATH AND THE SEASIDE by Alison Moore
Death and the Seaside is a terrific tale of failure, of being easily influenced, death and writing that unravels in a rather unexpected way.
Our protagonist is Bonnie Falls, a young woman about to turn 30. Bonnie’s life so far has been without any direction or purpose and she has not much to show for her half-hearted efforts. She is a college dropout having abandoned a degree in literature, which rather limits the job opportunities available. But she is an aspiring writer with potential and has already penned the beginning of a story that is dotted with sinister happenings.
Lost and adrift, Bonnie moves out of her parents’ home to a rented flat, where she becomes pally with her landlady, the mysterious Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia is unusually interested in Bonnie, especially in the story Bonnie has written, and arranges a seaside holiday for the two of them.
Why is Sylvia so deeply interested in an unremarkable person like Bonnie? Is there something sinister lurking behind Sylvia’s motives? This remains a mystery to the reader until it all becomes clear as the novel progresses and reaches its dark conclusion.
DADDY’S GONE A-HUNTING by Penelope Mortimer
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a brilliant, superbly crafted tale of a challenging marriage, abortion, and the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship told in Mortimer’s customary haunting, absorbing style.
We are introduced to Ruth Whiting, a bored housewife who lives with her well-to-do dentist husband Rex, a bully, in the posh neighbourhood called the Common.
Ruth dotes on her children – her eldest daughter Angela and the boys, Julian and Mike. But they are growing up and have reached that age where they have lives of their own – the boys away at boarding school and Angela, an undergraduate at Oxford. In the holidays, when her children come down, Ruth’s home is filled with chatter, activities and noise, but for the better part of the year, the hours lie empty and the monotonous days stretch endlessly before Ruth.
When Angela, who is unmarried, becomes pregnant, she confides in Ruth expecting the latter to help her. The gamut of conflicting emotions felt by mother and daughter and how they deal with this tough situation forms the backbone of this novel. Highly recommended.
LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. Robert Chandler)
A wonderful, wonderful book set at the heart of World War Two, during the historic Battle of Stalingrad. The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages. The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.
These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on. I’ve written a detailed review on this extraordinary book, please click on the title to view it.
WE ARE FOR THE DARK by Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard
We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.
The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.
BACKWATER (PILGRIMAGE 2) by Dorothy Richardson
Backwater is the second book in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series; a cycle of novels that charts the life of her alter-ego Miriam Henderson, and is in many ways autobiographical.
While in the first book – Pointed Roofs – we see Miriam taking up the post of an English teacher in a girls boarding school in Hanover Germany, in Backwater, Miriam’s employment takes her closer home, in the suburbs of North London. The first chapter sees Miriam and her mother traverse the noisy streets of North London as they make their way to the school run by the Perne sisters – Miss Jenny, Miss Deborah and Miss Haddie.
Like in Pointed Roofs, Backwater continues to offer us a glimpse into Miriam’s impressions and strong opinions of the world around her. Layers of her personality also shine through – her hopes, fears, the looming uncertainty of her future, the weight of problems back home. Besides Miriam’s experiences at Banbury Park, Backwater focuses the lens on Miriam’ family – in the second chapter there’s a dance held at the Henderson residence and we learn that the eldest sister Sarah is set to marry her beau Bennett Brodie, while Miriam’s younger sister Harriett is engaged to Gerald, a promising prospect particularly since Gerald comes from a well-to-do family at a time when the Henderson family’s finances are on the decline.
Of course, while both Pointed Roofs and Backwater center on Miriam’s internal reflections on her surroundings, in Backwater the focus is particularly sharper on Miriam herself – her thoughts, dreams and hopes about herself; her future as an independent woman as well as her family, which add more depth to her character.
“The business of the teacher is to make the children independent, to get them to think for themselves, and that’s much more important than whether they get to know facts,” she would say irreverently to the Pernes whenever the question of teaching came up. She bitterly resented their vision of children as malleable subordinates.
Miriam frets over whether she should continue to teach. If she wants to earn more, she will need to be a qualified teacher and that would require some effort. It is probably worth it if Miriam is very sure of wanting to take up teaching as a career, but she remains increasingly uncertain. Richardson has beautifully captured the anguish of a young woman who has her whole life in front of her but is torn about the course she must take.
…Miriam had said savagely, “I wish to goodness I knew what to do about things.”
Miss Haddie’s kindly desire gave her no relief. What did she mean but the hopelessness of imagining that anybody could do anything about anything. Nobody could ever understand what anyone else really wanted. Only some people were fortunate.
Part of this dilemma is driven by the strained financial circumstances of the Hendersons. Somewhere, Miriam also believes that her marriage options are pretty limited, and if she does not want to be a burden on her family, she must earn. It’s interesting that Miriam is even considering marriage as a viable option for the future, one got the sense of her disdain for it in Pointed Roofs.
We meet one of her possible suitors – Ted Burton – in the second chapter at the dance, what’s more Miriam also flirts with his best friend Max, but both of them quickly recede into the distance, as Miriam begins her new job at Banbury Park. There’s a moment further on in the book, where we learn about the fate of one of them (only a couple of lines devoted to that development), but there’s something sad about it in the way it accentuates Miriam’s loneliness.
The daily drill at the school exhausts Miriam and takes a toll on her body, and her mother quickly prescribes daily walks, an activity that considerably brightens Miriam’s mood. During one such outing, she chances upon a library and subsequently drowns herself in books; being totally immersed in reading alleviates some of the tedium of her days.
While most of Backwater is set in Banbury Park, there are some chapters devoted to Miriam’s time with her family during the holidays, particularly a seaside trip to Brighton with her sisters Eve and Harriett and Harriett’s fiancé Gerald.
They said nothing until almost the end of their time about the passage of the days: but they looked at each other, each time they settled down, with conspiring smiles and then sat, side by side, less visible to each other than the great sunlit sea or the great clean salt darkness, stranded in a row with four easy idle laughing commenting voices, away alone and safe in the gaiety of the strong forgetful air – talking things over. The far-away troublesome crooked things, all cramped and painful and puzzling, came out one by one and were shaken and tossed away along the clean wind.
Meanwhile, Miriam’s continues to display her sharp opinions to us readers. She detests North London (“North London would always be North London, hard, strong, sneering, money-making, noisy and trammy”), and she ponders on the possibilities of change…
These three girls she had known so long as fellow-prisoners, and who still bore at moments in their eyes, their movements, the marks of the terrors and uncertainties amongst which they had all grown up, were going on, out into life, scored and scarred but alive and changeable, able to become quite new. Memories of strange crises and the ageing, deadening shifts they had invented to tide them over humiliating situations were here crowded in the room together with them all. But these memories were no longer, as they had so often been, the principle thing in the room whenever they were all gathered silently together. If Eve and Harriett had got away from the past and now had happy eyes and mouths…Sarah’s solid quiet cheerfulness, now grown so large and free that it seemed even when she was stillest to knock your mind about like something in a harlequinade…Why had they all not known in the past that they would change? Why had they been so oppressed whenever they stopped to think?
And she feels the pinch of money shortages, the conflict it produces. Even though she enjoys some of the good things in life, she chides herself, striving to save all the time and be strict about spending. But how is that possible during the festive season when gifts must be bought for friends and family?
Backwater is also where a passing mention is made of Miriam’s mother – she is ill and the sisters are worried (in real life, Richardson’s mother commits suicide).
What I also loved about Backwater are the paragraphs devoted to the small pleasures in Miriam’s life that she revels in…
The afternoon walks…
It was the same wandering eloquent air she had known from the beginning of things. Whilst she walked along the little gravel pathways winding about over the clear green slopes in the flood of afternoon light, it stayed with her. The day she had just passed through was touched by it; it added a warm promise to the hours that lay ahead – tea-time, the evening’s reading, the possible visit of Miss Haddie, the quiet of her solitary room, the coming of sleep.
Being absorbed in reading…
For the last six weeks of the summer term she sat up night after night propped against her upright pillow and bolster under the gas-jet reading her twopenny books in her silent room.
Perhaps that self, leaving others to do the practical things, erecting a little wall of unapproachability between herself and her family that she might be free to dream alone in corners, had always been wrong. But it was herself, the nearest most intimate self she had known…It was not perhaps a ‘good’ self, but it was herself, her own familiar secretly happy and rejoicing self – not dead.
And the contentment she feels while on a boating holiday with Harriett and Gerald…
Six hours ago, shaking hands with a roomful of noisy home-going girls – and now nothing to do but float dreamily in through the gateway of her six weeks’ holiday…She was staring up at a clean blue sky fringed with tree-tops. She stretched herself out more luxuriously upon the cushions. The river smoothly moving and lapping underneath the boat was like a cradle.
I really enjoyed Backwater immensely and am looking forward to reading more of Miriam’s journey in Honeycomb.
THE HOUSEGUEST AND OTHER STORIES by Amparo Dávila (tr. Audrey Harris & Matthew Gleeson)
The Houseguest and Other Stories is an excellent collection of twelve pieces that cover the themes of extreme fear, isolation and paranoia. These are unsettling stories where horror blends with the mundane; where evil lurks in everyday life.
In Moses and Gaspar, the narrator is entrusted with the care of two creatures after the death of his friend and quickly observes his life spiral downwards. It’s a story whose power is heightened by the unknown, the fact that Moses and Gaspar are never really described. Are they wild dogs, feral cats or something else entirely?
The titular story – The Houseguest – revolves around a woman driven to terror when her irascible husband brings home a sinister being as a permanent fixture in their home. In The Cell, Maria, who is tormented by a ‘presence’ in her room every night, decides to marry to end her distress, but the banality of the marriage preparations and her prospective husband leaves her feeling claustrophobic to the point where she begins to wonder if that mysterious ‘presence’ was not the better option.
The characters in these stories are either isolated or feel trapped or are driven to the edge by the grimness of their circumstances. Many of these tales have a Shirley Jackson vibe to them definitely making it a collection worth reading.
ASYLUM ROAD by Olivia Sudjic
Asylum Road is an interesting tale about conflict, exile, trauma, isolation and fractured identity. The novel opens pretty enticingly…
Sometimes it felt like the murders kept us together.
Our narrator Anya is a young woman in her early 30s on a road trip to the south of France with her boyfriend Luke. From the opening pages, we get feelers that something’s not quite right, there’s a sense of unease that prevails especially when Anya focuses on her relationship with Luke. His prolonged silences greatly unsettle her, and Anya is wracked by a nagging fear that Luke is going to end their relationship. But Luke does quite the opposite, he proposes to her.
Subsequently, we learn a bit more about their backgrounds. Luke’s is a product of privilege, his parents are well settled in Cornwall; while Anya’s situation is more precarious – in her childhood she escapes as a refugee to the UK when the Bosnian war erupts, while her family chooses to stay behind. She becomes estranged from them.
Post their decision to marry, the time comes to meet the parents. This entails another journey by car to his parents’ Cornish estate. Luke also insists on travelling to Belgrade to meet Anya’s parents and convey the news personally, a prospect that Anya does not really relish. She is anxious about meeting her parents and elder sister after such a long time; it’s akin to confronting her past which unnerves her.
That meeting is doomed – Anya’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s and still thinks the city is under siege, the father has a propensity to make uncomfortable jokes and her elder sister Daria has become a bitter, resentful woman. There’s also a brother who has committed suicide some years ago, and an e-wife called Mira who later befriends Anya. The meeting keeps Anya on the edge throughout, not helped by the fact that Luke is also uneasy amid their company.
Once Anya and Luke are back in London, their relationship deteriorates quickly until it all hurtles towards a dramatic conclusion.
Sudjic is great at creating an atmosphere of perpetual dread and unease, a sense that things can suddenly change for the worse any moment. There are several anxiety inducing scenes in the novel – while travelling by air to Croatia Anya forgets her phone and diary on the plane, the realization dawns on her late, and there’s another heart-stopping set piece when the road on which Luke is driving (some areas in Sarajevo are in complete ruins), ends abruptly into a yawning abyss, as they narrowly missing death.
One recurring symbol in the novel is the road trip – does it signify heading towards a better future or running away from the past?
Through Anya’s personality, the novel examines the crippling impact of trauma of war torn regions, how this trauma remains embedded in a person’s psyche and never entirely disappears and can resurface any time. Anya is constantly edgy and insecure, she abandons her PhD just when she is close to completing it, and has an infuriating habit of losing and forgetting things.
I liked this novel, but didn’t love it. One reason could be the prose style which had a staccato quality to it and at times felt a bit flat. However, that disjointed narrative works quite well in the final chapters to mirror Anya’s unstable mind; the storytelling reaches a feverish pitch where Anya’s past blurs with her present.
That’s it for February. I began March with Tessa Hadley’s Free Love which I absolutely loved (review coming soon), and I plan to read a few books from the 2022 International Booker Prize longlist starting with The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman (tr. Leslie Camhi). And of course, I’ll also be reading the third book from the Pilgrimage series – Honeycomb.