My father passed away in March. He was ailing for a while, with both cancer and heart disease, and had always managed to pull through, but this time things became too complicated. It was a tough month and not surprisingly, I hardly read much. I did manage four books though, and thankfully they were all excellent.
So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first three books you can click on the links.
FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley
Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.
The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh. When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends.
Later, when Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately, they set in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.
Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.
DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine
Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.
Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.
The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.
Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.
COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures.
The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.
What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.
There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.
HONEYCOMB (PILGRIMAGE 1) by Dorothy Richardson
After the clamour and noisiness of Northern London that so distressed Miriam and the loneliness that overwhelmed her, the Corrie country estate called ‘Newlands’ is much more welcoming; a place that promises richness, calm and beauty (“And this one evening was more real than all the fifteen months at Banbury Park. It was so far away from everything, trams and people and noise – it was in the centre of beautiful exciting life; perfectly still and secure”). The Corries are Felix, a respected lawyer and his wife Julia (Rollo), and the couple has two children, 12-year old Sybil and an 8-year old boy who is not named.
In Backwater, we witnessed Miriam debate with herself on the merits of the teaching profession, and if she were to continue, she aspired for the position of a governess in a wealthy home with the prospect of a better pay, without the burden of the cumbersome environment that Banbury Park was steeped in. Stepping into the deliciously luxurious world of the Corries seems to offer just that.
When Miriam got out of the train into the darkness she knew that there were woods all about her. The moist air was rich with the smell of trees – wet bark and branches – moss and lichen, damp dead leaves. She stood on the dark platform snuffing the rich air.
In the first few chapters, Miriam is enamoured by the wealth and lushness of her new abode, the quiet comfort, the plush surroundings and exotic food she has never tasted before. But more importantly, she is entranced by the abundance of light all around – the dazzling rays of the sun that filter into the rooms and cast a spell over her…as she reflects on how the Corries have that ability, befitting their class, to attract brightness and light into their lives, in sharp contrast to the dreariness of Miriam’s family home fuelled by the Hendersons’ precarious financial circumstances.
People with money could make the spring come as soon as the days lengthened. Clear bright rooms, bright clean paint, soft coloured hangings, spring flowers in the bright light on landings.
The yearning for a comfortable life minus the monetary worries is so immense that at first Miriam revels in the luxuriant atmosphere at Newlands, soaking up the light and new experiences eagerly.
Now she knew what she wanted. Bright mornings, beautiful right rooms, a wilderness of beauty all round her all the time – at any cost…Youth, the glory of youth. So strong. She had got herself into this beautiful life, found her way to it; she would stay in it for ever, work in it, make money and when she was old, have soft pink curtains and fragrant things to remind her, as long as she could lift her hand. No more ugliness, no more schools or mean little houses. Luxuries, beautiful gleaming things…a secret happy life.
She hopes to make the most of her employment, even possibly aiming for a longer tenure…and yet, she can’t completely shake off the essence of her upbringing, so different from the comfortable lives of the Corrie children who have only ever known a life of privilege.
During her second week of giving the children their morning’s lessons, Miriam saw finally that it was impossible and would always be impossible to make their two hours of application anything but an irrelevant interval in their lives. They came into the schoolroom with languid reluctance, dreamily indolent from breakfast in bed, fragrant from warm baths.
Meanwhile, we see Miriam getting acquainted with the Corries’ extended circle of friends who regularly frequent Newlands, but are quite vacuous. But what of the Corries themselves? While a stylish woman, it gradually becomes apparent to Miriam and to the reader that Mrs Corrie is quite crass and frivolous in her outlook, while as mentioned above, her children have had it easy in life and are quite spoiled.
A slew of beautiful set-pieces punctuate the novel largely centred on Miriam’s musings when she is by herself. There’s one where Miriam composes a letter to her elder sister Eve enumerating the pleasures of reading…
…and the world was full of books…It did not matter that people went about talking about nice books, interesting books, sad books, ‘stories’ – they would never be that to her. They were people. More real than actual people. They came nearer. In life everything was so scrappy and mixed up. In a book the author was there in every word.
…and another whole chapter devoted to Miriam’s impressions while taking a stroll alone through the streets of London…
Wide golden streaming Regent Street was quite near. Some near narrow street would lead into it.
Flags of pavement flowing – smooth clean grey squares and oblongs, faintly polished, shaping and drawing away – sliding into each other…I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone…sunlit; gleaming under dark winter rain; shining under warm sunlit rain, sending up a fresh stony smell…always there…dark and light…dawn, stealing…
Light streamed up from the close dense stone. With every footstep she felt she could fly.
Moreover, in typical fashion we have come to associate with Miriam, she ponders on men and women, and the differences between the two genders (“Why did men and women dine together? It was extraordinary, this muddle of men and women with nothing in common”).
As the novel progresses, despite the comfort of her material surroundings, cracks begin to appear in the way Miriam perceives the Corries, as she gets to know them better. We get a sense that, initially, Miriam possibly has a crush on Felix Corrie, although that fades away quickly when he resists being challenged on his opinions during a dinner party…and Miriam’s disillusionment with the Corries and their set is complete.
The bulk of Honeycomb is set in the Corrie residence, while the final two chapters find Miriam back home – the penultimate one focuses on the weddings of her sisters Sarah and Harriett to Bennett Brodie and Gerald Ducayne respectively. We also get a glimpse of the men interested in Miriam – the elder Bob Grenville, a dull man who tires her so, and then the ascetic, brooding Mr Gove whom she meets for the first time at the weddings.
The last chapter is the darkest of them all, very sombre, as it dwells on Miriam’s mother, her severe depression and resultant suicide. Miriam accompanies her mother to the seaside town of Hastings with the hope that the refreshing sea air will do her a world of good, but the mother continues to sink into despondency which Miriam finds greatly disconcerting. The wonderful Reading Pilgrimage website exclusively devoted to the novels, offers a more detailed look at the mother’s suicide, modeled on Dorothy Richardson’s own mother and talks about how this incident is the most extreme example of her indirect approach to conventional plot and narrative.
In a nutshell, Honeycomb is another excellent installment in the Pilgrimage series and I’m all set to embark on The Tunnel, which is considerably longer than the last three books.
WordPress notified me that I reached a milestone in March – my blog turned 5. Time really flies! Since I hardly accessed my blog for most of the month, for reasons stated right at the beginning, I completely missed it. But I’m very happy at completing five years of blogging, a very enjoyable hobby next to reading, and I appreciate all the comments on my posts too. Long may it continue!
That’s it for March. I began April with the absolutely wonderful Woman Running in the Mountains by Yuko Tsushima (translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt), and am completed immersed in the International Booker shortlisted Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell). And of course, I’ll also be reading the fourth book from the Pilgrimage series – The Tunnel.