O Caledonia – Elspeth Barker

I hadn’t heard of Elspeth Barker until in the last few months her only novel O Caledonia featured regularly in various monthly book stack photos on Twitter, and then my curiosity was piqued. Having now read it, this book blew me away and is sure to find a place in my year end list.

There’s a scene in the final pages of the novel, when Vera, the mother, takes Janet, her eldest daughter and child to a shop to select a dress for the hunt ball. Having turned sixteen, Vera is keen to launch Janet into society, and the hunt ball has been planned for this very purpose. Despite the strained relationship between Vera and Janet, Vera harbours hope, however slim, that this shopping expedition might just turn out to be an occasion for bonding. Vera chooses a beautiful white delicate gown for Janet to try on, but Janet is unhappy. Instead, she selects a loud purple dress that Vera thinks is hideous but which she accepts with resignation, a reminder that the gulf between mother and daughter will forever remain unbridgeable.

Enamoured by purple, her absolutely favourite colour, Janet loves the dress and genuinely believes it to be an expression of her individuality and she does stand out at the party but as a figure of scorn rather than of admiration.

This, then, is the fate to always befall Janet in Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, a brilliant, immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  

The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  Regarded as a difficult, troublesome girl by her family, she is soon forgotten, but the only living creature who pines for her is Claws, Janet’s beloved jackdaw who mournfully roams around her room searching for her in vain only to finally die (“At last, in desolation, like a tiny kamikaze pilot, he flew straight into the massive walls of Auchnasaugh and killed himself”).

The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

Janet is the first child born to Hector and Vera in wartime on a “fog-bound winter night in Edinburgh.” Once Hector is called away to the front, Vera moves with Janet to an Edwardian mansion by the sea owned by Hector’s parents. From an early age, Janet displays a lively imagination, an aptitude for books and learning and a special bond that she shares with her grandparents, especially the grandmother. But as the family keeps expanding, Janet is quickly sidelined and her fiery, rebellious nature increasingly makes her feel like an outsider within her own family. In subsequent years, Francis is born, and then Rhona to be followed by Lulu and Caro and Janet becomes contemptuous of her siblings failing to attain any kinship with them.

The fact that Janet is sometimes an awkward girl, clumsy with the tasks thrust upon her often instigates the ire of her mother and Nanny, a strict, God-fearing nurse employed to look after the children. Surrounded by a family that fails to understand her because she refuses to bend to its set, conformist ways, Janet turns inward, seeking refuge in her books and her thoughts, and developing a keen love for animals. The feeling of isolation only heightens, when her grandmother, the only family member she was very close to suddenly dies.

But then the war is over, and the family subsequently moves to a solitary Scottish castle called Auchnasaugh, a property left to Hector by his uncle on the condition that his cousin Lila is allowed to stay on there. Hector has no problem with the arrangement, but Vera is livid though helpless to do anything about it.

Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over the battlements and booming down the chimneys, so that the furnace which fed the ancient central heating system roared up and the pipes shuddered and the Aga top glowed infernal red. Then the jackdaws would explode in a dense cloud from their hiding places on the roof and float on the high wild air crying warning and woe to the winter world. ‘A gaunt place,’ said the village people, and they seldom passed that way. 

Vera detests Auchnasaugh, but Janet loves it passionately. The remoteness and solitary quality of the castle reflects Janet’s state of being, the sense of aloneness she experiences even amongst people.

Indeed, for her Auchnasaugh was a place of delight and absolute beauty, all her soul had ever yearned for, so although she could understand that many a spirit might wish to return to it, and she hoped that in time she too might do so, she felt the circumstances and mood of such visitations could only be joyous. She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with verdigris and haven to rats. So running now down the narrow twisting road through the forest, she looked forward to the moment when it dropped to the dark, secret glen, where the great hills rose steeply on each side and halfway up one of them, hidden by its trees, stood the castle.

She is most comfortable in the company of her eccentric cousin Lila – a despondent, lonely whisky-swigging woman accused of being responsible for her Russian husband’s death and branded as an outcast. Lila’s narrow world is defined by her filthy room (a den of discarded food and assorted bric-a-brac among other things), heavy drinking and a passion for growing mushrooms and other forms of fungi, and her raggedy cat Mouflon. For the most part, Lila stays out of the family’s way, but an occasional presence only fuels Vera’s anger further.

About the room were many other desiccated trophies bracket fungi like Neanderthal livers, long-dead roses in jam-jars green with algae, bracken and rowan berries hung in shrivelled swags round the mirror frames, straw hats pinned to the walls, dust lying heavy on the brims, turning their wreathed flowers a uniform grey. The crumpled rugs s bore a patina of cigarette ash, the ashtrays brimmed, books lay open on the floor and tables, stained with coffee, dog-eared and annotated. These books were in Russian, for Lila, like the Heraclea, originated there.

If Janet had her way, she would have happily continued to stay on in Auchnasaugh, but that is not to be. She is sent to a boarding school, St Uncumba’s, for further studies where her sense of isolation only deepens (“But nothing could assuage the cold, familiar dereliction of night in the dormitory, with the sea below the cliff and the sea wind whipping the sleet against the windows”). Despite what she perceives as a claustrophobic, two-dimensional world, Janet finds within her a way to survive, but she is forced to admit much to her dismay that even to be accepted by her classmates is to pander to their expectations. She cannot flower or let her own personality develop because that would make her an object of ridicule. For instance, Janet abhors sports, but those showing a prowess in games are lauded, while on the rare occasion when Janet displays her keen intelligence, she is immediately made to pay for being a show-off.

Janet began to hate the sea. There was so much of it, flowing, counter-flowing, entering other seas, slyly furthering its interests beyond the mind’s reckoning; no wonder it could pass itself off as sky; it was voracious marine confederacy. She saw how it diminished people as they walked along the shore; they lost their identity, were no more than pebbles, part of the sea’s scheme. Once there had been a great forest below the cliffs; there the hairy mammoth had browsed and raised his trunk and trumpeted. There had been mountain crags and deep, sweet valleys of gentle herbivores. The sea had come and taken them.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. A deep love for reading, an alternate world conjured up by her imagination and an intense fascination with the natural world propels her forward when all else around her seems bleak. She is drawn towards Lila, because she is subconsciously aware of how similar they are, how they are shunned by so-called “normal” people. And yet, as she grows older so does the raging conflict within her – although she hates people and the idea of being sociable, there’s a part of her that desires to be accepted and included, but on her terms and not theirs.

Loneliness, a troubled mother-daughter relationship, sibling rivalries, the feeling of being an outcast within your own family and a misfit in society, a lone woman’s struggle for acceptance, the yearning to live life on your own terms are some of the major themes featured in O Caledonia articulated in a style that is so original and striking.

The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. For instance, there’s Nanny bearing down “with a face like the North Sea.” A purple silk flower has “petals lapped in all shades of mauve, violet, heliotrope.” At the beach, the children run on “the mirror-bright sand filmed in water”, and the beach itself “spread in a great curve, fringed by mournful dunes.” There’s the giant hogweed grove at Auchnasaugh, whose great heads of flowers “swayed in menace against the windy sky and its serpentine stems reared triumphant and rutilant.” During a particularly exquisite summer Janet watches the “silent golden day bring glory to the sombre pines.” And then the view from Janet’s dormitory window “where the grey sea imperceptibly merged into the grey sky” that was like “living at the end of the world.” Here’s another example…

Fuller’s was the good thing about trips to the dentist. With faces frozen by the sleety wind and the jaw-scrunching needle they would step from the you granite street and the granite sky into a warm lamp-lit haven. The carpets were pink and dense so that moved soundlessly; there were no windows; you could forget the outer world. Teaspoons clinked on porcelain saucers, tiered stands shone, laden with the snowy glory of Fuller’s walnut cake. Reverently the waitress raised the silver dome from a fragrant mound of buttered toast, flaccid and dribbling with amber rivulets. 

Deeply atmospheric with a trancelike quality, O Caledonia is steeped in gothic overtones – a draughty, solitary castle perched atop a hill in the wilds of Scotland; the vast, immense, unyielding sea that heightens Janet’s loneliness; lonely moors; wintertime accentuated by shrieking owls, leafless beeches and a hush, stark landscape. A gorgeous evocative mood piece, O Caledonia pulsates with elements that are reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and even Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour.

O Caledonia, then, is a poetic and beautiful novel, an ode to individuality, nature and literature with an unforgettable heroine at its heart. Highly, highly recommended!

Unsettling Reads for Halloween

October is the perfect month to immerse oneself in spooky reads, a month that culminates in Halloween on 31st. And here is a stack of books to set the mood for the season, a great accompaniment to warm fires, candle-lit rooms, rustling autumn leaves, and pumpkin patches.  These are unsettling stories where ghosts, lurking unknown danger, urban horror, time travel, sinister children, chilling domestic environments are elements that can send a chill down your spine.

So without much ado, here are some excellent unsettling reads for Halloween…For detailed reviews on the first seven books, you can click on the links.

GHOSTLY STORIES by Celia Fremlin

My first brush with Celia Fremlin’s work was through her marvellous, unsettling novel – The Hours Before Dawn – which portrayed the travails of early motherhood with that extra dash of suspense.

There is something similar at play here, in this collection called Ghostly Stories that in keeping with the Faber Stories format focuses on two tales, each centred on a house. In both these concise works, Fremlin is in supreme command of her craft. These are short, sharp tales of great psychological depth, tales of domestic horror where the fears and perceived sense of threat comes not from otherworldly beings but from real people who are close to the protagonists. Thwarted love, toxic relationships, how the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us in the present, and a succinct look into women’s lives are themes that vividly come alive on these pages. 

THE VICTORIAN CHAISE-LONGUE by Marghanita Laski

Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue is a chilling, unsettling tale of time travel, a kind of psychological drama cum horror story where a woman wakes up to find that she has been transported back to an earlier century. It’s a fascinating novella because Laski plays with the reader’s mind without providing the comfort of a neat resolution, but the mood and tone captured makes it a compelling, frightening read. It’s one of those stories that throws up more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.

Click on the title above which will take you to my detailed review of this excellent novella.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.

SUCH SMALL HANDS by Andrés Barba (tr. Lisa Dillman)

In the opening pages we learn that Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.

Once Marina is subsequently taken to an orphanage, the narrative voice shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.

This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE by Mariana Enriquez (tr. Megan McDowell)

Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of twelve wonderful short stories steeped in gothic horror set in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In most of them, traces of supernatural elements exist, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.

We are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.

Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel – Eleanor Vance, Theodora and the Hill House heir Luke Sanderson.

But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.

The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.

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.

DON’T LOOK NOW & OTHER STORIES by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier has written some excellent novels – RebeccaJamaica InnMy Cousin Rachel to name a few – but she was also quite adept at penning short stories.

My Folio edition contains nine tales pulled from various collections and here is a glimpse into a couple of them…The title story Don’t Look Now is set among the canals in Venice where a couple who have recently lost their child come across a pair of old ladies who have clairvoyant abilities. In The Blue Lenses, a woman undergoes an operation to improve her vision but when the new lenses are inserted into her eyes what she begins to see disturbs her greatly.

All of these nine tales are unsettling and macabre and display to great effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills.

Ghostly Stories – Celia Fremlin

The Faber Stories collection is a fascinating project – a single short story or two packaged as little, compact books, which as I wrote before, are akin to wine tasting where you want to sample a sip before deciding to go in for a bottle. It’s how I discovered the joy of Claire Keegan’s writing through her poignant story The Forester’s Daughter, as well as another terrific tale called Paradise written by Edna O’ Brien, whose work I had never read before. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney was also excellent and now to these stellar books I add Celia Fremlin’s Ghostly Stories.

My first brush with Celia Fremlin’s work was through her marvellous, unsettling novel – The Hours Before Dawn – which portrayed the travails of early motherhood with that extra dash of suspense.

There is something similar at play here, in this collection called Ghostly Stories that in keeping with the Faber Stories format focuses on two tales, each centred on a house.

A hint of discreet violence is palpable in the first story, “The Hated House”, as our protagonist Lorna, a young woman of sixteen, enters her home. Lorna’s hatred and contempt for her home is loud and striking and immediately hooks the reader from the first page…

Now that she had it to herself, Lorna felt that she could almost enjoy hating her home so much. She flung her school coat and beret on to the sofa, dumped her satchel down in the middle of the floor, and watched with satisfaction as the books and papers spilled out over her mother’s spotless, well vacuumed carpet. It was nice to be able to mess it up like that, without risk of reprimand. She gazed round the neat, firelit room with contempt. 

Lorna can’t stand the hypocrisy latent within her family. Her mother’s insistence on a neat and clean home bordering on fanaticism is in sharp contrast to her relationship with her husband; the couple constantly bickers and argues. The house may be the epitome of order, but their marriage is rife with chaos and unhappiness.

When Lorna enters her house she is immediately relieved and a tad bit excited. It is one of those evenings when her parents are away and she relishes the prospect of spending not the just the evening but also the night alone.

Ah, but this was the life! Lorna slid yet deeper and more luxuriously into the cushioned depths of the chair. Tea when she liked; supper when she liked; homework when she liked; music when she liked. Lorna’s eyes turned with lazy anticipation towards the pile of pop records stacked under the record player. 

We are given brief details of Lorna’s parents early on – the father is a tyrant always yelling at the mother, and the latter unable to stand for herself seeks refuge in meticulous cleaning and tidying.   Lorna loves annoying her Dad who later vents his frustration at the mother, and Lorna detests her mother’s meek attitude and for putting up with his bullying.

It’s misery-polish that Mummy puts on everything, it’s dishonesty polish, trying to make this look like a happy home when it isn’t! It’s because she’s too cowardly, too much of a doormat, to stand up to Daddy’s tempers, so she tidies the house instead… I bet she’s tidied the kitchen even better than usual today, just because she’s nervous about leaving me alone! She thinks tidiness is a substitute for everything! 

As Lorna settles into a blissful evening of solitude immersed in her music records, the lamps lit and blazing fire imparting warmth and an aura of coziness, she experiences a state of utter contentment and joy. But then this idyll is shattered by the persistent ringing of the telephone followed by the visit of a strange girl. This is a brilliant tale, a wonderful blend of the eerie with the mundane, its core theme being the burden of a toxic marriage on women and its impact on the entire family unit.

The second story, “The New House”, is from the first person point of view and is narrated by a middle-aged woman called Madge.

Madge begins her unnerving tale with an account of her niece Linda, who is her late sister Angela’s daughter. We learn that Linda came to stay with Madge when she was barely a girl of twelve. Madge has always been anxious about Linda; she was never particularly a robust girl, her frail constitution always a cause for worry.

And yet, Madge admits that the unexplainable dread assailing her over the past few weeks has nothing to do with Linda’s health. Linda is now a grown woman about to be married to a nice enough young man and the couple is now engrossed in building their new home.

But one gusty September evening, the autumn season in full force, Madge who is otherwise a strong, stoic woman feels an all pervading tiredness descend upon her even after a normal hard day of work, and along with that an indefinable foreboding.

The dampness and the autumn dusk seemed to have crept into my very soul, bringing their darkness with them.

A hot cup of tea and a warm glowing stove fail to assuage her fears. And to make matters worse, when she goes to sleep she is haunted by nightmares that vaguely hint at some sort of danger confronting Linda.

It was late afternoon in my dream, and the pale rainy light gleamed on her (Linda’s) flaxen-pale hair making it look almost metallic-a sort of shining grey.

And as I watched her, I began to feel afraid. She looked so tiny, and thin, and unprotected; her fair, childlike head seemed poised somehow so precariously on her white neck-even her absorption in the painting seemed in my dream to add somehow to her peril. I opened my mouth to warn her- of I know not what – but I could make no sound, as is the way of dreams.

With a subsequent brief glimpse into a family secret that could have terrible consequences, “The New House” is a disconcerting, chilling tale of jealousy, doomed love and repressed feelings where the skills of Fremlin’s storytelling shines through.

In both these concise works, Fremlin is in supreme command of her craft. These are short, sharp tales of great psychological depth, tales of domestic horror where the fears and perceived sense of threat comes not from otherworldly beings but from real people who are close to the protagonists.

Thwarted love, toxic relationships, how the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us in the present, and a succinct look into women’s lives are themes that vividly come alive on these pages. Both the stories are a perfect amalgam of mood and atmosphere – the dusky autumn evenings, the chill of the rains form a stark background to the well-lit cozy rooms that lulls you into a false sense of well-being, but where the menace is lurking on the periphery. At barely 40 pages in the Faber edition, this compact gem can be read in the course of an afternoon and thus very apt for the last day of October that is Halloween.  

A Month of Reading – September 2022

September was an excellent reading month in terms of quality. I managed six books in all – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a biography, a short story collection, a Booker Prize longlisted title, and of course, the eighth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – The Trap – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

THE PACHINKO PARLOUR by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. For Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. 

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way.

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families. Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works. 

SOMETHING IN DISGUISE by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style. The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative chap, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, and immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. That’s the basic set-up but as the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds, while at the same time a sense of claustrophobia sharpens as some sinister happenings begin to come to the fore.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz  

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The novel is made up of four sections each providing a different point of view – the first section called “Bonds” is a novel written by a forgotten author Harold Vanner thatnarrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world. The second section is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, and it quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself. The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally, and she is hell bent on discovering the truth about Mildred Bevel, while in fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

While Trust, in a way, is a commentary on the excesses of Wall Street, itis really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

THE TRAP (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

The Trap is the eighth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, afterPointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights.

In The Trap, we once again see Miriam in a different environment. While the last four books saw her lodging at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street with a room of her own, in The Trap we see Miriam change her lodgings and share a room with a woman called Selina Holland. Given Miriam’s penchant for independence and solitude, it is perhaps a surprise that she has taken this step, but as readers we accept and go along because Richardson chooses not to provide an explanation.

At first, Miriam is excited at this prospect of a big change in her circumstances…

Left to herself, she would now go out, not only for tea but for the whole evening, into a world renewed. There would be one of those incidents that punctually present themselves at such moments, a link in the chain of life as it appears only when one is cut off from fixed circumstances. She would come home lost and refreshed. Laze through Sunday morning. Roam about the rooms amongst things askew as though thrown up by an earthquake, their exposed strata storied with memory and promise. There would be indelible hours of reading and dreaming, of harvesting the lively thought that comes when one is neither here nor there, but poised in bright light between a life ended and a life not yet begun. The blissful state would last until dusk deepened towards evening and would leave her filled with a fresh realisation of the wonder of being alive and in the midst of life, and with strength to welcome the week slowly turning its unknown bright face towards her through the London night.

In the previous novels, while we see Miriam’s resolve to stay true to her wish to be on her own (her rejection of Shatov’s proposal was partly influenced by this), we also see her social circle expand, and one gets the sense that there is a conflict within her – while she is prefers being alone, she is not completely averse to company.

At first, the two women eagerly set up the room they are to share with their furnishings. It’s a new experience for Miriam, but that novelty rapidly wears off as differences between the two start creeping up. First, Miriam quickly learns that her love for reading does not find much resonance with Selina. But much to Miriam’s dismay, Selina also has strong negative opinions on Donizetti’s, Miriam’s favourite café, which had always been a refuge and a haven during her time in London. 

As the novel progresses, Miriam sees the real William Butler Yeats in a room across the road, and also frets about meeting the landlord to pay the rent, feeling claustrophobic when she is compelled to chat with his mother. Then there’s another neighbour Miriam and Selina gossip about – Mr Perrance, a sculptor, prone to causing a disturbance regularly, amplified by his heavy drinking and verbal brawls with his wife. Miriam also becomes increasingly unhappy with the dinginess of their room made all the more palpable when the Brooms pay her a visit. The Brooms are reserved in their opinion, but Miriam is more than thankful to take them out to tea.

Ultimately, Miriam and Selina have a huge argument which only reinforces the failure of Miriam’s social experiment with hints provided to the reader that this is not an arrangement Miriam is likely to continue.

That’s it for September. October has started on a slow note where I’m taking my time to read A Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff and O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker both of which I’m really enjoying. I do intend to also read the ninth and tenth books from the Pilgrimage series – Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

Something in Disguise – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s wonderful series – The Cazalet Chronicles – were some of my favourite books in 2021; intelligently written, perfect comfort reads during a particularly difficult time. Her collaboration with Robert Aickman that produced six ghost stories (three each) in a collection called We Are for the Dark is also well worth reading. I have now embarked on her standalone novels and the first I chose to read was Something in Disguise, a book that I really liked very much.

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style.

The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative man, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, the brunt of the Colonel’s subsequent anger borne by May, who valiantly attempts to diffuse the situation. Worried that his sister will be expected to take up Alice’s mantle, Oliver immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. Elizabeth is guilty about abandoning her mother, but the desire to get away from the Colonel is simply too great.

Infact, one gets the impression that Alice also chooses marriage as a means of escape, to get away from the interminable tedium of household chores at Monk’s Close made worse by the Colonel’s irascible, dull personality. Poor May must manage alone. Oliver, meanwhile, is shown to be an erudite, intelligent young man, newly graduated from Oxford, blessed with brains but seriously lacking ambition. With no sense of purpose to guide him, Oliver appears to be aimlessly drifting, unable to settle into any job, and always flitting between girlfriends. He often jokes about marrying a rich girl to save him the indignity of hard work, and what’s more it does seem like he means it.

Elizabeth is nothing like him. She knows that Oliver is fond of her and often wonders why he puts up with her when she is incapable of making intelligent conversation. But she acknowledges the close bond that they share and is happy to play second fiddle to Oliver’s numerous friends and the parties at their place. Once in London, Elizabeth knows she will have to work to earn her living despite the allowance they get from their mother. Displaying a flair for cooking, she begins to professionally cook meals for dinners and parties for her clients – a job that begins on a shaky note but one that she subsequently settles into.

Enmeshed in this set-up is the ghastly house itself, Monk’s Close; a house that the Colonel forces May to buy with her money. He loves it with a zeal that May can’t simply fathom. The house is ugly, cold, airless, with no character whatsoever, and May is faced with the prospect of resigning to her fate, of spending the rest of her life there, dictated by a man who is stingy and a frightful bore. Little wonder then, she seeks refuge in some religious cult meetings her friend Lavinia introduces her to, an organization led by the dubious and opportunistic Dr Sedum. We are given a brief glimpse into May’s first marriage – a seemingly happy union until her husband is killed in the war. Elizabeth often wonders what made her mother marry the Colonel…

Her mother wouldn’t have married Herbert if she’d cared about an intellectual life. She certainly hadn’t married him for money, and at her age sex appeal was out of the question- – so what was it?

As the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds; May becomes increasingly bewildered by the Colonel’s moods and tempers and Alice is forced to admit to herself that her marriage to Leslie may not be the haven she was expecting.

One of the core themes explored in this novel is the loneliness that women feel in a marriage, depicted through the unhappy marriages of both May and Alice. Their thoughts and opinions are not given due weight or agency, often buried under the burden of their husbands’ conventional expectations and infuriatingly patronising attitude.  The men in the novel are deeply flawed, some are cowardly even, but when it comes to the unpopularity scale, the Colonel and Leslie take the cake; they simply possess no redeeming qualities.

The most memorable character in the novel is Claude, Alice’s cherished cat, and it is while portraying his demeanour and his utter contempt for humans and their ways that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s flair for wit and dark humour shines through. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the beginning of the novel whether the industrious Claude steals a couple of trout from the larder, which were to be cooked for the Colonel’s dinner…

He (the Colonel) had managed, during the service, to count the guests – roughly, anyway – and on the whole he felt he had been sensible to put away two of the cold salmon trout that the caterers had been laying out. Those fellows always produced too much food because then they could charge you for it. So he had simply taken away two of the dishes and put them in the larder…

Where Claude, who never had very much to do in the mornings, smelt it. He had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination.

Just like in the Cazalet Chronicles, especially The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard has a striking way of describing food, be they everyday meals or elaborate dinners. She is also terrific at conveying a wonderful sense of place, especially vivid in the chapter set in the south of France whether the languidness of the summer is beautifully evoked. Not to mention she effectively conjures up the atmosphere around Monk’s Close – chilly, dreary and sinister – that so weighs heavy on poor May. Overall there is something magical about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s writing style that is perceptive, intelligent and incredibly immersive.

It was now very hot: their wet heads steamed; cicadas had reached their seemingly endless zenith; the smells of hot thyme, juniper and resin from the pines thickened the hot and dazzling air. They slipped on sharp, slippery stones as they climbed: geckos froze into grace fully heroic attitudes as they approached, and then, when they got too near, disappeared with jerky speed – like odd pieces of silent film pieced together; butterflies loitered, bees zoomed, there were no birds, no fresh water and no shade. ‘A foreign land,’ thought Oliver, watching his sister climbing the path ahead of him.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.