Autumn Rounds – Jacques Poulin (tr. Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds was my first foray into the works of the Canadian author Jacques Poulin, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m keen to explore more of his work, which like this one has been published by the excellent Archipelago Books.

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

Our protagonist is an older man called the Driver whose job involves lending books. He has a milk van now converted into a bookmobile, and he makes three trips every year, visiting the small villages between Quebec City and the North Shore. No longer in his prime, this could very well be one of the Driver’s final trips during the year.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off.

While the Driver’s bookmobile and the school bus broadly halt at the same villages, they are not always together during their journey. Sometimes, the Driver would arrive at a village and find the band members already present putting on a show, at other times he is the one to reach first always looking to spot Marie.

Meanwhile, at the villages, the Driver enjoys meeting the network leaders who drop off previously borrowed books and collect new ones for their readers. Occasionally, individual readers pay the Driver a visit with the sole purpose of borrowing books. The Driver is a kind man; he lends the books to all sorts of readers and does not make a big deal about books not returned, his motto is to not deny any one the delights of reading.

That’s really the basic premise of the books and what makes it such a joy to read is the burgeoning relationship between the Driver and Marie, it is so nuanced and understated, really beautifully rendered. The conversations between them are the most striking feature of this novel; the two share a spontaneous connection fuelled by common interests as they discuss books, life, Paris and the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and the majestic landscapes unfurling around them…and it’s immediately obvious to the reader that they are steadily falling in love, a relationship replete with possibilities even when both are a little past middle age.

The power, bliss and comfort of books is one of the central themes of the novel. At every village where the Driver stops and meets the network coordinators, we are given an enticing glimpse of the books chosen – some are well known works such as The Little Prince, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, others are a slew of French poets, a few titles are in French, not yet translated but fascinating nonetheless.

“With the row of windows, it reminds me of the sun porch that we had when I was a child. That’s where I discovered books. It was a very special place.”

He described the long sun porch with the bookshelves at either end, the wicker chairs, the small desk, and the row of windows with a shelf underneath where you could rest your feet. The porch was closed in winter and opened again in the spring, as soon as the sun was warm enough. He’d spent part of his childhood reading in that room flooded with light, sitting in a deep armchair with his feet resting on the window ledge. And over time, because the sun had brightened him and warmed him while he was reading, his mind had associated light with books.

“That’s why I wasn’t surprised later on when I saw Shakespeare and Company in Paris one autumn evening, with the golden light that came from the books and spread into the blue night. It confirmed what I’d known since I was a child. Do you understand?”

Occasionally there are streaks of anxiety and melancholia that come to the fore. The Driver is at times consumed with ‘dark thoughts’ and confesses some of his fears to Marie. He frets about growing old and increasingly feels that he can’t cope with a body that is gradually on the decline. There are even moments when he feels utterly lost, but he finds comfort in talking to Marie who patiently hears him out. There is one particular set piece where a young reader asks for books that he can’t provide (“a book that answers questions on why we live, why we die”), an encounter that deeply disturbs him.

The vibrant landscapes of the route between bustling Quebec city to the remote North Shore is suffused with the texture of a travelogue, it pulsates with the atmosphere of an alluring road trip punctuated with impromptu picnics.

While he was recounting these stories the landscape had changed. The narrow paved road was now squeezed in between the sea and a hill that was getting steeper and steeper. The tide was out and Marie was driving very slowly so as not to lose sight of the sometimes strange rocky formations that bristled from the sandbar. At L’Anse-Pleureuse they drove off Highway 132 and went to a rest stop along a river, on the road to Murdochville. They chose the picnic table closest to an embankment covered with closely mown grass that sloped gently down towards a lake; it was just a small lake formed by a dam on the river but the water, which was very calm, was emerald green.

The Driver stretched out on the embankment near a tight clump of birch trees, while Marie sat at the table to write postcards. Gradually some black clouds gathered above them and a breeze that heralded rain made the leaves of the birches and the surface of the lake shiver.

Autumn Rounds, then, is an ode to the simple pleasures of life – leisurely picnics on sandy coves or by the lakes; simple food and good wine; enjoying hot mugs of coffee in a cabin full of books; reveling in unexpected friendships and simple conversations.

After a fifteen-minute wait, a boat came to pick them up and they went back to the campground in Percé. Contrary to their usual prac- tice they ate in a restaurant that night, took a long walk, and went into some stores; Marie bought herself a blue sweater with a hood. They took boundless pleasure in doing little things together.

Inside the van the air was cool and damp, so they burned some alcohol and made hot chocolate. Again, they drank their chocolate sitting on the floor, facing one another and with their backs against the shelves of books.

It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart. Very much recommended!

A Month of Reading – October 2022

October was a good month of reading. I read six books – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a mini short story collection, and two books from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Oberland & Dawn’s Left Hand – for #PilgrimageTogether.  My favourites easily were the Barker and the Sherriff.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first three 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. 

O CALEDONIA by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is 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, our protagonist, clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  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.

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. 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. 

THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R C Sherriff

The Fortnight in September is a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years. The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to embark on their journey. They are to leave for the seaside town of Bognor the next morning, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

Once at Bognor, the Stevens stay at the same guest house (‘Seaview’) as in the years before, but the gradual signs of decay and deterioration of the rooms and the furniture within are imminent and noticed by each of them in their own way.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. That’s really the crux of the novel and as you can see it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND by Tove Jansson & Tuulikki Pietilä (Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal)  

Tove Jansson’s wonderful novel The Summer Book was one of my favourites last year – a lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes captured the essence of summer and the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. That book was inspired by the island of Bredskar which Tove often shared with her mother Ham and her brother Lars with his young daughter Sophia.

But for twenty-six summers, Tove and her life partner and artist Tuulikki (Tooti) would spend time on the austere, barren island of Klovharun, at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. Whereas Bredskar was a warm, welcoming island, Klovharun in contrast was stark and desolate (“the preserve of warring gulls and terns”).

Tove and Tooti were enamoured by it though, and this lovely book goes on to tell us why Tove chose this island, the process of securing a building permit, the actual building of their home, the invigorating impact of absolute solitude and how day to day living was dictated by the elemental forces of nature – the raging thunderstorms and rough seas that often easily washed away all the hard work done the previous day.

And I know exactly what she meant – that we’ve tried to make the meadow into a garden, change the thicket into a park, tame the shore with a dock, and all the other things we’ve undeniably done wrong.

Okay, we make mistakes. What of it?

Sometimes it felt like unrequited love – everything exaggerated. I had the feeling that this immoderately pampered and badly treated island was a living thing that didn’t like us, or felt sorry for us, depending on the way we behaved, or just because.

Sometimes the joy of building is discussed (“sometimes we build things to be solid and lasting, and sometimes to be beautiful, sometimes both”), at other times Tove describes the sheer quietness all around when only two people live on an island (“It’s possible that living with one other person makes you quiet, at least on an island. The things you say are mostly just about everyday stuff, and if the everyday goes normally you say even less”).

The physical book itself is a beautiful object, a hardback edition that comprises Tove’s diary entries interspersed with terse, spare logbook entries by Brunstrom, the builder employed by the two women to make the island more habitable. Also included are excellent sepia-toned, copperplate etchings by Tooti – a calm, soothing accompaniment to Tove’s quiet, introspective musings.  Very much recommended if you love Tove Jansson’s work, which I do!

OBERLAND (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

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

In Oberland, in a change of scene from London, we are transported to a ski resort – the hotel Alpenstock – in Switzerland where Miriam will spend the fortnight of her holiday. Here, Miriam will encounter a new set of people in particular Harry Vereker, a charming university man and the precocious young girl Daphne.

In many ways, there’s a travelogue feel to the book as Miriam marvels at the aching beauty of the snow clad slopes, the sheer whiteness of it, the fresh air and the invigorating walks in the company of the one person she most prefers – herself. On her walks, she observes people enjoying skiing and other winter sports, and Miriam herself attempts tobogganing for the first time and greatly enjoys it (reminiscent of The Tunnel where experiences the joys of bicycling).

In the last few chapters, Miriam attends a ski fest where she witnesses Vereker display his skiing prowess. Oberland is one of the shortest books in the Pilgrimage series, its highlight being the gorgeous descriptions of nature and the mountains that Richardson revels in, in particular her penchant for depicting the dazzling play of light on Miriam’s immediate surroundings.

The mountains were still wan against a cold sky, whitening the morning twilight with their snow.

How long to wait, with sleep gone that left no borderland of drowsiness, until the coming of their gold?

And in a moment she had seen forever the ruby gleaming impossibly from the topmost peak: stillness of joy held still for the breathless watching of the dark ruby, set suddenly like a signal upon the desolate high crag.

It could not last, would soon be plain sunlight.

DAWN’S LEFT HAND (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

Dawn’s Left Hand is the tenth installment in the Pilgrimage series and immediately follows from Oberland above, where we find Miriam back in London.

After her failed experiment of sharing a room with Selina Holland at Flaxman Court, Miriam goes back to having her own lodgings again at Mrs Bailey’s. This is a book that sees Miriam get a marriage proposal, receive the attentions of a woman, and having sex for the first time. The marriage proposal comes from Dr Densley, who Miriam first meets in The Tunnel when treating the dubious Eleanor Dear for consumption. Miriam learns of Eleanor’s death from Dr Densley who later proposes to her, but Miriam is silent and the matter ends there.

At her club, Miriam also meets the beautiful, ethereal Amabel who is enamoured by Miriam and leaves a message on the mirror saying “I love you” during Miriam’s final days at Flaxman Court making her wonder how Amabel managed that feat with Selina around. Miriam is aware of Amabel’s deep feelings for her but as usual is not ready for a long commitment that would entail a loss of personal freedom.

Amabel. But Amabel will move on. And remain with me forever, a test, presiding over my life with others. She stands permanently in my view of life, embodying the changes she has made, the doors she has opened, the vitality she has added to my imagination of every kind of person on earth. And stands, too, insisting on marking the boundary, where she falls short and is in awe of me: of my ‘wisdom’ and, strangely, the strangest of all her ascriptions, of my ‘gift of speech.”

We know that in real life, Richardson had a brief affair with HG Wells (Hypo Wilson is modeled on him), which resulted in pregnancy and miscarriage. In the last chapter of Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam and Hypo make love but in true characteristic Richardson style it is so obliquely described that it would be easy to miss it.

It was uncanny, but more absorbing than the unwelcome adventure of her body, to be thus hovering outside and above it in a darkness that obliterated the room and was too vast to be contained by it. An immense, fathomless black darkness through which, after an instant’s sudden descent into her clenched and rigid form, she was now travelling alone on and on, without thought or memory or any emotion save the strangeness of this journeying.

With the year drawing to a close, I enter the last phase of the Pilgrimage series, with 3 of the 13 books left to read.  

That’s it for October. November has begun on a terrific note; during a much needed beach holiday, I managed to read two excellent books – Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses and Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You. I am also reading Emeric Pressburger’s novel The Glass Pearls, a Faber Editions reissue, and the graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton and both so far have been excellent.

Trespasses – Louise Kennedy

I first came across Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses when it was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards this year, a stellar list that also includes Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel, The Colony. Trespasses is Kennedy’s first novel and it is an impressive debut indeed, prompting me to immediately purchase her short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac.

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles.

The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonnh. It is an agreement between brother and sister that while he takes on the responsibility of the day to day running of the pub, Cushla takes it upon her to look after their mother Gina who is quickly transforming into a raging alcoholic.

It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals, who subtly comes to her rescue when she is at the receiving end of some unwelcome, loutish behaviour of one of the regular customers. Nothing much happens on that particular evening and things go on as usual, but Michael leaves an impression on Cushla; she is entranced by his personality and instantly attracted to him.

But there’s a problem. Not so much the age (in his 50s, Michael is more than twice Cushla’s age) but the fact that he is a Protestant when Cushla is Catholic – the difference in faith a critical explosive factor at the height of the Troubles when such unions were deemed unthinkable. As if the stark contrast in religious background were not enough, Cushla and Michael come from different socio-economic spheres; in terms of wealth and class they are poles apart. Michael is sophisticated, cultured, discerning, wealthy and privileged. Cushla has a working class upbringing with none of the panache and style so synonymous with Michael’s social set.

There are other complications. Michael is married with a grown up son. Despite it all, Michael and Cushla are increasingly drawn to each other and under the pretext of teaching the Irish language to him and his circle of friends, Cushla begins to see him frequently. Ultimately, they embark on a whirlwind, torrid affair; an illicit relationship that has to remain a secret at all costs given the highly charged, volatile political environment and escalating tensions all around them.

The Northern Ireland troubles form a potent landscape against which this love story plays out, where people are judged by their identity at birth and religious affiliations; they are defined by what they are and not by what they do, the dangers and limitations of being pigeonholed imminent with no room whatsoever for nuance.

That the violence has become a part of daily life and has been deeply ingrained into the psyche of ordinary people is disturbingly evident in Cushla’s classroom as well. Part of the syllabus requires a discussion of current affairs and many of the chapters begin with the students matter-of-factly narrating the latest incidents of violence, bombings, and death as if disconcertingly they are a natural part of daily life.

Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven- year-old child now.

Enmeshed into these storylines is another sub plot – one of Cushla’s students Davy McGeown comes from a family that has regularly been the object of ridicule and racial slurs in the neighbourhood further complicated by his parents’ mixed marriage – the mother is Protestant while the father is Catholic. While their small town is reputed to be much more tolerant than the big Irish cities, the spectre of hate is never far behind and the McGowan family often bears the brunt of this hatred (culminating in a brutal attack on the father who is left to die) so much so that acts of kindness towards the family increasingly begin to be viewed through a prism of suspicion.

As the novel progresses, these various threads and storylines merge and move towards a conclusion that is truly poignant and heartbreaking.

The novel throbs with a panoply of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally. The title feels apt given that in so many ways the book is an exploration of the consequences of crossing rigidly defined boundaries and venturing into unchartered territories.

Kennedy’s characters are wonderfully drawn and fully realised; they feel so authentic and real and she has expertly depicted the complexities of their personalities further elevated by the difficulty of their situations. Cushla is a respected, well-liked teacher, caring and popular with her students. However, the assurance and self-possession she displays in her professional life is not always mirrored in her personal life where she often feels out of depth. Her strained relationship with her mother Gina, a bitter and resentful woman, is exacerbated by the latter’s incessant drinking and Cushla is at her wits end when it comes to tackling this problem.

The one thing that Cushla and Gina have in common is a sense of community spirit as they go out of their way to assist the McGeowns during their period of crisis, actions that will ominously come back to haunt them.  

Michael Agnew’s persona is also excellently conveyed – passionate about his cause, intelligent, empathetic and vulnerable. It would be easy to dismiss him as a cad – he is after all a married man having an extramarital affair, but it is to the author’s credit that despite his flaws it becomes difficult not to feel for him. Michael is clearly in love with Cushla even when she remains doubtful of their relationship which has doom written all over it, and the class differences do not bother him in the way it troubles Cushla.

The steady unfurling of their relationship is beautifully rendered by Kennedy with all the doubts, longing, passion, complications, fears likely to form the substance of such a secret liaison; how Cushla is often consumed by yearning for Michael, periods of silence when she hears nothing from him, the pressing need to keep their affair a secret and yet the excitement fueled by its very danger, not to mention the conflicting emotions rooted deep within her of how unalike they are in many ways. At some level, Cushla aspires for a better life, the kind led by Michael and yet she can’t help feeling like an outsider in the company of his upper class friends.

A slow meal, lulls between courses when he asked to see the wine list and noisily sloshed their recommendations around in his mouth. She thought of the lunch at Easter that degenerated into a row, how little they cared about what they ate, the crumble untouched amidst the main-course plates. Her gut burned with want. That she might get away from her family, her mother, and be with this man.

Sounds she could feel on her skin. His voice. Silver tinkling against porcelain. Corks popping. He said the last time he ate here Stanley Kubrick was at a table in the corner. He had been in Dublin filming Barry Lyndon. The IRA sent him a death threat, ordering him to leave in twenty-four hours; he left in twelve. Maybe there were too many scenes of redcoat encampments, he said, British soldiers tramping around Ireland, Union Jacks billowing behind them. His actor friend, the man who was in A Clockwork Orange, said some of it had been filmed by candlelight and it looked like an Old Master. Michael couldn’t wait to see it. The chiaroscuro. The slowness of it. We’ll come back when the film is released, he said, go to see it in one of the big cinemas. We can eat here again, maybe in the winter when they serve wild things.

We’ll.

Trespasses, then, is a nuanced, gorgeously written tale of a passionate sensual affair, of ordinary people trying to lead a normal life amid extraordinary circumstances. A richly layered and brilliantly observed novel written with care and a lot of heart, this is straightforward, linear storytelling that has nothing showy about it; its biggest strength are the characters that wonderfully come alive on the pages. Suffused with an air of tenderness, quiet anguish, compassion, fragility, and aching sadness, this is a novel that leaves a lingering impact long after the final pages are turned. Highly recommended!

Somebody Loves You – Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You first came to my attention when it was shortlisted this year for the Goldsmiths Prize, always an interesting prize to follow…and it turned out to be an excellent read.

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

Thus begins the second chapter in Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You, a beautifully written, poetic, coming-of-age novel on family, mental illness, immigrant life and the trials of growing up.

Comprising a series of vignettes (the kind of storytelling I’ve come to love), this novel is mostly from Ruby’s point of view who from an early age decides to become silent on her own terms, refusing to speak.

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again. I was certain about this the next morning and even more certain about it the day following that. I uttered absolutely nothing. It became the most certain thing in my life. 

These myriad snapshots coalesce to paint a picture of a family struggling to come to terms with their inner demons and the demands of the world outside.

Ruby is the youngest member of her family that comprises her parents and her older, more voluble and fiery sister Rania. Her father is an “untidily put together man with a mild temperament.” Her mother is prone to bouts of depression which entails days and months of absence from home until one day she never comes back. During these days called Mugdays (“Mugdays start with unpredictable and approximate mornings”), when the mother’s melancholy moods take centrestage and performing simple tasks becomes a challenge, the burden of responsibility falls on Rania and Ruby who are compelled to do the heavy lifting.

Gradually we are given a glimpse into Ruby’s circle of friends, family members and neighbours. As far as the extended family goes, there’s Biji, the maternal grandmother, who relies on potions and superstitions to ward off the cloud of despondency that has descended upon Ruby’s mother as well as various ills that afflict Ruby in her early years; Auntie Number One, who Rania and Ruby dislike because “she almost always appeared when there was some crisis or other in the family”, her presence a constant reminder that things at home are not well. Biji derides Auntie Number One for her modern outlook, remarking that she is “tainted by the bitterness of unmarriage and the foul bile that builds up in a barren womb.” But there’s something about their aunt that also impresses the girls…

Rania and I knew the truth about Auntie Number One; we had come across her once on The High Street. We knew she lived with a man; we caught sight of her putting up posters for the Labour Party with someone who wore a leather jacket; they kept leaning into each other and sharing a kiss and a roll-up cigarette. Rania was impressed. ‘Look, Ruby, he’s not even bad-looking – good for Auntie Number One. She actually seems happy!’

We learn of Ruby’s friendships with a boy called David, who is nonjudgmental and accepts her for who she is (“he was complicated and sensitive and had been adopted”); her best friend Farah who longs for a normal life and to be accepted by her peers only to be estranged from Ruby when her wish is granted.

The next time I see her at school she’s been adopted by her classmates again and is becoming prettified. This time the makeup sticks and the clothes hang spectacularly on her long body. She is spectacular. Her little teeth are glinting in happiness. When I am in the library, I meet her in the doorway; her eye makeup is in three different shades and matches her jumper, good for her. This is Farah. The other Farah is dying softly in another room.

Racism, violence against women, mental illness, loss, sisterhood are some of the themes woven into the fabric of this novel that make it such a haunting, elegiac read. As their mother’s moods become increasingly unpredictable, and the father struggles to cope, the sisters appear to share the kind of bond that helps them tentatively navigate challenges at home, school as well as the heartaches of plain growing up. One gets the feeling that Rania is the stronger sibling, protective of her younger sister, and those roles get reversed later when a traumatic event compels Rania to seek solace in Ruby’s companionship, Ruby’s silence is a balm to the clamour in Rania’s heart.

The spectre of racism looms large – when Ruby is born, her mother is attended “by a health visitor who was suspicious about Indian mothers and their baby-mother-habits”; a pen friend is forbidden by her father to write letters to Ruby (“I’m not allowed to be your pen friend anymore because he found out you’re a Paki”). Hints of violence against women disturbingly abound, Rania will go on to face the worst of it as the novel progresses.

Mental illness and its impact on a family unit is a core theme, particularly, explored. For Ruby’s mother suffering from chronic depression, gardening becomes a hobby that sustains her – the positive vibes from plants and flowers growing and blossoming with tender loving care adds that extra spring to her step, even if her family does not share her passion. However, the menacing approach of winter when most activities in the garden cease is a portent of darkness once again enveloping the mother’s mind. 

When the garden’s asleep for winter, when there’s nothing to nurture, nothing to fight for or revive on the borders, when my mother has put away her tools and potting soil in our shed, that strange look of blank hunger takes up residence.

Employing a style that is episodic and non-linear, this is a sensitively written novel – quietly devastating and lush with vivid imagery and poetic descriptions. For instance, the very first vignette has shades of a dream logic, where Ruby puts a blue egg into her mouth which transforms into a slew of birds filling the room “with their iridescent turquoise feathers and clamour of yellow-black beaks”; the word ‘agony’ to Ruby is the worst of all the ‘a’ words because “there was a sliver of glass in the middle of the brittle ‘o’.”

Ruby might be silent but her voice is unforgettable as she tries to comprehend and cope with various forces at play often resisting the growing pressure to blend in (“’Are you listening?’ Farah persists. ‘Because sometimes I think you are drifting further and further from what is normal’”).  While the tone is often melancholic, the sheer beauty of the writing and a unique way of looking at the world makes Somebody Loves You an astonishing read.

The Fortnight in September – R C Sherriff

I love Persephone Books and some of their titles that I’ve read are just wonderful – Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue are a few examples that come to mind. It is hardly surprisingly therefore when I state that The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was also absolutely terrific. This is a book I should I have read in September instead of October but I happened to read it just before my own beach holiday and so it was perfect in that sense.

The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently. All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.

There’s a scene on the first day of the Stevens’ holiday when the father Mr Stevens goes for a walk all by himself. It’s an essential part of the family’s travel philosophy (and one that I identify with) that the members occasionally break up to do things on their own, and for Mr Stevens this walk is therapeutic in the way it clears his mind and allows him to reflect on the past, more specifically the twin setbacks in his professional life that continue to cause him a bit of heartache. It is amazing how the abundance of greenery, lush landscapes and natural beauty can fuel a shift in perspective that is restorative and uplifting, and for Mr Stevens this solitary walk offers exactly that…

It had been the little chance things that made him aware of his yearning to understand far more than had come his way: little chance things that seemed to raise a curtain and reveal almost frightening depths beyond. He was glad that he had always had the instinct to step forward and not shrink back – to go groping on – exploring and probing for another beyond.

These wonderful nuggets of wisdom that make up everyday life punctuate the text at regular intervals to make The Fortnight in September – a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years – a pleasure to read. 

The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to embark on their journey. They are to leave for the seaside town of Bognor the next morning, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The last evening at home is always a momentous occasion, tedious hours of work have finally been put behind and there is the big holiday – two whole weeks of it – to look forward to. Anticipation is running high, but for Mr and Mrs Stevens it is also a bittersweet moment – their two elder children Dick and Mary have turned twenty having unleashed vague hints of wishing to spend future holidays with friends. Thus, given that the future of this annual tradition seems mired in doubt, it heightens the significance of this family holiday for Mr and Mrs Stevens even more this time around.

How splendid it all was!—The whole family going away together again, after those dark, half-thrown hints from Dick and Mary about separate holidays with their friends. Thank God they had come to nothing!

On the day of travel, the weather turns out to be gorgeous (such a crucial factor for any holiday), and Mr Stevens in a spirit of generosity, makes tea for the entire family. There are some unpleasant duties to be carried out and only once the family boards the train does the feeling of freedom finally sink in.

At Bognor, the Stevens stay at the same guest house (‘Seaview’) as in the years before, but the gradual signs of decay and deterioration of the rooms and the furniture within are imminent and noticed by each of them in their own way.

For Dick and Mary, going once more into their old, familiar little bedrooms, had wondered with sinking hearts why they had never noticed in other years how dreadfully dingy and terribly poor they were. Was it a growing desire for better things?—or had these little rooms suddenly shrunk—become darker—and almost squalid?

Mr Stevens is disconcerted by these subtle signals which only highlight the transient nature of things, the looming spectre of change that is sometimes frightening but also a precursor to new beginnings.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. Evenings are spent by the promenade enjoying band music and endless people gazing. At other times, Mr Stevens enjoying taking solitary walks and spending some hours in the local pub catching up with old friends and making new ones, and mildly flirting with the barmaid Rosie; Dick and Mary go for walks together by the promenade, and Mrs Stevens enjoys an evening alone at the guesthouse with her feet finally up and a glass of port with no constant demands on her time.

That’s really the crux of the novel and as you can see it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

We are given glimpses into the thinking of each of the family members – their hopes, aspirations, fears, disappointments – and how the holiday becomes the perfect setting for tranquil reflections on the past and altered perceptions about the future laced with hope and energy.

Both father and son worry about their careers staring at an uncertain future, but while Dick is just launching himself into the professional world quite lost without a sense of purpose or direction, Mr Stevens could very well be staring at an end. For instance, we learn about the frustrations that mark Mr Stevens’ working life – having steadily worked his way to near the top, Mr Stevens is forced to confront the possibility of his career having reached a dead end based on his limitations in terms of ability and background. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Dick, who is just starting out, his career like a pristine piece of clay to mold as he chooses, and yet he remains increasingly fretful about his prospects. Thanks to his father’s efforts, Dick lands a position in a respectable firm, but is quite unhappy and thus guilty for feeling this way lest his father thinks him ungrateful.

Mrs Stevens is a woman whose schedule has always revolved around her husband and children, she is not as excited as her family about the holiday in general and keeps those feelings strictly to herself, but she cherishes the moments when she is alone at Seaview with time only for herself. Mary feels like there’s so much about the world she does not know, she envies the smartly dressed girls who talk so confidently with men and yearns for a personality along those lines, a leap into a world which is not marked by poverty and constrained circumstances.

Some of the core themes explored in the novel are family life, career, the importance of fresh perspectives but it is also a novel that examines wealth and class. The Stevens have come up the hard way bringing in its wake some disillusionment as is expected, yet there is something heroic about how they are grateful about the things that they do possess without harbouring deep resentment or bitterness about their fate. There is a particular set piece in the novel, when Mr Stevens unexpectedly meets a wealthy valuable customer of his firm and the whole family is invited for tea to their extravagant palatial home and yet despite the differences in wealth and class, it the Stevens that come away as the richer family.

The Fortnight in September, then, beautifully captures the simple pleasures that make such a difference to the ordinariness of everyday life, how holidays offer that much needed shot in the arm for rejuvenation, how a change of surroundings can refresh the mind, vitalize the body and provide some clarity of vision.

So much of the travel details as highlighted by Sheriff strike a chord – anxiety mixed with euphoria on the day of travel (the holiday to look forward to but also not missing any train connections), the sense of disorientation on reaching the holiday destination when it’s all new and one has to still blend in (“they had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start”), how time plays tricks on the mind (it flies so much faster on holidays than it does otherwise)…

But he knew that time only moved evenly upon the hands of clocks: to men it can linger and almost stop dead, race on, leap chasms and linger again. He knew, with a little sadness, that it always made up its distance in the end. To-day it had travelled gropingly, like an engine in a fog, but now, with each passing hour of the holiday it would gather speed, and the days would flash by like little wayside stations. In a fortnight he would be sitting in this room on the last evening, thinking how the first night of the holiday seemed like yesterday—full of regrets at wasted time…

In a nutshell, The Fortnight in September is just superb, a novel fraught with poignancy and the fleeting nature of things, tints of nostalgia and slices of bittersweet moments woven into a fabric that otherwise throbs with the humble delights of a family enjoying a good time together. It is a timeless story, joyous and laden with quiet courage, but sometimes achingly sad when it dwells on its characters’ yearnings, missed opportunities and a growing sense of loss. As the blurb aptly states it is an extraordinary story of an ordinary family and one I highly recommend.