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
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.