The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin – Maeve Brennan

I must read more Maeve Brennan, she’s a fab writer. I’ve only read her novella The Visitor several years ago which I remember liking very much at the time about a young woman who returns to Dublin after six years (from Paris) to visit her grandmother, a cold unforgiving woman.  The inner pages of The Springs of Affection reveal that I bought the book in 2012, and as a contribution to Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2023 (#readingirelandmonth23), it felt like the time was right to finally pick it up after a decade. What a brilliant read it turned out to be!

Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life.

The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road. In the first, “The Morning After the Big Fire”, when a fire breaks out, Maeve revels in being the first one to deliver the news to the neighborhood; in “The Old Man and the Sea”, when Maeve’s mother buys a dozen apples from an old man, little does she realise that this act of kindness will turn into a burden. In “The Barrel of Rumors”, Maeve is fascinated by the Poor Clare nuns, their chapel with its barrel, and all the mystery surrounding it. These are lovely snapshots of family life in Dublin and some of these elements make their way into the two sets of stories to follow.

We begin with the Derdon section, which William Maxwell, in his introduction called “clearly her finest stories” and I cannot agree more.


The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple.

In the first story, “A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances”, we are presented with a scene between Hubert and Rose that forms a sad touchstone of their married life – the desire to plot against each other, secretly that only highlights the increasing lack of communication and hostility between the two.

The couple is in their fifties; married for over thirty years living in a house in Dublin, and it is very clear from the beginning that despite living together under the same roof, Hubert and Rose lead different lives. Hubert is a man of routine, working as a salesman in a garment store; Rose’s entire existence has been defined by the confines of their home. Rose ensures that Hubert has his breakfast when he leaves for work and his tea when he is back home, but otherwise there is hardly a word spoken between the two, and for the most part Hubert is glad of the opportunity to be left alone and have his peace. The couple’s son John has left home for the priesthood and both father and mother are disappointed for different reasons – Hubert because he had high hopes for his son in terms of a meaningful career; Rose because she adored and doted on John and with him gone, her sense of remoteness is complete.

Part of the reason why the couple is so mismatched is their personalities. Hubert has a more refined persona and a sharp tongue; he is prone to mocking people. Rose, by contrast, is tentative, distinctly helpless, with a furtive air about her that increasingly irritates Hubert. Hubert also has a strained relationship with John, the two don’t get along and what frustrates Hubert is how mother and son seem to be constantly ganging up against him, secretly sharing jokes or conversations, a closed world into which he has been refused entry.

When the child was born she was much happier and she seemed easier in her mind, but then she became completely wrapped up in the child. It was unhealthy and wrong, the way she came to depend on John even before he was big enough to walk. Then she made John afraid of him, too. He would hear the two of them chattering away, but when he would open the door and go into the room where they were, they would both fall silent. He would catch them exchanging glances that excluded him. 

Hubert is also ashamed of Rose, of her countryside roots, the affectation and false airs she assumes when they are with people, only reinforcing his view that the place Rose is most comfortable at is her home, although she is desperately unhappy even there. Rose is always on the edge, does not know how to handle criticism, gets hurt easily, and is subsumed by the view that the world is constantly mocking and judging her. Her only respite is her son John on whom she showers all her love, maybe too much; she is an utterly possessive mother who might be stifling John, although we never learn this from John himself.

One minute she would produce a smile of trembling timidity, as though she had been told she would be beaten unless she looked pleasant, and then again, a minute later, there would be a grimace of absurd condescension on her face. And before anyone knew it, she would be standing or sitting in stony silence, without a word to say, causing every- body to look at her and wonder about her. And if she did speak, she would try to cover her country accent with a genteel enunciation, very precise and thin, that Hubert, from his observation of the world, knew to be vulgar. He felt it was better to leave her where she felt at ease, at home. Somehow she wasn’t up to the mark. She wasn’t able to learn how things were done or what to say. She had no self-confidence, and then, too, her feelings were very easily hurt. If you tried to tell her anything she took it as an insult. Hubert thought it was very hard for a man in his position to have to be ashamed of his wife, but there it was, he was ashamed of her. And he was sorry for her, because her failure was not her fault. She had been born the way she was. There was nothing to be done about it.

The Derdon marriage wasn’t always unhappy though. Flashbacks offer a glimpse of the earlier days of their marriage when they move into a two-room apartment helped by their friend Frank Guiney. We see the gaiety and hopes of a promising future, and Hubert’s decision to buy a bigger house seems to reinforce that optimism, but that turns out not to be the case. Rose misses those early heady days of their time in those two small rooms and slinks into despondency which angers Hubert who is also tentative about this big decision to move, and his sharp, unkind remarks greatly hurt Rose.

The second story, A Free Choice”, takes place several years earlier, when Rose is a young woman, not yet married to Hubert. The scene of action is a dance held in the grand Ramsay ballroom, and it’s a setting that is special to Rose because it stirs up fond memories of her father. Rose’s father dies when she is just ten years old, and that loss affects her profoundly even during adulthood; she hasn’t entirely recovered from it.

Whatever she might have been, laughing, solemn, hopeful, melancholy, serene, unquiet, ambitious, or whatever she might have become, she was now only tame. She had turned tame when her father died, as she might have turned traitor to a cause she had once been ready to give her life for. She had known her father was dead but not that he was gone, and even when she began to know he was gone she refused to believe that he was gone out of sight, and she put the strength of a lifetime into her struggle to keep him in sight until she was sure he was safe. She had forgotten all that was familiar to her in her struggle to stand by the one who had made it all familiar.

Rose and her father shared a special bond, she adored him and he thought the world of her much to her mother’s chagrin who thought that Rose unnecessarily had false airs about her and was too gullible. The Ramsay ballroom holds significance for Rose because of the furniture and furnishings; her father was the interior decorator to Mrs Ramsay and her father’s vivid descriptions of the room and fine materials when she was a little girl come alive to her when she finally sees it for the first time in person.  In this story, Rose loves being the centre of attention when she is asked to dance by Jim Nolan, a charming good-looking young man, and she is thrilled to be perceived as interesting to him, only to be ditched later. We also get an inkling of the beginning of a romance between Hubert and Rose, his daily visits to the family shop in Wexford, even when he resides in Dublin, he is struck by Rose’s beauty, although there’s a whiff of that mistrust even then – Rose is not sure about Hubert’s real feelings towards her, and Hubert remains tentative because he discerns Rose’s indifference.

There is something pitiful about Rose in “The Poor Men and Women”, a story that dwells on her propensity towards martyrdom, that craving for some modicum of appreciation that never seems to come her way. In this story, the poor and the destitute often knock at her door for alms and Rose cannot stop herself from offering them something, often regretting the things she has given away as soon as they are out the door. In one such instance, a young mother and her impudent child are allowed to come inside and take a look at the house, and in a sudden act of pity and without thinking she lends them her brooch given to her by her mother that has sentimental value; the duo makes a hasty retreat once they have received the gift before Rose can change her mind…Rose does regret her action but by then it is too late. There’s another episode where she spots an old man in the town centre, a man who had often come knocking at her door. She attempts to strike up a conversation with him, a move that drives him away leaving her bewildered.

We get a whiff of a lack of genuineness in Rose’s attempts at helping the poor; she seems to do it out of a desperate need to be acknowledged as a benefactress, a yearning to be a martyr. There’s a general air of hopelessness and despondency about her, particularly reflected in one episode when she is sick and confined to bed, and Hubert’s act of kindness is misunderstood. 

“An Attack of Hunger”, was to me the finest of the Derdon tales – gut-wrenchingly honest and visceral as Brennan further twists the knife already deeply wedged into their marriage. We find Rose increasingly despondent about John having left for priesthood; she feels abandoned by him and longs for him to return.  In a marriage where Rose and Hubert’s relationship is marked by furtiveness, the need to stay clear of each other, and secretly outmaneuver each other, this is a story where we see the couple honestly express their views but it’s a nasty confrontation rather than a healthy discussion. Rose accuses Hubert of driving John away, and Hubert reveals the real reason why John leaves their home, an unpalatable truth that Rose cannot bring herself to accept.

“Oh, of course you’d have to say that,” said Hubert. “Of course you can’t face facts. But I’ve had to face facts. He was sick of you and I’m sick of you, sick of your long face and your moans and sighs-I wish you’d get out of the room, I wish you’d go, go on, go away. I don’t want any tea. All I want is not to have to look at you anymore this evening. Will you go?”

That craving to be a substantial presence in her son’s life is probably a remnant of the close relationship she had with her father which she hopes to replicate with John. Rose daydreams and conjures up scenarios where she plays a pivotal life in John’s calling as a priest, where she can completely devote herself to his cause and be recognised by his lot for her sacrifice.

“Family Walls” opens with a scene that unsettles Hubert…As soon as he enters the home with his key, he observes Rose discreetly closing the kitchen door. There’s pin-drop silence in the house, and had it not been for Hubert observing Rose close the door on him, he would have thought there was no one home but him. It’s a moment that frustrates Hubert because he is suddenly gripped by mounting indecision – should she go into the kitchen and have it out with Rose, or should he pretend that nothing has happened? This story is mostly from Hubert’s point of view and focuses on his personality – his propensity to make scathing comments, and how he inwardly derides the customers he is required to serve as part of his job. Hubert laments that he “wished he had someone to talk to”, once again accentuating the chronic loneliness and alienation that has formed the fabric of their marriage. He is at a loss when it comes to the best way of having a conversation with Rose that does not make her feel cornered and is generally unsure of what he needs to do when he is around her. 

In “The Drowned Man”, Rose is no more, and Hubert realises that he doesn’t feel the grief at his wife passing away; with such grave misunderstandings over the years in their marriage, what Hubert experiences is indifference. But the world does not know his true emotions and Hubert is sharply aware of the difficulty of expressing them. His closest family member, his sister, mistakenly assumes that he is grieving and he behaves according to what is expected of him in this situation; but his biggest grief is not Rose’s death but the fact that there is no one he can talk to or who can truly understand the unflinching truth about his relationship with Rose.

The day was almost worn out. The light was thin – fading light that left everything visible. That evening’s light was helpless, the day in extremity, without strength enough left to dissemble with sun and shade, with only strength enough left to touch the world as it withdrew forever from the world. The evening light spoke, and what it said was, ‘There is nothing more to be said’. There is nothing more to be said because what remains to be said must not be said. It is too late for Rose. Hubert was silent. He had nothing to say, and in any case there was no one to hear him.

As we read the stories, we increasingly wonder how Hubert and Rose stayed married for so long, a point which perplexes Hubert too in the final story…

What had kept them together all these years, or what kept any two people together, or what kept people going and doing as they had been told they ought to do. When had all this obedience begun and who had marked out the appointed way where men and women walked without protest, and most of the time without complaining?

Loneliness in a marriage, emptiness, feelings of unfulfillment and abandonment, disappointments in relationships, and life having not panned out as per expectations are some of the broader themes explored in this bleak but marvellous collection.  These are some of the most sensitively written, poignant stories and what makes them remarkable is how Brennan evokes shifting loyalties in the reader towards both Rose and Hubert – they are tragic and frustrating in equal measure; yet despite being such flawed individuals, it is hard not to feel for them.


In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. In the first story, “The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary” we are introduced to Martin and Delia Bagot and their two daughters Lily and Margaret both aged below ten. The family is complete with a dog called Bennie (rescued by Delia from a group of boys who were tormenting him), and two cats (Rupert and Minnie). Delia and the girls love the animals, but Martin detests them, and while for the most part, Delia accedes to Martin’s wishes when it comes to the animals she resists. As a result, Delia is constantly anxious to ensure that the animals do not get in Martin’s way.

We also glimpse cracks in Martin and Delia’s marriage. Not wanting to be disturbed when he comes home from work, Martin sleeps in a different room, and what Delia perceived to be a temporary solution appears to have transformed into something more permanent. Martin has shifted some of his belongings and books there, and Delia is deeply confused about this development but can’t bring herself to express it clearly to Martin. Meanwhile, Martin feels like the family is a burden to him, he is a solitary man and for the most part, wishes to be left alone. He can’t stand the children making too much noise and he hates the animals. Even Delia’s thoughtful gesture of brightening his room with a vase of flowers on their twelfth wedding anniversary fills him with dread, unleashing a stream of bitter thoughts. The readers get the impression that Martin would have been happier as a bachelor rather than a family man.

But just like the Derdons, the Bagots were happy in the earlier days of marriage snatches of which are offered to us in the stories “Christmas Eve” and “The Shadow of Kindness”. However, tragedy soon strikes, their first baby, a son, dies when only three days old and marks the point from where rifts begin to develop. This is touchingly explored in the story “The Eldest Child”, the immediate moments of intense grief into which Delia is plunged and her yearning to be left alone. Martin, used to his wife’s quiet, obedient personality, is bewildered by Delia’s rage and outburst at the baby’s death and there’s a sense that the couple is lonely in their tragedy, each is affected but can’t quite navigate this period together and so suffer alone.

Delia hasn’t quite recovered from her son’s death and remains protective of her daughters. She is often sleepy during the daytimes, subconsciously warding away her fits of anxiety. Her life is defined by her children to the point that she often feels adrift in their absence…

Even if she had children, a woman should have a life of her own that would stand up when the children were out of the house for any length of time. She knew that. It was not right to let yourself get so lost in your children that you could find no trace of yourself when they were gone. What would she do when they grew up?

The Bagot section is full of little sketches of domesticity which beautifully blend the physical descriptions of their house – the garden, sitting room, bedrooms – with the interior lives of its inhabitants. The neatness and coziness of the house is vividly evoked, especially during Mrs Bagot’s hours of quiet solitude at home…

Mrs. Bagot turned from the street and from Minnie and from the ferns, and was surprised to see how like a mirror the big naked window in the back room was, but like a mirror that you could see through, a mirror that went both ways and showed both sides. It was like a painting. She saw the wet, reluctant day – light air out there in the garden, and the rain was falling so strong and straight that she was sure she could make out every separate driving line of it. Beyond and through the rain, as in a dream, there were the indistinct colors of the garden…

As for the stories themselves, in “The Sofa”, the arrival of a new couch for the front sitting room is a matter of much excitement to Delia and her daughters, a day when her daily duties are abandoned in eager anticipation. “Stories of Africa” sees an old Bishop, a close friend of Delia’s grandmother, pay a visit to the Bagot home, while in the “The Shadow of Kindness”, Delia is comforted by her shadow which she sees for the first time in the children’s bedroom, a shadow that reminds her of her mother, something like a guiding force.

The last and the longest story of this section called “The Springs of Affection” lending the collection its name, is a fine one – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.

In this story Martin has just died, Delia had passed away eight years earlier, and the protagonist is Min Bagot, Martin’s eighty-seven-year-old twin sister. Min had been staying with Martin in Dublin out of a sense of duty after Delia’s death but now with him gone too, she is glad to move back to her flat in Wexford albeit with most of Delia and Martin’s furniture and possessions which she self-righteously feels she is entitled to for some misplaced sense of grievance all these years.

Through Min’s memories, we are given a window into the Bagot family’s past; their seemingly close and harmonious lives, before Martin meets Delia. Consisting of the mother, Min, Martin, and two more sisters; it’s a close-knit family and Min resents Martin for breaking the family code of sticking together for life and instead abandoning them to marry Delia. The other two sisters, subsequently, push off to lead their lives too, and Min seems not to have forgiven Martin for breaking them apart.

Now everyone’s dead and Min is content with being the last one standing in the family. Min is one of those people who is happy with the way things are without moving forward and through that limited yardstick judges the decisions and the lives of those around her. Her so-called acts of sacrifice appear false and are tinged with streaks of selfishness; she’s often seeking appreciation but faces contempt instead when her hypocrisy is visible to others but herself.

Min, particularly, can’t get the day of Delia and Martin’s wedding out of her mind; she is mesmerized by the gloriously beautiful weather, the lush surroundings, and the grandeur of Delia’s family’s country mansion, the rooms transforming into dazzling spaces of air and light. But what is an occasion of happiness for everyone present is something else entirely for Min – she feels trapped and suffocated.

What Min remembered of that day in the garden by the Slaney was that she felt worn out and dried up, and trapped, crushed in by the people who were determined to see only the bright surface of the occasion. They could call it a wedding or anything they liked, but she knew it was a holocaust and that she was the victim, although nobody would ever admit that.

At the end of the day, Min might not grudge her own modest, limited existence when viewed by itself but she seems jealous of others having moved on, which in sharp contrast throws a harsh light on her stifled life…reaching a point where she feels vindicated for outliving all of them.

To watch the end of all was not much different from watching the beginning of things, and if you weren’t ever going to take part anyway, then to watch the end was far and away better. You could be jealous of people starting out, but you could hardly be jealous of the dead.

What’s terrific about the Derdon and Bagot stories is how the essence of both marriages is viewed from various angles akin to observing each facet of a prism. The stories don’t unfold linearly. Rather, each story is a world unto itself where facts, thoughts, physical surroundings, and personalities that form the foundation of both marriages are often repeated, but explored differently and uniquely like old wine in a new bottle. The couples in Brennan’s stories are unhappy and tragic, lonely even when together. They don’t quite know how to communicate with each other, all the more heightened by the impression that one honest conversation can snap an already fragile relationship. The women, particularly, are consumed by nameless fears and anxieties, they don’t have a purpose of their own outside the home, and their lives are mostly governed by men and a deep sometimes overbearing love towards their children. All of these elements possibly reflect Irish society at the time, a milieu that was deeply religious and frowned upon divorce.

In a nutshell, the stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing. Highly recommended!


Crampton Hodnet – Barbara Pym

I love Barbara Pym, there is some modicum of comfort to be found in those unique slices of village life that she recreates and I have greatly enjoyed her novels, Excellent Women, Some Tame Gazelle, and Jane and Prudence in the past. To this list, I will now add Crampton Hodnet, another lovely novel with a brand new enticing avatar to match.

Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.

The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age.

Miss Doggett is a demanding woman with a dominating personality, always a commanding presence in a party or a gathering and ready to ingratiate herself with the wealthy aristocratic class at the drop of a hat; in sharp contrast, Miss Morrow is a quiet, sensible woman who for the most part is content being relegated to the background. Often having a low opinion of herself, she has learned to adapt to Miss Doggett’s views and way of living, however rigid, although there are times when she is struck by an air of wistfulness. Miss Morrow sometimes wonders about her limited existence in North Oxford, whether being a companion to an elderly lady is all there is to life.

Miss Morrow did not pretend to be anything more than a woman past her first youth, resigned to the fact that her life was probably never going to be more exciting than it was now.

We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Miss Doggett thoroughly approves of Anthea’s relationship with Simon given his influential family background, although the young Anthea frets over Simon’s commitment, he adores Anthea but there’s a sense that there might not be much substance in his feelings towards her.

Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to get exciting with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer, an assistant to the vicar Mr Wardell. Mr Latimer is a good-looking man with a charming personality, rumoured to have been caught up in some romantic entanglements, a past he is looking to shake off and begin afresh. At the vicar’s request, Miss Doggett readily agrees to lodge him at her home; after all, what temptations can there possibly be in her household that can lead Mr Latimer astray?

When Mr Latimer arrives, Miss Doggett quickly takes him under her wing and at first, he is relieved at the fact that there’s no attractive woman in the house to tempt him. However, he and Miss Morrow quickly become friends, and when thoughts of marrying and settling down begin to assail him, he wonders whether Miss Morrow might not make a suitable match. She is a practical, straightforward woman after all, and the two of them get along quite nicely.

For a woman who makes it her business to know of all the happenings in the town, Miss Doggett is surprisingly unaware of the possibility of romance brewing in her very own house. However, the vicar’s meek wife Mrs Wardell has observed Miss Morrow and Mr Latimer together and Mr Latimer in a desperate attempt to ward off gossip, cooks up some long-winded story of how he visited a distant parish in the Cotswolds called Crampton Hodnet lending the book its name (“Was there such a place? Miss Morrow wondered. She was sure there was not”). It’s a tale that astonishes Miss Morrow who never imagined that a clergyman would resort to telling lies.

But there are more complications in store. Francis Cleveland seems to have begun an affair with his student, the intelligent and attractive Barbara Bird much to the chagrin of Miss Doggett, who although aghast, secretly revels at the idea of interfering in the outcome of the affair. After all these years, the Clevelands’ marriage has reached a comfortable space where Mrs Cleveland is happy to have her own time without her husband always pottering around…

After the first year or two of married life one no longer wanted to have him continually about the house. Mrs Cleveland hardly noticed now whether her husband was there or not, and she was too busy doing other things ever to stop and ask herself whether she was not perhaps missing something. The best she could say of Francis was that he gave her no trouble, and she thought that there was a great deal more than could be said of many husbands.

It’s this very indifference that irks Francis Cleveland who is taken in by Barbara’s attention towards him, and the fact that they can converse on so many intellectual topics. But while Francis contemplates the prospect of leaving his marriage and a comfortable home and setting up all over again with Barbara elsewhere (the idea of an affair being more thrilling to him than its execution), it soon becomes clear that Barbara’s idea of love is of a different kind – she is much more interested in intellectual compatibility rather than romantic love or physical intimacy which to her has ‘sordid’ written all over it.

Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships. Some of the themes the novel explores are – the ups and downs of marriage, the idea of romantic love versus platonic friendships, the meaning of happiness and a sense of life having passed by, disappointments in love that the young take too seriously, and the perennial debate between seeking excitement by beginning something new as against being content with what you have, the comfort of familiarity.

Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy and while there are many such moments peppered throughout the book, the memorable conversation between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow as they devise possible explanations for their late evening walk which could unnecessarily raise eyebrows was a particular favourite of mine.

Flawed yet endearing, the characters are brilliantly etched and Pym has a knack for making astute observations on their personalities – the domineering and interfering Miss Doggett; the practical, attention-avoiding Miss Morrow; the childish, but much older Francis Cleveland torn between his exciting affair with Barbara Bird and being fussed over in his comfortable home; his absent-minded, easy-going wife Margaret who does not take her husband too seriously (“after nearly thirty years of married life she had come to take very much for granted the handsome, distinguished husband whom she had once loved so passionately”); the charming, frivolous curate Mr Latimer and the idealistic Barbara Bird with her desire for love more as a concept inspired by the great poets.

In Crampton Hodnet, not all set-ups that signal the possibility of romantic love necessarily have a happy ending, and it’s this aspect where Pym’s wisdom shines through. As the introduction to the novel points out “the characters themselves seem very satisfied” with these outcomes and that is what makes the novel such a fulfilling read.

In a Lonely Place – Dorothy B. Hughes

I first read Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place almost a decade ago on Kindle and recall being impressed. Thus, Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project and this lovely NYRB edition was the perfect excuse to read a novel that was both familiar and new at the same time. My verdict – It’s absolutely terrific, the reread as good as the first time. As an aside, her novel The Expendable Man, also published by NYRB Classics, is also excellent, a cleverly written tale that questions the reader’s prejudices.

In a Lonely Place is an elegantly written, stylish noir; a brilliantly rendered tale of evil, post-war desolation, paranoia and dubious morals, the almost pitch-black NYRB cover is perfect for a novel that has darkness at its core.

The novel opens with our protagonist Dix Steele staring out to sea during the evening when all colour has been drained from the sky and fog has descended over the shore like a misty veil.

It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face there was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a little private crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.

In the milieu of post-war Los Angeles, Dix misses those days of being a pilot, “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky.”

With the thick fog unfurling over the beach, Dix’s shadowy motives immediately become clear when he begins to follow a woman who has just alighted from a bus. It’s a lonely stretch of land, the girl is afraid and luckily manages to evade him (“Anger beat him like a drum”), but from the outset, we gauge Dix to be a killer, the “strangler” who has unleashed terror on unsuspecting, solitary women in the city. Immediately afterward, Dix overhears the name “Brub” and is reminded of his old friend Brub Nicolai with whom he had lost contact for several years. On learning that Brub is now based in Santa Monica, Dix decides to visit him. Brub as it turns out is a cop with the LAPD and ironically assigned to the very case of ferreting out “the strangler”, a case that seems to have completely beaten him. 

Dix is invigorated by this feeling of danger; arrogantly confident that there’s no way Brub will remotely suspect him of those heinous crimes. Under the pretext that he is writing a crime novel, Dix unwittingly becomes Brub’s confidante, and he revels in a role that heightens his sense of power, of always being one step ahead of the law; it’s from this point on that we see the gradual buildup of tension between Brub and Dix in the way their conversations pan out; the hunter seemingly clueless about the hunted being none other than his friend, while the hunted enjoys the thrill of the chase.

“A murderer is a murderer as…an actor is an actor. He can stop acting professionally but he’s still an actor. He acts. Or an artist. If he never picks up another brush, he will still see and think and react as an artist.”

That’s the basic kernel of the plot, and as the book progresses, this transforms into a psychological novel as Baker takes us deep into the twisted mind of Dix Steele, gradually laying bare his troubled thoughts, erratic perceptions, and a deluded view of himself.

The characterization in In a Lonely Place is terrific, and it’s the depiction of the two women that I vividly remembered during this reread even when all other details seemed hazy – the silvery, sinuous Sylvia Nicolai, Brub’s wife, and the fiery, sensual Laurel Gray, Dix’s love interest (“He knew beauty and the intensity of a dream and he was meshed in a womb he called happiness”). The two make up a striking combination of “fire and ice” – the earthy, volatile Laurel paired with the classy, sophisticated Sylvia, both women perceiving that all is not necessarily right with Dix. Dix, meanwhile, is enamoured by both women in different ways, but as the novel progresses, his resentment towards them amplifies led by the fear that they are out to get him.

But with a title that encapsulates its protagonist’s alienation, In a Lonely Place, ultimately, is all about Dix Steele, anti-hero and the epitome of evil; a parasite aspiring for moolah and the good life, bitter because he lacks both, choosing therefore to live off the wealth and lavish lifestyle of others.

He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.

Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place. One of the reasons that fuel Dix’s belief that the law won’t catch up with him is his ordinariness; he looks like a normal man who hardly stands out in a crowd, a man like all others. But more importantly, Dix is utterly lost. Always attracted to the rich, cool crowd, Dix laments his limited means and the rigidity of his uncle Fergus who is a stickler for hard work much to Dix’s chagrin and growing resentment. War, therefore, is the only period that offers Dix the chance to truly excel as a pilot, a time when class differences and wealth divide are relegated to the sidelines in a common cause towards fighting the enemy. But once those war days are over, Dix is back to square one with hardly any money or prospects and ruled once again by the iron fist of Uncle Fergus.

In a Lonely Place sizzles with a wonderful blend of mood and atmosphere. The thick LA fog, “the gauzy veils” that descend over the city, like a curtain in a theatre, is a character in its own right, a sharp contrast to the idyllic LA world of beaches and eucalyptus groves, as menacing as Dix’s persona. One gets the impression that the fog is Dix’s only ally assisting him in his crimes, in a world where he feels increasingly isolated.  

Through a vantage point that is largely Dix’s, Hughes splendidly unlocks the door to his unstable mind, allowing the reader to see a distorted world through his eyes; the effect being that we are both repelled and fascinated by him at the same time. The way a feeling of mounting dread and unease pervades the novel is also masterfully done with the result that some of the anxiety that Dix begins to experience begins to rub off on the reader too, even if rationally we acknowledge that Dix deserves his comeuppance.

Hughes’s piercing gaze and sharp writing style elevates the novel; the prose has a unique rhythm while the deliciously edgy, hardboiled, noirish tone lends the novel much character. It’s a tale laced with understated tension, an uncomfortable reminder that evil can exist right under your eye, where you least expect it.

In a Lonely Place, then, is an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective with a vivid sense of place that encapsulates the dissonance between warm, ordinary days and murky, terrifying nights where danger lurks just around the corner. Highly recommended!

A Month of Reading – February 2023

February was another excellent reading month in terms of quality if not quantity; mostly a mix of translated lit (from Germany, Chile & Argentina) and 20th century women’s literature. I continued to participate in the #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a couple of contributions to #ReadIndies.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.

GRAND HOTEL by Vicki Baum (tr. from German by Basil Creighton)

Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, Baum dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions. The novel sizzles with a vivid sense of place (1920s Berlin) and the language is wonderfully tonal and visual. Also, Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. I read this for #NYRBWomen23 and it was great.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE by Nona Fernández (tr. from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

Using the motif of the 1950s popular science fiction/fantasy show The Twilight Zone, Fernández delves into the unimaginable spaces of horror, violence and murkiness of the cruel Pinochet regime where beatings, torture and unexplained disappearances disturbingly became a part of the fabric of everyday life.

In March 1984, Andres Morales, a government security services agent, labeled by our narrator as “the man who tortured people” walks into the offices of the “Cauce” magazine and offers his testimony in exchange for safe passage outside the country. After years of imposing torture tactics on Pinochet’s detractors – members of the Communist party, resistance movements, and left-leaning individuals -something inside Morales snaps (“That night I started to dream of rats. Of dark rooms and rats”). Possibly aghast at the monstrosity of the crimes committed, Morales wishes to confess and in the process hopes to be absolved of those horrific acts.

Much of the book highlights crucial moral questions at play, and the fate of the man who tortured people is central to it – Should he be absolved of his crimes because he had a change of heart and now wants to do right? It’s a powerful, unforgettable book about loss, repression and rebellion where the premise of the TV show is used to brilliant effect – an exploration of that dark dimension where strangeness and terror rule the roost, and is often unfathomable.


Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.

The book centres on the relationship and subsequent marriage of Robert Thomas, a scientist at a cosmetics firm and Katherine Bott, a teacher at a council school; both idealists who believe in progress and prosperity. As they marry, they enjoy a brief period of comfortable suburban living only to be followed by crippling poverty when Robert loses his job. Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War; Robert and Katherine’s relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments. 

It’s this placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape that makes the novel unique and remarkable.

TWO SHERPAS by Sebastián Martínez Daniell (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft)

In the beginning, two Sherpas peer over the edge of a precipice staring at the depths below where a British climber lies sprawled among the rocks. Almost near the top of Mount Everest, the silence around them is intense, punctuated by the noise of the gushing wind (“If the deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence”). Wishing to emulate the feat of many others before him, the Englishman had aimed to ascend the summit but that ambition now is clearly in disarray. Assisting him in the climb are two Sherpas, one a young man, the other much older, but with this sudden accident, the Sherpas are in a quandary on how to best respond.

Thus, in a span of barely ten to fifteen minutes and using this particular moment as a central story arc, the novel brilliantly spins in different directions in a vortex of themes and ideas that encompass the mystery of the majestic Mount Everest, its significance in the history of imperialist Britain, the ambition of explorers to ascend its summit, attitudes of foreigners towards the Sherpa community to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Rome. This is a brilliant, vividly imagined, richly layered novel that gives the reader much to ponder and think about.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN by Dorothy Baker

Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life. The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.

Rick is an orphan but from the very beginning he displays talent and flair for music, although with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. Once employed at Gandy’s Pool Hall, he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee and the two immediately slide into an easy friendship fuelled by their passion for jazz. At its very core, Young Man with a Horn is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries. Some of the racial terms used in the book might be hard to digest for modern readers (I did find quite a few of them jarring), but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. The novel is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading. This was the second book I read for #NYRBWomen23.

That’s it for February. In March so far, I’ve read Death at La Fenice, the first of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice followed by Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place and Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet – all three were excellent. I’m also reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan and All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, so it’s shaping up to be another terrific month.

Great Books by Women on International Women’s Day

Happy Women’s Day! Here are some excellent books written by women, a selection across forms and genres so that there’s something for everyone.

Barring a couple of books, you can read the detailed reviews on the rest by clicking on the links.

20th Century Women’s Literature


These are stunning trilogies. The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

Translated Literature

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

Short Stories

DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.

The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

Contemporary Lit

TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy

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 Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.

This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette 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.


MORE WAS LOST by Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.



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.

Noir / Crime

IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes

The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. I’m reading it again this month for #NYRBWomen23 and thoroughly enjoying it (a lot of it is familiar and yet there’s so much I’ve forgotten).

It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively. I plan to put up a detailed review once I’ve finished the reread, but meanwhile here’s a quote from the novel to savour…

“A murderer is a murderer as…an actor is an actor. He can stop acting professionally but he’s still an actor. He acts. Or an artist. If he never picks up another brush, he will still see and think and react as an artist.”



A wonderful book with a range of essays on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.

These absorbing essays cover artists such as Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Joseph Cornell; writers the likes of which include Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith; the pieces she wrote for the Frieze column; a section called Styles which explores British queer art as well as the Conceptual art scene in the country. Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times.



This is a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is steeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present.



Barbara Pym’s world of the parish, curates and garden parties is a real delight and there were dollops of this in Some Tame Gazelle. The book revolves around the memorable Bede sisters – Belinda and Harriet – who are spinsters. Harriet is the outspoken of the two and is more interested in the young curates who come to work in the village, even though she continuously receives marriage proposals from an Italian count. Belinda, meanwhile, has been carrying a torch for the Archdeacon in the village who has been married to another woman for quite some time. But things get shaken up a bit with the arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote. Both these men disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines.

Pym’s comic timing is superb and there are some wonderful conversations between the characters particularly between the two sisters. Each character is wonderfully etched and even within the narrower contours of village life, Pym has a flair for bringing out the subtle differences in human nature.

Novel Series

THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!



Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever top-notch, elegant and incisive.