My Phantoms – Gwendoline Riley

A few years ago, I was very impressed with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a book that received accolades and featured on many prize lists. Hence, I was quite keen to read her latest offering My Phantoms especially after all the rave reviews it has been garnering.

Family can be so complicated. This certainly holds true in My Phantoms, a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.

Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.

The book begins with Bridget’s recollections of her childhood and those traumatic “access” visits with their father that she and her sister Michelle could not avoid. Since Helen Grant had divorced Lee, the girls were legally mandated to spend Sundays with their father, a prospect that filled them with dread.

Riley’s evocation of the father’s self-centred personality is brilliant – he’s a man Bridget did not really think of as a person but more as a phenomenon.

I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really. He was more just this – phenomenon. A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energized bother, in short. And yes, legally mandated.

While the bulk of the book dwells on Bridget’s musings on her mother, trying to fathom the motives and thinking behind her behaviour, Bridget states how she felt no such desire to quiz her father. Her reason – he simply wasn’t an enigma like her mother. In Bridget’s words – “His nature had to generate satisfaction for itself. That was it. Getting one over. Being an exceptional case. There was nothing else. With him the difficulty came in dealing with that relentless uniformity of purpose.”

That uniformity of purpose finds various outlets, but one particularly memorable one is when Lee makes all that fuss around Bridget reading Chekhov’s Five Plays where he goes on and on about how she’s into posh Russian books. There is one specific monologue of his that is pretty incredulous and weirdly funny and leaves young Bridget speechless…

“You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,” he said.

“Because it’s not the original language,” he explained. “It could be anything.”

“Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,” he said.

“What you’re reading could be anything,” he said, again.

But My Phantoms essentially revolves around Helen Grant, Bridget’s mother. It is never explicitly stated whether there were any specific incidents in her childhood that harboured feelings of resentment or fuelled the toxic relationship between Helen and Bridget. But from the outset it is clear that their exchanges have all the makings of a performance and not always genuine.

Helen Grant is portrayed as a woman insecure on many fronts and unable to really open up. She prefers conversations that follow a certain course for her to be in a comfort zone, otherwise she gets flustered and clams up. Helen is an independent woman though. Having held a job for most of her adult life (despite hating it), she lives on a good pension and has enough funds to have a flat she can call her own (first in Liverpool, then in Manchester) and live life on her own terms.

However, what she lacks is good company. With two divorces behind her, Helen has clearly been unlucky in love. On one hand she is extroverted, attending all possible openings, concerts, jazz festivals, book readings and even engaging in volunteer work, on the other hand she hardly has any real friends to speak of or a thriving social life.

Substantial sections of the book shine the spotlight on the stilted conversations between Helen and Bridget. Although they are not always in touch, Helen makes it a point to visit London on her birthday and spend an evening with her daughter. Their conversation is often fraught with silences and the pressure to conform to a script, leaving no room for genuine communication, warmth or even unburdening oneself.

For the most part I found myself sympathizing with Bridget. Being in a situation where she has to continuously rack her brains to get their conversations going can be exhausting and frustrating. For instance, when Bridget gifts Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Helen on her birthday, she does so with the hope that they have much to talk about when they meet next, based on her own rewarding experience of the discussions she has had with her friends on those books. But that gesture reaches a dead end when Helen confesses to being muddled with the primary characters’ names.

But Bridget has her faults too. Although from Bridget’s point of view, Helen is not the ideal mother, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and is prone to making cruel remarks and coming across as quite unsympathetic. For instance, she comments on how Helen’s had two awful husbands and should not be aiming to get married again. She is uncomfortable about introducing Helen to her partner John however much Helen insists. And when Helen is ill, it is her sister Michelle who does much of the heavy lifting and running around. Bridget also leaves no stone unturned in making Helen aware of the meaninglessness of her existence – how despite engaging in so many activities and social outings, she remains essentially empty. There is one poignant moment when Helen’s defences are down, and in a rare display of vulnerability it seems that she might finally confide and express her true feelings. Bridget certainly thinks so but realizes that she has no inkling of how to deal with it or help her mother.

And again I saw that I’d got it very wrong. That it was a mean trick, suddenly to be so rational and practical in the face of her distress. It was as if I’d delicately pulled on a pair of butler’s gloves. Or passed the whole thing on to a different department.

Bridget’s tirade against her parents for judging themselves in the light of what “other people” think and say also hits closer home. While these “other people” are more often than not nebulous beings, she uses it as a medium to explore one fundamental difference between her mother and father…

I wanted to say, What bloody people? But that would have been cruel, wouldn’t it? So she had me there.

It did strike me, though, that at least those spectral associates my father raised didn’t persecute him. They were a supporting cast: a wise counsel or a happy coterie, rushing in to fill coveted positions in his court. Leave it to my poor mother to have these awful tormenting busybodies as her imaginary fellows.

Obviously, the core theme of My Phantoms is the difficulties of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. There are many facets of Helen’s personality that Bridget finds trying and yet Helen remains an integral part of her life, Bridget cannot completely cut her off. But the novel is also fascinating for the many things left unsaid, giving the reader much to think about. Bridget is haunted by her mother’s unyielding persona, but does Michelle feel the same? We know that siblings growing up in the same environment can be affected by things differently. Is Michelle tormented by her parents’ personalities to the same degree as Bridget?

Gwendoline Riley has a way with words and language that is striking. For instance, here’s how she describes Lee Grant…

And so Lee Grant strode untroubled through his subjected realm, where he was, variously, the kindly king and the swashbuckling bandit, the seen-it-all sage and the rude clown, the tender-hearted swain and the blue-eyed boy, and on and on…Exceptional cases, every one.

And here’s another snippet when Helen announces her decision to travel the world…

In order to live, in order to be Hen Grant, she had to step out of a tangle of very mouldy old rope. She had to go forth, announcingly. Relentlessly and internationally.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds and does so with much aplomb.

The Promise – Damon Galgut

A decade ago, Damon Galgut captured my imagination when I devoured three of his novels in quick successionThe Good Doctor, The Impostor and In A Strange Room. All were excellent, but the latter two were even more so. His last offering Arctic Summer, while elegantly written, was somehow not in, the same league as his ‘holy trinity’ of novels, but an earlier novel, The Quarry, was quite interesting and a precursor to what Galgut was capable of writing. And now we have The Promise, released earlier this month, where Galgut is once again in top form.

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

The first section dwells on the funeral of Ma, or Rachel Swart, and is set in the 1980s at the height of apartheid. The Swarts own and live on a dilapidated farm deep in the countryside. Manie Swart, who heads the family, runs a reptile park, having recently found solace in religion. With Rachel’s death, Manie is left with their three children – the eldest is Anton, followed by Astrid, and then the youngest of the brood, Amor.

When the book opens, we are first introduced to Amor, who while at her boarding school is informed of her mother’s death.

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

It’s a moment that feels unreal to her, and she follows through the motions, utterly dazed. Although her mother’s death was expected given the progress of her illness, Amor can’t quite come to terms with it.

It’s at Rachel’s funeral that the true colours of the Swart family start spilling out; their racist tendencies come to the fore. For instance, Manie Swart, his sister Tannie Marina and her husband Oom Ockie find it difficult to accept that Rachel has gone back to her original religion and has wished for a Jewish funeral.

It’s the usual topic, about how Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion. Correction, by going back to her old religion. To being a Jew! Her aunt has been extremely vocal on this subject for the past half a year, ever since Ma fell ill, but what is Amor supposed to do about it? She’s just a child, she has no power, and anyway what’s so wrong about going back to your own religion if you want to?

The spotlight then zooms to Salome, the Swarts’ dedicated housemaid, who despite her many years of service as well as nursing Rachel in her final years, is hardly noticed by the rest of the Swarts and remains invisible.

To the Swarts, Salome is just a minor figure in the background. Yet, her future is the central premise of the novel, the essential moral core that rests on ‘the promise’ Rachel eked out from Manie in her last days. The promise pertains to Salome being given ownership of Lombard Place, the house where she has resided for a long time. It’s a promise that Manie refuses to acknowledge after Rachel’s death. That blank refusal shocks Amor, and it’s the first lesson that she learns regarding her family, they are well and truly lost.

Meanwhile, as the novel lurches forward in time, a picture of the Swart children begins to emerge. Anton, a soldier at the time of his mother’s funeral, deserts the Army, spends several years hiding, and only resurfaces when the political winds of change are blowing in the country – Mandela is elected PM and apartheid is abolished. Tormented by the fact that he shot a mother at the beginning of the book, Anton stares at a bleak future over the course of the novel as he gradually sinks deeper into debt and despair.

Every day since he left home has been imprinted on him as a visceral, primal endeavor and he doesn’t dwell on any of it, nothing to be savoured there. Survival isn’t instructive, just demeaning. The things he does recall with any clarity he tries not to, pushing them under the surface. Part of what you do to keep going.

You keep going because if you do there will eventually be an end. South Africa has changed, conscription stopped two years ago. Jesus, what he did by deserting the army, he’s a hero, not a criminal, amazing how fast that changed.

In sharp contrast, his younger sister Amor is quite an enigmatic, fascinating character, whose single-minded focus of giving Salome her rightful due is as powerful as the flash of lightning that strikes her at a young age. After the blatant disregard shown by her father towards her deceased mother’s wishes, Amor spends the next many years as far away from her family as possible. While she chooses to build a new life in Europe, she never really settles down, eschews meaningful relationships, as she restlessly flits from one city to another. Later, she finds her calling as a nurse working long hours in an AIDS hospital in Durban. Amor’s extreme form of selflessness is construed by her brother as her way of righting the wrongs of her morally wayward family.

Last but not the least is Astrid, the middle child, who settles for marriage and children, a destiny that fails to excite her and fills her with existential angst. Essentially frivolous and morally empty as the senior Swarts, Astrid resents Amor’s transformation into a beautiful woman, while her own looks begin to fade away.

Throughout the years, the siblings keep drifting away from each other, they barely keep in touch, and are only ever united during the four funerals.  Despite their fractured relationship, the one thing that binds Anton and Amor is their deep contempt for their family, which is tottering at the edge of ruin.

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. This is primarily showcased in Salome’s treatment. During apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely restricted and they were not allowed to own property, a fact that the Swarts hold onto in their denial of fulfilling ‘the promise’. But with the dawn of a new era and dramatic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, the Swarts’ attitude towards Salome hardly undergoes a sea of change.

Amor, appearing half asleep, winds her way slowly upright to a single question. Um, what about Salome?

Excuse me?

Salome, who works at the farm.

Until this moment, everyone in the room has worn an almost stupid air. But now a tremor runs through the group, as if a tuning fork has been struck on the edge of the scene.

That old story, Astrid says. You’re still on that?

It was sorted out a long time ago, Tannie Marina says. We’re not going backwards now.

Amor shakes her head.  It wasn’t possible for Salome to own the land. But the laws have changed and now she can.

She can, Astrid says. But she’s not going to. Don’t be stupid.

South Africa may have embarked on a new path sprinting towards progress, but Salome’s status remains the same. On paper, apartheid has been dismantled, but this is not really reflected in the ground reality, the country’s evolution has been anything but smooth.

The Swarts are the epitome of this racist thinking, first brought to our notice when they fail to understand why Rachel had to go back to her Jewish roots. Seeds of racism are also sown in Astrid, who when cheating on her second husband, worries whether she has committed a sin, not because she is having an extra-marital affair but because she is having this affair with a black man.

We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption. Money permeates the motives of many, and even religion is not spared from its poisonous pull.

Money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate. Notes with numbers on them, each a cryptic IOU, not the real thing itself, but the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough.

This is apparent in how the Swart property is divided among the children and also in the way the local pastor wields his influence on the family, his greed for land ensuring that he extracts quite a bit from them eventually. Indeed, the tenuous relationship between the Swart family members is a symbol for the broader social and political fabric of South Africa struggling to hold its people together against a volatile backdrop.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye. Indeed, Galgut’s unique narrative technique was on display in his brilliant book In A Strange Room, where he effortlessly switched between the first and the third person in the space of a paragraph. This is very much a trait in this novel too, but Galgut takes it to the next level. While In A Strange Room, the narration was from the author’s own point of view, here the narrative eye takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards.

She (Salome) shuffles off slowly around the koppie to her house, I mean the Lombard place…

The tone is as sharp as a knife and at times laced with subtle moments of black comedy. Galgut is wonderful as ever at creating an atmosphere of unease, as his characters, increasingly unmoored and unsteady, stumble towards their ominous fates. Powerful in its indictment of a country afflicted by racism and corruption, The Promise, then, is another winner from the Galgut oeuvre, and fully deserves being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

Ties – Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

I became aware of Domenico Starnone a few years ago when I heard that his novels were being translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri whose short stories I had loved many years ago, and whose latest novel Whereabouts is most likely to feature among my favourite novels this year. Wanting to finally read him, I picked out Ties, a novel which I thought was brutal but also impressive.

In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes.

Thus begins Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

We learn that Aldo, the husband, has given vague reasons for suddenly leaving for another woman – he feels trapped, desires freedom and the option of living life on his own terms. The defined boundaries of marriage and fatherhood are tying him down leaving no room to breathe. Vanda, however, is buying none of this nonsense, and rants at him in her writings. She accuses him of being a weak and confused man, insensitive and superficial. Aldo, meanwhile, vehemently describes his relationship with Lidia as purely physical, but Vanda believes he is lying. Deeply hurt and struggling to come to terms with her sense of abandonment, Vanda makes it clear to him that she is cutting off his access to their children.

In Section Two, several years have passed. Aldo and Vanda are now an old couple, they are together but it’s a delicately balanced existence – the fissure in their marriage hasn’t entirely disappeared, and a nudge in the wrong direction, can cause their relations to crack. Their children, Sandro and Anna, are grown up individuals living their own lives away from them. We learn that Aldo has achieved some success as a TV producer and writer but his fame has now dimmed. The couple is comfortable financially, a large part of which is due to Vanda’s obsession with money and finding ways of not indulging in wasteful expenditure.

The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. The house is a complete mess with objects strewn everywhere, although strangely no valuables have been stolen.

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children.  The second section is from Aldo’s point of view and he tells us how Vanda’s disintegration disturbed him, how his love for Lidia revived him, giving him a sense of purpose. Ironically, while deep in his relationship with Lidia, he is plagued by the same set of insecurities – that Lidia is likely to abandon him in the same manner that he left Vanda. Aldo eventually does crawl back to his family, but he finds the home atmosphere completely altered.

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time. In her fascinating introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri makes an illuminating point about how boundaries, structures, containers are symbols depicted in this novel both literally and figuratively. Structures provide a safe space but can also heighten feelings of entrapment. Boundaries limit chaos, but things can keep breaking down anyway.

Interestingly, the multiple perspectives give a sense of how there is never only one guilty party, of how in a marriage there are always two sides to the story. When we read the first section, we feel for Vanda because of the terrible treatment meted out to her, the insensitiveness and cowardice of Aldo. But as the book progresses, we realize that while Vanda is the wronged woman, she is no saint. She puts Aldo on a tight leash with the result that their relationship transforms into one of tyrant and slave. She is the one calling all the shots, and his opinions don’t matter. Even though Aldo’s actions have set their marriage on a downward spiral, one can’t help but sympathize with him for the way he is punished by Vanda.

And what of the children? In the third section, we are privy to their points of view…they are now middle-aged adults but the kind of lives they have chosen to lead gives a perspective of how damaged they have become thanks to the bitterness of their parents’ marriage.

He’d given up me, you, Mom. And I quickly realized he’d done the right thing. Away, away, away. Our mother, to him, was the negation of the joy of living, and us too, you and me. Don’t fool yourself, that’s what we were, the negation, the negation. His real mistake was being unable to give us up for good. His mistake was that once you’ve taken action to hurt people profoundly, to kill or, in any case, permanently devastate other human beings, you can’t go back. You have to accept responsibility for the crime through and through. You can’t commit a half-crime.

This excellent novella, finally, ends on a satisfying note and while the mystery of their parents’ ransacked home is resolved, there is a sense that the future will always be in a state of flux.

I must mention that I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading Vanda’s section and realized there are striking similarities with Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Days of Abandonment – the wife ditched by the husband for another woman, the rage seething within her, the burden she bears of caring for the children and the household singlehandedly and her gradual descent into despair. But Ties for me was the more interesting and therefore better novel because we are also presented with Aldo and the children’s points of view, which was the not the case with the Ferrante novel where we were only inside Olga’s head.

Ties, then, is an excellent reminder of how love, trust and respect are the foundations of a good marriage, and the complications that can arise from the lack of any of these attributes. Children, especially, are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Divorce is one option, but often frowned upon because of its negative consequences for children. But the logic of “sticking together for the sake of the kids” is deeply flawed too. Children in their own ways are perceptive and can sense the discord between their parents. They become subconsciously aware of the need to tread carefully so as to maintain that delicate balance in their homes. Sadly, this unbearable burden and the underlying guilt can often affect them too. There are no easy answers!

Ramifications – Daniel Saldaña París (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

Ramifications is another interesting offering from Charco Press, which specializes in literature from Latin America and has doled out gems such as Dead Girls by Selva Almada, Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

The memories we return to most frequently are the most inaccurate, the least faithful to reality…

Set in Mexico, Ramifications is a moving portrait of arrested development, a tale of a boy growing up in a broken family and trying to survive in an environment where machismo and secrecy rule the roost.

First I have to write the story through to the end, fill this spiral-bound notebook with my scribblings to the very last page, drop it by the bed, open the next notebook, and continue writing until that one, too, is full. Not because writing is an act of salvation, but because there’s no other way I can tell myself the things I don’t even dare think when I’m alone. Only when I’ve written it all down will I be able to look at myself in the mirror and not see the face of someone else, the other that stalks me from within.

Our unnamed narrator begins his story by highlighting a defining event in his childhood, a development which pretty much dictates how the rest of his life pans out – his mother abandons their family to move to Chiapas. A woman aspiring for greater heights, she feels stifled by the drudgery of an abusive marriage and motherhood. Participating in the Zapatista movement (the uprising that shook Mexico in 1994) appears to her as the perfect outlet to refocus her energies.

Meanwhile, our narrator, his father and his elder sister Mariana are left to fend for themselves and come to terms with this loss. The father, emotionally distant, has not much clue about running a household and bringing up children. The role of caring for the boy falls on Mariana, who is much more interested in her social life. Thus, the narrator, who is aged ten at the time, is largely left to his own devices and to his own thoughts of which plenty abound. He takes refuge in making origami figures although he has no talent for it, and spends days reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and hiding in his Zero Luminosity Capsule (which is nothing but his wardrobe). Beset by aching loneliness, he is prone to concocting various imaginary scenarios that entail his mother returning to the family.

Trying to comprehend his mother’s abandonment forms the central focus of this narrative. Gradually, a portrait of the family is revealed to us – how the parents have different political ideologies, the mother has a rebellious outlook and detests her husband for his far right views. The father is also a man prone to violent bursts of temper, raging and ranting.

The narrator is a misfit in school too. Suffering the consequences of his mother’s actions, he is trolled and bullied mercilessly. The school, which he once considered a refuge from the toxic atmosphere at home, is no longer so. It’s as if the two environs have blurred and merged into one.

Daniel Saldana’s storytelling is not linear and there are a plethora of stark focal points in the narrator’s life that stand out like beams in the dark – his mother’s disappearance, her death around six months later (we learn of this in the opening chapter too), his father’s inability to form a close bond with his children and his subsequent death by cancer, and how the siblings thereafter construct their own lives.

While the tone of the novel is largely reflective, certain moments instill a creeping sense of dread. A set-piece in the middle of the book, particularly, injects a kind of tension to the tale. Just months after his mother disappears, our narrator decides to hunt for her in Chiapas and boards a bus alone. In the middle of the night, the bus is stopped by soldiers and the narrator is struck by immense terror when he and some passengers are randomly questioned.

Now in his early thirties, the narrator has cut himself from the world, spends most of this time in bed, and unfolds his memories, trying to come to terms with events that shaped his childhood and the subsequent years.

Memory, loss, grief, masculinity and revolution are some of the dominant themes that are touched upon. Reflections on memory run consistently throughout the book…

Memories are fabrications that bear little relationship to their supposed origins, and each and every time we recall something, that memory becomes more autonomous, more detached from the past, as if the cord holding it to life itself is fraying until one day, it snaps and the memory bolts, runs free through the fallow field of the spirit, like a liberated goat taking to the hills.

Grief and coping with loss is also central to the narrative. Our narrator finds solace in his strange rituals, but they only serve to alienate him further from those around him. Grappling with expected norms of masculinity is another thread that weaves the story together. Our narrator desperately yearns to resemble his mother both in looks and temperament, and is dejected to learn that he is increasingly turning into his father. The shattering impact of the revolution (which in the book is in the background) on the family unit also forms an essence of the novel.

Ramifications, then, is a poignant depiction of a child’s attempts to interpret events beyond his understanding. Saldaña París’ writing is simple and elegant and there’s almost a fairy tale like quality to the prose as we are taken inside the tormented psyche of a child. Despite a few places where the pace drags a bit, it is overall a strong read and the final allusion to the truth of his mother’s death gives the reader a lot to think about.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – Julia Strachey

I have had a good run with Persephone Books this year having read Every Eye by Isobel English and Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – both excellent. Now, after finishing the wonderful Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (for #NovNov), it feels like I have scored a Persephone hat-trick.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a funny and beautifully written novella focusing on a dysfunctional, miscellaneous group of people thrown together, and sizzles with acerbic observations and dramatic revelations. It was originally published by Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

The book is set during the course of a single day at the centre of which is the wedding of our protagonist, 23-year old Dolly Thatcham. The wedding is set to take place in a church close to the Thatcham estate in the country.

When the book opens, the guests have begun to assemble at the Thatcham residence and all the last minute preparations are in full swing. We are told that following a short engagement of about a month, Dolly is to be betrothed to Owen Bigham, who is eight years elder to her. Post the wedding, the couple plans to relocate to South America.

Meanwhile, the reader is introduced to an eccentric cast of characters comprising Mrs Thatcham, her other daughter Kitty, the various maids and a few ill-assorted guests.  Mrs Thatcham immediately comes across as a woman indifferent to her surroundings, a tad muddled, seemingly out of touch with reality. She insists that the weather is fine for the wedding, when it is actually a cold, gray day in March with a strong wind blowing. Her maids are at the receiving end of her behaviour – for instance, Mrs Thatcham gives them a precise set of instructions, promptly forgets what she had discussed, and then berates her maids later even though they have followed her orders to the tee. “I simply fail to understand it,” is a refrain she frequently utters.

“Oh! But then Millman must have laid the snack-luncheon in here!” she exclaimed.

There was a silence. Mrs Thatcham stared frigidly at the cutlets and sandwiches.

“How disappointing of Millman!” she said. “She is an odd being, really. So funny of her to do that now! When I told her most particularly the nursery…as we shall want the library kept free…so very odd of her!”

“Not odd at all, Mum. Considering I heard you tell her most particularly yesterday, at tea-time, to be sure and put the cold lunch in the library so as not to have to light a fire in the nursery today.”

We are also introduced to Joseph, likely Dolly’s former beau, who still holds a torch for her. He is hoping to meet her before the wedding with vague intentions of stopping it but with no clear idea of the repercussions. Mrs Thatcham dislikes Joseph, eyeing him as a harbinger of doom.

As both Joseph and Dolly briefly hark back to the past at separate moments, we are given an inkling of the romance that could have possibly blossomed between the two, but which does not come to fruition at that time.

One of the striking features of this novella is that there is so much scope for the reader to read between the lines. Almost all of the characters don’t really reveal what’s exactly on their minds, preferring instead to drop subtle hints. Even in their conversations, the haziness of their feelings persist. All of which leaves a lot of room for us to figure it out ourselves.

There had been a discussion about a certain kind of crackly biscuit made with treacle, and looking like stiff brown lace, called a “jumbly.” “What, never tasted jumbly!” Joseph beside her (Dolly) had said, quite suddenly, peering in underneath her large summer hat. “But you must taste a jumbly! You would adore them!” but the point was, that through his face, and most especially his eyes, Joseph’s whole being had announced, plainly, and with a violent fervor, not “You would adore them,” but “I adore you.”

Dolly’s personality is inherently passive, as she seems okay to just go along with the flow rather than be assertive and take charge. Even though she harbours feelings for Joseph, she chooses not to be forthright about them. And yet she is assailed with doubts on her wedding day, made obvious by the half a bottle of rum she guzzles hours before the ceremony, rendering her slightly drunk.

On top of it all, Dolly’s relationship with her mother is quite strained because of the latter’s detached personality, and even on her wedding day Dolly feels no warmth towards her mother.

Will Dolly, eventually, go through with her decision to marry a man she barely knows? Or will Joseph spoil the wedding party with some tricks up his sleeve?

Julia Strachey’s writing in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is marvelous, brimming with evocative descriptions – whether it’s the heavily furnished rooms in the house, or the tumult of the characters’ emotions.

Above the writing table where Dolly sat was an ancient mirror.

This mirror was rusted over with tiny specks by the hundred, and also the quicksilver at the back had become blackened in the course of ages, so that the drawing-room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking, metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside. And a strange effect was produced:

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in this mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence.

There are generous doses of sly humour in the book, with some hilarious set-pieces particularly in the first few pages when the wedding guests mingle with one another, and Joseph especially makes it a point to rile Kitty (Dolly’s younger sister).

“How are your lectures going?” asked Kitty of Joseph, a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face. This was her style of the moment with the male sex.

“Very well, thank you,” said Joseph, and added: “We heard about the practices of the Minoan Islanders upon reaching the age of puberty at the last one.” He started snapping up his cutlet.

“Oh, really? How terribly interesting!” said Kitty.

“Yes, very. Like to hear about them?” offered Joseph.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding feels sophisticated and assured as Strachey displays a flair for making nuanced observations on her varied set of characters. A distinct highlight is the novella’s razor sharp focus on the consequences of suppressed emotions and things left unsaid. It’s another gem from Persephone Books well worth reading and re-reading.