After Rain – William Trevor

I haven’t read much William Trevor – only his novel Felicia’s Journey and his short story collection Last Stories – and I don’t know why because those books were brilliant and clearly I should be reading more. But I was keen to participate in Cathy and Kim’s A Year With William Trevor (#williamtrevor2023) and thus chose his collection of stories called After Rain, which turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a really stunning work.

As is the case with short story collections, I don’t intend to write on each of the twelve stories in the book, but will dwell on a few instead that I really loved and which give an overall flavour of the collection.

The first in the collection, The Piano Tuner’s Wives, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first. Owen Dromgould is the piano tuner of the title and in the opening pages we witness his second marriage to Belle, two years after the death of his first wife Violet.

We soon learn that both Violet and Belle were in love with Owen all those years ago, but Owen chose Violet, a fact that caused Belle much heartache then and resentment in the subsequent years. What particularly irked Belle was that by all measures she definitely had many advantages over Violet – Belle was five years younger and also beautiful, while Violet was plainer, even drab.

But the quality of beauty, always an asset for woman, did nothing to elevate Belle’s position because Owen was blind.

Since the time of her rejection Belle had been unable to shake off her jealousy, resentful because she had looks and Violet hadn’t, bitter because it seemed to her that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her too.

Violet may not have been blessed in the looks department but she and Owen shared a strong bond and a good marriage. She was in many ways Owen’s “eyes”, his primary source of vision, patiently describing their immediate surroundings both inside their home and on their travels; a kind of a guiding light in his career and shaping up his life, instrumental in helping him set up his piano tuning business and driving him to various appointments thereafter.

Now, several years later, Belle’s wish has been granted, she finally marries the man she’s always loved, and yet something rankles her – Violet’s influence continues to haunt the house. Violet was Owen’s wife, manager, friend and confidante, and her presence in the home is so vivid even after her death that Belle feels stifled. She begins to introduce minor changes into the house to stamp her personality on her newly married home, but it often seems a futile exercise.

Every time she did anything in the house that had been Violet’s she felt it had been done by Violet before her. When she cut up meat for a stew, standing with the light falling on the board that Violet had used, and on the knife, she felt herself a follower. She diced carrots, hoping that Violet had sliced them. She bought new wooden spots because Violet’s had shriveled away so.

There was always this dichotomy: what to keep up, what to change. Was she giving in to Violet when she tended her flowerbeds? Was she giving in to pettiness when she threw away a frying-pan and three wooden spoons?

Owen senses the discomfort in Belle and makes attempts to quell Belle’s unease by assuring her of his love and encouraging her to make changes she deems fit, until Belle chooses that one crucial weapon in her arsenal to change the way Owen sees the world in her final attempt to snuff out Violet.

A Friendship is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. Margy and Francesca have been good friends since childhood, a friendship that has remained strong even after Francesca’s marriage to Philip – a dull, stuffy man but a brilliant, respected lawyer – and the birth of her sons, Jason and Ben. Francesca and Margy are as different as chalk and cheese but their friendship has endured for a reason…

Margy brought mild adventure into Francesca’s life, and Francesca recognized that Margy would never suffer the loneliness she feared herself, the vacuum she was certain there would be if her children had not been born.

Philip does not care much for Margy but tolerates her without making it obvious, although the ever perceptive Margy senses this. Margy does sometimes wonder how Francesca managed to marry Philip – his position and its consequent demands of a social life and impeccable household management skills often stresses Francesca, who is much more easygoing.

One day, a quarrel erupts between Philip and Francesca over a prank played by their boys; a development that causes Francesca much distress, and Margy to ease her burden sets in motion a plan that has serious consequences she may have not foreseen.

Child’s Play is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved. Rebecca becomes Gerard’s half-sister when Rebecca’s father and Gerard’s mother marry. We soon learn that theirs was an extra-marital affair that resulted in each of their respective marriages falling apart. Gerard’s father and Rebecca’s mother, each now alone, must move on in their own way, with Sunday visits from Gerard and Rebecca respectively to look forward to. For their part, Gerard and Rebecca quickly get along, and the one thread that binds them is the similarity of their circumstances; they come from broken families having witnessed the fights, resentment, bitter recriminations between their parents. The two often indulge in games of play-acting and make-believe, enacting those distressing scenes that only reinforce how deeply their parents’ divorce has affected them.

The titular story After Rain is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on. Set in Italy, Harriet chooses to spend her holidays all by herself in an Italian pensione when the latest of her love affairs ends. The end of this relationship is particularly hard having occurred before the couple’s planned holiday on a Greek island, now cancelled. Wishing to spend some time alone to reflect, Harriet chooses to come to the same Italian hotel of which she has fond memories from childhood; it was where she often stayed with her parents as a child, those flashbacks all the more poignant, because her parents have separated since. However, Harriett’s sense of isolation only heightens during her stay at the hotel; it has moved along with the times, and is markedly different in various aspects from her first impressions of it as a child, and she begins to wonder whether this holiday like all her previous love affairs was just another mistake. Until a stroll in the quaint village, after a particularly heavy spell of rain, and a painting of the Annunciation offers Harriett that singular moment of epiphany.

There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.

Widows is a brilliantly written piece on the relationship between two sisters and the undercurrent of jealousy running underneath, hidden at first only for the crack to finally widen. Catherine and Alicia are sisters in their fifties; Alice is elder and beautiful of the two who moves in with Catherine and her husband Matthew when she becomes a widow. The story opens with Matthew’s death, Catherine is now a widow like her sister Alicia and deeply grieving. Alicia was the one blessed with beauty, the popular one, but unlucky in marriage, her husband’s death in many ways a relief. Catherine is the plainer sister but her marriage with Matthew was a very happy one. Alicia hopes that with Matthew’s death her relationship with Catherine will go back to the way it once was (“Why should she not fairly have hoped that in widowhood they would again be sisters first of all”), but the matter of an unpaid bill brought forward by a confidence trickster sparks a fight between the sisters and only highlights Catherine’s loyalty and her love towards her late husband.

Widows were widows first. Catherine would mourn, and feel in solitude the warmth of love. For Alicia there was the memory of her beauty.

Gilbert’s Mother is a masterclass of creeping dread and suspense – a mother paralysed by a sense of entrapment by her possibly wayward son. The story begins with the murder of a 19-year old girl, Carol Dickson, somewhere between ten and midnight, her body being discovered the next day. With no forthcoming suspects, her murderer remains large and the police seem defeated by the lack of progress in the case. The story then zooms to Rosalie Mannion and her twenty-five year old son Gilbert. We learn that there’s something not quite right about him for which he spent some time a few years ago in a psychiatric centre so that his behavioral traits could be observed. Gilbert is employed in an architect’s office and tasked with menial jobs, but his intensity is unnerving and way he meticulously narrates details often taxes Rosalie but she humours him because she senses that no one else does. Gilbert’s erratic behaviour in the past – unexplained disappearances, items missing from the house – often suspiciously coincide with incidents of thefts, arson and so on in the neighbourhood and Rosalie often wonders whether Gilbert is at the centre of it although there is never any proof. Is he then in any way involved in Carol Dickson’s murder?

The Potato Dealer is another wonderful story that examines some of the same themes seen in Felicia’s Journey – an unwed mother and the shame and guilt that follow in its wake. Having lost her father at a young age, Ellie and her mother move in with Ellie’s uncle Mr Larrissey (her mother’s brother) at their family farmhouse. When Ellie is pregnant out of wedlock, the unborn child being the product of a summer love affair with a priest, the sense of shame felt by the family knows no bounds. Despite being Catholics, Ellie’s mother and uncle favour abortion there being no other choice, but Ellie wishes to keep the baby as the symbol of her love for a man who she knows can never marry her. An arrangement is then reached with a potato dealer called Mulreavy – a sum offered to him in exchange for his marriage to Ellie with other forthcoming benefits such as the prospect of owning the land and house once the uncle dies provided he helps with the day’s work in the fields. Mulreavy settles down in his new abode, the child is born and things seemingly progress along smoothly until a growing sense of guilt in Ellie threatens to disrupt their fragile tranquil state and shared arrangement of compromise.

The tales in After Rain, then, are incredibly nuanced, quiet, artfully crafted with a lingering, haunting power that leaves a deep impression. The set-ups are brilliantly presented and the characters depicted are ordinary people struggling to navigate pivotal moments or periods in their lives; Trevor’s masterful portrayal of the small dramas of everyday life come vividly alive on these pages.

Failed relationships, impact of broken marriages on children, extra-marital affairs, children disappointing parents, waywardness of youth, female friendships, betrayal, death, sibling jealousy, and consequences of sex outside marriage are some of the myriad themes uniquely explored in this rich, sumptuous collection. Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully. His characters experience a gamut of emotions – loss, guilt, shame, mounting unease, despair, jealousy, moments of revelation and even joy.

Tender and exquisite, After Rain, then is a finely chiseled collection of stories that is truly a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

The English Understand Wool – Helen DeWitt

New Year, new book, new review. I started 2023 with The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt; the first novella I’ve read from New Directions’ newly minted ‘Storybook ND’ series that also features works from the likes of Cesar Aira, Yoko Tawada, Osamu Dazai and so on. I had first read DeWitt’s striking novel The Lightning Rods several years ago (pre-blog) – a brilliant satire of the corporate world centred on a salesman who invents a controversial product, and what also made it interesting was the language, deliberately flat so that it reflected the tone of ‘corporate-speak.’

A novella at just 70 pages, I thought The English Understand Wool was marvellous, as good as everyone said it was; after all it would have been “mauvais ton” not to love it, wouldn’t it?

Our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject.

Maman is the doyenne of fine tastes and impeccable manners, qualities she wishes to imbue in her daughter. The English understand wool and Scots tweed, so Maman makes the journey all the way from Marrakech to the Outer Hebrides to buy this tweed and cultivate relationships with the finest weavers. But she travels to Paris to fashion suits because Parisians are the epitome of style while Scots have a “genius for fabricating atrocious garments.” When in Europe, Maman and Marguerite stay in lavish hotel suites with pianos. In Marrakech, as if money is no issue, Maman buys ‘riads’ (traditional Moroccan houses) to house her Moroccan staff. A Parisian Thai seamstress is hired to tailor mother and daughter’s clothes, while a ‘gifted graduate of the Conservatoire’ comes from Paris to impart music lessons to Marguerite. During the holy month of Ramadan, the family settles abroad, the staff is not required to travel with them but is given a full month’s pay.

The French understand wine, cheese, bread.

The Belgians understand chocolate.

The Italians understand coffee and ice cream.

The Germans understand precision, machines. (She in fact kept a Porsche in Paris.)

The Swiss understand discretion.

The Arabs understand honor, which embraces generosity and hospitality.

Clearly, Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other.

And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances. She is only 17, but can she navigate these new shattering developments on her own solely relying on the knowledge gained from Maman? And how will she deal with the nosy parkers of the publishing world eager to strike a deal with her?

The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates.

In many ways, the novella is a satire on the lengths to which one is willing to go to uphold the tenets of good taste. For instance, when she learns of the truth, Marguerite is beset by “extreme anxiety not to be guilty of mauvais ton.” There’s more…

I was conscious of a slighter anxiety. It would not be possible for quite some time, perhaps years, to go to the Thai seamstress – I would inevitably be followed, and whether or not this led to the apprehension of the fugitives it would certainly cause chagrins. Where was I to find a seamstress?

It’s an interesting novella because it also challenges the reader in how they perceive the situation that has unfolded, particularly, when it comes to family and maybe even trauma. Is Marguerite deeply disturbed by this sudden turn in her circumstances? Does she need to be? Is it necessary that her reactions conform to the dictates of modern society?

“I do not understand this grievance you expect me to feel.”

DeWitt also subtly makes digs at the publishing industry, the murky manner in which it functions, desperate to promote material having sensational value that will sell and connect with an audience, rather than accepting the truth of a version however unconventional. They are like vultures circulating around an alleged prey (in this case, Marguerite), always eager to profit from a distressing situation at whatever cost. But is 17-year old Marguerite naïve or is there more to her than meets the eye?

Just like in The Lightning Rods, DeWitt showcases a unique approach in capturing voice – here, atleast in most chapters, there is a formality and maybe even stuffiness to the prose that is intentional; Marguerite is after all the narrator and her haughty upbringing is accordingly reflected in her storytelling – factual and devoid of emotion.

The novella ends just as it had begun (“The English understand wool”), a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a fresh and highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.

Trespasses – Louise Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll.

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

The Fortnight in September – R C Sherriff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Caledonia – Elspeth Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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