Winter Love – Han Suyin

I’ve slowly started collecting these gorgeous books released by McNally Editions, they are so beautifully produced, a pleasure to hold and read. Winter Love is the first title from their catalogue, and it’s a book I liked very much indeed.

Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain at the end of the Second World War.

Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses.

During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).

There I stood with Daphne Meredith and Louise Wells, my chums. I’d known them both since school-days, and Louise said she was in love with me. But I walked away and stood by Mara, only of course I didn’t know her name.

In every aspect, Mara is unlike the other Horsham girls. She stands out by a mile. She is wealthy, dressed in well-cut clothes and exudes an aura of privilege, luxury and comfort. And to top it all, she is drop dead gorgeous. Red is instantly taken in by her much to the chagrin of the other girls.

Whereas Mara suggested…oh, so many things, envy-making things: warm beaches and cosmetics and music, and lots of clothes and no coupons, and eggs and tins from America, and French wines, and oh, so many things we were forgetting in the war or had never had.

We learn of Red’s traumatic background…Her mother abandons her father and runs off with a lover. The mother goes on to have a string of love affairs thereafter and Red has blurry memories of waking in desolate hotel rooms marked by scenes of her mother crying. Red has a soft spot for her father but once he remarries, her relationship with her step mother is pretty strained too. The only family relation who means anything to her is Aunt Muriel who decides to take on the responsibility of her care when Red was a child, and now every Christmas, Red travels to the countryside where Aunt Muriel resides to help her with the Christmas festivities.

Mara’s circumstances could not have been more different. She is a married woman living in an upscale apartment in London with her husband Karl. Given that she is well provided for, why she should choose to study in a university remains a mystery to the girls and Mara makes no attempt to dish out an explanation. Her casual attitude in class irritates their professor Eggie, and everyone is pretty sure that she is bound to fail in her exams. But Mara passes with flying colours much to everyone’s astonishment; an achievement that Red secretly revels in.

I couldn’t do anything but wait for Mara afterwards, wait for her by our locker, acquiescent, waiting, in acknowledgement of her strength: for in all of us there is this submission to someone who has earned our respect; the way the others made room for Mara, a scarcely perceptible hush in their voices even if they pretended to be unaware of her, proclaimed it too. She was somebody now. She had beaten us all, beaten back into us the ever-present, smug, pin-prick sadism towards someone different. She was different, but she was strong, and I was proud of her, even more than after the quiz.

Red is fascinated with Mara, more specifically her devil-may-care attitude and the two begin spending time together regularly. But it’s clear from the outset that this relationship is doomed.

Winter Love, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. There’s no element of surprise here, we know that in the present Red is now married to Andy, a man who resided in the same boarding house as she did during her student days. Red is our narrator and her account of her short, troubled affair with Mara is a vivid memory from the past, a period forever etched in her memory, something that changed her life forever. But with sufficient years having passed since then and with the benefit of distance gained, Red can take a much more analytical view of what happened then, even if she doesn’t always have all the answers.

Only when my mind goes back to that London winter do I feel alive, instead of merely knowing as a fact that I live. In that closed memory do I count my heartbeats by the spirited blood’s surge, there once again I walk with Mara through the evening that is night, holding an electric torch in my hand, the blacked-out glass letting through a faint yellow ring at our feet, and I know what it is to love, to want to die for love. This is still so, and I’m a married woman with a child.

Red is a complex woman. She is extra careful about money, to the point of being a tad miserly, traits that to some extent can be attributed to her troubled childhood. But coming from her vantage point she fails to comprehend Mara’s extravagance. Red is tormented by her longing for Mara – she loves Mara passionately but at the same time, Mara’s docility and non-assertiveness fuels feelings of cruelty in Red. She is also prone to intense jealousy – Red can’t stand the idea of Mara living with her husband Karl but has no problem enjoying Karl’s money, enjoying as she does the comfort and richness of Mara’s luxurious married home.  A part of her wants Mara to abandon Karl and yet the other part doesn’t because she knows that the two can’t survive on Red’s income alone.

Meanwhile, I rather pigged it. I had to be careful with money, one never knew what might happen, and I saved about a third of my allowance because I might need it. The way Mara took taxis, bought books, went to expensive places…whatever she had was expensive. I thought with pleasure, though, that I had a rich friend. I did not know that she could walk out of money and comfort as easily as losing a handkerchief (and she was always losing handkerchiefs). She dazzled me a little, I had not been accustomed to this kind of spending.

In sharp contrast, Mara is careless, dreamy and not assertive when she is with Red. Attuned to being comfortably provided for, Mara is clueless about the harsh realities of life. She detests Karl, can’t bear the physical intimacy with him, and is besotted with Red. But she is not bothered and troubled by how she would get by financially if she were to leave Karl. It’s also very hard to pinpoint her personality. At the beginning of the book, Mara stands out in the crowd not only because of her good looks and money, but also because of her insouciance, an air of indifference that accentuates her superior demeanor – qualities that greatly attract Red. And yet, she hardly ever displays that same confidence with Red and does not fight back when the latter is cruel towards her. While Mara is easily swayed by people and their problems and ready to lend a helping hand wherever she can; Red is suspicious, resentful and would rather not get involved in other people’s lives, she prefers to remain detached and maintain a distance.

Winter Love is a tale of myriad themes – lesbian relationships, doomed love, obsession, self-destruction, class and privilege, how men and women perceive relationships, and the crippling impact of war on everyday living. The topic of class and privilege is exemplified by Mara and Red’s circumstances and personalities, the crucial indicator of how their relationship is bound to eventually play out.

Winter Love is also an indictment of the tenuous relationships between men and women, the discontent between them, how women at that time had to play along and pander to what the men wanted. Given how queer relationships were considered scandalous then, Red and Mara can’t openly proclaim their love for one another; they can be seen in public as friends but not as a couple. Hence, to keep up appearances and conform to societal expectations, they marry men but that experience leaves both deeply disillusioned. Red, particularly, is scathing in her perceptions of men…

What saps men always are, and so incredibly selfish with all their man-made ideas of what women think and how a woman ought to be happy just to be with them. And it isn’t quite true, it never is wholly true, women aren’t happy just being married and having kids and doing the housework, they want something else too. But we’re so unsure of ourselves, we’ve always been so dependent on men for their approval, we feel guilty if we’re not happy as they tell us we ought to be. How few of us really try to find out what we’re like, really, inside?

The book is set in 1944 during a deepened London winter (“It was bitterly cold all the time; and dark, the sun never there, round-the-clock glumness, dim to dark and back again”), that lends the novel its name. The depiction of wartime London is also spot on – the seedy boarding houses, food shortages and rations, air raids that disrupt normal civilian life fairly regularly, the sheer randomness of bombs falling from the sky.

The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. Red and Mara are not particularly likeable, but they make for utterly compelling characters driven by their fears, uncertainties and complex motives. What also works is the stylish writing; the clipped, polished sentences that enhance the novel’s narrative pull. In a nutshell, Winter Love is a captivating rendition of thwarted love, a sensual evocation of an era that is firmly rooted in the past but pulsating with certain themes that resonate even today.

Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns

My Barbara Comyns journey began with The Vet’s Daughter, a strange, off-kilter, brilliant book and I have not looked back after that. Since then I have read and loved The Juniper Tree and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (both reissued by NYRB Classics), but I’ll admit that seeking the rest of the Comyns catalogue has been an uphill task because many of them are out of print. Luckily, she has seen something of a revival in recent times with both Turnpike Books and Daunt Books reissuing some of her titles. I hope that trend continues. Meanwhile, Mr Fox was reissued last year by Turnpike, and as ever it was another excellent Comyns novel.

In terms of tone and style, Barbara Comyns’ Mr Fox is in many ways similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, one of my favourite books in 2020. Both books feature an inexperienced, young woman struggling to break away from the shackles of a bleak existence that makes for fascinating and absorbing reading.

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny.

She lives in an apartment in a building whose lease was handed down to her by her mother. Caroline sublets rooms in the building to an assortment of tenants to maintain a steady flow of income that can support them both. But with the spectre of war looming large, an increasingly uncertain environment compels these tenants to vacate the premises of their own accord.

From thereon, Caroline’s problems only heighten. Government officials and debt collectors come knocking at her door. Having nowhere to go and no one to turn to, in a fit of fright and desperation, Caroline approaches Mr Fox to escape from her predicament.

Mr Fox offers her and Jenny a refuge in his home with the agreement that she take charge of the cooking and other domestic duties. Left with no choice, Caroline accepts his offer, and although they don’t share a bed, Caroline keeps up her end of the bargain as far as housekeeping is concerned.

Mr Fox, meanwhile, keeps the monetary tap flowing by engaging in a slew of dubious projects and black market activities. Characteristic of the men of his ilk, Mr Fox is always dabbling in what he perceives are grand schemes with big payoffs, and yet when it comes to doling out money, he remains a miser. Personality-wise, Mr Fox oscillates between moments of generosity and kindness on one hand and flashes of anger and moody behaviour on the other. This begins to take its toll on Caroline and Jenny.

When air raids erupt in London with rising velocity, Mr Fox takes up a job in a factory located on the outskirts, a place called Straws, and the three of them relocate there, away from the dangerous environs in London.

In Straws, Caroline’s unhappiness only deepens. The house and the neighbourhood are dingy, shabby and dismal, and the dreariness of their existence eats into her spirit. Caroline begins to feel sad and homesick, although she has no place she can truly call her home.

Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.

These are the bare bones of the story and without dwelling too much on the plot, the rest of the novel charts how Caroline and Jenny grapple with their shaky circumstances and navigate a world that is in continuous flux given the dominance of war. Sometimes the two barely manage on their own, sometimes they are compelled to rely on Mr Fox.

One of the most unique features of Mr Fox is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life.

Some of the underlying themes covered in the novel are abject poverty, homelessness, and a woman with no prospects having to depend on the generosity of a man. War is as ever palpable, and is vividly captured by Comyns, particularly the air-raids, blackouts, food rationing, profiteering, and an overall sense of fear, dread and uncertainty.

There was Tantivy (their dog) sitting with his ears back looking perplexed and men were strewn about in tin hats, all blowing away and shouting, “Take cover!” I couldn’t take cover so I started to run, and as I ran I heard aeroplanes; the sky seemed to be full of them, but I dared not look and the wailing sirens were still going. “Take cover! Take cover!” they shouted and I ran so fast my shoes fell off; but I couldn’t stop and the pavements were scorching my bare feet. A woman was opening some garage doors and people seemed to think it was a safe place because they were going in, but they wouldn’t let me because of Tantivy, and I had to go on running even faster on my burning feet, and I thought I could hear machine-guns, or perhaps it was aeroplanes backfiring.

Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

Two NYRB Classics – Natsume Soseki & Barbara Comyns

I read some wonderful books from NYRB Classics in September and because I am rather behind in my reviews, I decided to write about two of them – The Gate and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – in this post. They are as different as chalk and cheese, but excellent in their own way.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple and frugal life on the outskirts of Tokyo. Sosuke works as a clerk in a company and almost never takes a day off. Oyone manages the house. It’s a routine they have been following for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining.

But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku. Koroku is almost ten years younger than Sosuke. In stark contrast to his older brother, Koroku is a selfish and brash man, who has had it easy for much of his life and cannot come to terms with his recently reduced circumstances. Koroku wants Sosuke to approach their aunt and come to an arrangement regards his education, but becomes increasingly impatient with Sosuke’s laidback attitude. Sosuke is in no hurry to move things along.

Koroku reminds Sosuke of his own youth, of how confident he once was with dreams of completing university…only it all fizzles away. Subsequently a series of flashbacks offer a glimpse of Sosuke and Oyone’s background, how they marry and become estranged from their respective families and how they lead an existence of isolation with not many ties.

And yet, Sosuke and Oyone are content in their closed world, happy in their marriage in their own way.

Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little else that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.  

The one blemish is their inability to have children. On this front, the book is laced with some heartbreaking passages, which elucidates this tragic development in some detail and how it affects both of them.

While Koroku’s predicament is the driving force of the tale, there are also some other smaller moments of tension that propel the narrative along such as Oyone’s illness and the sale of a Meiji period screen the couple possess.

As the novel progresses, while on the one hand Sosuke forges a new friendship with favourable consequences, on the other, the possibility of a chance encounter looms large, which has the danger of raking up a past he is keen to forget.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. I was first entranced by the completely off-kilter The Vet’s Daughter and then followed it up with the brilliant The Juniper Tree which found a place on my Best Books of 2019 list.

In both those books, there was something fascinating about her female characters and their unique narrative voices and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is no different, although this story is more straightforward compared to the other two.

The narrator in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy place, although this happiness has come at a considerable price. Here’s the opening passage…

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

This paragraph is important because we are immediately taken back to Sophia’s grim past filled with poverty and harrowing ordeals that she has to endure, and it’s those opening lines that make some of the difficult moments in the novel bearable.

The story begins when Sophia meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. Sophia at the time is working at an artist studio with a regular pay, while Charles has not been too successful in selling his paintings yet.

Charles’ parents are separated and both oppose the marriage at first – his mother strongly opines that marriage will greatly hamper Charles’ artistic career. But eventually they come around.

The couple move into their new flat – small but within their budget. Things are hunky dory at first but quickly, it becomes clear that Charles is a selfish man, not capable of taking on responsibilities. The only thing that interests him is his painting. Meanwhile, Sophia is struggling as she juggles her job with domestic duties. And then she finds out she is pregnant, a development which both delights and unnerves her, but greatly horrifies Charles.

What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent. Not surprisingly, their marriage begins to falter.

Charles and Sophia’s circumstances are not always bleak though. There are some periods in their life when money does come their way and they are able to enjoy the finer things in life – a better flat, a larger friend circle involving a lot of entertaining, and good food. But the ground beneath them is always shaky, and the prospect of money running out continuously hangs like a sword over their heads.

That’s the basic outline of the story, but suffice to say a lot more happens as the novel moves forward.

The most striking feature about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia’s voice – frank, captivating and quite child-like. Sophia is naïve about a lot of things, especially birth control, thinking that “if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.”

Barbara Comyns’ writing is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. It blunts to a greater effect the sharp edges of her suffering and prevents the novel from being utterly tragic. There’s also solace in the knowledge that she makes it through that difficult period in her life, as clearly shown in the first chapter.

The book also highlights some of the problems that women had to grapple with in the early 20th century. For instance, when Sophia announces her pregnancy to her boss, she is fired – the protection of maternity leave was pretty much non-existent at the time. Also, treatment in public hospitals especially maternity wards left a lot to be desired. There are a couple of chapters focusing on the time when she is in labor – she is shunted from room to room despite being in immense pain made all the more horrifying by the nurses’ obvious lack of compassion.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Comyns’ earlier work – her second novel in fact – and there are a lot of autobiographical shades to it. Indeed, here’s one of the things displayed on the copyright page…

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

It’s another brilliant novel from Comyns and I plan to gradually make my way through all of her books as and when they become available (there are quite a few that are out of print and hard to obtain).