Forbidden Notebook – Alba de Céspedes (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook has been garnering rave reviews of late and after reading it, I can say that the hype is totally justified. The novel is translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein who was also the translator for Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan Novels.

In the later pages of Forbidden Notebook, there’s a scene where Valeria Cossatti, our protagonist and the narrator is having lunch with her glamorous friend Clara at her place, a penthouse apartment in Rome. Divorced from her husband, Clara is now an independent woman and a successful filmmaker, but by then Valeria’s position has become much more complex. Her outward façade continues to be that of a traditional woman confined to the role of a homemaker and catering to the needs of her husband and two children, but inwardly Valeria has begun to seethe and resist these conventional norms she is expected to adhere to. Clara believes that Valeria has been lucky to achieve all that she wanted by marrying, but by then Valeria and the reader know the reality to be entirely different – Valeria has been experiencing a deep sense of disillusionment, a feeling she is unable to share with Clara.

It is this intense conflict, growing resistance, and the dual nature of her thoughts and emotions that forms the essence of Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook – a rich, multilayered novel of domestic dissatisfaction and awakening seen through the prism of a woman’s private diary. Set in 1950s Rome, not only does the book boldly challenge the validity of restrictive, orthodox roles thrust upon women, and the heartaches of motherhood, but it also dwells on writing as a powerful tool for a woman to find her voice and be heard when those closest to her fail to do so.

The novel’s opening line “I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong” sets the tone of this feverish narrative where one Sunday on a whim Valeria purchases a notebook from a tobacconist’s shop. Thus, in one fell swoop, her action is forbidden on two counts – (a) purchasing notebooks from tobacconists was prohibited on Sundays by law, (b) the very act of diary-writing, hitherto unknown to her, must be shrouded in secrecy without her family ever finding out.

Beginning in November 1950, Valeria’s initial diary entries paint a picture of contented family life, but cracks soon begin to appear on the surface and the growing discontent bubbles forth. We learn that Valeria and her husband Michele are both in their forties with two grown-up children Riccardo and Mirella who are twenty and living with them.

Financially, the family isn’t too well-off. Michele works at a bank and out of necessity Valeria is a working woman too, although privately she enjoys and values her work life with all the sense of pride that comes with it. But it’s a household where Valeria does not have the agency to discuss how meaningful her work is to her, she immediately knows that no one will take her seriously. It is okay for her to publicly admit that she is working to supplement the family income, but she can’t say that her work adds meaning and purpose to her life. Michele does get a promotion and their finances thereafter improve but not significantly enough to improve their standard of living. The strained financial circumstances start impacting Riccardo and Mirella’s outlook too. Riccardo decides to find a job and relocate to Argentina, while Mirella having studied law, starts working in a law firm and begins going out with her colleague, a successful, sophisticated, and much older man who showers her with expensive gifts and instills in her a taste for fine living.

Meanwhile, Valeria is defined by the stereotyped roles of a wife and a mother which imply a life of uncomplaining selflessness and service to others. Dull, monotonous household chores and daily meals take up most of her time, and she struggles to find time for herself, some peace and quiet that she can devote to writing in her notebook. Valeria is aware that even boldly proclaiming her newfound activity will be looked upon incredulously by her family who take her for granted and can’t imagine her indulging in something that is only for herself.

In the beginning, Valeria is tormented by the presence of a secret diary and by its very nature keeping Michele in the dark, and yet she inwardly rebels at the idea of stopping it. She continues to write late into the night but is always fearful of the consequences if her diary is found. Even finding a hiding place for her diary is a challenge, there’s no place in the house that she can truly call her own.

As the novel progresses, we begin to glimpse faults within the family that only fuel Valeria’s growing unhappiness, and the later diary entries reflect her newfound awareness, frustrations with her husband and children, and the growing desire to walk away from it all. She desperately longs for someone to talk to, but having lived a life for so long where her opinions were always moulded by tradition and authority, she can’t quite bring herself to be frank and assertive. In that aspect, the notebook is her silent companion, its pages opening up to her so that she can express herself and her true feelings.

Her children’s behaviour disturbs her too, albeit in different ways. Riccardo grows up to be an unremarkable man with a rigid, limited way of thinking. He begins a relationship with an extremely quiet and docile woman Marina hoping to marry and settle down, a woman who fails to make an impression on Valeria and she wishes Riccardo had chosen a partner who was strong and not meek.  But in light of Riccardo’s growing misogynistic tendencies, his choice of a match is hardly a surprise to the reader – Marina is a woman he can boss and push around.

It is Mirella’s transformation into a fiercely independent woman that is one of the most interesting aspects of the book and the many intense, heated discussions that she has with Valeria regarding her choices are one of the novel’s many highlights.

“That is what disgusts me, mamma. You think you’re obliged to serve everyone, starting with me. So, little by little, the others end up believing it. You think that for a woman to have some personal satisfaction, besides those of the house and the kitchen, is a fault, that her job is to serve. I don’t want that, you understand? I don’t want that.”

Essentially, Mirella becomes what Valeria would have wanted to become but could not. Mirella’s observations and arguments display a keen perception and maturity that unnerve Valeria. By taking up a job and becoming financially independent, by taking on a lover and rejecting the established ideal of marriage, she is an embodiment of a modern woman and a threat to Valeria’s outmoded ideas especially at a time when Valeria’s sense of self and the roles assigned to her begins to crumble and breakdown. During one of their many high-octane conversations, Mirella accuses Valeria of being jealous of the choices she has made, which shocks Valeria at the time, but within the private confines of her diary, she’s forced to admit however difficult, that Mirella may be right.

But at the end of the day, Forbidden Notebook is all about Valeria and her continuous struggle with her outward persona that is more and more at odds with her interior self. It is this duality of character, of trying to keep up with both personalities that cause her much anguish, a tussle incredulously unnoticed by those closest to her as they remain selfishly absorbed with their own problems. If she was perfectly happy being a conventional housewife, life would have gone on as before. If she was sure of her desire to upend her current life and start entirely afresh, she would have taken that step too just like her friend Clara did. But the root of Valeria’s problems is the difficulty in making that decision, of resolving that conflict. She’s caught between a rock and a hard place – her newly discovered self-awareness prevents her from going back to her old life, yet at the same time her hard-to-dismantle old-fashioned and patriarchal outlook prevents her from abandoning it.

Conditioned to adhere to conservative roles, Valeria instinctively chastises Mirella for having a lover and rejecting marriage and children, but at the same time finds herself attracted to her boss who is a married man, an affair she is not ready to terminate. She supports Ricardo’s decision to marry and yet disapproves of his choice of a wife; she wished he had not chosen someone weak like Marina, and yet it is obvious that a strong-willed woman would never have married Riccardo.

Mirella’s gutsy decision to live life on her own terms by rebuking conventionality and the blossoming of a romance with her boss Guido are the two chief catalysts that force Valeria to re-examine her life, particularly her marriage, in a new and altered light. Her relationship with Michele has slid into an all-too-comfortable space, the feeling that they live like siblings rather than as husband and wife. The romance and passion of those initial days of marriage have vanished; the ensuing war and birth of the children thereafter fail to revive that intimacy, although they remain fond of one another.

Maybe that’s what for so many years prevents us from being as we were when we were newly married, or when the children were little and didn’t understand anything: it’s the presence of the children on the other side of the wall. You have to wait until they’ve gone out, you have to be certain you won’t be surprised; and the children are everywhere, in a house. At night you have to resort to darkness, to silence, restrain every word, every moan, and in the morning not remember what happened out of fear that they might read the memory of it in your eyes.

Michele is also full of double standards – there’s a scene where he openly admires Clara for her independence, wealth and success, and yet expresses disapproval of Valeria walking down that same path borne out of the idea that it is okay for other women to lead unconventional lives while his wife must remain conventional.

Enmeshed into these narratives is also her complicated relationship with her mother, who isn’t entirely supportive of Valeria’s life and choices even if, ironically, Valeria has never rebelled the way Mirella has.

The past no longer served to protect us, and we had no certainty about the future. Everything in me is confused, and I can’t talk about it with my mother or my daughter because neither would understand. They belong to two different worlds: the one that ended with that time, the other that it gave birth to. And in me these two worlds clash, making me groan. Maybe that’s why I often feel. that I have no substance. Maybe I am only this passage, this clash.

As a result, Valeria’s sense of loneliness only accentuates even when she’s with the family, as she yearns to break the shackles that have bound her to them for so long. She longs for Venice as a gateway to paradise, first with Michele once the children have left home for good, but then later with Guido to escape the claustrophobic confines of home and the demands it makes of her. But will she go through with it is the million-dollar question.

If she had the courage and wasn’t so influenced by the norms of patriarchy, she could have walked away from her husband who viewed her as just another fixture in the house, and she could have left her children who were capable of fending for themselves, even if society would not have accepted the idea of a woman walking out on her husband and children. But for Valeria it’s not that simple because to undertake such a step would mean to admit that her past life accounted for nothing, and accepting that is much harder.

Thus, in Forbidden Notebook, we see a rich array of themes on display – marriage, family life, the sorrow of children flying the nest, the widening generational gap, the importance and value of wealth and money, the tussle between traditional values and modern ideas, but more importantly the sense of purpose in a woman’s life which is not necessarily defined by her husband and children, and her right to her own private space. Forbidden Notebook also explores the idea of writing as a refuge and private act of confession which in Valeria’s case is a double-edged sword – It gives her that alone time and means of expression not available otherwise, and yet it’s also an act that instills unbearable fear, she remains on tenterhooks afraid of its discovery and along with it the invasion of her private domain. Writing in her notebook allows Valeria to dig deeper into her life and yet her observations and analysis also frighten her, she almost wishes she could destroy her notebook so that life could turn back to what it was – simple compared to the complex emotions and feelings the notebook has stirred.

Because when I write in this notebook I feel I’m committing a serious sin, a sacrilege: it’s as if I were talking to the devil. Opening it, my hands tremble; I’m afraid. I see the white pages, the dense parallel lines ready to receive the chronicle of my future days, and even before I’ve lived them, I’m distressed. I know that my reactions to the facts I write down in detail lead me to know myself more intimately every day. Maybe there are people who, knowing themselves, are able to improve; but the better I know myself, the more lost I become. Besides, I don’t know what feelings could stand up to a ruthless, continuous analysis; or who among us, reflected in every action, could be satisfied with ourself. It seems to me that in life you have to choose a line of conduct, confirm it with yourself and others, and then forget those gestures, those actions, that contradict it. You have to forget them. My mother always says that people with short memories are lucky.

Billed as a feminist classic, Forbidden Notebook, then, is a masterclass of insight and imagination, brilliant in the way it provides a window into a woman’s interior life, an internal struggle that oscillates between the desire to find her own voice and also keep it hidden. Highly recommended!


The Stone Angel – Margaret Laurence

I must thank Dorian, Frances and Rebecca, hosts of the lovely bookish podcast One Bright Book for bringing Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel to my attention; they will be discussing this novel in their next episode (very much looking forward to it). I loved it so much that I’ve already bought the next book in the Manawaka series, A Jest of God, and plan to read the others as well.

Set in the fictional region of Manawaka modeled on the province of Manitoba where Margaret Laurence grew up, The Stone Angel is a brilliant, poignant tale of loss, heartbreak, and old age with a fiery, unforgettable female character at its core.

The image of the stone angel greets the reader in the novel’s opening pages described by the protagonist as “my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.” Placed in the Manawaka cemetery and made of marble, we are told that she was not the only angel there, but “she was the first, the largest and certainly the costliest.” As the years pile on, this marble angel loses much of her sheen due to neglect and apathy, and it is this deterioration that pretty much mirrors the journey of the novel’s central character.

And so we come to Hagar Shipley, the protagonist and narrator of this Canadian classic, who when the book opens is an old woman in her nineties staying with her eldest son Marvin and his wife Doris, who are in their sixties. Even at that age, Hagar still has her wits about her, and yet there are unmistakable signs that her health is failing, a fact that she is too proud to acknowledge.

For the most part, Hagar resents having to be looked after by Marvin and Doris; she desperately craves her independence, but even at her most vulnerable moments she’s forced to admit that she needs them. Marvin and Doris struggle to deal with Hagar’s intransigence; they aren’t young anymore either and their first suggestion of selling the house and moving to a smaller place is vehemently opposed by Hagar. But with the burden of caregiving proving to be quite onerous at least for Doris, they outline plans of shifting Hagar to an old age home where she can receive all the care she needs and it is this intention that ultimately unsettles Hagar. She rebels, both outwardly and inwardly, and makes one last attempt to fight for her independence, relying on her resourcefulness that has helped her move forward in a life that has only doled out disappointments, many of them a direct consequence of Hagar’s stubbornness.

Enmeshed with Hagar’s present and attempts to cope with old age are flashbacks and reflections on her past that are often triggered by certain objects or episodes in the current moment. We learn about Hagar’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father Jason Currie whose stubbornness she seems to have inherited. Jason Currie was a self-made man who through sheer hard work and industriousness ran the Currie store in Manawaka, and these are qualities that he strives to imbibe in Hagar and her two brothers.

We then come to Hagar’s tumultuous marriage with Brampton Shipley and her difficult relationship with her sons that ultimately form the backbone of the novel; a central tragedy buried deep that Hagar refuses to talk about in the ensuing years, only to finally open up in the book’s final pages as these repressed emotions resurface.  

Sexually attracted to Brampton, a man around ten years older to her, Hagar marries him much against her father’s wishes, possibly as an act of rebellion, subsequently severing ties with him. But Hagar remains unhappy in their marriage; she is repelled by Brampton’s uncouth behaviour and his coarse manners which have none of the refinement familiar to her. Brampton is a farmer, but with no inclination to put in the discipline and hard work that the vocation requires; he latches on to frivolous money-making schemes that lead nowhere and shows a penchant for long bouts of drinking that frustrate Hagar.

Hagar’s relationship with her two sons is even more complicated, where she openly displays her favouritism – deeply loving one son while pretty much ignoring the other. Marvin, her eldest, is unfairly looked upon with scorn only because she perceives him to be similar to Brampton who she has grown to loathe. It is her younger son, John, who becomes the apple of her eye, to the point that she pins all her hopes on him. However well-intentioned she deems her motives to be, there’s a sense that she’s controlling John and he is trying hard to escape her claustrophobic influence. For all the love and sacrifice she showers upon John, he chooses a path that does not align with her vision for him. John slides into a vagabond life causing Hagar much anguish (“Wait until you have a son, and plan for him, and work like a navvy and it all comes to nothing”), and it is ironic that the qualities of sincerity and drive that she values so much and tries to instill in John pretty much go unnoticed in Marvin. This irony is not lost on John, who during one of their many heated discussions, states with crystal clear clarity (‘You always bet on the wrong horse,’ John said gently. ‘Marv was your boy, but you never saw that, did you?’).

Difficulties of old age, the heavy price of pride, how choices made in your youth can have an irreversible impact on the way your life subsequently shapes up, the complexity of family dynamics with its unshakeable baggage, and the notions of freedom and independence are some of the core themes explored in the novel. It is also a novel about how the same mistakes or behavioral traits often get passed down generations – for instance, Hagar had no qualms about rebelling against her father but struggles to understand John’s resistance towards her.

But The Stone Angel is all about Hagar Shipley; hell, the stone angel is Hagar Shipley, a symbolism made all the more poignant and powerful when the biggest tragedy of her life produces no tears as if she has turned into a figure of stone. Tough, resourceful, fierce, and a force to reckon with, Hagar’s life is marked by losses and failures which she has not been ready to accept. Displaying an unyielding personality for most of her life, she remains a disappointed woman whose decisions and choices cause deep, unbridgeable rifts in relationships with those closest to her. Hagar’s world is defined only by the way she sees it, she is unwilling to consider other viewpoints and it is this intransigence that in many ways forms the root cause of the tragedies she endures. If she has reached the age of ninety, it’s her resilience and determination to take things in her stride that have carried her there, but the reader senses no joy within her in the path she has chosen. It is perhaps telling that a fiercely proud woman who values freedom and independence above all else, is not free but bound by the shackles of her pride. Hagar likes to think that she does not care for what people think of her, but the reality is quite different and much of Hagar’s viewpoints and decisions are coloured by other people’s opinions.

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched. Oh, my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine? Nothing can take away those years.

It is only in the last couple of chapters as Hagar is forced to come to terms with the difficulties and indignities of old age that the hardness that was stored up inside her begins to thaw; in a chapter where she miraculously bonds with a stranger, Hagar releases all her pent up emotions, particularly in connection with her son John. That revelation may have arrived a tad too late, but then perhaps not – Hagar does get an opportunity to finally acknowledge Marvin and there’s a sense that she may have ultimately found some peace.

In a story that is drenched with heartbreak and moments of sadness, it is Hagar’s powerful voice that balances the darkness with moments of pungent, acerbic wit; an aspect evident as much as in her conversations as in her interior monologues. These snatches of humour are particularly amplified in her observations as an old woman, which display a blend of both – wisdom gained through hindsight and a staunch refusal to bend to the will of others. She is particularly hard on poor Doris, who to be fair is not entirely likeable, but some of Hagar’s opinions on her daughter-in-law, as she gives her mind free rein, are priceless…

All would be lovely, all would be calm, except or Doris’s voice squeaking like a breathless mouse. She has to explain the sights. Perhaps she believes me blind.

‘My, doesn’t everything look green?’ she says, as though it were a marvel that the fields were not scarlet and the alders aquamarine. Marvin says nothing. Nor do I. Who could make a sensible reply?

On the face of it, Hagar Shipley is not exactly an easy character to like, but it is a testament to Laurence’s brilliant, sensitive writing that the reader is ultimately moved by the pain she has endured as well as by her willingness to finally let her defenses drop.

Laurence’s descriptive powers are also on full display throughout the novel, she has a way with words that conjures up a vivid sense of place. Here is one such passage when Hagar finds herself in a forest…

Enormous leaves glow like green glass, the sunlight illuminating them. Tree trunks are tawny and gilded. Cedar boughs hold their dark and intricate tracery like gates against the sky. Sun and shadow mingle here, making the forest mottled, changing, dark and light.  

A beautifully observed, poignant tale about a deeply flawed woman, The Stone Angel is a novel I’m glad to have read.

Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no on like me in this world.

The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin – Maeve Brennan

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crampton Hodnet – Barbara Pym

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Thousand Million Man-Power – Gertrude Trevelyan

Last year, I read a couple of marvellous books published by Boiler House Press under their Recovered Books imprint – Herbert Clyde Lewis’s Gentleman Overboard and Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present – and therefore was very much looking forward to Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan, a novel and an author completely new to me. Trevelyan published eight novels in her lifetime, tragedy struck when her house was bombed during the Blitz – she didn’t immediately die but succumbed to her injuries a year later. Anyway, I thought this was an absolutely terrific novel.

More than halfway into Two Thousand Million Man-Power, in a fit of abject despair and hopelessness, Robert Thomas stumbles towards the grim, gray docks of London. It has been many months since he was laid off, and Robert has lost all hopes of ever finding a job. To make matters worse, he is overcome with guilt and shame for the stress his unemployed status has imposed on his wife Katherine, feelings that refuse to go away. After another fruitless search and afraid of heading home during the middle of the day, Robert ambles along to the desolate, grimy vista of water. Is this just aimless wandering? Or is there a darker purpose in store? The reader begins to wonder until Robert reaches the edge of the water; a piercingly sad moment when Robert’s true intentions suddenly become clear.

Robert does not go through with suicide, but it is one of the many moments of creeping dread that punctuate Two Thousand Million Man-Power, a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.

When we first meet Robert Thomas, he is in his early twenties employed as a chemist at a cosmetics firm. Robert spends his days in the laboratory deriving formulae and brewing mixtures to be converted into creams and lotions, while evenings are spent in a dingy rented room working on his thesis of Time. We are talking of a period somewhere in the early 1920s when the world has just emerged from the brutality of World War One. Robert is an aspiring intellectual often attending political lectures and debates after work and it is during one of these gatherings that he meets and falls in love with Katherine Bott.

Katherine is also an idealist, working as a teacher in a council school. Katherine immediately comes across as a tad cold; she is contemptuous of her colleagues and their rigid outlook and not very sympathetic when a married teacher faces the possibility of losing her teaching job (in keeping with a newly introduced law that prohibits married women from working). Despite her intellectual leanings that involve evenings spent attending lectures and meetings, Katherine’s existence is otherwise dry, residing in a dismal bedsit in what is probably a slum-infested area.

Katherine’s biggest fear is treading the path of the bourgeoisie with all the mundaneness that it entails. She yearns for an intellectual life, somewhere on the higher plane, and one of the reasons why she is drawn to Robert is his scientific profession, a calling that fits in with her ideals of progress and prosperity (“She was thinking that knowing somebody who was doing research and making exciting discoveries was the next best thing to doing it oneself”). Katherine is impressed with the idea that Robert is writing a thesis, which she thinks could translate into something momentous, although Robert is vague about what he hopes to achieve.

She thought about progress and about Robert: about what she and Robert were going to do for progress – what she was going to help Robert to do for progress – and what progress was going to do for them. 

The two begin to see each other regularly and the first half of the book focuses more on their tentative courtship – evenings that Katherine spends in Robert’s room that creates a problem with Robert’s landlady later on, going for long walks around the city just so that they can continue having a conversation, a situation that almost leaves them miserable and frustrated. Despite Robert’s proposal of marriage, Katherine remains hesitant because she frets over being a burden on Robert and his ambitions.

Robert often contemplates ditching his job at the cosmetics firm for the prospect of something better, but on Katherine’s insistence hangs on. That strategy pays off and Robert is finally awarded a salary raise which coupled with royalties on one of his inventions signals a significant improvement in fortune. Finally, the two marry, their series of furtive meetings come to an end, and the couple soon transitions into a phase of comfortable living and a marked improvement in lifestyle. A bigger house and a car befitting their status, modern furniture, the wireless, and all other paraphernalia associated with a modern suburban existence – all bought on an installment basis – give the impression that the Thomases are finally achieving their dreams of being upwardly mobile after being hampered by limited means for so long.

Sadly though, that brief period of prosperity comes to an end when Robert is fired from his job. Suddenly hurled into depths of poverty, the couple is forced to scale down and shift to dingy lodgings that scream squalor; Robert trudges every day to the city desperately seeking any work that is to be found (even those unrelated to his skills), while Katherine is compelled to hunt for a teaching post again because they are barely making ends meet.

Kath was earning, Kath was keeping them; Complexion Solvent wasn’t bringing in much now, not more than a few shillings a week. Kath was out at eight and back at six, doing the work of the flat. The thought of it drove him out early – out when she was out – and sent him tramping the streets farther and more at random. He took to applying for labourers’ jobs, though he knew they went to men from the labour exchanges. He stood in queues for hours for jobs he knew he wouldn’t get and tramped along streets of small shops with his eyes dragging the windows for Wanted cards, Apply Within.

He knew he had to get a job, because of Kath. Kath couldn’t go on, he couldn’t go on letting Kath. He plodded along with his eyes on the windows, hair-cut and small tailors, Apprentice wanted, Smart Lad to learn. He knew there was a job somewhere, and he had to find it. He turned a corner and came face to face across the street with a slab of house-high hoardings, Bovo for Bonny Bairns, and a grinning crane-top in a gap between roofs. He knew suddenly with certainty that he would never get a job. 

Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War, Robert and Katherine’s earlier relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments. These were a tumultuous couple of decades where transatlantic flights, rising production, manufacturing marvels and rapid industrialization heralded an era of “progress, prosperity and peace” although this march of capitalism often displayed its darker side which Katherine rationalized as “the price of progress”, only to be followed by the Great Depression and the ominous rumblings of war.

Sensation flight R.101. Conquest of peace is imminent. Wall Street. Soviet plane completes first flight, Moscow – New York twelve thousand miles. In Italy, successful trial, six thousand horse-power bombing plane. Giant submarine is launched by France. Panic strikes New York stock market. Prosperity; no danger here. Bank rate is down by half cent. Huge figures in road fund report, increase in driving licences. Gas suicides; air suicide. First. Air crash, train crash, bus crash, planes crash. New race to come through gland control. Progress, prosperity and peace.

At the height of their poverty, Robert is often struck by the symbol of this endlessly grinding machine, a heartless system that just chugs along indifferent to the plight of individual lives; sometimes the system can pick you up, sometimes it will discard you and these dramatic changes in fate are as arbitrary as the random throw of the dice.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power reverberates with myriad themes – the extent to which individuals are governed by economic developments and political upheavals, the hard reality of capitalism with its benefits and pitfalls, the damaging consequences of poverty and the narrowness in perspective that comes along with it, the crippling shame of unemployment, the quest for finding purpose in life, class differences and so on. Often during their marriage, Robert wonders about his purpose – on one hand he is glad that things with Katherine seem to be on the mend, and yet there is a part of him that feels progressively empty. He is plagued by a nagging thought that his abandoned thesis might have given him a sense of self if not fame or money.

There wasn’t much the machine hadn’t had from him. He’d thought once it was the want of money that did it, but he had plenty of money now and it was just the same. There’d been a time when he used to believe in things, and in Kath, and in himself, and now he didn’t believe in anything. He’d dropped himself, somewhere, long ago.

The class differences come to the fore when Robert’s unemployment becomes an issue – he laments at not being entitled to a “dole” like the working class even if his plight is just as bad as theirs or even worse; a statement on the ruthlessness of a capitalist system.  

“Because theoretically, theoretically mind you, we belong to the capitalist class. Although I’ve been out of a job for over a year. And the family that gets one of those flats may be earning four or five pounds a week between them. Now it’s a very remarkable thing,” he said, the hot food expansive in him, “that not only would the Council indignantly deny us any right to benefit from the rates, but the fellow in the council house earning his four pounds still feels that we are better off than he is. Still resents us. Now why do you think that is?” 

But at the novel’s very core is a story of a marriage – a relationship that is strong when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, but whose mettle is severely tested when the going gets tough. It’s a searing depiction of a young couple’s dreams and ideals fading away in the relentless harshness of everyday life; an intense, unflinching gaze at how a debilitating experience can scar two people and subtly drive them apart at least when it comes to what they expect from life.

As far as the two main protagonists go, Robert comes across as more sympathetic than Katherine at least to this reader. During their long courtship and earlier days of marriage, both Robert and Katherine’s goals and aspirations seem similarly aligned and differences in their personalities do not matter much when they both wish for the same things. When they are plunged into poverty, however, this gulf only widens; Robert grapples with guilt and shame, longing for some sympathy from Katherine, while Katherine turns increasingly bitter, the sediment of resentment settled well within her as she openly and internally curses Robert. With Robert sinking into despondency, one can’t help but acknowledge that it is Katherine’s practical approach and single-mindedness that ultimately pulls them out of their hole, although the two are dramatically altered by that traumatic experience. Katherine is a complex woman and it is perhaps ironic that a woman who looked down upon the bourgeoisie and was also a tad condescending towards those who she perceived to be lower than her in status, finds herself pushed into even lower depths when the tide turns for the worse.

The placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape is what makes the novel so unique and remarkable; two realms that move in parallel, not always converging. It imparts a real-time quality to the story and accentuates how contemporary Trevelyan was, sharply aware of world events unfolding around her. Her hard-edged often gritty prose, her powers of perception, and her keen insights into human nature particularly in the way she captures the interiority of her characters, lend the narrative a psychological edge that is riveting and compelling.

In a nutshell, Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a dark but magnificent and powerful piece of writing that has only whetted my appetite for more of Trevelyan’s work. Highly recommended!