Checkout 19 – Claire-Louise Bennett

In 2016, I was highly impressed by Pond, a book that featured on my Best of 2016 list that year. Not surprisingly, I was really looking forward to Checkout 19, and was lucky to procure a signed copy from the Blackwell’s UK website.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The book comprises a total of seven pieces. I began the book thinking that these are seven different chapters, but on progressing further, I noticed many themes and motifs that are intertwined, denying it the neat classification of a short story collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on some of the pieces separately, because I don’t know how else to approach it.

In the first piece called ‘A Silly Business”, the narrative voice is first person plural (as if they are complicit with the reader) and we are immediately plunged into Bennett’s highly original writing, as our narrator begins talking about books and our attitude towards them. She highlights how we go to a library, pull out six to eight books, and once we have them, we can’t really get engrossed in them. Once we begin reading a book, we immediately begin to wonder what lurks in the pages of the other tomes.

It really was just the same no matter which book we picked up. As long as there were other books we thought about the sorts of words they might contain non-stop and were thus precluded from becoming engrossed with the very book we had in our hands. The very book. A silly business. Yes, it was a silly business.

Bennett, then, dives into our narrator’s childhood love for reading, how the books she read had an aura of exclusivity about them, a hobby greatly encouraged by her mother, and yet there was a hidden corner in the house which displayed a row of books that were out of bounds for young readers. It didn’t stop our narrator from secretly opening this cupboard with mixed feelings of curiosity and anxiety, and pulling out a book – “We were looking at things that were no business of ours. Illicit things.”

In the second piece called ‘Bright Spark’, our narrator elaborates on her deep craving for solitude, and the crush she has on her English teacher, Mr Burton, highlighting how he is a critical force in her school years, encouraging her talent as a writer and in a way laying a foundation for her career. She adores him, his classes are lively and exciting, but she hates how he is seemingly quite pally with the boys, a sort of male bonding that excludes her. She wonders about his life outside the classroom. Then, one day, he fails to appear for a class and his place is taken by a substitute teacher who is no patch on Mr Burton. In a fit of boredom, our narrator begins doodling on the back of her exercise book, and failing to capture Mr Burton’s facial features in an attempted drawing, she begins to feverishly pen a story. Mr Burton later chances upon it and a bond is formed.

He was with me very strongly when I lay in the dark, it was almost as if I was made of him. Writing could do that. Here was a way of reaching someone, of being with them, when you were not and never could be. Here was where we met. Here was where the distinction between us blurred. When he returned my story to me the following Tuesday the paper was covered with him – touching it was like touching his skin.

The third piece, ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, the longest and my favourite of the lot, is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and reality dotted with a dazzling array of authors and books which played an important role in shaping our narrator’s world. Our narrator tells us how when she was in her twenties, she penned the story of Tarquin Superbus – “a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” The era is never defined, but when he is having conversations with the Doctor, our narrator imagines “gentlemen in the mid-1800s so to speak – byzantine, comical and portending.” Where is his apartment situated? Vienna possibly, but Venice seems apt – “if his grasp on reality is a little shaky to say the least, Tarquin Superbus is in Venice, because, after all, what reality is there to be found in Venice?”

Our narrator subsequently chronicles a chain of events in Superbus’ life – his close relationship with the Doctor who looked like Death (“there was nothing inside of him, he was vaporous, empty as a hologram, he achieved movement, not via the mechanism of his body, but by the fact that he consisted of a substance lighter than air – Death.”), but more importantly the central feature in his life which is the acquisition of a large library of books. The possession of such a gargantuan library, at first, makes Superbus a figure of awe and reverence, and he revels in his sense of importance. But this respect quickly gives way to contempt and derision, which begins to trouble Superbus deeply.

When he confides to his close friend the Doctor, the latter enters Superbus’ visually stunning library, begins pulling out various books off the shelves and feverishly turning their pages. He delivers his shocking verdict – all the pages in the books are literally blank, there is not a single printed word.

That is the original outline of the story penned by our narrator in her twenties, an enterprise that is thwarted by an incident revealed in the final pages of this piece.  In later years, however, she adds to it the dramatic revelation by the Doctor…

The pages Tarquin, are all blank, except for one page. Within the collection there is one page that is not blank – at least not entirely. It has upon it one sentence; that’s all, that’s it – one sentence. And this one sentence contains everything. Everything.

In subsequent years, our narrator often goes back to this story, rewriting it and embellishing it with books and authors that have influenced her way of thinking with the result that as a reader what we are reading is a retelling of the Superbus story.

The Doctor provided no explanation of this sort in the story I wrote all those years ago. The pages of Superbus’ library were blank, and that was all there was to it. It seems in the retelling I have got carried away. But then I have read so much and written so much since then it is hardly to be wondered at that in the meantime some ideas pertaining to the potency of the written word, based upon direct and seismic experiences, have been developing inside of me and should find their way out…

It’s a story that acts as a framing device as our narrator then deviates from that path and ventures into a range of topics and life experiences that occupy her thoughts – how women in the earlier century, restricted to the household, were belittled driving them to point of madness; how she is drawn to shadows rather than light citing Tanizaki’s concept of ‘visible darkness’; a boyfriend who mocks her reading choices; a trip to Florence influenced by Foster’s A Room with a View; a journey to Tangier and Fez prompted by Paul Bowles’ life (“what kind of person, who had the kinds of connections and opportunities that Paul Bowles must certainly have had, feels that life in New York would be boring nevertheless?”), how she is of the view that Anais Nin should be read later on in life, “when one has solidified and feels so very sure of themselves and would perhaps benefit from coming undone, from perhaps going out of their minds”, how her boyfriend Dale keeps poetry by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath out of her reach because they committed suicide, and whether she has what it takes to be a writer.

I had read a few books by Francoise Sagan, including “Bonjour Tristesse”, which I discovered she’d written when she was just eighteen, and that threw me into a tizz for a little while because I would have been that exact age when I read “Bonjour Tristesse”, but the things I was writing at that time when I was that age had none of the clarity and assuredness of Sagan’s work, they were autotelic and inscrutable and quite often when I read back over them I didn’t understand them at all, they perplexed and disturbed me, they didn’t tell a story, they expressed confusion and despair and desire and anger, irrepressible forces which issued out of dissonance that existed between my interior life and the world around me, and nobody would want to read that…

In the fifth piece ‘We Were the Drama’, among many things, our narrator recalls her impromptu trip to the seaside city of Brighton, a spur of the moment excursion that considerably distresses her boyfriend Dale. She talks about how she had no idea about Brighton’s best kept secret at the time – Ann Quin, but subsequently comes to love her imaginative work, particularly Berg. She also dwells on how Quin’s working-class circumstances stifle and terrorize her, how her job in a Cornwall hotel is a symbol of mind-numbing tedium. Her travels to the US are a bright spot, but the return to menial work again fills her with dread and consequently compels her to committ suicide. But Ann Quin’s suicide is the not the only one that haunts the pages of this piece, our narrator witnesses another disturbing death of an unknown person in an unfamiliar place that leaves an indelible impression on her mind.

As I said before, the boundaries of genre in Checkout 19 are pretty blurred, but interestingly, the second and third parts (‘Bright Spark’ and ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’) form the essential core of the book and the subsequent pieces build on the ideas showcased in those two sections cementing the idea that this is possibly a novel with its seemingly disparate pieces bound together by the recurrence of certain themes, motifs, incidents and images. For instance, the man who pushes a book into our narrator’s hand when she is a supermarket cashier assigned to checkout 19, reappears later as a Russian guy who glides through the aisles at the speed of light always pushing the basket in front of him. The increasingly possessive boyfriend Dale who makes his first appearance in ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, becomes a kind of a central figure in “We Were the Drama.” Glimpses of our narrator’s story that captures the imagination of her English professor in ‘Bright Spark’ are revealed to us in some of the final pieces.

What about our narrator herself, what do we know about her? She is certainly vulnerable, yearns for solitude, is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, finds herself in relationships with the wrong men who thwart her creative ambition, who are a disturbing presence in her life. But there are people who also value her love for books and writing, particularly Mr Burton, her mother, her friend Natasha.  

Checkout 19, then crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality.

I’m not sure whether I have done a good job of conveying the mood and essence of this book, but my assertion – that it is poised to be one of my favourites this year – will hopefully compel you to crack open its pages and delve into Bennett’s vibrant world.

Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

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.

Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is the third Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, and it’s wonderful, right up there with my other favourites – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

Penned in 1953, Jane and Prudence is a joyful and poignant read from Pym’s oeuvre, reminding us, as quoted by Anne Tyler “of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.”

Jane Cleveland is a vicar’s wife, who after her marriage returns to Oxford to take up a teaching job. Prudence Bates at the time was one of her pupils, but they remain good friends despite the wide difference in their ages. But even keeping their age gap aside, the two could not have been more different.

Jane is in her forties and when the book opens, we learn that she and her husband Nicholas, a mild mannered man, have moved to their country parish, where Nicholas will take on his new duties as a vicar. Jane begins to more or less settle into her role as the clergyman’s wife, although she’s quite terrible at it. Having studied at Oxford and bestowed with an academic mind, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries.

It was a cold November day and she (Jane) had dressed herself up in layers of cardigans and covered the whole lot with her old tweed coat, the one she might have used for feeding the chickens in.

Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. With no inclination towards domesticity or even displaying a flair for it, she manages to soldier on relying on her competent cook Mrs Glaze and her efficient daughter, Flora.

In her late twenties, Prudence is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. She is getting older but has lost none of her good looks. Having reached the age when the prospects for marriage look dim, Prudence sometimes is beset with sadness and frets whether she will ever settle down with a man.

Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman’s magazine, carefully ‘groomed’, and wearing a read dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair. It was odd, really, that she should not have yet married. One wondered if it was really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, when poor Prudence seemed to have lost so many times. For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.

And yet Prudence is doing reasonably well for herself. She is an independent woman with her own stylish apartment and works in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy to him, although he rarely notices her or only when it’s convenient to him. Jane is aware of Prudence’s feelings for Mr Grampian but remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it.

Meanwhile, as she begins to mingle with the residents in the village, Jane is introduced to Fabian Driver, a man in mourning having recently lost his wife Constance. Fabian is good-looking but with an unsavoury aura around him – it is rumoured that he was frequently unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. And yet, he is now milking the ladies’ sympathies as an inconsolable widower.

Jane, in some ways is like Austen’s Emma – she is good hearted and greatly desires to find a husband for Prudence. Her introduction to Fabian brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions him to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other regularly. Will anything significant come out of it? Has Prudence finally met her man?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast.

As ever, Pym’s writing sparkles with humour and astute observations on the personalities of people…plus, her plotting and character sketches are top notch. We also get an inkling of the social fabric of the 1950s, where the women were chiefly concerned with finding someone to love and cherish and finally embracing marriage. Still, Pym raises the point that being single and living independently also brought its own share of rewards.

“I suppose I’ll never get a man if I don’t take more trouble with myself,” Eleanor went on, but she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; once couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.

Food is quite vividly described especially afternoon teas with their abundance of hot buttered toasts, iced walnut cakes, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, buns and so on. Not to mention the occasional sherry. Tea can also provide the much needed respite from a dull office job. Indeed, at Prudence’s place of work, the sameness of their desultory conversations gets on her nerves, as her cronies constantly upstage each other over who got to work earliest. The only bright spot then is the tea trolley being wheeled in at four in the afternoon. These set pieces, particularly, highlight Pym’s genius for dry wit and comedy.

Jane and Prudence, then, is sprinkled with liberal doses of both laughter and melancholia. Each of the characters evokes the reader’s sympathy – whether it’s the well-meaning, blundering Jane, the gorgeous, self-centred Prudence, or even the frightful Fabian, who might have possibly gotten a raw deal towards the end.

This gem of a novel is awash with nostalgia for youth and its vista of seemingly endless possibilities. But with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work.

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.