Cold Nights of Childhood – Tezer Özlü (tr. Maureen Freely)

On our recent travels to the Czech Republic, we had a long layover in the Turkish city of Istanbul. But not so long that we could go outside and explore the city although I would have definitely loved to. Some day in the future perhaps, but in the meanwhile I was happy to immerse myself in some Turkish literature instead with Tezer Özlü’s Cold Nights of Childhood.

In the early pages of Cold Nights of Childhood, our unnamed narrator is toying with the idea of suicide (“Thoughts of death chase after me. Day and night, I think about killing myself”). She is unclear why, but to the reader, her reasons are not entirely obscure. She longs to escape the stifling environment of her home, a conservative society ruled by patriarchal norms. Her father is driven by nationalistic and monetary fervor constantly espousing success and the call of duty to the nation. Her brother enjoys freedom in the house in a way she does not, and he uses that power to his advantage. These thoughts of ending her life suddenly transform into action, and our narrator consumes a bunch of pills wishing for death but wakes up in a psychiatric unit instead. She’s very young then and admits to this incident being her last suicide attempt, and yet it marks the beginning of a series of fear-inducing stints at psychiatric wards in the subsequent years.

Cold Nights of Childhood, then, is an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s quest for independence, freedom, sex and love, as well as her struggles with mental illness told in a writing style that is cinematic and impressionistic without conforming to the rigid structures of conventional storytelling. Originally published in 1980, the novella is filled with autobiographical elements as indicated in the introduction by Ayşegül Savaş and the translator’s note by Maureen Freely.

At barely 70 pages and set between 1950 and 1970, the novella is divided into four chapters and begins with a flavour of our narrator’s childhood and school years in the Turkish town of Fatih. We get an idea of her conservative upbringing, the lack of love between her parents (“what binds them together are their weighty petit bourgeois responsibilities”), soul-crushing daily family routines, and her deep yearning to break free, to travel to big cities and faraway lands. Evenings are spent with a friend reading Russian classics (“how very much these novels resonate with our own world”), while schooling years are spent in a lycee run by nuns whose mysterious workings are beyond our narrator’s grasp.

Later, the novella begins focusing on our narrator’s years in Istanbul and Ankara, and abroad in Europe’s great capital cities (Berlin and Paris). We learn of her string of lovers, her unsuccessful marriages, and above all her incarceration in mental asylums. This predominantly forms the essence of the book, and yet the narrative is not as linear as it seems.

Timelines blur as do places that often merge into one another like colours in a watercolour painting. For instance, in the third chapter titled “The Leo Ferre Concert”, in one moment our narrator is residing in an artist’s residence in Berlin, a house with high ceilings, wide wooden stairs, huge rooms filled with paintings, rich furniture and thousands of books, and in the next moment we find her in a grim hospital room minimally furnished with a dismal wardrobe, iron bedstead and a night table. The time shifts also come without warning. For instance, in the first chapter where our narrator dwells on her childhood, we learn of her grandmother Bunni, ancient in every sense, both in terms of thoughts and deeds, and her untiring attempts at running the daily household, and then we come across a sentence that describes Bunni’s funeral attended by our narrator with her young child.

Cold Nights of Childhood is also remarkable for its frank depiction of sex, not in terms of describing the act itself but the joyful experience of it. Flitting between a stream of lovers, our narrator is uninhibited when talking about the pleasures of sex, and freely expresses the wild desire that gnaws at her. We also get a glimpse of her freethinking personality when she muses on the nature of relationships.

Why can’t we find our way out of all this? Why do we rush into marriage and relationships, without first becoming friends? Is this what people in their early twenties should be doing? Do we have to sign the marriage register in order to have sex? Or live alone, longing for sex and masturbating? Do men have to find sexual excitement not in actual women but in their images? Must the first woman they know carnally be in a brothel? Must husbands and wives regard each other’s bodies as property? It contradicts our physical make-up entirely, all this. From earliest childhood, they stop us from being ourselves, from loving others, from caressing them. They twist us. Rob us.

Some of those fleeting relationships culminate in marriage, but married life proves unsatisfying. In fact, the reason she marries one of her husbands is because of his promise to not subject her again to the frightening yet eerily familiar experience of psychiatric wards, the loss of freedom and sense of self that it entails. All she asks of him if she falls ill is “to stay at home with my books and my records and a few of my favourite things, drinking tea.” The husband, unsurprisingly, breaks that promise.

Interspersed throughout the text are our narrator’s struggles with mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder (“The illness that begins with such joy soon falls into a dark abyss”), and the dehumanising effects of electroshock treatments. She internally resists but is also outwardly aware of the futility of doing so. The isolation of being shut up in a space of utter silence with occasional voices floating in, when just a few steps away from the hospital, the noisy, outside world carries on unabashedly is wonderfully conveyed. This resistance to a kind of torturous imprisonment is also a cry for life, to witness its joys, to fight for individuality, freedom, and the wonder of brand new experiences.

In addition to the main themes above, the novella is also about the clash between conservative ideals and a more progressive, liberal way of thinking as seen in the striking contrast between our narrator’s childhood and life in her twenties. Turkey’s political turmoil and its impact, while not the central focus of the novella, nevertheless remains on the fringes, filtering into the lives of our narrator’s friends and family.

Cold Nights of Childhood reverberates with striking sensory images, atmospheric descriptive passages that evoke the finer things in life as well as a sense of sadness and melancholia – rooms full of books, cafes spilling onto pavements, the languid summers and the blue-green Mediterranean, the streets of Paris gleaming wet with rain, penthouse apartments with paintings on the walls, melancholic Bach violin concertos.

In these great European cities, friends don’t drop by unexpected. When their day’s work is done, when they’ve left their cafes and restaurants, they have the habit of immersing themselves in deep solitude.

A lot of the descriptions also focus on interior spaces, particularly pieces of furniture that define and distinguish one setting from another. There’s a vivid sense of place specifically when it comes to Turkey – the green waters of the Bosphorus, a Turkish village where the sand is golden with sunlight, Istanbul’s bohemian enclaves, yalis (water mansions) lining the shore, lively meyhanes (taverns) where students gather to discuss art and politics.

Our narrator’s wasted years in psychiatric wards pretty much mirror the five years that Tezer Özlü spent in a psychiatric hospital for bipolar disorder. While helpless in an environment that greatly restricted her freedom, at least when it came to writing Cold Nights of Childhood, Özlü fiercely resisted being tied down by the norms of established narratives. This is why when I began reading the book, I found the first couple of pages a tad disorienting but then I nicely settled into its rhythm. Written in a spare, lucid style, the novella is an amalgam of thoughts and impressions where boundaries with regard to timelines and settings do not exist and where occasional instances of dreams blending with reality reflecting our narrator’s drug-induced stupor crop up.

Moody, evocative, teeming with rich visuals and a palpable Jean Rhys vibe, Cold Nights of Childhood is a beautifully penned novella that I’m glad to have discovered. Very much 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!

After Rain – William Trevor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something in Disguise – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s wonderful series – The Cazalet Chronicles – were some of my favourite books in 2021; intelligently written, perfect comfort reads during a particularly difficult time. Her collaboration with Robert Aickman that produced six ghost stories (three each) in a collection called We Are for the Dark is also well worth reading. I have now embarked on her standalone novels and the first I chose to read was Something in Disguise, a book that I really liked very much.

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style.

The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative man, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, the brunt of the Colonel’s subsequent anger borne by May, who valiantly attempts to diffuse the situation. Worried that his sister will be expected to take up Alice’s mantle, Oliver immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. Elizabeth is guilty about abandoning her mother, but the desire to get away from the Colonel is simply too great.

Infact, one gets the impression that Alice also chooses marriage as a means of escape, to get away from the interminable tedium of household chores at Monk’s Close made worse by the Colonel’s irascible, dull personality. Poor May must manage alone. Oliver, meanwhile, is shown to be an erudite, intelligent young man, newly graduated from Oxford, blessed with brains but seriously lacking ambition. With no sense of purpose to guide him, Oliver appears to be aimlessly drifting, unable to settle into any job, and always flitting between girlfriends. He often jokes about marrying a rich girl to save him the indignity of hard work, and what’s more it does seem like he means it.

Elizabeth is nothing like him. She knows that Oliver is fond of her and often wonders why he puts up with her when she is incapable of making intelligent conversation. But she acknowledges the close bond that they share and is happy to play second fiddle to Oliver’s numerous friends and the parties at their place. Once in London, Elizabeth knows she will have to work to earn her living despite the allowance they get from their mother. Displaying a flair for cooking, she begins to professionally cook meals for dinners and parties for her clients – a job that begins on a shaky note but one that she subsequently settles into.

Enmeshed in this set-up is the ghastly house itself, Monk’s Close; a house that the Colonel forces May to buy with her money. He loves it with a zeal that May can’t simply fathom. The house is ugly, cold, airless, with no character whatsoever, and May is faced with the prospect of resigning to her fate, of spending the rest of her life there, dictated by a man who is stingy and a frightful bore. Little wonder then, she seeks refuge in some religious cult meetings her friend Lavinia introduces her to, an organization led by the dubious and opportunistic Dr Sedum. We are given a brief glimpse into May’s first marriage – a seemingly happy union until her husband is killed in the war. Elizabeth often wonders what made her mother marry the Colonel…

Her mother wouldn’t have married Herbert if she’d cared about an intellectual life. She certainly hadn’t married him for money, and at her age sex appeal was out of the question- – so what was it?

As the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds; May becomes increasingly bewildered by the Colonel’s moods and tempers and Alice is forced to admit to herself that her marriage to Leslie may not be the haven she was expecting.

One of the core themes explored in this novel is the loneliness that women feel in a marriage, depicted through the unhappy marriages of both May and Alice. Their thoughts and opinions are not given due weight or agency, often buried under the burden of their husbands’ conventional expectations and infuriatingly patronising attitude.  The men in the novel are deeply flawed, some are cowardly even, but when it comes to the unpopularity scale, the Colonel and Leslie take the cake; they simply possess no redeeming qualities.

The most memorable character in the novel is Claude, Alice’s cherished cat, and it is while portraying his demeanour and his utter contempt for humans and their ways that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s flair for wit and dark humour shines through. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the beginning of the novel whether the industrious Claude steals a couple of trout from the larder, which were to be cooked for the Colonel’s dinner…

He (the Colonel) had managed, during the service, to count the guests – roughly, anyway – and on the whole he felt he had been sensible to put away two of the cold salmon trout that the caterers had been laying out. Those fellows always produced too much food because then they could charge you for it. So he had simply taken away two of the dishes and put them in the larder…

Where Claude, who never had very much to do in the mornings, smelt it. He had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination.

Just like in the Cazalet Chronicles, especially The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard has a striking way of describing food, be they everyday meals or elaborate dinners. She is also terrific at conveying a wonderful sense of place, especially vivid in the chapter set in the south of France whether the languidness of the summer is beautifully evoked. Not to mention she effectively conjures up the atmosphere around Monk’s Close – chilly, dreary and sinister – that so weighs heavy on poor May. Overall there is something magical about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s writing style that is perceptive, intelligent and incredibly immersive.

It was now very hot: their wet heads steamed; cicadas had reached their seemingly endless zenith; the smells of hot thyme, juniper and resin from the pines thickened the hot and dazzling air. They slipped on sharp, slippery stones as they climbed: geckos froze into grace fully heroic attitudes as they approached, and then, when they got too near, disappeared with jerky speed – like odd pieces of silent film pieced together; butterflies loitered, bees zoomed, there were no birds, no fresh water and no shade. ‘A foreign land,’ thought Oliver, watching his sister climbing the path ahead of him.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.