Sunday, 28 February 2010

Carson McCullers

I had always known her name, been aware of titles such as The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. She was associated in my head with some vague idea of cool, that she herself was cool, that people who read her were cool. These were people who read John Steinbeck and probably listened to jazz, were young and revolutionary, but quietly and carefully so. I had no idea then, when for some reason that I cannot now recall, I picked up The Member of the Wedding, that I would be proven both right and wrong in my assumptions, and that I would become a devoted fan.

Sometimes, one talks of a book that one loves. "Oh, that's one of my all time favourites..." we enthuse when it is mentioned in conversation, and feel pride and a certain ownership over said title. At other times, it is the author about whom we express adoration, and talk in terms of an entire oeuvre rather than a single book. Thus, I can talk for Britain on The Magus, though I would never call myself a huge fan of John Fowles, and on The Crow Road, though again not on Iain Banks. It is not, however, enough for me say that I love The Sea The Sea: it is Iris Murdoch whom I love. Muriel Spark, E.M Forster, and, as of last summer, Carson McCullers belong also to this latter category.

Aged just twenty-three when her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published, McCullers drew herself from the start in the role of the individualist, and the characters in her books do the same. They are magnificent examples of the downtrodden screaming for recognition; the fight for the right to express themselves is the crux of much of their motivation. This fight for expression may be fuelled by political reasons, as in the case of Blount in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or social, like Dr Copeland in the same book. It may be teenage desire to find one's calling, seen in all McCullers' young, female leads, who reflect her own androgyny (their very names, Frankie, Mick reflecting hers) and fierce need to find their own space. These characters - and I cannot think of a writer who creates more intriguing protagonists - inhabit the familiar world of Depression-era literature: small towns in the American South; heat and dust; silent night-time streets punctuated by drunks and brawls; drifters; racial segregation... it is easy to draw comparisons between both Mick, and more particularly Frankie, and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But to do so would be simplistic. McCullers' novels are messier, dirtier, more layered. Her leads are not as pure as Jem and Scout, as their inquisitiveness takes them into areas Harper Lee never ventured near, such as sexuality.

None of this explains why it is not simply one book about which I rave, but about McCullers' whole body of work. The reason is perhaps that her voice resonates so clearly in all her stories that when I read them, she begins to supercede authorship and becomes an entity within my life; it as though she were sitting by my bed telling me the tale. Her tone belies meaning - she explains herself through stylistic means, and once one is attuned to that style, a new level of understanding is reached. And so I find that in certain moods, I crave McCullers' writing, in the same way that one might be urged to see a particular friend, watch a specific type of film or have a certain food. I need simply to hear that voice again, to immerse myself in her world, and when that desire comes, I know no other writer will fulfil that need. I am the same with Murdoch - in another mood, only she will do, only her particular voice will suffice. I have a friend for whom Hemingway fills that role.

I will end then, with that voice about which I am so passionate. Here is the opening - for me, one of the greatest beginnings in literature, and my very first taste of Carson McCullers - of The Member of the Wedding:

"It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid."

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Top Ten Evocative Book Titles (1)

All of these books I have read, their titles being simply too intriguing for me to leave on the shelf, though those couple that are out-of-print (OP) I have been unable to, as yet, get my grubby paws on. Regardless of their content and literary merit, here then, are ten titles whose names alone conjure magical images in my mind:

[1] The Girl from the Candle-lit Bath ~ Dodie Smith (OP)
[2] My Swordhand is Singing ~ Marcus Sedgwick
[3] The Heart is a Lonely Hunter ~ Carson McCullers
[4] Love of Seven Dolls ~ Paul Gallico (OP)
[5] Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ~Robert M Pirsig
[6] A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ~ Dave Eggers
[7] Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight ~ Alexandra Fuller
[8] Far From The Madding Crowd ~ Thomas Hardy
[9] The Wind-up Bird Chronicle ~ Haruki Murakami
[10] Women Who Read Are Dangerous ~ Stefan Bollman

In The Library: The Scent

Ever wanted to smell like a vintage bookshop? Luckily for you then, CB I Hate Perfume have bottled the scent of "Russian and Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish." Kitsch rather than genuinely enticing (probably - I don't know anywhere in this country that sells it so that one might try it, though Liberty in London would be my first port of call), I suspect that In The Library is more of an impressive dressing table attribute than a night-out necessity. Of course, it would also make an original gift for the girly bibliophile, or perhaps is simply a useful addition to the toilet of those of us currently cultivating a certain geeky, bookish charm...

Friday, 26 February 2010

What Not To Read: The Kite Runner

This is another infamous 3 for 2 classic - by which I mean it never leaves the Waterstone's pyramided tables - which one is constantly told, "Oh, you must read it, it's wonderful, you'll cry all the way through..." So, heeding said advice, I read it.

I'm sighing as I write this, as I fear I'll come across as someone who just hates anything populist, but I really didn't enjoy this book. It has no great literary merit that I can fathom; it fulfils all the criteria of a novel - it tells a story, lots happens, it has good characters and bad characters and good characters that do bad things and must atone - but there is nothing in its style or structure that I find interesting, and that a book "will make me cry" is not, alas, my first consideration when selecting a novel. I became vaguely interested at the point the Taliban take over, hoping in vain that I might be given some insight into the Taliban mindset; instead, I was fed a stereotypical Boys-Own-Adventure 'bad guy' - who rapes children, just in case his publicly stoning a man to death hadn't convinced us of his evil - whose two-dimensionality is patronising in the extreme, to both the Afghan people and the reader.

The catalogue of appalling events that befall our hero eventually became so numerous, so commonplace, so frequent that at last the well of my suspension of disbelief ran completely dry; The Kite Runner is, I'm afraid, little more than a fictional misery memoir.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Eloise in Moscow

If you haven't yet discovered the Eloise books, I urge you to do so. Eloise is the brainchild of Kay Thompson, a little known MGM studio actress of the 1930s and 40s who, in 1955, published Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups. The eponymous feisty heroine was brought to life by illustrator Hilary Knight, and was an instant success. I will let the leading lady introduce herself:
"I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child. I live at the Plaza... My mother knows The Owner... Nanny is my nurse. She wears tissue paper in her dress and you can hear it. She is English and has 8 hairpins made out of bones. She says that's all she needs in this life for Lord's sake... She always says everything 3 times like Eloise you cawn't cawn't cawn't. Sometimes I hit her on the ankle with a tassel. She is my mostly companion... I have a dog that looks like a cat. His name is Weenie. Sometimes I put sunglasses on him... I have a turtle. His name is Skipperdee. He eats raisins and wears sneakers."

- from Eloise -

Several books followed, among them my personal favourite, Eloise in Moscow.

This particular adventure satirizes the Cold War spy thriller: on her way with Nanny to their hotel Eloise observes that "everybody watches everybody...You have to be careful of what you do and say in Moscow otherwise they will swoop down on you and snip-snap at your wrists and send your radio to Copenhagen by rail." Knight's exquisite pictures detail a luxurious hotel decorously adorned with portraits of Stalin and Lenin; his piece de resistance is the central fold-out of the Kremlin, which, like a child, I can stare at for hours at a time. The running commentary by guide Zhenka is wonderful: "In former days is possible to see here market place Red Square immediate neighbourhood of Kremlin scene of momentous events in Russian history and is point of convergence of highways leading through Moscow's ceaseless noisy and brisk commerce." Perfect.

Eloise is described by Marie Brenner as "Holden Caulfield for kindergarten girls", which strikes me as incredibly accurate. She is an "ancient child with the musical vocabulary of a poet"; a cross, in English terms, between Nancy Mitford and Clarice Bean (whom I suspect was directly influenced by Thompson's creation). And yet these are, like so many children's books, largely lost on the very young. Eloise in Moscow, for example, served, at its time of publication, as an antidote to the Cold War propaganda and fear-mongering that gripped America in the 1950s. It is, more than any other of the Eloise books, of great interest as a piece of social history.

I have given Eloise the room to speak for herself here, as I simply cannot do justice to the beauty of these books, in terms of language or images. They are truly wonderful, and I can only hope that you will take the time to become acquainted yourself with this fabulously funny little girl and her gorgeously glamorous life.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Rupert Brooke

"Lay down your Swinburne and attend!" So Brooke begins a letter to Noel Olivier, youngest daughter of the Fabian reformer Sydney Olivier and cousin of Sir Laurence. It is 1909: Brooke is about to take his Tripos at the end of an academically average undergraduate career, Noel is sixteen and frequently more mature about the nature of her relationship with the dashing poet than he is, despite his being several years older. Theirs will be a tempestuous yet unconsummated relationship, at times ferocious and possessive, at others, barely existent. It is traced through its ups, downs and plateaus in Pippa Harris's Song of Love: The Letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier (OP), and is a fascinating insight into one of English literature's most charismatic poets.

To look at Brooke with a modern understanding of psychology, then in its infancy, reveals a deeply obsessive character, sexually frustrated and at times almost bi-polar in his mood swings, which ranged from egotistical and manipulative ranting to deep, possibly even suicidal, depression and a crippling lack of confidence. In many ways, he comes across as a young man out of his time, born too early; the personal and literary freedoms he craved are simply not those of Edwardian society. Take, for example, his poem The Voice; this is an accomplished piece of romantic pastoral, which, re-examined in light of the ending, becomes biting satire. The poem very much sums up Brooke's complicated attitude to his art - poetry was, to him, the highest pinnacle, the greatest form of expression, the weight of its history both inspiring and oppressing... and yet at the same time the canon is something to played with, turned on its head, even mocked; see also The Great Lover.

Love, indeed, seems to have presented him with a similar dichotomy; he both yearned for it and despised it. When he wasn't in love, he forced himself to be so, playing the courtly lover much as Romeo does before he meets Juliet. Yet when real love (hetero- or homosexual), or at least its potential, reared its head, he ran a mile!
What his letters show, however, is a complex boy who grows into an even more complex man. He is intellectual, yes, but also surreal, witty, even silly:

"I am writing a Book. There will only be one copy. It will be inscribed in crimson ink on green paper. It will consist of thirteen small poems; each as beautiful, and as meaningless as a rose-petal, or a dew-drop. (These are not yet written, however.) When the book is prepared, I shall read it once a day for seven days. Then I shall burn the book: and die."

Surely, had he ever realised it, a contender for the Turner Prize?

His legendary "dateless" beauty ("he was tall and well built, loosely put together, with a careless animal grace..." "eyes not grey or bluish white, but of living blue, really like the sky..." "the whole effect was almost ludicrously beautiful.") is set off by the intense passion with which he sometimes imbued his letters: "You go burning through every vein and inch of me till I'm all [you]", he wrote to Ka Cox, with whom he lost his heterosexual virginity.

But he was also, as Virginia Woolf was often quick to point out, cruel. He knew how and when to hurt his friends, and did so with calculated precision. His letters demonstrate occasional remorse, but it was often a long time coming. Indeed, due to his early death, in some cases apologies never came.

And then, we can - and better men than I have spent much time doing so - deliberate on what he would have become had he lived longer. He is known in many circles simply as one of the 'war poets', and criticised just as often for the heroic tone those few war sonnets take, but one must remember that in 1915, when Brooke died, even Sassoon's poems were patriotic, and Brooke, though on his way to Gallipolli, never saw frontline action. I have read speculations that he might have made Prime Minister - he moved in the right circles (friends included Churchill and Violet Asquith, the latter, naturally, being in love with him) and was always vaguely interested in politics. But he was a strange mix, as many were at that time, of latent racism and outright sexism (he hated suffragettes), combined with liberal Fabian ideals. (Indeed, he is indirectly responsible for the Arts Council - his friend, the great economist Maynard Keynes, proposed a fund for artists based on an appeal made by Brooke). Brooke was in fact so utterly contrary in virtually every aspect of his life that it is hard to say whether he would have, had he lived into the 1930s, sided with Hitler or Stalin.

But contradiction is perhaps what lies at the heart of our infatuation with so many artists, writers and musicians. After all, isn't complexity the essence of creativity?

(All references from Song of Love by Pippa Harris, Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey by Keith Hale, and Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth by Nigel Jones)

Friday, 19 February 2010

Daphne du Maurier: Top 5

5. The Kings General
Set during the English Civil War, this is not everyone's cup of tea. I have a friend, a fellow du Maurier obsessive, who hated it. But for me, this is one of those books that can be lived in. Honor is an endearing narrator, with whom I share a particular state of mind: "...the fall of the year was always my bad time. My Autumn melancholy." This early admission sets the tone for the rest of the book - it is melancholic, but this is a mood that du Maurier excels in presenting well. I was reminded of The King's General by last year's wonderful television drama The Devil's Whore - same era, same violent and oppressive atmosphere, and both are stories of bloody battle told from the point of view of a woman, who naturally must stand outside the action, but is in that case perhaps better placed to comment on it.

4. Jamaica Inn
It is a little twee for my usual taste, I'll admit, but I spent my summers as a child and teenager in Devon with my grandparents, and the descriptions of Mary's long walks across Dartmoor in howling gales touches a nerve. This is a Wuthering Heights for the West Country, though less involved.

3. Rebecca
I'm not putting this at the top for two very simple reasons: one is that I found the ending too drawn out; the other is that I came to it with a weight of expectation that, whilst largely being met, means that there are two other du Maurier's that, having come to blind, I found slightly more extraordinary than I did Rebecca. None of this takes away from the fact that it is absolutely right that Rebecca has become regarded as a modern classic. I don't think I will ever get over the simple but oh-so-revealing fact that the narrator is never given a name; her name is referred to twice, and in both instances we learn that it is an unusual name, but otherwise, she remains only the second Mrs de Winter. How clever, again, then, that the title of the book is that of a character already dead when the story begins. Du Maurier's genius shines through in this book, these and other simple literary tricks pulling us every which way as we fall under the spells of the various characters. She is here a mistress of storytelling, Rebecca a masterclass in writing. Who can forget those monstrous blood-red rhododendrons or the chilling Mrs Danvers? Rebecca haunts the reader as Rebecca haunts the second Mrs de Winter.

2. The House on the Strand
Is this an odd one to rate so highly? Possibly, but not to those who have read it. I think The House on the Strand must surely have become by now something of a cult classic. It is the strange tale of a man who takes a new drug invented by a friend, and finds himself transported back in time to fourteenth century Cornwall. A rather basic and unconvincing plot, yes, so why does it work so well? I'll be honest and say that unlike some of du Maurier's other brilliant works, where one can pinpoint the techniques she uses to draw the reader in, it is hard to say exactly what is so appealing about The House on the Strand. It just works. I have yet to meet anyone who is prepared to give it a go who hasn't raved about it afterwards, and although one can see the inevitable tragedy coming from a mile away, one cannot quite see to whom this tragedy will fall, and so it is no less affecting for its obviousness.

1. My Cousin Rachel
The second book of my choices in which du Maurier takes on a male persona with which to tell the story (The House on the Strand being the other). Yet stylistically, My Cousin Rachel owes more to Rebecca, in that we, with the narrator, do not know the truth until the very end (and in the case of Rebecca, possibly not even then...) My Cousin Rachel is for me the very epitome of how-to-tell-a-story. It is technically flawless; du Maurier guides us confidently through twists and turns, distracting us with irrelevances at just the right moments, dropping bombshells when we are least prepared. We are certain, as is Philip, the narrator, of our convictions by the end - and then, in du Maurier's greatest denouement, she shatters all we had come to believe. It is another haunting novel; dark, bleak, candlelit, questing; du Maurier at her absolute finest.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Wigs on the Green: Reprinted

This Nancy Mitford has not, to my knowledge, been re-printed since WWII, after which jokes about Fascism ceased being funny and it was, probably correctly, deemed inappropriate. Nancy herself was doubtless unconcerned by this censorship, as her sister Unity, on whom the main character in the novel is based, shot herself the day that war broke out, unable to reconcile her love for her mother country with her Nazi obsession. So the question one must ask, I suppose, is this: is Penguin's imminent re-publication of Wigs on the Green an indication that the War is far enough away now that we can laugh at its causes; are we entering an era of growing right-wing sensibilities in which there is a sudden need to poke fun at Fascism; or are the Mitford's and their oeuvre currently so in vogue that previously held views on decency are being sacrificed for financial gain? Whatever the real reasons for the re-issue (and I suspect it is a mixture of several), I for one am delighted.

What I am not so delighted about is the cover design. I am afraid I am an utter snob when it comes to book covers - I could rant for England about my abhorrence of the current vogue for covers of 'women's literature' in the full spectrum of pinks with stylised twenties cartoon images of stick-like women holding any combination of lipstick /powder compact / Pomeranian dog / suitcase / shoes / shopping bags...oh, you know the ones, and I'm wearing myself out just thinking about describing them. Not only modern chicklit falls foul of this creeping horror, however; Molly Keane is these days an embarrassment to be seen with. In answer to this problem, I was given for Christmas a gorgeous dark brown leather book cover, soft as kid gloves and just as sophisticated, that slips easily over any paperback, ostensibly to protect said book, but really, and unashamedly in my case, to hide the cover from neighbouring commuters. Not to hide the title, I must stress, but to disguise the actual cover design, which so often belittles the calibre of content, as well as the woman reader.

Thankfully, I note also that the beautiful Capuchin Classics range is re-issuing Highland Fling in a few weeks, and with one of their wholly appropriate covers. I love their sparse line drawings and simple, neutral colours.

Anyway, jackets aside, it is fabulous to have Nancy back among us so prolifically. Lordy, at this rate, we'll all be having our hair shingled and calling each other 'hon' by the end of the year!


I adore books, and I love food. Inevitably then, I'm a bit of a sucker for a gorgeous cookery book. I have never stopped loving Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess, not only because it is crammed with so many delicious recipes, but also for her writing, and for the overall presentation; it is simply a lovely thing to hold, to read, to flick through and, of course, to use. The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook was my most recent kitchen-based acquisition - so far I've only tried the basic vanilla cupcakes, but my goodness, they were good! American style batter rather than English cake mix, and just too good to be true; three of us ate fourteen of them in one evening.

And now, today, I have purchased Tessa Kiros' Venezia. If you thought Apples for Jam and Falling Cloudberries were glam, you need to take a look at Venezia! It redefines opulence in the kitchen, with its gold trimmed pages and flourishing fonts, black velvet page-marker and reams of full colour and atmospheric black and white photographs of Venice itself. It is an advert for the city rather than for its food, though the sumptuousness of both are exploited to the full by Kiros. Many recipes involve meat - it is Italian, after all - although there are many fish dishes - understandably - and enough vegetarian risottos, antipasti and side dishes to make it a worthwhile buy (or gift) for non-meat eaters. The food itself is presented, as one would expect, beautifully, and one is left wondering if everyone in Venice perhaps really does eat from Baroque dining services! More than anything, though, Venezia makes one want to visit Venice, particularly at Carnevale. This is a genuinely high quality publication; cookbook as coffee-table book.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters

I love an Edwardian evening... Coal fire spitting softly in the grate, snowflakes catching in the light of the streetlamp outside, the whole house quiet and warm and comforting. I curled up on the sofa in an old loose cardigan and read the first 100 pages of The Mitfords.

I love a good letter writer, too. Rupert Brooke is a particular favourite, by turn sweetheart and caustic rat, imbued with exactly my sense of humour. And I am delighted to be able to say that the Mitford girls live up to my high epistolary standards. Deborah and Nancy are far and away my favourites, each snappy and funny with, frequently, hints of surrealism. But it is only in reading her letters, in hearing her own personal voice, that I am for the first time able to get some kind of feeling for Unity, always the hardest sister to generate empathy for. She is a giddy schoolgirl, letter after letter simply babble about how many times she has met Hitler and where and for how long and what he said and what he did when she replied and how many times he touched her on the arm and how many times on the shoulder... it becomes quite wearing, whilst at the same time being a real insight into her extraordinary, and perhaps slightly frightening, psyche. The pre-war correspondence between her and Diana is, of course, of the greatest historical significance of all the letters, but is also the most tedious, and I find myself skipping paragraphs in order to get to the next cheering 5 line missive from Nancy. This in no way belittles the weight of the horror that Unity and Diana both refused to attach to their beloved Fascism, but in fact adds to the complicated strands that made up the Mitford family tapestry.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Children's Book (2)

I finished it today. And I find myself in a place I visit from time to time, a place known to all readers, a place that lies at the end of a perfect book; we wander around, picking up a novel or a biography that, when we bought it, we couldn't wait to start, but which now, in comparison with the book just finished, looks dull and two-dimensional. Put simply, no other book will now do. A bar has been raised, and I am frustrated at the lack of challengers to meet the new standard.

The Children's Book shifts, from its early arts-n-crafts idyll, into a darker, lonelier area. The children grow up. Events take hold. 1914 looms with bloody dramatic irony. Byatt gives us whole chapters as political instruction. The feel of the novel becomes altogether more charged, the last fifty pages or so reading almost as a textbook list of the names of those killed in the trenches. Ypres passes by and takes with it certain characters, then comes Passchendaele and the Somme, and more boys are lost; it is to Julian Cain that Byatt gives the voice with which to express this overwhelming pain. The final scene reminds me of Testament of Youth; I am left with the image of a post-war townhouse in which the remains of an extended family gropes its way towards a depleted future.

And yet, already when I think back over my month with this book - as I will do often, for it is that sort of book - I find it is within Olive's stories and the Wellwood gardens that my mind settles, or to Philip's pots and the marshland around Purchase House that my thoughts return. It is to that short Edwardian period in which the seeds of our modern world were sown that I (and I think many others, including Byatt herself) am drawn. It was a unique time amongst the privileged classes, and one which has come to define a certain England, and as I now pass over Anna Karenina and a new biography of Emily Dickinson in search of something in which I can live as I have lived inside The Children's Book, it is to that era that I long to turn again.

Monday, 8 February 2010

What Not To Read: Shadow of the Wind

I have friends who will swear this is the best book of the last however-many years, and who claim it stayed with them for months after reading, was unputdownable yadda yadda yadda. I hate to be the dissenter, but this is surely a case of the Emporer's New Clothes: Shadow of the Wind is not any of those things, and I fail to see its appeal. It's so plot-driven and frenetic that the characters have no room or time to develop and grow; they remain little more than names on the page, hardly fleshed out at all. The Barcelona of the story comes across much as the village in Milly Molly Mandy, a series of houses and shops that the characters wander between, experiencing a mini-adventure at each new destination; the map at the front does little to disuade me from the MMM comparison. I found the narrative wholly implausible, even within the world of the book, and by halfway through, I was desperate for the whole saga to end and release me. I love Gothic and I enjoy a twisting tale, but this, despite its enigmatic title, is in fact a poor shadow of both.


What a wonderful idea! I used to live exactly halfway between Wimbledon and Raynes Park stations, and am delighted to see this has taken off. Lets start them all over the country!

Guardian article on Wimbledon Station Bookswap.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

What I Saw and How I Lied

Noir thriller for teenage girls? Are you sure? Well, yes, actually, and boy, does it work! Recommended by a friend who works in children's books, and whose literary opinions I rate very highly, What I Saw and How I Lied had me from the first scene:

"The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast. I heard my mother inhale as she took a long pull on a cigarette. Her lips stuck on the filter, so I knew she was still wearing lipstick. She'd been up all night."

Judy Blundell captures the darkness and glamour of post-war America as though she lived there; it is a nuanced piece of writing, wreathed in smoke, cinched at the waist and held tightly in place with a gallon of hairspray. The atmosphere slides off the page and envelops.

Our guide through this alien and superficially enchanting world is a girl on the brink of womanhood, and in that sense is nothing new for Young Adult fiction. What sets Evie apart is her wiseness. And it's not an omnipotent wiseness, common in children at the helm of a raft of recent adult fiction (Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example), but the honest wiseness that follows curiosity, desire and a succession of mistakes; the wiseness of a young woman who watches, who understands certain things but not others, and who, above all else, wants to know. She is a beguiling heroine.

And so, femme fatale aside, what of this noir plot? Well, it reveals some unpleasant truths about post-war society, it ticks all the pulp boxes - murder, deceit, money, sex - and it takes some unexpected twists. Characters are altered by events - we, like Evie, do not know who we can trust, and our mind is changed regularly; no-one is whiter than white, all are sullied in some way, are morally shady. And when, towards the end, Evie herself ceases merely spectating and steps into the limelight, and we learn, finally, not why she lies but how she lies - such a clever title - that morally shady area becomes for a time, the heart of the novel.

Although a teen novel, What I Saw and How I Lied is not noticeably written for the young. It is perhaps a little heavy handed in terms of imagery occasionally, but then, few fourteen year olds these days are familiar with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Humphrey Bogart. And for my money, this is an era that can comfortably handle being a little over the top; blood-red lipstick has never been known for its subtlety.