Tuesday, 27 April 2010


This book is phenomenal. I have rushed straight out (in the sense that I've nipped over to Amazon) and bought Susan Fletcher's two previous novels, because I cannot bear to be away from her writing for any longer than I need to be.

But I'm rushing ahead of myself. Let's back up a wee way.

Corrag has had mixed reviews in the press. I remember looking at Oystercatchers, Fletcher's second novel, a couple of years ago, and though the story didn't appeal at the time, I was drawn in by the style and poeticism, and it went on a "to buy" list, but was never bought. Corrag, however, I leapt at, for two reasons. Firstly, as I have mentioned previously, I am, as Corrag herself would say, "for places". I love stories that are set in specific landscapes, where that landscape is as much a part of the book as are the characters, where the land itself is a protagonist. The Bronte's and Hardy epitomise this style of writing, and Lorna Doone is my favourite 'Classic' - I'm for wildness and savagery, wind and storms and snowdrifts, crags and peaks. Corrag is set in my favourite of all such places, my favourite place on earth: the Scottish Highlands.

That was the first reason I was drawn to Corrag.

The second was, quite simply, that when I sat down and read the first chapter, the beauty of the language was such that I could barely breathe, and I had to read the chapter again before my lungs were well enough to carry on.

Corrag is written as, essentially, a monologue, the voice that of the eponymous heroine, a young seventeenth century woman accused of witchcraft and awaiting her death sentence. Chained and starving in a stone cell, she is visited by churchman and Jacobite, Charles Leslie, who hears that she was at Glencoe a few weeks previously when the Macdonald clan were slaughtered in their beds by soldiers they had been sheltering for the winter.

The bones of the story, then, are fact. The flesh is added by Fletcher. And what flesh! Corrag's voice is so perfect, so beautiful, so poetic, that after living inside her head for the past six days, this - what I write now - feels plodding and heavy, clumsy. I am almost embarrassed to be commenting on Fletcher's ability as a writer - no, she is not a writer, she is a wordsmith - in this dull, thick prose. I can open Corrag at random and find lyricism in any line. Listen to this:

"...the heart has its scars. It has its spaces, so that I wondered if it whistled when the wind was strong. I wondered if it leaked, on rainy days. A heart with holes in it."

Change the form, and you have verse:

The heart has its scars.
It has its spaces,
so that I wondered if it whistled
when the wind was strong.
I wondered if it leaked,
on rainy days.
A heart
with holes in it.

Corrag has sent me spinning into a tizzy. Its lightness of image and delicacy of phrase sends one soaring over the ridges it describes. It is a tale of heart-rending murder recounted with compassion in every syllable, at its core a character - oh, but she is so much more than that flat word conveys! - whose desperate, divine life is lesson to us all.

I sense that we will hear a lot more from and about Susan Fletcher in the coming years. Most talk will be of her wordcraft. She is a force of letters, and I urge you to let her use her power to transport you as she has me. Corrag is a book about the deadly yet redeeming strength of nature, of love... and of words themselves. Corrag talks of the words that make people and that change people, that cause wars, that hang innocents: "witch", "hag", "king" and a raft of others. She is naive, but she listens, and she sees the layers that lie behind what she hears. Don't let the cover of this book - another wistful woman in a desolate landscape - put you off. Like Corrag, look at what is behind the first impression.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Not-so-dumb Blonde

Arguably the physical ideal of womanhood, married to the godlike Arthur Miller,and star of some of cinema's most enduring movies, Marilyn Monroe was a great self-improver and read frequently: any where, any time, any place, and in any position.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Orange Shortlist

Oh dear, I'd better get reading...

I'm getting a little fed up with the ubiquitous Wolf Hall now. To my mind, it has three faults, and three faults is one too many for it to be great book. (For those of you interested, the three faults are: present tense; too much use of the male singular pronoun, causing confusion in places; and the Henry-Anne story has been done to death, even if this is from a new point of view. And it is the Henry-Anne story, equally as much as it's Cromwell's.) The Booker's enough for any author, surely - let's give someone else a chance.

I'm interested in the Rosie Alison, possibly because it's the right era, although I do realise, looking at the cover, that I've passed over it in bookshops. Again I am forced to consider the importance of a decent jacket.

I'll wait for The Lacuna to come out in paperback, as it's just too big to carry around on a daily basis - shades of The Children's Book in that problem.

It's interesting, as judge Daisy Goodwin comments, that even the long list was filled with "grim" subject matter. Art reacting to The Recession, perhaps? Or a peculiarly female affliction, a post-feminist depression?

Monday, 19 April 2010

Resistance (2)

I didn't expect to like this as much as I did. I think it may be that the cover put me off, although in light of the content, I'm happy to reappraise the jacket in terms of the careful 1940s colours, the green and cream and muted red. I'm still not keen on the image itself though; there's something rather uninspired about it, which gives the lie to what's inside.

Resistance is a slow book, a simmering book. It is described by Jan Morris, in a quotation on the cover, as a "thriller", but I wouldn't class it as such at all. It is almost a pastoral, owing something to Hardy in its evocation of place, of farmland and of farming ways specifically. It is a book which allows the reader a measure of intelligence; Sheers does not spell events out, but allows conclusions to be drawn in our own time, coaxing us gently in the right direction where needs be, but never patronising. The story starts with the womenfolk of a tiny sheep farming community waking one morning to find their men gone. Twice, it is alluded to that all the women slept late that morning, that none of them can remember much about the night before. Clearly, they were drugged by their husbands, but this is never stated; we are trusted, as readers, to be able to figure it out for ourselves, and there is something deeply satisfying about that.

The Olchon Valley is the real star of the book, lovingly brought to life across the seasons. It overshadows the characters, as it perhaps is supposed to do. But that is not to say that the characters are not drawn with utter conviction, for they are. Sarah is earthy, clever, quick, determined, and yet drowning; in work, in loss, in loneliness. Albrecht is sharp, jaded, chilling. My reaction to him is complex - he is a good guy, sensitive, artistic, battle-scarred. And yet he is threatening, callous - the way he deals with an escaped insurgent is cruel beyond measure, and yet is done with a weariness, an inevitability that is so detached that it is hard to say whether I found him sympathetic in the end or not.

They say poets are sensitive souls - perhaps that is why Sheers writes so well about women, and why the book, though about war (it is set in a 1945 in which German troops invade and occupy Britain) is essentially about two people finding each other in the remote Welsh countryside. It is a fragile, lilting story, like the Welsh accent. There are lines of pure poetry; one character has a wound "in the shape of a melting star". When another speaks,
"[e]verything he said seemed carved from the air. Precise and exact." The best words in the best order, as Coleridge said.

I was perhaps slightly disappointed with the ending, not because it didn't work, or seem fitting, but because the air of menace that rises like volcanic ash and hangs over the novel never really catches fire - the simmer never reaches more than a rolling boil, and the lack of release offered is a little anticlimactic.

Having said that, I really loved this book. It is smart, deep, layered, wild. It wraps itself around you like the valley around Sarah's cottage, simultaneously protective and menacing. It is a book for whom I made bedtime come early, and there is little praise comes higher than that.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Life on Earth

Tonight's rather good - unusually - TV fayre included The Museum of Life, about the Natural History Museum (oh, glorious architecture!) and, specifically this evening, its insect collections. Personally, I love beetles, those glorious gladiators of the bug world, whose armour comes in such mind-tingling colours that they inspire the muse in even the most prosaic of us. Crucially though, this programme reminded me of reading David Attenborough's Life on Earth many years ago, and a passage on butterflies that has stayed with me my whole life.

Attenborough talks of their "dazzling wings, iridescent and downy, trailing pennants and variegated with transparent windows, veined, fringed and spotted with the loveliest of colours..." (hints of A E Houseman' s cherry tree there). He explains how the butterfly emerges from its pupal state:

"The actual emergence usually takes place under cover of darkness. A butterfly pupa, hanging from a twig, begins to shake. A head with two huge eyes and antennae pressed over its back pushes through the pupa at one end. Legs come free and begin clawing frantically at the air. Slowly and laboriously, with frequent pauses to gather strength, the insect hauls itself out. The thorax emerges and there on its back are two flat crumpled objects, its wings, wrinkled like the kernel of a walnut. The insect jerks itself free and hangs on the empty pupa case, its body trembling. With convulsive shudders, it begins to pump blood into a network of veins within the baggy wings. Slowly they expand. The blurred patterns on the outside of the wings enlarges and becomes focused. Blotches swell into miraculously detailed eye-spots. Within half an hour, the wings are fully distended so that the two sides of the bag meet flat against one another enclosing the veins between them. The veins themselves are still soft. If the tip of one of them were damaged now, it would drip blood. But gradually the blood is drawn back into the body and the veins harden into rigid struts that will give the wing its strength. All this time, the wings have been held together like the leaves of a book. Now, as they become dry and rigid, the insect slowly moves them apart to show the world for the first time the unblemished perfection of its shimmering colours and awaits the dawn of its first day."

Perfection. The butterfly itself, and Attenborough's writing.

Beautiful For Ever

Madame Rachel was a - no, the - Victorian "enameller of ladies' faces". Frankly, I needed to know no more to want this book...I also quite fancy being enamelled, but we'll talk about that another day.

Oddly, after my last post, I discovered when I got Beautiful For Ever home that it is published by Long Barn Books, Susan Hill's publishing company, the genesis of which is described in Howard's End is on the Landing.

It's a very satisfying book, in terms of its size and weight, and the cover is truly scrumptious. It's a terribly bookish book; everything about it screams 'book'! So, me and books, kid in sweetshop, in I plunged. Immediately, I was reminded of the superb The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; same era, packed with scandals-amongst-the-upper-echelons, crimes hiding other crimes, early modern legal and forensic application, unsolved riddles and, even now, a slightly gauzy veil hanging over The Truth. Indeed, Mme Rachel spent some time in prison with Constance Kent, a name familiar to fans of the Kate Summerscale tome from the Road Hill House murder case. Beautiful For Ever, then, is a perfect companion work to Whicher, and of particular interest to lovers of Victorian crime. Both books are detailed and readable accounts of true crimes that rocked Dickensian Britain, and give a genuine insight into the inspiration behind classics like Lady Audley's Secret and Wilkie Collins' oeuvre.

There is clearly an impressive amount of research behind this book - records have been unearthed that have remained hidden or buried for decades. The sheer quantity of references at the back of the book pay homage to the work done by Helen Rappaport. It's a real page turner, and I have to say that whilst not quite as engaging as Whicher, I thoroughly enjoyed Beautiful For Ever.

You can sense my 'but', right? Ok, here it is. My 'but'. There is a fantastic amount of spelling errors in here, and bearing in mind this comes hot from the presses of Susan Hill's own company, I find myself very disappointed with the editing. At one point, there is actually a financial figure cited that is clearly lacking a zero. At another, a character is referred to by a name she doesn't adopt until a few years hence, and this new name appearing unexplained and then disappearing again until later in the book is very confusing. (I could rant for some time about the increasing number of spelling and grammatical errors I'm noticing in books, but I'll leave that, like enamelling, and the tattoo I've been promising myself for 15 years, till a more appropriate time). It should be noted here that my 'but' does not reflect in any way on Rappaport herself, for whom I have the utmost admiration as both researcher and writer.

So, 'but' out of the way, I will also say that there is a tantalising end to the story as a character - possibly the one I found most intriguing throughout - who had disappeared some time earlier, re-appears in a shock revelation under a pseudonym, and that not her first. Rappaport's hold-back-and-reveal in this instance really delights and rewards the careful reader.

Beautiful For Ever, for some reason, feels like it wants to be given a mark out of ten, but I'm not in the habit of laying stars on books. If I were... no, I won't. This is a well-investigated, easy-readable, fascinating story about the lengths, and enormous amounts of money (trust me, you'll be astounded!), that women will invest in the beauty industry in the hope of making themselves look better than ...what? They used to. The woman next door. The current star of stage or screen. They did yesterday. We've learned nothing, ladies, as my Bobbi Brown makeup compact testifies.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Resistance (1), with thoughts on landscape

"Sweet April! Many a thought
Is wedded unto thee, as hearts are wed..."

...claimed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I'm inclined to agree. Spring gives rise to thoughts of newness (I may decorate, or at least re-arrange, my bedroom; I want a new job; I'll start drinking Camomile tea; when will my Croquet set arrive?) and of romance (surely this year will come "a big smashing creative burgeoning burdened love", as Sylvia Plath once put it, adding plaintively, "Let me have him for this British Spring..."). She meant Ted. She got him.

In the true spirit of Plath, then, this morning, sun blazing, I threw on a flowery shirt dress and converse, slicked on some red lippy and cycled (I love my bike the way littler girls love ponies) into the grounds of the stately home that butts up against my back garden. A mile to the big house, and past it, down winding country lanes to a rocky crater where I would be sheltered from wind and tourist alike. It was close to too much - fat bees buzzed past my head, skylarks darted above, the creak of tree buds popping open was almost audible. It was like standing in a cloud of spring poetry. I spread out my grandparents old tartan travelling rug and settled into mackerel pate and cucumber sandwiches, dates, elderflower juice... I am not exaggerating when I say I took out my ipod (one day soon it will be a gramophone) and fired up some forties dancehall ballads. There was no-one for miles. The decades melted away, and once I had climbed inside my book, for a few hours, I wasn't even me.

At the Cambridge Wordfest this weekend, I had stumbled (figuratively - I'm fairly steady on my feet) on a talk by Owen Sheers about his new novel, White Ravens, which made me want to read his last novel, Resistance; and so this morning, in my private 1940s crater, I did. Happily, and entirely non-coincidentally, Resistance is set in an imagined 1945, where the D-Day landings have failed and German troops are invading British shores. It is also set in the Welsh countryside, which is not entirely dissimilar to that of the Peak District, where I live.

Now, I'm wary of novels written by poets - for one whose craft is paring down, finding the perfect word or expression, the lengthy telling of a story with many characters and plot twists is surely an arduous task, and one that many have not met appropriately. So far though, I'm good with Sheers, though I may be giving him a long leash on account of his passion for landscape poetry, which I share with all my heart. Indeed, the talk on Sunday was lead for some time in that direction, and Sheers made the comment that it is not just that landscape shapes us, but that crucially, it is the landscape that we encounter as children that most influences our adult selves. I was reminded of Wordsworth (Sheers was Poet-in-Residence at Grasmere some years ago), and of the impact that The Prelude had on me as an A-Level student, when this idea of landscape-as-parent was first explicitly laid before me. I was deeply affected by it, by the reflection of my own experiences that I found in the poem. As an English teacher, I now call this, in my professional capacity, 'pathetic fallacy,' but it is so much more than that. Like Sheers, I was brought up amongst hills and peaks, stone farmhouses and weather-beaten woodland, and the power that a cloudy day can have over one's mood, the electric charge in the air the hour before a storm, the heightened sensations that accompany the haze of midsummer, these are not mere literary technique, but all-consuming events. Here, in these moments,landscape teaches, points out, shows us other ways of seeing. It becomes a part of us, of who we are, and of who we will become.

I lived in London for five years, a period which ended because I could not live without my fields and peaks any longer. I was limbless, without this landscape. Unwhole. "It holds us more than we ever reckon, the few square miles of territory where we are born and bred," said another great author of place, Daphne du Maurier. And she knew what she was talking about. Menabilly is the strongest character in every one of her books.

The romance of Spring, placed in a landscape like the one in which I am lucky enough to currently live, is infectious. It takes me on journeys I would never embark on, should I still live in the city. It has taken me on today's journey, along country roads to hidden valleys, to 1945, to an imagined past, to the carefully chosen words of an author I may never have glanced at had my ears not pricked up at that word, "landscape". Perhaps we read only what we already know, even if on a subconscious level. Perhaps we each fit into a specific time or place, even if we are born outside of it - I know I've felt homesick for places I've never been. Perhaps Resistance will be the perfect novel for this final week of the Easter holidays.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Howard's End is on the Landing

Oh, that I had Susan Hill's discipline! To spend a year reading only books that I already own, and to hold back on buying anything new, would be fantastically rewarding, a kind of satisfying mopping up exercise. I often look uncomfortably at books I have bought and not read; they eye me back with contempt, make me squirm guiltily. "J'accuse," they seem to say; if I had left them in the bookshop, someone would have bought them who would have read them, and their life's purpose would have been granted. But I, selfishly, am leaving them unopened, unenjoyed, pointless, on shelves and in piles, ignored, unloved... Stop! Stop! Enough! I know.

The problem, of course, is that I enjoy purchasing books almost as much as I love reading them. The act of perusing titles, selecting interesting ones and taking them down from the shelf, squeezing what one can from the blurb and brief jacket reviews from the TLS, deciding whether or not this particular novel is for you at this particular time, is exhilarating. The discovery of an unheard-of gem, the re-issue of an old favourite in beautiful binding...these are experiences that equal, sometimes, the devouring of the book itself. Indeed, the number of books on my shelves that I have bought and not yet (I refuse to say never) read, indicates that sometimes, the finding and buying is in fact a greater experience than the reading. It all boils down, I suppose, to the love of the physical book as much as of the story within. Dislike of the e-reader, explained.

Books about books are always interesting to those who love books. I suppose books about golf are interesting to those who, unfathomably, love golf. There is, though, something rather post-modern in reading about reading. Perhaps it is because reading is such a personal and private business that it is pleasant sometimes to throw open one's literary windows and to let in someone else's reading habits, to learn of their preferences and to hear their wisdoms. One may not always agree with these new and strange views on literature, but they are of profound interest nevertheless.

Susan Hill, in Howard's End is on the Landing, pleasantly affirms many of my own views, which is a boon to one's literary confidence. I found myself yesterday sitting on a train, actually nodding at a passage on Jane Austen, about whom I entirely share Ms Hill's opinion:

"Perhaps the nineteenth century, whose style of dress and architecture, design and manners, I find cold and distancing, is to blame for my inability to appreciate Austen, whose cool, ironic style is somehow all of a piece with that formality and porcelain veneer."

With the very lake out of which Colin Firth appeared sodden in the TV series of Pride and Prej just a ten minute bicycle ride out of my back garden, this may seem odd, but is, I am afraid, true.

Howard's End is on the Landing is well-structured, each chapter being short and carefully labelled so that one might find five pages on children's picture books, seven on Hardy, a handful on Bruce Chatwin; digestible chunks that can easily be returned to should one need a wise comment on a specific author or genre. It is funny in places - the chapter entitled "The Dregs" being particularly amusing, as Hill runs through a collection of books, the origin of whose appearance in her house she cannot fathom, with such delectable titles as Red Grouse and Moorland Management and Sue Barton: District Nurse. We all have our equivalents.

Hill has also alerted me to several books about which I either knew nothing, or had passed over. I shall at some point investigate further The Smaller Sky by John Wain and the life and works of Elizabeth Bowen.

There are also shadowy hints at a bleaker side of publishing - the cuts in Arts funding, for example, leads Hill to an interesting discussion of whether or not plays can stand alone as literature or whether they must be performed in order to fulfil their purpose. If the latter, does the lack of repertory theatre these days mean that certain plays, or styles of play, even playwrights' oeuvres, will die out altogether? There is more than one oblique comment about the lack of culture in modern culture - again, hints at a dystopic future for the literatii.

I do not always agree with Hill's summation of books or writers. I cannot bear crime or detective fiction, about which she raves, for example. I have never been able to be fully absorbed in any Virginia Woolf other than Orlando, which is the one Woolf about which Hill is disparaging. This, however, is simply interesting: I am not so self-absorbed that I will only tolerate literary criticism with which I agree!

No. My one criticism of Howard's End is on the Landing would be this: there are far too many - and often, frankly, dull - anecdotes about famous authors Hill has met or known. It becomes tedious. She met Roald Dahl twice, on both occasions in a professional capacity. Neither reveals an interesting enough story for retelling. And yet she does, in a 'my dear friend Roald Dahl' kind of way. It is not an illuminating addition to the book ( surely everyone knows he was a grump?), and I would far rather she simply talked about her daughters' reactions to his books and her own experiences of reading them aloud to said daughters. The same is true of her chapter on Iris Murdoch - tell me about the books, Susan, not an amusing evening you spent with the writer. We weren't there, and it seems from this anecdote that we really needed to be...

This book is at its best when Hill allows her passions full and free rein. Here she is on reading slowly:

"Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings...Not every book is worth that sort of effort...they are ice-cream reading and barely a trace of the flavour remains half an hour after they are finished. Sometimes, only ice-cream will do. But we are not nourished physically, mentally, artistically or spiritually by its literary equivalent."

Luckily for Susan Hill, despite having at least ten books by my bed that I have not yet (the crucial yet) read, I bought this one. And in this case, read it immediately. And I can highly recommend, if a copy sits in a similar pile in your own home, that you slide it out and give it a go too.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Chalet School in Exile (2)

I'm going to start with a brain teaser - see if you can work out, from what we are given in Chapter 1, how this happy family are related:

"Dr Jem Russell, head of the Sonnalpe Sanatorium in Tyrol, glanced at his young sister-in-law, Jo Bettany...Jo gave an impish grin, and turned and ran along the wide corridor to the bathroom, where she found her adopted sister, Marya Cecilia Humphries, commonly known as Robin...Robin stuck her fingers in her ears and raced on down the long corridor to the big room where the little Russells, together with their young cousins, the Bettanys, and Dr Russell's younger niece, Primula Mary Venables, were curled up round a big armchair...Robin ruffled the silvery fair curls that covered Peggy's small head...'All right, but not ve babies,' stipulated Rix, Peggy's twin...Jacky [was] the youngest member of the Bettany family present - though in India a little brother and sister known to the Sonnalpe people as 'second twins' were beginning to trot all over now...Sybil and Jacky crawled out of their corner...Sybil sometimes resented the mothering...She had been known to madden Rix by chanting, 'You're only a cousin! David an' me belong!'

Who the heck is David? I re-read the first chapter and drew a family tree, which took me most of the afternoon. This is not a book for those who are easily confused or who find it hard to remember who's who. Having not read any Chalet School books in probably 25 years or more, the names of the girls (oh, Chapter 1 is nothing compared to the lists of names and descriptions that come later - it's like The Iliad!) meant little to me, and I have to admit that after a while I gave up trying to remember who was involved in which adventure or prank and who was the same age as who else and who was best friends with whom, and just got on with reading the story.

I suppose what I most wanted to find out is, is The Chalet School in Exile just another twee early twentieth century girlschool novel, or, considering its subject matter, is it darker; is it, in fact, a War novel? It manages, I think, to span some sort of strange gap between the two. It is notably emotionless, imbued with a crazily stiff upper lip. Deaths, of Jews the girls witness being attacked, and of friends and relations, are covered in such a matter-of-fact way as to be off-hand. They are like newspaper obituaries written by a journalist who never met the deceased. I find this fascinating; today's children's literature treats emotion in almost the opposite way. Consider the works of Jacqueline Wilson, prolific writer of modern girls' books, and as such, a worthy comparison with Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Emotion, the description of it and the dealing with it, is at the core of what Wilson writes. Today's young female reader is shown that she should bare her feelings for all to see, that she should display her grief rather than lock it away. The Chalet School teaches a very different lesson, perhaps one that translated as the 'spirit of the Blitz', that oh-so-English manner of mildly shaking an angry fist at the Luftwaffe as they razed our cities to the ground.

There are little snatches of news thrown into the story that remind us with a shock that this was written in 1940, long before the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime had come to light. Concentration Camps are mentioned as places of torture, no more. A news broadcast from Germany "was vehemently insisting that a U-boat had sunk the Ark Royal", and the girls spend their evenings learning how to treat burns and put on gas masks. The most glaringly ironic aspect of the story comes, though, when the School must de-camp - and they choose to move to Guernsey! At the time of writing, Brent-Dyer had no way of knowing that the Channel Islands would be occupied.

The book is very much divided into two halves. The first is set in Austria and involves much fleeing from gestapo officers. A small group of girls and two male doctors, sent to protect them, (poor weak creatures that the girls, though some are in their twenties, are) escape over the Swiss border in a rather hurried description of a week in disguise as gypsies, tricking Nazis and hiding in barns, eating berries and suffering dreadfully from blisters. The tiny amount of time given to such a vast enterprise is incongruous, and made all the more so by a plan at one point to try to seek refuge in a fictional country, Belsornia, the Belsornian King's daughter being an ex-pupil of the Chalet School. To throw something so ludicrous into a tale of escape from Nazi occupation is on the one hand utterly trivialising, and yet on the other, works, by throwing into greater relief the trueness of what they are running from. It is a technique of which Brecht would have been proud!

Then suddenly, it is a year later, and the new school is about to open on Guernsey. At this point, the book reverts to type, and for a while nothing more interesting happens than that members of the Fourth hide the gardening tools, which go rusty. Things pick up again, however, when a new girl arrives at the school. She is German and haughty - she must be a Nazi! I'll not spoil the reveal.

The Chalet School in Exile is quite unlike anything I have read before, possibly due to the contrast between the usual subject matter of such books, and the individuality of this specific 'adventure'. The language is distancing - did anyone ever really talk like this? There are too many examples for me to isolate one, though the word "quoth" appears at least once, and 'wild' girls are described by one doctor at the San as "stormy petrels", which just seems inappropriate to any place or time as yet recorded! It is terribly elitist - how must the ordinary girls who comprised its main readership have felt at having their state schools described thus: "...the education was good enough of its kind, but the girls of a very different class, with an outlook on life of which her parents disapproved." Poor Guernsey-girl Beth, to have had to suffer such indignity before the Chalet School arrived on her shores!

Whilst not being, obviously, the huge fun that the majority of girlschool books are, this is an intriguing and historically fascinating work, and I am delighted that Girls Gone By have brought it into the public consciousness once more. It is compelling on many levels, and works very well as a companion piece to many of the Persephone titles. As the Headmistress so accurately comments towards the end of the book, "'Oh, drat Hitler and all his works.' With which reprehensible remark the Head picked up her essay books and departed to the study." Quite.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Driver's Seat

This is a very hard book to write about, very hard. And if you haven't read it, may also be hard to read about. It is short, a novella, or even a long short story, and it deals essentially with only one day in the life of the protagonist, Lise. We meet Lise as she is shopping for clothes to wear on holiday. Then we travel with her, and spend just one day with her, in an unnamed foreign city. And this sparsity of plot is what makes The Driver's Seat so hard to write about - I could summarise the whole book, every incident, in three lines. I could tell you who she meets and what she does with them, the gist of all her conversations, in two more. But to do so would be to sidestep utterly the point of the book. There is no unexpected ending - we are told early on that her mutilated body will be found by the police the following morning. And Lise, poor, unbalanced, silently screaming Lise, spends the day we spend with her, looking for her murderer. Our only question seems to be: who is he? Which of the several unsavoury male characters that she meets will be the one?

This though, is not, in fact, our only question. Far more pertinent are the questions we have about Lise herself.

I am reminded of Martin Amis' London Fields, although of course, The Driver's Seat came first chronologically, if not in terms of my reading. Amis' murderee "knows the time, she knows the place, she knows the motive, she knows the means. She just doesn't know the man" who will kill her. This too, then, is Lise's predicament. But Spark writes in such a clean, almost jaunty, style that we forget that Lise does not have to go through with it. At any time, she can change her mind and not be murdered. But this does not occur to her, and nor does it occur to us, as we have been told already that her body will be found. It is, therefore, not stoppable.

Lise's movements are reconstructed by the witnesses who see and speak to her. We, as readers, seem to be listening to a series of police interviews. And yet... and yet... that is not what we are hearing, for there is a definite voice narrating this unfortunate tale. Is it Spark's voice? Some other omniscient narrator? And indeed, as omniscience goes, this narrator is seriously lacking, at one point asking us, "Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?"

Why? Why does Lise want to die? Why is suicide not an option, why must she be murdered? Why in this place, on this night, in this way? The more we question her, the further from her, and from knowing the answers to the questions, we seem to get. Is Lise even likable? And does it matter?

It is a story that is read by the head, the intellect, the intelligent part of the reader that wants to know - what does this book tell us about the human condition, about ourselves; what can I learn from it? And yet...and yet... she cries. Lise cries. Quietly and without explanation. And it is this that spoke to my heart. Such tininess, such plain-ness of detail, is what raises Spark's writing above the ordinary. In amongst all the questions this book throws up, the darkness, the coldness, the horror, is just a young woman crying, alone. Not sobbing: that would imply fear. Lise cries tears that simply roll down her cheeks. They are tears of grief.

There is no doubting Muriel Spark's genius as a writer. Jean Brodie has lived with me my whole life, since I first read her story many, many years ago. There too, was a tale edged in darkness. And now Lise will haunt me, forever, I suspect. Spark's women collect in the recesses of my mind, and like shadows in a candlelit house, frequently appear as a flicker in the corner of my mind's eye, so that I am forced to remember them and to consider their various fates. In this way, Spark speaks to my intellect. And yet...and yet...there is the heart, too. Spark always always has heart too.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights

I was sceptical. I was. I was sceptical when she first appeared on the world's radar as a model. I was even more sceptical when she began publishing 'novels'. And when I saw she had a cookery programme on the TV, with accompanying recipe book, I was...well, I was sceptical. But in both the first and last instances, she has won me over - the novels I have yet to be convinced by.

Sophie "grand-daughter of Roald" Dahl is probably as pretty as it's possible to be. Up there with Audrey Hepburn. She's sweet and affable, and as every review has commented, 'her' (it's not, it's rented for the series) kitchen is to die for. So the only thing that could possibly go wrong is the food itself. And I'm going to have to admit it, I'm lovin' the food!

Sophie, or Miss Dahl as I should properly address her, is on my wavelength completely when it comes to eating. She's a fan of mashed potato - I live for the stuff! - and rhubarb and simple soups and scrambling things and grating cheese over things and green stuff and fishy stuff and fruity stuff... I just love her Voluptuous Delights! Despite everything in me telling me this book is just an opportunistic money spinner, I can't help it. I love the food. I like Soph..Miss Dahl.

The book is punctuated with pages of autobiography, which are interesting, funny, heartbreaking in places, and - damn her! - well-written. The accompanying photos are aspirational enough to send me hurtling into charity shops looking for twee bone china cups into which I can slop chocolate mousse. And I've been dreaming of having a gypsy caravan at the bottom of my garden for years anyway, so that's just affirming the validity of a wish already placed.

It's Easter Sunday, yet another day of the year for thinking about nothing but eating well. I'm surrounded by Green & Blacks' eggs and a 'straordinary Black Forest Gateau affair by the Chocolate Alchemist - cherries embedded in white chocolate on a dark chocolate egg - and still my mind is full of the French Onion Soup I've made for tonight's starter. It won't be served in self-consciously mismatching flowery china bowls, but one step at a time, eh? We all need a dream to cling to.

The Great Penguin Bookchase

This won't take a minute of your time - The Great Penguin Bookchase is like Trivial Pursuit, but is entirely literary. There. If you want a little more, I can tell you it has a big board which you whip round according to dice throws, answering literary questions pertaining to the category you land on, which in turn correspond to the classic Penguin colourings - orange is Classics and Modern, red is Poetry and Plays, yellow is Children's etc. Instead of a pie, your counter is a small garishly coloured plastic bookshelf, and instead of slices of pie, you win...books! Of course! The questions have multiple choice answers, and it's up to the players whether they use them or must answer the question without options.

I've whiled away many hours with family and friends playing this, and it looks impressive sitting in the corner of the dining room, as the box is an enormous Penguin book. Great fun, great gift, Great Penguin Bookchase!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Enchanted April

Elizabeth Von Arnim is herself an interesting proposition: cousin of Katherine Mansfield, she made few friends with the sometimes callous portrayal of thinly-disguised actual people in her novels. Rebecca West said she had "little heart", an accusation hard to believe when one reads The Enchanted April; for this is a story that is all heart. Perhaps a little too sentimental for some, its fluffiness is spiked with a frustrating mean streak, little droplets of spite that sour the meringue.

Written in 1921, it tells of four women, previously unacquainted, who answer an advert in a newspaper to rent an Italian Villa for a month. Each has her own reason for needing to 'get away' from someone or something; a husband, a lifestyle, herself... Naturally, each eventually sees her own faults, as well as those of the others, and the air, the beauty, the plants and the castle itself all work their magic, so that as May dawns, the four women are changed forever, and entirely for the better. So much for a surprise ending.

It shares something with Nancy Mitford, but is, I think, of more literary merit. There is a beautiful style at work here, redolent of the time of its writing, which harbours a wit and observancy typical perhaps of Wilde: "I hate authors," complains Lady Caroline, "I wouldn't mind them so much if they didn't write books." There is a farcical interlude towards the end, befitting of Noel Coward - people arriving unexpectedly, seeing things they shouldn't, jumping to conclusions, hiding identities...but of course, it all works out in the end, as the utterly lovable Mrs Wilkins predicts.

The story flits cleverly from one of the four heroines to the other, like a camera panning across a landscape and lingering for a short while on individuals it finds, one in the top garden, one on the battlements, one in the hills with her solitary picnic.

It is an enjoyable book, simple, light, and easy on the intellect, but it's unlikely to ever sit in my all time Top Ten. It is described by critics variously as a "confection", an "omelette" - a sweet, at best a light lunch, nothing heavier or more filling. Ideal for whiling away two consecutive hot summer's days in the garden, but to grant it more time would be as frivolous as the life from which Lady Caroline is running.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Girls Gone By Publishers / The Chalet School in Exile (1)

The chain looks like this: I read an article by A.S. Byatt about children's literature at the turn of the (nineteenth to twentieth) century, she being somewhat of an expert since the research that went into The Children's Book, and felt a compunction to re-read some of those classics she mentioned, books that had had a profound effect on me as a child (though I am not quite Edwardian), such as The Secret Garden and The Phoenix and The Carpet.

Thus, I found myself in the Children's Classics section of Britain's only High Street bookshop.

And there I stumbled upon the beautiful item pictured above. This edition of The Chalet School in Exile, says the blurb on the back, "has been published to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and in memory of all those who lost their lives." Now I am a huge fan of the Elinor M Brent-Dyer / Angela Brazil school (excuse the pun) of writing - I spent my childhood summers in my grandparents house in Devon, and the bedroom in which I stayed had a cabinet crammed with such books, most of them with my great-aunt's name scrawled lazily in her own hand on the inside cover. A voracious reader even then, I ploughed merrily through the lot, ankle-socked legs waving in the air as I lay on my stomach in nana's garden, gently turning the kind of nut-brown only children go and that I have never gone since. (It may be worth noting that this was in fact during the 1970s/80s, and not the 1920s, as I like to make it sound. It may also be of interest that my favourite treasure in this cabinet of stylised girlschool literature was the beautifully dated Dimsie Moves Up, whilst my favourite of the cover art was the dust jacket of The New House Mistress).

The Chalet School in Exile has been re-published (it was originally available in 1940) by an outfit I had not heard of until now, Girls Gone By Publishers, whose website I shall be visiting regularly as of today. It's a beautiful paperback edition (£12 at Waterstones), published using the full first edition text and with matching cover art: "This original dustwrapper is extremely rare, and, very unusually, it was changed while the book was still in its first printing. It is thought that Chambers received complaints that the illustration was unsuitable for children..." Indeed, it shows a Nazi commander questioning two girls, pupils at the eponymous Chalet School in Austria, when the country is invaded and the school inhabitants are forced to flee.

This edition, then, includes a relevant WWII timeline, complete with maps, a biography of Elinor M Brent-Dyer, a geekily detailed publishing history of this particular title, and much more. I am delighted to have it, and to have discovered this wonderful publishing venture, which I really hope thrives. A review will follow when I have actually read the book, instead of simply being ridiculously excited about owning it...