Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, Manchester

As I write this, it looks very much as if Greater Manchester, where I live, will be placed in the highest, Tier 3, level of restrictions in the coming days. There’s a lot of politics about, but let me tell you there is also a lot of frustration and anger about too. There is also a lot of division, differing perspectives, conflicting interpretations of data and statistics. But around me the human cost is evident – businesses are closing, I know people who have lost work, people under strain from not seeing their loved ones, and others paralysed by fear of the virus. One person’s asymptomatic response is another’s death sentence. We find ourselves at a difficult moment and we all have to find our way through this conundrum as best we can.

In the midst of all this confusion and anxiety, I took myself back in time last week to one of my favourite places in Manchester, but one which I have not visited for some time – the former home of Elizabeth Gaskell in Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester. It is close to the Manchester Royal Infirmary, The University of Manchester, and the Pankhurst Centre, a little house, in the middle of the hospital campus, that was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement (also now a museum).

Elizabeth Gaskell’s house is a fairly modest property that has had a chequered history. Elizabeth’s unmarried daughters Meta and Julia lived there until they died, and after Meta’s death in 1913, an attempt to preserve it as a memorial to the author was unsuccessful and it was sold and its contents dispersed. It continued to be occupied as a family home until it was bought by Manchester University in 1968 who used it as accommodation for overseas students. It fell into some disrepair (though thankfully not too much irreversible ‘renovation’ was done) but was finally purchased by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust in 2004 and a project was set up to restore it as a museum to Elizabeth Gaskell.

It is still a work in progress and it is really only the ground floor rooms that have been set up as they would have been in Gaskell’s time. While I was there, I was shown work underway to restore what is believed to have been Elizabeth’s bedroom, but other rooms have been given over to research, educational spaces and meeting rooms. There is currently a very interesting exhibition about John Ruskin on display until the end of the year. The rooms have been painstakingly restored and furniture and artefacts either belonged to the family or are the Trusts’s best guess at what they would have had around them.

I was looking for some peace, tranquility and inspiration there and I found it. I was the only visitor that afternoon, and whilst it saddens me that so few people are going out to see the many interesting and beautiful places that remain open to visitors and safe, I had to admit that having the place to myself felt like a treat. Numbers are controlled and all the volunteer guides are well protected with PPE. You have to book your slot online and the £5.50 admission price gives you access for a full year. There is a tea room and a huge selection of secondhand books for sale.

Most of all there is a sense of dedication, to the memory of the author and her remarkable achievements (she died suddenly at the age of 55).

I recommend a visit to this wonderful house. The arts and culture are suffering terribly at this difficult time with opening restrictions, the cost of being Covid-safe, and reduced (or in many cases zero) numbers. Book a visit, you won’t regret it.

https://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/

Audiobook review – “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri

I’m on an audiobook roll; earlier this week I posted about The Last Protector, the fourth in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett series, all of which I have listened on on audio and all of which I have loved. Today I am, by coincidence, reviewing another audiobook, The Beekeeper of Aleppo. I had known about this one for some time and wanted to read it, then it came up as a suggestion from one of my fellow Book Club members. It is read by Art Malik, whose voice is sublime, absolutely perfect for this story, so it was an easy choice to turn to the audiobook.

Although it is a work of fiction the author writes in her afterword about her time spent working with refugees fleeing the war in Syria, and that the book represents an amalgam of various peoples’ experiences. Although it is a tragic and heartbreaking story, even a superficial awareness of what has been happening in Syria for almost ten years now will render it entirely believable. Aleppo was particularly badly affected by the civil war in Syria; over 30,000 people are said to have been killed between 2012-16, when fighting there was at its most intense. A further half a million people were displaced and much of the city was left in ruins.

The story is narrated by Nuri, a beekeeper who lives a peaceful life in Aleppo with his wife Afra, an artist, and their young son Sami. Nuri runs his successful beekeeping business with his partner Mustafa, the more charismatic of the two men.

[Slight spoiler alert in the next paragraph]

Nuri and Afra are devoted to their homeland, but they watch in despair as their city is torn apart and they witness horrific acts in the increasingly vicious civil war. Their turmoil reaches a climax when their young son is killed by a mortar. Mustafa decides to flee Syria, determined to head for the United Kingdom, and encourages Nuri and Afra to do the same. Nuri is persuaded, but Afra cannot find it within her to leave. Deeply traumatised by her son’s death she does not want to, as she sees it, leave him behind. As events spiral out of their control and the gulf between them, caused by their grief, seems impossibly large, Nuri finds that his wife, the artist, has become blind.

Nuri persuades, virtually forces, Afra to leave Syria; presenting her with a stark choice – it is that or death. Afra would rather die, but Nuri has to nurture the last tiny remaining bit of the human survival instinct that he has, for both of them. What follows is an account of the couple’s journey from Syria, across Europe and finally to England. They spend many weeks in Athens, sleeping in a public park with many others in a similar position, dependent on the kindness of strangers, volunteers and NGO workers to bring them food. They face many dangers, their lives are at risk on many occasions and they are cruelly robbed and cheated by criminals and gangsters who seek to profit from the plight of desperate people. As a reader you know this story is not fantastical. It is heartbreaking to see how these cultured, educated gentle people are brutalised, dehumanised and forced into danger and a level of criminality themselves by their situation.

This is not an easy read. It is heart-wrenching throughout and the ending is both dramatic and surprising. I would also say the ending is clever, but that seems a rather inappropriate word to apply to a story such as this. For an insight into what it is like to be a refugee, an outsider, this book is superb.

I recommend this book highly.

The book has won international acclaim, but sadly it does not seem to have changed the world’s attitude to refugees. Perhaps that is too much to ask when almost every country in the world is now battling a global pandemic. But just as we can’t let Covid cause us to forget the many other problems and causes of suffering in our own society (cancer, domestic violence, homelessness are not on hold), neither can we let ourselves forget the unimaginable plight of refugees across the globe. UNHCR estimates that around 1% of the world’s population, about 80 million people, are currently displaced. Of these, 40%, about 32 million, are children.

Audiobook review – “The Last Protector” by Andrew Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an audiobook enthusiast – having long-eschewed the move to digital formats (ie e-readers – I have one, but I rarely use it), I find the audiobook adds a dimension to the experience of ‘reading’; you get the interpretation of a skilled actor/narrator and the sense of connection, as if someone else is enjoying the experience alongside you. The e-reader, on the other hand, for me, takes away; paper just feels more authentic between my fingers than glass and plastic, and the ‘swipe’ is a distraction that removes me from the narrative. I get that it’s convenient (not to mention space-saving!), but it’s just not really for me. The audiobook doesn’t work every time – of the books I have listened to over the last few years, there are some where the narrator annoyed me. One that comes to mind is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train where the Rachel character just grated every time she spoke.

Andrew Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett books (now four titles) are books that I have enjoyed immensely on audio. I listened to the first book, The Ashes of London, during the summer last year and followed up very quickly with the second book, The Fire Court, both of which I loved. I listened to the third book The King’s Evil, in the early part of this year, and then the fourth and most recent addition, The Last Protector, I downloaded pretty much as soon as it was published in April. It was my companion to my 5-10km running programme during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was perfect escapism and a timely reminder that we are not the only generation to live through ‘plague’.

In this book, James Marwood, now well-known at court as an effective ‘investigator’ and ‘fixer’ is firmly established in his slightly shadowy ‘civil servant plus’ role; the James Bond of his day, perhaps! His fortune is fairly secure and his household is growing in size; a man of compassion he has gathered around him a group of waifs and strays who have become his trusted and loyal servants. As his successes have increased, however, so have his enemies, some of them very powerful, most notably the Duke of Buckingham, a scheming, two-faced and clever courtier, direct threat to the King himself. With each new book, the stakes for Marwood get ever higher. Cat Lovett is the other constant character in the books, long-time associate of Marwood, intimately connected by their past dealings, and between whom a frisson of energy fizzes, a fact which often puts them at loggerheads.

Cat is now married, rather unhappily, to the ageing and sickly architect, Hakesby so her contact with Marwood is limited, but they are thrown together again by a seemingly chance meeting between Cat and a childhood friend, Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth is the daughter of Richard Cromwell, son of the more famous Oliver, who was reluctantly thrust into the position of ‘Protector’ after his father’s death. He fled to France after the restoration of the monarchy and has now returned to England; he misses his homeland, but is also destitute and needs funds. Cromwell himself is not a threat to the King, but he has become a poster-boy for the still-nascent enthusiasm for the time of Cromwell (Hakesby is among such a group and does not conceal his delight at the return of a Cromwell, much to Cat’s dismay, who, given her own family history, must keep a low profile). His financial needs also make him vulnerable to exploitation by those who do indeed seek to disrupt the existing order (ie Buckingham) and capitalise on the widespread dissatisfaction with the royal court.

Richard Cromwell seeks to retrieve a package that his indomitable late mother had hidden in a sewer beneath St James’ Palace where she once resided. We do not know what exactly is in this package, but Cromwell believes it will answer all his problems. He needs, however, to ingratiate himself to Hakesby, the architect who undertook much of the remodelling at the palace in the years since the restoration, in order to get access to the sewer.

As usual, a simple premise sets off a train of events that lead to violence and duplicity, intrigue and death. Marwood becomes embroiled, once again at the request of the King and senior courtiers, and events seem to spiral out of his control. Once again, however, Marwood (and Cat), through ingenuity, resourcefulness and wit, manage to come through.

Everything about this book, and the earlier volumes, delivers. Great plot (logical enough to be credible, and complex enough to entertain whilst being just about understandable), well-rounded believable characters, and, very importantly, a level of historical authenticity that suggests deep and painstaking research.

I recommend this and the rest of the series highly. For best results, read in the right order!

Facebook Reading Challenge – October choice

Hey, get me! Two posts in one week – can’t remember the last time I managed that! Perhaps I am emerging from the Covid doldrums and rediscovering my motivation again. I like to dip into so-called ‘self-help’ or motivational books from time to time. It can give you a bit of a refresh, an opportunity to reflect on the way you do or approach things, and there is never any harm in that. Earlier this year (yes, during THAT period when time lost all meaning) I read Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés and it has had the most profound effect on me. I dip into it every now and then (I have marked and highlighted so many pages that inspired me) and it continues to provide a unique kind of nourishment.

Recently I discovered on one of our less visited bookshelves at home, a copy of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s not the kind of book I would usually go for (though at one time when I was all about my career I definitely would have done) and neither my husband or I have any idea where it came from. I expected to read a chapter or two and then toss it aside, assuming it would be all business-y and ’80s, but I’m actually really enjoying it and getting some useful ideas from it. Yes, there is a lot about management in it, but primarily it’s about personal mastery, and who couldn’t use a bit of that from time to time.

I digress, since this post is meant to be about October’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. I have posted my less than enthusiastic review of last month’s choice (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and after struggling with the rather heavy philosophical content, I am delighted that this month’s theme is classic children’s fiction! Yay! I love children’s books and try to read at least one every month or two. I haven’t read one for a while – perhaps that is another reason I’ve been feeling under par – so I am very much looking forward to this one.

The book I have chosen is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. Published in 1981, it is set during the Second World War and concerns the relationship between William, a young boy from London, evacuated from his home, where he has been ill-treated by his mother, and Tom, a widower in his sixties, in whose care William is placed. It was made into a film in 1998, starring John Thaw as Mister Tom, which has been recommended to me too.

So, that is definitely going to be a treat during what is, in my view, the most beautiful time of the year.

Conkers – one of my very favourite things! (Image by Elsemagriet from Pixabay)

Book review – “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

This was my choice for September in my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a novel by an Eastern European writer. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is considered a classic in that particular category; it was first published in 1984, in French translation, and not in the original Czech until 1985, but outside the then Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. This was for political reasons as the novel is set against the background of the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when the Soviet Army occupied the country.

The main protagonists are Tomáš, a surgeon, his wife Tereza, and their dog Karenin. Other characters are Sabina, an artist, and Tomáš’s lover (one of them!), and Sabina’s lover Franz. Tomáš is a womaniser, I’d even go so far as to say a sex addict, whom I did not warm to. Despite his genuine love for Tereza, he is serially unfaithful. After he is relieved of his post as a surgeon, after getting into difficulties with the government about a critical letter he wrote that was published in a newspaper, he is employed as a window-cleaner, and seems to spend his work days having sex with his clients. Tereza is aware of his infidelities, but tolerates them, for reasons that are not quite apparent – yes, she loves him, but it seems mainly to be fear and vulnerability that keep her with him. I did not warm to Tereza either; she is a damaged person, body-dysmorphic, which seems to have been caused by her challenging relationship with her mother. Tereza is a talented photographer, but she never manages to exploit her abilities, working instead in a series of dead-end jobs. Tereza is perpetually sad, quite a depressing character.

Sabina and Franz are more marginal characters and I struggled to fully understand their relevance; Sabina, an artist, is Tomáš’s lover when he begins his relationship with Tereza. She represents cheer, lightness and ease when Tomáš is concerned that Tereza is going to tie him down. Sabina is his way of convincing himself that he is still free to pursue his erotic interests. Later, in Geneva, Sabina becomes the mistress of an academic, Franz, who leaves his wife for her, although a permanent domestic life with him was not really what she was seeking so they part and he settles down with one of his students.

This is a clever book and the political backdrop interested me. The philosophy did not, however, and so I found it difficult to get into. I did not enjoy Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World when I read it in the early 1990s, for much the same reason. In Sophie’s World, the story is almost entirely subjugated to the history of philosophy, which I’m afraid rather bored me. That is less the case here in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where there is just about a story to hang onto, but still, for me, it was not enough. I am a lover of literature, a lifelong student of it, but I am also a lover of a good story and this one just did not do it for me.

It has an interesting narrative voice; the author is self-consciously present and takes the reader on philosophical digressions, commenting on his characters’ actions as we go along. Essentially, the author’s position is in opposition to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ – that all events that have ever happened are repeated endlessly. This means everything we do has huge eternal significance. What Kundera is exploring here is the very opposite, that each event occurs once only, making all events and choices essentially without great import, thus ‘light’. He therefore reflects throughout on the extent to which the character’s are experiencing ‘lightness’ in their lives or not.

It’s okay not to like a ‘classic’ isn’t it? Life is pretty hectic at the moment and grounded in much more prosaic matters, namely, finally, the (fingers-crossed) sale of my late mother’s house, the winding-up of her affairs and interment of her ashes. Bogged down with all this earthly detail I was probably not in the best frame of mind to ponder big issues of philosophy! I also found myself reading it in shortish bursts, which is never how I best enjoy a book.

So, all in all, not a great read for me.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this book.

Book Review – “The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel

The big excitement in the literary world recently was, of course, the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. In past years I have set myself the task of trying to read the whole shortlist before the award is made, but I have never yet managed it. I think I read five out of the six one year, but last year I think I only managed two or three and abandoned the intention somewhere around Christmas-time. The Booker Prize seems like less of a landmark than it once was, though; one of the criticisms is that it is now dominated by US-published books, since it was opened up to writers in English from outside the Commonwealth in 2014. One of the fears was that it would “homogenise” literary fiction, although it is curious that this year’s prize nominees constitute one of the most diverse I can remember with it having a majority of women and a majority of people of colour. I would like to read all of the novels on this year’s shortlist, they all sound fascinating, but if there is one thing the past twelve months have taught me it is that I should not be too goal-orientated. My world feels like it has been on shifting sands and most of my plans have had to be abandoned, with the consequence that I have often felt like I was failing at every turn. At this point in time I am just trying to be kind to myself, recognise that things change and give myself a pat on the back for things done rather than admonishing myself for things still to do. And keen readers will know that that TBR pile NEVER shrinks!

The brilliant finale to the Wolf Hall trilogy

The big shock of the Booker Prize shortlist was that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, was not even nominated. This followed hard on the heels of not winning the Women’s Prize a week earlier (that award went to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – my next read!). Hilary Mantel has spoken of these twin ‘failures’ as being something of a relief – there had been so much talk of whether she could ‘do the treble’ (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies having won in 2009 and 2012, respectively), but remember this is literature not football! I don’t think Hilary will be suffering too much of a crisis of confidence! As an artist, I hope her feeling of achievement is from the work itself. And what a work it is!

Talking of goals, I wrote on here back in March, when we all first went into ‘lockdown’ (I really, really hate that word), that one of the things I was planning to do with all my spare time was to both read The Mirror and the Light and re-read Ulysses (so much endless time), but of course I did not. Both books are enormous. It took a concerted effort during August to finish The Mirror and the Light. One of the reasons it took me so long was because it is so brilliantly written I wanted to savour absolutely every word. Also, with such a huge cast of characters, it was not always easy to follow who was conspiring with whom.

We all know the ending – Cromwell falls out of favour with Henry, following a fairly concerted campaign by his enemies at court, and is eventually executed. Knowing this, rather like re-reading a good book, helps you to track how events are unfolding. This is a really outstanding book, a fine achievement, and one which rewards the hard work, the investment the reader has to put into it. It is much longer than the first two parts of the trilogy, and at times, especially at the beginning, I felt it could have been edited down a bit, but, now I’ve finished it, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that, as a reader, you get your money’s worth – less than £1 per hour of reading is pretty good value! And the craft, the authorship, the writing skill, and the research, not to mention the years of her life Ms Mantel has put into this book, make it, in my view, a true literary landmark. It seems above prizes.

Hilary Mantel has also given us all a lesson in politics and a lesson in history. It was an interesting time to be reading the book. The name Dominic Cummings (most famous breaker of lockdown rules) will be familiar to most people in the UK. Not just in the UK but in other countries too, there is a culture war going on between an establishment ‘elite’ and ‘upstarts’ perceived not to belong. I do think this is an element in some of the hostility that is expressed towards people perceived to be outsiders. I should add quickly that I do not think this is undeserved (I’m thinking Cummings, but also Trump), but there is undoubtedly self-interest in the hostility coming from some quarters and some people seem to be piggy-backing on legitimate criticisms. Waiting for their moment to strike, perhaps.

Cromwell, as painted by Hans
Holbein the Younger

Thomas Cromwell (according to Mantel) was a schemer, self-interested and a manipulator, but he was also (and I should add that my comparison with the contemporary examples of outsiders mentioned above ends right there!) a brilliant tactician and a man of extraordinary talents with an unmatched intellect. His chief ‘crime’ in the eyes of his enemies at court, though, was being low-born, he son of a blacksmith; he dared to ascend to the very highest roles at court, the chief confidante of the king, but he paid the price, ultimately, for that daring. His enemies eventually succeeding in getting rid of him.

I recommend The Mirror and the Light very very highly.

Book review – “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman

As has become customary, I was somewhat late posting on my Reading Challenge Facebook Group with this month’s title, the theme of which is a novel from Eastern Europe. I have chosen Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This book has been sitting on my bookshelves for many years; it was part of my husband’s collection before we met, so must have been bought at least 25 years ago. I’ve ‘been meaning to read it’ ever since. There may well be books on my own TBR pile that have been around even longer, but I am determined I will get to them all one day! So, this month’s theme provides the perfect opportunity to get into this particular title, a renowned modern classic set against the background of the Prague Spring in 1968. First published in 1984, it was made into a film in 1988, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. Apparently, the author hated the film!

So, if you would like to join me this month, I would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the month – or, at my present rate of reading, a week or so into October!

Last month’s theme was ‘a love story’ and I chose André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The novel is set primarily during one sultry Italian summer in the 1980s. The younger main character, teenager Elio, spends every summer there with his parents at their home. Each year they invite an American graduate student to stay with them for several weeks, to assist Elio’s father with his academic work, whilst also working on a project of their own. This has become a tedious routine for Elio, who is always aggrieved that, for the period of the visit, he has to vacate his bedroom for a smaller one down the hall, so that the guest can stay in more comfort. That is until Oliver arrives. Seven years older than Elio he is confident, outgoing, charming and brilliant, a favourite with Elio’s parents, the staff who work in the house, and the family’s local friends and neighbours. By contrast, Elio is introverted, at times morose, a typical teenager, you might say.

The book is written from Elio’s point of view, so we know he feels an instant attraction to Oliver. Still young, Elio is in the early stage of exploring his sexuality. Although he has no apparent qualms about homosexuality, he clearly does not feel he can explore this openly in front of his family. He feels sure the attraction is mutual, but is frustrated by Oliver’s reluctance to engage with him. Initially, there is an intense psychological dance between the two, as both young men try to suppress their feelings, even having romantic liaisons with other women. When Elio confronts Oliver about what he sees as his cruelty, Oliver expresses his concern about their age difference and whether it would be unfair to expose him to potential heartache. Oliver is concerned about the power imbalance that the age difference confers.  

The pair finally come together and for the last few weeks of Oliver’s stay they have an intense sexual relationship and experience a deep emotional connection. Like all holiday romances, however, it cannot last. There is no sad ending, however, merely a recognition, that such love affairs burn hot and bright, but never for long.

A fellow reader commented that the time in which this novel is set is a factor. That if it had been, say, 10 or 15 years later, perhaps the romance would have been more acceptable (and perhaps less intense?). For me, the ‘forbidden’ nature of it came more from the age and status difference – Elio is at an early stage of sexual awakening, while Oliver is more experienced and does not want Elio’s early formative sexual experience to be one that he may regret later in life. Perhaps this does reflect the fact that homosexuality was still considered a more niche interest, less socially mainstream and more likely to cause psychological harm if later rejected.

This was a perfect novel for late August; I had planned to enjoy it on my summer holiday, lazing on the patio, but alas my holiday was cut short, so I had to make do with reading it in cool rainy south Manchester! It was good to escape to Italy in this book though.

I liked the story, the tension created felt very real and the ending was good. Apparently, the follow-up, Find Me is not as good. The characters were strong and the sense of place was very powerfully drawn, probably my favourite aspect of the book. It has of course been made into a film, starring Timothy Chalemet and Armie Hammer, which was highly praised and the breakthrough movie for its young star, Chalemet. I am also told the audiobook, read by Hammer, is excellent.

Recommended.

September renewal



My daughters have gone back to school, my son will be back at university in a few days’ time and at last life is starting to resemble the one that was suspended so suddenly back in March. How long ago those ‘claps for the NHS’, traffic-free roads and once-a-week-only visits to the supermarket seem. Whilst we are still all somewhat restricted, life has become busy again, and the last few weeks, since we returned from our hastily-aborted trip to the Netherlands (due to the short notice imposition of quarantine rules for that country) have been, I would even go so far as to say, ‘hectic’! There have been all of the usual ‘back to school preparations’ – haircuts, uniform top-ups (including a whole new ‘capsule business-wear wardrobe’ for my new sixth-former!), stationery and book shopping. There has also been the sense of something ending; in many ways, despite the challenges, lockdown has been a precious time, for it is unlikely that we will ever have this much family time together ever again. My teenagers will increasingly separate from us in the years to come, as indeed they should.

I have written here before how one of the surprising aspects for me about lockdown, turned out to be how little I would able to use the time ‘productively’ (whatever that means). At the start, as I rubbed out more and more commitments from my usually busy diary, I thought, ‘great, now I’ll have lots of time to do loads of things’, thinking, of course, about that long overdue re-write of my book, getting some other writing projects off the ground, and, indeed, blogging regularly. Of course, very little of that managed to happen – how did I let all that time go to waste, I have asked myself many times. I didn’t of course – when it comes to judging myself I am chronically glass half-empty. Among my many achievements I built up my running distance to 10k, I maintained a steady supply of toilet rolls (without ANY stockpiling, I might add), I sold a load of now-unused toys on ebay, and, most importantly I kept my family on an even keel and healthy.

I did not do as much reading as I expected, especially in the latter months, but the most frustrating thing was being unable to do any writing. I felt bereft not only of time (I was literally never alone in the house, something I had previously taken for granted), but of access to the computer, of the quiet that I find I need and of the mental energy. Reflecting as I have been on these strange months ‘in limbo’ I realise now that I have been on ‘standby’, in ‘fight or flight’ mode, more focused on survival than I probably ever have been in my entire life. This is not an over-dramatisation – at one point, remember, it seemed the virus might kill hundreds of thousands of us, at random. Food supplies were unable to keep up with demand – some of us stockpiled through selfishness, most did so from fear, I suspect. Plus, none of us knew whether we’d still have our jobs, our lifestyles or be able to keep the roof over our heads at the end of it all, whenever that was likely to be. Is it really any wonder I was unable to be creative?

I was reassured last week, watching a live-streamed interview with Hilary Mantel and Angie Cruz ahead of the announcement of the Women’s Fiction Prize winner, when Hilary described reading as ‘a creative act’ for a writer. Indeed it is. I read much slower than I used to, because I read differently now. So perhaps I have not been as creatively unproductive these last few months as I thought. Perhaps it is all just waiting to burst through.

September is always an important month for me; that seems counter-intuitive given that, in nature, it is the time of things dying off and nights closing in, preparing for hibernation, the big sleep. For me, it feels like the opposite. It is when I feel most alive. Last year, that was derailed – it is very nearly one full year ago that my mother died – so this year I feel even more energised and determined to push through and express myself more fully than I have been able for some time.

So, here’s to September, to creative and spiritual recovery. Let’s hope we keep our health and our sanity if we find ourselves in a second spike, a resurgence, or whatever we want to call it. Please stay healthy all and I hope you too are in thriving mode again.

Book review – “The Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende

My last live cultural experience before lockdown was introduced in the UK was on February 11th. I saw Isabel Allende in conversation with Jeanette Winterson at The Dancehouse in Manchester as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. The evenings were still dark and the weather was cold. The excited spectators queued on the stairs, we sat next to strangers and laughed out loud, a microphone was passed around the audience. Nobody was wearing a face mask nor using hand sanitiser and the Coronavirus seemed like a thing that was happening far away and not at all like a real threat. A few weeks later and it would have been cancelled. Isabel Allende probably would not even have embarked on an international promotional tour. Only 6 months ago, and yet it feels like a lifetime.

2020-02-24 14.54.26A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende’s twentieth novel and, as with many of her works, is based on the true story of a close friend of hers. It concerns refugees from the Spanish Civil War who escape the fascist regime in September 1939 and flee to Chile via France on a ship called the Winnipeg, in an operation  organised by the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who felt his nation had a duty to support those fleeing the terror in Spain.

Victor Dalmau is one of these refugees, a young medic who escapes the country with his heavily pregnant sister-in-law Roser, a pianist who was engaged to be married to Victor’s brother Guillem. Guillem was a fighter, a passionate revolutionary, and lost his life to the cause. Victor and Roser are forced to leave behind Victor’s elderly mother, Carme Dalmau. She says she is too old for the journey and wishes to die in her country. Victor persuades Roser to marry him, believing it will be safest for them both and give them the best chance of being accepted into Chile.

The couple settle in Chile and Roser gives birth to a son, Marcel, whom Victor cares for as if he were his own child. Although theirs is a marriage of convenience, Victor and Roser grow fond of one another and whilst, initially, they intend to return to Spain one day, it becomes clear, as the years pass, and world war two rages in Europe, that this is unlikely to happen. They therefore set about making a decent life for themselves: they set up a business, a small bar, Victor completes his studies and qualifies as a doctor, eventually becoming one of the leading cardiac surgeons in the country (a fact which will later save his own life). Roser, meanwhile, develops her own career; she was a pianist in Spain (she was rescued by Victor’s parents who spotted her talent and rescued her from a life of poverty) and begins teaching music.

They seem to be thriving, until the military coup in 1973, when General Pinochet led the overthrow of the president Salvador Allende. This, of course, is closely linked to the author’s own story, President Allende having been her father’s cousin. Here, Victor’s past catches up with him; he is known as a former anti-fascist activist and had become a friend of the President, playing chess with him regularly. The couple’s fortunes take a turn for the worse.

I won’t give away any more of the details as it is a cracking story which doesn’t end quite as you’d expect. In the talk I attended, Isabel Allende described this book as a straight love story, and indeed it is, a tale of the kinds of lives on which the world turns. It is what Allende does best, story-telling and this book will keep you gripped. There is no shortage of action or plot and I suspect she has stayed very close to the facts of the original true story. If you are an Allende fan you will love it, as it would be hard not to love anything she has written. It is not The House of the Spirits though, nor does it have the breadth or power of a story such as Portrait in Sepia. I think the canvas here is a bit smaller and I suspect the author has constrained her imagination a little in order to be loyal to the real-life story. That said, it is clearly a book full of love for its characters and their story and it feels very authentic.

Recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – choice for August

This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a love story. I always try to pick a topic for August which is suitable for a holiday read, a bit of escapism, not too taxing. When I came up with the 2020 list of themes I could not have known how 2020 would pan out and that most of us would not in fact be going on holiday at all. Barely going outside our front doors for many weeks. I had no holiday plans at all in fact – my elder daughter was due to be doing the four-week NCS (National Citizenship Service) programme this month, and then getting her GCSE results on the 20th, so there was no space for a holiday. We had a loose plan to take a last-minute week off just before the end of the school holiday but no firm ideas. The NCS programme was cancelled, of course, and travel restrictions abound. However, we are hoping to drive to Zeeland, in the Netherlands, our usual Spring vacation destination, in a couple of days. That is, of course, if the Dutch allow us in! And since I live in Greater Manchester, which is seeing a resurgence in cases of Covid-19, it is entirely possible that we Brits will not be welcome. However, let us remain hopeful. And vigilant.

Back to books…

Call me by your name imgI had been thinking about some of the classic love stories – Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind, The Remains of the Day – but none of these felt much like ‘holiday reading’. But then a bit of online research threw up the perfect suggestion – Call Me By Your Name  by Andre Aciman. First published in 2007, this novel was made into a very successful film in 2018 starring Timothee Chalemet and Armie Hammer. It is set in the 1980s on the Italian Riviera (perfect!) and concerns a romance between Italian-American Elio (Chalemet), spending the long hot summer at his parents’ holiday home, and visiting academic Oliver (Hammer). It is apparently quite steamy (perfect!). I have not yet seen the film, so I am delighted to read the book first.

My choice for July was ‘something from the Americas’ and I picked a contemporary Argentinian crime novelist, Claudia Pineiro – a prolific author, well-known in her own country, and someone I had never heard of. Yay for reading challenges! I selected her novel Betty Boo, first published in 2010. The novel begins with the murder of Pedro Chazarreta at his home on the exclusive Maravillosa Country Club estate. Chazarreta is a wealthy businessman and widower, whose wife was murdered three years earlier, also at their home and in suspicious circumstances which were never fully resolved. The murder of Senor Chazarreta is equally mysterious and whilst suicide is widely suggested (a sign of his guilt in relation to his late wife’s death?), there are inconsistencies which arouse the curiosity of among others, Nurit Iscar. Nurit is a writer whose crime novels made her famous. However, she has written nothing for some years after her last novel received terrible reviews; she decided to write a romantic novel, encouraged by her then lover, newspaper editor Lorenzo Rinaldi, but the change of genre was not a successful career move.

Betty B00 imgAt the start of this novel Nurit is divorced, ghost-writing money-spinner books for celebrities and somewhat directionless. Her affair with Rinaldi is long over, but he contacts her and asks her to write some columns on Chazarreta’s murder. He arranges for her to stay at the home of his newspaper’s proprietor at La Maravillosa so that she can get close to the scene of the crime and the people who live there. It was Rinaldi who called Nurit ‘Betty Boo’, because of her dark eyes and dark curly hair. As Nurit gradually becomes immersed in the crime, her relationship develops with two other journalists at El Tribuno, which her ex-lover edits: Jaime Brena, the disillusioned middle-aged hack, former crime journalist, now reduced to the lifestyle section of the paper, and ‘Crime Boy’ the young upstart, now the lead crime writer on the paper, who, with his limited experience, turns increasingly to Brena for help on the Chazarreta case.

These three disparate individuals thus find themselves thrown together on the case, not entirely through their own choosing. Each brings their own skills to bear to try and solve a case (two cases in fact, both Chazarreta and his wife), that the police seem unable, or unwilling, to. As they get closer to what they believe is the truth, more murders occur, which appear to our intrepid trio, to be connected.

This book felt like it had a slow start to me; some of the scene-setting felt a little laboured. Also, I felt that perhaps the translation was not the best; at times the language was awkward and stilted. One problem I had with it was the lack of punctuation to delineate speech! No speech marks or ‘he/she said’ which at times made it difficult to follow who was speaking. Perhaps this is Pineiro’s style or perhaps it is more obvious in Spanish, but for me it really affected the flow at times.

I liked the characters though and in particular the relationship that develops between Nurit, Brena and Crime Boy. Investigating the murder becomes a cathartic process for each of them, a journey, and at the end of it they have resolved some complicated personal issues they each have. The plot also develops in interesting an unexpected ways which keeps you turning the page.

I’d definitely read more of Pineiro – I think it’s always good to broaden your reading horizons and it can give you a good insight into other societies. I am ashamed at how little I know about Argentina. An interesting book that is not too demanding.

Recommended.

I would love for you to join me on the Reading Challenge this month – look out for my review of Call Me By Your Name in September.