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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

What is Hamnet, or a hamnet? Is it a small cigar, a misspelling of the title of a famous play, a Persian cloak, the winner of the of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? The latter of course. It won from a strong field that included Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. 

I am not interested in whether this book is better than those others on the shortlist, (which you can find here). I am concerned to look at the merits of this novel and to explore its craft. It is the story of a family, how they are tied together and how those ties are stretched when the son dies aged eleven. 

Hamnet

The family lives in Stratford-on-Avon in the late sixteenth century, the father is away in London where he has success as a playwright. There are three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. The novel starts on a summer’s afternoon. 

A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor. (3)

This is Hamnet, desperate to find assistance because Judith is very sick.

The story does not unfold in a straightforward chronological way. Not much about the construction of this novel is straightforward. Here are four aspects of the novel worth noting.

First, the family is inspired by Shakespeare’s. But the name is never mentioned. Not even the playwright’s first name. He is always ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’. This emphasises the family relationships and it allows the author some freedom in imagining how this family lived. So few documentary records survive of his life that we have enormous gaps in our knowledge. We know about land purchases, education at the Grammar School and his will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife. (The mystery of this bequest is explained in passing.)

Second, Hamnet died of the plague, or pestilence in this novel. There is, of course, a resonance with our own experience of a pestilence. I found myself comparing symptoms, transmissibility, precautions and so on. It’s like noting that people in films are not wearing masks or observing social distance guidelines. 

Third, in telling the story Maggie O’Farrell leaps from one time zone to another, we go forwards and backwards within the family’s life. This results in the reader knowing more than the characters: about the death of Hamnet, or the father’s success in London, for example. We are not being asked to wonder whether a child will die. Instead, we are asked to focus on the relationships, the strength of the ties and how individuals will deal with the grief. She also tells the story in the present tense, which brings us close to the action and to the characters. 

Fourth, Maggie O’Farrell’s writes exceptionally well about place, and her descriptive powers recreate the Warwickshire countryside, the town and houses in which the family live, even the bustle of London’s Southbank. In my copy (perhaps all copies?) there is an afterword about how a visit to Stratford allowed her to recreate the first scene, Hamnet jumping down the stairs, and the geography of the house informs much of the novel. 

Grief and Loss

Hamnet is about grief and loss within a family. For Judith losing a twin is a special kind of loss. She cannot believe that he will disappear completely from her life, and searches at night, following a suggestion from one of her mother’s customers. Agnes and her husband are both distraught, finding it hard to go on with their lives in Stratford and in London. They have been a strong unit, despite separation, up to this point, but Hamnet’s death nearly breaks their partnership. The novel challenges the idea that when infant and child mortality were high and part of everyday life, death was not as difficult for parents as it is today. 

Agnes

Agnes, the wife and mother, is the spine of the novel. One friend suggested she is a bit too hippy-dippy bare-foot new-age herbalist for her taste. I found her ability to read people and to experience the dead and see the future rather irritating. This kind of mystical otherworld capacity always challenges my belief in a character’s authenticity. 

On the other hand, she is perceptive, strong, individual and rebellious. She is not too bothered by how the people of Stratford see her, nor by her stepmother’s disapproval. She is more discerning than his family about her husband and his talents. He has not distinguished himself when Agnes disappears when she is about to give birth to their first child. He seeks out her brother, Bartholomew who tells the young husband what Agnes had said about her choice of husband.

‘… you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’
The husband stares, as if he can’t believe what he is hearing. His face is anguished, pained, astonished. ‘She said that?’
Bartholomew nods. ‘Now I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘Yes.’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending upon who you ask. So if she thinks that about you, there’s a possibility that it’s true.’ (162-3)

Bullied by his father, no trade to follow, a family to support, the young man has not demonstrated much potential. We understand that Agnes’s support was crucial.

The playwright

Agnes’s husband is never named and Maggie O’Farrell has had to create his early life from the scant documentary evidence. We know little of how he got on when he first went to London, or how he maintained his relations with his family, nor what he did when the plague closed the theatres in London. 

But there is the play that bears the name of his dead son (Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable in the 1590s, it seems). Her marriage appears to be at breaking point when Agnes finds that her husband has used their son’s name as the title of a play. She travels to London with Bartholomew to confront him about this heartlessness and finds that he has channelled his grief into a recreation of his son. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, published in 2020 by Tinder Press 386pp

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Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Here is another writer who takes everyday difficulties seriously. (The ‘other’ is Kent Haruf, recently reviewed on the blog). Typically her main character is socially inept in some way, but has carved out a life in which they manage. Her novels are concerned with what happens when their world is challenged. Who can forget Macon in The Accidental Tourist, trying to deal with grief and being forced into a wider set of social interactions? Or his family of grown up siblings who store their groceries alphabetically: elbow macaroni belonging in a different place on the shelf to noodles or ordinary macaroni! Wonderful!

She is kind to her characters, affectionate even while providing a little amusement at their expense. This is as true for Micah Mortimer as it is for Macon Leary.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Micah Mortimer lives in Baltimore, working as a janitor and he also provides computer services. He lives alone having had a small number of failed relationships. He is a man of routine, but also of kindness, but with no insight into the impression he makes on others. The title refers to what he glimpses every day on his daily run, which quickly resolves into a fire hydrant. The novel begins when his latest woman friend, Cass, tells him that she may be made homeless. She gives up on him when his response is not what she wanted.

Anne Tyler is at her most perceptive when she observes the young man who turns up after an argument at home. Brink claims, even hopes, that Micah might be his father as his mother was Micah’s first girlfriend. The youth seems to have no plans beyond finding Micah, who is able to say categorically that he is not Brink’s father. Her description of this awkward youth is very apt and illustrates his inability to deal with the problems he has caused.

Meanwhile Micah’s large family are dismayed at Cass’s departure. He also finds it hard to understand why she left. And he is not sure what to do about Brink when the boy first runs away and then returns. But he does the right thing and manages to reunite Brink with his mother and stepfather. The occasion helps him to gain some insight into how other people see him when his ex-girlfriend explains a thing or two.

Between scenes that move the plot on we follow Micah to his various jobs, see other isolated and incompetent people. There are some rich cameos and typical computer problems which allows us to see that Micah is a thoughtful man and a good problem-solver when is dealing with technical things. But personal problems seem beyond him until he helps resolve Brink’s problems and going in search of Cass.

Micah makes it through with affectionate support from his family and some understanding he gains from the episode with Brink.  Life goes on. Its upsets are not great. Her main characters have some kind of flaw which enables one to view them sympathetically. In fact one may even identify a little with these people.

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

Related posts

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, published in 2020. I read the paperback from Vintage 178pp

Longlisted for Booker Prize 2020

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Eventide by Kent Haruf

Any writer admired by Ursula Le Guin is worthy of our attention. In a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night she noted the quality of his writing:

Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter, 213)

All his work is marked by great sensitivity and respect for his characters and their community, and a beautiful even tone which is reassuring and inspiring and helps you believe that there is good in the world, a great deal of good in the world.

It with great sadness that we learned that Kent Haruf died in 2014, so there will be no more novels set in Holt, the small town in Colorado. No more stories where paths cross, and some characters appear in more than one novel and where each of his small number of novels can stand on its own.

Eventide

Many of the people whose stories we follow in Eventide are not coping very well. Some will buckle under the challenges, others will be able to take advantage of the kindness of others, which is a feature of this novel.

Betty and her lumbering husband Luther fear the removal of their children by the social services. She has already had to give up one child in this way and is trying hard to look after the two children she has with Luther. One of the most poignant scenes is the brief moment when Betty’s first daughter turns up, having run away from foster care. They have not seen each other for sixteen years but the visit is not a success, and within two days Donna has gone again.

We met Raymond and Harold McPheron in Plainsong in a moving story where these two old men, as close as twins, running a ranch outside the town, take in Victoria when her mother throws her out. Now we meet them again as Victoria sets out with her baby to attend college. Soon after, Raymond has to witness and survive the death of his brother and his grief nearly overwhelms him, despite Victoria’s assistance. 

DJ is a young lad who lives with and looks after his grandfather, who is old and frail. They live next door to a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. DJ‘s only friend is her daughter, Dena. They make a den in an abandoned hut. After a bad car accident and an affair, the mother and her daughters move to a town two hours away. DJ is left alone.

The most destructive force in the book is Hoyt Raines, Betty’s uncle, who is a bully and without any social responsibility. He is violent to those weaker than him, women and children and unassertive men. He disrupts the lives of several people in Holt before moving on, no doubt to continue as before. He too is not coping with life.

Many of the inhabitants of Holt provide support, large and small, to others when they need it. The friendly barmaid who helps DJ, Guthrie who works on Raymond’s farm when he is short-handed, even the cashier at the supermarket mildly rejects the criticism by another customer who comments on Betty and Luther’s shopping.

The man behind them shook his head at the checkout woman. Would you look at that. They’re eating better than you and me and they’re on food stamps.
Oh, let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you?
They’re eating a steak dinner and I’m eating beans. That’s hurting me.
But would you want to be them?
I’m not saying that.
What are you saying?
I’m not saying that. (41)

Women are among the most generous of Kent Haruf’s characters. We met Maggie Jones, a teacher, in Plainsong, and she reappears here to introduce Raymond to Rose. Rose is perhaps the most generous of Holt’s residents. She is a widow who works in the social services. She deals sensitively and persistently with Betty, Luther and their children. She also develops a generous relationship with Raymond.

The stories of these characters cross over and affect each other. Every event has ripples which bring people together or tears them apart. There is great kindness, and much gentleness, and neighbourliness. Food is provided, lonely people included in social events, spaces opened up for listening. All of this creates a pervading sense of the value of community. From small or official acts, to the big life-changing events, someone is there to stand by and assist.

Eventide is beautifully written with calm and careful prose, appropriate vocabulary, and no extra punctuation to interrupt the flow of life. The author appears to step away and allows the stories to unfold before you.

Here are Raymond and Victoria, in the hospital, talking about Harold, after he has died. Raymond makes a comment about his brother.

Harold was pretty set in his ways.
They were good ways though, Victoria said. Weren’t they.
I think they were, Raymond said. He was a awful good brother to me.
He was good to me too, Victoria said. I keep expecting him to come walking in that door any minute now, saying something funny, and wearing that old dirty hat of his, like he always did.
That was him, wasn’t it, Raymond said. My brother always did have his own way of wearing a hat. You could tell Harold from a distance anywhere. You tell him two blocks away. Oh hell. I miss him already.
I do too, she said.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever get over missing him, Raymond said. Some things you don’t get over. I believe this’ll be one of them. (95-6)

I love the way this passage shows the affection between Victoria, Raymond and the dead man. And how the speech is authentic, even slightly quirky, honest. How Raymond and Victoria are consoling each other. And how important Harold’s memory will be to them.

I am so pleased that I still have Benediction to read.

Eventide by Kent Haruf, published in 2005 by Picador. 317pp

Related posts

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (in the older women in fiction series)

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us. 

And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola. 

In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.

In the Company of Men

Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body. 

Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.

 So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.

There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs. 

A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.

The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)

She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.

[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … 
But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. …
Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)

The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.

So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.

These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:

And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)

Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.

Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

Related Posts

Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April

Asymptote Book Club

Picture credit

Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons

Baobab Tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

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Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski

Elizabeth Bowen caught the essence of Table Two when she said in her review for the Tatler in 1942 that it was 

the most striking novel about women war workers that this war has, as far as I know, produced.

The location of the action is the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in central London, where translators sit at designated tables. It is early September 1940 and Londoners are convinced that the RAF will not allow the Luftwaffe through to bomb the city. 

While the plot is not very strong, there is plenty to engage the reader in this novel, the only one written by Marjorie Wilenski. It was clearly written from first-hand experience of the Blitz and of war work.

Table Two

The table of the title is the workstation for the women who feature in this novel.

The Translation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence made all the translations of the Ministry’s foreign documents and letters. Everyone on the staff of the Department knew some foreign languages and most of them knew several and knew them well. The Department worked in a large room on the first floor of the Ministry’s new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The room had windows down both sides and it looked like a schoolroom because it had groups of flat-topped desks, set nine together on each side of a central gangway. Each group of desks was used by nine translators known as a Table, and what looked like the teacher’s desk at the top was used by the Language Supervisor. (11)

It is late summer in 1940 in London and Table Two is about to receive a new translator. Many of the women who work there, all women, had supported themselves in various jobs abroad. On their return to London they need the money. Some women are doing their bit for the war. Marjorie Wilenski is interested in how this group of women do and don’t get along.

There are a range of characters: Mrs Jolly who can’t stop talking; Mrs Doweson with aristocratic connections who likes fresh air; Mrs Just, the deputy who ensures order in the work despite Mrs Saltman the disorganised Supervisor. There are those who love disaster, a childish woman in dress and behaviour, a woman who can’t stop eating and so on.

Two women are the focus of the story. Elsie Pearne is much despised for her sour disposition, and she believes herself suited for better work, with some justification. 

Elsie was a tall gaunt woman of forty-eight. She carried her head forward and her shoulders were rounded because she was always stooping to talk to people less tall than herself. She walked with a long ungainly rather mannish stride and there was something mannish in her clothes – the plain black coat and skirt, white bouse with collar and tie, and round felt hat. She had a long thin face, long thin nose and a long thin mouth with lips set in a straight line that turned down at the corners, and her eyes under wide brows were small. […]

Elsie Pearne was not much loved at the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. She was generally referred to as rude and difficult to get on with. Most people thought that her long mouth turned down simply from bad nature and ill-temper though there were some more kindly who guessed at disappointments and hard times, neither opinion being in fact quite right. (1-2)

In contrast, Anne Shepley-Rice, is the new translator, younger and prettier than the others, and with the prospect of dinners with young servicemen and even marriage ahead of her.

Although they are in contrast to each other, Elsie takes Anne under her wing, and then becomes possessive. Unfortunately, when she doesn’t get her way Elsie can be rather nasty and Anne does not wish to be controlled by her older colleague. This is not a happy friendship.

In the first days of Anne’s employment there are frequent air raid warnings which force the workers into idleness in the basement. The translators are very frustrated because they do not believe that the German bombers will penetrate central London. They are wrong and at the end of the first week in September the Blitz begins and does not let up until May the following summer. The author describes how the population adapts to the new situation.

For the next week the guns were rarely silent. Sometimes they seemed to go on without stopping for the whole twenty-four hours. Soon their sounds became the background to ordinary life – that ordinary life that was so extraordinary but which Londoners had to pretend was ordinary because only in that way was it possible to live at all. For the extraordinary had to be tamed as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get the small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London’s ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday – by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic, there were too many other things to think of – how to get to work, how to get hoe again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the pipes. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle that went on by day and by night. (108-9)

Meanwhile Anne is falling in love with Seb, an injured RAF pilot who is working in the ministry while he recovers. Their relationship is a source of anguish to Elsie.

Mrs Just plans to leave her position as deputy supervisor and every woman, except Anne, thinks they are the most suited to the post. The ability of the women to delude themselves is amusing. Elsie, who could do it, is given a trial and is hopeless as she has such a forbidding way with others. Anne is chosen for promotion. 

Everything seems to be going well for Anne: she has become engaged, she narrowly misses being badly hurt by a collapsing building, she is to be promoted to deputy supervisor. But then she is entrusted with a confidential Portuguese document, and it goes missing. She is suspended.

While the plot weaves its way to provide happiness to both Anne and Elsie, the other women get on with their chatter, stories about getting to work, knitting, raising money for the Spitfire fund, and supporting each other in their difficulties. 

I enjoyed the account of London in the Blitz and how it affected the women workers. The paragraph quoted above impressed me because I saw parallels with the current need in the face of a pandemic to adapt to an impossible situation. Great obstacles have become familiar and tiresome obstructions to how we would rather live.

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski, first published in 1942. Reissued by Dean Street Press in 2019. 224pp

Other novels on Bookword from the Home Front

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

Mrs Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Other reviews of Table Two

Furrowed Middle Brow blog (August 2016)

Heavenali blog (August 2019)

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Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In the last year I have been promoting books by women of colour on this blog. Every month I have read and reviewed a book and every week I have promoted a post from this blog about a book by a woman of colour on my twitter account. My intention is to amplify the marginalised voices, contribute to the discussion generated by these writers. 

I recently read an article by Yaa Gyasi that got me going, made me question my motives and effectiveness, as I expect she intended. It was published in the Guardian in March 2021 and headlined

White people, black authors are not your medicine

You can read the article here

What does Yaa Gyasi say?

Yaa Gyasi is the Ghanaian-American author of Homegoing (2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (2020). She lives in the US. In her article she argues that white people are not moving quickly enough, are still imbued with racist attitudes. In the US ‘they have failed to contend with the legacy of slavery’. I would say that in the UK we have failed to deal with the legacy of colonialism.

Public interest in her work was revived by the Black Lives Matters movement last summer and Homegoing appeared on anti-racist reading lists. But she found this very disappointing for the questions being asked of her at literary events had already been answered, she claims, by James Baldwin in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison in the ‘80s.

She concludes that white people are responding inadequately when they just buy books by black authors. The ‘just’ refers to not going further and reading them.

So many of the writers of colour I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. [Guardian article 20th March 2021]

I’m going to note in passing that she cannot know that white people treat the books in this way, although many of us might. More important is the question she goes on to ask:

What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like that? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to doom the novel or short story to fail you on its most essential levels. 

This tokenism – look at the shelves behind my face on zoom and you can see lots of books by black writers! – this taking your medicine – I’ve bought the books, I’ve done my bit – is clearly an inadequate response. She quotes Lauren Michelle saying

Someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading.

Yaa Gyasi declares

… I also know that buying books by black authors is but a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm. 

I must point out that that sentence I have just quoted begins with this clause:

While I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change, I also know …

I am not sure how the two parts of the sentence are connected unless she is saying that she knows that the books aren’t read, because things are not changing, the power of literature is not being realised.

Promoting books by Women of Colour

I too believe in the power of literature to challenge, expose, provide alternatives, to deepen understanding and even to change. I will continue to buy, put on my shelves, and read books by women of colour and blog about them. I don’t regard it as taking my medicine. I will enjoy reading the books because they are books, and many of them are excellent, revealing, eye-opening and brilliant. 

I hope to read them without believing they were written for me and people like me, a white middle class woman of a certain age. Recently I read and reviewed Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). She is a Zimbabwean writer, and this was her first published book. The introduction made it clear that one of its notable features was that it did not assume a European reader. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019), set in Ethiopia at the time when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (as it was known), also makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names. 

I hope to see beyond the story to the deeper currents. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) keeps peeling back the layers to expose the damage done physically, psychologically, socially, financially, politically, even lexically by slavery. Her ‘highly vocal ghosts’ must be heard.

Some writing provides joy. In Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016) I was pleased to meet Morayo da Silva, a flamboyant, generous, educated older woman born in Lagos, living in San Francisco, created by a Nigerian-American. You should meet her too.

I loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) and the richness of the characters in her multi-layered novel. The novel is innovative in form and structure, her restless style reflecting life in the city. The best book I read in 2019.

And so on.

These are great books, not medicine, not tokens, books worth reading for their own merits. I treasure their challenge, what they give me in depth and how they contribute to my determination to be part of change. 

So, I have bought a copy of Homegoing, and it is not on my shelf yet, but in my tall pile of books to be read. I’ll go on reading and reviewing and promoting books by women of colour. I know this alone will not bring about the change I want, but it’s a step and, at the moment, it’s the least I can do.

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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

It is so often the case that if you are female your childhood will be tougher than your brother’s, especially if you are also Black and born into a rural setting in a colonial country. Nervous Conditions is set in Zimbabwe when it was still Southern Rhodesia and under British rule. Rural poverty is a real impediment to Tambudzai; as a girl she has responsibility for collecting water, cleaning latrines, laying the dung floor, child care. Her cousin Nyasha has spent some of her childhood in London. She has forgotten her first language, Shona, and many of the ways of her family. Both girls live with nervous conditions, despite their differences. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga quotes Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as the novel’s epithet and source of her title:

The condition of native is nervous condition.

Nervous Conditions

Tambu is born and lives her early childhood in the rural homestead of her family. She has two younger sisters and a brother. Her mother finds life hard and her father is feckless. Her brother is privileged, receiving education at the local school. Her UK-educated Uncle provides fees for her brother and when he is older takes him to the mission school where he is headteacher.

Meanwhile Tambu had to give up schooling because the family don’t have the money for her fees. She is so keen to go to school that she begs mealie seeds from her father raises her own small crop to sell. Her brother steals the mealies. Later he dies while away at the mission school. Tambu now becomes the privileged sibling.

I was not sorry when my brother died. (11)

This is the rather shocking but realistic opening sentence of the novel. It pitches us immediately into the different trajectories of girls and boys.

Tambu takes her brother’s place at the mission school, leaving the homestead behind. Tambu and her cousin Nyasha become friends and allies in their Uncle’s very fine house, even though their attitudes are so different. Nyasha questions everything, but Tambu is grateful to her uncle for the opportunities he provides. 

We see how her education takes Tambu away from her rural roots when she returns to the homestead for holidays and family gatherings. These provide the setting for some great drama and humour. A dare takes place, a kind of council of men, to discuss the difficult problem of Lucia. Lucia is a splendid character, full of self-worth, and undaunted by the menfolk. She undermines the dare and achieves her aims of employment and education.

Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia are all beholden to Bamabukuru, the headmaster uncle, for the advantages they gain. Tambu is especially torn when he opposes her ambitions to enter the White Catholic Convent in Salisbury. She depends upon him for her advantages, but chafes at his rule. This is the fate of peoples who are colonised and patronised everywhere. 

Nyasha, with her UK experiences, finds his most pompous pronouncements and rules unbearable and defies her father, while also seeking to improve her future through education. After Tambu leaves for the convent, Nyasha declines into bulimia. 

Tambu’s mother finds it hard that daughter’s aspirations and Bamabukuru’s patronage will remove Tambu from her family roots. 

‘Tell me, Tambudzai, does that man want to kill me, to kill me with his kindness, fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle fattened for the slaughter? Tell me, daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time. He-e, Mummy this, he-e, Mummy that. Like that cousin of yours. I have seen it happen – we saw it happen in our own home. Truly that man is calling down a curse of bad luck on my head. You have survived the mission so now he must send you even further away. I’ve had enough, I tell you, I’ve had enough of that man dividing me from my children. Dividing me from my children and ruling my life. He says this and we jump […] If I were a witch I would enfeeble his mind, truly I would do it, and then we would see how his education and his money helped him.’ (269)

This is the cry of the colonised to the colonial power, caught in a dependent relationship that mostly benefits the colonizer. This novel was set only a few years before Zimbabwe fought a bitter battle to end colonial rule and written after Independence was gained in 1980.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I read this book for three reasons: it is the first of a trilogy whose third volume This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. My second reason is that I spent a month in Zimbabwe when it was still young, in 1986. It was a country of such hope and possibilities at that time. I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga interviewed recently and that too inspired me to read the trilogy: Nervous Conditions (1988) The Book of Not(2006), This Mournable Body (2020).

She was born in Matoku in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1959, and spent some of her childhood in England, her childhood resembling Nyasha’s more than Tambu’s. She had planned to read medicine at Cambridge but returned to Zimbabwe University to read psychology and become involved in theatre and film as well as writing fiction. Last year she made international news when she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Zimbabwe. 

She says of Nervous Conditions

I wrote it as a fugitive. A fugitive from my first memories and of what my life had become. [from Guardian 27th March 2021.]

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published by the Women’s Press in 1988. I read the Faber edition published in 2021. 298pp 

The BBC poll of 100 books that shaped the world placed Nervous Conditions at #66.

You can find Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 10 reading recommendations here.

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Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

Mary Cholmondeley is another or those neglected female writers of the early twentieth century, despite having published 13 novels. I had never heard of her or of her books until I read a post on Heavenali’s blog last June. I was intrigued enough to order a copy, which eventually came to the top of my tbr pile.  It’s a strange book, and I wasn’t helped by the title or the cover of the print-on-demand copy that I received – a renaissance lad in a fetching flat hat, looking wan and interesting.

Despite all of this I enjoyed the book and thank Heavenali for drawing my attention to it.

Red Pottage

Two young women must negotiate their early adulthood in a society that has no respect for their independence. The reading public were most shocked by the portrayal of two young women, unmarried and not guided by men so much as their principles. Rachel is an orphan, not especially good looking or celebrated by cultured society until she becomes very rich as a result of an inheritance. Hugh Scarlett is attracted to her, just at the moment when he has decided to end his adulterous liaison with Lady Newhaven.

Hester is Rachel’s great friend, but she too has experienced misfortune when her aunt died. Hester must live with her brother, a vicar. She is a published novelist and is determined to complete her novel while in the household. Hester’s brother, Mr Gresley, is a pompous and obnoxious man who mistakes his opinions for truth sanctioned by his position in the church.

Meanwhile Hugh Scarlett’s treachery has been discovered by Lord Newhaven who offers him an alternative to a duel: one of them will end his life within four months and the unfortunate one will be decided by picking the shorter taper. Lady Newhaven overhears them deciding on this process but fails to establish which one draws the short taper.

The story of Red Pottage reveals a huge amount of hypocrisy. The women suffer from it and from a lack of honesty by some of the most significant men in their lives. Much of the hypocrisy of these well-heeled people is very funny. The society women fancy themselves as cultured, sympathetic and intellectual. They are not.

The title refers to an incident from Genesis 25. Easau had been working in the field and is very hungry. His younger twin demands Esau’s birth right in exchange for some pottage (vegetable stew, so not an exotic meal). Esau holds his privilege so lightly that he agrees. The red of the pottage is thought to be a play on his name, which of course links to Hugh Scarlett, who towards the end of the novel find himself understanding, that he has sacrificed all for the worthless love of Lady Newhaven. He hopes his love for Rachel will redeem him. It does not work out as he intended.

Mr Gresley commits a crime against his sister, so grievous that she nearly dies. He does this because he claims that he  knows better than her. But his destructive actions reveal his lack of true Christian feeling.

In contrast, Dick, who has returned from Australia, is much less constrained by society’s manners and plays an important part in challenging them, proving himself to be much more generous than Mr Gresley.

There are others who do well by the two young women, and eventually it all sorts itself out. But there has been much heartache, and uncovering of secrets before the conclusion.

The tension about who will kill themselves when the time comes is played out among the characters, and at times we are left asking plot questions (what did Lord Newhaven leave with the Bishop before he went to London, or why did he save Hugh Scarlett’s life) there is much entertainment at the behaviour of the self-important. Mr Gresley’s temperance meeting is disrupted because he had not taken enough note of one of the invited speakers. I laughed out loud at this early example of mansplaining when at a dinner party Rachel is addressed by ‘the great’ Mr Harvey.

“I trust, Miss West” said the deep voice of Mr Harvey revolving himself and his solitaire [diamond ring?] slowly towards her, “that I have your sympathy in the great cause to which I have dedicated myself, the emancipation of woman.”
“I thought that the new woman had effected her own emancipation,” said Rachel.
Mr Harvey paid no more attention to her remark than anyone with a theory to propound which must be delivered to the world as a whole.
“I venture to think,” he continue, his heavy lustreless eyes roaming to a standstill upon her, “that though I accept in all reverence the position of woman as the equal of man, as promulgated in The Princess, by the lion-hearted Laureate [Tennyson], nevertheless I advance beyond him in that respect. I hold” – in a voice calculated to impress the whole table – “that woman is man’s superior, and that she degrades herself when she endeavours to place herself on an equality with him.” (119)

At times Mary Cholmondeley’s style is as florid as Mr Harvey’s. These paragraphs provide a beat in a scene beside the river where Rachel knows she is about to receive and reject a proposal from a former lover.

It was an afternoon the secret of which Autumn and Spring will never tell to Winter and Summer, when the wildest dreams of love might come true, when even the dead might come down and put warm lips to ours, and we should feel no surprise.
A kingfisher flashed across the open on his way back to the brook near at hand, fleeing from the still splendour of the sun-fired woods, where he was but a courtier, to the little winding world of grey stones and water, where he was king. (133)

Mr Tristram is confident that Rachel will accept his renewed attentions, despite having jilted her painfully some years before, when she was poor. We know better, and this overblown prose precisely conjures his self-importance and misplaced confidence.  When Mary Cholmondeley celebrates the qualities of honesty, openness and loyalty her prose is more direct.

Mary Cholmondeley

Mary Cholmondeley was born in Shropshire in 1859. She was the third of eight children of a vicar and the family moved around a great deal. She never married but lived with her sister in London and Suffolk after the death of their father. She wrote 13 novels. Red Pottage was considered a bit scandalous when it was first published in 1899 as it was seen as a satire on clergy and dealt with adultery and independent woman and their emancipation. She died in 1925.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley appeared in 1899. I read the print on demand edition by AEgypan Books (no dated). 283 pp. It was also published in the Virago Modern Classics series.

Related posts

Heavenali’s review from June 2020

Also reviewed on Stuck in a Book blog in August 2011

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The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

The American Dream – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Bart Judson is the son of freed slaves, who makes a good living in Boston selling fruit. His speciality is bananas. He married another southerner, Cleo, who is very pretty and very light skinned and very ambitious. Boston is a city that prides itself on its liberal attitudes to its Black population. 

Some of Cleo’s ambition is shared with Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry’s novel The Street published two years earlier than The Living is Easy in 1946. These two novels offer a complementary view of trying to make it in the US as a Black person in the first half of the 20th Century. Lutie belongs in the poor Black fiction of the time. Cleo has the advantage of money. However, in both novels the American Dream is shown to be a chimera, offered in good times to everybody. 

The Living is Easy

The novel begins in Boston at the turn of the century. Cleo is married to a rich black businessman, and they have both made their way from the South. In Boston, they pride themselves on treating their black brethren decently. However, race pervades everything. Passing, if you can, is normal, the lighter your skin the more acceptable your social status.

Cleo is ambitious for herself. In the opening chapters we see how she successfully rents a larger house in a higher status district. Dependent upon her husband for money, we see how she will manipulate the situation to skim off a little of the rent money every month. She conceives a desire to recreate the close family ties of her childhood and schemes to bring her three married sisters to Boston, leaving their husbands behind. 

While Cleo continues to lie and plot to gain every advantage from every situation the economic environment is changing. In Boston immigration is changing the city. More and more Black families are coming to the city, many of them poor, in contrast to their predecessors who were doctors, lawyers and business men. In addition a large number of Irish families are also changing the population.

The First World War begins to have an effect on trade, especially trade that relies on shipping as Bart Judson’s does. There is less money, the sisters have to go out to work, Cleo has to resort to inadequate repairs on the house. Bart ends up broke after the war and must go and seek his fortune in a new place.

Despite Boston’s pride in its attitudes to its successful Black residents, racism lies close to the surface. One of the most shocking moments in this novel is when Cleo agrees to rent the house and its owner Mr Van Ryper explains why he is leaving it.

“Best house on the block. Sorry to leave it, but I’m too old to temper my prejudices.”(45)

Cleo assumes a poor Black family has moved in next door and asks where in the South they come from. Mr Van Ryper clarifies matters.

Mr Van Ryper rose to his feet. His face purpled with anger. “Madam, my father was a leader of the Underground Movement. I was brought up in an Abolitionist household. Your accusation of color prejudice is grossly impertinent. I believe in man’s inalienable right to liberty.” (46)

He lectures her for a while and then, when she says it’s nice that he isn’t prejudiced, he contradicts her again.

“Madam, I am distinctly prejudiced against the Irish,” Mr Van Ryper said wearily, thinking that colored women, for all they had had to endure, were as addlepated as their fairer-skinned sisters. “The Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians. They did not come here in chains or by special invitation.” (47)

So Mr Van Ryper is happy to be prejudiced against the Irish and all women. The difficult position of women is referred to again later when Bart is asked for funds for two of the sisters to return to the South to bury their father.

He saw with bitter clarity his situation and theirs. Cleo could not go to her dead father nor Serena to her doomed husband unless he gave them a few miserable dollars for train fare. The dependency of women had been the thing he cherished them for. Yet in this moment he was sharply aware of the brutal weapon dependency wielded.  (277)

Cleo has caused a great deal of damage and suffering with her scheming and manipulations. Her sisters’ marriages are destroyed, their husbands abandoned, and throughout her marriage she has seen her husband as an enemy to be thwarted. She’s a hard character to like, but women and especially Black women might respond as she did to the limited lives they could live. 

For some of this novel she was living an easy life, but change brought by economic forces, to the demography of Boston, to her husband’s business, meant that a life built on lies and deceit could not remain easy. I doubt whether a life built on good principles could have stood against the pressures she endured, and there are examples of people of integrity in this novel, not least Bart Judson who sees his business fail. The Living is Easy shows the reader that the American Dream has no more substance for Cleo and Bart Judson than it did for Lutie Johnson.

Dorothy West

Dorothy West was born in Boston in June 1907 and died in Martha’s Vineyard in August 1998. Her parents had been born in slavery. Dorothy West wrote and was published from an early age and was educated at Boston University and Columbia. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance, mixing with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers of the time. She visited Russia with Langston Hughes and edited a literary journal. She worked on a federal writers project during the war.

She began spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard and wrote both her novels there. She contributed stories to the local paper and issued collections of short stories. Her second novel The Wedding was not published until 1985. She was included in the Daughters of Africa collection in 1992. 

At a time when people were writing about poor Blacks, she provided a new perspective from more prosperous Black lives.

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, first published in 1948. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics from 1987. 362pp

Related posts:

The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Margaret Busby and Daughters of Africa (1992)

Feminize Your Canon: Dorothy West by Emma Garman in The Paris Review, July 2018

Whatever happened to Dorothy West? by Diana Evans in the Guardian, August 2019

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Bookword walks in Orkney

My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life. 

So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.

By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.

And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.

So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown 

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.

The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.

The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp

Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.

And Sarah writes:

One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.

So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word.  I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long. 

In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.

Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.

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