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A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

I seem to be in the middle of a spate of novels about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is such an interesting period. I was fortunate enough to study the 1790s under the late EP Thompson at the University of Warwick, when I specialised by studying Mary Wollestonecraft. At that time there was no biography of her.

A Room Made of Leaves had several things to recommend it. In the first place it was given to me by my dear friend Sarah. Her recommendations are always interesting. Second, the author was known to me as the writer of The Idea of Perfection (2001) which I remember won the Orange Prize for Fiction, as the Women’s Prize was then called. It made a strong impression on me at the time. Then the cover is splendidly exotic, designed to reflect the lush vegetation that settlers found when they arrived in Australia. And finally, it set in the period of my interest, beginning in Devon, and moving to the other side of the world to the new penal colony of Australia.

A Room Made of Leaves

The novel is framed as the recently discovered memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur and so is written in the first person. Born in humble beginnings in Devon, Elizabeth became unwanted by her mother, and although devoted to her grandfather, a sheep farmer, she was taken in by the local vicar and made his ward partly on account of her close relationship to his daughter. But her friendship with the daughter ends when Elizabeth unwisely becomes involved with a reckless and volatile soldier John Macarthur. His prospects are poor as he is on half pay at the end of the French wars. A brief conquest beside a hedge leads to pregnancy, marriage and life controlled by Macarthur. 

Elizabeth finds herself to be the wife of a man who is almost pathologically interested in his own advancement, desperate to be recognised as a gentleman. A posting to Australia is one step in his plan for advancement. Nothing will get in his way, not a weak leader, aboriginal inhabitants, even his own temper. In fact, he uses these to his own advantage.

Elizabeth learns to manage her situation as the wife of this very difficult man. She is one of the few women among the military society of the colony. She establishes a salon where she learns to understand and manipulate the men and situations that come to her. She recognises that she had to become as devious as her husband in order to maintain her integrity.

Key to her independence of mind is her affair with the astronomer, Mr Dawes. Men with his skills and knowledge were required by the Royal Navy at this time, to read the stars and navigate successfully across the oceans of the world. Mr Dawes, like Elizabeth, was an outsider in the new colony. He was unlike the other naval officers for he was a man of science, interested in the indigenous peoples of the area around Sydney, and in the fauna of this unknown land. Lessons for Elizabeth in astronomy became trysts for the lovers, meeting in the bower he created that gives the book its title: a room made of leaves.

John Macarthur manages to gain land in the new colony, and after a while his power extends and he is also able to acquire some land in Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. The farmland proved excellent for sheep and drawing on the expertise of a convict, transported for stealing a sheep, and her own experience in Devon with her grandfather, they developed an excellent breed of merino sheep. 

As Sarah said to me in an email, 

The thing I loved about the Kate Grenville – well, one of the things – was the way Elizabeth builds a true life for herself out of a very shitty situation

The ‘editor’ of Elizabeth’s memoirs says

Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men. (1)

She has suggested a plausible alternative to the official history.

Australians of my generation had it dinned into them that ‘our nation rides of the sheep’s back’ – meaning that wool was the basis of our economy – and that John Macarthur was ‘the father of the wool industry’. Streets and swimming pools and parks all over Australia are named after him in gratitude. 
But here’s the thing: the Australian merino – the sheep we rode on the back of – was mostly developed during the years that John Macarthur was in England. It looks very much as though the Father of the Wool Industry must actually have been the Mother of the Wool Industry: his wife. (3)

The book has lots to say about the position of women, and a life lived in the shadow of a bully, and about colonialism and racism and its effects on the indigenous peoples in early Australian history. The descriptions of the countryside in Devon, the landscape of London and the lush area around Sydney are all vivid and enjoyable. 

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, WikiCommons Daniel Bagnato March 2017

The author was born in 1950 as is known for her writing about early Australian history. She has won many awards, for her nine novels, and has also written The Writing Book guidance for writers, for example (2010). She had a career in films, which perhaps partly explains her strong visual writing.

My thanks to my friend Sarah, for the gift of this book, and for the many conversations we have had about novels and other writing over the years and those to come.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, published in 2020 by Canongate. 321pp

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The writer of Confessions, Sara Collins, came to my attention last year because she presented and interviewed writers in several on-line events that I attended during lockdowns. She interested me because she was chosen to interview some well-known writers. I also noticed that she has been playing a part in the identification of young writers the Futures Award, by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping promoting young women writers.

Another reason to read her book is that she is a woman of colour, born in Jamaica, brought up in Cayman. This is her first novel, but not, I suspect her last, because it has already done well, for example winning the Costa First Novel Prize in 2019. And because the screenplay of this novel has already been filmed and released on Disney channel.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The story has mystery, suspense, and being set in Jamaica and London in the early nineteenth century, has a strong historical background. There is romance, and anger and truly awful physical experiments of which Josef Mengele would have approved. 

The story is framed by Frannie’s trial for murder in 1826 at the Old Bailey and told mostly as her deposition in her own defence. Some additional documents and testimony are presented to fill out her story and to give an added perspective.

You could read this book as a mystery, a well told story. But Sara Collins has placed the action at a significant moment, especially for black people in England. The barbarous trade across the Atlantic had been ended for British ships at least, in 1807. But enslaved peoples still provided the labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, such as the one Frannie was born on. 

It was also the time of enlightenment, when men with means were pursuing knowledge about everything related to humans. Mr Benham, one of the murder victims, is one of the finest minds in England, writing as a moral philosopher. He is interested in the physiological aspects of blackness, and in the study of the black body. 

While this is the period of Rights of Men and Woman (Mary Wollestonecraft published in 1792) it is also the period of Frankenstein. This is the story of a human being cobbled together from body parts, and then abandoned by its creator, the Frankenstein of the title, when his monster became a liability. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft published her novel in 1818. The ethics of experimentation and research into humans is a theme of this novel, along with the question, are some humans less worthy of education, position, rights, than others? And is this due to skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or something else? What could possibility justify the enslavement of another human?

Frannie Langton was born in Paradise in Jamaica. Paradise is the plantation owned by Langton. He owns everything, the slaves, the crops, the profits, the house, his wife. You may remember that Paradise was the name of the plantation in Beloved. Frannie is brought by Mr Langton to the house, to serve his wife. She is taught to read, and eventually to help Langton in his experiments, his investigations into blackness and its physiological consequences. Even Frannie’s education, it emerges, is the result of a wager, to see if a black person can be educated. 

Frannie is a mulatta, that is she is mixed race and in the course of the novel she discovers the identity of both parents. Langton brings Frannie to England and gives her to Mr Benham, with whom he is trying to curry favour, his endeavours in Jamaica having collapsed. Mt Benham will no longer support Langton as he suspects his experiments have gone too far. Mr Benham is known for his reformist views on slavery.

Frannie forms a close bond with Mrs Benham, and they become lovers. There are several twists and turns to the plot before Mr and Mrs Benham are found dead. It is not surprising that Frannie is accused of their murder, for she is black, female and a lesbian. 

Reading The Confessions of Frannie Langton

It was a pleasure to read this novel; the story is well-told with pace and wit. There are many characters as suits a novel set in this period in London. There are the other servants in the house, the people on the streets, those who wish to live in the orbit of the Benhams, and the men who make use of the services of the women at the School House. The indolent and luxurious life lived by the Benhams, and people of their class can only be sustained by the poorly paid work of a range of servants, a parallel to the profits that were made on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, which sustained so much of the plantation owners’ way of life.

Frannie has been endowed with a good eye and a ready description. For example, when she is taken into the Langton’s house at Paradise she meets the cook Phibbah and she plies her with questions.

… but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear. (13)

While the story is fictional, the setting and the themes of the novel are not. Black servants were not unfamiliar in London households. For example, Francis Barber was brought to England by his ‘owner’ when he was seven, educated, freed and then he worked as Samuel Johnson’s manservant and companion. Johnson bequeathed Francis enough money that he could set up as a draper in Litchfield. 

It is not quite clear whether Frannie is free or not, and the circumstance of her being given to Mr Benham suggests that the men did not consider her to be free.

Gothic is a word used in the blurb to describe this novel. Lush, lavish, an exposé of the worst of early nineteenth century British society, where behind the ornate and detailed veneer lies a mess of exploitation and sin. The paperback’s cover beautifully captures this masking. Sara Collins takes her time, however, to reveal what lies behind the curtain, the lies, the attitudes, the grimness of life in Paradise or in London for the underclasses and what happened in the coach house.

The manner of the Benhams’ deaths is hardly shocking given all that. And although there is a twist at the end, the verdict is not long in doubt.

I was interested to see a short clip on YouTube where Sara Collins identified three books that had been important to her. They were: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. You can find my reviews of Beloved and Frankenstein by following the links.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, published in 2019 by Penguin. 376pp

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald falls periodically into the category of neglected female writer. The publisher of her first novel refused to consider any more from her arguing that she was ‘only an amateur writer’. Penelope Fitzgerald responded to his sexism-ageism with insight and wit. 

I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

Two years later in 1979 she published Offshore which won the Booker Prize. Three other novels written by her were included in Booker Prize shortlists, including The Beginning of Spring. She doesn’t sound like an amateur to me.

The focus of her novels is very varied: historical, European, a bookshop in Suffolk, a houseboat on the Thames. And with each novel she probes deeply, exploring her themes with wit and meticulous research or knowledge. The Beginning of Spring is a novel to recommend highly, which presents as being about a mystery, but widens the idea to explore the mystery of people’s reactions to the changes in their lives.

The Beginning of Spring

The setting of this novel is curious. We are in Moscow, in the period between the first stirrings of revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War which brought on the fall of the Romanovs, and the Bolshevik Revolution. 

Her main character is also a curious choice: Frank Reid owns a printshop in Moscow, inherited from his father. He lives with his wife Nellie and their three children, supported by another Englishman, Selwyn Crane, a follower of Tolstoy. He is the printworks manager and a poet. 

The events of the story take place over a few weeks, that period when Moscow begins to emerge from the lockdown of winter. Everything in this novel is about change: the weather, the marriage of Frank and Nellie, the children who are growing up, the politics of Tsarist Russia, even new technology in the print business.

It is Frank we follow in this story of change, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the novel. As he comes to terms with her disappearance, he must decide what to do about the care of the children, rather alarmingly sent back from a railway station having begun the journey with Nellie, and treated like so much unwanted baggage. He must also keep the print works going at a time of industrial unrest and subjection to the many imperial regulations applied to foreign businesses. 

He employs a young woman whom Selwyn has found, and she becomes a kind of governess for the children. Frank falls for her. But it seems that her life is not without complications, for a student breaks into the print works one night seemingly connected to her in some way.

Frank appears to be a rational man, but he is as caught up in the mysteries and changes brought by life as any of the characters are. Selwyn is much concerned about the print run of his poems Birch Tree Thoughts. He is known as a man who tries to do good for everyone, but a more selfish side is revealed towards the end of the novel. 

While change is the dominant theme and reflected in the title, another theme of the novel is strangeness, foreignness. The small English community in Moscow is depicted as very small-minded and full of gossip. Tolstoy’s philosophies do not sit well with British conservatism nor with the radical politics of the student revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia. Selwyn Crane’s poems have to be set in English in Roman type, whereas the printworks uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The children are able to negotiate the boundaries between Russia and their English family, even if they do not understand what they see, such as the gathering in the birch trees near the dacha. The adults are all in search of some utopian life. 

There are some splendid depictions of smaller characters; Kuriatin is a neighbour, nouveau riche and keen to show off his westernised purchases. The chief craftsman at the printshop Tvyordov; Charlie, Frank’s brother who visits during Nellie’s absence. Each of these characters are individuals, with complicated lives and to a greater or lesser degree, with very little knowledge of the world outside their own concerns.

Nothing is clear, but the season turns into spring and we learn about Nellie’s departure and her plans, and as the novel ends Nellie returns. 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000)

She published her first novel when she was 61. She had been active in the London literary world having worked as an editor and a biographer before embarking on her own fiction. She led a difficult life, not least because her husband was debarred, having passed dodgy cheques, forcing the family to live in near poverty, including for a while on a houseboat on the Thames which sank. She used her experiences in some of her novels, the houseboat being the setting of Offshore.

The Beginning of Spring was set in Moscow, a place that she had only visited once. Despite this the novel is full of details of the city. She also included information about the printing trade, and details of Russian life that indicate her depth of research. The research is not produced clunkily, to impress the reader, rather it is used to enhance her themes of change and foreignness. 

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in1988 by Collins. I used the edition by Flamingo from 2003. 246pp

Related post

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean has been on my shelves for some time, bought soon after I reviewed another novel by May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: a life, on this blog. It is curious that there was interest in May Sinclair in the previous decade, but not much recently. I find it curious because she has much to say about the traditional way in which middle-class girls in England were brought up in preparation for the life their parents hoped for them, and it still has relevance today. 

The two books mentioned here go together. Mary Oliver defied her parents and insisted on educating herself and refusing marriage. The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. The pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and the lack of alternative role models for young women are also the background to this second novel: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. Unlike Mary Oliver, Harriett Frean sacrifices herself to her parents’ beliefs about the role of women. 

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

The title, which hints at her not very happy last years, can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-sacrifice and denial. Harriett lives her life in loneliness, justifying her own behaviour as beautiful. As a child she sought her parents’ approval, and this influence is so strong that it endures even beyond their graves. As a child she resists greed and selfishness and any other behaviour that would displease her parents, encouraging the development of a mean-spirited girl of small imagination.

The family is self-satisfied. Her father speculates to make money and takes no responsibility for their neighbour’s financial downfall alongside his own. He publishes one book, The Social Order. Its lack of value is evident from May Sinclair’s description.  

He dreamed of a new Social State, society governing itself without representatives. (65) 

Harriett assumes an air of superiority as a result of this book and refers to it long after the author and the book have been forgotten by everyone else. 

In fact, nothing any of the Freans do is generous or productive, but they are all self-satisfied. Her father dies while they are in reduced circumstances. Later, her mother also falls ill, but dies in agony refusing treatment. Harriett denies herself the love of her friend’s fiancé, which does no one any good. When she visits her friend and the husband, she is unaware of the damage she has done. 

Harriett continues living in the same house, and in the same way, seeing her friends in a regular round. She falls ill and on recovery finds herself living a very small life.

She lived by habit, by the punctual fulfilment of her expectations. (162)

The habitual life contains no affection, no generosity, and no diminishing of the sense of superiority. And she dies in the same state of mind. Her own final thought is that she has behaved beautifully.

This is a devastating take down of Victorian standards of behaviour for women.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

May Sinclair was born in Cheshire, her father was a Liverpool shipowner. Her mother was a strict Christian. He father became bankrupt and died soo after. She moved with her mother to Ilford near London. May’s education was interrupted by her mother’s demands that she care for her brothers who had heart disease. She began publishing to earn money to support her mother and herself and became a successful writer. Her first novel, published in 1897, was Audrey Craven.

She was a suffragist and many of the 23 novels she wrote were concerned with issues that affected women.Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel and The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was her 16th. She also wrote essays and poetry. She stopped publishing in the early 1930s as she was suffering from Parkinson’s but went on to live until 1946. During her lifetime she was highly regarded, moved in literary circles in London and with such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, first published in 1922 and reissued in the series Virago Modern Classics in 1980. 181pp

Related Links

Mary Olivier: a life on Bookword

Heavenali’s review of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean from 2013 can be read here

An article in the Guardian in August 2013 by Charlotte Jones condemns the neglect of this ‘accomplished writer’. It can be found here.

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Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp

The blurb on the back cover describes the novella in this way. A woman approaching the ‘invisible years’ of middle age abandons her failing writing career to retrain as a chiropodist in the East Berlin suburb of Marzahn, once the GDR’s largest prefabricated housing estate. From the clinic on the ground floor, she observes her clients and co-workers, and hears their stories. The charms of this short book are only hinted at by this description.

Marzahn, Mon Amour

The title of this collection is an homage to the French New Wave film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The 1959 film was directed by Alain Renais and the screenplay by Marguerite Duras.  It was innovative in its presentation of a nonlinear montage of miniature stories and other memorabilia. Like the film, Katja Oskamp provides us with many different sketches, mostly descriptions of clients and colleagues, but also of her tram journey to work and the local cemetery, to make a statement about the GDR suburb and its community. The destructive force here is less defined than the Atom Bomb which was used to flatten Hiroshima in August 1946. Nevertheless, the reunification of Germany in 1990 did not work out well for the people of Marzahn even if a sense of community prevails.

The vignettes of the clients form most of the chapters, and every vignette is seen from the perspective of the characters’ feet. The writer is a chiropodist who has great tenderness for the feet, and for the lives that have been lived with them. For the most part, her clients are old, many of them long-term residents of Marzahn.

Katja Oskamp has great patience and respect for her clients and reads how they live from the state of their feet. 

When I carefully rub Frau Bronkat’s feet with Voltarol, she appreciates the easing of her pain, although it never completely disappears. She says the hideous shoes she wore as a child are only half the root of her ailments. The other half was inherited. All the women in her family have loose joints, stretched ligaments or weak tendons. One cousin developed a bunion by the time she was eleven. ‘Our wretched bones are good for nothing,’ she told me. I have a vision of an entire squad of Bronkat nurses, all with white nurse’s hats and grey aprons, black sandals peeking out from under the grey fabric of their dresses, revealing their bare feet with bunions like overripe tubers, glowing red. (123)

The Fats Waller song Your Feet’s Too Big was frequently in my head when I read this. Especially the line:

Oh, your pedal extremities are colossal

And then we met Herr Huth, who has Alzheimer’s and accompanies his wife to the clinic.

Last week, Herr Huth had the first pedicure of his life. He sat on the chiropody chair and said, as I was washing his feet, ‘I’ve got size eleven feet. I have big shoes to fill.’ Frau Huth and I giggled, and then Frau Huth, who was sitting on the chair in the window, turned and looked out. I trimmed Herr Huth’s toenails, cleaned his nail folds, smoothed the edges of his nails with the drill and filed his heels. He slept. He looked pale and peaceful. (132)

What is revealed in this series of vignettes is the observational skill of the writer. She notices the behaviour of the regular clients as a contrast to the newbies’. She is tolerant of repetitive conversation, and of demanding customers. She obviously loves feet. And she writes about her clients with charm and respect. She provides a quiet affirmation of the value of each person, even the very old and sick, and her workmates.

The biographical details provided reveal that these vignettes come from Katja Oskamp’s experience, for she has been a chiropodist in Marzahn. 

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp, first published in 2019. The English translation from German by Jo Heinrich, published by Peirene Press in 2022. 141pp You can find details of Peirene subscriptions here

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Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season has been sitting in the pile of books I’m planning to read for some time. It has sat there in its handsome Fitzcarraldo Editions blue jacket for some time having come to my attention earlier this year. And now it has come to the top of the pile, and I am glad to have read it and glad too that the reading is over, because it is quite a tough book. But also very exhilarating, because of the headlong, hurtling style of the writing. 

Fernanda Melchor is a Mexican writer, and this is her second novel and her first book available in English translation. The novel won an English PEN Award, and it is an important and outstanding book. It was translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes and is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Hurricane Season

The novel is set among the inhabitants of the small Mexican village of La Matosa. The village is impoverished despite the highway than runs nearby, carrying the huge trucks of the oil industry. 

In the opening chapter the body of a witch is found by children in an irrigation channel near the village. The crime was committed by two young men, both of whom are losers. Neither the question of who did it or why are central to the meaning of this novel. The crime is almost incidental in the lives of several people. We enter into five lives in turn, having learned something of the background of the witch herself, an isolate living in a house outside the village, providing cures and potions for the sick and afflicted, and wild parties for the young men. 

In turn we read of the inner life, inner voice of five characters who are associated with the death of the witch. Yesenia had grown up with her stepbrother, Luismi, but hates him and the special attention their grandmother gave him. She observes him loading the body into the van and shops him to the police. 

Luismi is a pathetic and hopeless young man who has rejected his grandmother and moved in with his mother and her husband. He has not got much going for him. He has no employment but believes that he will be offered a lucrative job in the refining business, promised by ‘a friend’. It is clear that this potential job will never materialize and Luismi is drifting until he meets Norma. 

Munra, is his the stepfather who drives a van, involved in the crime. Munra used to be a fit and good-looking man but was hit by a truck in an accident and is now unable to work. He lives off his wife and what he earns from driving his van. He has no future either. 

Norma is 13 and running away from her impoverished home. She has been taking care of the children her mother has by different fathers. She is much neglected and dismissed by her mother. Her stepfather, Pepe, grooms her and eventually makes her pregnant. She runs away, as far as the town near La Matosa, where Luismi finds her in the park. It is as far as her money will take her. Luismi and brings her to live with him in his shack, unaware of her pregnancy. Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the witch for an abortion. She bleeds so badly she goes to hospital where she refuses to accuse anyone of making her pregnant and so is detained.

Brando is the most deadbeat and hapless of all these characters. He appears to have no redeeming features, no moral compass at all, despite a mother heavily influenced by the church. He is high most of the time and earns money as a male prostitute. His aim is to escape La Matosa and plans to steal the witch’s money in order to do this. He is ready to kill his accomplices too, but the police catch up with him before he can do this.

Everyone seems to believe the witch has heaps of money hidden in her house. The truth is much more macabre.

 

Fernanda Melchor

The writing of Hurricane Season

This is a bleak novel for it is clear that the lives of these people are dominated by drugs and poverty. Sex work is the major employment for women and boys. Violence is endemic. Parents hit their children, boys hit each other, women are hit by everyone.

The writing that conveys this unstable environment is breakneck, headlong. The chapters have no paragraph divisions. Some are more than 50 pages long, requiring the reader to continue without a break. 

The language is coarse, colloquial, full of invective, curses and colourful insults. Since we are largely within the heads of each of the main characters, we are unable to escape the contempt in which people hold each other, their fury at broken hopes, their grinding misery. It is vivid and very raw. The translator Sophie Hughes is to be congratulated for achieving this effect in English without it appearing stilted or contrived. Here’s an example.

It made Yesenia’s blood boil whenever she got to thinking about it, with an anger that made her guts throb, every time she thought about that ungrateful little prick and what a fool Grandma had been to tell Uncle Murilio she’d bring him up, when she knew full well that the slag he was seeing was a professional whore who’d open her legs for anyone with a deep enough pocket. (38)

And another example:

And the Witch, who throughout the whole exchange just carried on tinkering about in that noxious kitchen with her back to them, turned and stared at Norma, her eyes sparkling behind her veil, and after a long silence she said that before doing anything she had to examine Norma, to see how far gone she was; and right there on the kitchen table they laid her on her back and hitched up her dress and the Witch pressed her hands all over Norma’s stomach, roughly, almost angrily, perhaps enviously and after a few minutes of groping around the Witch told them it was going to be tricky, that she was already really far gone … (150)

That second extract is all one sentence which doesn’t finish for another 25 lines. 

The story is not told in a linear way, but rather through the involvement and back stories of those five characters. 

And in this way the author lays bare the wretchedness of this element of Mexican society, where drugs are supreme, and the currency is sex. Violence is everywhere, especially towards the weaker people, the women and girls. 

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor first published in 2017. The English edition was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2021. 226pp

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes 

Winner of English PEN Award, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020

Related Posts

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement 

Celebrating English PEN at 100

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The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

There is no sudden change when a woman becomes old, in my experience. What I see is that women from their youth spend their days doing things: reading, pursuing interests, gardening, maintaining relationships, worrying about their bodies, money, relationships and their children. And as they get older they continue to be absorbed by these things. And one day they realise that they are ageing, and another day they come to see that they are old. And they continue to read, pursue interests, work in the garden, maintain relationships, worry about their bodies, money, relationships and their children.

There is a quartet of older women – the main characters – in The Weekend. Charlotte Wood has not so much written about ageing as about a group of women who have been friends for decades and are now in their 70s.

This is the 56th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Weekend

Four Australian women have been friends for decades, and now they are in their 70s. One of them, Sylvie, has died and the others have agreed to clear her beach house before it is sold. It is about a year since she died. The weekend they choose to do this is Christmas, and it’s very hot.

Sylvie owned the house and is still present through her possessions, and the memories that the women have of her, sparked by the items in her house. They have an expectation that they will be grieving for their friend individually and as a group during the weekend. Wendy finds some postcards that Sylvie has kept, sent by friends as they travelled the world, including one from her in Paris. She is amazed to find that she knows very few of the people who sent the cards. I have had this experience at a funeral of finding that my knowledge of my friend was partial. There were parts of his life of which I knew nothing, despite thinking of him as a close friend. 

Dominating the work of clearing Sylvie’s house is Jude, a woman of fine taste and a very controlling manner. She can communicate contempt in a few words about, say, stale bread. She has been living with a secret for forty years – she is the kept woman of a very rich man. The group know this, but they have never met him. Jude’s non-verbal communication is one of the most creative aspects of Charlotte Wood’s writing: she bangs plates and pots, raises an eyebrow, glares, sighs, rolling of eyes and none of it is in pleasure.

Wendy is an intellectual, who has lost control of her body. She owns the dog, Finn, who intrudes upon every scene with his tremors and incontinence, his smell and his anxiety. She is too fond of Finn to contemplate putting him down. This attitude mirrors, perhaps, a dominant and contradictory view of the very old: with love but frustration at a life lived beyond independence.

Adele is an actress, now permanently resting, but with high hopes of a comeback and maintaining a punishing regime to keep her body and good looks. She meets a rival actress who has been getting the parts that she wished for, and the battle between these women is a feature of the central section of the book. The struggle between Sonia and Adele for the attention of the younger man, a theatre producer provides some comedy, at the expense of all of them.

These women are not so much battling old age as dealing with the issues with which they are presented at this moment in their lives. Their lovers, and children, their financial situation, their preoccupations and their antagonisms have been arising throughout their lives. They have not always supported each other and have exacerbated the each other’s difficulties at times. 

As the three women are reminded of Sylvie, and her foibles and strengths, they see the other two friends against the backdrop of her life and death and begin to wonder why they are still friends, or indeed ever were friends.

Over the weekend each of the three women meets a crisis, and after some very difficult moments, they also find strength in each other. But it is painful, not just because they are ageing, but also because life and friendships are hard. 

I thought this was an excellent novel. It depicts women in their 70s but is not about living in fear of death, despite the death of one of them; nor is it about nostalgia and memories and trying to regain a vanishing past; nor are they amusingly handicapped by forgetfulness; nor are they querulous and demanding; nor do they have magical powers of insight bestowed by advancing years. Their lives are not so different from my friends in their 70s, or indeed my own.

Adele reflects the continuity of life that is a feature of this novel: 

Life – ideas, thinking, experience, was still there to be mastered … She had not finished her turn, would not sink down. She wanted more.

Charlotte Wood

This award-winning writer lives in Sidney and is in her 50s. In 2013 she was appointed as the inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sidney in the Charles Perkins Centre, a research facility that brings science and art together, for example, to look at the complexity of old age. The Weekend is her sixth novel and is very successful, being awarded prizes and picked as Book of the Year by many publications.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, published in 2019 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 258pp

Related posts

The Boookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

Simon Lavery prompted me to get a copy of this novel with his review on his blog: Tredynas Days, last December. You can see his review here.

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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

With so many good books in the world there must be some special reasons for rereading one. I recently took my copy of The Night Watch from my shelves and enjoyed several days in the company of Viv, Helen, Kay and Duncan. I first read it 14 years ago in 2007, a year after it was published.

I had two reasons for wanting to return to this novel. First, I am having something of a binge on wartime novels at the moment. It started when I began a short story set during the war, but I’ve neglected that story recently, while my enjoyment of wartime novels has continued.

Second, Sarah Waters employs an interesting structural device in this novel. The three episodes are present in reverse chronology: the characters are introduced in 1947, their experiences in 1944 follow and the final section concerns their lives in 1941. It’s a bold way to tell a story and I wanted to think about its effects. 

The Night Watch

We first meet the four protagonists after the war is over in 1947. None of them is happy and one of the effects of the chronological structure is that their histories are gradually revealed. Their backstories come later. The influence of the past on the present, of chance, of kindness and innocence are revealed in this way which makes everything unpredictable.

If you think about it, this is how you usually find out about people that you meet, and I don’t mean the ones in novels. You get to know them a little and you ask them about their past, where they’ve lived, their jobs, or education and so forth. We see how the person we have just met fits in with our understanding about the past that they reveal.

However, novels usually take the chronological development of their story in a traditional sequential way, albeit with flashbacks included. Sarah Waters in an exceptional storyteller. I would love to know why she chose to tell The Night Watch in the fashion.

It certainly makes the reader pay attention. They must try to sort out the puzzles that she lays before them. Why was Duncan in prison, for example? Or what is the mystery of the ring that connects Viv to Kay? And how did the war and their experiences in the war change the directions of the lives of the four characters? Part of the pleasure of reading The Night Watch is to resolve such mysteries. 

It is somewhat unsettling to read while keeping the later story in mind as she takes us backwards first to 1944 and then to 1941. The reader is constantly having to make the connections in reverse, as it were. The effect is to show up the accidental nature of so much of life, and, with the background of the war, how dark and dangerous life can be.

And perhaps this is one of the questions being posed – what are the limits of deploying conventional chronology in fiction and what happens when you reverse them?

Another experiment in telling stories backwards is Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991). He employs a different device, telling the whole story in reverse, from a reverse consciousness: death leading to a strange rebirth, the person arriving in the prime of life, recovering their innocence in childhood and finally being reabsorbed into their mother’s body. Slightly yucky but it does raise questions about cause and effect, and moral responsibility especially as the protagonist is a Holocaust doctor who works in the camps. The effect in this novel is also unsettling and raises questions about morality and how we develop and judge moral behaviour.

Within this experimental way of presenting the stories in The Night Watch there are some very vivid scenes. There is a walk during the air raids of 1944 by two women through the city. They must guess where they are by landmarks such as churches as all the street names have been removed in case of invasion. In the same section Duncan experiences a terrifying air raid from inside his prison cell. 

Other aspects of the novel only slowly emerge. For example, we learn where Viv met her older married boyfriend, in the final section. But we have already wondered why she had not ditched him. And her decision not to see him again in the post-war section is really only explained by the long experience of her affair with him.

So I learned more about being on the night watch during the Blitz, and also about playing around with chronology. It’s tricksy, destabilising and an intriguing technique.

Sarah Waters

Born in Wales in 1966, she came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. She came to fame as a result of the success of the television version of her first novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002. The Night Watch was her fourth novel, which took her four years to write. She has described it as like a wrestling match. 

Like her other novels it has been a success, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize (later the Women’s Prize) for fiction.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, published in 2006 by Virago.

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As We Are Now by May Sarton

The title of this novel is taken from a New England tombstone, included as its epigraph:

As you are now, as once was I;
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s May Sarton was concerned that women should be able to choose the way in which they lived. This novel explores how an old woman can live her life as she wishes, albeit that she is approaching death and is dependent upon strangers. 

This is the 55th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to the reviews. This  is the second novel by May Sarton in the series, the first was A Reckoning, published in 1978, five years after As We Are Now. Thanks to Anne Goodwin who recommended it, and her book is also included in the series: Matilda Windsor is Coming Home.

As We Are Now

May Sarton was never afraid to take on difficult issues in her writing. Both novels included in the older women in fiction series address the same question: how can women retain control of their lives when they are getting older and sicker and more dependent. In A Reckoning, Laura has been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She responds in a positive way:

I am to have my own death. I can play it my own way. … I’ve got to do it well. (p7)

She is not able to achieve this. Like Laura, Caro Spencer is alone in the world. Up to this point she has lived an independent life, but at 75 suffered a heart attack. She left her house to live with her older brother, with whom she has always been close. But he has recently married again and she did not get on with the new wife. Caro has been placed in a remote old people’s home, a farmhouse, run by a mother and daughter. The care provided is not monitored, the mother and daughter team try to save money, and the other residents, referred to generically as ‘the old men’ are more or less comatose.

Caro wants to make sense of her life, before she dies bring everything together. She decides to write her thoughts in a notebook.

I call it The Book of the Dead. By the time I finish it I shall be dead. I want to be ready, to have gathered everything together and sorted it out, as if I were preparing for a great final journey. I intend to make myself whole here in this Hell. It is the thing that is set before me to do. So, in a way, this path inward and back into the past is like a map, the map of my world. If I can draw it accurately, I shall know where I am. (10)

Her search for completeness, for integrating the different aspects of her life is thwarted as she perhaps foresaw by the ‘Hell’ of the care she gets. The only beauty in her life is found by looking out of the window, and by the friendship of Standish, another patient, who is deaf and bed ridden. She is punished for transgressions and tranquilised to keep her biddable. She is isolated and confused. 

We discover that Miss Spencer had lived an independent life, always a little out of step, as a Math teacher in a small town in the Midwest. She had an English lover who she visited in England and went on a couple of trips with him in Europe. The affair petered out with the interruption of the war. She appreciates elegance, such as mathematical problems, and music. But her sources of support are not adequate to the trials of being in this home. And she wishes that she had prepared better.

The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it. (23)

For a while she is provided with friendship by Standish, a local Methodist minister and his daughter and finally by Anna, the wife of a local farmer standing in for one of the carers while she is on holiday. Eventually she comes to see that the only way that she will regain control is by violent means.

It is a very telling book, not so much of the abuse of older people although it describes that. She is drugged, isolated, infantilised, humiliated and all independence is removed. We come to see the needs of an older person to find a good way to live their final years: dignity, warmth, friendship, connection and a place in a community. The title leads to a warning for readers: as you are now, as once was I. 

May Sarton

May Sarton was unceasing in her attempts to be heard. She published 53 books in her life, 19 novels, 17 collections of her poems, 15 non-fiction books, 2 for children, a play and some screenplays. She had a 13-year relationship with a woman, but refused to allow her writing to be described as lesbian. She preferred to be known as a lesbian woman who wrote. She lived in Europe and on the West and East coasts of the US, born in 1912 and died in 1995. May Sarton’s life is less celebrated these days, but she made a huge contribution to feminism. 

As We Are Now by May Sarton, first published in the US in 1973. Reissued in the UK by The Women’s Press in1983. This was the edition I used. 134pp

Related Posts

A Reckoning by May Sarton

Older Women in Fiction lists

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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Tension by EM Delafield

Charmed, as so many readers have been, by the provincial lady, I went to visit EM Delafield’s home village of Kentisbeare near Exeter. Diary of a Provincial Lady was narrated with wit and perception as she does her best to manage her household while fending off the advice of Lady Boxe. The village was delightful, and I was helped to find her grave by a local man, who later returned with a book that EM Delafield, as Mrs Dashwood, had given his mother inside which was a letter written in January 1940 about WI business and her plans to fly to Paris. Her handwriting was very small and very neat. I felt sure that I would have enjoyed her company.

I feel sure that I would not have liked Lady Rossiter from Tension. The lady of the house at the centre of the novel, a little like Lady Boxe, is completely lacking in self-awareness, full of her own importance and really just not very nice. Lady Rossiter is the cause of the tension of the title and the unhappiness of many people.

Tension

The plot of Tension is rather thin. The main pleasure to be had from reading this novel is from the characters, and particularly from the importance that many of the characters assume for themselves on very flimsy grounds.

A new lady supervisor is appointed to the adult education institute for which Sir Julian Rossiter serves as chairman. His wife, Lady Edna, likes to involve herself in the lives of the teaching staff, believing she brings a bit of colour and class to their lives. She recognises Miss Marchrose’s name and believes that she was once engaged to her cousin but broke the engagement when he was wounded. Outraged by this she makes it her business to make life difficult for the new lady supervisor.

Miss Marchrose turns out to be very efficient and very honest. As she settles in she becomes attracted to Mark Easter, the Rossiter’s agent. He is a married man, but his wife is in a home for dipsomaniacs and has not been seen for many years. 

Lady Rossiter has claimed that she is the confidante of poor Mark Easter, although nothing in the story supports this. Perhaps she is jealous of Miss Marchrose, or perhaps she doesn’t like efficient women or perhaps she enjoys outrage on behalf of her cousin who has since fully recovered and married another woman. Lady Rossiter stokes the gossip about Miss Marchrose and makes life very difficult at the college.

The supporting cast are beautifully observed; the two Easter children, Ruthie in particular, are nightmare creations, who terrorise everyone by their intrusive behaviour. Iris Easter is Mark’s half-sister who has written a book called Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes. She is so empty-headed that her novel is sure to impress few people and fade away almost immediately. She is followed to the village by an admirer, Mr Garrett, who likes to boast of his Celtic connections. His father appears at the wedding:

The representative of the Clan appeared in the guise of a stout, handsome old man, with waxed moustache, in rather smart, tight, black clothes, wearing a top hat, a white carnation buttonhole, and white spats, and speaking with an accent that, though exceedingly pronounced was not to be recognised as that of any known part of Scotland. (160)

Mr Garrett senior is a business man from Swindon, the stationery business, not a Scottish laird.

Sir Julian is often the lens through which the reader observes the behaviours of the people in this novel. His comments to himself are frequently rather dry and when spoken pass over the head of his wife. He does not seek to modify his wife’s behaviour, revealing himself to be weak. He is, however, an excellent listener.

Many of the characters have mannerisms in their way of talking: one of the teachers provides a running commentary on what he is doing. Another calms himself in conversation by reading any words that are before him, including the label on a pot of plumb jam. Lady Rossiter has a little mantra that she claims helps her decide what to say: ‘Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?’ She is so sure of the correctness of her attitudes, of her understanding of people, of the right way to proceed that she consistently misses being kind, wise or true. Indeed, she is all gracious malevolence in black furs. 

Tension is everywhere in this novel: between the Rossiters, at the college, whenever the children appear. More is provided by the suggestiveness of the book written by Iris, Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes and the contrast between Sir Julian’s attitudes to fluffy blonde Iris and the ass, her fiancé. The worst tension results from Lady Rossiter’s ill-judged interference with the social lives and the business of the college. It does not end happily, or almost unhappily.

EM Delafield

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

EM Delafield was a pen name. She was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69h June 1890. She spent some time in a convent before the First World War, before she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. There are 49 works listed on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works such as biography, and short stories. Her most well-known book was Diary of a Provincial Lady, serialised for Time and Tide magazineShe died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943 grief-stricken at the death of her son.

Tension by EM Delafield, first published in 1920. Reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2021. 214pp

Related posts

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield (April 2018 on Bookword)

Heaven Ali reviewed Tension and called it ‘an absolute winner’

Kate Vane also reviewed it on her blog.

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