Category Archives: Writing

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie

I knew before I saw a copy in Waterstones, Piccadilly, that I would love this book. I had already found Kathleen Jamie ‘s previous books, Sightlines and Surfacing, absorbing, thoughtful, full of engaging observations, mostly in poetic form. Some of the pleasure came from her archaeological excursions.

The cover is beautiful.

The book is lovingly produced with clean paper, pencil illustrations, nice print.

I was in London for the weekend immediately following the election, ready to celebrate and ready for new ideas.

Cairn

A cairn is a pile of stones, usually small stones, usually created by people as they pass: ‘rough old assemblages, decades of stones heaped on stones!’ We see many cairns on Dartmoor, some even raising the height of a tor. 

The title beautifully indicates the nature of the contents of this short volume. It is made up of short pieces, rarely more than two pages, most only one, being descriptions of small moments, observations and reflections on these moments, and many considered through the passing of time. (Just like pebbles). The publisher calls them micro essays, but ‘micro essay’ seems to me to be too modern an idea, or at least too modern a term for these short pieces.

In the prologue she reflects on how, reaching 60, ageing affects how she sees things, thinks about things, about herself, her life.

My younger self wrote her earnest poems, and scampered through her thirtieth year. Sixty was different. Now there are more certainties. I can still look out at the sea alright, by night or day, but now, the shape of my life’s arc is becoming visible, as it were. It is no longer below the horizon. Unless there is a sudden curtailment, I can sense the shape of my life pinned against the longer spans and cycles of the natural world I was born into. I can imagine the world going on without me, which one doesn’t at thirty. Or shouldn’t. (18)

Ageing includes seeing the world differently from how one’s children see it. She talks to active young people who do not know about Greenham Common, for example. The image of the stones, rounded by years, centuries, aeons of time reflects the epigraph from John Berger: ‘Stone propose another sense of time …’

Perhaps that is why the arrangement of stones in Kettrle’s Yard, Cambridge is so moving.

Kettle’s Yard, July 2023

She muses on the uncertain future of the planet, her fears for it, as humans are so careless with it.  

Short pieces, usually of beautiful observations of the natural world, but also of people working together to preserve it (eg demos), looking at how aging changes observations, and how she fears for the future of the planet.

We are everywhere surrounded by those down-curves out of abundance into scarcity, even into extinction. (61)

The fears are for the world, but also for her children and the generations to come. 

Kathleen Jamie gives us some poems too. In 2021 she was appointed Makar, the Scottish national poet. I read her work because she keeps me focused on the wonders of our world. Was it because I had read this volume over the weekend that I noticed what raindrops on the trees when I took the dog into the forest this morning for her walk?

Holden Forest, Devon. July 2024

These poems and short prose pieces, complemented a weekend spent with friends, with art (Now You See Us, Women Artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 at the Tate), and with music (Schubert Quintet performed by the Esmé Quartet at the Wigmore on Sunday morning). Culture, nature, community. The last line of the shape poem Cairn is 

We are more than the sum of our parts. (131)

And as it is with stones, and people, so it is with words.

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other … [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937: On Craftsmanship]

And the last words of the epilogue

A raven glides past, giving you the eye.
Huh, she croaks, you. (136)

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (October 2019)

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie, published in 2024 by Sort of Books. Pencil illustrations by Miek Zwamborn. 139pp

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Filed under Books, illustrations, poetry, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024

… and the winner is 

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

And you should know that the inaugural women’s prize for Non-Fiction has been won by Doppelganger by Naomi Klein.

The 6 shortlisted fiction titles in 2024:

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

Soldier, Sailor by Claire Kilroy

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescur

29 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-three (that’s 43) brilliant books, all written by women, from the longlist for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The 16 long-listed books in 2024

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize

I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead (2023)

Ruth Ozeki: The Book of Form & Emptiness (2022)

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi (2021)

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari Jones: An American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour, Writing

Persuasion in Bath

I have recently been enjoying Bath and its connections with culture, not least with books. I have visited twice this spring and begin to feel I know the city even if it is 100 miles away from where I live in Devon. In April I attended the first Persephone Festival; a couple of weeks ago I joined some members of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch in a brief tour of the city and its connections to Jane Austen and her novels. In preparation for that second visit I reread Persuasion, a novel that reaches its climax in the city.

Persuasion

Persuasion was published after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Some commentators believe that she was too ill to complete the editing of the text before she died. Perhaps we will never know if she planned to revise it further, but we do have evidence of some revision in the cancelled chapter. In 1818 Persuasion was published in the form we have now, and some editions include that chapter.

The Bath location occurs in the final nine chapters of the novel, with 91 pages that make up 42% of the short narrative. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the daughter of a very vain, snobbish and imprudent baronet, who has had to rent out their home in Kellynch to live in Bath. Some eight years previously Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth had fallen in love and were ready to announce their engagement, when Anne was persuaded by her dead mother’s closest friend, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement. 

Anne is thoughtful, unselfish and forgiving. Neither her father nor her elder sister, Elizabeth, take any notice of Anne and her state of mind. She is not consulted about the move to Bath, for example. Her younger sister, Mary, lives close to Kellynch Hall in Uppercross and entertains a belief that she is being passed over and neglected by everyone. Anne spends a few weeks with Mary and her family before she goes to Bath, and the warmth and appreciation for Anne are a contrast to the indifference of her own father and sister. Into this situation Captain Wentworth returns, now enriched by his exploits in the navy. He is in search of a wife and seems to be drawn to Mary’s lively and sociable sisters-in-law: Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove.

There are four locations in this novel: Kellynch Hall, Uppercross, Lyme Regis and Bath. They represent four locations which increasingly connect Anne to the wider world. In Kellynch life is restricted by snobbery and unkindness; Uppercross has a close family of enthusiastic and warm people; Lyme Regis adds several friends who are involved in the navy; Bath is a place of fashion and transactional social relations. At each step she comes closer to Captain Wentworth.

On my recent trip to Bath I learned a great deal about the social situation in the fashionable city. For a start, we learned at the architectural museum that it had gone beyond its most fashionable era by the time Jane Austen was writing. But its conventions and social activities remained even if the more socially privileged were seeking other places to indulge themselves, such as the continent, seaside resorts and so forth. The function of the Lower and Upper Assembly Rooms, the regular weekly events which included concerts, theatre presentations, balls and taking the waters, all this was still in place. Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while and knew all this. Moreover, many of her readers would have known all this too.

On this tour I learned about the precision with which Jane Austen locates her characters, and how she does this for the express purpose of telling the reader something of her characters. Sir Walter, that snob, reveals the social standing of the novel’s characters, as well as his attitude through his observations on their residences. For example he has some ‘severe’ words for Anne when he discovers that she has been visiting an old school friend in Westgate-buildings.

‘Westgate-buildings!’ said he; ‘and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? – A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith, – and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word. Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.’ (141-142)

Sir Walter is disgusted by the part of town in which Mrs Smith lives, by her ill health, by her common name, by her widowhood. His judgment is not sound. We learn that Mrs Smith is not old at all, but a former school friend of Anne’s and therefore about her age. 

If they did not know this already, the information that Sir Walter had accommodated himself in Camden-place would have shown readers his weakness. Jane Austen describes the choice in this way:

Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence, and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. (125)

Camden-place was a terrace at the northern end of Bath, built in 1788, on subsiding land: half the buildings collapsed in the 1880s. The baronet was not only on unstable financial grounds when he moved to Bath.

Sir Walter is ready to fawn upon his Irish relations, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. They had taken a house in the newest part of Bath, off Great Poultney Street in Laura-place. The hotel we stayed in was in a house off Laura- Place, and very close to the delightful Henrietta Park. Lady Dalrymple’s lodgings were the most fashionable and newest among all the characters, as fitting her social status.

Sir Walter’s tenants, Admiral and Lady Croft, also come to Bath, primarily for the Admiral’s health. Again we read more about the social standing of these characters, and the snobbism of Sir Walter, through his observations.

The Crofts had placed themselves in lodgings in Gay-street, perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction. He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance. And did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral, than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him. (150)

Jane Austen lived for a while at 25 Gay-street. She knew what she was writing about.

The White Hart, where the Musgraves are staying, is the scene of the tense letter-writing scene, in which Captain Wentworth finally admits that he still loves Anne. Their reunion takes place soon after – where else but in Union-street?

Our walking tour of Bath took us to many places that were significant in Jane Austen’s life, and to many of the streets and meeting places mentioned in Persuasion as well as in Northanger Abbey. We also noted film locations, but my interest has been in how the writer used locations in Bath within those final 9 chapters of Persuasion.

I am indebted to Hazel Jones, the tour leader and secretary of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch, for her skills in organising and leading this tour. Her knowledge of Bath and Jane Austen were impressive and invaluable. I also learned from her that before my next visit to Bath I will reread Northanger Abbey as its early chapters are set in Bath.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, first published in 1818. I used an edition published by Pan Books in 1969, now its pages are yellow at the edges and the glue is giving out on the spine. It has an inappropriate cover too. 

Related Posts on Bookword Blog

In the society of Jane Austen – December 2019

Pursuing Jane Austen – June 2019

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

When a member of our book group suggested this novel for us to read in 2024, I was enthusiastic. I had very much enjoyed The Architect’s Apprentice (2014) and admired the scope of The Island of Missing Trees (2022). 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was published in (2019) and had received good reviews. The book includes references to sexual abuse, and the life of a sex worker. For this Elif Shafak was investigated by the Turkish authorities. She lives in exile from Turkey.

I admire her writing for its lavishness and for its inventiveness. The Architect’s Apprentice is one of the richest works of fiction I have ever read, featuring an elephant, the building of some of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Ottoman Empire, life in the harem, and the travels of the apprentice. The Island of Missing Trees featured a fig tree from Cyprus that was transplanted to North London, and which contributed to the narrative about the divisions in Cyprus’ past. I wouldn’t say that it was entirely successful, but it was interesting.

In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World the main character has been murdered, but before her brain stops functioning it is recalling life events through smell and taste, and this is a device to learn about Leila’s life. Richness of descriptions and innovation are combined.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World has been described as a love letter to Istanbul. More accurately, it’s a love letter to the outcasts, underdogs and misfits of Istanbul. Leila has been murdered, and her recollection of her life in the last 10 minutes and 38 seconds reveals that she had five friends, all misfits in Istanbul, as she is. In the second half of the book, the friends come together to reclaim Leila’s body, and then to give her the burial they believe she should have. Murder and funerals might seem to be sombre subjects, but there is plenty of merriment and celebration in this novel.

In many ways it is a book of lists: the 10 minutes before her brain activity ceased, her five friends, and the many descriptions of places and events in her life. Leila’s life began with salt, for example, and later, when her brother was born, with goat stew. We follow her as a rebellious young woman in Turkey in the 50s and 60s. She suffers sexual abuse by a member of her family and to cover this up her family plan a wedding to her cousin. She runs away to the capital and becomes a prostitute. This life is no easier, and she remembers an incident with sulphuric acid. On a happier note she also finds her five friends and has a brief but happy marriage with a communist student. 

We do not understand her murder until the second part of the novel, where we also meet the coroner who espouses the theory that the brain continues after the heart has stopped beating. And perhaps more important that the activity of her brain, the novel describes how the significance of Leila, or anyone, on her friends and family also lives on after death. This is an exploration of death within a community, a city, a family, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

And Elif Shafak tells a good story, even if the Turkish authorities did not like it. Leila’s life story is rich with detail of her family in the city of Van, where her birth mother had to give up her title of mother to her husband’s first wife. Where to be a girl was a definite disadvantage, especially in terms of education, arranged marriage, abuse and so-called ‘honour killings’ (where there is no honour at all). In Istanbul, the lives of a prostitute, and of the other misfits, are vividly described, with all the risks and abuse that the friends must endure. The events take place for the most part from the 1960s, when Istanbul was changing very rapidly, including as a result of the opening of the bridge over the Bosphorus in 1973.

Here is an example of how she uses lists, and of an excellent description of a character, Bitter Ma, the madam of the brothel in which Leila works:

The new madam was a woman of ample proportions, resolute gait, and rouged cheeks that sagged like flaps of staked leather. She had a tendency to address every man who walked in, whether a regular or not, as ‘my pasha’. Every few weeks she visited a hair-dressing salon named Split Ends where she had her hair dyed a different shade of blonde. Her wide-set, protuberant eyes gave her an expression of permeant surprise, although she rarely was. A web of broken capillaries fanned out across her mighty nose, like streams threading their way down a mountainside. No-one knew her real name, Both the prostitutes and the punters called her ‘Sweet Ma’ to her face and ‘Bitter Ma’ behind her back. She was all right as far as madams went, but she had a tendency to do everything to excess: she smoked too much, swore too much, shouted too much and was simply too much of a presence in their lives – a veritable maximum dose. (47)

All members of our reading group enjoyed this novel, some for the second time, and it produced a lively discussion about Istanbul, Turkey, death and reading other novels by Elif Shafak.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many other countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city, as this one does. I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, and to innovate with some interesting narrative tropes, such as a talking tree.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, published in 2019. I used the edition from Penguin 312pp. Shortlisted for Booker Prize 2019

I have reviewed two other novels by Elif Shafak on Bookword blog:

The Architect’s Apprentice in April 2023,

and The Island of Missing Trees in August 2022 

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Doreen by Barbara Noble

War is no place for children. Before the Second World War plans were made to evacuate children from major targets of air raids and evacuation began soon after war was declared in September 1939. The air raids did not start until September the following year by which time many children had returned to the cities. But when the Blitz got going, in the Autumn of 1940, parents had difficult decisions to make. 

This novel considers the theme of separation, children from adults, but also adults from their children. And a second theme is the influence of class. Decisions by Mrs Rawlings and her former husband are influenced by class differences. Inner city folk took the brunt of the bombings, while the more affluent as well as the country poor lived in relative safety.

This novel, published in 1946, describes the rawness and attrition of those early war years when London and other cities were subjected to bombs, and when children and parents were often separated.

Doreen 

Mrs Rawlings is a proud woman, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter Doreen. When the first call is made for Doreen to be evacuated out of London, she refuses to let her go. Mrs Rawlings cannot imagine living without her daughter, but as the raids intensify and the consequent damage persists, a chance opportunity presents itself. Mrs Rawlings works as a cleaner and a conversation with Helen, a secretary in the same offices, produces the suggestion of a private arrangement. Doreen is sent to live in the country with Helen’s brother and his wife, the Osbornes. 

Francie Osborne has been very unhappy that she and her husband have not had children, and the arrival of Doreen into their house brings the opportunity to care for a child. Mr Osborne has asthma and so has been excused combat duties. He works as a solicitor. He too finds Doreen a very acceptable companion and enjoys teasing her and encouraging her confidence while engaged together in gardening and countryside walks.

The child and the foster parents quickly become very fond of each other. But Mrs Rawlings, who visits for Christmas, is worried that Doreen is becoming too familiar wigth the middle-class ways of the household. She eats with the family, for example, instead of in the kitchen and she has her own bedroom. Mrs Rawlings is afraid that the child will not be satisfied with their home when she returns. She is also jealous of the affection between Francie and Doreen.

Doreen’s emotional response to her arrival at the Osborne’s house is very well described. I remember the horror of being sent away to boarding school, at the same age as Doreen. Everything was strange. She gradually relaxes, encouraged by her foster parents, but the confidence she begins to show is the very thing to fuel her mother’s fears.

Everything comes to a head when Doreen’s father, hitherto a murky and an unknown person in Doreen’s life, arrives at the foster home. He shares his former wife’s anxiety, and he confronts the child with his fears. 

“You don’t take long to settle down, do you?” he said curtly. “Well, I reckon it is all a bit different to what you’ve been used to – posh house, maid to open the door, everything cushy. It seems to me your mother made a big mistake in sending you down here. You get too used to living soft and next thing you’ll be thinking home’s not good enough.”
Doreen began to cry, silently, her face puckered, her heart sore. She understood perfectly well that she was being accused of disloyalty, and no scolding could have hurt her as much as that reproach. (125)

Mr Rawlings’s subsequent actions create chaos and eventually trigger a resolution of sorts.

We see a world where children are used by adults: Mrs Rawlings is single, lonely, isolated from the world with nothing to enjoy in life but Doreen; Francie really wanted a child; Geoffrey felt guilty that Francie had no child and was happy that he supported his wife with their foster daughter; Mr Rawlings wants revenge upon his former wife and for the snobbish treatment, as he sees it, with which he was greeted by Geoffrey Osborne. All these adults have reasons for making decisions about Doreen in which she has no say. As a result her life is put in danger in London, and she has to react to intense and conflicting adult emotions.

The writing is very immediate and accessible. The air raids and their effects are vividly described, and since Barbara Noble lived in London during the war we can assume she was writing from experience.

When they arrived at the darkened frontage of the hotel, Geoffrey pressed the Night Bell, expecting to be let in by a sleepy, grumbling porter. But the lounge hall seemed full of people, wide awake, fully clothed and trailing blankets. The receptionist booked them a room rather grudgingly but without demur. Geoffrey felt that everyone was staring at them, as if the place were not a hotel but a private club. There was curious atmosphere abroad, a kind of solidarity which shut out strangers. From scraps of conversation overheard, he gathered that the raid had been a sharp one, mostly concentrated on the West End. (137)

Barbara Noble is excellent at describing the small things in a scene which give sense to the bigger picture as this example shows. And the understanding of the child’s experience is very poignant and powerful.

Doreen by Barbara Noble, first published in 1946. Reissued by Persephone in 2005, with a preface by Jessica Mann. 238pp

Also on Bookword Blog by Barbara Noble: The House Opposite, reviewed in March 2021.

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Rallying the Older Women Writers

Something rather wonderful happened last week. It was Thursday, Leap Year Day. As usual I had tweeted (yes on X) about The Sleeping Beauty which was the post featured before this one. Sometimes I post a second tweet, hoping it is topical and will bring readers to the articles in the archive of this blog. I looked back through my archives, found what was on the blog on the previous Leap Year Day, in 2020. It was a few weeks before the lockdowns began. We were beginning to get very worried about Covid-19. But my post had a different theme.

It was called 

Let’s have more older women writers

You can read the article here.

It was itself referring to an earlier post from 2016. In 2020 I continued the theme of discrimination against older women writers began my comments with a little provocation.

Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

I used this quotation in my tweet.

The Response

I’ve got a modest following on my blog and on twitter, so I was quite unprepared for what happened. It was unprecedented. Within 24 hours it had been liked 44 times, retweeted 16 times and I had gained 21 new twitter followers. In addition older women writers had added their comments. In that same time period, ten writers provided information about when they published their first book (all older than 57), many were on their second book and more had published several. It’s never too late, said one; I’m 65 and still going, said another; and another reported that she was 64 and on her 9th book. A publisher reported that they were about to publish a novel by an older woman and took no account of age.

I was pleased that one woman in her 50s said that she had been doubting her capacity to write but was encouraged by the Bookword post. Referring to the picture another commented that I would read whatever she’s writing. Martin Amis was correctly outed as the writer of the statement about women disintegrating after 70.

I have never had such a response to a tweet, and the readership of the 2020 Leap Year post immediately exceeded 100 on that day.

So why this response?

In 2020 the article I placed on Bookword blog did not have this response, so I have been wondering why the tweet and the blog post appealed to so many people in 2024. I’d be glad of your thoughts on this.

I’ve been tweeting for more than 10 years, and I have noticed that some of my tweets get a great deal more traction than others. These tend to be the ones that ask a question that people want to answer. I think the provocation about women over 70 was enough to get some people to check it out.

The 2020 post (Let’s have more older women writers) did not reach many people when it was first published. Some things might have changed since then. For example, four more years’ worth of women have entered the demographic of ‘older women’. Each new cohort are better educated and possibly have a feistier attitude, are more ready to stand up for themselves than their older colleagues. And those who responded to the tweet with their own experiences were all 65 years old or younger. 

Perhaps there are more older women writing and publishing and perhaps creating a market for fiction by older women. Older women have more money, more disposable income and form a growing market for books (and films and tv series) about older women. Some of the writers who responded with their published record will be including older women characters.

Women are living longer. Well, they were, up to 2020. I’m not sure whether this group is still enjoying increased longevity. Sadly, the neglect of the NHS and the cost of living and other factors in the last four years are causing the death rate to rise. Many of the women who are living longer continue to write for longer too.

It is interesting that the possibility of double discrimination – ageism combined sexism – has provoked this affirming response. What do you think?

Silly old Martin Amis, indeed.

On the related theme of older women characters in fiction, remember that this blog has 70 posts in the series Older Women in Fiction. You can find the full list here. It also includes recommendation from readers. Please feel free to add your suggestions. 

And you might be interested in a book for which I was a co-author: The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, published by Policy Press in 2016. You can read about it here.

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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf 

I thought I had read all the novels by Virginia Woolf and was enjoying re-reading them. But I can find no record of my reactions to Jacob’s Room, there is no entry in my reading record, begun in April 2006, and no post on Bookword blog. When I began reading it, all I could recall was that some of it was located in Scarborough, and that Jacob had died in the First World War. I had not read it before.

The ending reminded me of those paintings by Van Gogh of empty shoes, or William Nicholson’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots, which say so much about the absent wearer. Jacob’s mother is clearing his room:

‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes. (168)

Post card of ‘A Pair of Leather Boots’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. Amsterdam.

These painters were in their way doing on their canvases what Virginia Woolf was doing in Jacob’s Room, her third novel. She was breaking away from the traditional narrative and portrait of a character. Conventional fiction showed appearance, motivation, action, consequences and so forth. Rather she was evoking a sense of Jacob, his times, and the loss of the young men in the war through glimpses of Jacob. And she was presenting these glimpses as we might experience meeting a new person: incomplete, with restricted context, mediated through others.

Jacob’s Room

In her diaries Virginia Woolf recorded that ‘I think Jacob was a necessary step for me, in working free’ [October 14th 1922]. At that time she was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway and had just decided upon the name of her shell-shocked character. In the later novel she famously used a new style of writing from the interior of her characters: sometimes called stream of consciousness.

In Jacob’s Room she is introducing a different innovation in the writing of fiction. The reader is invited to draw their portrait of Jacob from glimpses, observing how other people react to him, starting with a reference in a letter from his mother describing his behaviour on the beach in Cornwall. This is followed up by a painter who indicates to his brother, sent to find him, where Jacob is among the rocks. Finally we see him exploring rock pools and crabs. 

And so we follow Jacob through the eyes of others, growing up, going to Cambridge, later in rooms in London, on holiday in the Scilly Isles and in Greece. We meet his friends, his lovers, and see his mother becoming more and more distant from him.

Before it was published, Virginia Woolf confided in her diary that she feared people would think it was ‘mad, I suppose: a disconnected rhapsody’ [June 23rd 1922]. The idea of a rhapsody is useful. Passages are poetic, lyrical, such as the view from the boat sailing to the Scilly Isles.

Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland – not so very far off – you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up – wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays and the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy. (45-6)

Some of the passages set in London are also elegiac.

The lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets. The yellow canopy sinks and swells over the great four-poster. Passengers in the mail-coaches running into London in the eighteenth century looked through leafless branches and saw it flaring beneath them. The light burns behind yellow blinds and pink blinds, and above fanlights, and down in basement windows. The street market in Soho is fierce with light. Raw meat, china mugs, and silk stockings blaze in it. Raw voices wrap themselves round the flaring gas-jets. Arms akimbo, they stand on the pavement bawling – Messrs Kettle and Wilkinson; their wives sit in the shop, furs wrapped round their necks, arms folded, eyes contemptuous. Such faces as one sees. The little man fingering the meat must have squatted before the fire in innumerable lodging-houses, and heard and seen and known so much that it seems to utter itself even volubly from dark eyes, loose lips, as he fingers the meat silently, his face sad as a poet’s, and never a sing-song. Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids; boys stand at street corners; girls look across the road – rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned – in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages? Still hopefully turning the pages – oh, here is Jacob’s room. (92)

Such a passage, such a rich text, rich in imagery, and references, and movement! And then just at the end she reminds us that we are readers. 

It appears that Virginia Woolf modelled Jacob in part upon her much-loved brother Thoby. When their father died in 1904, she joined with her sister Vanessa and Thoby moving to a house in Gordon Square, where they entertained Thoby’s Cambridge friends. It was the start of the Bloomsbury Group. Thoby died of typhoid in 1906 after a trip to Greece. The young men of his generation bore the brunt of the First World War, and Jacob’s Room pays homage to them and that world and the people who were destroyed by the war. 

She was nervous about the reception of Jacob’s Room, as for all her novels. But she reflected in her diary after she had shown it to her husband, and most significant critic, Leonard:

There is no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that it excites me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise. [July 26th 1922]

First edition cover

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, published in 1922. I used my copy of the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1965). 168pp

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Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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Letter from New York by Helene Hanff

Readers will be aware of the charming exchange of letters contained in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Two people who never met exchanged letters about books and life, in the post war era. Helene Hanff was in New York and Frank Doel worked at Marks & Co, the bookshop in London which she approached to supply her with the books she wanted. The two generous souls had exchanged letters for many years. After Frank died Helene created and published the book. It was 1970.

84 Charing Cross Road was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic largely for its charm and wittiness. Women’s Hour, a weekday programme on the BBC radio, commissioned Helene to produce a 5-minute letter from New York every month for six months. She began in October 1978 and the six months extended to nearly six years, until 1984. These contributions to the BBC have been collected into this lovely edition, published in 2023, Letter from New York.

Letter from New York

The background to all the letters is her studio apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. She describes the community in the building, the friends and dogs who live there, and the surroundings, especially Central Park. She returns again and again to stories about her neighbours, their dogs, their approach to New York weather, and the daily life lived in ‘the last small town in America’.

The community in which she lived was strong, varied, and lively. Her cousin, in her introduction, describes how convivial Helen Hanff was, always entertaining friends and welcoming newcomers. Some of the connections in the building came from the shared use of food storage facilities, especially when it came to Christmas parties.

On Christmas Eve my pies will once more be up in 1-B in Nina’s freezer, and my sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce will be down at 4-F North, in Richard’s refrigerator. He will bring them up an hour before dinner, when he has to come up anyway to take the turkey out of the oven for me because one year I dropped that. I’m small and the turkey wasn’t. When he comes up to Christmas dinner Richard has to bring along his hot tray and his good carving knife. After dinner he or Arlene’s Mickey will wheel my tea cart full of dinner dishes up the hall, so I can put them in 8-E’s dishwasher, since Alan and Susan go to Susan’s mother’s on Long Island for Christmas. (165)

Spare keys are distributed in a similar way. Such arrangements reflect as well as foster good neighbourliness. Neighbours in summer sit together on the front steps watching life on the pavement and recommend services, shops and occasionally share dogs. If it sounds somewhat idyllic, that’s because she is constantly upbeat, never one to dwell on the difficulties of life, unless it’s finding the right clothes for a wedding.

She takes us around Central Park, and one episode persuaded English listeners to send wildflower seeds for a neglected area. She and her friends frequently attend concerts and services in churches, theatre performances, inside and in the open air, and the many parades and street parties that took place on New York Streets. She gives us some history and information about the geography of New York city and some of its notable inhabitants. 

Being a monthly newsletter, the rhythms of the year, the seasons, the celebrations, the changes in the city are documented for us. We become familiar with her friends, and especially Arlene, who happily passes on clothes to Helene, and has the delightful habit of giving her twelve presents every Christmas. She describes the collection in January 1983:

I don’t remember when Arlene started giving me twelve Christmas presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. She’s been doing it for years. (We fight about this every year. I always lose.) A few are expensive, all twelve are useful, but they always include three or four so far out they have to be explained to me. […]
Number 12 was two bright terry cloth mitts, each the size of a football, the two joined by a length of rope. First you wash your hair. Then you sling the rope around your neck, slip your hands into the enormous mitts and dry your hair with them. (141)

I haven’t visited New York since 1969, but this book made me feel nostalgic. And her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz reports the same reaction in the introduction: 

These charming pieces bring back the New York of my childhood, the storefronts and fashions, the errands and quirks and tastes and smells of the city I grew up in. (16)

There are two other charming aspects of this book. One is the illustrations by Bruce Eric Kaplan on the covers, the bookmark as well as the chapter headings.

The other is that this is a lovely book in itself: the design, the paper and smart yellow livery of the binding. Well done Manderley Press. It’s another success for an independent small publisher.

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff

She was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was largely self-educated. The books she requested from Marks & Co were to feed her habit of self-education. She made her living as a writer. Her apartment block in New York was renamed Charing Cross House in her honour, after her death in 1997.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. My thoughts on this earlier book on Bookword blog in August 2018.

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, first published in 1992 and reissued by Manderley Press in 2023. 176pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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