Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In today’s world, where largescale and terrible things are happening (yes, Covid pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine) and where morality and honesty appear to have deserted the government (yes, sending refugees to Rwanda, lying about Brexit and partygate), it’s important to celebrate decent behaviour. There is not a great deal us little people can do, but we can behave with decency and sympathy, even if it risks local condemnation. So it is, in this short novel: a celebration of decent behaviour.

I originally gave it as a birthday present to a reader-friend, and she lent it to me having greatly enjoyed it first.

Small Things Like These

Set in 1985 in the small costal town of New Ross, in Wexford, Ireland. Christmas approaches and Bill Furlong is busy with fulfilling the winter orders for fuel. He runs a successful business supplying coal, wood and anthracite to the town, despite starting out as the illegitimate son of a single woman, now dead, and an unknown father. When she became pregnant, his mother was not thrown out by her employer, or sent in shame to a mother and baby home. Instead, Furlong grew up in Mrs Wilson’s house and was well treated.

He married Eileen and they have five girls. They are a loving family and are just about able to afford to have a decent Christmas, getting the presents that the girls have requested. Some of the most satisfying scenes are those spent with his family, for example when Eileen and the girls make the Christmas cake, and the girls write their letters to Santa. Such scenes, however, remind Furlong of the disappointments and poverty of his youth.

One of his deliveries is to the local convent. Furlong makes an early start and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed. Although the nuns treat her as if she has accidentally spent the night there, Furlong is uncertain.

As the days pass, he is increasingly uneasy. He must face the truth of his own origins, the silence of the town about the inhabitants and purpose of the convent, and the warnings that the convent nuns have power that could compromise Furlong in New Ross. Finally, he takes action.

The small things of the title include his marriage and daughters, their preparations for Christmas, his decency towards his workforce and generosity to his customers. It also includes the townsfolk turning their backs on whatever is happening in the convent, and generally ‘minding their own business’. Expectations and tradition keep everything in its place, and he is warned off tangling with the Convent. He defies this tradition.

Moral, moving, very quiet and short.

Claire Keegan

Although she has lived in other places, Claire Keegan was born in Ireland in 1968. She has previously published 3 collections of short stories, winning prizes and accolades for them: Antarctica (1999); Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Foster (2010)

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. 166pp

Related Posts

In her review Kate Vane is frustrated that the story did not include the implications of Furlong’s action for his family and business. But she has strong praise for the novella. Kate Vane Blog October 2021.

Susan, on A Life in Books blog also praises this short book, and expects to delve into more writing by Claire Keegan, November 2021.

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The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th 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 Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

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

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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

This novel was Iris Murdoch’s first and I chose it as my contribution to the 1954 Club (see below). I was at first reluctant because I am more than a little intimidated by Iris Murdoch. I think it’s the words ‘moral philosopher’ that are often coupled with her name. I don’t know what that is. And when I began reading about this novel, Under the Net, I came across the name of Wittgenstein, and something about his lectures in Oxford. 

All the same, I enjoyed many aspects of this novel, although I am not sure that I will read more of her fiction any time soon.

Under the Net

I believe that it Under the Net is a picaresque novel. The hero, Jake, and his friends certainly dash about London and meet with some very surprising adventures, coincidences and strange characters. Jake tells his own story, and thus provides us with insights into his attitude to life.

We first meet the Jake on his return to London from Paris (he works as a translator) when he finds that he and his side-kick Finn have been kicked out of the flat they were living in – rent free. It belonged to Jake’s girlfriend Marge.  Jake is a writer, not very energetic, and not very successful. Being without accommodation precipitates a series of crazy adventures: Sammy wants to move into Marge’s flat, but it appears that he steals a manuscript from Jake, and is involved in a plot with the sister another of Jake’s ex-girlfriends, Anna, to make a film. Sadie is a well-known film star. The plot becomes crazier as Jake and his friends kidnap a performing dog, Mr Mars, to hold hostage against the return of his manuscript. Jake’s old friend Hugo, with whom Jake fell out some years before and who is extremely rich and big in the film business, gets involved too, as does Lefty …

The scenes include a shop near Charlotte Street, run by Mrs Tinckham, overrun with cats, but a place where Jake can leave his luggage while he chasers Anna, and searches for somewhere to live. Mrs Tinck acts as a poste restante which is useful at a time when there were no mobile phones. Mrs Tinck doesn’t appear to sell anything.

The props room at the mime theatre provides some strong visual images (see the cover of the Penguin edition). The scene where Mr Mars is kidnapped is quite hilarious as they are forced to take the cage as well as the dog, put it in a taxi and then release the dog. Mr Mars becomes a faithful companion to Jake, but not suitable for ransom demands. There’s a riot caused by the police breaking up one of Lefty’s meetings on the set of a film. There is a midnight swim in the Thames when the friends have failed to find Hugo, despite following the note on his door which says, ‘Down the Pub’. Jake takes a job as a hotel porter, and when an injured Hugo comes onto his ward, he hatches a plot to spring him, which involves a great deal of complication. 

Jake is also averse to chance, contingencies, but constantly falls over them. 

There are some parts in London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. (26)

Everything that happens to Jake is contingent, always seeking someone, rarely finding them and never where he expects them to be. He chases Hugo without success but comes across him unexpectedly at the studio and in the hospital. Perhaps Iris Murdoch is reminding us that whatever theory we use to understand the world, we are at the mercy of whatever life sends our way. 

As he rushes about, we see that not everything is as it appears: the aftermath of the riot on the film set of the Roman city is a good example.

All was changed. The whole of Rome was now horizontal and out of its ruins an immense cloud of dust was rising, thick as a fog in the glare of the lamps. In the arena, like a formal picture of the battle of Waterloo, stood a mass of black figures, some mounted on horses, others standing on top of cars, and others on foot marshalling into neat groups. A voice was saying something blurred through a loudspeaker. The foreground looked more like the moment after the battle. The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy out from under the flat wedges of scenery, which lay now like a big pack of cards, some still showing bricks and marble, while others revealed upon their prostrate backs the names of commercial firms and instructions to the scene shifter. (169)

Even the final explanation for all these misadventures is misunderstood by Jake, who manages to mistake the reference to ‘she’ for a whole page, before he (and us) backtrack and understand that Jake has misread everything. 

I enjoyed the escapades across London, the Holborn Viaduct and the pub crawl, the river at Hammersmith, the Goldhawk Road area. He even chases the elusive Anna in Paris. It’s what Michael Wood called ‘a very sprightly read’ in his LRB article.

Iris Murdoch

Born in 1919 Iris Murdoch pursued a career in philosophy, teaching at St Anne’s College, Oxford from 1948 – 1963. Under the Net was the first of the 26 novels published by Iris Murdoch between 1954 and 1995. She died in 1999.

I have always been a little reluctant to engage with the philosophy in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. This is quite light, but the title refers to notion from Wittgenstein about how we know and describe the world. Apparently, he referred to as net and she challenges this by saying look under the net where real life happens.

Another from my mother’s books from the World Book Club.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch published in 1954. I used the edition from the World Book Club 286pp. A recent edition has been published by Vintage.

Related posts

Don’t Worry about the Pronouns by Michael Wood on London Review of Books website in January 2019.

JacquiWine’s Journal review of Under the Net from November 2019.

The 1954 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1954 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Readers of my blog have previously enjoyed O Pioneers! and My Antonia. Both these novels by Willa Cather were from her early period when she delighted in the people who turned the vast prairies of middle America into vast wheat fields and made themselves a good living. The families she described came from the European diaspora, chasing some kind of idyll. By the time she came to write A Lost Lady in 1923 the world had turned, and new generations, new values and new enterprises were changing the mid-west again. This short novel is concerned with these changes.

A Lost Lady

The novel is set at the end of the 19th century, in a town that had been key to the great railroad building enterprises of that century. The story opens with a description of the Forrester Place just outside Sweet Water, and of its social importance to the ‘railroad aristocracy of that time’. The novel is chiefly told from the point of view of Niel, a young citizen of Sweet Water, an observer of the comings and goings at the Forrester Place on the hill. Think The Great Gatsby. Niel observes the Forresters’s summer visits and their many wealthy guests, and when they come to live permanently in Sweet Water he is of service to the couple. 

Captain Forrester is twenty-five years older than his wife. It is his second marriage. He made his money as a railroad entrepreneur and came to live at Sweet Water because he was attracted by the hill where he built his house. The Captain and his wife represent the old ways, the pioneers, with values of trust and decency. The Captain loses his fortune because he insists that the board of his bank honours the small investors, and so loses everything. Later he has a series of strokes and comes to depend on his wife and a decreasing circle of friends.

Mrs Forrester is very beautiful and charming and very popular with everyone. She is a generous hostess and does not dismiss the young boys of Sweet Water. Niel is a boy when he first meets her, and he falls under her spell. He is a frequent visitor with his uncle, the Forresters’s lawyer. As a young man he goes East to study architecture and on his return 2 years later he finds the Captain is very frail and puts off his studies for a year while he helps care for him. The reader, as well as Niel, has noted that Mrs Forrester likes to drink and that she is not above having affairs with men she attracts. 

Niel’s generation are keen to make a quick profit, especially Ivy Peters, who is known to be cruel and have no respect for money and class. As the Forresters’s fortunes decline Ivy takes advantage, first he rents and then he buys the land and the house and even becomes intimate with Mrs Forrester. 

The difference in the values between the generation of pioneers, represented by the Captain and his friends, and the profiteers such as Ivy Peters is starkly explained in a passage where Niel meditates on his return to Still Water.

The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory that they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great landholders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest. All the way from the Missouri to the mountains this generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times, would do exactly what Ivy Peters had done when he drained the Forrester marsh. (104-5)

Mrs Forrester is the lost lady. She has been brought up to act as a charming social hostess, but she resents the restrictions of her life in Still Water. She does not flaunt her affairs, but her lack of faithfulness to her husband is shocking to Niel, especially when he understands that her husband knows. She drinks, and this too marks her as something of a fallen woman. 

Niel never had hopes or desires of becoming anything to Mrs Forrester, but he has valued the pioneer spirit and what it brought to that part of the country. He prefers the idea of Mrs Forrester to the realities of her life.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather’s family moved to Nebraska when she was young, and she received her education there. She adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. She had a career as a journalist even before she began her novels. She was well-established by the time A Lost Lady was published in 1923. It was her 6th novel; she wrote 12 in all between 1912 and 1940. She travelled in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. 

Her qualities as a writer were often ignored in the second half of the twentieth century, but she has a strong following today. AS Byatt is among her admirers. Readers have a high regard for her evocation of place. It plays its part too in A Lost Lady.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, first published in 1923. Reissued as a Virago Modern Classic 1983, with an introduction by AS Byatt. 178 pp

Related posts

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (October 2018)

My Antonia by Willa Cather (January 2018) 

Book Snob’s review of A Lost Lady from May 2010

HeavenAli’s blog review of A Lost Lady from December 2014

AS Byatt’s article in the Guardian about Willa Cather, American Pastoral, from December 2006

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Shirley Hazzard – Collected Stories

Lovers of short stories should be aware of this excellent writer. She did not write a great deal, five novels, some works of non-fiction and some short stories. A collection of 28 of these has been made by Brigitta Olubas, published by Virago in 2020. You will find critics using such expressions as precise, surgical, elegant, decorousness, scalpel-sharp prose, polished, bitingly funny. Her stories are all these things. 

Collected Stories

The stories in the first section of this collection are mostly about relationships, often with a young girl at the mercy of a jaded older man, who is pretty hapless. Her observational skills are superb. She is both moral and accurate. Here is a moment in the conversation between Clem, a married man of 42 who is trying to let Nettie down lightly at the end of their love affair. She is a young woman of very little experience.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked her.
“Men,” she said absently.
Taken aback by the plural, he stopped to assemble his thoughts once more. She was not being very encouraging, lowering her eyes and offering him monosyllables in this way. But there was no reason why she should encourage him, and he reminded himself of that; he was nothing if not fair. (38 A Place in the Country)

Shirley Hazzard is not so interested in the drama in the stories, more about the importance of people making authentic connections. As Zoe Heller remarks in her foreword about this story, Nettie, urged by her lover not to “exaggerate the importance” of her broken heart, ‘understands instinctively that the greater sin is to take such matters of the heart lightly’. (xi)

The middle section includes stories mostly set in the ‘Organisation’, which is the UN in a thin disguise, where Shirley Hazzard worked for many years in the 1950s. The stories reveal a certain smugness in the men in high positions. She is not above lampooning organisational speak, people’s attitudes to themselves, the hierarchies of the Organisation, the pointlessness of much of the work and the ability of the organisation to believe that its work had value where there is none.

‘The Meeting’ is a story about Flinders who has been running an operation in a north African country, replanting trees. He makes a presentation to a subcommittee of the Organisation, DALTO (the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented), about his project, but he does not know how to speak their language, whereas another presentation at the same meeting is smooth and accompanied by a film but appears to have done nothing. 

He left the room and walked down a gray corridor. He wished he had gone to the trouble of taking a proper film, like Edrich, or had at least prepared the right kind of final report. At El Attara he had thought these things peripheral, but here they seemed to matter most of all. He should have been able to address the meeting in its own language – the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations, which he had never set himself to master. At El Attara they had needed help and he had done what he could, but he found himself unable to speak of this work. He knew the problem of erosion to be immense, and the trees, being handed down that way had looked so few and so small. (171 The Meeting)

There is humour in her description of the language of meetings: the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations. But more than that, this seems to be an indictment of the work of a great organisation, loftily above the needs of ordinary citizens of the world, and quite out of touch with the reality of those lives: he knew the problem of erosion to be immense. The problem appears to be erosion of the Organisation’s purposes.

Among the uncollected and unpublished stories in the third section is ‘Leave it to me’ about the hypocrisy of well-informed people. A group assemble in an Italian house, witnessing a fire in the fields. The English host complains that the Italians used to work together to extinguish such fires, but they don’t now. They let it burn. The party let it burn. Later they go outside to see how it’s going and find that the fire has been extinguished. 

I have picked out a couple of quotations, but these short stories are full of such moments, which add up to a collection of thoughtful and intelligent observations of the worlds in which Shirley Hazzard moved, and which have relevance today. They reveal that Shirley Hazzard was as brilliant a writer of short fiction as of longer works.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzzard; Christopher Peterson, New York. October 29, 2007 via WikiCommons

Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931 in Sydney, Australia. Her father moved the family when he took up a diplomatic position in Hong Kong in 1947, and they moved back to Australia and on to New Zealand before they settled in New York from 1951. She worked at the UN for about 10 years and was critical of its failings. She spent time in Italy and developed a love of the country. She died in 2016 in New York.

The Transit of Venus was published in 1980, and The Great Fire in 2003. Both books gained awards for excellence. Some of her essays have been collected in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas and published by Virago in 2020.  356pp

Related posts

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (September 2020)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

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Reports of the Death of Book Blogs …

Reports of the Death of Book Blogs are a little premature, perhaps even exaggerated. The question being asked on this post is: is book blogging dying? Right, posing the question on a book blog provides the answer– the book blog is not dead. This book blog is not dead. This, after all, is my 721st post since I began Bookword in December 2012. 

I pose the question because three times in the last week I have come across reports of the demise of the book blog. I have never come across this suggestion before, but I can spot a trend. Three suggestions in one week – perhaps book blogging is on its way out.

Checking the possibility

So, I looked online. Actually, there was no evidence for the death at all, although it is claimed that other social media activities (TickTock or podcasting, for example) are pushing out blogging. There is no evidence for the claim which is perhaps based on individual experience and taste.

It’s a little like the promise of the paperless office. Remember that? In my experience workplaces use paper andon-line file management. In the workplace where I volunteer the IT is so unreliable that we have to manage with both paper and online files, and in every office there are piles of paper and people staring at computer screens. I suspect that there are an increasing number of podcasts about books now, but they exist alongside book blogs.

I asked Google (a typed question not a spoken query) if book blogging was dead. Google replied promptly by presenting me with a list of the top 100 book blogs based in the US, and several rather older and similar lists. I added UK to my question and came across another list of 100 top book blogs. If there are 200 top blogs in the US and the UK then book blogging is clearly not dead. 

The criteria for being top (or the best) are not provided. Nor was information about who compiled the list. My inner researcher (yes, I used to work in a university) was despairing of these lapses, but my basic question is answered. Book blogging is not dead.

Indeed, I couldn’t find any evidence that it is even ailing. Perhaps it arises from an assumption that if podcasts are increasingly popular, blogging will be less popular. People used to say that Kindle and other digital readers would spell the end of ‘real’ books. Again, both seem to thrive. It’s a question of plurality, of variousness not of a zero sum.

Book Blogs Live

I went back to the list of 100 top book blogs and noted some blogs that I am familiar with. And I noticed that among the ‘toppest’ were many corporate sites: publishers, periodicals, professional bloggers. I don’t think these existed in such great numbers when I started Bookword, but since their purpose is, among other things, to sell books I conclude that they see a value in blogging.

The more individual blogs, the ones where people just like to write about books they are reading, these blogs also appeared in the list. I enjoy these more. We often leave comments on each other’s blogs. We promote each other’s sites on Twitter. 

The list also included information on how often the blogger posts. The frequency ranged from 10 a week through to once a quarter (ie four times a year, or once every three months). These were the extremes, most seemed to post around once a week. (Here on Bookword it’s every 5 days, but I think I am going to slow down slightly to join the once a weekers.)

Flexibility

One of the great things about blogging is its flexibility: form, content, style, frequency, birth and death. There are no rules.

I began my blog to connect with other readers who like writing and talking about books. I keep going because I still want to do that. That’s why I read other blogs. Even if DoveGreyReader has disappeared, there are still many great bloggers out there. Here are some of the blogs that I keep visiting:

Book Bloggers: keep on blogging!

Related posts

Book Blogging Is Dead, But That’s Okay on FrappesandFiction. The blogger explains why she likes blogging about books (March 2022)

Being a Nice Book Blogger – a post looking at the claim that book blogging was harming literature (March 2017).

The death of real books/the end of e-books – a post looking at the sales of ebooks and real books, both holding up at that time (August 2017)

It was Mark Twain, btw, who said, ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’. He is often misquoted.

Picture credit for Blog Cortega9 on WikiCommons.

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The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The big question for members of my reading group was this: were any of us going to read the four subsequent novels in the series known as The Cazalet ChroniclesThe Light Years is Volume I and over 500 pages long. Did we like it enough to want to read more?

The Light Years

The Chronicles appeared from 1990 onwards and follow the fortunes of the Cazalet family from 1937 through three generations. They are an upper-middle class family, whose money comes from the timber trade. 

The Brig and the Duchy live in Home Place, looked after by their unmarried daughter and their servants. Home Place is a much-extended house in the Sussex countryside in the south of England. It is the family tradition that the three sons will bring their wives and children to spend two months of the summer on the farm. The sons will spend some of that time in London, pursuing the family business. 

In 1937 this life, this pattern of the year, seems likely to continue for ever. The horrors of the First World War are nearly two decades behind them. Two of the sons fought in the trenches. Hugh lost a hand and is fearful of any return to war. Edward emerged unscathed. But as the family assemble for their summer holidays such considerations seem far behind.

The three sections of the book follow the members of the family as they prepare for the summer in 1937, and then through the two summers that follow. It culminates in the relief of Munich. There will not be war in 1938.

What we noticed

It’s a long novel, about 500 pages. But we all found it easy to read, well-written and always interesting. The short sections and the many characters kept one’s interest.

There are many characters: the Brig and the Duchy, their four offspring and three wives, and eight grandchildren. There are also many servants and some aunts, friends and cousins who appear at Home Place. We all appreciated the family tree. Those reading on Kindle revealed that they had photographed it on their phones to consult while reading. 

The novel has very little narrative, no big overarching storyline. Instead, as in any family, there are trails and sequences, themes picked up or lost. A baby is born, another conceived. The grandchildren make and break friendships. Rachel, the unmarried daughter has a female friend who is able to visit from time to time. They are very much in love, but this is not openly acknowledged by the family.

Jane noticed that there are many single women, who did not live happy lives, in The Light Years. Rachel is expected to remain caring for her parents as they age. She keeps them company, solves many domestic problems and is seen as indispensable. Her own wishes do not figure. There are aunts who come to stay. And the governess, Miss Milliment, who had lost her soulmate in the first war has a very bleak existence in Stoke Newington until summoned to attend to the grandchildren, first in London and then at Home Place. These are the ‘surplus’ women of the inter-war years.

We were attracted to different characters. We enjoyed the episodes that revealed the relationships between them. And we could see Elizabeth Jane Howard’s skill in developing believable and changing characters and relationships over time. 

Will we read on?

One member of the book group had read The Light Years in preparation for our meeting, and then immediately gone on to read the other four novels, finding them a good distraction from episodes of sleeplessness. Another had finished The Light Years and immediately looked at the BBC TV 2001 series (The Cazalets). A third has ordered the next two volumes from the library. A fourth has decided to finish reading The Light Years

And me? Well, you will have to wait and see. I noted that the next book in the series is called Marking Time. After that there is ConfusionCasting Off and All Change.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990) Pan. The Cazalet Chronicles (I) 554pp.

Thank you, Marianne, for your recommendation.

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Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens 

Occasionally, when I am not sure what to read next, I pick something from the books I inherited from my mother. Her collection included Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens. I was confident that I would enjoy it as I had previously read Winds of Heaven (1955) about a widow finds herself lost in post-war Britain. I featured it in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Thursday Afternoons is an earlier novel, published in 1945. Monica Dickens had served as a nurse, an experience she drew on for her popular novel-memoir One Pair of Feet, published in 1942, featuring her training during the Second World War. This novel returns to the setting of hospitals, before the NHS, and the world of doctors, nurses and patients.

Thursday Afternoons

The title of Thursday Afternoons suggests routine, the things that happen every Thursday afternoon. The reader is introduced to Dr Stephen Sheppard and here he is one Thursday afternoon running his clinic in suburban Dynsford for no pay as he has a lucrative private practice in London’s Wimpole Street. Nurse Lake is assisting him, organising the patients in the waiting area, sorting their files, and ensuring that everything goes smoothly. Routine. Settled ways of doing things. A writer introduces these in order to provide some disruption.

The disruption builds up from the start of the novel. It is the late spring of !939. It begins with patients who will insist on handing the doctor their out patient Registration Card. He only needs their file. But they persist. There is worse coming than upsetting the routines of Dr Sheppard’s clinic. As the novel progresses the likelihood of war increases. Trenches are being dug in London parks, people are deciding which of the armed services to join, to remove their families out of London, and women are exploring the possibilities of war work. 

Everyone likes Dr Sheppard, especially Nurse Lake. The patients hang on his words, the nursing staff are in awe of him, the ward sisters and Matron want to entertain him for tea and biscuits. His colleagues respect him. His wife defers to his every decision. His friends can’t get enough time in his company. Dr Sheppard lives the life of an entitled and privileged man.

No-one is quite so pleased with Dr Stephen Sheppard as Dr Sheppard. The reader sees him enjoying all his privileges. His wife Ruth is a tedious woman with little flair. We notice that Dr Sheppard has recently been unfaithful to his wife. We learn that they had a daughter who was drowned, and it emerges that Stephen was sleeping on the beach at the time. 

He is bored by his life, drinks, smokes and eats a great deal and takes it for granted that he will be successful at whatever he turns his hands to. One of his projects is to write a novel, and he pursues the secretary of a publisher, one of his patients who owes him money. We learn that he has no skills as a writer, but he assumes that he has. 

He decides to join the navy taking it for granted that the service will welcome a man of his talents and successes. The recruiters see him as out of touch and ill-prepared for the demands of medicine in war. This not very nice doctor sails through London in his nice car, imagining that life still has much to offer him. Actually, life has other plans for him and for everyone as war approaches. Hubris is a word to associate with him.

One theme of this novel is the hierarchies of the health service before the war: public/private; male/female; medical/nursing/patients; entitlement/charity and so forth. The hardship of the lives of trainee nurses are exposed, they are bound by petty rules, extreme long hours, hard work and humiliating exams. Dr Sheppard, of course, sails above this. Nurse Lake experiences it every day. And Monica Dickens knew what she was writing about.

It was good to be reminded of the history of the hierarchies that still exist today, and of the inability of people to control their destinies. 

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in the States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published four books before Thursday Afternoons. She published many, many more in her life, including the Follyfoot series for children.

Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens, first published in 1945 by Penguin Books 320pp

Related post

The Winds of Heaven (1951) by Monica Dickens in the Older Women in Fiction Series (June 2018). 

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Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir 

I opened this book to judge whether I wanted to add it to my tbr pile. I finished it in 24 hours. I was drawn in by the opening, the mystery of the woman who knew nothing of her own circumstances. In addition, it was set in Reykjavik, Iceland, a place I had liked immensely when I visited. The country is famous for its seismic activity, and the novel appeared to make a reference to it in the title: Quake.

Quake

The narrator is a woman of about 30 whose name is Saga. The story begins when Saga comes round from a grand mal seizure, and she cannot work out where she is, or remember how she got there, or where her son is or why they are not together. She is in hospital in Reykjavik.

The quake of the title disrupts the narrator’s memory and understanding of her past and her identity. But it also refers to the upset of her life that immediately preceded a series of seizures. They have returned after a long absence since adolescence. 

Saga is very ill and even when she is well enough to go home, she must not be left alone, or take care of her son. She needs help. Her parents arrive, then her sister and eventually she employs the teenager and her boyfriend next door to stay with her. These two seem to be more organised than any of the other characters in the novel, including the medical staff.

When her mother goes missing Saga becomes less of the focus for the family which is when she finally realises that her life is difficult, indeed that she has to face up to some enormous changes. Her husband does not want to return to her, she finally understands the causes of her mother’s periodic disappearances, and her work must come second to her son and her recovery. Having understood all this she can begin to put things together for herself and for her family.

Her love of her son runs through the short chapters. Here is the moment he visits her in hospital. Saga has been afraid that he was lost when she fell.

He stands by the side of my bed. Laughter lights up his face, his golden locks. His baby teeth graze my cheek, little nips of love. Wasn’t he going to the doctor? […]
“Mamma is here,” I whisper as I breathe him in greedily, drag him into my arms, still uncertain whether it’s a dream or flesh and blood. It’s enough that he’s here, my Ívar, in this strange room in which he doesn’t fit. In which I shouldn’t fit. He should never find out how frightened I feel, stitched into this sterile landscape with hypodermic needles. (14)

As Saga gradually recovers, and talks with her sister and her parents, and the young couple who seem to have adopted her, she begins to see the world as it is, although she is tempted to continue to see it only as she wishes it to be. 

Instability – of the ground beneath your feet, or in your life – is unlikely to occur only once. But Saga is better equipped to deal with the dramas she will encounter by the end of the novel

Her name, Saga, is a reference to the cultural heritage of her country, and to the place of storytelling in creating identity and belonging. When she first has her seizure Saga loses both but regains them through retelling stories with her family and with her son.

Books and Iceland

Iceland is a fascinating country. It has a population of under 400,000, of whom nearly 125,000 live in the capital Reykjavik. It has only been settled since the 9th Century. Due to plate tectonic activities volcanoes and earthquakes are common, and the island country has many hydrothermal baths. It has some attractive traditions, including the Jolabokaflod, the Christmas book flood, the name given to the book-buying bonanza of the Christmas period. Books are Iceland’s most popular Christmas present.

I visited Iceland in February 2017 and I wrote about it on this Blog: Bookword in Iceland. The photographs in this post are from that visit. By the way, I never finished reading the Laxness.

I have read Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, a difficult story based on real events, about a woman awaiting execution in Iceland in 1829. I included it in a post called Why use real people in fiction?

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir, first published in Iceland in 2015 by the dottir press. 295pp. The English version was published in 2022, translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich. 

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In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

Two things immediately draw the reader to this short book. The first is the title, a child’s warning of dangers lurking for a voyager crossing the sea. It is the cry of fear by a young boy about to enter a boat in the Mediterranean, who does not believe it is safe. Although there are no crocodiles in that sea, the boy is correct. There are salt-water crocodiles, and the journey from the shores of Turkey to Lesbos in Greece is perilous.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles has a sub-title: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari. In the Author’s Note, the writer Fabio Geda recounts meeting Enaiatollah Akbari at a book presentation in Italy and how they agreed to retell his story of migration. He reveals that while it is based on a true story, the two of them had to reconstruct Enaiatollah’s journey and that what we have is a ‘recreation’. The story dates from about 2000. 

The second thing that interests the reader is the set-up for the story.

One night, on the dangerous Pakistani border, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him there are three things he must never do: use drugs or weapons, cheat, or steal.
When the ten-year-old Afghan boy wakes alone the next morning he realises that she was saying goodbye – and that it is now up to him to find a place of safety. [Blurb]

His mother believed that Enai was at more risk from the Taliban if he stayed living in their village than if he lived outside Afghanistan. He is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. But what does it mean for a ten-year-old boy to be abandoned by his mother?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles

At first, after that morning, Enai must simply learn to survive, which he does by being useful. He is polite and willing to apply himself. He adapts himself to many jobs in the course of this story, and his lack of complaints is probably one of the reasons why he survives.

Enai gradually moves away from the border town to find work in Iran. He is by no means alone in being exiled from Afghanistan. He benefits from a loose brotherhood among the exiles, and also, one imagines, from the vulnerability of his age. Nevertheless, he must work for his living. Pretty soon he is caught up in the building trade and he learns the ways of indebted labour, saving what money he can to meet the requirements of traffickers who are essential to his search for safety.

What is revealed is how the building trade, the world over, relies on an illegal work force, which keep costs low and also feeds into the trafficking economy. I was reminded of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel called The Year of the Runaways (2016) which was a raw account of the lives of migrants from the Indian sub-continent who worked illegally in the building trade on sites in the Midlands and the north of England. Enai works in Greece to complete the Olympic sites in 2004, for example.

Enai’s journey

Enai did not set out to travel to the EU. At 10 years old he hardly knew it existed. Instead, he makes decisions to improve his lot, to follow his friends or to find more work. As a result, he goes to Iran, is returned to Pakistan, moves back to Iran, and then decides to move on to Turkey. He learns about better opportunities in Greece and finally of his chances in Italy.

Life is hard for a young boy with no resources but his wits and the ability to work and learn. He faces up to being an illegal worker in Pakistan and Iran, sometimes having to work for months to pay off the traffickers who transport him. When he decides to go to Turkey he faces a long, gruelling journey over the mountains to Istanbul. After the dangers of the mountains there follows a 3-day trip in the false floor of a lorry. Many do not survive. 

To get to Greece, he joins a group of even younger boys who endure a terrifying passage by boat, without encountering any sea monsters. Finally he makes it to meet a fellow refugee from his Afghani village in Turin.

The story reveals the endurance and resilience of a young boy. He also benefits from a fair bit of luck and the kindness of strangers. We also learn about the commerce of trafficking, how it is an organised trade. It is exploitative, but it also provides a service for the trafficked, the employers along the way, as well as an income for themselves.

It is a moving story, not least because we would like to think that boys of 10 do not have endure a life such as Enai’s. But it leaves us with some important questions:

  • How many migrants do not have his happy ending?
  • How can we understand refugee and migrant experiences without stories such as these?
  • How is it that we live in a world where such conditions persist?
  • While traffickers make a living off migrants, they do not cause the migrant crisis. Why does our government persist in making them the targets of action, the bad guys, rather than using resources to make the conditions of migrants’ lives more humane?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, published by Tamarind in 2011. 215pp. Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. 

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