Tag Archives: Older women in fiction

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

Here is another in the series of Older Women in fiction. This is the second novel in the series to have been written in Arabic. It is set beside the River Shatt-al-Arab during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?  Ismail Fahd Ismail was from Kuwait: and the novel was translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women in order to make them more visible. This will be the 46th in the series and the 8th to have been written by a man. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

The Old Woman and the River

An old woman Um Qasem, lives with her family in a village beside the river Shatt-al-Arab, near Basra in Iraq. It is 1980 and the long war with Iran has begun. The family have been ordered to uproot themselves as they are in a militarised area. On the journey her husband Bu Qasem dies suddenly and they have to bury him where he died and move on. The family resettle and put down roots in Najaf, but after a few years the old woman remains troubled by the abandoned body of her husband and decides to return home with it to Sabiliyat. 

She takes a donkey, the wonderfully named Good Omen with whom she has close understanding. Together they make the return journey, picking up her husband’s bones on the way. She returns to the abandoned village of Sabiliyat where she and the donkey take up residence, using the supplies from the houses. She is troubled by the damage done to the fields and gardens of the village because the rivers have been dammed.

A small group of soldiers is stationed on the banks of the river and although hostile at first they allow her to stay, initially, for the period of a ceasefire. They soon get used to her presence and gradually begin to help her with her projects, especially restoring irrigation channels which bring water to the gardens and cisterns of the village. They also help her to build her husband’s grave. She remains for many months, despite the danger of being killed when shelling resumes and of being sent out of the area by the military.

As in the previous novel, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, an old woman is deployed as the protagonist of this novel because she represents everything that the clearances and war put into danger. Highlighting the experiences of one of the weakest of the population emphasises the inhumane actions of the strong and the aggressive. She reminds the readers, and the soldiers in this novel, of some of the quieter values of human life: nurturing, caring, providing sustenance, fostering nature, caring for animals and so forth. 

The Iraq–Iran War lasted from 1980-1988. 500,000 people were killed and no borders were changed as a result of the hostilities. The novel takes no sides in criticising the long war, but focuses on families and ordinary people. The soldiers too are revealed as individuals. The old woman, by valuing human relations, history and the bountiful gifts of the land and the river, restores some humanity to the village and the soldiers.

The old woman Um Qasem

It is not clear how old Um Qasem is. She and her husband had a good loving relationship and with their family had enjoyed their lives in the village of Sabiliyat. They had children and grandchildren who adapted to their new life in Nasraf. While she loves them all, she has her own life and decisions to make. She is not a frail and dependent old lady. In fact she shows great resourcefulness and courage in the face of the terrible war. And she reminds us too of the permanent pull of our roots.

Her effect on the soldiers is a bit mystical and Ismail Fahd Ismail did not wholly resist giving her special powers. Um Qasem dreams and hold conversations with her husband in her sleep which help her re-establish the water to the village. Her communication with the Donkey, Good Omen, is also from the realm of magic. She is a life-giving force. Indeed this novel has the feel of a folk tale to it. It is also based on real events.

I have noticed that Um Qasem has been likened to other literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. However, Good Omen is a complete contrast to Modestine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s companion in the Cevennes. (See my post about their travels here.) 

Ismail Fahd Ismail

Ismail Fahd Ismail was a Kuwaiti writer, born and brought up in Sabiliyat, and he lived from 1940 to 2018. He wrote 27 novels and many short stories and is credited with founding the art of fiction in Kuwait.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail, first published in 2016 and English version by Interlink Books in 2019. 176pp 

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. Shortlisted for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018

Here are some related posts in the Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

It is unusual is to find a novel of historical fiction that features an older woman. And not many books in this series about older women have been written by men. Iain Crichton Smith locates this old woman at the start of the 18th century at the time of the Highland clearances in Scotland. Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 45th in the series. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literatures, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

Consider the Lilies

It is the time of the Highlands Clearances in the early 1800s. An old woman, Mrs Scott, is visited by the agent of the Duke. Patrick Sellar tells her that the Duke will be putting her out of her house. The land is to be used for sheep.

Mrs Scott is over 70, a widow. She lives on her own, looked after by the village, and a staunch church-goer. She has lived in the house all her life. She has no family to turn to as her son emigrated to Canada. What is she to do? 

She seeks advice from the village elder, who has nothing to offer. And then from the minister, who disgusts her by lying and counselling compliance with the Duke. On her return from her visit to the Manse she falls into a stream and is rescued by a radical family who care for her until she recovers. Mrs Scott revises her opinions of this family. Like all the villagers, the Macleods are also to lose their homes. The villagers will face the threat together.

Mrs Scott

Mrs Scott is an independent woman, with a great deal of pride. She believes in behaving correctly, according to the dictates of the church. In the first chapter, when she receives Patrick Sellar with highlander’s courtesy, it is clear that the old ways will not protect her against the threat this uncouth man presents. He sees her as stupid when she is being respectful.

Her life is governed by her strict adherence to religion, the Old Testament kind. In the past, we learn, this belief led her to care for her mother, suffering from dementia, without revealing the terrible demands to her neighbours. It also meant that her own son left for Canada. And although the villagers provide some help, this crisis reveals that she has no one to advise her. She is a woman of some resolution however and does not wait patiently for her fate.

She consults the church elder, who turns out to be more concerned for his own future and is weak in the face of this crisis. And she approaches the minister, a man to whom she has never before spoken. He lies to her, blames the sins of the villagers for this misfortune and recommends compliance with Patrick Sellar’s order.

It is this betrayal by the church that provides the turning point for Mrs Scott. She stumbles away from the Manse, but falls into a stream on the way home and is rescued and cared for by another villager, Donald MacLeod. Until this moment he has been everything she stands against, including an atheist. But she comes to see that he and his family are more caring than those to whom she turned.

She refuses to betray the Macleods to Patrick Sellar when he returns and we see that she has learned the value of community, care for your neighbours, has moved to a different set of values and beliefs.

Writing the novel Consider the Lilies

The demographic trends, probably as a result of better public health and improved medical science, means that we are living longer today. It was rare for people to reach their 80s in the past. Iain Crichton Smith had a reason for choosing a very old woman to be the protagonist of this novel. Using one of the weakest villagers emphasises the inhumane actions of the landlord and his agent.

The novel strongly conveys the cruelties of the Highland Clearances, and was very much in tune with social history at the time it was written, in the 1960s. The landowners and the church together are the antagonists in this novel. Iain Crichton Smith (1928 – 1998) was brought up on the Isle of Lewis and spoke and wrote in Gaelic as well as English. He was critical of dogma and the abuse of authority, as revealed in this novel.

And the title? It is from the New Testament and suggests that Mrs Scott is as significant as any other person. But it also suggests that appearances can deceive and its use questions whether God will provide. 

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28-31)

The author mixed fact with fiction. The clearances took place and there was an agent called Patrick Sellar who went on to make a good living out of the farms that replaced the villages. He worked for the Duke of Sutherland’s estates. He was later accused of causing the death of an old woman in an arson attack on her cottage. Of course he was acquitted. 

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, 1968. I read the edition published by Phoenix in 2001. 144pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford

This is a post from a writer friend of mine, orginally posted on the Global Literature in Libraries blog. Like many writers Annie is a reader and her choice is a contribution to the theme of older women who thwart expectations. Eleanor Bannister might be expected to have an unadventurous retirement. Indeed she appears to expect it of herself. But that would be to under-estimate this older woman as Annie reveals.

Eleanor and Abel 

In this small town America older women are expected to work for the church, give charity lunches and continue to do their bit for the community. An uncompromising ex-school mistress Eleanor Bannister is aware that the eyes of the town are watching her as her relationship with Abel, an itinerant builder develops.  She is defiant, wary and to her chagrin vulnerable in this area of her life hitherto unexplored.

Eleanor’s routine is disrupted when the roof of the ‘honeymoon cottage’ left to her by her parents is damaged in a storm. The same storm blows Abel into town, looking for somewhere to rent. A competent builder he persuades her to let him repair the cottage.She is reluctant, she wants shot of the place, too many memories of her childhood, she still isn’t over the death of her parents some years before. Slowly she gives in and he becomes a regular feature in her life. The goal posts are moved bit by bit as she becomes used to his presence.

There is constant comment from her neighbour and life long friend Grace, who is jealous of the intruder but slowly gets to like the idea of a man in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor is in denial that she is romantically involved and repeatedly resorts to prayer and her diary as a means of dealing with this upset.

Abel has pretty quickly told Eleanor he is in love with her, the first time he sees her she is in her nightdress barefoot on the grass and that is when it happened. It’s not the Eleanor she feels herself to be and she is embarrassed but secretly excited by this.

Abel is polite but continues to woo her despite her determination to keep him at arms’ length. It’s a game of to and fro, each holding his or her ground as petty tiffs and reconciliation shape the development of their relationship.

At the point when Abel is really starting to get to her, Eleanor feels like shedding her old life. She sees her home as she now feels others see it, stuffy and old fashioned. On a whim she gets rid of all her clothes except of course her underwear and Grace is enlisted to help her buy a whole new wardrobe. Her clothes go to charity but she then sends Grace out to buy back her dressing gown, she can’t quite go through with it. 

Abel’s past life emerges in the form of his daughter who much like him has drifted through her life. He had told Eleanor he could never be sure he wouldn’t blow out of town just as quickly as he had blown into it as he’s always had a restless spirit.

His daughter leaves her own child in their care as she sets off to look for her errant husband.

The honeymoon cottage is finished, but Abel then takes off to look for his daughter. Eleanor is now in a state of confusion having committed herself to a man who might at any time just disappear from her life. 

Eleanor’s character

Eleanor resembles a woman from the pioneer era. Tough, independent, resilient, she built her life around these qualities, steering the town’s young population into adulthood with a stern resolve. She has never expected to be liked, she isn’t known for her sense of humour. Duty is important. Once one stage of life is finished another takes over and retirement means she can still have an important role in the community. She has little concern for the opinions of others or at least she likes to appear that way. Her weaknesses lie in the fact that she has clung onto the view of herself as a daughter to the parents with whom she lived. She seems unable to move on from this role and one wonders if the same doesn’t hold for her view of herself as a retired schoolmistress. 

As the book evolves a very emotional Eleanor emerges. The desire to look after someone again takes over – she wants to iron Abel’s shirts as she’d done her father’s. It causes her all sorts of distress as it makes her vulnerable, something she dislikes. There is the fear of losing what she has so lately found. She finds she is more flexible than she thought; the prospects make her anxious, change is a challenge which she likes but find very scary.

Summary

The book was very easy reading. I was attracted to the character of Abel although I found him unbelievable. Eleanor’s character could at times be annoying, she is strong but rigid. I wished her to pack up her belongings and take off with Abel and perhaps this is what the writer intended. The limitations of small town life had been too thoroughly absorbed. The writer has captured the intimacy and involvement in its residents’ lives. The routine of everyday life and the challenge of sharing these with a hitherto stranger, whether to leave the door open when you’re in the bathroom, are those small but important details that face anyone regardless of age.

For older women readers who might like the idea of finding a relationship late in life this is a book to go for. The chances of finding a tall, slim, handsome at 75 drifter in your neighbourhood, who is fit, sexy, a sympathetic listener, saves his money, is incredibly practical and prepared to do his share of the cooking might be pretty unlikely but that’s what fiction is all about. A good holiday read.

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford published in 2003 by Arrow Books. 188pp

Written by my guest: writer Annie Morris.

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Paul Torday Prize and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Dear @gransnet, I tweeted, you want more fiction about older women? Well look on this page and you will find links to 39 reviews and more than 40 other titles, all about older women. 

Gransnet have also noted that older women writers are not widely known. They are not alone. There is now a prize for people over 60, publishing their first novel.

So in this post I am going to bring you the 40threview of an older woman in fiction and a little something about older writers.

The Paul Torday Memorial Prize

Paul Torday (1946 – 2013) published his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, aged 60. The family decided to set up the Torday Prize in his memory, celebrating first novels by authors aged 60 and over. The prize is £1000. It is one of the Society of Authors awards.

Judged in 2019 by Anita Sethi, Mark Lawson and Kate Mosse, here is the short list:

Sealskin  by Su Bristow (Orenda Books). You can find my review here.

Walking Wounded  by Sheila Llewellyn (Sceptre)

Silence Under a Stone  by Norma MacMaster (Doubleday Ireland)

The Sealwoman’s Gift  by Sally Magnusson (Two Roads)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz  by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

So, dear @gransnet, not only writers over 40, but first novels over 60! What a generous and encouraging gesture it is by Paul Torday’s family to create this prize. 

You can find out more about the Paul Torday Memorial Prize here.

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

And the winner was Anne Youngson for her novel Meet me at the Museum. It turns out to be about an older woman as well as by an older woman. It was recommended to me by one of my sisters, and I was as charmed by it as she told me she had been.

Tina Hopgood is a farmer’s wife in the East of England whose life is circumscribed by the farm and she cannot even remember why she got married. She develops a correspondence with the curator of the Tollund Man museum in Denmark. It comes about because she originally writes to the archaeologist who found Tollund Man. The reply comes from Anders Larsen, a lonely widower. Tina is in distress, it transpires, over the death of her best friend, and the Tollund Man represented unfinished matters between them. 

So this gentle epistolary novel develops to explore their relationship, first by traditional mail and then by email. Each shares their troubles and concerns, and provides support to the other. Writing letters makes it possible for them to talk about the disappointments of their lives, their marriages, their children, the everyday and the events that transpire during the timeframe of the novel.

The story ends before they meet, after the predictable crisis in Tina’s marriage. There is a fair bit of philosophising, as these two are both around their 60s. They learn to evaluate their lives and identify what they have missed out on and what they want from now.

Anne Youngson published the novel when she was 70. She had had a distinguished career in engineering, but the press liked the idea that she is a grandmother. 

Meet me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson, published in 2018 by Doubleday (Penguin). 207pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

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Should You Ask Me by Marianne Kavanagh

Older women are frequently portrayed as either dotty or having great insight and wisdom, at least in more popular fiction. In this novel Mary Holmes is presented at the outset as one of the dotty kind, but she gradually appears as an elderly woman who is full of insight and wisdom. And she has a story to tell.

Should You Ask Me  is the 39thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me by someone on my recent French trip, about which you can read here. You can find a list of all the previous posts in the older women in fiction series with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

It is June 1944 in Wareham, a small town in Dorset. Like much of the south west of England the area is full of American troops, part of the build-up to D Day. Mary Holmes, an old woman of 86 presents herself at the police station. She has information about the identity of two bodies that have been discovered in the local quarries. And then she claims that she killed them.

William, the constable detailed to question her and take her statement, is very severely wounded and suffering from PSTD. He has his own story, concerning his love for Stella, a woman evacuee with a young baby. As Miss Holmes tells her story, William relives his past in a series of painful flashbacks.

Over the course of several days William and Annie spend hours together as he tries to prise her story out of her. He goes from doubting her fanciful and long-winded narrative to believing her detailed story concerning a shipwreck, two young men, the young Mary and an elaborate plot to avoid sharing the spoils of the shipwreck with the village. And two murders.

Eventually Mary gets William to relate his own story of lost love and military training that went horribly wrong, and to suggest that he needs treatment. It is partly a novel about guilt and confession.

Mary Holmes

We first meet Mary as she presents herself to William who is not from Wareham and does not know anything of her.

Underneath the black hat, which had a small silky bow to one side, her hair was a silvery grey. The skin of her face was so criss-crossed with tiny lines it looked like soft paper that had been crumpled and re-crumpled many times. She was wearing a black coat, with a pink scarf tucked in at the neck and cream woollen gloves, buttoned at the wrist. […] Her accent was old Dorset, a hum of long vowels. (5)

The story she has to tell about the two bodies happened 60 years before, and she has mulled over it a great deal. She will not hurry the retelling, which is frustrating for the constable and his kindly sergeant. She attends the police station every day for an hour or two to share a cup of tea with William and to relate a little more of her detailed story.

The tale she has to tell is full of violence and betrayal and guilt. 

As she shares her story she notices William’s pain, physical and mental and the care afforded him by Sergeant Mills. Eventually William tells her his own story of love, betrayal and his own close encounter with death. He too lives with guilt and is unable to forgive himself for the explosion that killed a fellow soldier, ruined his leg and probably his future.

Old woman as novelist’s device

This novel is about the slow telling of a double murder-mystery. In many ways Mary Holmes is the device that allows Marianne Kavanagh to tell the story slowly. And to take the reader back to the village as it was before the First World War, back into the late 19thcentury.

But this is not to dismiss this character as a thin one. Her creator is careful to tell us that she had a busy and successful life after the murders, running the forge and then the local garage, including servicing the cars of Lawrence of Arabia. 

I have criticised other novels about older women for assuming the only thing of importance that happened in their lives concerned romantic events in their youth. Their older selves have been fashioned and determined by the events of this time. But Mary Holmes is a more rounded character than that.

And Marianne Kavanagh has written a good story.

Should You Ask Meby Marianne Kavanagh, published in 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton.  272pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Moments of fumbling confusion contrasted with moments of startling clarity. A striking presence.This is how Etta (the Etta in old age) is described by The Canadian National newspaper as she walks across the eastern half of Canada towards the sea. What is this old woman doing?

Etta and Otto and Russell and Jamesis the 37thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

The story of this novel is set in two time frames, one before and during the Second World War and the second in the present day. Its centre, as Canada’s, is the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Etta is a young school teacher and Otto and Russell among her pupils. Otto is one of a very large family who live on a farm. Russell comes from the city when he is orphaned to live with his aunt and uncle on a nearby farm. He quickly becomes absorbed in Otto’s family, even when he damages his leg in a farming accident. Otto goes off to war, while Etta and Russell become close and enjoy themselves as dancing partners. When Otto returns after terrible experiences fighting in Europe he and Etta marry.

In the present Etta walks away from Otto (and Russell their neighbour) to go to the sea. 

Otto,

the letter began in blue ink.

I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry. I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.

Yours (always)

Etta. (1)

As she walks we revisit her history: her love of a sister who died in childbirth, her training as a teacher, her first job, and her growing affection for Otto and Russell. These two exchange places at school so they can take turns to attend and both take advantage of learning. We see the difficulties when the trio, Etta, Otto and Russell are separated. Otto joins the army and is sent to Europe. He and Etta keep up a correspondence. 

She travels eastwards and becomes something of a celebrity as she walks. Mostly she is alone, but James a coyote who talks, joins her for the mid-section and Bryony a journalist for the final section. The journey takes many weeks and presents many challenges to the old woman.

Etta

Etta in old age, the reader quickly finds, is tough and strong-willed. She is excellent at improvising, and resourceful, contriving to catch fish in a plastic bottle. And she is good with people and coyotes. These are excellent qualities for any person of any age and it is rare and laudable to find an older female character who embodies them. 

She is also forgetful and carries a list of people to remember, such as might be given to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s. 

There is a gap in their history after Otto’s return and the moment that Etta sets out to visit the sea. What happened in all those years? Does marriage represent the last time anything significant happens?

The writing

The book breezes along in very short sections, jumping between the three human characters and time zones. The story is told through a range of media, including lists. There are letters, recipes, internal monologues, newspaper reports and 3rdperson narration. The lists include a packing list, known people list, uses of newspapers list.

There are some magical, fantastical aspects to the plot: the talking coyote; the inter-changeability of Otto and Etta in the final pages; the telepathic communication of the three friends.

What I liked and didn’t like

Photo credit: Trevor Pritchard on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Some of the story is vivid and other parts charming. The vivid parts included Otto in Europe, life on the prairie in the 1930s, Otto’s father’s illness. And some of the descriptions of the landscape lived in or visited by Etta are beautifully done.

But Etta appears to be described as somewhat eccentric. Older women with spirit often appear that way in novels. Eccentricity is certainly found in older people, older women, but it can be something of a caricature or cliché. This book does not escape the trap. There are several more in the older women in fiction reviews that I have noted.

And the absence of any sense of their lives from the end of the war to now is very frustrating.

But most of all I could not work out why Etta’s walk was important. I kept thinking of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry  by Rachel Joyce (2012). Harold set off to post a letter, but carried on across England to deliver it in person.

This novel ends with the separation of all three main characters Etta, Otto and Russell. What supports the blurb claim that this is ‘a tale of love over 50 years’? 

Have you read this novel? What did you think?

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, published in 2015 by Penguin. 278pp

Recent posts in this series:

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

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The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

On the day that Eva Carroll receives her first pension payment she leaves home. This is not unique behaviour for an older women in this series: Lady Slane, left home, when her husband (a Very Great Man) died in All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West. We are in the late 1960s when 65-year old Eva closes the door on her living but arthritic husband of forty years and a house in a nice part of Montreal. But the price of her freedom is high. Like Lady Slane, she confounds the wishes and understanding of her own offspring.

The Book of Eve is the 36thin the series about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

The story is set in Montreal. Eva leaves her comfortable life and her husband of 40 years when she receives her first pension cheque. The marriage has been unhappy for some time, especially since her husband Burt became arthritic, demanding and penny-pinching. She strikes a defiant note from her first paragraph:

The real surprise – to me anyway – was not really what I did, but how I felt afterwards. Shocked, of course. But not guilty. You may say, and be right, that the very least a woman can be is shocked when she walks out on a sick and blameless husband after forty years. But to feel no guilt at all – feel nothing, in fact, but simple relief and pleasure – that did seem odd, to say the least. How annoying for God (not to mention Adam), after all, if Eve had just walked out of Eden without waiting to be evicted, and left behind her pangs of guilt, as it were, with her leaf apron? (1)

Eva goes to live in a down-at-heel area, finding a couple of rooms in the basement of a boarding house. She finds herself having to cope with almost no money and learns to live more frugally. She also develops an ability to find things on the street, which she then sells to the local pawnshop. She discovers the pleasures of the library and of reading whenever she wants.

She learns the pleasures and then the challenges of living on her own. Her son, who has a family of his own, cannot believe that she will not return to her husband, that she is not just making a point.

Her life had been so circumscribed by her husband’s demands that she had no friends. Now the other residents in the boarding house provide some community for her, along with a local cat.

But it is not so much about leaving her husband, more about fulfilling her desire to explore life, to have some freedom, to do the things she wants. This includes, somewhat reluctantly, developing a loving and sexual relationship with a man who also sought freedom.

Constance Beresford-Howe writes in a conversational style, often omitting the noun or pronoun in a sentence. God is often referred to, as in the quotation above. Her narrative races along, in a believable way. We are meant, I think, to take this as everywoman’s story from before recorded time.

Eva Carroll

The older woman, Eva, in this novel is 65 years old. She made her appearance when ideas about women’s independence and liberation were recently being widely expressed again. There is reference to Quebec’s laws about what women were entitled to from marital property. Nothing, even if she had made a contribution, as Eva had.

The early part of the book recaptures that excitement of the late 60s, early 70s, for feminists (Women Liberals as one character calls them). Life and its opportunities seemed to be about to open out for women.

But before this happens she is finds herself very alone, and with no one to care for her. She has a grim vision of the alternative.

Who needed or cared about me now? What use was I, fat old parasite, member of the third sex now, an irrelevant and uncalled-for detail of the human race. And a swift exit had at least some dignity, unlike those horrible lingerings to be seen in nursing homes, where death is the friend who too seldom drops in. No, much better to accept it now, and go. (32)

And she meets all kinds of contradictions and challenges. Her path is not an easy one.

Constance Beresford-Howe

Constance Beresford-Howe was a prolific Canadian writer, who lived from 1922 until 2016.

She was born in Montreal where she was educated to a high level, and then taught English literature and creative writing in universities, both in Montreal and in Toronto, retiring in 1988. She came to live in Suffolk for the last 10 years of her life.

Unlike Eva, she was happily married for 56 years, and she and her husband adopted a son. She was very unflashy and unpushy about her novels, and not many of them survive in print. She wrote ten novels between 1946 and 1991. Only The Story of Eve has been in print since its publication in 1973.

Recent posts in this series:

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, first published in 1973. I read the edition published by McClelland & Stuart in 2001. 211pp

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Have you noticed that recently novel writers have begun to explore the realities of old age, and especially of Alzheimer’s? In February 2015 I posted my review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. The main character, Maud, in that novel has Alzheimer’s and is treated very respectfully by her creator, even if her misunderstandings cause some humour, mostly it is at the expense of others.

Florence Claybourne is the main character in Three Things about Elsie and she may be suffering from Alzheimer’s.  She also has a series of connected mysteries to solve about her past, involving her best friend Elsie.

Three Things about Elsie is the 35thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Three Things about Elsie

This novel has a light touch. The plot drives it along, sometimes stretching the reader’s credulity, but none the less enjoyable.

The main character, and for most of the novel the narrator, is Flo who is 84 and lives in a sheltered flat, but she is a bit of a loner. She has never married, and was delighted when Elsie also turned up at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. The reader learns two things about Elsie very quickly: she is Flo’s best friend and she is someone who always says the right thing to her. This is important for Flo is outspoken, combative and not easily placated once she has an idea in her head. Also, she is finding it hard to remember things. The third thing about Elsie provides the narrative drive and we do not learn this third thing until near the end.

Flo and Elsie are befriended by General Jack. There is a mystery that involves them from the time when they were young women and worked together in the factory. When Ronnie Butler arrives at Cherry Trees Flo is devastated. She believed that he drowned decades before. Indeed, she believes that she killed him.

With General Jack they investigate the new arrival and begin to uncover some unpleasant events in 1953. Elsie’s sister was deliberately killed in a hit and run, by Ronnie Butler. Now going under the name of Gabriel Price, the new arrival plays mind games with Flo. She gradually recovers her memory of the events, with help from Jack and Elsie and a visit to Whitby, and these events are not at all what she thought had happened.

Florence Claybourne

The novel is framed as Flo has fallen and lies on the floor of her flat waiting for rescue. The reader’s sympathies are therefore immediately with Flo, and we are prepared for her to be mistaken about all kinds of things, including the identity of Gabriel Price.

It is hard to show diminishing mental capacities without some crazy moments, some of which can be quite frightening. One of the best scenes in the novel comes when Flo visits the doctor for an assessment of her mental state. He begins by checking her name, but then she disconcerts him by asking his. Then come the questions.

It’s strange how easily you can become flustered when someone is watching you. If they were casual questions, asked at a bus stop or in a supermarket queue, I’m sure the answers would come to us easily, but when Dr Andrews is staring down at you with his pen waiting over a piece of paper, you begin to doubt your own name. He started by asking the day of the week. Of course, I knew it was Tuesday, but going to Whitby threw me off and I plumped for Thursday …

‘Take seven away from a hundred,’ he said. ‘And keep going until I tell you to stop.’

I looked at his clipboard across the coffee table.

‘You have the answers,’ I pointed. ‘Printed at the side.’

Dr Andrews curled his arm around the sheet of paper, like a child in a classroom. ‘You shouldn’t worry about what I know,’ he said …

The last thing he did was hold up a piece of paper. It said Close Your Eyeson it.

‘Why would we want to do that?’ I said.

‘Because I’m asking you to.’ Dr Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

‘Is it a surprise?’ I said.

I heard Dr Andrews sigh. ‘Do you not usually do as someone asks?’

I frowned. ‘Not if I can help it.’ (397-8)

She may be awkward but Flo is very appreciative when treated well. For example, when Handy Simon does not patronise her but offers genuine sympathy and comfort when she needs it. And it is the strong character of Flo that appears to many of the characters in the book to be provocative and difficult: to the staff who run and clean Cherry Trees, excepting Handy Simon; the policeman who interviews her in Whitby; Dr Andrews; just about everyone.

Old women often have wisdom. One of the finest inventions of the novel is Elsie’s idea of the long second, which helps Flo remember.

It’s when you catch the clock, holding on to a second so it lasts just a fraction longer than it should. When the world gives you just a little bit more time to make the right decision. (49)

What Flo remembers about herself is important. Being 84 she has a long back-story. She is not just a forgetful old lady. She has always stood up for people, she has been generous and appreciative. And she has value in the present because she helps people find their strengths.

But if you find Florence Claybourne a little too much on the saccharine side, you could try the corrective of the previous woman in this series: Great Granny Webster. The link is here.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon published by Borough Press in 2018. 455pp

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The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old people in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives.

I originally read and reviewed this book for the Older Women in Fiction series on this blog. It was the 17thin that series that now has more than 30 contributions. What follows is a reworking of the original post. It’s my contribution to the 1977 club, hosted by Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings and StuckinaBook.

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The quartet share an office and are dispensable. We never find out the purpose of their jobs or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans reveal that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has church activities, and Letty a widowed school friend with whom she plans to live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. She is a troubling older woman, ill and somewhat odd. She cherishes her milk bottle collection. She troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get her to become more connected to other older people and is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

However, she is not cut off entirely having perceived Norman’s lack of resources to deal with life while they worked together. Her kind bequest releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend Marjorie has been jilted and now wishes to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this means she is significant in the lives of others. It is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it is about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’ (186).

In many ways Quartet in Autumnis a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people.

Reading Quartet in Autumn

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumndo not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee. Both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiancé who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the welfare state. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. In Quartet in Autumnshe describes a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older people, and especially about women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’. Elsewhere Barbara Pym suggested that single women, like herself, need to be ‘drearily splendid’. How little has changed in 40 years. Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept the prevailing view by showing us life from the perspectives of the four older people. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we doneed to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory and the two men.

Famously neglected, Barbara Pym’s reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumnwas published later that year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novelson the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16thJuly 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knittingsurveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

About the Older Women in Fiction series.

Quartet in Autumnby Barbara Pym, first published in 1977. I used the Pan/Picador edition. 186pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews