Tag Archives: Penguin Books

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

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

The Queen of Dirt Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will the other members of my book group think?

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

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Minty Alley by CLR James 

It was with interest that I noted the recommendations made by Bernardine Evaristo to Penguin for the Black Britain Writing Back series. Twelve books have been republished in this series after being neglected for far too long. The novel featured in this post is from eight decades ago and shows a community in Trinidad. 

Bernardine Evaristo introduces each volume, and she explains the intention of the publishing initiative:

Our ambition is to correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation. While many of us continue to lobby for the publishing industry to become more inclusive and representative of our society, this project looks back to the past in order to resurrect texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history. [Penguin website]

I plan to read more from the collection over the next few months.

Minty Alley

The novel is set in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad in the late 1920s. CLR James spent his childhood here. A young man of 20, Mr Haynes, has been brought up in affluence but when his mother dies, he has to move to new accommodation. Haynes is pretty naïve and ignorant of the ways of the world, but he is helped by Ella, the family servant. She finds lodgings for him at 2 Minty Alley. His life has been quiet up to this point. Now, looking out at the courtyard of Minty Alley from his rented room he sees a different world.

In front of his eyes he sees a collection of characters who run a cake business, and whose cosy domestic life soon erupts into drama and intrigue. Haynes has led a sheltered life, so at first, he wants only to observe, but gradually he gets pulled into the drama. Benoit, who keeps the books and lives with Mrs Rouse, Mrs Rouse herself (his landlady), Maisie her ne’er-do-well niece, her loyal servant Philomen and the very naughty nurse erupt into a fine old barny. 

The novel can be viewed like a play, as we look with Haynes from his room onto the drama in the yard. The main characters pass through, have huge arguments, gossip, work and even engage in fisticuffs. Eventually he is drawn in by the other residents, by appeals for help, by the need for people to discuss their problems with him, and by his eventual sexual involvement with Maisie. It’s a huge mess that carries on until the final curtain. I was reminded of being a confidante, hearing a friend’s difficult circumstances with sympathy but then finding them returning again and again, saying, ‘do you know what s/he’s done now?’ 

Benoit has been unfaithful to Mrs Rouse for years, and especially with the nurse. He is goaded into leaving Mrs Rouse and living and then marrying the nurse. But Mrs Rouse is consumed with grief at his departure and connives and contrives to bring Benoit back. The nurse finds him unsatisfactory in turn and throws him out. This triangle is the mainstay of the plot. 

The novel contains themes of class (Haynes is clearly a class above the other characters in the drama) and gradations of colour (especially the nurse who appears white but has clear indications of a mixed parentage). The novel also celebrates the excitement and vividness of Caribbean life. The colonial presence is not explored, but the departure of Trinidadians for America is already changing Port of Prince. Trinidad did not gain its independence until 1962.

With the republication of Mint Alley, Penguin and Bernardine Evaristo have begun to succeed in resurrecting ‘texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history’. I loved it.

CLR James

CLR James

CLR James was born in Trinidad in 1901. 1932 he came to Britain, then moved on to the USA (1938-53) but because his visa had expired moved back to UK. He lived in Hampstead, Willesden and then Brixton where he died in 1989. 

Minty Alley was his only novel. He published other non-fiction works such as The Black Jacobins, which was the history of the Haitian slave revolution, and wrote two plays on the subject. He was also interested in cricket and a revered commentator for the Guardian. He wrote a highly praised book about the sport called Beyond a Boundary (1963).

Minty Alley by CLR James was first published in 1936. In 2021 it was republished in the Black Britain: Writing Back series by Penguin. 260pp

The collection is curated and each volume is introduced by Bernardine Evaristo.

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively ten years on

I read this novel nearly a decade ago. It was one of the first to be featured in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. I found in it a refreshingly unsentimental view of ageing in an intelligent woman. 

I noticed that it was chosen by the novelist Taiye Selassi in What Writers Read, which I reviewed very recently on this blog. She described how reading this book had a significant effect on her writing and claimed it as a ‘masterpiece’. Her comments encouraged me to reread it.

Moon Tiger

On my first reading I noticed how the protagonist, 76-year-old Claudia Hampton, is infantilised by the medical staff in the hospital. 

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

These two small incidents set the tone for the care of the old woman who was a very successful writer and historian. Such lack of respect, the ‘old dear’ view of older women, is distressing and can still be met with today, despite a better understanding of respecting the old.

The other, and much more significant idea in the novel is that memory and life are not understood as linear, not a long succession of events. Rather, Claudia’s life is an accretion of all the experiences and relationships she has had: as a sister, lover, mother, foster mother and writer. Those experiences are still with her, have formed her and are still part of her understanding of herself. She understands that ‘nothing is ever lost ‘and ‘a lifetime is not linear but instant’.

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument, competition, and physical attraction. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. She lived a life that is challenging.

Working as a correspondent in Egypt was a vivid and important phase in her life. She revisited Cairo much later and makes this observation.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

It was in Cairo during the war that she met and fell in love with Tom, who was serving on the tanks. They had a passionate affair and planned to share their lives after the war. But he was killed. Although this is undoubtedly the main passion of her life, she has forty more years as she reflects as she approaches her own death.

I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself. (206)

Most novels would have made the love affair the climax of the narrative. But it is in keeping with the idea of the plurality of experiences that make up a life that this novel provides the reader with a different experience.

These features of Moon Tiger were what impressed Taiye Selassi when she first read it, and her reading encouraged her to continue with her own writing.

Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present tense, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I’d ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing allowed to be so free?! Was a writer? (115 in What Writers Read)

In that first reading she wondered at the ‘rebellious prose’, ‘dazzling structure’, and ‘unfurling of form’. And from understanding and admiring these characteristics of the writer’s craft and noticing the author’s confidence in her writing, Taiye Selassi felt empowered to write her own novel (Ghana Must Go). 

And all over again I found myself admiring the richness and intelligence of this wonderful book.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, published in 1987. I used the Penguin edition of 1988. 208pp

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1987

Related posts

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The original post from August 2013.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, also in the Older Women in Fiction Series in February 2018

Books about Reading and Writers, including What Writers Read, edited by Pandora Sykes, in January 2023.

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here

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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

It only seems a short time since I read and reviewed Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi on Bookword blog. It was published in 2016. It was a story in two parts, one following African generations who remained on the continent, and the other following the descendants of an enslaved woman. The novel allowed contrasts between the two branches of the family, and how they emerged in the early 21st Century. It made a strong impression on me.

Since that time, I have wanted to read her second book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020), which has been well reviewed and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021.

Transcendent Kingdom

This later novel is also constructed as a contrast, here to contrast two apparently opposing stances on life. The Ghanaian connection is here again. The narrator is Gifty, who has been brought up in Huntsville Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. 

Gifty has been a brilliant science student and has moved to Stanford, California to work on her doctoral research. She is a neuroscientist, experimenting on mice, hoping to find whether it is possible to control their responses to pleasure and pain. 

Gifty’s mother has put all her faith in the church she attended since arriving in the States: The First Assemblies of God. She is a diligent attendee and as a child Gifty shared her devotion. But Gifty lost her faith and her mother’s was severely tried by two significant losses in their lives. The first was Nana, Gifty’s talented brother, and the second was her father who returned to Ghana. 

Nana, a gifted soccer player turned to basketball and sustained an injury to his ankle takes him to hospital and he is prescribed OxyContin. This is a very effective painkiller, but it is also highly addictive. Nana’s descent into opiate addiction, attempted rehabilitation, heroin dependence and subsequent death is charted through the eyes of his younger and adoring sister.

Gifty’s mother has a breakdown, after Nana’s death and Gifty spends a summer in Ghana. The novel begins, many years later, when she has had another breakdown, and has come to stay in Gifty’s flat as there is no one else to care for her. The narrative jumps back and forth over time, and from Gifty’s attempts to help her mother to her research in the lab. 

Neither mother nor daughter are managing very well. While Gifty is a brilliant student, she has no social life to speak of and she is in her mid-twenties. Her mother lies in bed, hardly moving, speaking or eating for several weeks. Faith and science seem to have failed both women. 

Gifty herself articulates the issue:

All of my years of Christianity, of considering the heart, the soul, and the mind with which the Scriptures tell us to love the Lord, had primed me to believe in the great mystery of our existence, but the closer I tried to get to uncovering it, the further away the objects moved. The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. (183)

We are assured, in the Acknowledgements, that Gifty’s research is modelled after a friend’s doctoral studies. The narrator quotes from several scientific papers which are probably real too. She frequently turns over ideas and problems in the text, making this novel less of a narrative progression, but more a contemplation of issues of choice, addiction, the control of the individual (mouse and man), and the division between heart, soul and mind.

Gifty’s research is an attempt to find whether there are any ways in which the brain can be coaxed into refusing pleasure if it also results in pain: the central problem of addiction. A breakthrough in her research leads to some hope. Her mother also gradually improves under her care.

The novel also considers migration, being Black in a White state, being a Black girl (and therefore unable to be a princess apparently), to be young and exposed to the opiate addiction crisis, and the role of the churches in sustaining people through difficult times. Loss and grief are described as acute states.

Two things bother me about this novel: first, the ethical question raised by using animals in experiments is not acknowledged, let along explored. And then I do not understand the title.

Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991. Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’. And she has claimed Toni Morrison as one of her major influences. Both her novels are powerful, in both because, like Toni Morrison, she relates systematic injustice and racism to individuals’ lives.

Related posts

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 2021)

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi 2020. Published in paperback by Penguin 244pp. Shortlisted for Women’s Prize in 2021

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School for Love by Olivia Manning

This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.

This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

School for Love

At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.

The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.

Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world. 

It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: School for Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)

Felix asks her what the lines mean.

‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)

Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators. 

Miss Bohun

My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader. 

When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.

‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)

And she leaves him abruptly. 

It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her. 

She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.

Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’

Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible. 

One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.

Olivia Manning

Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.

She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.

School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp

A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.

Related posts

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

JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.

HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.

Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.

These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.

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Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout 

The title of this novel is like a sigh of exasperation, borne out of familiarity. The sigh is repeated many times by Lucy Barton, the narrator of this novel. Lucy is a novelist, and Elizabeth Strout has already presented two novels narrated by her: My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. Both these have been reviewed on Bookword (see below).

Elizabeth Strout enjoys revisiting her characters, developing their stories forwards or backwards to reflect further on their lives. She has also done it with Olive Kitteridge. However, knowledge of the previous two novels ‘by Lucy Barton’ is not necessary to enjoy Oh William! In this novel she is primarily focused on William Gerhardt, Lucy’s first husband.

Oh William!

William and Lucy were once married, and since their divorce both have remarried, William twice. At the time of the story, they are almost 70 years old. They have two daughters, now grown up, and remain on cordial terms. The action of this novel begins when William’s third wife leaves him unexpectedly, and when he discovers that his mother had hidden a family secret from him. He discovers this through a heredity website soon after Estelle left. The discovery leads William and Lucy on a road trip to Maine to check it out.

Before we get to this point in the novel, we have learned quite a bit about their back stories, in particular their married life, and their subsequent marriages. Both have been profoundly influenced by their childhood experiences: Lucy by the poverty of her home and the distance from her parents; William by his relationship with his mother, and her marriage to his father. There are some interesting contrasts: Lucy’s father experienced PSTD as a result of his experiences in Europe in the Second World War. William’s father was a German pow sent to the US.

The trip to Maine takes us into the decline of rural America; everywhere is closed, towns are deserted, farms abandoned, diners few and far between. The contrast with New York and their lives in the city could hardly be greater. 

We passed a sign that said: Welcome to Friendly Fort Fairfield.
William leaned forward to peer through the windshield. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
I said, “Yeah. My God.”
Everything in the town was closed. There was not a car on the street, and there was a place that said Village Commons – an entire building – with a sign on it: FOR LEASE. There was a big First National Bank with pillars; it had planks nailed across its doors. Store after store had been boarded up. Only a small post office by the end of Main Street seemed open. There was a river that ran behind Main Street. 
“Lucy, what happened?”
“I have no idea.” But it was a really spooky place. Not a coffee shop, not a dress store or drugstore, there was absolutely nothing open in that town, and we drove back up Main Street again where there was not a car in sight, and then we left. (133-4)

The theme of desolation continues. When William finally catches up with his mother’s secret, it is Lucy, not William, who investigates further.

The lives of these two are bound up through shared experiences, their children and a familiarity and affection that has remained. They both must come to terms with the departure of their most recent partners. In Lucy’s case this is her second husband who died, whereas Estelle, the mother of William’s third daughter, has moved in with another man. They are making sense of their lives through their understanding of the past, and their grasp of their parents’ histories too. 

Judgement about their lives will be left to the reader, as the opening sentence makes clear. 

I would like to say a few things about my first husband. (3)

There will be no judgement, it seems. She concludes

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true. (237)

That Lucy is telling William’s story feels right.

Because I am a novelist, I have to write this almost like a novel, but it is true – as true as I can make it. And I want to say – oh, it is difficult to know what to say! But when I report something about William it is because he told it to me or because I saw it with my own eyes. (4-5)

The novel is narrated as if we were sitting next to Lucy on a sofa. The style is conversational, but thoughtful too. One of Elizabeth Strout’s skills is revealed in that long extract: moving the action along through everyday speech. She is also excellent at detail. William peering through the windshield, the large bank now boarded up. We learn about his clothes (trousers that are too short) and his mannerisms (stroking his moustache). These details are again everyday, and they lend the story a certain pathos. 

Like all her novels, this is a very readable book, and one which respects the reader, and appeals to our imaginations. 

A word about the cover: I have the paperback edition, and I am charmed by the image on the front cover, especially the addition of gold and red to enhance the details. The inside cover is also very charming and a contrast of a rural scene to the Manhattan skyline of the front cover. No credit is given to the designer. 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2021. I used the Penguin paperback edition. 240pp

Related posts:

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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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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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Rereading this novel from 1976, I was reminded of how important books were in the women’s movement of the time – now rebranded as Second Wave Feminism. I found that the future world created by Marge Piercy was impressive and influential. It was the possibility of this or other futures that I remembered from my first reading, so much so that I had forgotten Consuela’s struggles with the mental health system of New York that carried the plot. I remembered Consuela visiting the brave new world, and her surprise at what she found and was shown. It was an effective vehicle for describing a different way of life. 

Now I have reread the novel, 45 years after its first publication, I can see that Marge Piercy was also suggesting that the way in which women were being treated in 1976 was laying the foundation for the dystopian futures that Consuela also visits. In those futures, sexual subservience, enforced by controlling women’s minds, was enabled by the experiments in which Connie was unwittingly and unwillingly enrolled. 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

Consuela is a Mexican-American living in New York in the ‘70s. She is assaulted by her niece’s pimp and ends up in an asylum, where she had been incarcerated after a previous breakdown. This time she has just been tidied away, except that she might be useful in an experiment that one of the doctors is undertaking. Desperate to escape, when Consuela is contacted by Luciente she willingly goes with her into the future, returning now and again. At first, we do not realise that Luciente’s community called Mattapoisett hopes that Connie can stop the programme that she is about to be put on. From time to time she passes over to visit Luciente and her friends and learns more about the feminist-socialist community being developed.

Connie is identified as suitable for a new treatment for violent patients: implanting neurotransmitters to control behaviour. She is unable to resist becoming part of this programme, despite an escape attempt.

On two occasions Connie travels to the future but fails to arrive at the Mattapoisett of her friends, instead joining them in a war they are losing against robotic weaponry and on the second occasion finding a woman who has been physically enhanced and is controlled by sophisticated neurotransmitters to be a sex save, confined in a managed and artificial environment. 

Eventually Connie is due for her final fitting at the New York Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Her ability to control her behaviour is about to be removed, and if she cannot prevent it, the community of Mattapoisett will not be able to establish itself. Their destinies have become entwined.

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

It is one of the greatest gifts of good fiction, that the reader can be shown a different world, a different way that things can be. Marge Piercy has said that she wanted to show readers that there were choices about the future, that it did not roll out with inevitability. Science Fiction is especially good at this.

For me it was the idea that people did not need to live in a world where everything was defined by gender: two examples: the language can be changed (per/person instead of she or he is used in this book); Connie is not initially aware that Luciente is a woman because she doesn’t dress or move like one. More significantly, with the use of artificial pregnancy and birth, gender-based roles in society have been removed and in Marge Piercy’s imagined community persons are free to follow what they are good at. Furthermore, the community is organised for the benefit of all. It is not only feminist and socialist but also ecologically organised to care for a much-damaged earth. 

This vision of different possible futures was what I took away from this book on my first reading. It was powerful. It was not inevitable that we would march into such a destructive future. But we perhaps we have all the same. 

The future from the past

Some of her ideas have turned out to be well-founded. For example, everyone wears a ‘kenner’ on their wrists, familiar to Star Trek fans as ‘communicators’ and to Ursula le Guin readers as ‘ansibles’. We call them cell phones or mobile phones. And from time to time in Mattapoisett many people meet on one screen in a prediction that looks a lot like zooming.

Sadly, the treatment of women from ethnic minorities remains a subject of concern four decades on. There is much in the novel about how women, especially Mexican or Latino and also Puerto Rican women were treated in the ‘70s, and how women who wanted to take some control over their lives were often defeated by the men in their communities, using violence, incarceration and drugs. 

I have been asking myself how I initially came across this book. I think it must have been a combination of things: I was very fond of Marge Piercy’s poetry in the early ‘70s and would have been attracted to her fiction. Perhaps I was offered the book by the Feminist Press Book Club. My first edition was certainly published by them, now with its glue failing, and the pages all brown. Perhaps it was reviewed in Spare Rib, or I heard about it by word of mouth, or from my consciousness raising group.

Whatever, I was pleased to reread it for the 1976 Club, organised again by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, first published in 1976 and recently by Penguin in 2019. My first copy was published by the Feminist Press in UK in 1979. 417 pp

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My spotty teenaged informant seemed to think his information in some way mitigated the wickedness of the slave trade. I was at school, half a century ago, and he informed me that, in case I didn’t know, Africans ‘themselves’ sold Africans to the White traders. Last week I read a tweet by the historian David Olusuga.

Literally everyday someone too lazy to read my books accuses me of ignoring the African slave traders that are explored in my books in detail. Black historians are routinely accused of being ‘activists’ rather than historians – an attempt at delegitimisation and a form of racism (11.6.21)

Then and now the involvement of Africans makes no difference to my opinion that the slave trade was an abomination, that it tainted those who came into contact with it and that we still live with its problematic outcomes today.

Homegoing

Homegoing is an ambitious account of the long history of the slave trade and its outcomes. A Ghanaian by birth, raised in the US, Yaa Gyasi has chosen to show the reader stories of individuals from this long history, the damage to their lives, relationships and bodies. The novel is the story of the descendants in eight generations from Maame. She gave birth at the end of the 18th century to two sisters, who never met. One marries a white trader and lives in the white castle on the Gold Coast. Her descendants remain in Africa. The other sister is transported across the ocean from the same castle, and her descendants are enslaved, then imprisoned and finally become educated African Americans searching for their history and roots.

Cape Coast Castle via WikiCommons, Kwameghana, February 2015

The structure of this book allows Yaa Gyasi to consider a broader perspective than, say Beloved by Toni Morrison. Reading the accounts of the generations on either side of the ocean, we note some key moments: American Civil War, Britain’s colonisation of the Gold Coast, the struggle for independence. She avoids the trap of taking key moments in Black history, rather explores the impact of the previous generation upon the individual in each section as they struggle with their own lives. Her skill is in creating 16 very different but nevertheless authentic characters with contrasting strengths, attributes, beliefs, sense of identity and so forth. One sings beautifully, another has great physical power, a third has beauty, a fourth has terrible scars and so on.

For example, there is H. He is the eighth child of Kojo and Anna, but she had been seized as a runaway while pregnant and died after giving birth, so H never knew his parents. The reader does, however. H is a huge and powerful man, angry that he has been picked up by the local police, falsely charged with studying a white woman, and as a convict sold into another form of slavery in a local mine. His strength helps him survive, and he becomes known as ‘two-shovel’ because he uses his strength to protect another man who was struggling to fulfil his quota. 

And there is Abena, from the same generation but living in Africa and falling foul of the marriage practices of the time. Abena is rejected by the man she hoped to marry because he was forced to promise to pay the bride price for another woman as part of a deal to save the village by planting cocoa. Pregnant, she leaves her village and seeks shelter with the white missionaries in the nearby town of Kumasi. Her decision to seek shelter there has consequences for her daughter Akua.

It is not necessarily better to have stayed in Africa. The wars between Fante and Asante are bitter, and the area’s prosperity is reduced by the war with the whites. They suffer too as the whites behave more and more badly, especially in the name of Christianity and colonialism.

The reader often knows more that the characters about their antecedents. This is not a smooth full narrative. Stories are broken off, never to be narrated to their conclusion. But the reader can develop a kind of rhythm as they progress. Each episode has subtle differences in the way it is told: reported by a character, straight forward third person narrative, episodically, and so on. Form reinforces content. Separation and disruption are key themes in this novel. And it ain’t over yet.

Yaa Gyasi

This novel has garnered much praise. I used the Penguin paperback and there are no less than 46 little blurbs of praise included on the endpapers. It also won some awards. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was published last year.

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991.  Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’ and this novel certainly did those things for me. With its long sweep of history, I was made more acutely aware that this is not over. Today in the UK, as well as the US, we have a disputed history (see David Olusuga‘s comments at the start of this post, think of the statue of the Bristol trader Edward Colston) and a government that issued a report denying institutional racism. Stop and Search impacts disproportionately on Black youth. The #BlackLivesMatter protests of last summer are treated as an anomaly of the Covid Lockdown, rather than the voicing of a legitimate protest from people who want a change. 

I can recommend Homegoing for this long perspective, but also for the humanising of the very dehumanising practise of trafficking people of colour.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi published in 2016. I used the paperback edition published by Penguin Books. 305pp

Related post

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

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