The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

country house.jpg

I love a good murder mystery, yet when my friend at university came rushing into our seminar brandishing a shiny new copy of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and telling us that we all had to read it, I wasn’t sure at first, as the concept sounded really quite bizarre. In a nutshell, the protagonist wakes up in the body of someone else, not remembering who he is, where he is, or why he’s there. Gradually he learns that he has been sent to a house party to solve the mystery of who murders the attractive daughter of the house, Evelyn, that night at 11pm. If he doesn’t solve the murder, he will wake up the next day in the body of another of the house party guests and live through all the events of the day again, but from their perspective. The day will keep repeating, and he will keep waking up in a different body, until the crime is solved. He has eight days; if he fails to solve the murder in that time, the whole process will start all over again. I was worried that it was going to be a lot of clever plotting that hid a lack of any substance, and that I wasn’t going to be able to suspend my disbelief enough to allow me to get into it. However, as soon as I started reading, it was very clear I wasn’t going to be leaving the house until I’d finished. It really is that good.

The confusion of the narrator at the start of the novel, when he wakes in a forest in the early morning, convinced he’s just heard a woman being murdered, but with no idea who he is, where he is, or how to find his way out of the forest, is a perfect mirror of how the reader feels for much of the way through the labyrinthine story. Aiden, as we later find out his real name is, knows he is not in his own body, but he doesn’t know who he really is either, or what has happened to him. All he knows is a name, Anna, but when he finds his way to the enormous stately home in the middle of the forest where everyone seems to know perfectly well who he is, no one has any idea who Anna is, and dismisses his fears that someone needs to find the woman who has been murdered in the woods. He is taken up to his room, but when he looks in the mirror, he sees that it is not his face, but whose face is it, and why is he in this house? As the day goes on, whispered voices and clues reveal that Anna is in the house somewhere, and that there are people who can help him, and then the Plague Doctor arrives to tell him his mission: that he is there to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, and he’ll wake up every day in the body of someone new until he does so. But the question remains: who is he, really, and why has he been sent to this awful, crumbling, nightmarish house in the depths of a dank forest, where the Hardcastle family are having a party to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of their child ten years earlier, having invited all the people who were present that day back to the decrepit home they had abandoned years ago? And who are the other people in this house, and can they be trusted? As the days go by, and Adrien starts to piece together more and more information, the reality that he is caught in a nightmare from which there may be no escape begins to grip him with terror, especially when Evelyn starts to mean far more to him than just the means to get out of this trap…

The book is so full of twists, turns, shocks and revelations that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarise it properly, and I don’t want to say too much for fear of ruining things. Suffice to say, this is an absolutely fantastic, clever, gripping and utterly addictive book that I literally couldn’t put down. I stayed up half the night to finish it, and was rapt right up until the end. It’s very easy to forget that you’re in some sort of strange Groundhog Day alternate universe, for the world he creates is so convincing that you lose yourself in it immediately. The setting of the decaying 1920s mansion and the cast of fascinating characters who Adrien separately embodies are all vividly brought to life, and the intriguing mysteries both of who wants Evelyn dead, what really happened to her brother ten years before, and of who Adrien really is and why he is there, kept me on high alert throughout, constantly trying to work out the answers, which are revealed in a breathtaking series of brilliant revelations as the book speeds towards its end. I can’t even begin to imagine how Stuart Turton worked out such a myriad of competing plot lines – it’s a work of pure genius. I loved every single moment and I know, once my memory of it has faded, that I’ll love going back to see if I can unpick the clues earlier on a second reading. I can’t recommended this highly enough – rush out and get a copy now!

Advertisements

Eltham Palace

IMG_1545

Suburban London has a lot of hidden gems, thanks to the fact that most of it used to be countryside before the growth of the metropolis took hold and everything got concreted over. If you know where to look, there are many patches of ancient woodland, remnants of great estates and palaces, pleasure parks and Roman ruins to be found, and all a short train or bus ride away from the city centre. Eltham Palace is just one of these treasures; a fifteenth century former royal palace where Henry VIII spent his childhood, it fell into disrepair after being sold by the Crown and becoming part of a farm. Just before World War One, the magnificent former banqueting hall of the palace was being used as a barn and the whole thing was close to falling down. Thankfully the government stepped in and performed some emergency repair works and in the 1930s, a phenomenally wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (of the same family who set up London’s lovely Courtauld Institute of Art), bought up the remnants of the palace, demolished the Victorian villa that had been tacked on to it, and built a spectacular Art Deco mansion that incorporated the ruins. They lived there throughout the war before moving on, and the house then became the headquarters of the Royal Army Education Corps until the 1990s, when it was opened to the public by English Heritage. Remarkably, despite having been part of an institution for most of its life, the Art Deco part of the palace is in its original condition, complete with the impressive marquetry walls, wall paintings, library and built-in furniture, and is an absolutely delightful and truly beautiful place to visit.

IMG_7582.JPG

The palace is unexpectedly reached via a busy suburban road full of modern houses and shops; turn down the lane that leads to it, however, and the roar of traffic ceases as a delightful, rustic panorama opens before you. Greenery hangs over the road, and beautiful historic houses nestle in cottage gardens as the Palace hides behind willow trees, its front door reached by a gothic arched bridge over a stream. It couldn’t be a more idyllic setting, and the sense of wonder at this place being where it is just keeps building the more you explore. The palace is shaped like a butterfly, with two wings coming off a main circular hall; one of the wings is the fifteenth century banqueting hall, the other a streamlined 1930s construction that has echoes of the site’s medieval past while still being unmistakeably modern. Pretty plants and shrubs make up the courtyard garden at the front, and yet there are glittering skyscrapers clearly visible on the horizon, reminding you that we are most definitely not on a country estate, despite being surrounded by acres of gorgeous landscaped gardens.

IMG_7490.JPG

The house itself is truly spectacular; from the smooth round walls of the entrance hall, inlaid with marquetry depicting the Courtaulds’ favourite cities from around the world, lit by a gorgeous circular skylight, to the glittering gold tiles and onyx walls of Virginia Courtauld’s Roman inspired bathroom, every room offers something to surprise and delight. The Courtaulds were inspired by the interiors of the Cunard ocean liners they spent so much time on as they travelled the world, and this is reflected in the stream-lined surfaces of the beautifully made built-in wardrobes, beds and dressing tables in the bedrooms and the sinuous curves of the freestanding furniture and upholstery. The Crown fans may be interested to know that they used the house as the interior for the royal yacht in Season Two precisely for this reason! Style and glamour exudes from every surface, and it is a wonderful surprise to leave the modern wings and stumble into the medieval banqueting hall, whose hammer beam ceiling and lofty stained glass are truly breathtaking and offer such a striking contrast to the rest of the house. I’m not entirely sure what the Courtaulds used this space for, though I imagine it must have been a magnificent setting for parties and dinners, and even amateur theatricals!

IMG_0657.JPG

Outside of the house, the gardens are lovely, though as one would expect of late March in England, the weather was not sufficiently nice enough for us to enjoy wandering around in them for too long. I imagine in the summer they must be beautiful, as there are plenty of flower beds, a rose garden and riverside lawns to explore. The Courtaulds loved to entertain and there are plenty of photographs inside the house of them lolling about in these gardens with friends, taking a dip in the pool (which is no longer there) and picnicking on the lawns, and it seems an absolutely charmed existence. Even during the war they kept up the entertainment, transforming the service quarters in the basement into a comfortable air raid shelter, which English Heritage have recreated to give a taste of wartime life. There is also – of course – a lovely cafe in the (heated) greenhouse, and a very good gift shop that has some particularly nice art deco items for sale.

IMG_3777 2.JPG

I absolutely loved every moment of my visit, and can’t believe I left it so long – I did grow up just around the corner, after all! However they have opened a lot of new rooms over the last couple of years, and discoveries are still being made – recently when undertaking conservation work, they found maps and wall paintings in the former study, revealing the locations of Stephen and Virginia’s travels. Who knows what they’ll find next? I can’t recommend a visit highly enough – it’s a mere twenty minute train ride from London Bridge station to Eltham, and then a brisk ten minute walk from there – perfect for a little escape from the hustle and bustle!

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

39-steps-hitchcock-1935_10.jpg

I’m having a bit of fun reading Victorian/Edwardian adventure stories at the moment, for a bit of light relief between the piles of academic tomes stacked up on my desk, waiting to form part of my MA dissertation. For those of you who haven’t ever read any H Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines fame, I can highly recommend Allan Quatermain, the sequel (though it is not necessary for you to have read King Solomon’s Mines to understand and enjoy it), which is of course horribly dated in many ways but is still a well paced, plotted and engaging novel that is a fascinating read when considering that this was the sort of stuff that fuelled the schoolboy generation who went off to war in 1914. A tale of a journey to a lost kingdom in the heart of Africa, its depiction of masculinity, bravery and duty are a real window into the moral values of a now disappeared generation. Though some of the sentiments appear either laughable or highly insensitive from our postcolonial and multicultural perspective, I think there is a danger in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Victorian fiction, and failing to see the value beneath what can often appear an unforgivably antiquated surface. Anyway, I digress. Having put down Allan Quatermain, I wanted something similarly fast paced and not particularly intellectually demanding, and as I’ve had The 39 Steps sitting unread on my shelves for quite some time, I thought it was probably about time I gave it a go. I’m so glad I did – it was pure pleasure from the very first line!

Richard Hannay is a colonial settler, recently arrived back in ‘Blighty’ but finding life in London dull compared to the plains of his beloved Rhodesia. With few friends and a distaste for the shallow club-based life of city gentlemen, he has almost decided to go back to Africa when a knock on the door of his flat one evening turns all of his plans upside down. His neighbour, Franklin Scudder, begs Richard to hide him, and tells him that he is already a dead man. Richard is intrigued and invites him in, where it soon transpires that Scudder is involved in top secret spy shenanigans involving the planning going on between the European powers for the outbreak of war, and is being hunted by his enemies, a ring called the Black Stone. Scudder has faked his own death to avoid being captured, and a dead body lies in his flat upstairs as he speaks: he needs to lie low for a few days until he can get away and raise the alarm that Constantin Karolides, the Greek prime minister, will be murdered on his arrival in London for a summit the following month. Richard, who considers himself a man of the world, trusts Scudder and agrees to harbour him, though he doesn’t quite believe that everything is as bad as he is making out. However, when he returns home two days later to find Scudder dead on his living room floor with a knife in his heart, Richard realises he’s got himself caught up in something far more serious than he anticipated, and in order to save his own life, avenge Scudder, and prevent Karolides’ assassination, he decides to go on the run until he can get Scudder’s information to the people who need it.

Richard boards a train to Scotland, and from there the adventure begins. Running from place to place across the Scottish Highlands, dodging the spies and police following his tail and always managing to come across someone to help him just in the nick of time when things become dicey, Richard proves himself to be a man of ingenuity, resourcefulness, pluck and good old fashioned bulldog spirit. Nothing keeps him down: though he finds himself in a sticky wicket several times, his quick thinking, sense of duty and stiff upper lip always see him through. The coincidences might be laughable and the spy ring situation might remain rather vague, but the dialogue is so brilliant and the story so action packed that it really doesn’t matter. I raced through it in a day, giggling to myself at the quintessential Edwardian-ness of it, and I’m rather tempted to get started on the sequels. If you’re in the mood for some undemanding fun, then I can’t recommend this highly enough!

Sail Away

Screen Shot 2018-02-10 at 21.09.33.png

Despite being a useless sailor, I have always dreamed of lolling about on the sundeck of a cruise ship, dolphins arcing gracefully in the cornflower blue waters of the Atlantic beneath my browning limbs as I speed my way to some exotic destination. Then there’s dinner at the Captain’s table, strolls up and down the deck watching the sun set over the horizon…obviously it’s hard not to imagine this in some sort of sepia-tinted image of Titanic-esque Edwardian glamour, and it was this era of ocean travel I was most interested in discovering when I went along to the V&A’s new exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, last night after work. After initially baulking at the £20 (when did exhibitions become so expensive?!) admission fee, I have to say it was worth every penny: it’s a magnificent display of fascinating items that I already want to go back and see again.

From posters to furniture, art work to fashion, light fittings to crockery, every aspect of transatlantic ocean liner travel is explored from the Victorian and Edwardian palaces whose luxuriant opulence reflected the constant competition between countries and shipping companies to build the most impressive ships, to the streamlined elegance of interwar and postwar travel. Interiors of iconic liners, such as the Normandie, are recreated, complete with original panelling, art work and furniture, which helps you to imagine just how breathtakingly gorgeous the spaces on these ships must have been. The strict class system on board is explored, with the different sets of crockery and menus displaying clearly the service and experience first class passengers received compared to their fellow travellers in steerage. Original footage of passengers enjoying the ships is shown alongside clothing and accessories they would have worn on board, and I loved looking at the range of marketing materials used to entice people to buy a ticket to an experience that was the ultimate in luxury.

Screen Shot 2018-02-10 at 21.09.22.png

What surprised me the most to discover was how short-lived so many of these liners were; when you think of the expense, the attention to detail, and the sheer enormity of the process of building and designing such gargantuan structures, most of them seemed to have just a few short years in service before either disaster or war repurposing brought their days of pleasure cruising across the Atlantic to an end. However, their legacy lives on in the romantic imagination, and that is what this exhibition fuels so well in its beautifully designed, mirror-walled galleries filled with what is ultimately a nostalgic glimpse of a privileged world that has now all but disappeared. My favourite item was the last on display, and I had no idea it even existed before visiting the exhibition. One piece of panelling from the Titanic survives; a beautifully carved section from the wall of the First Class Lounge, the damage to which demonstrates where the ship broke in half as it sunk.  James Cameron used a model of it in the final scenes of the Titanic, when poor Jack is left clinging on to its sides while selfish Rose takes up all the space on top, and in the exhibition you can see it floating on a fake sea, the last scenes of the Titanic projected on the wall behind. Looking at the exquisitely carved flowers on the woodwork, I imagined how happy and excited those passengers must have been as they sat in that beautiful room, filled with the thrill of being on the most luxurious ship in existence, totally oblivious to their fate. It gave me the chills to look at it, and seeing that was worth the entrance money alone. There is also a genuine deckchair from the Titanic in the exhibition, and for those who are interested in the more tragic side of ocean liner travel, the heartbreaking story behind this gorgeous Cartier tiara that was rescued from the Lusitania will have you in tears.

The exhibition is on until June, so there’s plenty of time to see it. I know I’ll be going back!

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Suffragette1913

This month marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in Britain (well, some women – you had to be over 30) and in order to celebrate I have bought a nice stack of books about the suffragette movement. The first I’ve read is this wonderful young adult book by Sally Nicholls, which details the lives of three young Londoners from different social backgrounds who become involved in the movement. Evelyn is from an upper middle class family who lives in Hampstead; clever and ambitious, she is furious that her brother can go to university and have a profession, while she has to stay at home. Her parents plan on her marrying her childhood sweetheart, Teddy, and settling down for a nice suburban life of children and charity committees, but Evelyn can’t imagine anything worse. The suffragettes offer her an escape route, something to fight for, and a way to feel alive. Meanwhile, in Bethnal Green, May lives in straightened circumstances with her intelligent, independent and politically active mother, who is passionate about the suffragette movement. May loves joining her mother on the suffragette trail, and has plenty of idealistic views about what every woman should be prepared to do for the cause. However, her views become challenged when she meets Nell, a local girl living in the slums with her family, whose involvement with the suffragettes is no less passionate, but tempered by the day-to-day practicalities of having to earn a living and find food for the family table. May and Nell soon realise that they are attracted to one another sexually, but as the suffragette movement becomes more violent and war becomes ever closer on the horizon, the differences in their social situations and understanding of the world begins to form fissures in their relationship.

As the fight for political freedom develops, and becomes more desperate and violent, each of these three young women have to come to a decision about what they personally can stand to sacrifice, and how far they can commit to a cause that increasingly looks to be futile. Evelyn longs to make a stand, to go to prison and join the hunger strikers, but will it be worth the pain and shame to her family, and risking her relationship with Teddy? When Nell takes a job that goes against the morals of the suffragettes, May is furious and accuses Nell of not having the courage of her convictions, but May soon has to learn that convictions don’t put food on the table, and how long can one expect people to suffer for a cause that may never be won? This is as much a book about the conflict between self and society, reality and ideals as it is about the suffragette movement, and I found it incredibly thought provoking. The relationship between May and Nell was particularly well-drawn, with the exploration of the fundamental gulf in understanding between them of the reality of each others’ lives a real microcosm of the problems we all face in a world where half wants to impose their ideals on the other with no appreciation of the reality those others face.  I so enjoyed how Nicholls deftly dealt with the fact that the suffrage movement was not a united front precisely due to the reality that not all women’s lives are the same, and even though this is a book designed for teenage readers, she doesn’t shy away from the complex and problematic nature of political and social beliefs and the conflict we all face in trying to live out our ideals in a world that is far from it.

I read this book largely because I wanted to see if it would be suitable for my students to read, and I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s definitely not just for teenagers, though if you do have teenagers – or are a teacher – and are thinking about giving this to them to read, please be aware there is some quite explicit sexual content in the earlier chapters that I would say makes this more appropriate for 13+. I’ll definitely be giving this to my students and can’t wait to see what they make of it. It’s a brilliant alternative view to the suffragette movement, and I particularly enjoyed that Nicholls also explores the impact of WWI towards the end of the book, which really shows the hardships faced by the poor who lost jobs and male incomes and suffered terribly in the early months before proper systems were put in place. I had no idea how involved the suffragettes had been in these working class communities, supporting women and starting kitchens and enterprises, and this is something I now want to find out more about. I’ve got two non-fiction suffragette books waiting in the wings to read: Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds and Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women!, though they will be probably be gathering dust for a little while as I’m studying a very reading intense course at university this term, as well as juggling applying for a PhD…it’s all go at Book Snob HQ! If you want to celebrate the centenary in your area, this article lists events and exhibitions in major cities across the UK. Also, one of the books that made it into my top 15 of 2017, and also features women fighting to live an alternative life of their choosing in the face of societal pressure, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik, is out this month in paperback (my review is here). Please do have a read if you haven’t already. Rachel Malik is speaking at Waterstones in North London on Friday 23rd February and I shall be going along to listen – it would be lovely to see some readers there!