I am reading books faster than I can review them at the moment, so I’m doing a two in one for this post!
Joanna and Ulysses by May Sarton
Thomas introduced me to May Sarton last year with the absolutely sublime The Magnificent Spinster, which has to be one of my favourite books of all time. After I wrote about how much I loved it, a lovely, thoughtful lady called Heather sent me a signed copy of Joanna and Ulysses, because she knew I loved Greece and the action of the story is set in Santorini. I wanted to wait to read it until I was in Greece again, and that is my – perfectly legitimate – excuse for leaving it languishing on my shelves for nearly a year. While I was lying on a beach in Lesbos, it felt the perfect time to read about a woman travelling to a Greek island to find herself, and I think being surrounded by similar sights and sounds definitely enhanced the reading experience for me.
Joanna is 30, and lives in Athens with her widowed father. She has a dead end job, a limited social life and is desperately unhappy. Her mother was killed during the war (the book is set in the 1950s) and the magnitude of this loss is still affecting her, mainly due to her father’s profound grief that weighs heavily over them both. Joanna decides that she needs a holiday; a chance to be alone, to break away from the atmosphere of sadness at home and rediscover herself, free from the constraints of her life in Athens. She is a keen artist and longs for a chance to paint some stunning scenery, so with that in mind, she chooses the legendarily beautiful island of Santorini as her destination. Armed with a holdall and her painting equipment, Joanna boards a boat and is whisked off across the Aegean to her much longed for island retreat. When she gets off the boat in Santorini, the first thing she looks for is a donkey to help her carry her things up the steep and winding streets of the town, where she plans on renting a room. There are plenty of men with their donkeys at the harbour, and Joanna is preparing to choose one when she sees a poor little donkey with open sores and in obvious pain being mistreated by its owner. Joanna is conflicted; she came here for a rest, not for more responsibility. She almost resolves to choose her donkey and go on without saying anything, but she can’t do it. Before she has had a chance to think about the consequences of what she is doing, she finds herself buying the donkey and taking him up into the town. She calls him Ulysses, and over the next few days she nurses him back to health. He accompanies her on her wanderings over the island, as she searches for the perfect view to paint. During these long, lazy days, Joanna will come to terms with her past and come to some important decisions about the future, once again finding joy and meaning in life with a little help from her four legged friend.
This is an absolutely charming and heartwarming story, with a lot more emotional depth to it than first meets the eye. The best part about it is that it is actually a true story, told to May Sarton by the real Joanna. Greek islands really do change lives – they’re magical places! If you love Greece and/or animals and/or lovely writing, then you’ll love this. It’s a modern day fairytale and a very short one at that, so it’s also a perfect introduction to May Sarton, whose novels really should be required reading. If you can get hold of a copy, I highly recommend it; it is in print in the US but sadly not in the UK, though used copies are cheap and plentiful.
Iceberg by Paul Kavanagh
Now for something totally different! I was sent this to review by Honest Publishing a few weeks ago, and was intrigued to read it as it is definitely branching out from my usual reading territory. Published last year, it tells the story of Phoebe and Don, a working class couple living on a council estate in a ‘grim Northern town’. They live a hand to mouth existence, both working dead end jobs to make ends meet. They are bullied by their landlord and surrounded by gangs of feral youths. They dream of moving to London, but they both know it will never happen. They’ve lost hope and they’ve lost joy; they have each other, but the constant grind of poverty and deprivation, robbing them of the ability to do anything they enjoy, is taking its toll. Then, on an otherwise ordinary day, Phoebe gets an email informing her that she’s won the lottery. The prize is an iceberg. All she needs to do is send some money and then travel to Antarctica to pick it up. Phoebe can’t believe her luck; bursting with excitement, she rushes home from work to tell Don. They decide to sell up and go on an epic journey to reach their iceberg; from Hull to Amsterdam to Burkina Faso, they will have experiences and see sights they had never even dared to dream of, making new friends and deepening their own relationship as they become freed from the shackles of their former life. This is all before they even reach their iceberg, which provides them with another adventure entirely…
This is a clever, inventive and insightful take on our modern society that holds back no punches on the grim reality of life for many, but also weaves a tale of the power of dreams and the essential goodness of humanity. The story takes many unexpected and imaginative directions, and the ending certainly took me by surprise. I warmed instantly to Phoebe and Don, downtrodden by their poverty and lack of opportunity, and rejoiced at their bravery in daring to pursue their dreams against all odds – and common sense. I would never normally have picked this up, but I really enjoyed it and it has been a much needed reminder that I do need to make more of an effort to branch out of my reading comfort zone. I’d love to give someone else the opportunity to do that too, so if you fancy giving Iceberg a go, let me know in the comments and I’ll send it out – anywhere worldwide is fine. If there’s more than one I’ll do a draw.