A Cry for Help!

Tonight I got home from work and had a brief  hour’s window of spare time before I had to go out again. In this hour I managed to get a fair bit accomplished; cooked and ate dinner, cleaned my kitchen, spoke to my best friend, who had the audacity to move to Cape Town for a year in January, on Skype, and read an Edith Wharton ghost story.

I’ve been wanting to get started on the Virago edition of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories for a while. I bought it during Simon’s Sensation Season back in 2009 (doesn’t that seem so long ago already?!) but as I don’t like to read short stories all in one go, and I didn’t want to make it a book I read on my commute, the only chance I would ever get to read the stories is just before bed, as I am never really at home in the evenings. I am not ashamed to say that the Point Horror books used to give me nightmares, and I slept with the light on after watching the lame BBC version of The Turn of The Screw at Christmas, so reading ghost stories before bed is not advisable for someone of my temperament. I have a highly overactive imagination, am a sensitive soul, and I sleep alone, so ghost stories are strictly for daytime reading only unless I want to have sleepless nights.

So, this evening, I grabbed the chance to read one of these stories as it was the first time in ages I had time to sit and read something in the early evening rather than just before bed – plenty of distance between reading time and bedtime, so no reason to have nightmares. I read the first story in the book – The Lady’s Maid’s Bell – a classic tale of a lady’s maid going into a strange house, whispers amongst the staff of all not being quite right, mysteriously locked rooms, suspicious footsteps, a menacing male presence. I won’t go into the plot, because it’s such a short story, and a ghost story to boot, that any attempt at explanation would ruin it. It was an excellent story, and very involving, but as I neared the end, I didn’t realise the last page was the last page, and I turned it over to find no more information, and ended up thoroughly confused. This isn’t the sort of story where everything is neatly explained, and despite rereading it, I have no idea how to interpret the events. It’s driving me absolutely mad!

It’s a fairly short story – it will only take about ten minutes to read. You can find it here. If anyone can spare the time to read it, and then come back and tell me what you think the story was about, I’d be most grateful! I have a vague suspicion…and would be interested to see if anyone thinks the same as me!

Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys

I was one of the lucky winners – along with my book group – of a competition Bloomsbury ran just before Christmas, giving 8 copies of a title of one of the Bloomsbury Group reprints, along with a set of bookmarks and postcards – to six book groups. Our prize was Henrietta’s War, and as I’ve heard such good things about it in various places, such as at Random Jottings, Stuck in a Book, Savidge Reads and Nonsuch Books, I was excited to read it. I decided last week, after my third Yates book, I needed a bit of a comfort read… reading about the essential meaninglessness of your life and the hopelessness of your dreams can get to be a bit of a downer without some light relief!

Henrietta, the eponymous heroine, is a middle class, country village dwelling lady of a certain age, with a doctor husband, two grown children, a house to run, and several quirky friends who manage to create a variety of hilarious conservations and situations. The war has not affected anybody massively in their small Devon coastal village; there is barbed wire on the beaches and the muffled sounds of distant gun fire, but other than that, life carries on much as usual. Henrietta documents her life and those of her neighbours in regular letters to her childhood friend Robert, who is on the front line in France, and never appears to write back.

I found this book absolutely delightful from start to finish, and very Provincial Lady in its tone, which is always a good thing. Henrietta is a lovely heroine to cheer for; she is humorous, self deprecating, generous and enthusiastic, and she documents the happenings in her small life with an ironic wit that gives everything, even moments of sadness and disappointment, a positive slant. In Henrietta’s world, amongst many others, there is the huge Lady B, a larger than life character who rarely says a bad word about anyone, and comes out with frequent innocently shocking comments; Faith, the local femme fatale,  a tart with a heart who has a string of adoring male followers; Mrs Savernack, the prickly but well meaning know it all, and Charles, Henrietta’s husband, whose sweet, efficient nature and kindness and love for Henrietta are revealed in his all too brief appearances. These characters light up the book, giving it a lovely fuzzy feeling. Everyone comes together for the excitement of practice bomb raids, sewing circles, and impromptu concerts, and I loved the wartime ‘can do’ spirit that echoed throughout the pages. I felt like I had been drawn into this lovely, tight knit community of average people, some a little more eccentric than others, just doing their best to go about their everyday lives, and do their bit to support the war effort, to boot.

However, I did find it a little frivolous in places; the Cockney evacuees are simply depicted as mockers of the Devonian locals and their lack of ‘real’ bombs rather than people who have seen their homes and communities destroyed and have been forced to leave everything they know behind; there are no mentions of sons, husbands, friends, etc, being killed, no real privations, no real worries, no sense of upset that there is a war going on at all. In fact, most of the inhabitants of Henrietta’s village appear untouched by it all, and even find it rather fun; the only real differences are that food is harder to get hold of – marmalade making becomes impossible – and there are more committees for the ladies to get involved in. It was rather like the Provincial Lady in Wartime in that respect – the realities of war are kept out of daily life, and the chipper ‘we’re alright, guv’ attitude put on to give everything a rosy, Keep Calm and Carry On edge to it.  The only moment of pathos – when Lady B is cleaning out a drawer to find a doll belonging to her daughter who was killed in the previous war- was quickly brushed over. I know that both Provincial Lady and Henrietta’s War were written to distract people, keep them laughing, keep their spirits up, remind them that though there was a war on, life could and should still go on as normal – and also, Henrietta’s letters are supposed to cheer her friend Robert up – but, still.  I couldn’t help thinking at times that it was all a bit trivial, as well as being very middle class. Life for fellow country dwellers like Jack and Rose in Terence Frisby’s lovely memoir of his time as an evacuee in Cornwall – Kisses on a Postcard – certainly wasn’t all Home Front drills and arguments with the cook over how many eggs to use in a cake, to quote just one example.

Though perhaps I am expecting too much, and I have had my perception of the wartime experience of the average Joe coloured by the rather overegged stereotype of mothers waiting anxiously for the telegram boy every second of the day and people queuing for hours just to buy some bread. Is it fair of me, accurate, even, to assume that everyone’s lives were a mess of worries and deprivations during the war years? I’ll have to ask my Nan and Granddad, I suppose, but thinking about it realistically, I presume that for most people, apart from the constant nagging worry of someone they loved being in danger, life did roll along much as usual. Just as I read this to cheer me up, I’m sure people during the war wanted a bit of light relief from all the doom and gloom too and didn’t want to read about people dying and being bombed. Is Henrietta’s War a realistic portrayal of life in wartime? I don’t think it can be – too much is not said. However, does it claim to be? No, not necessarily. So, my reservations about its frivolity don’t need to negatively effect my reading experience. I still thoroughly enjoyed this, and the illustrations were a delightful addition to the text.  I very much encourage those in need of a winter pick-me-up to give it a go! I’m looking forward to Bloomsbury’s publication of the next volume, Henrietta Sees it Through, which hopefully won’t be too long a wait!

Also, mentioning book groups, I just remembered I never reported back on the V&A book group’s thoughts on They Knew Mr Knight. In summary, everyone loved it, bar one, who thought it was slow and uninteresting compared to the modern novels she normally reads. This reaction is probably a good indication of why Dorothy Whipple’s novels went out of print; the average reader wants something pacier. However, those who did love it, were effusive in their praise and everyone wanted to read more. They loved how Whipple draws such realistic characters whose thoughts and feelings are so beautifully and sympathetically described; they loved how Whipple placed such importance on the domestic sphere and the sacred nature of family and home in the grand scheme of all of our lives; no matter what, our relationships are ultimately what define us, what gives us meaning, and what gives us security, in an ever increasingly insecure world. What greater stories can be told than the ones about human relationships, when so much can be said between people in a glance, a turn of the head? There were conflicting feelings over where loyalties lay; some found Celia too passive; others found Thomas infuriatingly stupid; everyone hated Mr Knight, and we all pitied Mrs Knight.  We all noticed the marvellous period details; as museum workers, we love history! We also had some interesting discussions about the nature of the children in the novel, and sibling relationships; Thomas and Freda are very alike, and they are both somewhat estranged from their siblings due to their differing views on life and about themselves. It is so fascinating how children can grow up with the same parents, in the same house, with the same things around them, but grow to be so different. Nature, or nurture? We couldn’t decide – but we found Freda quite repulsive compared to her sweet and engaging siblings. All in all, Dorothy was a great success with the Book Group, as was Persephone Books in general. I think we have some new Persephone devotees!

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The Yates season continues with this absolute gem of a book. I’m finding it difficult to choose between the ones I’ve read as to which is my favourite at the moment…they are all so wonderful in their own ways.

The Easter Parade is different from the two previous reads in that it is not about middle aged men losing their minds and their wives, but about two sisters, from youth to middle age, and how their lives go off in their own distinct directions, bringing each their separate regrets, disappointments, and unhappiness. It is standard Yates territory; the theme of yearning, of searching, for a happiness his characters never seem to quite find, is threaded throughout this slim book, and it is terribly poignant. There are pinpricks of hope to be found  scattered across the pages, if you look closely enough, but by the time I’d closed this book I was left with a prevailing sense of deep sadness that these women were never able to find true satisfaction, or tell the truth about how deeply they really loved each other.

The story begins in the girls’ childhoods. Sarah and Emily have been brought up by their mother, Pookie, an eccentric coquette who is obsessed with ‘flair’ and keeping up appearances despite her lack of money, and moves her daughters around constantly, always  in search of a better house, a better life, and a better man. Their father is a copy desk man, a newspaper headline writer in the City, who sees the girls at weekends and cries a lot; his character reminded me of John Wilder from Disturbing the Peace…a sort of cameo role, if you like. The girls love him more than their mother, and are devastated when he dies when they are both still at school.  Sarah is the eldest by four or five years, and is the glamorous, good looking and favourite sister, who can never do a thing wrong. She is keen to get married straight out of school, and after the war, she marries an English educated New Yorker and moves to his family estate in Long Island, leaving Emily and Pookie behind in the City. Emily is plain, shy and awkward, always in the shadow of Sarah. She gets a college scholarship and then becomes a career woman, going from relationship to relationship, both wanting, and not wanting, the security and commitment of a long term partner.

The sadness of the sisters’ lives is that each wants what the other has, and is completely unaware of the secret unhappiness that underpins each other’s existences. Sarah seems to have it all; beauty, a handsome husband (who looks like Laurence Olivier), a country home, three wonderful sons, and a little writing career on the side. Emily finds it difficult to visit Sarah and see her in this domestic idyll, and rarely visits as she grows older. Emily appears to be living the perfect life of a carefree, liberated careerwoman, with a great job, a nice apartment, and a string of relationships with interesting men. But Sarah’s marriage is not all that it seems, and her house is falling apart; and Emily’s freespirited lifestyle is unsettling and increasingly lonely.  As the girls grow older, the more the cracks in their lives begin to show, but the complications of pride and appearances, and of the tangled intricacies of the fierce, primal nature of sibling love, mixed with jealousy, bitterness and selfishness, render them helpless to give each other the support they both so desperately need.

I was just so blown away by this novel. I have a much loved older sister (and brother, also much loved – just so that he doesn’t feel left out!), and I could definitely relate to the conflicting feelings Yates so brilliantly describes between the sisters. Sibling love is not pure; it is contaminated with jealousy, with pain, and with rivalry. There is no other love quite like it; that adores unconditionally, that idolises, that seeks to protect, that selflessly celebrates achievement, while at the same time seethes with envy and resentment and bitterness, and selfishly seeks to outdo.  It is a strange and powerful love, that brings, with all of its pleasures, a pain that can never quite be eradicated. For who can wound more deeply than a sibling? Emily and Sarah love each other, deeply and profoundly, in the way only siblings can, but there is a gulf between them, made up of all the unspoken envy, hurt and insecurity that have built up over the years. Emily won’t admit it, but she has always craved Sarah’s acceptance and praise. Sarah has always been proud of Emily, and secretly admired her for her lifestyle, but she rarely lets her know it. Neither can understand the other’s lifestyle choices; both wonder whether they would have been happier leading the other’s life. And both, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, inflict wounds upon each other, wounds that end up dictating the decisions they make, and their ultimate fates.

The Easter Parade is an excellently drawn portrayal of the emptiness at the centre of all of us; the craving we all have for peace, for contentment, for happiness, and how many of us spend our lives searching for this, in vain. Sarah and Emily both want what they don’t have; their lives are a facade, put up to fool those around them that they are fulfilled, and happy, when really, at the core, they are both quietly, slowly, starving to death.  If only they could be honest with each other, they could have helped one another; but the roles they have always played, of caring, protective, perfect older sister, and self sufficient, proud, jealous younger sister, sabotage any attempt at doing so. They are trapped in the mould of the people their childhood taught them to be, and ultimately, neither of them can break free.

I am beginning to feel a bit emotionally drained by all this stark reality and depressive thoughts about the essential meaninglessness of life, but I am pushing through the pain to re-read Revolutionary Road, which will be next week’s Yates Season read. Please do join in if you can; this is Yates’ first work, and widely considered to be his best, to boot, so it would be great to have some people read along with me. I have also been the VERY lucky and undeserved recipient of a Librarything Member’s kindness this week; I have been sent Blake Bailey’s incredible biography of Yates, which I hope will greatly illuminate my reading of his works. I can’t wait to get started on it!

A Reviewer’s Review of the Year

Well Christmas is over, and we’re heading into the New Year; a time for reflection, fresh starts and renewed hope.

I started this blog six months ago. I have always loved to write, and my first ambition was to be a writer. I love to tell stories as much as I love to read them. But it’s hard to fit writing into a life that also contains a full time job, an evening class, church, volunteer commitments, and a social life. When I started this blog, I hadn’t written anything that wasn’t an email or a grant proposal in a long time. I missed it. I missed my imagination. So I made a commitment; I was going to start a blog, and I was going to write a post at least once a week. I was going to write, to think about what I wrote, to experiment, to take pleasure in my writing; finally put myself out there in the public domain, fight my fear of other people reading my writing and finding it wanting, and just go with it. And so I did. And six months on, here I am, and I can’t tell you how shocked I am to be writing to an audience. I expected only me, and my dear, faithful friend Helen, to be reading.  This wasn’t about getting comments or receiving free books; these have been wonderful, unexpected bonuses. It was about finding my voice. And I have. It’s thrilling.

I don’t usually make things overly personal on here; this is a blog about books, first and foremost, but I think the books a person reads says a lot about the person reading them. The past six months I have read my way through books that have comforted me, cheered me, encouraged me, and allowed me to have a reason to cry, and I have needed them, so badly. I have looked through the list of books I have reviewed here, and one theme has stood out; the search for a happy ending. Book after book about women striving, struggling, dreaming, hoping, wishing, escaping, has passed through my hands. Books about adventure, and mystery, and love, and romance, and every day drudgery, but all of them, all of them, in search for that elusive happy ending, that moment where everything comes together and life makes sense, if only for a little while.

I have been treading water for much of this year; just getting from one day to the next, blindly feeling my way through the fog. It’s been one of those seasons of life where things are just a struggle, for no definable reason. I have been blessed in many ways, and I have a full, and interesting, and busy life, but somewhere, at the core of things, I lost heart. Too many disappointments, perhaps; too much reality without the strength to dream. If I were a book character, the 2009 me would probably most resemble Lucy Gayheart. I think the reason I cried so much at that book was because I saw too much of myself in its pages.

But it’s almost a New Year, and the fog is starting to lift. I don’t know what 2010 holds; I don’t know what books I’ll be reading, or down which paths my life will lead me. I hope there will be happiness; I hope there will be adventure, and fresh opportunities. What I do know is that this blog, and its lovely, brilliant, witty, intelligent and dear readers, will be a constant, and for that, I am eternally grateful. It is such an encouragement for me to know you are all out there, and that you enjoy what I write. Thank you, thank you so much, for reading along with me in 2009, and I hope to see you all in 2010! Here’s to new beginnings!