The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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Further to my previous post on Penguin cover designs, Penguin have been producing some very beautifully designed, themed collections of books over the past few years., often under their ‘Vintage Classics’ imprint. They make for a gorgeous and very tempting display in a bookshop, and entice readers to pick up something they might not otherwise consider. For me, a lovely book acts as a moth to a flame, and in my post-lockdown state of cultural starvation, I was drawn helplessly to a Waterstones display of Japanese Vintage Classics once the bookshops reopened. Ever keen to read books from outside of the Western canon, I was intrigued by all of the choices, but decided to go with The Housekeeper and the Professor, due to its fascinating central concept of a woman trying to build a meaningful connection with a man whose memory only lasts for eighty minutes. I’m so glad I did, because it truly is a beautiful, poignant and incredibly affecting read; I gulped it all down in one go and had a wonderfully cathartic cry at the end.

The novel is narrated by the Housekeeper, whose name we never find out. A young single mother, she works hard cleaning people’s houses, and takes pride in doing a good job. Her employer, knowing she is exceptionally reliable, sends her one day to a new job, for a notoriously difficult client. A former maths professor who received traumatic brain injuries in a car accident some thirty years before, he can only remember anything in the present for eighty minutes at a time, though he can remember everything that happened to him up to the moment of his accident. He lives in a tumbledown cottage in the grounds of his sister in law’s house, and spends his days puzzling over maths challenges published in various journals. Every day the Housekeeper will have to reintroduce herself, and she will have to learn to adapt to the professor’s idiosyncratic and temperamental ways. No housekeepers have yet been able to last more than a week or so, but as soon as the narrator arrives, she sees that she will be able to stay the course. Polite, mild-mannered, and in love with the beauty of numbers, the Professor has retreated into the world of mathematics as a protection from his otherwise bewildering existence. His clothes are covered in safety-pinned notes, reminding him of things he would otherwise forget, the most poignant being ‘my memory only lasts for eighty minutes’. The Housekeeper initially focuses on making the cottage more comfortable for the Professor, and making sure he eats properly, but when she mentions her son one day, the Professor is outraged that he is at home alone after school, and insists he comes to join her until she has finished work. The Professor nicknames the little boy Root, as he says his head is shaped like the square root symbol, and reveals a tender affection for children in his loving treatment of the child. He helps him with his homework, sets him puzzles to do, and they share a love of baseball. Root encourages him to get his radio fixed, so they can listen to baseball games together, and the Professor flourishes in the young boy’s company. Even though every day their relationship must start anew, the love and care shown to him by the Housekeeper and Root gives the Professor a joy in the everyday that he had lost.

Together, the Housekeeper and Root try to give the Professor new experiences, such as eating in a restaurant and going to a baseball game, and find ever ingenious ways to get around his lack of memory, and lack of awareness that the world around him has changed. Gradually, they become a family unit, and Root grows up quickly with his new responsibility for ensuring the Professor is never distressed by any information that might reveal to him all he has missed in the thirty years since his memory was taken from him. Love and affection allow the Professor to blossom and enjoy the limitations of his life, and the Professor’s humility, gentleness and gift for teaching how numbers help to explain the miracles of the world around us, inspires both the Housekeeper and Root to see the value in their lives in a whole new way. This lovely story of the power of love to form connections across all sorts of divides is so enchanting, and is also the first book to make me think that actually, maths is beautiful, and I wish I’d had someone teach it to me like the Professor teaches it to Root! I really can’t recommend this enough, and the translation is excellent; Stephen Snyder has done a wonderful job. If, like me, you are in need of something to pick you up and make you feel more positive about the world at the moment, then The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfect remedy.

Penguin by Design

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I’ve been enjoying looking through a few of my coffee table books lately; I’m very good at buying exhibition catalogues and art books, but as they’re not very portable and I rarely have much leisure to sit and peruse them at home, I’ve not cracked many of them open. Now I’m at home much more often than I used to be, it’s been a pleasure to while away an afternoon learning about something new and taking the time to look closely at the images they contain. One I have especially enjoyed is Penguin by Design by Phil Baines, which looks at the changing designs and typefaces of Penguin books since their inception in the 1930s. Most people know Penguin for their famous boldly coloured striped paperbacks, but as I discovered, there have been a huge range of imprints that have come and gone over the years, along with numerous attempts to rebrand and redesign under a changing leadership looking to move with the times. Some of these were more successful than others, and the 70s and 80s saw some particularly bad cover designs that moved away from the traditional simplicity of Penguin’s style in an attempt to keep up with the broadening competition in the paperback market. Baines’ selection of front cover illustrations shows some very cheesy 80s film tie-in covers as well as soft-focus photography that make some of their fiction aimed at women look like soft porn! It’s hard to tell from many of these later covers that they’re even Penguin books, and this dilution of the brand and corresponding drop in sales led to a return to its original roots in more recent years.

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I’ve always loved Penguin covers, and I have a large collection of Penguin paperbacks that cover a wide range of eras. I love to collect the older, orange and white and green and white striped fiction and crime fiction editions, but I also very much like the 1960s Penguin Modern Classics, with their whimsical line drawings and soft duck egg blue colour way. I hated the early 2000 change to shiny silver covers, and have replaced nearly all of mine with older editions where possible. More recently, they’ve returned to the softer palette and matte covers of the 1960s style Modern Classics, and they are beautiful; collector’s items of the future in the way their original predecessors have become. Even these recognisable covers, however, have had subtle changes over time, and I didn’t realise that in the early days of Penguin, the design and typeface wasn’t standardised and there could be many differences between editions. The Penguin symbol was neatened up over time, and experiments made with adding and taking away detail as new Design Directors came and went, eager to make their mark. After reading the section about the early days of Penguin, I went for a rummage amongst my shelves to see if I could find any examples of this more erratic approach, and I was surprised to find plenty. Take a look at these Penguins, pictured above, all published in 1946. The Penguin Books cartouche is the same on each one, but notice how the Penguin symbol changes shape, and how the one shilling price is italicised on two but not on the other. There is also inconsistent spacing between the letters in the titles and there is no standardisation of placement of the authors’ name and title within the central band; H.G.Wells’ name is far lower than Bowen’s and James’, for example.

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Now look at these three. Between the Acts and Tea with Mr Rochester both date from 1953; A Handful of Dust is dated to 1955. Can you spot the difference? Notice now that there’s a little orange line to separate the title and author, compared to the earlier editions above, but the size of the title and author’s name is still inconsistent. There is, however, a clear centrality to the author and title within the middle band compared to those earlier editions. But what changed between 1953 and 1955? Well, ‘Fiction’, in orange letters, is now gone from the sides of the white stripe, and the 2/- price has changed to 2/6. Subtle changes – and not ones I’d ever noticed before reading Penguin by Design!

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Moving on to the 1960s, look at these, arranged in publication order. The creation of the Penguin Modern Classics list led to a change in colour and design – and between 1964 and 1965, when Howards End and then Lord of the Flies were published, you can see how the design of the Modern Classic was simplified, with the title, author, Penguin branding and price all being moved to the top quarter of the page, and an image being allowed to dominate the lower half. I love how, in just the space of a year, the rather old-fashioned looking design of Howards End subtly changes into the sleek and modern design of Lord of the Flies, which is one of my absolute favourite Penguin covers. However, someone was busy in 1965, because the first cover in the image below, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was also published in that year, and the duck egg blue background has disappeared, and the image is now in full colour rather than black and white. Maybe to fund the cost of all this change, the price has gone up rather steeply! Three years later, in 1968, someone’s been tinkering with the design again with Woolf’s Jacob’s Room – we’ve returned to the blue, but we’re sticking with the coloured image. The Penguin logo has been redrawn, and the price is now on the back. By 1975, a more striking black has been chosen as the background colour for Huxley’s Brave New World, but the layout is broadly the same as in 1968. Decimalisation has also happened, and Penguin Modern Classics now cost just 55p. Those were the days!

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Can you track the history of Penguin in your own book collection? Why not take a look and see what you’ve got buried on your shelves!

Travel: Hastings

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When Samuel Johnson said ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ he obviously hadn’t lived through a pandemic when everything that makes London worth living in is shut. I am officially tired of London. Tired of walking the same streets, of seeing the same sights, of listening to every single one of my neighbours taking the opportunity to use drills and hammers and lawnmowers constantly because now is obviously the perfect time to get all those little home improvements done. At the weekend, I’d had enough. The sun was shining, I texted a friend, and before I knew it, we were happily sitting on a train that was whizzing us out of London to the coast. East Sussex has a wonderful string of coastal towns and some absolutely stunning countryside filled with undulating, verdant fields and picture postcard villages that seem to exist outside of time. Away from the bustling seaside city of Brighton, which I hate with a passion and which is most people’s only experience of East Sussex, there is so much to explore, and my seaside town of choice is always Hastings. An hour and 45 minutes away from London on the train, it’s very much a place of two halves; the rather seedy, run-down side by the station, which is filled with crumbling Victorian and Georgian architecture, and an uninspiring shopping centre, and the Old Town, which is a gorgeous maze of streets zig-zagging up the cliffs, where there are the most beautiful historic houses with breathtaking views down to the sea, and a marvellous array of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.

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Hastings was a very popular nineteenth century resort, evidenced in the beautiful, if crumbling, seafront promenades of Georgian and Victorian terraces with their charming wrought iron balconies and verandas, the original lifts that take you up to the top of the cliffs for bracing walks and the beautiful landscaped public parks filled with palm trees and colourful flowers. Much of the architecture has now seen better days due to the declining fortunes of the British holiday industry in the twentieth century, but there is still so much charm here to enjoy. The pebble beach is expansive and is towered over by the impressive cliffs that dominate England’s south coast. There is still a lively fishing industry here, and the original black-tarred nineteenth century fisherman’s huts still stand, and have been made protected monuments. Around a decade ago, Hastings Contemporary, a contemporary art gallery, was built on the seafront, and offers a fantastic cultural space to the community (sadly still closed). The Old Town has been transformed, with many independent shops and boutiques opening in recent years, selling locally made products, art work and all manner of lovely antiques and interior design goodies. Hastings has become increasingly popular with families and creative types priced out of London and looking for a better quality of life, and this has brought new life to the town. It’s an exciting place to be.

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It was such a joy to get out of London for the day and breathe in fresh, salty sea air. I felt the stress and worry I have been feeling melt away as I looked out at the sea and felt its refreshing cold water run between my toes. It was a wonderful holiday from reality to be able to wander through the beautiful, gaily painted, palm-treed little lanes of the Old Town, seeing little glimpses of the sea between gaps in the houses as we climbed ever higher. We stuffed ourselves with delicious fish and chips in Maggie’s at our table that overlooked the sea, enjoyed browsing the shops and treating ourselves to some little pick-me-up goodies (there is a wonderful independent book shop in the Old Town called Hare and Hawthorn, which is beautifully laid out, has an excellent selection of books for all ages and interests –  including a whole display of Persephones! – a must visit) and had yummy coffee and cake from Judges while we wandered along the seafront. We strolled through the pretty, expansive Alexandra Park and admired the many streets of lovely houses in the St Leonard’s area of the town. All in all, it was a marvellous day out, and we really had to tear ourselves away to get our train back to London. It was just what I needed – and as I write, with the background noise of drilling from my neighbour’s house slowly driving me mad,  I rather wish I had stayed for a few days!

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Reading from my shelves: June

Books started: 14

Books finished: 8

Books abandoned: 2

Books kept on the shelf: 5

June. Half way through the year. It doesn’t seem possible, somehow. Life continues in a sort of semi-suspended animation; freedom is returning, but with so many restrictions that much of the freedoms don’t feel particularly like freedoms just yet. It is a marker of the smallness of my world at the moment that my highlight of the month was being able to go to a bookshop again. The first day non essential shops reopened, I went skipping off down to my local high street here in Islington, full of excitement at being able to wander at my leisure amongst the shelves of treasure once more. I became rather anxious as I walked through the main shopping area and saw the queues outside the sports shop and H&M; would I have to wait for ages to get into Waterstones? Well, even here in intellectual North London, I needn’t have worried; evidently people were far more interested in buying trainers than books (not necessarily a bad thing!) and I was able to waltz right on in to a practically empty shop.  I was delighted to find the usual enthusiastic and friendly staff, who were keen to reassure everyone that they could do exactly as they liked – pick books up, flick through them, ask staff for help and recommendations and so on – as long as we put anything we’d picked up and decided we didn’t want on a special trolley so it could be taken off for quarantine at the end of the day.  I had a wonderful time wandering about and feeling almost like life was normal, and as I strolled out into the sunshine with my bag of new books, I felt a glimmer of hope that all of this nightmare was coming to an end, at last.

For most of June, the weather was gloriously mediterranean; endless sunshine, cloudless skies, hot, bright days and bleached, balmy evenings. Every spare moment I spent outside, and I spent many an evening with a glass of something nice on my balcony, catching the last rays of sun with a book. I slowly became a pleasant shade of bronze, and people kept commenting that I looked like I had been on holiday. And it really did feel rather like one; very far from my usual experience of June, which is usually mired in the stress of getting my students through their public exams and the frantic, frenetic pace of finishing the school year. It’s been lovely to not have to worry about all that for a change, I must admit. As I write, it’s the beginning of July, and of course it’s raining, and has been for the last week, because I now actually am on my summer holiday, and this is the way things always go.

But enough about the weather, and back to the books. What did I read in June?

I decided to tackle some of my unread tomes on the Victorians, which I bought in abundance when doing my MA in Victorian Studies a couple of years ago, and obviously never actually had time to read. Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House was very popular when it came out well over a decade ago, and for good reason, because it’s absolutely fascinating. I can’t think why I haven’t read it before. It takes a novel approach to social history by exploring what everyday life was like for middle class Victorians through the different rooms in their houses. She looks at the construction of houses in terms of their decoration and furnishing, architecture and layout, as well as the functions of each of the rooms and what this can tell us about mid to late Victorian life. I loved learning so many little intriguing details that you just don’t come across elsewhere, such as how it was a common afternoon activity for women and girls to cut up newspapers and letters to be made into little stringed packets of toilet paper before actual toilet paper was invented; that carpets were so expensive that when they were considered too worn for public spaces downstairs, they were cut up and refitted to bedrooms, where they would be out of sight to visitors; that most middle class people ate a diet during the week that entirely consisted of inventive leftovers refashioned from their Sunday joint of meat. I also found the details on how interior design fashions changed over time fascinating; images of festooned and frilled mantelpieces and tables, with every surface draped in fabric and ribbons and lace, shows how an interior would have looked in the 1870s, for example, and as the century wore on, the dark and heavy decoration schemes of the earlier years lightened as electricity began to replace gas and rooms became brighter and cleaner without all of the fumes and smoke associated with candles and gas lighting to dirty the walls. Flanders writes with a lovely wry tone and a keen eye for detail, and I sped through the book in a couple of days; it’s a wonderful piece of social history and I highly recommend it!

One of the sources frequently quoted in The Victorian House is The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, which originated as a satirical series of articles in Punch magazine about a bank clerk, Charles Pooter, and the trials and tribulations of his suburban middle class life. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and the extracts quoted in The Victorian House were so funny that I picked it up immediately after finishing. Charles and his wife Carrie live in a new semi detached house in North London, and when Charles isn’t trying to impress his boss and sort out the cheeky young clerks at his office in Holborn, he’s busy making his house a home by indulging in a little DIY. Charles and Carrie take great pride in their home, and are keen to try all the latest in decorative trends. They also have great ambitions for their lazy, wayward son, Lupin, whose arrival mid way through the book causes them great embarrassment due to his failure to apply himself at work and poor choice of female companions. Both Charles and Carrie are very endearing, and their small hopes and ambitions – a promotion at work, an invitation to a prestigious party – and everyday disappointments feel remarkably current for a novel written over one hundred years ago. Judith Flanders was particularly interested in The Diary of a Nobody for its focus on the domestic interior and domestic life, and it is indeed excellent for this, but it’s also a hilarious exploration of the many ridiculous, wonderful and annoying elements of everyday existence, and I loved every minute. The original illustrations from Punch are also brilliant, too!

Zipping forward in time to the present day, my friend lent me a copy My Friend Anna, which is the true story of how Anna Delvey, a middle class Russian twenty something, managed to fool a whole host of social climbing New Yorkers that she was a billionaire heiress. Delvey is now in prison, and the book is written by her so-called friend Rachel Williams, who was working for Vogue when she met Anna through mutual ‘friends’ and somehow ended up becoming her closest confidante. Rachel was having a great time benefiting from her friendship – free lunches, free designer clothes, free personal training workouts, free holidays, access to amazing hotels and clubs –  until everything unravelled on an all-expenses paid trip to one of the most expensive hotels in Morocco, when Anna’s credit card got declined and Rachel was forced to put the $60,000 bill on her own card. Over the next few months, Anna evaded paying her back, despite constant promises that she would, and gradually Rachel began to realise that Anna wasn’t all she said she was, and that she wasn’t the only one who had been duped. This book is just the best kind of wonderfully trashy nonsense. Rachel Williams is a truly loathsome individual who represents everything that is wrong with our current society. Entitled, selfish and shallow, she attempts to present herself as a sweet family-loving Southern girl who became a victim of Anna Delvey because she was just so gosh-darned nice, but the reality is, Rachel became friends with her because she enjoyed the perks of the friendship and the lifestyle Anna gave her access to. The worst part of the whole affair is that Rachel shopped Anna (clearly a very mentally unwell individual, who Rachel tries to demonise without any attempt to understand what might have made her want to live a double life) to the FBI because she wanted her money back – the stress of the debt apparently was ruining her life, giving her panic attacks, etc, etc – and yet she made no attempt to economise – she refused the offer of  sharing an apartment with a friend so that she could stop paying her $2k per month rent, she kept going out to expensive restaurants for brunches and dinners (during which she couldn’t stop crying about her debt), she kept flying off all over the US for friends’ baby showers and honeymoons, etc – making it very clear that she knew she would never have to pay that money back in the first place. Of course she wouldn’t – with wealthy parents (her father was running for Congress at the time), she was never really going to be held responsible for that debt, and her attempts to portray how she suffered – despite not having to make any material changes to her life – are incredibly insensitive to anyone who has ever experienced genuine crippling, life destroying debt they don’t have anyone to call upon to help them pay back. Rachel is a privileged young woman, living like many people do in New York – I saw it for myself when I lived there – a life consisting of being seen in all the right places, with all the right people, that leads to shallow ‘friendships’ and an expenditure that far outstrips their means – and when everything goes wrong, they don’t change their lifestyle, they just make a quick phone call to Daddy. Rachel Williams’ remarkable lack of self-awareness is the most entertaining part of this unintentionally ironic portrayal of the shallow emptiness behind a life that values people solely according to their social and financial status. In my opinion, Rachel deserved everything she got – though, the most tragic thing about the whole affair is that she has been amply rewarded – not only has she got this book, but also a deal for a Netflix series. I suppose that says everything about the world in which we live!

Elizabeth Jane Howard

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When I started reading my way through the unread books on my shelves in alphabetical order, someone asked me what I’d do when I had more than one book to read by the same author. Would I read them all in one go, or would I let myself just read one and come back for the others later? I wasn’t sure of my answer at the time, and hadn’t actually needed to worry about it until I got to Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose books it turns out I am very good at buying, but not very good at reading. The Cazalet Chronicles, five marvellous books written in the 90s and early 2000’s, about various generations of the upper class Cazalet family in mid century England, are some of my most favourite books of all time, and yet I didn’t know much about the rest of her oeuvre until I took a good look at the other books of hers I have on my shelf. As luck would have it, I had three of her early books, The Long View, The Sea Change, and After Julius, which were all published in the 50s and early 60s, and I decided that it would be interesting to read them in chronological order of their publication to see her development as an author at this stage of her career, and to compare them with the Cazalet books she wrote almost a lifetime later, with the last in the series being published just before her death, in 2013.

The Long View is the story of a disastrous marriage told in reverse, beginning in 1950, when the protagonist, Antonia Fleming, is preparing for a dinner party to celebrate her son’s engagement. A beautiful, intelligent woman, still only in her only forties, Antonia is exhausted and diminished by the years of being dominated yet utterly ignored by her husband. He is a selfish, arrogant and emotionally incontinent man, for whom other people exist only as a means to further his own desires. He hangs like a spectre over Antonia’s life, which has been defined by her relationship with a man who has no understanding of the concept of love. It seems incomprehensible that Antonia can ever have seen anything in him to love, but as the novel moves back to key points in time in their marriage, the reasons for their situation in 1950 slowly become clear. We see them during the war, on a holiday Conrad is desperate to escape so he can be with his mistress, on their honeymoon, and then finally just before they meet, with a depiction of the then-nineteen year old Antonia, at home in the countryside with her parents. There were times during the middle of the novel when I became disengaged; Conrad is such a horrific person, and Antonia’s acceptance of his behaviour so frustrating, that I struggled to be able to feel any real interest in their lives. However, as the novel progresses and the story goes further back in time, Howard reveals elements of the characters’ personalities and past experiences that enable their later actions to be better understood, making the significance of events in the earlier sections of the novel come powerfully into focus. The last section of the novel, seeing Antonia’s crushing first experience of love and the destruction of her innocence as she realises her parents’ marriage is based on deceit, was particularly brilliant, and brought the events of the entire novel together in an almost unbearably heartbreaking way. The final line of the novel is incredible – and made me want to start all over again. Thinking about it as a whole, it is a rather brave way to go about the writing of a novel, because the entire first section of the book, which deals with June, the fiancee of Antonia’s son, and Deirdre, her unhappy daughter who is pregnant by a man who doesn’t love her, is fantastic, but these characters are never revisited, and as events move further back in time, the decision to ask the reader to begin the reading experience by spending so much time with these people who don’t seem to have any place in the overarching narrative is hard to understand. However, when you reach the end, you understand entirely – you are seeing the beginning of Conrad and Antonia’s marriage all over again in the disastrous mistakes their children are about to make – and the whole thing becomes an awful, claustrophobic circle. It’s not a pleasant novel, by any means, and neither is it perfect – but it’s brilliantly, beautifully written, incredibly insightful, and so innovatively structured. It left me quite stunned by the end, and the characters have certainly stayed with me; if you’re willing to persevere through the somewhat stodgy middle, I can promise that you’ll find it a highly rewarding experience.

Next in line was The Sea Change, her third novel, which is about Emmanuel, a jaded playwright in his sixties, his sickly, frustrated younger wife Lillian, his live-in manager/assistant Jimmy, and his innocent young secretary, Alberta, who spend the novel travelling between London, New York and the Greek island of Hydra, in the pursuit of casting an actress for Emmanuel’s new play. Told in chapters of alternating viewpoints, the troubled past of Emmanuel and Lillian’s marriage is revealed, marred by the death of their daughter at a young age, alongside both Emmanuel and Jimmy’s growing attraction to Alberta, who remains blissfully ignorant of her appeal, and simply revels in the joy of travelling for the first time beyond her much-loved childhood home in Dorset. The peripatetic life Emmanuel and Lillian have always led, never living anywhere permanently, and always travelling, initially seems glamorous, and yet it gradually transpires that this has nothing to do with glamour, and everything to do with grief. When Jimmy and Emmanuel decide to train Alberta for the part in Emmanuel’s new play, the whole party decamps to Hydra for six weeks, where, in close proximity with one another and with nothing in particular to do, the fault lines in their relationships are painfully torn open and none of them will leave the island the same. This was my favourite of the three novels; I loved how vividly Howard draws the settings of a vibrant, glamorous midcentury New York and a blissfully unspoiled, white sugar-cubed Hydra, and each of the characters was so well-drawn, intriguing and sympathetic, and so utterly different from the other. The ending certainly isn’t what you expect, considering the premise of the novel – Howard can’t be accused of cliché – and I wished there had been more by the time I closed the pages. Always a sign of a good book!

Howard’s fourth novel, After Julius, has a really interesting and unique premise – Julius, a character we never meet and only learn about through the other characters – was killed in the D-Day landings, having piloted a small boat he had no idea how to sail to try and do his bit for the war effort. Middle aged, unhappily married, with a career in his family’s publishing firm and a penchant for poetry, his heroic act baffled those around him, and twenty years on, we meet his wife, Esme and grown up daughters Cressy and Emma, all of whom are unhappy and unfulfilled. It transpires that Esme was having an affair with a much younger man, then-trainee doctor Felix King, at the time of Julius’ death; having never loved her husband, he was the love of her life, but he left her after Julius’ death, and she has lived a sort of half-life ever since. Cressy, a stunningly beautiful war widow in her late thirties, lives in a messy flat with her much younger sister, and has spent the last two decades in between various disastrous relationships and fitful attempts to make a music career. Emma, quiet and capable, has closed herself off from relationships with others and merely exists, her life a comfortable yet limited world of ordered routines. The novel opens on a perfectly ordinary Friday for all of them, and yet the weekend ahead, when both girls go to Sussex to see their mother, will prove unexpectedly life altering for everyone in ways I can’t mention otherwise I’ll ruin the entire plot; suffice to say Felix turns up for the weekend, and everything goes downhill from there. I did enjoy After Julius, but I found it the least accomplished, character and plot wise, of the three novels I read. She uses the same alternating viewpoint narration as in The Sea Change, to good effect, but some of the characters – namely Emma and her bizarre, rather Stella Gibbons-esque boyfriend Dan (who she meets on Friday and decides to marry on Sunday!) – seemed rather unnecessary to the central plot, which really only revolves around Cressy, Esme and Felix, and it would have been better to stay focused on them, in my opinion. There is also a glorified rape scene at the end of the book, which I found incredibly distasteful and made me question Howard’s own attitudes towards consent when it comes to sex. This left a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth and coloured my response to the entire book. In fact, both girls, Cressy and Emma, are presented as basically in need of a good seeing-to and then a nice wedding and some babies to sort them out – rather regressive for a novel being published in the 60s. This was the only one of the novels that felt dated to me, and while it’s just as beautifully written as the others, it is definitely flawed in many respects and doesn’t stand up as well in comparison to the rest.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading my way through Howard’s backlist – it’s amazing to think that she wrote over a period of 60 years, and the Cazalets, which are quite different in tone and style to these more acerbic earlier works, were written when she was in her 70s and 80s. In my opinion, she very much improved with age, but her early novels are still excellent, beautifully written and insightful reads about women and their motivations, and they are also an intriguing window onto the middle years of the twentieth century, a period whose literature I haven’t really read in any great depth. Howard has certainly been confirmed for me as one of the great underrated female authors of the twentieth century, and I can highly recommend seeking her out.