21 September 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

When the Man Booker longlist was announced recently, it was Warlight that piqued my interest with its setting in post-war England.  A few days later, a customer at the library returned her copy and was promptly asked (ever the inquisitive circulation clerk) what she thought of it, to which she replied 'I think it's a masterpiece'.  A label like that sets the bar pretty high so when my hold came in soon afterwards, other reading plans would simply have to wait.  So, with a riveting first sentence, I dove it.

'In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.'

Nathaniel and Rachel are young teens, living with their parents in Ruvigny Gardens, London.  Within a few pages, their parents announce they'll be leaving for Singapore on an extended business trip for Unilever.  Their father flies on ahead with remarkably little fanfare as Rose's carefully considered wardrobe is packed into a large travelling trunk.  The teens have been enrolled in separate boarding schools and a guardian, whom Rachel and Nathaniel refer to as The Moth, has been left in charge of their home.  As Nathaniel later learns, his mother has known The Moth for several years as both were fire watchers on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the war.  Or, at least that's what the siblings have been told, because once their mother's trunk has been discovered, hidden in the house after her departure, their bubble of security has been burst.

Within a couple of weeks, Nathaniel decides that living at home with a stranger is preferable to life at boarding school.  The trajectory of his life will be forever altered.  The Moth makes an unsettling decision to invite a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter to join the household.  His particular talent is smuggling greyhounds into England using the night skies as cover while gliding along the Thames on river boats.  Nathaniel is pulled by the sense of adventure and becomes The Darter's steadfast companion, honing skills that will come in handy for better or worse. 

As the years progress, Nathaniel and Rachel form attachments to the various people who come and go from their home in Ruvigny Gardens.  Some are suspect from the beginning but others have layers that are revealed over time, the point being that the people living among us conceal things from the simple to the implausible.  Trading the pavement of London for the paths of Suffolk doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed immunity from the covert actions of people with connections, or unfinished business. 

Ondaatje weaves the story of some of Warlight's characters through time, backwards and forwards.  Were all of the connections made as characters' paths crossed plausible?  I did have a couple of moments of cynicism, but at the end of the day, this is a ripping good read.  Warlight is clever, entertaining, and at times the tension made me forget all about watching the clock when it was almost time to leave for work.  Going back through my notes I found it interesting there wasn't a single bold scrawl that says 'QUOTE' as I often do while reading, but there are seven pages of clues and suspicious behaviour.  Apparently I was as much 'on the case' as Nathaniel.  Warlight is the sort of book that would be fun to read over again with the gift of hindsight.

I was disappointed yesterday when the Man Booker Shortlist was announced and Warlight wasn't on it.  At the end of the day, there are many winners of various prizes for all kinds of books, but if they don't appeal to me then it's a moot point.  Warlight suited me down to the ground.

Cornish Children by Harold Harvey

8 September 2018

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Next month is the ninetieth anniversary of Orlando (1928), Woolf's sixth novel.  What began as a diversion shortly after publishing To the Lighthouse has resulted in being a strong favourite with readers of Woolf's novels.  I wonder what she would think of her 'folly' being so relevant in 2018.  While parts of the world have made great strides when it comes to accepting people as they are, we are still a society that likes to create policy, define, and label.  That Woolf, many decades ago, could transition her main character from a man to a woman without so much as a sigh feels refreshingly uncomplicated.  As for the novel as a whole, Orlando reminded me of Saturday mornings as a nine year old, reading fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.  There's a lot going on that doesn't make sense, but you're willing to believe anything is possible.

The story begins in Tudor England with Elizabeth I on the throne and the young noble has caught her eye.  Orlando spends time wandering through town as Woolf paints a picture of his day to day life....past the stables, around hawthorn bushes, through the park with its herds of roaming deer.  In the distance lies St Paul's.  After a few pages filled with observations, time jumps ahead to a new monarch on the throne.  Britain is blanketed by The Big Frost and the Thames has frozen solid.   Orlando sees the Russian Princess Marousha skating on the ice and falls head over heels in love.  But there's hitch, he is already betrothed to another.

Because Orlando magically travels through the centuries, aging at a snail's pace, let's just say he breaks some hearts and has his broken in turn.  As Orlando rises in favour to the subsequent King Charles, word spreads about his allure and, of all things, his beautiful calves.  Then, during a festive evening, in a swirl of ringing bells, clocks striking the hour, Turkish guards from the Imperial Body Guard along with British Admirality, Orlando goes to bed, in something of a trance, for seven days.  Upon waking, Orlando is now a woman.

'Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.'

Woolf then goes on to state that although Orlando had changed in appearance, everything else about her character is exactly as it was before.  Leaving Constantinople with a gipsy, Orlando embarks on a journey over hills and through valleys, while writing an epic poem called The Oak Tree.  When the atmosphere among her fellow travellers begins to feel ominous, Orlando jumps onto a ship bound for London.  She's also realizing a few things....

'She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.  'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected' 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.  They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.  There's the hairdressing,' she thought, 'that alone will take an hour of my morning; there's looking in the looking glass, another hour, there's stays and lacing; there's washing and powdering; there's changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there's being chaste year in year out...'

Orlando meets other characters who appear to be one sex but are simply masquerading as the other for one purpose or another.  As time passes, Orlando begins to take on more of the traits one would associate with being stereotypically female, as in being afraid of fast carriages or modesty.  The underlying message is that men and women assume roles.

As Orlando moves through the centuries, I thoroughly enjoyed the many historical and geographical references, such as London's Great Fire and the plague.  She is also amazed by her first sight of a bookshop, trains and cars.  I love stories centred around time travel and that moment of wonder (or fright) when a character first encounters something we take for granted.

Vita Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicholson, has been quoted as saying Orlando is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature.  Reading this novel on the heels of a book of letters between the two women, I would most humbly agree.  But it's also a tribute to Knole, Sackville-West's ancestral home in Sevenoaks, Kent.  From the gardens to the number of rooms, and even the names of the servants and housemaids (I smiled at every mention of Basket and Bartholomew) all from the country house's records.

Orlando ends at the twelfth stroke of midnight on Thursday the eleventh of October, 1928, the date it was published.  I've just checked the calendar....that date falls on a Thursday this year, as well.  I digress.  This story amazed me on so many levels, from Woolf's incredible imagination, her keen observations, her foresight concerning gender issues, not to mention her general knowledge of so many historical details.  The copy I read was borrowed from the library but I will be buying a lovely edition to keep. 

Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

10 August 2018

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska

Over the past few weeks we've been busy moving everything from two floors down to the basement in preparation of new flooring.  It's a project we've dreaded but it had to be done.  So now the worst of the upheaval is over, the new floors are in and they look gorgeous; baseboard delivery is Monday for round two.  While the installers were hard at it, my job was to make sure Kip didn't escape through an open door.  The two of us stayed outside during a scorcher of a summer while my husband escaped to work each day.  Kip nestled under the dogwoods, racing unsuspecting joggers along the fence while I read (it wasn't as blissful as it sounds!). A book of letters is absolutely perfect for times when your level of distraction is high.  Despite all the busyness, these letters swept me away to London, the gardens of Sissinghurst, and visions of Monk's House where I spent some time while on holiday last year.

Vita and Virginia could have simply picked up the telephone to call one another (and, at times, they did) but I'm so thankful for their trail of correspondence.  Their letters start off as friendly but formal, then they become dotted with humour, inside jokes, pet names, intimacy and then pleas for reassurances of affection,  reflecting the hallmarks of so may of our relationships.  But most people are not two of the most iconic figures from the twentieth century.  This collection of letters provides a rich portrayal of the everyday life of these two women, the inception of some of their most famed writings, the anxieties surrounding the publishing of their work, and fascinating name dropping of an assortment of socialites and celebrities of the day.

The two women first met in December of 1922, at a dinner hosted by Clive Bell.  At first their letters were sporadic, becoming regular by 1924.  When Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, Vita wrote....

'One thing she has done for me for ever: made it unnecessary ever to go to London again, for the whole of London in June is in your first score of pages.  (Couldn't you do a winter London now?  with fogs and flares at the street corners, blue twilights, lamps, and polished streets?) 

Having only read four of Virginia's books I'm wondering if she ever did write about a wintery London?

I loved the gossipy moments such as Vita using the term 'misty Gloomsbury' while comparing her fondness for warmer climates such as in Greece and Persia with Virginia's love of London's squares.  And thinking everyone within the Bloomsbury sphere were accepting of fluid relationships, but not taking into account their elder relatives.  Vanessa's elder relations were shocked to discover she was living in sin (and does she ever sell a picture?).  The image of Virginia Woolf with any other hairstyle than the casual look I've seen in photos is difficult to reconcile.  At one point, Virginia tries out a new look...

   'She cut my hair off.  I'm shingled.  That being so - and it'll look all right in a month or two, the hairdresser says - bound to be a little patchy at first - lets get on to other things.  Its (sic) off; its in the kitchen bucket; my hairpins have been offered up like crutches in St Andrews, Holborn, at the high altar.'

Vita is much more effusive when it comes to sharing her feelings, bluntly asking Virginia to use a term of endearment in her letters.  When Virginia then starts her next letter by referring to Vita as 'Honey' it made me feel sorry for her.  This is a woman with so many thoughts in her head but seemingly, incredibly repressed in her ability (or confidence) to share emotion with an intimate.  In 1927, Vita writes...

'And why have you such an art of keeping so much of yourself up your sleeve: as to make me suspect that after twenty years there would still be something to be unfolded, - some last layer not uncoiled.'

But on a lighter note, in 1928 Vita writes to ask if Virginia's ears are still sore after being pierced and if she enjoys the sensation of twirling them once they've become stuck.  Apparently Vita did!

Part of the pleasure of reading these letters is discovering the extent of Vita's travels and her somewhat bohemian lifestyle.  Her exploits were very much a window through which Virginia experienced life beyond the country lanes of Rodmell, or even London.  I never knew where Vita was off to next, but my favourite snippet from one of her letters to Virginia is this one....

  'I went to tea with a lady lying on a divan playing with a parakeet.  I went to tea with another lady, - an old one this time, - who lives with a nephew who is expected to commit a crime at any moment.  She consoles herself with 3 Aberdeen terriers.  A real Balzac household - plus a sister-in-law with a broken leg.  When not in Berlin they all live in a XIIth century castle near Hanover, all at sixes and sevens, and no money so that the roof is falling in.  Another sister in law law just died of a broken heard, and a son-in-law of appendicitis.'

I laughed at the epic scale of a rant by Vita's mother when she sent ...twenty-four pages of abuse.  There is no mention of what set her mother, Baroness Sackville, but it didn't seem to bother Vita very much.  And in 1933, when Vita and Harold travel to the States for four months on a lecture tour, she writes about seeing the plains and cowboys.  A far cry from the green and pleasant land of Knole in Sevenoaks.  Vita also expresses an interest in bringing back a tin of salamanders for the greenhouse after being to the Sahara.  I wonder if she did?

Vita's gardens at Sissinghurst provided Virginia and Leonard with plenty of extras to supplement their rations at the beginning of WWII.  Baskets of fruits and vegetables would appear on the doorstep of Monk's House when Vita's petrol supply would allow it.  When a glorious packet of butter arrives in Virginia's envelope box, she eats a chunk from the block right then and there.

The last letter in this collection is Virginia's last letter to Vita, six days before her suicide.  It is short, without a sign of anything remotely like a good-bye, in fact, Virginia refers to a possible visit to Sissinghurst.  The creamy blankness on the last three-quarters of the page in my book -  heartbreaking.  Having such an intimate glimpse into the lives of these two women and their relationship is a gift.  I can't help wondering how many collections of its kind there will be in the future with everyone whipping off short texts.

Delightfully, this collection of letters has cascaded into another facet of the relationship between Vita and Virginia....Orlando!

6 July 2018

Tell It to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge

One of the display units at the library is all mine for the month of July and I've chosen to work with 'Shorts for Summer' as a theme.  Short stories can be a hard sell but I do my best to convince customers they can be swept away by just a few pages of clever writing.  I checked on my display a couple of days ago and was thrilled to see lots of gaps where books had been the day before. 

I've dipped in and out of Tell It to a Stranger several times over the past few years, revisiting a few of my favourite stories several times.  Last week I read this collection (Persephone Books) from cover to cover and feel it's a shame that Elizabeth Berridge's writing isn't more widely known.  It's time to do my bit to change that!  The stories in Tell It to a Stranger are every bit as good as Rosamond Lehmann's The Gipsy's Baby, published the year before in 1946.  The difference in popularity may be down to Berridge's shying away from publicity whereas Lehmann's personal life and activism created plenty.  I digress.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and whether it's intentional or not, the middle story has left the greatest impression for being so chilling.  Lullaby begins with the wife of an RAF pilot dealing with the pull of her responsibilities at home and being available to her husband while he's on leave.  The draw of an evening out, just the two of them, would be so much fun - but there's the baby to consider.  The opportunity to record her voice on a wax disc gives the couple an idea...record the soothing words used to put their son to sleep and then slip away to enjoy a drink out.  Then the couple push their time limit.  It's impossible to read this story without feeling the creeping niggle of dread.  It still happened to me despite this being my third reading.

Another favourite is Chance Callers, set in the English countryside.  Frank struggles to find his way back to the man he was before the war and the devastating result of being a POW in Siam.  His wife, Beryl craves home ownership but money and opportunities are limited.  When Frank asks her about returning to the town where they previously lived, Beryl relects...

'She could not explain to him the real reason why to go back to the town where they had lived so briefly together would be dreadful to her, a sort of death.  She did not quite know herself.  The peeling, exhortatory posters, the queues, the prefabricated houses planted like sugar boxes amongst the cleared debris had something to do with it - but not all.  In an effort to pin down a fraction of this feeling, she said, her face like a stone, 'I couldn't bear to live in our old street again.  I'd be remembering the Verneys under all those bricks.'

Captain Banks lives on the outskirts of the village in a country manor with a parcel of land.  His invalid brother is under his care, bedridden with what they think to be infantile paralysis.  Desperation and the sentiment of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Frank and Beryl call on Captain Banks to inquire about the possibility of purchasing just enough land to build a small house on.  After a short conversation that leaves Beryl and Frank feeling under the thumb of yet another establishment larger than themselves, they leave with their dignity intact but deflated.  Captain Banks climbs the stairs to his brother's room and finds him lying in an odd position.  He quickly realizes that his brother has died while he's been engaged in pointless conversation with strangers.  Contemplating his family's history, his own past and what lies ahead, the Captain contemplates the point of going on.  This is domestic fiction written with a pen in one hand and a hammer in the other.

My top pick from this collection is The Prisoner.  Miss Everton, nearing fifty years old, sees lorries approach her cottage....

   'It was a frosty morning when the German prisoners first came to dig drainage ditches in the fields that lay beyond Miss Everton's garden walls.  She was out with her dog in the chill air by the beech trees when two large lorries roared up past her across the grass and she had a glimpse of alien faces, of packed cardboard figures, cold and raw-looking.'

A man looking too young to be in charge of prisoners approaches and asks if there's a water tap they could have access to.  Restlessly, Miss Everton goes about her day while listening for the click of the garden gate as the men come and go.  Having the Germans in close proximity reminds her of  time spent with her brother and his studies in Bonn, when Germany brought more pleasant thoughts to mind..

Eventually, a young prisoner named Erich, asks Miss Everton if she would like to trade some of her coffee ration for their tea.  It's the beginning of a friendship, the inevitable that so often follows when two people from different backgrounds come together through kindness and caring.  This is the type of short story you wish could go on for another hundred pages.

I've shared three snippets from this poignant collection of stories from the 1940s, hopefully enough to tempt more readers towards Elizabeth Berridge's work.  Tell It to a Stranger is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II fiction, as well as fans of Mollie Panter-Downes' Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Contemplation by Francis Edwin Hodge