30 April 2021

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The timeframe of various lockdowns and openings have become a blur, but a month or so ago we visited A Different Drummer bookshop when doing so was possible.  I chose a copy of Quartet in Autumn Barbara Pym, We Are Michael Field by Emma Donoghue and Elmet because of the statement on the cover that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2017.  And, let's be honest, an added attraction was that it had been discounted as a last copy.  The blurb evoked a level of earthiness with a whisper of something dark.  I will just say that it has been years since I found a book so compelling and frightening.

Daniel and Cathy are siblings living what seems to be an idyllic life in rural Yorkshire.  Nestled deep in the forest their new home takes shape, emerging from the clay with materials they glean from the land.  The teens watch fox and hare, learn to hunt, how to carve arrows and use a bow, and play with two new puppies.  Daniel is the younger of the two with little promise of ever growing into the giant of a man his father is.  Cathy is sinewy but strong with a watchfulness that is hypervigilant to danger. 

Associations with the traveller community come with prejudice so when Cathy defends herself against an attack of bullying, the teacher sides with the boys.  But just to back up for a minute, let me share the exquisite prose to illustrate what is leading up to be a brutish act....

   The salty gusts were hitting hard from over the North Sea.  Cathy's hair, black as Whitby jet, whipped about her as she stood up to face the boys.  The toggles of her coat beat against each other, sounding like the sweet wooden pulse of a marimba being struck by the wind.  I watched her the whole time.  I could not take my eyes off her.  I was ever her witness. 

When Grandma Morley dies, Daddy moves his family to a piece of land that doesn't belong to him.  The whereabouts of Daniel and Cathy's mother are vague but there is a connection between her past, Mr Price and the land. 

Mr Price commands respect in the community through power and fear and his sons are being trained to follow in his footsteps.  The wages Mr Price and his 'associates' pays to factory and farm workers are low while the rent charged to those living in his houses is high.  Mr Price is the sort of man who hires a strong arm to collect monies owing and Daddy has been used in the past, but he is tired of doing another man's bidding.    

There are two fights left in Daddy.  The first is for the community by clawing back some of the control held by Mr Price in a proposed strike action and the withholding of rent.  The second is a bare knuckle fight on a grand scale that will net gamblers a large payoff.   

This story could not be further from the sort of book I normally choose to read.  In fact,  I'm still recovering from the raw brutality of the last dozen or so pages, but the precision and brilliance of the writing is remarkable.  I was particularly struck by the feeling that if you removed all mention of vehicles this novel would feel steeped in the setting of a medieval village.  The issues of land ownership, the protection of family, and the quest for power were as relevant then as they are today.  And as a final thought, the characterization of Cathy will stay with me for a very long time, down to her strength of mind and body.  Any more than that would be a spoiler, I'm afraid. 

A dark but exceptional read that made me very glad it crossed my path.

Bigger Trees Near Warter by David Hockney
(2007)
                                                                  

20 April 2021

At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie

 

   Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram's, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had reentered a vanished world.  Time had gone back.  You were in Edwardian England once more.

I confess the above quote from the second page is the reason I was drawn to this book.  The other reason was for the descriptions of bountiful desserts and all things connected with long lunches.  Over the past few weeks at least three references have crossed my path about the cosy atmosphere at Bertram's Hotel and their menu.  Having spent half an hour reading other readers' reviews has been an education into the level of passion people have for Christie's writing.  For me personally, the mechanics of a mystery novel place second to the esthetics, so while this book doesn't rate very highly with aficionados I found it utterly charming and quite entertaining.

Set during the 1960s, Jane Marple's niece offers to pay for a holiday in Bournemouth but Miss Marple has her eye on London.  Remembering a stay at Bertram's Hotel with her aunt and uncle while still in her teens, she feels a tug of nostalgia and yearns for a return visit.  The rates wouldn't be too much of a pinch because it's November.

There were large crested silver trays, and Georgian silver teapots.  The china, if not actually Rockingham and Davenport, looked like it.  The Blind Earl services were particular favourites.  The tea was the best Indian, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Lapsang, etc.  As for eatables, you could ask for anything you liked - and get it!.

A fire constantly roars in the lounge outfitted with comfortable chairs, designed to allow a ladylike exit without clutching or groaning.  Elderly men wearing service medals, vicars, and minor aristocrats are the usual clientele.  A common sentiment runs through the minds of some....How can they afford the rates?  Apparently it's all part of a deceitful plan to create the image of a bygone era for American tourists but everyone seems to be quite happy about it.

Mr Humfries, a man in his fifties, is the face of Bertram's and orchestrates the day-to-day running of the hotel.  Miss Gorringe is the receptionist who never forgets a face, and recently a new porter has been hired - Michael Gorman.  A few of the more prominent guests at the hotel when Miss Marple arrives include Bess Sedgewick (without fear and reckless), Lady Selina (an acquaintance from St Mary Mead and widow of severely straitened means), Elvira Blake (heiress, still in her teens) and her guardian, Colonel Luscombe.  A European racing car champion named Ladislaus Malinowski is never seen without a black leather jacket so we can assume he's up to no good.   And last, but my favourite, is the bumbling and ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather.

He had recognized where he was.  In Bertram's Hotel, of course; where he was going to spend the night on his way to - now where was he on his way to?  Chadminster? No, no, he had just come from Chadminster.  He was going to - of course - to the Congress at Lucerne.  He stepped forward, beaming, to the reception desk and was greeted warmly by Miss Gorringe.

Thank goodness for Canon Pennyfather's housekeeper, Mrs Macrae, to keep him on track.  In real life this sort of person would irritate rather quickly but he's perfectly suited as a character in this book.

The point of an Agatha Christie novel is to deconstruct a crime but as crimes go this one is more high drama than anything.  There is an Irish Mail robbery, bigamy, a murder and a red herring disappearance that was more comic than frightening.  Detectives on the case were of the stereotypical male characterization usually found in Golden Age mysteries and Miss Marple's involvement was really quite minimal.  But did I care? - not a bit because I was here for the ambience, West End London and the dessert trolley.

So what sort of edible offerings were described, you might wonder?  Plenty of tea, properly poached eggs, fresh rolls served with butter stamped with a thistle, marmalade, honey, strawberry jam, coffee chocolate creams and castle pudding served with blackberry sauce.  Equally enjoyable for this anglophile missing Bloomsbury quite a bit these days is Miss Marple's day out to buy linens and visit both Chelsea and Richmond.  She's also embarrassed to admit a stop at Madame Tussaud's.  

I finished At Bertram's Hotel yesterday while sitting outside the dealership as they switched out my winter tires for the summer ones.  The waiting room was at capacity so I sat outside in the sunshine with a tote bag filled with essentials to pass the time.  Near the story's conclusion, with the drama at its crescendo, I was laughing out loud at the unlikeliness of it all but thoroughly enjoying every minute.  

My first Miss Marple but definitely not the last!

The Dessert Table by John Defett Francis (1815 - 1901)

12 April 2021

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

It began in a woman's club in London on a February afternoon--an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon--when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this....

What follows is an advertisement for a small medieval castle in Italy to let on the shores of the Mediterranean.  The ad romantically calls out to those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.  Initially thinking such a holiday is only for the rich, Mrs. Wilkins revisits the part of the ad referring to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Such a statement surely includes her as much as any wealthy citizen.  Two years of marriage to a solicitor, focusing on his needs and those of his extended family, have made Lotty realize she needs to claim moments of joy for her very own.  Raising her eyes from the ad to look at another woman attending her Shaftesbury Club, she wonders if Mrs. Arbuthnot could possibly feel the same way?

She looked so kind.  She looked so unhappy.  Why couldn't two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk--real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope?

By page six I knew this was just the sort of book to carry me through these last bits of cold, wet weather.  I also wondered how many women read this story when it was published in 1922 and broached the topic of booking a fabulous holiday with a friend?  I digress....

Caught off-guard Mrs. Arbuthnot is rattled by the idea of planning such an indulgent trip.  She's been firmly rooted in the idea of God, Home, Husband, Duty.  Surely one's home is the very idea of Heaven?  But all is not as it seems in either woman's marriage.  Throwing caution to the wind, it's decided that Lotty and Rose will reply to the ad.  By the way, the rental for this particular castle was a sigh-inducing £60 per month.

Realizing the costs could easily be split between four as there are plenty of spare rooms, the new friends place an ad of their own.  Enter the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs. Fisher who is decidedly reserved and slightly mature, shall we say.  Arriving at their holiday destination.....

....it had from each of its three sides the most amazing views--to the east the bay and mountains, to the north the village across the tranquil clear green water of the little harbour and the hill dotted with white houses and orange groves, and to the west was the thin thread of land by which San Salvatore was tied to Genoa reaching away into the blue dimness of France.

Each woman has varying expectations pertaining to their retreat from the routine of life at home.  Solitude is a common theme which can prove difficult while trying to be courteous.  We can all identify with lining up a picture perfect afternoon picnic, evaporated by a boisterous crowd planted nearby.  But as time passes connections are made between the guests, personal armour melts away and the dynamics shift in the loveliest of ways.  

Interestingly, it occurred to me that this story could also be imagined as the perfect setting for a holiday during this pandemic.  The elements are all there...spacious grounds and an abundance of fresh air.  With each woman finding her own section of the castle's garden for quiet reflection the atmosphere couldn't be more perfect for physical distancing.  And I'm slightly worried that thinking this way has crept into my reading.....

The Enchanted April is a beautiful story that begs to be read during bleak winter months and I will certainly be returning to it again.  Elizabeth von Arnim beautifully points out the benefits of taking time for ourselves for rest, clarity and fostering independence.  But most of all, she gave this winter-weary reader the gift of a garden when ours is still a few weeks away.

Such a jumble of spring and summer was not to be believed in, except by those who dwelt in those gardens.  Everything seemed to be out together--all the things crowded into one month which in England are spread penuriously over six.  Even primroses were found one day by Mrs. Wilkins in a cold corner up in the hills' and when she brought them down to the geraniums and heliotrope of San Savatore they looked quite shy.

The Red Cloche by Grace Cochran Sanger (1885 - 1966)

22 March 2021

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

It was the level of enthusiasm from both presenter and guest on a podcast that sent me straight to my library's website.   A copy of Magpie Lane was on order.  This isn't a genre I usually read but we were off to a good start with its setting of Oxford, despite meeting the main character in a police station interview room.

They are waiting for an answer.  What do they want me to say?  Perhaps they think I am a stalker, targeting the president of an Oxford College on his early morning jog.  I have an urge to laugh which is inappropriate.  There is nothing funny about this, nothing whatsoever.  Felicity is missing.  The whole country is looking for her.

Dee has spent more than half of her life working as a nanny for visiting professors at the university.  Short term commitments work best as there's less chance of a family getting too close.  Dee prefers her relationships at a distance.  As the story develops, snippets of her backstory reveal episodes of sadness in her family life back in Scotland; one in particular clings with a relentless hold.

A serendipitous meeting with Nick Law, the new College Master, results in Dee agreeing to meet his family.  It's more a case of being polite than keen.  Nick and Mariah are desperate to find someone with experience to look after Felicity, an eight year old with selective mutism.  Also, Mariah is expecting a baby, has an intense schedule as a wallpaper restorer in London, and supporting Nick through endless social events.  The family's new residence swirls with chaos, renovations and high expectation.  At the top of the house, Felicity's bedroom is a refuge....a refuge with an eerie priest hole cut into the wall hundreds of years ago.  Dee is intrigued by the little girl, sensing Felicity could benefit from a constant in her day. 

An interesting man called Linklater is hired by Nick to write up the history of their new home.  Taking on research assignments and leading guided tours of Oxford provide an income while Linklater works on his thesis.  Decades of archival material  reveal some things about the house that are both fascinating and sinister.  Being somewhat socially inept, Linklater thinks nothing of sharing a few dark details with Dee about the project within earshot of Felicity.  Dee is horrified but then she notices a look of interest on Felicity's face.  A strange way to make some progress but Dee is thankful for the flicker of trust. 

This is a book best read with minimal prior knowledge so I will leave the plot there.  When I finished Magpie Lane my husband picked it up, read 114 pages in one sitting and couldn't wait to get back to it after dinner.  The story is brilliantly paced and has an ending so gripping that I read it three times.  Find a copy before the film comes out because I would be shocked if someone hasn't bought the rights already.