20 March 2018

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Several years ago a colleague at the library, performing a bit of collection maintenance (weeding), handed me a copy of The Closed Eye.  What followed was a statement along the lines of...you might enjoy this but don't read too many, they're depressing.  Perhaps some people may find a bit of brutally honest introspection to be depressing, but I've come to enjoy the fact that not all stories end happily or the way I would like them to.  If you've never ready anything by Anita Brookner, this is an excellent place to start.  Contrary to the opinion of how some people view Brookner's novels, this book made me laugh out loud several times.  Well, during the first half.

'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.   In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.'

But this is not a story about Dr Weiss the academic, it's about a young woman who reaches the level of Ph.D against the odds.  As Brookner takes the reader back to the setting of Ruth's childhood, it's clear that parts of the story are autobiographical.  Ruth is an only child whose grandmother (Mrs Weiss) has left her 'sad European past'  behind in Berlin.  She cooks and cleans for her son and his family despite being less than approving of her English-born daughter-in-law Helen, the stage actress.  It is apparent that both Helen and George are happy to leave Ruth's upbringing to her grandmother.

George Weiss owns a small bookshop on Mount Street in Mayfair.  His assistant Miss Moss, is also his confidant.  George panders to Helen's whims while hoping other women will pander to his.  When George's mother dies, Mrs Cutler is hired to perform the housekeeping duties.  Quite quickly, formality is cast aside and Maggie (as she's now known) is serving up drinks to George, Helen....and herself.  Simple cooking and very light housekeeping is performed while a cigarette dangles between her lips.  Ruth watches from the periphery....

    'She did not like Mrs Cutler.  She knew, without understanding, that Mrs Cutler was one of those louche women who thrive on the intimacy of couples, who are the cold-eyed recipients of many a confidence, who then repeat it to the other party in the interests of both....'

While at school, Ruth becomes friends with Anthea.  Edgy and wise to the ways of the world she is Ruth's polar opposite.  Inviting Anthea to dinner is the setting for comic brilliance...Helen dons '...a caftan, gold earrings and a great deal of scent.'  George buys a cake from Fortnum's and the tea is ready half an hour before Anthea's scheduled arrival.  The reader is very aware that this is the most excitement the Weiss's flat has seen in some time.  Once Anthea leaves, Ruth's parents comment...

    'What a delightful girl,' said George, when Ruth returned to the drawing room.    'Quite pretty,' said Helen, blowing smoke down her chiselled nostrils, 'but not your type, darling.  She has the soul of an air hostess.'

The relentless complacency, selfishness and lack of support from her parents threatens to quell Ruth's ability to seek the higher learning she craves.  She must strike out if she ever hopes to achieve something of a normal life.  An opportunity to stay with acquaintances of her parents leads her to Balzac's Paris where she can immerse herself in study.  Her path to personal growth has a few pitfalls that had me cheering her on or a bit disappointed in turns.  The point being that Brookner has written these characters in such a rich and skillful way as to make me care.  Ruth's journey from naivety to awareness and the choices she's faced with are ones that most people will, in part, will have encountered at some point in their lives.   

A Start in Life is the perfect introduction to Anita Brookner's writing.  It will make you laugh (a lot) and wince, but you will thoroughly enjoy it.  I loved it.

Reading Woman on a Couch by Isaac Israels

11 March 2018

The Windsor Faction by D J Taylor

While out on one of our book buying trips to support independent bookshops, it was the cover that drew me to this book.  A black and white photograph of a woman wearing a hat low enough on her brow to hide her eyes, her lips are tinted red.  The blurb on the back was interesting and the setting is England, 1939.  On the way home, with a keener eye, I clued in that this was one of those 'in an alternative world' stories, which is not in my wheelhouse at all. There was a possibility this book could die a slow death on my tbr pile.  While in the mood for something difference a few weeks ago I decided to read the first few pages and found myself backing onto a chair.  This book is wonderful!

The scene described in the prologue features drizzling grey skies, dignitaries, policemen, and a Romanesque church with tolling bells.  The bells toll for Wallis Simpson, whose death from heart failure while on the operating table, has left the King despondent.  It's 1936, before the King's abdication and their subsequent marriage, which means that the course of history as we know it never happens.  Are you hooked yet?

Next in the cast of characters is Cynthia Kirkpatrick.  Barely into her twenties, she lives with her parents in Ceylon as her father is in the tea trade.  Politically, there is unrest in Europe centering around activitity in Germany's Nazi Party.  England is calling its expats home, which is just as well for Cynthia....

   'She was a tall, thin, pale-faced girls of twenty-one who, although she had been spoiled since birth, frequently told herself that she had not had much of a life.  Sometimes she thought she would like to mannequin in one of the big department stores in Oxford Street, and at other times she thought she would like to be an undergraduate at Cambridge and bicycle to lectures in a black stuff gown...'

A devastating accident while out with a young man her parents are keen to see Cynthia married to, drives a wedge between both families.  Change, even in the form of a possible outbreak of war, spares Cynthia from playing the role of heartbroken girlfriend.  Arriving back in Bayswater, the young woman takes a job at the office of a magazine located in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

Blending fictional characters with historically significant individuals, D J Taylor weaves an incredibly entertaining story.  I loved the office scenes, the cups of tea at Lyons, the strolls on Tottenham Court Road and cabs to Kensington, there's also dealings with Heywood Hill bookshop.  For someone whose experience with political thrillers is almost nil, I found myself on the edge of my seat at times.  Cynthia's relationship with Tyler Kent, working at the American Embassy, draws her into the world of spies, louche characters, and plenty of gin.  What she discovers once it's too late to remove herself will test her reserves of willpower and trust.

My notebook has pages full of notations marking atmospheric sentences, wonderful description, or witty sentences that made me read certain lines twice....

'People already talked about 'before the war' as if the phrase was a guillotine, severing at a stroke any connection that the past might have with the present'

'He wonders what Wallis would have made of all this.  Sometimes she was fascinated by the protocols of the life he loved; at other times merely bored.  He woke up the other morning trying to remember the last words she ever spoke to him.  He has a feeling they were 'I'm not having that bitch Lady Carpenter to dinner'.

'Mr Woodmansee's arrival in the outer office had had once unlooked-for effect, which was to dispel the faint air of moral laxity that had hung there since the previous autumn.  In fact, the girls were quite daunted by his presence.  For some reason nobody, seeing him at his desk in the far corner of the room, felt like discussing the party they had been to the previous night or the man they had danced with the previous weekend.  Conversation either became anodyne or lapsed altogether.  For his own part Mr Woodmansee ate occasional pink-wafer biscuits out of a tine kept in his briefcase, looked at the cartoons in Punch with an expression of absolute passivity and did his best to laugh at the jokes.'

'As Cynthia went to follow her, Mrs Bannister laid a restraining arm on her elbow.  'My dear, you mustn't mind Hermione.  She isn't quite herself.'   This warning had been uttered so many times during Cynthia's adolescence, had been pronounced over so many variegated female heads, that its implications were unguessable.  It could mean that the person referred to was clinically insane, mildly unwell, or simply in a bad temper.'

The Windsor Faction is heartily recommended for anyone drawn to fiction centred around London and /or World War II.  Not exactly a 'Home Front' novel but a fabulous way to introduce a bit of British Secret Intelligence, as well as background into Mosley's Fascist Party into your feminine middlebrow-style fiction.  Wonderful!

Tower Bridge by Eve Kirk