22 April 2018

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

It's safe to say the winter that didn't want to let go, has finally gone.  And it's a good thing as we have tickets for a Blue Jays baseball game next week and no one wants to attend a game in their winter coat!  These longer days and warmer temperatures scream for the sort of lighthearted fun you'll have with Stella Gibbons, and The Yellow Houses was way more fun than I was expecting.

The town of Torford, seventy miles from London 'on the side that goes east...' has rebuilt the damage resulting from the Blitz.  Wilfred Davis, recently widowed, sits on a park bench watching people go about their day before a flood of tears blurs his vision.  Suddenly, a man appears before him wearing something that resembles a white raincoat, offering a linen handkerchief that smells of fern.  It's not the loss of his wife causing Wilfred's wracking sobs, it's the note from his sixteen year-old daughter saying she feels it's time to leave school and find a job in London.  Mary also hopes to find a young man to marry and father the three children she's already chosen names for.  Mrs Davis would be spinning in her grave to know the time spent she's spent promoting education has been lost on her daughter. 

So far, so good.  As a reader I've been roped in.  I was prepared for the man in the white raincoat to be some sort of mystical guiding light, but that's only the beginning.  Enter comedy....Mr Davis has a lodger by the name of Mrs Wheeby who delighted me no end.

   'Round the rhododendrons, accompanied by the sound of panting, came Mrs Wheeby, who lodged in Wilfred's house, and suffered with her chest.  She was bundled in layers of elderly wool, and wore a hat of felt; hard in outline and fawn in colour, cocked above an unmemorable face.'

Mrs Wheeby is besotted with her canary and whale music, both of which push Wildred's level of comfort and acceptance to the limit.  Poor Wilfred is contemplating a move but he's worried about how to tell Mrs Wheeby it's time to move along.   At the same time, Mrs Wheeby begins to assure Wilfred she will never abandon him to loneliness.  In the meantime, poor Wilfred seeks the counsel of the head at his daughter's school.  Opening the door, he's greeted by 'Slutty' Singer, the feckless mother of five children by different men.  What would Wildred's dear wife think of the slipping standards at Torford's lovely school for girls?

  'Wildred had never accepted the mentally deficient theory, believing, for his part, that Slutty was what Pat had called careless, and the twentieth century would have called fruitful.'

'Slutty' lives down the street from Wilfred's father, who acts as something of a part-time caregiver to two of her very young daughters.  I was touched by the way he would leave his front door open so they could watch television from his front step as he handed out biscuits and other light refreshments.

Meanwhile in London, Wilfred's daughter has quickly found work in a clothing shop near the Liverpool Street station.  Owned by Mrs Levy, a native of Germany, Mary has a difficult task in convincing the owner that not all young women are interested in being lazy, young men, and shirking responsibility.  And then Yasuhiro Tasu, of noble birth, appears in the neighbourhood wearing a fabulously well-tailored coat, catching Mary's attention.  Coincidentally (or is it?), Yasu rents a room at her B&B to improve his English, share his thoughts on samurai warriors and spend an exorbitant amounts of money on flowers.

Can you imagine presenting these plot devices, in one treatment, to a team at a publishing company?  It sounds completely bonkers, which might be part of the reason this novel was tucked away for decades in a desk at Stella Gibbons's grandson's home.  Brought to the light of day after her death and eventually published by Vintage in 2016, The Yellow Houses is absolutely delightful! 

My husband bought this book for me last Christmas simply because it was by Stella Gibbons.  She's one of my favourite authors, admired to the point in which a synopsis doesn't even warrant a consideration; her name on the cover is my assurance of a good read.  If someone in a book shop tried to sell me a book about an adventurous drop-out who falls in love with a Japanese fellow of questionable political views, while mystical characters spread cheer around 1970s England I would usually run a mile.  But in the hands of Stella Gibbons, you feel as though you're reading something of a grown-up fairy tale with each voice written so convincingly. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read and highly recommended for fans of Stella Gibbons!

Highgate Village High Street by Lynn Bindman

5 April 2018

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

If you're considering a good book to read while on your summer get-away, let your quest end here.  Oh sure, the latest bestseller might keep you occupied, but if you want to be swept away...look no further.

Published in 1915, the first pages of Virginia Woolf's first novel set the scene of a London filled to bursting with people.  The pavement is so busy you can forget walking side by side with your partner.  Mrs Helen Ambrose is on the verge of tears...

'...she only felt at this moment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty of her forty years had been spent in a street.  She knew how to read the people who were passing her, there were the rich who were running to and from each others' houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workers driving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who were unhappy and rightly malignant.  Already, though there was sunlight in the haze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats.  When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath.'

Helen and Ridley Ambrose are making their way to a steamship owned by Helen's brother-in-law, Willoughby Vinrace.  Their destination is South America, a voyage which will take several weeks.  Mr Vinrace asks Helen to take his twenty-four year old daughter Rachel under her care.  Since her mother's death when she was eleven, Rachel has been raised by aunts in Richmond.  With her environment and reading material censored by her caregivers, Rachel remains ignorant about the emotions that bring two people together in a loving relationship.  And then the Dalloways board the ship when it stops in Lisbon.  There is a moment of frisson between Richard and Rachel that reveals much to the young woman.

If you have read Mrs Dalloway, and loved it as much as I did, you must The Voyage Out.  The way Woolf describes the couple in toe-curling delightful detail....their clothes, the snobbery...it is absolutely brilliant.

    'Ridley engaged her to come to-morrow.    "If only your ship is going to treat us kindly!" she exclaimed, drawing Willoughby into play.  for the sake of guests, and these were distinguished, Willoughby was ready with a bow of his head to vouch for the good behaviour even of the waves.'

Turning to a personal moment, I raised an eyebrow while reading a paragraph that mentions Portuguese fathers marrying Indian mothers and intermingling with the Spanish.  My results from one of those ancestry DNA kits revealed my background as 21% Iberian Peninsula with a smidge of South Asian.  The rest is Western Europe, but who knows...perhaps Virginia Woolf has provided a clue!  I digress....

As is so often the case when thrown together in a claustrophobic setting, friendships occur.  Two young men, Hewet and Hirst, are on a voyage of discovery, Miss Allan plays the part of the spinster, Hughling Elliot, Miss Warrington, Mr Venning (loves tea!), Mr Perrott - a barrister who secretly wishes to be a pilot instead, and Evelyn Murgatroyd seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat but what she really craves is someone to care for, and the Flushings.  At the young end of middle-age, Mr Flushing is a collector with a very interesting character as his wife.

'They had moved out into the garden, where the tea was laid under a tree, and Mrs Flushing was helping herself to cherry jam.  She had a peculiar jerking movement of the body when she spoke, which caused the canary-coloured plume on her hat to jerk too.  Her small but finely cut and vigorous features, together with the deep red of lips and cheeks, pointed to many generations of well-trained and well-nourished ancestors behind her.'

I've read that Woolf was a terrific observer of people, as I suspect most exceptional writers are, which leads me to think she has seen this very woman somewhere about London.  It's also why I savoured every page in this book - it's so rich with detail, spoiling the chances of anything else on the shelves today.  The heat, the villas, the countryside, the picnics, not to mention the sheer loveliness of a holiday that goes on for weeks and weeks of leisure time.  

I could go on and on about the many reasons why I love this book, from Woolf's statements about the unfair treatment of women in education, marriage and society, to the moments of humour that made me laugh out loud such as when Miss Allan has Rachel taste fresh ginger for the first time.  And then there was the sadness when I wasn't expecting it.  

The copy I read caught my eye while emptying the return bin at the library, but I'm going to buy one to call my own.  

The Pilgrim's Rest in Burma, circa 1900