Man Booker Prize 2014 : The Shortlist

The closing event of the London Literary Festival at the Royal Festival Hall was also the final reading event before the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 on 14th October.

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All six shortlisters attended to read from their novel and the evening was compered by Kirsty Wark who will also be interviewing the eventual winner on Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

First up was Joshua Ferris reading from To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.I have also heard hi reading from this at The Hay Festival. He has a beautiful reading voice and had chosen a very witty piece in which his protagonist ruminates on the sort of passengers he sees on public transport intently reading from heavily highlighted copies of the Bible.

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Ferris explained that he feel a sense of community is very important. What his character lacks is the ability to commune with people and the novel describes his attempts to build himself a community. Ferris had felt a great sense of community with all the shortlisted authors and for him the time spent with them will be more important than who actually wins the prize.

Kirsty then asked him whether his book was a warning about the dangers of online life. Ferris feels a deep ambivalence towards the internet. It can certainly give us a lot of information but can it provide real knowledge and wisdom? He thinks that iPads and iPhones etc are in direct competition with books.

Next came Richard Flanagan who introduced his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North as a story about the human spirit and the nature of love.He feels that writing is a journey into humility. There is a very good argument for any of the six books to win.He just wanted to say that when he loses he will feel much happiness in drinking deeply and well with the winner.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan

He then read a very emotional and moving extract describing an ex-serviceman’s struggle with what we now know to be PTSD. Written in the 3rd Person it captured his inability to express his love for his children although he could feel love. He was also tormented by the guilt of the survivor.

After the reading Flanagan explained that his father was a survivor of the death railway in Burma. In many ways he feels he grew up a child of the death railway as those who come back from such experiences continue to suffer from the wounds they bring home.

He realised that he needed to write the story when he happened to be walking across Sydney Harbour bridge in 2001. He was suddenly reminded of a story his parents had told him about a Latvian survivor of the camps in World War 2. After the war he had returned to his village to find it raised to the ground and no trace of his wife and childen. Eventually he emigrated to Australia and settled there. One day in 1957 he was crossing Sydney bridge when coming towards him he recognised he wife holding 2 chidden by the hand. Flanagan immediately felt inspired, rushed into a bar and wrote a chapter on the back of beer mats.

Karen Joy Fowler then read to us from her audacious novel We Are All Completey Beside Ourselves.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

She wanted to say that she actually feels very competitive, she is quite sure that she likes everyone more than anyone else in the group.

She then read an extract fro her novel that is narrated in the acerbic voice of the younger daughter of a family.Now an adult ,she is reflecting on a traumatic event that occurred in the family unleashing a chain of events.

Fowler had wanted to explore a family where things had gone horribly wrong but not for the lack of love. In her novel the whole family has to bear the consequences of one decision.

Wark asked her if she shared the animal rights sympathies of her characters Rosemary and Lowell. She confirmed she did. Her father had worked as a psychologist experimenting on animals and the memory of the part of the lab she was not allowed to enter had haunted her.

Howard Jacobson was next with a reading from J , a love story where a ‘quiet catastrophe’ has already happened.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Before beginning to read he just wanted to say, ironically, that he loves all these guys and he is quite sure that he loves Karen more than she loves him.

Wark asked him if he was describing something he felt could happen. This is not a prophetic book but you would have to be a fool, in his view, to believe such things don’t occur. We appear to live in the midst of catastrophe all the time.

Does he believe that people are relatively quiescent in these catastrophes ? This is the conclusion that one has to draw when one reads about these terrible occurrences. J is not a retelling of the Holocaust in Germany. He is more interested in what we are left with when these things have happened – the survivors and those who let it occur.

Neel Mukherjee then read from his book The Lives Of Others . This is a family saga spanning several generations of the Ghosh family in Bengal.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

Wark asked him whether the sort of family he describes in the book is now lost to Indian culture. He explained that the extended family is still very much the main model for the family in India. In some of the more urban areas perhaps it has been eroded but India as a country is so vast that the very numbers of people work against new ideas taking root.

Wark observed that he wrote about the Ghosh family with such affection, she wondered whether he misses living in an extended family. He replied vehemently that he did not…..for reasons which are apparent if you read the novel!

Finally came Ali Smith to read to us from How To Be Both. Her novel exists in 2 versions and so which story you get first depends entirely on which copy of the book you pick up.

Ali Smith

Ali Smith

Smith read an extract from each of the two possible openings of the novel.Both extracts were written in an energetic, stream of consciousness style.

Wark wanted to know what had captured Smith’s imagination and inspired het to write this story. She had wanted to write a book that does the same thing as a fresco. As a restorer works on a fresco and starts to remove the upper layer, they find another painting underneath. The basis of every narrative is an understory. In great books, the story is the thing you realise after you have read it.

The other strand in the book captures the feisty relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter. Smith explained that she has great hopes for the 15 year olds of today. They are able to multi task admirably…looking at two screens, whilst texting and reading a book! Such versatility will surely lead to great things.

The evening then ended with a few questions from the audience.Smith was asked about the duality and multiple versions of things in her novel. Were they in fact many drafts of an idea?

In fact, she replied, the novel had been edited very tightly. She had had to take a lot out. She had to split up lines to make a visual spiral in one part. An opening to a book is very important and causes great stress, she wanted to ask her fellow panellists about that.

Ferris remarked that the opening of his book had been buried half way through. He hadn’t realised that was the opening until someone else had pointed that out so had been spared the angst!

Flanagan’s rule is that one should rip out the first three pages of what you have written, in his experience the story generally starts there. Jacobson and Mukherjee both agreed that openings are best found when you have come to the end of writing a novel. Fowler said that she always dislikes her first draft. She tends to rewrite, then rewrite and then discover that what she has written does not belong in that novel at all.

Jacobson was asked whether characters can act as role models for life. Books certainly shape us. He has said before that no-one has ever been mugged by someone carrying a copy of Middlemarch. In literature we are taken outside ourselves and that can only be good for us.

Finally, Flanagan was asked what had happened to the Latvian man he had talked about. Did he go up to his wife or just keep on walking? He replied, mysteriously, that we would have to read the book to find out.

This was a wonderful evening. I had been feeling much less enthusiastic about the Booker than in previous years but hearing the authors read from and talk about their novels has sparked my interest anew. I can’t wait for the result and to read all the shortlisted novels.

I guess a prediction is now expected from me. I have only read Karen Joy Fowlers book from the shortlist. I really enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but on the basis of what I heard last night ,I would say that Ali Smith must be the winner, although Richard Flanagan must be running a close second. No doubt the judges will have a completely different idea!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy

photoIt was not without some trepidation that I began to read the latest book from Rachel Joyce. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry was a big hit in 2012 and long listed for the Man Booker Prize and I couldn’t help wondering if this might be an attempt to recreate that success, a rather half-hearted ‘spin-off’.

Harold Fry tells the story of the eponymous hero’s journey on foot across the length of England , sparked by receiving a letter from Queenie, a woman he had worked with years earlier. Along the way Harold becomes something of a media sensation whilst we learn the story of a life half-lived and the gradual deterioration of his marriage.

In her introductory letter to The Reader, Joyce explains that this latest book is not intended as a prequel or sequel to Harold Fry but rather a companion piece in which we learn Queenie’s side of the story and what compelled her to write that letter to Harold.

Queenie is unlucky in love and leaves Corby ending up in Kingsbridge , Devon to escape another affair gone wrong.  Having obtained a job in the local brewery, she is drawn to Harold when she first catches sight of him surreptitiously dancing in the snow in the brewery yard :

‘ With your left shoulder lifted,your elbows tucked into your waist and your hands poised, you begin a soft shoe shuffle in the powdery snow. You glide a little to the left, a little to the right, sashaying your body this way and that, balancing gently on one foot, then on the other. Once, you even twist your heels and give a full turn. All the time you dance, you keep an eye on your shadow and you’re grinning, as if you can’t quite believe it has the energy to keep up with you.’

So begins Queenie’s infatuation with Harold . Harold is married to Maureen however and so she tries to remain at a distance. Despite her best efforts, Queenie becomes enmeshed  in the tragedy of Harold and Maureen’s life together and carries a burden of guilt even as she tries to build a new life for herself faraway in Northumberland.

Queenie is now resident in St. Bernadine’s Hospice, Berwick-upon-Tweed and dying of a disfiguring cancer. When she receives Harold’s letter informing her of his intention to visit, Queenie, with the help of one of the nuns, begins a series of letters giving her side of the story.

All this could make for a very depressing or even mawkish read but interspersed with Queenie’s confessional, Joyce gives us a compassionate and  sometimes humorous glimpse of hospice life.

In Harold’s story we meet an array of characters that he stumbles across on his journey through Britain. Here the characters we meet are the other residents of St Bernadine’s. A group from disparate backgrounds and with clashing personalties all thrown together by the great leveller. Finty, in particular, is a great comic creation.

As the media circus around Harold grows, the residents all become caught up in the carnival. They are all determined to celebrate his eventual arrival. Queenie’s courage and strength are starting to fail and she begins to refuse the vitamin drinks the nurses bring round in the evening. Finty encourages her

‘ It seems like you have a man walking the length of England.There are some of us here that haven’t even had a visitor. So the least you can do is not kick the bucket. Now, I know you think you look like a monster, but this is hardly a beauty pageant. Look at Barbara here. The Pearly King has a plastic arm, and I am carrying the contents of my bowel in my handbag. Either you take the drinks like we do or you’ll end up on a drip feed. Which is it going to be?

The unpleasant drinks are drunk :

‘Thank fuck that’s over,’ said Finty, rubbing at her mouth and her sweatshirt. ‘Let’s have a game of Scrabble.’

I am not sure that this book is better than Harold Fry, as some reviewers have suggested, but it is at least as good. A very enjoyable read full of warmth humanity and comedy.

The Love Song Of Queenie Hennessy is published by Doubleday on 9th October 2014 and thank you to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

The Literary Salon with Damian Barr

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On 8th September I attended one of Damian Barr’s celebrated literary salons. The event was held in the Victorian splendour of the Ladies’ Smoking Room (!!) of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Ably hosted by the effervescent Damian , it is an opportunity for bookish people to come together, discuss literature and drink gin.

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Having completed a London to Brighton charity bike ride the day before, Damian professed himself to be both chuffed and chafed to be hosting the 6th Birthday event and possibly the last salon for which he will not require a passport to attend ( he is Scots ) !

We then met our guests in turn. I haven’t actually read any of the books under discussion so rather than a review I hope to give a flavour of the evening and the books presented to us.

First up was Alan Johnson, a union leader and former Home Secretary now turned memoir writer who had come to present his latest book Please Mr Postman , a follow up to This Boy, which will be published on 18t Sept.

Alan explained that this book takes up his life story at the age of 18 and just as he had joined the Post Office ( he was the leader of the postman’s union) in Barnes London SW13. His older colleagues were all of a generation that had fought in WW2, with fathers that had fought in WW1. There was much that was very militaristic about the post office then. Everything was done by hand with no mechanisation and, in terms of working practices, very little had changed since the First World War.

In This Boy, Alan detailed his deprived childhood in West London, abandoned by his father and blighted by the early death of his adored mother, Lily. As this new book opens, Alan is married to his first wife ,Jackie, becoming a step father to her child and a father in his own right. Damian remarked that this seemed like a lot to take on aged only 18.

Alan explained that he and Jackie were allocated a council house in Slough, which they loved, he had a job for life with a pension and a union to defend him. In many ways they were not facing the uncertainties that young couples face now.

He spoke movingly of his time in the postman’s union ( then called UPOW but now the CWU) most particularly of the educational opportunities it had given him.

He doesn’t miss his time in politics and is now very much enjoying his new life as a writer. His is unsure about his next project. He doesn’t want to write a political memoir and hinted that he may be working on a novel.

Next up was Esther Freud whose book Mr Mac And Me, already published, had not been on my radar , although it certainly is now.

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Set in 1914 in the Suffolk village of Walberswick, it narrated by 12 year old Thomas, son of the local publican and recounts the friendship that grows between him and Charles Rennie MacIntosh who is visiting .Esther read an extract from the book, which Damian described as spooky with the past echoing in the present.

The inspiration for the book came from Esther’s own house in Walberswick which had formerly been the village pub. The house had in fact been in her family since the 1940s and she bought it fully furnished. She immediately felt a ghostly presence at the back of the house. She knew this was a young boy and used to greet him whenever she became aware he was there.

She had originally started to write the story of the house with the ghost appearing in it. As a writer it is horrible to admit but sometimes you just have to accept your story isn’t working. Her narrative had become boring and she was bogged down by domestic detail . She started to give the ghost a voice and Thomas emerged, after that she just wanted to be with him.

MacIntosh had actually visited Walberswick in 1914, just before the outbreak of war.He was at a low point in his life . He had been a rising star in his youth and had won the commission for the Glasgow School Of Art for his firm.By the time he visited Walberswick however his life was in decline.

He had become known as difficult and a drinker. He was a perfectionist and difficult to work with. Although he was well regarded in Europe ( crucially in Germany and Austria) he was pretty much overlooked in Britain and very short of money.

He came to Walberswick at the invitation of Frances Newberry, Director of Glasgow School Of Art, who had a house there.Shortly after he arrived , war was declared and spymania took over. He was regarded with suspicion because of his foreign ( Scottish!) accent and had also written some letters in German ( to his benefactors there) and so was arrested. He was eventually freed after the intervention of his English and well connected wife but was banned from ever visiting Norfolk, Suffolk or Essex again.

Esther felt she had known the story of Thomas for a long time before writing it as he had been present in her home but she was surprised by the many parallels in his life and Mac’s as she researched for the story.

She was asked by a member of the audience how she managed to still her critical voice in order to work.The only way to do this is ‘ Just do it’ ! The only was to still the criticism is to continue to write.

Our final guest was David Mitchell, there to discuss his latest, Booker long listed novel The Bone Clocks.

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This is David’s 6th novel and ranges in time from 1984 to a near future dystopia. He read us three extracts , the first set in 1991 with a ‘West London posh kid’ ; the second an hilarious encounter between a celebrated writer and a would-be fan at Hay Festival in 2014 and the third narrated in 2025 by Marinus a character who also appeared in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet.

Damian asked him how he had conceived these six interconnecting novellas, did each come as a character?

David has come to realise that he is not actually a novelist.He can only write in small units and his optimum form is between 70 o 130 pages. He sees this as his getaway car in which to escape the tedium of writing a long novel.

Asked about his main character,Holly Sykes, David explained that a comprehensive school had been a very scary place for a bookish 13 year old. It had , however, provided him with much material as a novelist. Holly was based on some of the girls he remembered from school who he admired but felt scared of.

As a teenager, Holly starts to hear voices which might , of course, be the onset of schizophrenia but what if the voices are real? Her life is then turned on its head by the disappearance of her younger brother.

Damian asked  how he has constructed the novel. David replied that as a writer you sometimes find that what you are actually writing turns out to be the ‘wanky scaffolding’ on which a better piece can be constructed, rather as Esther had described earlier.

Originally this was going to be a series of short stories showing Holly throughout her life. He found that , novelistically anyway, children are not really interesting until the get to about aged 8.

He also had to accept that short stories read differently to a novel. They  are almost like poems, each word must be gleaned for significance and you can’t use literary devices such as foreshadowing or backstory. It is very difficult to sustain that over 600 pages – as a writer or as a reader.

Damian noted that many characters reappear from novel to novel. To what degree is that preplanned or does it just develop? David has been holding Marinus in his head for a while. He is acutely aware that our lifestyle now is funded by deals for which our children and grandchildren will have to pick up the tab.

He was then asked about Crispin Hershey who has been likened to Martin Amis. David denied that he was a caricature of Amis, he hasn’t got the time or energy for confrontational literary spats . He considers Amis to be a great writer. He doesn’t think about fandom and hero worship, which to some extent Crispin experiences. He is honoured that people will give him their time and money but does find it alarming that some people can be so devoted.

He enjoyed his experience of working on the opera librettos not least  because of the pleasure of working in a collaborative way. The work of a novelist is very lonely. He has no plans for any more however. He is rather in love with this big, baggy, gentle, vicious form the novel and wants to explore it some more.

He has been quoted as saying he has his next 4 or 5 books already inside his head. David explained that by this he means he knows enough about them to start hoarding research material. He can reveal that his next project is a short book.

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This was a magical evening which I enjoyed enormously. The kind of occasion at which you find you are standing next to David Mitchell and he is carrying a water-melon. The guest list was star studded – I saw Tracey Thorne, Ben Watt, David Nicholl and just tried to look nonchalant, like this was a pretty average night out for me.

Many thanks to Damian Barr for a fabulous soiree.

 

 

Book Review : The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

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I hadn’t intended to write a review of this book at all……in fact I hadn’t intended to read another Martin Amis book at all………but it has made such an impression on me that I felt I had to write a short piece about it.

I WAS a Martin Amis fan, up to round about Yellow Dog. I gave him another chance with The Pregnant Widow which I rated 1 star on Goodreads and then vowed I would never open a book of his again. A review of this latest novel on the Asylum Blog site made me think again.

In this Amis revisits territory he explored to some extent in Time’s Arrow. The title refers to the area surrounding a large , and unnamed in the book, concentration and death camp somewhere in the Eastern outreaches of the Nazi Empire.

It is also a metaphor for the aspect of human behaviour that Amis wants to explore in the novel. The central question posed here is that of Primo Levi, to whose memory the book is dedicated : Is This A Man?

Amis uses three very different narrators to guide us through The Zone.

Szmul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who are detailed to take arrivals to the gas chambers and then collect together their belongings and dispose of the bodies. He is also, unbeknownst to his captors, keeping a written record of his time there to outlive his now shortened life span . As he says :

‘ I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives  that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour , every minute of human history , you would find no exemplum, no model no precedent.

Martyrer, mucedni, martelaar, meczonnik, martyr, in every language I know the word comes from the Greek,martyr, meaning witness. We, the Sonders, or some of us, will bear witness. And this question , unlike every other question, appears to be free of ambiguity . Or so we thought.’

Szmul is the only hero in the book and Amis allows him to die a hero’s death….it is no spoiler, I think, to reveal that he does not outlive his gaolers.

Paul Doll. the camp leader, is a much more typical Amis creation. Brutal, sodden with alcohol , vain and deluded through Doll we explore the Orwellian language used by the Nazis to describe the ‘ final solution’ as well as the cumbersome noun construction of the German language itself. His already tenuous grip on reality deteriorates as the book goes on. Increasingly he is tortured by his wife’s disdain for him and  the logistics of what he has to achieve :

‘ And mind you, disposing of the young and the elderly requires other strengths and virtues – fanaticism, radicalism, severity, implacability, hardness, iciness, mercilessness, und so weiter. After all (as I often say to myself) somebody’s got to do it……’

In Golo Thomsen , nephew of Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, Amis poses the question how did a nation so cultivated and urbane perpetrate such an horrific crime against humanity?  Speer is mentioned many times by Thomsen in the course of his narrative. In fact as a character, Thomsen reminded me of Jonathan Littell’s narrator in Les Bienveillantes , Max Aue, although I read this weekend that Amis was not an admirer of that novel. Golo is the classic outsider, coldly observing the horror around him whilst taking advantage off what any situation can offer him :

‘It was time to introduce and emphasise my theme.Under the political system that here obtained, everyone had soon got used to the idea that where secrecy began, power began. Now, power corrupts : this was not a metaphor. But power attracts, luckily (for me).was not a metaphor either; and I had derived much sexual advantage to my proximity to power. I wartime, women especially felt the gravitational pull of it; they would be needing all their friend and admirers , all their protectors.’

The Zone Of Interest is a remarkable achievement . It is meticulously researched and movingly and respectfully told and a long-awaited return to form.

 

An Evening With Ian McEwan

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Today sees the UK publication of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. On 1st September I attended the Guardian Reader event at The Cadogan Hall at which Ian McEwan was interviewed by journalist and novelist, Jonathan Freedland.

I haven’t read The Children Act as yet . I only picked up my signed copy last night and so I can’t review it at all.  I also can’t say whether this little report of the evening contains any spoilers – I’m just recording some of the things discussed at the event.

McEwan began the evening with a reading from the very beginning of the book (pp1 -8). The main character of The Children Act  is Fiona May, a High Court Judge in the Family Division. At the opening of the book Fiona’s personal life is about to enter a crisis as Jack, her husband of many years, announces his intention to have an affair with ‘ A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife.’

Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t want the marriage to end but, Fiona wryly reflects ‘ The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later,’

Just as her private life goes into turmoil, her professional life becomes challenging when she is asked to preside over two very difficult cases, most particularly a case concerning a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are withholding consent to life-saving treatment for him.

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Freedland opened the interview by pointing out the strange coincidence that this book is being published just as the sad news of Ayasha King and his family is all over our TVs and newspapers. McEwan was quick to point out that although that case did involve a Jehovah Witness family it did not , as far as he could tell, involve religion per se. Rather, he thought, it was best described as a ‘cascade of chaos’ .Terrible consequences have been unleashed by pushing bureaucratic buttons and now a poor child is languishing in a hospital without his family.

His novel concerns a rather different scenario of a teenager who knows his own mind and is refusing life saving treatment. The title of the book refers to actual legislation, The Children Act 1989, and the over-riding principle appears on its flyleaf – ‘ …the child’s welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration.’

Over the age of 18 one can refuse medical treatment but where that person is a child, the courts become involved in any dispute  and so we have the collision between the secular mind and sincerely held religious beliefs. We seem to be undergoing  a national period of soul searching concerning the welfare of children at a time in which it has become clear that terrible abuses have occurred .

Freedland pointed out that in the book McEwan seems to be very critical of the role of so called experts in such cases. McEwan agreed that he particularly wanted to highlight the role of Roy Meadows on whose say so more than one woman had been wrongly sent to prison. This was also a failing of the judiciary. Judges can be both brilliant and awful. Terrible miscarriages of justice do occur.

Freedland remarked that he seemed remarkably well disposed towards lawyers. McEwan agreed that lawyers had had a bad press since Shakespeare but he finds that on the whole they speak eloquently and write well. They enjoy jokes about lawyers and he would rather stand in a British court where the separation of powers offers protection against the perversity of whatever government is in power. This, of course, is not the case in many parts of the world.As a lawyer myself, I felt my admiration for him grow!

The language of the best judgements is, he has found, quite extraordinary. He mentioned particularly the judgements of Sir Alan Ward. The tone of these can be both witty and sceptical and the range of historical and philosophical references is vast. Rather like novelists, judges read and criticize  each others work…..and rather like novelists, they are toughest on those who are foolish enough to have left the conversation.

Freedland asked about the significance of Fiona’s childlessness to the novel. The absence of children is something McEwan has written about before and here he referred to A Child In Time where the absence of a particular child is harrowingly described. He feels we are all the owners of the children we once were and carry our own lost childhoods with us. In his view we are still that child to some extent. That was very much in his mind when he wrote A Child In Time.

Fiona has faced a dilemma that many women at work now face, she has delayed having children  and now finds herself without a family. The point of Fiona’s childlessness, though, is that in the boy she finds the hint of the child she never had. Fiona is very intelligent but she is not emotionally articulate.

Freedland then alluded to McEwan’s own brush with the family courts and wondered whether this had in anyway influenced his choice of subject. By way of explanation, McEwan went through a very bitter divorce and custody dispute with his first wife. McEwan found his own experience immensely painful and he doesn’t want to speak or write about it at all. There is a passage in the book where he talks about the ease with which adults persuade themselves that to divorce will be best for their children. He thinks there is an almost consumerist rush for a younger wife or a richer husband which he refers to as moral kitsch.

McEwan was asked about the significance of the world of work in his novels as several feature particular professions. He explained that the background is never the first inspiration for him , it is always the story but that he felt work was extremely important. Work went missing in the modern novel for which he blamed Henry James. James preferred his characters to have a private income so that he could explore the human condition without distraction.  McEwan is not persuaded by this. Work is often the key to our identity, it is where we meet our friends and often our lovers.

He revealed that the professions of airline pilot and architect particularly interest him.He had been thinking of William Golding’s The Spire whilst contemplating the Shard the other evening and wondering whether the building  was a triumph or a disaster ……..he had come to the conclusion that it was actually rather brilliant. Bermondsey needed something like that on its skyline!

He is more and more interested in a form of social realism in the novel, to look at where we are going now and , it seemed to him, work must be part of that. In the 70s he had flirted with the post modern , existentialist style . For example in The Cement Garden he deliberately didn’t say when or where it was……he can now reveal it was Stockwell in 1976! At this time he thinks there was a mistaken belief that  not specifying the time or place made the work more universal. That he now rejects, you only have to think of supremely regional novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to see that that is not the case.

McEwan was then asked about the length of this novel, like several of his others it is short at 55 thousand words. Did he feel that a story is best told concisely? He joked that he resented the implication that he couldn’t write a long novel , it is almost as if we were discussing sexual prowess. At one time of course we didn’t know the word count of a piece of writing, now it is there at the bottom of the screen.

He finds it interesting to move between the space and patience of a longer novel and a shorter one ,where necessarily there is a paring down of sub plot.He thinks Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were masters of the art of the short novel. In fact  the close of this novel pays tribute to Joyce’s The Dead. He thinks this is the supreme example of a novella and he couldn’t end without acknowledging it.

The evening was then opened up to questions from the floor and I have chosen just a few of the ones I found most interesting as I am mindful of my own word count.

A member of the audience revealed that he had studied Enduring Love for A-Level and he wondered what McEwan felt about being a set text author and whether there were any of his books he felt were unsuitable for study in school.

He does have mixed feelings about being ‘forced ‘ to read a book and wonders whether any of those readers will ever come back to him. His own son had studied Enduring Love and he found it most disconcerting to find notes lying round the house starting ‘ McEwan thinks…. McEwan is trying to say…..’. He also told us that on one occasion he had given his son the benefit of his thoughts to help with an essay. His son had come home with a D grade !!

In his opinion,  his first two volumes of short stories and The Comfort Of Strangers are unsuitable to study in school. They are so dark and depressing and you have enough to contend with when you are sixteen. He is really not sure about being a ‘ set’ author, it makes him feel dead.

A female member of the audience asked him about his favourite female authors since often his protagonists are female but all the authors he had mentioned were male.

He is very fond o the writing of Rose Tremain. He is also re-kindling his affection for Virginia Woolf. He fell out with her in Atonement but recently visited Charleston and felt her presence. His disenchantment was caused by what he thought at that time was a lack of backbone in the narrative although he feels differently now. He particularly recommended her Diaries.

He was then asked about Will Self’s article in which Self accused George Orwell of being a mediocrity. McEwan hadn’t read the article so couldn’t comment on it specifically but felt that Orwell was just about as far away from being a mediocrity as it was possible to be. Orwell captured the sensible voice dealing with difficult issues. His ghost can be heard in the voices of James Fenton, Timothy Garton-Ash and his very dear friend Christopher Hitchens, all fine journalists . Orwell of course was the first to bring pop culture under scrutiny.

The evening then ended with some general musings on current affairs.He felt that this summer has seen the darkest news cycle that he can remember. It has turned him into a news junkie……he starts the day with the Today programme, moves through the news channels during the evening , ending with Newsnight. In between he reads all the broadsheets and the New York Times. He may never find the time to write another novel again.

His current project is a screen play, first conceived in 1991 with a neuroscientist friend. It deals with the subject of deep brain stimulation. At the time it was originally written, of course, we didn’t even carry mobile phones but it foresaw in some way Google and the impact of the internet. He wants to see if this can be revived and brought up to date.

This is just a flavour of the evening we also discussed the effect of trauma on the psyche, whether he had read The Goldfinch ( he hadn’t!) and Scottish Independence. It was a fabulous evening , McEwan is an intellectual dazzler and a gifetd raconteur  and was ably coaxed on by Freedland. I am really looking forward to reading The Children Act.

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.

 

Book Review :Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

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Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love Nina, was an hilarious memoir of her experiences as a nanny catapulted from rural Leicestershire into the literary circles of North London in the 1980s. In Man At The Helm she has turned her comic talents to fiction, albeit with a dash of personal experience.

It is 1970 and Lizzie and her sister find developments at home a little bewildering after her father leaves following a fight :

‘Mother will go 100 per cent crazy on her own,’ said my sister. ‘Let’s pray he comes home soon and they don’t split up.’

‘They won’t split up.’ I said.

‘I bet they will. They have nothing in common – they’re chalk and cheese,’ said my sister. I didn’t agree. I thought they were just different kinds of cheese (or chalk).’

To set this conversation in a context you have to understand that divorce in 1970 was not yet commonplace in the UK. The Matrimonial Causes Act, which introduced the concept of a ‘ no fault divorce’, was not enacted until 1973.

Just a few years after this fictional conversation takes place, I came home from a school trip to Germany to have my sister whisper to me in our bedroom at night that things had been pretty awful and she thought Mum and Dad would have a divorce. My reaction was exactly the same as Lizzie’s – I told her not to be so stupid. It was perfectly normal for parents not to get on.

In fact Lizzie’s sister, just like my own, is perfectly right and so begins the family’s descent into chaos. They become a single parent family , headed up by her shell-shocked mother and regarded by all with suspicion . Lizzie’s sister is convinced that the children will end up wards of court sent to a children’s home their only hope is to begin a quest to find their mum another husband – a man at the helm.

The book is full of period detail. I laughed out loud at references to the feather cut ( yes, I have some hideous school photos of that) and also Chi-Chi the panda. It was mention of My Learn To Cook Book by Ursula Sedgwick that really had me chuckling. This formed part of my own childhood library. My sister still has our copy and our disastrous attempts to make, I think, Apple Crumble directed by the cartoon dog and cat led to a ban on using the cooker when my mother was out at work.

Lizzie is an astute observer of family life and relationships. She writes ruefully about having to agree with her big sister even when she isn’t  too worried about the issue herself :

‘Except that what bothered her bothered the rest of us in the end.’

Her mother had some early and fleeting success as a playwright before getting married. In the turmoil of a marriage breakdown, her mother turns to writing as an outlet for anger and frustration. Her mini plays, plotting the sad trajectory of her post divorce life and acted by the children,  provide some very funny episodes in the book, almost a Greek Chorus ….Lizzie, however, has some mixed feelings :

‘Clever, sometimes funny and always worldly – as good as anything you saw on telly or onstage except perhaps Terence Rattigan, who didn’t do as much explaining and yet revealed so much. Our mother did rather spell things out and her characters occasionally broke the fourth wall, which I considered cheating.

This is more than just a farcical romp through the 1970s, Lizzie is a wonderful comic creation. She vocalises  a child’s bewilderment at the collapse of the world around her,  coupled with the casual ,although usually unintended, cruelty of adults .Lizzie serves to remind us that children are perfectly calibrated barometers of family life.

Lizzie’s voice is poignant , brave and totally authentic. My only criticism would be that she does, at times,  does display a worldly knowledge beyond her supposedly 9 years.

 Man At The Helm is published on 28th August. I am very grateful  for the review copy from Nina Stibbe and Penguin……but I am definitely buying   two more copies, one for my sister and one for another friend of my youth who I know this will speak to.

 

 

Testament Of Youth and Grey Ghosts And Voices

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In the lead up to the centenary of  the start to WW1 I agreed to (re) read A Testament Of Youth along  with some other bookish Tweeters.

I first read the book in 1979 ( I know, say nothing!) following the fabulous BBC adaptation which was a huge hit at the time.

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As a young woman hoping to go to University myself ( the first in my family), Vera’s story really spoke to me.

Testament Of Youth is a reminiscence written in 1933 by Vera Brittain, the mother of the politician Shirley Williams. It tells the story of Vera’s wartime service during World War 1 and the tragic fate of her generation.

The book opens before the start of the War and we find Vera desperate to get an education and attend university. She has encountered hostility to this from her parents although it is naturally assumed that her younger brother, Edward, will of course be sent away to school and then go to Oxford.

Vera was an early feminist and a socialist and she vividly recounts the stifling atmosphere of middle class life in Buxton where the family lived.

‘To me provincialism stood, and stands,for the sum-total of all false values; it is the estimation of people for what they have, or pretend to have, and not for what they are. Artificial classifications, rigid lines of demarcation that bear no relation whatsoever to intrinsic merit, seem to belong to its very essence, while contempt for intelligence, suspicion and fear of independent thought, appear to be necessary passports to provincial popularity.’

She longs for an education and to become involved in intellectual and political life but finds that for women society allows very few options.

‘ It feels sad to be a woman!’ I wrote in March 1913 -the very month in which the Cat And Mouse Act was first introduced for the ingenious torture of militants.’Men seem to have so much more choice as to what they are intended for.’

Vera achieves her dream and goes up to Oxford in October 1914. Over the summer she had fully expected to be there at the same time as her brother, Edward, and his friend ,Roland Leighton ,with whom she has a growing romance. At the outbreak of war both Edward and Roland sign up and so Vera goes to Oxford alone.

With all those dear to her away serving, academic life seems seems increasingly irrelevant to her and in 1915 she defers her studies to become a VAD or volunteer nurse seeing service in London, Malta and France.

Vera and Edward in Uniform

Vera and Edward in Uniform

At the end of the war, Vera returns to Oxford only to find that her once cherished ambitions feel empty to her now and she has little in common with her fellow students who have not experienced war service. She find she is also one of the ‘surplus’ women for whom no husbands or work can now be found in Britain. She reads a newspaper article that suggests such women should seek work abroad to better their prospects and writes to a friend ;

Personally I haven’t the least objection to being superfluous as long as I am allowed to be useful, and though I shall be delighted for any work I may do to take me abroad, it will not be because I shall thereby be enabled the better to capture the elusive male.

Vera finds solace through her work lecturing for the League of Nations and in her friendship with the novelist Winifred Holtby.

The book is divided into three parts with each section beginning with a contemporary poem or quote. Part Two opens with an extract from a poem by May Wedderburn Cannan which reminded me that at about the same time as I read Testament Of Youth I had come across May Cannan’s memoir in our local library.

Grey Ghosts and Voices has long been out of print but I managed to track down a second hand copy and read it as a companion piece  to Vera Brittain.

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May Wedderburn Cannan came from a similarly middle class home to Vera. Her family was , however, a more intellectual one. Her father was head of the Oxford University Press and a close friend of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the novelist and academic.

May’s education was as intermittent and slapdash as Vera’s but she is less of a feminist and more accepting of the status quo.

WW1 offers May an opportunity to enter the world of work that was previously denied her. She serves as a Red Cross volunteer nurse and works briefly at a canteen for the troops in France behind the front-line . She then starts to work for her father at OUP to take the place of male employees now called up to fight.

As the war runs on she longs to get back to France and she ends the war in Paris using her office skills to work for British Intelligence.She relishes the freedom that working gives her and enjoys earning her own living.

Just as the war ends, Bevil Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur’s son, arrives in Paris to propose to her. They had known each other from childhood but their whirlwind romance in Paris really captured my teenage imagination. May returns to England to prepare for her marriage.

Sadly May’s wedding never takes place. Weakened by four years in the trenches, Bevil dies of pneumonia in February 1919 leaving May staring into a future that seems void.

Her postwar years are very close to Vera’s. She struggles to find a meaning to her life and also feels alienated from the younger generation who did not experience the war.

She too suffers the stigma of being one of the ‘surplus’ women but is determined to stay in work and earn her living. During one interview she is asked rather snootily if she has a degree :

I thought, ”Well, I’ve lost it”‘ and I thought “surplus two million”; and I collected my bag and my gloves and I looked at them all sitting round that long table and I said “If I had got a Degree it would have been between 1914 and 1918 and I preferred to be elsewhere. And what is more Gentlemen” – I got up now and I pushed back my chair and made them a little bow-“I still prefer to have been elsewhere”

She gets the job!

May’s story is perhaps more conventional than Vera’s but it was great to reconnect with it after all this time. The title of the book is a quote from one of her moving poems summing up her feelings as the war ends and she finds herself alone :

Now we must go again back into our world

 

 Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,

And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts,

And Lovers’ crying;

Back to the old, back to the empty world  

 

This First World War reading was an emotional journey but one I am glad I made both books are well worth the effort and the tissues. Thank you to Claire from claire.thinking.blogspot.co.uk for coming up with the idea.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Book Review :The Incarnations by Susan Barker

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As Wang Jun drives his taxi through the streets of Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, he reflects on how busy the city has become.

‘The rush-hour crowds disappear into the subway; the masses, shrieking into cell-phones, treading on heels and fighting their way through the scrum. Stalled in traffic, Wang watches them, his head throbbing with the engine. There’s no harmonious society, he thinks, only the chaos of people with crooked teeth and no manners, trampling on each other.’

Life in China has changed completely over his lifetime but Wang’s past is about to catch up with him.

Wang lives with his wife, Yida, and young daughter, Echo, in a cramped flat. He is virtually estranged from his father. Wang Hu was once a powerful party official but is now a helpless invalid cared for by the malicious Lin Hong, his former mistress but now his second wife.

Wang begins to find mysterious letters planted in his taxi cab. We are then taken on a journey from 7th Century  through the Opium Wars right up to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as the shadowy correspondent tells the tales of seemingly unrelated lives.

Wang Jun’s own tragic story following the death of his mother also unravels and he finds himself unable to to escape from his past and his first love.

This book was an unexpected delight. Barker offers us a window into what is still a closed world. Her picture of life in modern China is fascinating. Despite its nominal communism, the disparity between those who have and those who have nothing is wide and growing. Wang and his co-driver, Baldy Zhang, struggle to make a living , their flats are dingy and overcrowded whilst the new elite drive fast cars and live in opulent apartments.

‘The darkness and corruption is everywhere, at every level of society. Greed is the beating heart of our people, and morality is overruled by the worship of money. Anyone can be bought and sold, Driver Wang. Even your own wife.’

She also captures the arbitrary brutality of the Cultural Revolution with its Orwellian language and ferocious Red Guards spreading fear throughout the country.

 A third-year girl called Shaoli shrieks the headteacher’s crimes through a loud speaker: ‘Headteacher Yang Attempted to Overthrow the Communist Government and Take Over The Military! Headteacher Yang Attempted to Assassinate Chairman Mao!”

Headteacher Yang is stony faced and unrepentant. Shaoli calls over Teacher Wu and tells him to slap the head teacher. When he refuses a second year girl beats him with a broom.. They call over Teacher Zhao and, scared of being beaten too, she slaps Headteacher Yang to loud cheers. “Harder! Harder!’ shout their former former pupils. Shaoli orders Headteacher Yang and Teacher Zhao to knock heads, and they headbutt each other like rams. “Harder!” Shaoli shouts through the loudspeaker, like a ringmaster in a circus of humiliation and cruelty.

Keen to lead the Anti-black Gang Capitalist rally, you take the loudspeaker from Shaoli, punch your fist in the air and shout,”The iron fist of the proletariat will crush the enemies of Chairman Mao! Heads will roll! Blood will flow! But we will never let go of Mao Zedong Thought! Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!”

The Incarnations could have read like an informative and well researched history of China but nothing could be further from the truth. Barker has created a set of characters who jump off the page and Wang’s heartrending story is sensitively told. It is hard to say too much more without spoilers …….I definitely recommend reading it.

The Incarnations is published by Doubleday and thank you to Susan Barker for sending me a copy.

Book Review :Upstairs At The Party

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Imagine a time before student loans, when tuition fees were paid by the government. This is the world of Linda Grant’s latest novel, Upstairs At The Party.

The novel is an attempt by the main character, Adele, to look back over her life and make some sense of who she has become and why :

‘If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes,acts,or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don’t know how to explain.’

Like Grant, Adele is born into a Liverpool Jewish family not long after the end of the second world war. From her grandfather she learns the value of telling a story :

That is the power of stories, never forget: they make like truth.

Adele uses her story telling skills to wangle herself a place at one of the ‘new’ universities recently opened in an attempt to extend access to higher education. From there she is catapulted into a world very different from her working-class Jewish roots :

‘We were a tiny oasis of unreality in a world that itself is semi forgotten, a time when the university computer took up a whole building and was tended by maths students in white lab coats. On the other hand, we were, I suppose, pioneers of environmentalism , chewing indigestible substances – brown rice, brown bread, brown sugar – while our parents still ate processed cheese and  instant mashed potato and thought it was Progress. A few of us really did hug trees.’

It is the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement, consciousness-raising and vegetarianism. Nothing could be further from her home life. She meets a whole array of seemingly glamourous and sophisticated friends including the enigmatic couple Evie and Stevie.

This is the section of the novel that worked best for me. The period is so vividly imagined that I could almost smell the damp musty student houses and I was convinced that I had known some of the characters at Uni .

An event upstairs at her party informs the rest of Adele’s life and the ripples follow her long after university is over.

This is a brave and complex novel in which the characters develop, grow and change. It is only as she gets older that Adele can see the ‘event’ and the people involved for what they really were. Her maturity brings her to realise that life is just a series of chance occurrences over which we have limited control :

‘ I hate the feeling of determinism . I like the illusion of free agency that the university gave us. But there is no avoiding what might have happened had I not run into Stevie that day outside the library, not gone against my will to the flat and met George.’

It also forces her to reassess the women of her mother’s generation that she had been so desperate to get away from :

‘…the women in their gashes of lipstick and frosted eyeshadow, parade past me and turn and look and smile the bitter triumphant smiles of women who have not surrendered to or been defeated by death.

I wonder if we have done half as well, and how much longer it will take to learn all their lessons.’

This is a bold work that I have thought about long after finishing. At times it is very moving but there are enough witty and insightful observations on life and relationships to keep it from ever becoming maudlin.

Upstairs At The Party is published on 3rd July. Thank you to Virago for the review copy.