Sara Taylor – The Shore


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Dark, violent, disturbing, beautifully written, and with an obsidian glitter

The ShoreThe Shore is a highly assured debut novel by a young author, originally from rural Virginia, whose tertiary education was in the UK, which is where she now lives.

The setting of this interweaving, deeply entangled collection of individual stories, spins itself backwards and forwards, picking up a thread here, leaving it dangling, working that thread into another patch of story, ranging between 1876 and 2143, within the geography of a patch of small islands off the Virginia Coast, and loosely within the interlocked lives of a couple of individuals born in the 1850s, and their descendants.

The family histories are dark indeed. Women, across the generations, abused by some of their menfolk, who are themselves hardened by poverty and prey to addiction, whether illicit alcohol, home stilled during Prohibition, or, in modern times, the cooking of crystal meth.


One family strand tells the story of Medora, child of a Shawnee Indian woman and a brutal white landowner. Medora learns the lore of plants, and within her descendants there are those who still follow shamanic ways, prophetic ways.

It’s extremely difficult to categorise this powerful book – the future moves into an obvious dystopian world, which is heralded in the declining fortunes of the rural community from that 1850s start, and which is echoed in the history of many rural communities in the developed world in the twentieth century.

The book starts with a murder and a mutilation, and there are more murders to come, not to mention rape, castration, physical and emotional abuse – and yet, there is no sense at all of a gratuitous writer titillating with all this

When news of the murder breaks I’m in Matthew’s buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the house, but we found a dollar and sixty-three cents in change, and decided free crabs would get us the most food for that money. Usually we use bacon rinds for bait, but we’ve eaten those already

I’m squatting down looking at the boxes of cupcakes on a bottom shelf when a woman steps over me to get to the register……….She’s a big fat woman, with more of an equator than a waist; she steps heavy, all of her trembling as she does, and for a moment I’m worried she’s going to fall and squish me. She dumps a dozen cans of pork and beans on the belt and gets out her food stamps, then digs down the front of her stretched-out red shirt and pulls a wrinkled ten-dollar bill out of her bra to pay for a pack of menthols

Taylor writes extremely well – and can capture the voices of different generations, different times, men, women and children.

I really liked the fact that I never knew quite where I was going in her book, the fact that she does not follow a one directional linear route with it. The structure mirrored, if you like, the tangle of braided lives, with the grand pattern coming clear at the end, and earlier lives of people now long dead touching the sections set in the twenty-second century

What is also noteworthy, despite the brutality, the violence, the wastedness of many of the lives, is a fierce connection to the land, and family ties, and friendships, particularly concepts of sisterhood, whether sisters by blood, or sisters purely by gender.

Finally, the UK book cover is rather wonderful. It does not at all suggest, or hint at the true nature of this book, and I am so pleased that it doesn’t. There could have been some very poor and schlocky design, illustrating some of the violence of the subject matter. It was only on finishing the book that the cover began to reveal its subtle appropriateness (shells, just shells of various kinds)

I will, for sure, be following this writer with interest. After such an assured, and original beginning, I have no idea what subsequent books might bring. Taylor has a voice which is unusual, feels authentic, and, for once, the dust-jacket praise seems deserved.

For me, Adam Thorpe, poet and novelist (Ulverton) captures her best:

Sara Taylor has a completely natural unforced feel for language and voice: a remarkable debut

It is.Sara Taylor

And, it was a review of this, by Bending Over Bookwards which alerted me to the fact this had been sitting patiently on my bedside TBR, waiting to be read. I wish I could remember who or what first alerted me to buy it, and thank them, but, alas, sunk in the Assateague mists of time

The Shore Amazon UK
The Shore Amazon USA

Colette – Claudine at School


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Wicked, vicious and enchanting – girl power in France, circa 1900

Claudine at SchoolA major effect of my sequential twentieth century challenge is that reading in this way will inevitably take me outside the book itself as an isolated reading experience, and focus some attention on the time, culture and geography of its arising – and, I suspect, I shall happily be drawn into ‘biographical fallacy’ as there is always a life being lived (the author’s) in that time, culture and geography. And sat within the twenty-first century, it will no doubt be interesting to see how much we consider to be modern and new is of course, merely a spiral: specific manifestations may change, but the form remains the same

So, turning to Colette’s first novel, Claudine at School, the story of a racy minx of a fifteen year old in a perhaps unusual school in Burgundy, which was published in 1900 purporting to be written by Monsieur Willy, the nom-de-plume of Colette’s husband, it’s necessary to take a look at the author, and also at the person whose name originally appeared as author.Claudine_ecole_colette

Colette, born in 1873 as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was by 1893 married to Henry Gauthier-Villars, a man some 14 years older than she was. His pen-name was amusingly apt, as far as Anglo Saxon speakers are concerned, because he was a libertine, with serial mistresses. Monsieur Willy was an ‘author’ – except he wasn’t exactly. He was a man of wealth whose family business was a publishing house. Although he was a music critic and writer who wrote under several nom-de-plumes, he also persuaded impoverished writers to write books which he then published under his own name, gaining some reputation as a man of letters. Although the authors did get some recompense, and had the satisfaction of getting published, they did not get the financial rewards, or the kudos, which might have accrued had they got published elsewhere, under their own names. This seems like a different version, perhaps, of our modern vanity publication – in reverse! Willy encouraged Colette, clearly a woman of generous sexual tastes, to have affairs with women whilst he continued his own affairs, which marriage did not interrupt. Curiously, it did not seem that he encouraged her to also have affairs with other men!

In the end Colette married three times, as well as having relationships with other women. It is not always clear how much of her writing is fictional, and how much merely an embroidery of fact.

Colette as a schoolgirl found on

Colette as a schoolgirl :

The story behind the Claudine series of four books puts it about that that this is a thinly disguised fiction, based on Colette’s own experiences at school. Colette recounted some amusing, not to mention salacious, tales of life at a school, where the headmistress and second mistress were lesbians, and the central character and narrator, Claudine, was more interested in girls and young women than she was in boys and young men, at that time. Willy suggested she wrote ‘her’ escapades into a story, and he would see if he could publish them. By all accounts, he didn’t initially think much of them and slung them, forgotten, into a drawer. A few years later, discovering them, he realised they were gold, and published them under his name. To be honest, the themes of hot-house gymslip pashes, crushes and overt lesbian sex, plus a fair smattering of dominatrix behaviour, perhaps become more alluring if they are presented as being more fact than fiction, as his wife’s stories, written by him. Certainly Colette had a rather unconstrained, definitely unconventional sexual history, and the reader might assume Claudine IS Colette, though the story certainly has major departures from her own known life – Claudine is the only child of a widower who is an academic specialising in the study of slugs – this latter the source of much humour. Colette was the daughter of a tax collector and her much loved mother, Sido did not die in the author’s childhood! Nonetheless, the way Colette describes the definitely vampy Claudine, down to that amazing hair and the shadowed, smudged eyes, does seem as if she has described herself!

Colette’s life did show her to be a highly sexy and alluring woman, with a remarkably, one would think, for the time, relaxed, light-hearted and playful attitude to sex. Certainly what might be thought of as ‘Victorian morality’ was not the case across the Channel, if Colette, and her book’s reception are anything to go by. Claudine at School (and the three later volumes in the series) became a runaway success, inspiring merchandising mayhem, and generating income for ‘Monsieur Willy’

Colette by Jacques_Humbert_1896

Colette by Jacques Humbert 1896

By 1906 the marriage was over. Willy owned the copyright to the books and the merchandise, and Colette was unable to profit from her own works. To support herself, she went on the stage, had a scandalous relationship with another woman, married twice more, and in her late 40’s embarked on an affair with her 16 year old stepson, the child of her second husband. In a case of art imitating life, one of her most famous books, Chéri (and The Last of Chéri ) charts the relationship between a woman in her 50s and a much younger man/boy. Her third husband, with whom she lived happily until she died, was also a much younger man.

Probably her most famous book was Gigi, which became a stage musical and a film

Her writing was hugely appreciated and praised in her native country – as indeed it deserved to be – her life and her art explored female sexuality, marriage, and the struggles of women for independence. She had a great gift for describing the world of the senses and physicality. Even in this first book there is clear delight in her descriptions of the natural world, the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of reality. She was at one time regarded as France’s greatest woman writer, was a recipient of several literary honours, in both France and Belgium, President of the Academie Goncourt, a recipient of the Legion of Honour, nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and was the first French female writer to receive a full State funeral.

Reading a brief account of her life and works, though I had read the Claudine books, and Cheri, many years ago, I had not at that time taken on board how extraordinary the subject matter was, given the time of publication. Never mind the sexual revolution of the sixties, certainly across the Channel from England this Frenchwoman was openly exploring her sexuality as the twentieth century dawned – and doing so in her writing with wit, verve, delicious openness and freedom. England and France were clearly worlds apart. It is impossible to think of an English writer at this time, at the tail end of Victoria’s reign, writing a book like this which is so frank and bold about young girls’ passions, and it also becoming a run-away best seller. What is remarkably different from, for example English writing on ‘inversion’ (as the term went in the UK) – such as Radclyffe Hall’s admittedly a generation later ‘Well of Loneliness’ or E.M. Forster’s 1913/14 written Maurice – which was in fact not published till after the author’s death – is that there is no sense of shame or guilt in ‘Claudine’ – there is gossip, there are whisperings and delight in scandal, but there is a kind of ‘so what?’ shrug being expressed about it all. A film of the book Claudine a L’École, directed by Serge de Poligny, and starring  Blanchette Brunoy, was released in 1937, here showing just some clips

What looks like a rather more knowing TV version followed later, with Marie-Hélène Breillat in the title role, directed by Édouard Molinaro and there is certainly a lot more ‘sass’ and a sense of in your face provocation in the clip from this.

Claudine herself is intelligent, witty, vicious, prone to sadism, rebellious, an utter minx, fearsome and sparklingly entertaining – and no relation at all to some of the troubled, angsty teens who become icons later in the century – Holden Caulfield, for example. Claudine runs rings around everyone, she oozes sexuality and female power and is no man’s – or woman’s – pushover. The book fizzes with vivacity, and the girls are remarkably odd – the intelligent ones are all wickedly ill-behaved, and the adults to a man and woman easily manipulated by the charming and scary Claudine and her close chum and nemesis ‘the lanky Anaïs’ This is young girl power, like a firework display.

Who would have thought that weird eating habits – a predilection for eating snow, pencils, crayons, cigarette papers and drinking vinegar could produce such an example of girls with not only attitude, but high intelligence and wit (you’ll have to read the book!)

We still had ten minutes to go before the end of class; how could we use them? I asked permission to leave the room so that I could surreptitiously gather up a handful of the still-falling snow. I made a snowball and bit into it: it was cold and delicious. It always smells a little of dust, this first fall. I hid it in my pocket and returned to the classroom. Everyone round me made signs to me and I passed the snowball round. Each of them, with the exception of the virtuous twins, bit into it with expressions of rapture. Then that ninny of a Marie Belhomme had to go and drop the last bit and Mademoiselle Sergent saw it.

“Claudine! Have you gone and brought in snow again? This is really getting beyond the limit!”

She rolled her eyes so furiously that I bit back the retort “It’s the first time since last year

Finally, during the hilarious examination scene, and in the lessons where the teachers vainly try to keep order, the standard of education, and particularly maths, is fearsomely high. No calculators either.

For me personally, the story dragged a little once the examination scene was over, and the final big set-piece and wrap up happened, with the visit of the Minister of Agriculture and a big ‘town celebration’ , though it did give the chance to open into the wider world.

Colette with a couple of her soul-mates

     Colette with a couple of her soul-mates

The version I found was published in 1968, translated by Antonia White – she of Frost In May fame. You can rather tell that the translator is someone who is able to do much more than just ‘literal word for word’, and is someone who has the feel for the shape of a sentence, and the flavour of writing and different writers. I had no sense of ‘in translation’ just of immediate connection with what I was reading. The Kindle Version appears to be of the Vintage Classics republication of this, with White’s translation

Claudine at School Amazon UK
Claudine at School Amazon USA


Theodore Dreiser – Sister Carrie


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Championing a fairer deal for women and the working class in early twentieth century America

Sister CarrieTheodore Dreiser’s 1900 published novel, primarily set in Chicago, is a wonderful way to start my sequential reading the twentieth century challenge.

Many of the concerns which are likely to be centre stage in my reading of the century, which film-maker Adam Curtis (I’m sure, amongst others) dubbed ‘The Century of The Self’ are markedly to the fore in Dreiser’s novel. Indeed, I find connections with the non-fiction biggie from that year, which I’m slowly working through – Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams

Dreiser, in this written in the third person, narrator also as philosopher, interpreter, adviser, teacher, which was a common stance in writing at that time, as well as telling his story, also reminds us about the unconsciousness of many of our choices, and shows a lot of understanding of much which was being written about, discussed, debated, in a century which began to look at mind itself. The novelist has absorbed and thought about what is being addressed by the great psychotherapy pioneer and his colleagues and predecessors in this field

Sister Carrie was Dreiser’s first novel, and what a deep novel it is. It follows a clear narrative journey, has completely believable characters, the central ones of whom are particularly complex, nuanced and perfectly credible as recognisable individuals – but we also absolutely see the history and culture of time and place acting on them, moulding them, influencing and shaping them. Choices may be made, which seem individual, but the freedom of expression may be more circumscribed than some characters – or some readers, particularly at that time – may believe.

Carrie is a young rural girl, who comes to Chicago in 1889, to stay with her sister and her brother-in-law. Carrie has ambition, she is a young woman of beauty and some delicacy, wanting to improve her status and opportunities. She aspires to some kind of clerical office job, or perhaps as a sales assistant in one of the burgeoning glossy department stores. Unfortunately, her poverty and lack of experience are against her. It is an employer’s market, and all she can get is dirty, badly paid, unskilled factory work, exploited and working in impossibly harsh conditions.

Dreiser, writing with irony, looks back on the 1889 working conditions and compares them to the more enlightened thinking of ‘now’ (1900):

The place smelled of the oil of the machines and the new leather – a combination which added to by the stale odours of the building, was not pleasant, even in cold weather. The floor, though regularly swept each evening, presented a littered surface. Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees, the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible. What we know of footrests, swivel-back chairs, dining rooms for the girls, clean aprons and curling irons supplied free, and a decent cloak room, were unthought of. The wash rooms and lavatories were disagreeable, crude, if not foul places, and the whole atmosphere of hard contract

Another writer with a socialist, humane ideology, Upton Sinclair, in his famous book The Jungle, set also in Chicago, in the meat processing industry, and published in 1906, rather shows the ‘atmosphere of hard contract’ had not changed in the intervening years, so Dreiser was writing at a time when, practically, those footrests, dining rooms, clean lavatories and the rest, were still unthought of in factories.

Dreiser’s particular focus in this book though, is on women, on the circumscribed choices available to women, and how poverty and want may drive a woman to make a living by selling herself. He explores the different power dynamic between men and women, and also the different morality expected of the sexes.

I discovered with interest that though Sister Carrie found a publisher, the book was considered too hot – or even too offensive – to handle. It was poorly promoted, and in fact published expurgated. And this is not because of any salacious content. Dreiser never describes the bedroom content, we only are told she has been set up by a protector, and it’s perfectly obvious what choices she had to make to get protection.

"Chicago-Loop-1900" lsource: David Kennedy, et al. American Pageant (13th ed. 2006) p 503. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia

“Chicago-Loop-1900” source: David Kennedy, et al. American Pageant (13th ed. 2006) p 503. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia

What 1900 society found so offensive in Dreiser’s writing was his refusal to act the moralist, thundering down abuse on this fallen woman – instead, he reminds the reader how society itself creates the world in which the Carries must make this choice.

There are three major figures in this book, Carrie herself, the travelling salesman Charles Drouet and the sophisticated bar manager G.W. Hurstwood, looked up to by both Carrie and Drouet. Hurstwood is a man beginning to move in circles near the people of greater power, celebrity and wealth. In fact, the adulation of celebrity, and its shallowness, so symptomatic of our age, is also laid out here. The two men, like Carrie herself, aren’t presented as consciously wicked, rather with the normal human failings of weak will, easy desire, not to mention the ability to delude themselves. And the way society, and its political and economic systems are structured, offer false values as aspirations,  so encouraging those failings.

I found the authorial voice, and the wide ranging evidence of Dreiser’s sophisticated, nuanced thinking, as fascinating and absorbing as the story of, particularly, Carrie and Hurstwood, the trajectory of their entwined histories. The first section of the book has Carrie, starting from a kind of point of lowliness and desperation, and follows her rise (looked at one way) which might also be considered her fall. When she first meets Hurstwood, his star is in the ascendant, and life is rosy, and showing every possibility of getting rosier. From thence, the fortunes of the two, initially linked, begin to travel in different directions. It is Hurstwood who becomes the major focus, and the drift of his story also offers a glimpse into early twentieth century capitalism in America, and the hard fought struggles of labour to achieve fair wages, fair conditions

Dreiser’s philosophical musings in the book were aspects his publishers wanted removed. They were also more interested in Hurstwood’s story, and wanted the book to start with Hurstwood, and his first encountering Carrie, rather than following her story from her arrival in Chicago.


Delmonico’s – already a place to aspire to dine at in 1900 New York

Hurstwood is a far more complex character, and has a different journey from Carrie’s. We meet him first at the zenith of his being. There is one extraordinary chapter, presenting Hurstwood at a place where the choices he makes will be responsible for the rest of his life. As I read that psychologically fascinating story, the scene suggested itself like the playing of an painfully suspenseful Hitchcock movie, – the audience may be ahead of the character, and wanting to cry out ‘don’t do this’, but the protagonist is under the grip of strong instincts, and no realisation that, maybe, one small step too close to the edge of a precipice, will, for him, offer no way to retreat.

Dreiser must have been quite a complex individual. Whilst having understanding of how women, without the means for independence themselves, fell prey to exploitation by men, he was unable in his personal life, to achieve fidelity and constancy. Towards the end of his life, his social consciousness, and his belief in socialism led him to simultaneously join the Communist Party and the Episcopal Church. An interest in both political and ideological systems, and the workings of individual, personal morality, and how systems have their shaping on what might be called individual soul, run strongly through this book. Dreiser shows commitment to body, to mind, to spirit.

He was a foremost writer of the naturalist school : his subjects were working people, not those born to money, property and prestige. Writers of this school (for example Zola) were not just showing how things were, but also showing that the kinds of lives individuals have, and the choices they make, are ‘nature and nurture’ – with the nurture being societal, cultural, not purely individual family upbringing. Dreiser explores this in Sister Carrie.

I must admit his style is not always the most flowing, and he isn’t a writer of what appears to be so well and beautifully crafted prose that the writing seems effortlessly poised, but what at times may be rough-hewn has honesty, and the ‘stuff’ of his writing is powerful, important and necessary. A working ploughshare, fit for a crucial purpose, rather than a Faberge egg which can only be properly appreciated by other fine workers in delicate, expensive substances

The book was made into a film in 1952, ‘Carrie’ directed by William Wyler, and starring Lawrence Olivier and Jennifer Jones. I couldn’t resist this mainly silent montage from the film which the Youtube uploader spliced in with Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz. Not of course the film’s soundtrack. Now, I haven’t seen the film, but I would suspect, given the date of making, that Wyler will have focused rather on the film as a simple love story, with powerful characterisations, and that the blistering clarity of Dreiser’s commitment to socialism, and a condemnation of the exploitation of the working classes by the owners of the means of production, would not pass muster in Hollywood, at that time.  HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee had turned its attention to the Communist Party in America, and the Blacklist of ‘Reds’, fellow travellers, and indeed even suspected pale shades of pink were well in force within Hollywood. As mentioned previously Dreiser had joined the CP in 1945, and his commitment, in his writing shows shades of full-blooded red, rather more than baby pink, and would surely have made the socio-political background to Sister Carrie, dangerous in those days of naming and shaming those only slightly to the left of liberal views. HUAC was particularly focused on the influence of the movie industry, so Hollywood with its high profile and perceived influence on values both personal and political had become increasingly nervous and circumspectTheodore Dreiser

I found this an absorbing, humane, compassionate and thought provoking read, and may well return to Dreiser in a later year, with the book which brought him fame, An American Tragedy. It will be interesting to see how he developed as a writer. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, and died in 1945

Sister Carrie Amazon UK
Sister Carrie Amazon USA

However – do be aware that according to Amazon reviewers in the UK some eread digitisation  is extremely poor. I bought the old Penguin version, second hand. Looking at versions on Amazon USA it seems some must be heavily edited and expurgated, according to listings of page numbers. I have linked to a version of over 500 pages, which is what it should be! Some editions are 200 pages shorter. Perhaps its a version produced by the remnants of HUAC!

A Reading The Twentieth Post – 1900 : Fiction – Non UK

Reading The Twentieth Century


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A Very Slow, Very Long Journey 1900 – 1999 (or perhaps 2000)


Oh yes, I know, many of you are shouting furiously that because the first year AD was year 1 and not year 0, so the first century, and all the others, must start with year 1 of its particular century.

But you know that just doesn’t feel like the right start for this journey. So, if I start in error, so be it.

So, having decided crossly, ‘I’m not going to do any more reading challenges’ I’ve invented a variation on one, for myself. It’s going to be a corker, whether I get anywhere near completing, or not. And I’m trying not to put a timescale on it, as there will of course be other reading going on

The challenge is this, reading 4 books, in 4 categories, for each year 1900-1999. And, to qualify as one of the reads for that year, I’ll be doing it sequentially – so a 1967 book, for example, will only qualify as my 1967 book once all 4 1966 books have been read, otherwise, its just a book which I’ve read which happened to be published in 1967!

Cat reading

The categories are, for each year:

A Fiction book written by an author from the United Kingdom, originally published in English

A Fiction book originally written in English, by an author not from the United Kingdom

A Fiction book originally written in another language, date of first publication in its original language (but which I’ll be reading in English)

A Non-Fiction Book 

I’m interested to see what picture I get of ‘the times’ once I’ve read a few years, although of course I’ll no doubt be creating that picture by the choices of book, which are likely to be erratic.

And, once I’ve read all four categories in each year, and have moved on to the next year, the rule is that I can then ADD to a year already read (go back to it) – even though going forward is not allowed. This is because, having I hope gleaned a kind of idea of a flavour of a year, I suspect I may read books set in that year still with an awareness of my ‘read the century challenge’ and if so, they would qualify

And, from time to time, rants may arise connected to a year or a span of years (lets say, then, it’s going to take nearer to 20 years, as I keep creating new complexities and deviations!)

It may also be that I break my own rule, on this blog, of not reviewing anything which is not 4 star, minimum, with my ‘Twentieth Century’ challenge as I might read something less appreciated but which is somehow right in there in that ‘reading the twentieth century’ context, and I might appreciate it in context, even if not on its own isolated merits

I’m beginning to get quite excited by this mammoth reading task, as reading sequentially, and perhaps stopping for quite a while on a certain year, could take me into all sorts of highways and byways – what was happening that year, what were they wearing, what kind of chocolate were they eating……………………………

Even if the books chosen may have a randomness (for example, something already on my shelves) reading with this sequential focus will create patterns, not to mention determine directions.

I’ll compile an index of those reads as they happen, and each read will also get categorised and indexed in my normal fashion

Onwards………………….a journey of 400 books (at least) and a hundred years, starts with just one book in just one year

I'm under here, somewhere

I’m under here, somewhere Flicr, Commons, Alicia Martin Biografias

I rather fear there might be a fair share of these:

At least Noel manages to sound reasonably light-hearted about those blues

E.H. Gombrich – A Little History of the World


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Santa Claus doesn’t exist – when should the children be told about history?

A Little History of the WorldE.H. Gombrich is probably best known as the author of a wonderful book on the History of Art, which I guess must have made its way, at some time, to every Art lovers bookshelf.

I recently discovered that he had, as a young man, written a wonderful history book for children, which was published in Austria in 1935, much later, translated into twenty five languages, , but only towards the end of Gombrich’s life (he died in 2001) did he produce an English version. This has also updated the History, taking it to the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Gombrich, born in Vienna in 1909, was an Austrian Jew, and made his home in England in 1936.

He originally wrote A Little History of The World, a history book for children, when he had been commissioned to translate an English history book into German. Gombrich was not very complimentary about the history book, instead, suggested to be publisher that he could do rather better, by writing a book about history himself, for children, The publisher took him up on this, and, quite astonishingly, he wrote his wonderful ‘little history’ in 6 weeks .

The sweep of this effortlessly readable book starts in prehistory, and in 40 chapters arrives at the tail end of the twentieth century.

Whilst there is a major focus on European history, what Gombrich is really looking at is a kind of exploration of empires – whether these are empires of the mind, of ideology, ideas, religions, politics and of course the regrettable history of empires won and lost through club, sword, firearm, bomb and all the rest of mankind’s panoply of destructive devices.

It has to be said, an account of several thousands of years of interminable war, war which almost every tribe humanity might belong to (whether city states, nation states, countries, followers of religious, political or other belief systems) seems, if it gets any sort of power, to want to batter another grouping into submission to, makes for pretty depressing, despairing reading. In some ways, stunning though this is, I’m quite glad I didn’t read it as a child, since I’m pretty sure I might have succumbed to hopelessness.

What absolutely makes this book at all possible, in terms of a sensitive young mind not getting overwhelmed and distraught by our peculiar species, is the great warmth, the immense humanity, and, yes, despite our bloody history, the compassionate optimism of Gombrich, who at every turn also sees the wonders and the marvels, the intelligence, the curiosity, the excitement and the heart that is also humanity’s heritage.

And then there is the far from small matter that he writes like a dream, talks directly to, rather than down to, his intended young audience – not to mention his admiring older audience.

He will, I hope, reach small people who might, by this, want to take charge of learning the sad lessons of the past, in order to help us to better avoid repeating errors in the future.

river gif

Here is Gombrich, with a wonderfully poetic and heartfelt, not to mention wise and encouraging, exhortation to his young audience, on the theme of time, and history itself, as a river. He has taken his audience on an imaginary journey, flying along the river of time, from prehistory to the present, and presents this spacious, soulful image

From close up, we can see it is a real river, with rippling waves like the sea. A strong wind is blowing and there are little crests of foam on the waves. Look carefully at the millions of shimmering white bubbles rising and then vanishing with each wave. Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief moment they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that. Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again. We can hardly be seen in the great river of time. New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.

This is a marvellous, fascinating, deeply thought provoking, highly engaging and interesting bookErnst-Gombrich-007

It is beautifully complemented by woodcut images at the head of each chapter, by Clifford Harper

A Little History of the World Amazon UK
A Little History of the World Amazon USA

Jane Gardam – A Long Way From Verona


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Gardam’s wonderful first novel – I Capture The Castle got a deal darker, and somewhat weirder

A Long Way From VeronaJane Gardam is a most felicitous, and most English writer; one of pleasing quirk, wit, eccentricity and fine observation.

This novel, published in 1971, astonishingly her first novel, with its nearly thirteen year old narrator, Jessica Vye, even more astonishingly won an award twenty years later from the Phoenix Association, as ‘the best children’s book published twenty years earlier that did not win a major award’. – my astonishment is with that ‘children’s book’ the level of sophistication, wit, intelligence and nuance in the writing speaks also to a very un child audience. Gardam is a world removed from the film tie-up narrative action obsession which many (of course, not all) YA books seem to be geared to.

Jessica, first person narrator, is the daughter of a schoolmaster who ‘discovered a calling’ and is now a junior vicar. The book is set during the Second World War, in Cleveland, Tees-side. It is a world of great social divides, and she is of course from an impoverished, cultured, deeply moral family.

The novel starts arrestingly, thus :

I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point

Now, I must admit, with a quite ‘lost my innocence, twenty-first century head on’ I thought that beginning was going to herald some tale of child molestation or other abuse.

Not so – Jessica, aged 9 has a cataclysmic experience when a poet visits her school, and informs her


This is an utterly delicious book. For the first third I was laughing immoderately, and the influence of another wonderfully witty English writer – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – was very clear.

But Gardam goes into darker territory – just when you think you have the measure of the book. Jessica is certainly quite an odd child, there is an awkwardness about her, socially. She has something of the misfit about her, and, though nothing is ever spelt out, the reader might imagine that grown up, she might have a great fragility, and, perhaps keeping a tight grasp on sanity might, at times, be a challenge. Not only is she a little strange, something of an outsider, but she is drawn, as a child, to less than conventional adults.

Dorland Long Steelworks, Teesside, 1930s

                 Dorland Long Steelworks, Teesside, 1930s

The intensities of religious faith, as well as the intricacies of class, not to mention the fervour (and humour) of messianic communism feature largely in this book, as good works and visiting the slums happen, all against the background of air-raids and rationing.

In none of this does Gardam (or Jessica) lose her quirk, wit and lightness of touch

This is one of those wonderful books that utterly amuse, utterly enchant, whilst at the same time presenting the reader with the bottomless chasms and impossibly charged heights of rollercoaster early adolescence.

Here is Jessica, crafting a poem whilst worrying about the awfully grown out of dress she is going to have to wear to a house-party which her mother insists she must attend, given by church colleagues of a higher status

As merman weeping in a seaweed grove,
As sorrowing dolphin on a silver strand….
I stretch my hands and cry for life and love.’

I read this through and was extremely pleased with it. I wrote a few more verses and then went and looked in the wardrobe. The viyella hung like a dead bird. It had little round pale-blue flowers all over it and pale buttons and puff sleeves. I went back to the poem and read it again. It was dreadful

This is certainly one for me to keep on my shelves, and return to at intervals when Jane Gardamdelight in an easy-read, wonderfully crafted book is needed

As Gardam herself grew up in that part of the world, at that time, and is of course a writer, there is indeed a sense that her own experiences may have been the inspiration for this book

A Long Way from Verona. Amazon UK
A Long Way from Verona. Amazon USA

Geraldine Brooks – The Secret Chord


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The story of King David – warts and wonders

The Secret ChordI was sent this as a digital copy for review from the publishers via NetGalley.

I have admired Pulitzer prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks’ writing since discovering her 2001 book The Year of Wonders. In The Secret Chord, she is up against a more challenging task in some ways, and yet perhaps an easier one in others.

This the story of King David, from Ancient – History? Allegorical Writing? The Bible, a Holy Book? Many interpretations might be possible.

My knowledge of David was scant – he became King, and Jesus came from ‘David’s Line’ so, clearly he is part of New Testament as well as Old Testament theology.

He was a psalmist, a musician, as well as a king, and many of the Psalms in the book of Psalms are his. He fathered Solomon, fount of wisdom, and one assumes the creator of another Biblical Book, The Song of Solomon, deeply poetic, and also erotic – the song can be read as physical or as spiritual in praise, and this tradition of praise to a divinity which also has elements which could be seen as erotic is one found in other poems of love to the divine. David was the young boy, of humble birth, who slayed Goliath, with a stone. David and the then king’s son, Jonathan, formed a deep friendship. David, who seems to be courageous, charismatic, devotional, and is perceived as a wise ruler, also coveted and raped Bathsheba, his general’s wife, and sent that general into dangerous battle, where he was killed.

David Cuts off the Head of Goliath by James Tissot, (1836-1902)

David Cuts off the Head of Goliath by James Tissot, (1836-1902)

His almost seems to be an operatic, soap opera story. I found the Bible original, its 1st Book of Samuel Chapter 16 onwards, through the 2nd Book of Samuel and into the second chapter of the Book of Kings, because I was interested to see the source material she had worked from, and from whence a novelist’s imagination, or, even invention, might arise.

To be honest, it’s a fairly bleak and plain telling, and inevitably reads quite drily. (The Biblical telling)  The usual collection of intense smitings and smotings which litters the sometimes sorry history of our species. We do pretty well all of the smitings and the smotings ourselves, without the need of outside agencies, it seems, and utilise those agencies to justify ourselves.

As society becomes more secular (some societies, and I live in one) it perhaps becomes harder to write inside the mind-set of faith base, in a way which can allow readers outside faith to enter into characters and societies for whom it was central, without the reader judging the character as credulous or simple minded.

Brooks does flesh out this rather extraordinary life, and this rather extraordinary world, extremely well. The inevitable parallels to Mary Renault and what she did, particularly in her trilogy about Alexander the Great and the two Theseus books, are not misplaced, though Brooks doesn’t quite manage the hairs up on the back of the neck stuff, the bringing of that long ago time and its mixture of the familiar and the weird, so much into potent reality as Renault does.

David and Bathsheba Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889

David and Bathsheba Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889

Brooks uses a couple of devices in the telling of her story, which a had a slight question mark about. She took the decision to use the original personal and place names ‘in their transliteration from the Hebrew of the Tanakh’ – so this means, instead of the versions bible readers – and more particularly non bible readers who have become familiar with the place and personal names which have passed into popular culture – are concerned. making the necessary connections may not be immediately obvious. For example, it was not until I found the source material that I realised that the Plishtim were the Philistines. I thought this decision, presumably to add a kind of historical authenticity was not helpful. It may be that a glossary will be included with the published, as opposed to the ARC copy. The combination of the archaic namings and the use of various period terms with the need at times, where she wants to show salty and foul language, such as used by soldiers, somehow grated. This is always a problem, people will always have used such language, how to marry the need for immediacy without losing a sense of place and time : the challenge of quaint and old fashioned versus something which wrests the reader out of period.

There are also decisions taken (which may or may not be accurate) but which leave the reader  (or did leave this reader) wondering how much a modern gloss, a modern viewpoint, is an accurate one, and how much we are unable to see, feel, think into other times. The most obvious, here is the relationship between Jonathan and David. We live in a world which is overtly sexualised; thus it becomes almost impossible for deep love by adults, between the same sex, or between the opposite sex, to be seen in any other way than actively sexual, or as a conscious or unconscious sexual repression. We may, or may not be far too knowing now to enter into a different time. So Brooks makes David a man of broad tastes. In which she may be right or she may not. There is no concrete knowing, either way. But this decision did also put me out of an inhabitation of the past, making me realise that, for example, a Victorian writing this story may very well have accepted a loving relationship between two men without sexualisation.

David and Jonathan Cima da Conegliano, 1507

David and Jonathan Cima da Conegliano, 1507

She is not in any way salacious or gratuitous in her writing about sexual content – we never go into the bedroom, she does not need to do this, as she chooses the device of having the whole story told by the prophet Nathan :

I have had a great length of days and been many things. A reluctant warrior. A servant, a counselor. Sometimes, perhaps, his friend. And this, also, have I been: a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes.

Words. Words upon the wind. What will endure, perhaps, is what I have written. If so, it is enough.

Brooks is, as ever, a wonderful story teller, one who makes characters come alive, and one who writes wonderfully.Geraldine Brooks

Going back to the source, she has given rich depth, life and colour to events which were set down and her David is complex, rounded, and as my title suggest, a man full of contradictions, as all humans are.

The Secret Chord Amazon UK
The Secret Chord Amazon USA

J. David Simons – The Land Agent


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Palestine in the 1920s – absorbing a troubled history through a fine novel

The Land AgentLooking at some of the cover and product blurbs for Scottish writer J. David Simons, referencing Sebastian Faulks, my own ‘reminds me of’ was a quite different, earlier writer, and a fellow Scot, now rather fallen out of fashion – A.J. Cronin, he of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, and much more.

Simons, like Cronin, knows how to tell a story, crafts well, has warmth in the writing and also employs humour, with a nice, dry touch. And, moreover, his story is ‘about stuff’ – the stuff being politics and society. Cronin too in his stories, on the side of the decent little man, was trying to keep the heart in his humanity, rather than the machinations of the powerful and those fiercely in the grip of various ‘isms’. Politics of heart, rather than self-interest, writing out of a sense of social conscience.

Simons’ book The Land Agent is the third in a trilogy entitled ‘Glasgow to Galilee’. This third book, which opens in Poland in 1919, follows the fortunes of Lev Gottleib, later Lev Sela, a young Polish Jew who leaves his homeland with a group of other young people, most of whom are Zionists, who are keen to found settlements in Palestine

Lev is quite an easily led youth, and his initial reason for joining the Zionist Youth Group has little to do with ideology, and much to do with affairs of the heart. His childhood friend, the young woman he adores, Sarah, a few years older than him, is a Zionist and passionately keen to find a home in Palestine.

Lev settles in Haifa, and comes under the father figure influence of Sammy, a principled older man, running the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. Sammy is a heart-centred, humanitarian idealist, rather than one driven by ideology, and he has a far less zealous approach to land acquisition than the Zionists. Another major influence on Lev is Celia Kahn, originally from Glasgow, and the central character of the second book in Simons’ trilogy. Kahn, who is a socialist, and not a Zionist, is one of a group building a settlement close to Naharayim. (The author himself lived and worked on this kibbutz, during the 1980)


What I valued about this book was the author’s ability to unfold the arising tensions, and the history of Palestine, the settlements, the co-existence of Jews and Arabs, the growth of fracture, the vested interests, the ‘other players’ interested in the area – the Bedouin, and of course Britain and France, the arguments between the socialists and the Zionists, the vested interests of companies, individuals and organisations who saw the potential of the area in terms of capital investment – and to put all this into a story. A good one. The reader does not drown in polemic and ideology, and there is little extended political speechery.

There are some sections of the book which don’t work quite so well, and I did wonder if these were in place as he received support (I assume financial) from Creative Scotland and the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship in the writing of this novel, which is of course not set in Scotland. So, there is a device used to keep Glasgow alive (I assume this is why it is used) Celia Kahn writes letters to her friend, Charlotte, heavily involved in the Temperance Movement, proselytising that cause. And Celia’s letters serve two functions – one is, to allow her to express her feelings about various people and various issues, which is a useful device – but the other, which I think doesn’t work so well, has her reminiscing and commenting on various back home events, and reflecting on what is going on in Glasgow, positively and negatively. There is a little too much repetition about the temperance movement.

I did find this an interesting, informative and enjoyable read, even if Lev, as a central character, was curiously not quite as well-defined as some of the more minor characters.

It’s not necessary to have read the first two in the series (I hadn’t) to enjoy this as a stand-alone novel.

Perhaps those who had would have felt all the temperance letters stuff to be less of a device, and more integral, since the friendship between Charlotte and Celia no doubt forms part of the earlier book or books, and I suspect there is probably quite a lot of fun/humour to be had out of Charlotte’s evangelism.J. David Simons

I received this as a copy for review from Amazon Vine UK

The Land Agent Amazon UK
The Land Agent Amazon USA

Tessa Hadley – The Past


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A wonderful, detailed, textured tale of a family reunion. And more.

The-PastHow is it that I missed Tessa Hadley till now? Perhaps because she has been modestly praised (according to the dust jacket), but using words which convey qualities which may be less in fashion in the bling bling current world of publishing with advance bidding wars over first time authors clearly writing with their eyes on megabucks

Hadley, in a review from the Independent, has that (to me) magical word ‘understated’ applied to her. Thanks heavens, I thought, this might mean that here is an author who trusts her readers, doesn’t need to signal intention by shouting in primary colours, and, perhaps is one who rewards the reader who settles down keen to settle into the detail of a well observed world

The Past gave me everything I hoped it would, and pretty well from the opening paragraph I felt in safe hands, as Hadley introduced me, with beautifully observed description, into place, time and character

Her book is divided into three sections, The Present, The Past, and The Present again, and examines a particular family.

Four adult siblings return for a three week holiday to a country house which belonged to their grandparents, long deceased. The four have come together, bringing children, if they have them, and bringing or not bringing partners, because they need to discuss what to do with the house, which they have all used for family holidays, over the years.

The middle aged adults, romantic, dreamy, intuitive Alice; her younger sister Fran, sparky and more pragmatic, made so by being married to a more ‘free-spirit’ man, who leaves her to deal with the detailed practicalities of parenting; oldest sister, austere, controlled Hettie, and their brother, the intellectually, media successful Roland, now on his third marriage, play out their family dynamics, set in childhood. Fran brings her two young children; Roland, not only his new wife Pilar, whom no one has yet met, but also his teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Molly. And Alice, who is childless, and has hopped from intense relationship to intense relationship, brings Kasim, undergraduate, her almost step-son, her ex-boyfriend’s son

In the relationships of the four siblings, we see certain family patterns which were clearly there from the start. And in Fran’s children, we can see how perhaps these patterns will be both adapted, and repeated.

The section entitled The Past, spools back to the late sixties, and to Jill’s story – Jill is those now middle-aged adults’ mother, come with her children, during a difficult time with her husband, back to her own parents’, to this family home. And we see up close and personal psychology, family dynamics, running through three generations

What I found so satisfying is that Hadley is not presenting the reader with florid, excessive, scandal-sheet worthy family dysfunction. This is the life of perfectly ordinary, perfectly individually unique human beings in recognisable relationship to the culture of their time and place. People like you and me, with all their/our specific quirks which set this person as recognisable different-and-yet-the-same as that person.

So, a perfectly ordinary family gathering in a perfectly ordinary three weeks. Except, that like any life, what to an outside eye might seem ‘nothing happens’ – no one dies, no one kills anyone, turns into an axe murderer, has a secret fetish for cannibalism and all the rest of the schlocky stuff – a (real) world happens.

In the living out of moment-to-moment the huge ongoing drama of psychology and relationship and character are expressing themselves within each person, and in their self-assessment of themselves, and their simultaneous assessment of how they think they are seen by others, and their own assessing of everyone else is going on. The ceaseless chatter of humankind, talking at itself, judging itself, judging others, the gestures and moments of connection and of separation endlessly playing out

Alice said she felt terrible that Fran had had to do the shopping. But she couldn’t have brought it on the train, and they somehow couldn’t have asked Roland to shop, could they, as they hadn’t met his new wife yet? And Harriet would have been too abstemious. Fran reassured her that she hadn’t been abstemious at all; Harriet would be horrified when they divvied the costs up later. Alice hugged the children: Ivy holding herself stiffly, convalescent, and Arthur leaning into the kiss, liking the perfumed warmth of women

All through, Hadley tells you far more than she is obviously laying out. She rather continually scatters treasures. This is both a book which was a brilliant first read, and will for certain be one to go back to, like revisiting a favourite complicated artwork, to pleasurably allow new details, missed initially, to be noticed

She also has the courage to leave some threads untied, some questions unanswered – this is a book like a treasure hunt, and if the reader picks up a clue, they may wonder about it, but if they didn’t – no matter, they will have no doubt picked up a different clue which another missed.

Reading this, I thought of Austen – the similar working of specific time and place, that ‘little bit of ivory’ – looking at the everyday. Also the slyness of the observation, the understated wit. And, in the melancholy which accretes to the book, the looking back to a ‘golden’ time (that world of childhood), though it wasn’t, and, again the kind of humour, not to mention the family itself, brought Chekhov to mind.

John Singer Sargent - A Classic Rose Tinted Spectacles, if ever I saw one, picture

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

At least, having missed Hadley until now, I’m delighted to discover that she has 5 earlier novels and two collections of short stories, so I don’t (yet) need to wait impatiently for her next new book!

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UK.Tessa Hadley

However, dear Statesiders, there appear to be weird goings on. It is available on digi and hard, with the British cover (a much more apposite one) The American edition (different cover, not in keeping) is only out for review by Viners, as it is unavailable till next year. I have included the link to the available version. Which sadly only has one (negative) review. And does at least allow you a ‘Look Inside’ Generally positive reviews from USA Viners to be read on the USA version. Confusing, or what!

Readily available in both formats and with the best cover in the UK

The Past Amazon UK
The Past Amazon USA

Marianne Wheelaghan – The Blue Suitcase


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The past is another country : No Way Home

Marianne Wheelaghan, as some regular readers and commenters on this blog may realise, is a visitor and from time-to-time, a commenter, on here. She is also an author. Following a review of a book which had touched me quite deeply, around the subject of ‘displacement’ and never quite feeling at home in any country, Marianne made a comment which showed we had a certain connection – we are both the children of post-war immigrants. I had also visited Marianne’s blog, and read some posts she made about the search for home, and what home means, which spoke to me.

So, I had a sly little look at what kind of books she wrote, and discovered that the first one, The Blue Suitcase, was based around her mother’s life, growing up in Germany in the 30s. And I decided to investigate, a little nervously – I don’t review things by people I ‘know’ however ‘virtually’ – there’s a kind of curious intimacy which all writers reveal, but if you don’t ‘know’ them, outside their books, then everything they reveal, through their writing, consciously or unconsciously, is kind of ‘public domain’, whereas get to know an author, however tangentially, and it seems to me you can no longer read their works as if the book itself is all you are relating to

There is also, of course, the added problem – supposing you don’t like the book? Now, I only review on here, things I DO like, so it’s already a given, the review being here, that my viewpoint is positive – but potentially, perhaps stupidly, I had a kind of anxiety before reading – suppose I didn’t like it (and obviously, in that case, Marianne would never have known I had read it anyway, as I wouldn’t have reviewed it, whether on Amazon, or here, or even, mentioned that I had read it.) But, if that HAD been the case, I would have felt a kind of discomfort – how would my assessment of the work affect my assessment of the person who created the work. Writing is not separate from the life of the writer, and arises from the writer. as all ‘creativity’ does. So, after the preamble – which raises some interesting ideas, for me, about writers and their readers – the book:

The Blue SuitcaseMarianne Wheelaghan’s distressing, absorbing book about a young girl growing up in Germany in the 30’s was springboarded by her own family history, as that young girl was her mother. Marianne discovered a history her mother had never talked about, through journals she had kept, during the 30s and 40s, before she came to the UK after the war. She found the journals after her mother died and translated them

The Blue Suitcase is not ‘the translated diaries and journals’ – that would have been too private – but it is inspired by, based on, her reading of accounts of real events, and a real person, growing up at that time and in that place. The Blue Suitcase is of course a novel, but I sensed it was shaped by a writer, to give the feel and flow of fiction, but was not ‘an invention’

It was the complex, difficult authenticity it arose from which created a powerful response from me, as a reader. At times, too close for comfort, because the author herself must also have found the reading of the journals uncomfortable.

I must admit I put this book down, many times, overwhelmed by the imaginative, empathetic space which is created here. Starting in 1932, the journal writer is Antonia, Toni, a volatile self-obsessed twelve year old (as twelve year old often are), growing up in a dark time, a dark place, (Breslau, Silesia, 1932) Toni’s family is middle class; they are Catholics with a strong sense of morality – father a civil servant, mother a doctor. The entire family dynamics are strongly motivated by a sense of needing purpose and codes to live by which were more than just personal – the urge to serve something higher, clear. That ‘higher’ took one sister into being a ‘bride of Christ’ (a nun) one brother into Communism, another to join the Brownshirts, her law abiding conservative father, initially opposed to Hitler, keeping his head down and acquiescing, and her doctor mother, through her serving both her strong Christian faith and the Hippocratic oath, to be fierce and vocal against Fascism. Another sister surrendered into being the kind of hausfrau producing children for Germany.

Toni, through whose eyes we see everything is, at the start, at an age where she is all over the place in finding her own position within a family who clearly all took different positions driven by a sense of ‘greater good’. And I must say she both broke my heart repeatedly, and, made me laugh, (early on) simply by the normal adolescent stuff – the strong tempestuous passions – at some point in her diaries, she hates pretty well everyone in her immediate vicinity – not the orchestrated hatred which gets used by those who wish to foster division and violence against individuals – but the clear love and hatred volatility which children have. Young Toni, expressing this in her journal, made me laugh – whilst making me weep, because part of her ‘hatred’ came because she was being ignored because of everything which was developing in the wider world, as the National Socialists rose to power.

As the years roll on, and the terrible events associated with that time happen, both during the period before the war, during the war, and its aftermath, all times for lightness and laughter of course disappear. I began to think about a generation of young children growing up inside a system designed to force them out of humanity, as any totalitarian society, any society with rigidity and implacability as its core values does.

This book spoke strongly to me , for several reasons. – Firstly I am always fascinated by ‘through a child’s eye’ writing. It is the very changeability, the not yet fixed, restrained, masked, constructed quality to persona which intrigues. As someone long beyond that stage, I nevertheless can recognise the authenticity of writing which successfully comes from that place – or doesn’t. This does. My emotion was also of course, personal, in that I too have a family background which comes from Central Europe.

I’m also always interested in writing which touches on the sense of being displaced, and also that insidious thing called ‘survivor guilt’, and how the locking up of a terrible time so that it cannot be spoken of, still reaches down the generations. Not just those who lived through those times, but the children who were born into the post-war world, and absorbed this secrecy, this guilt, this displacement into their fabric, and passed their melancholy longing for something they couldn’t quite name, onwards. Both within my own family, and in the families of others with a similar history-of-time-and-place there is a particular privacy, a particular silence, more deep than the purely personal ‘skeletons in cupboards’ which I think every life tags along with it. There’s a kind of void too deep, too dark to enter. This is I think particular to those who have been engaged in war and conflict. Those of us born and living in safe societies in peace time cannot, I think, really comprehend that other place. We are fortunate.

Church Bridge Breslau, Silesia/Wroclaw, Poland Wiki Commons

Church Bridge Breslau, Silesia/Wroclaw, Poland Wiki Commons

I believe part of my need to stay connected to such stories is a working out of my own sorrow and compassion for ancestors I never met. For some, revisiting that past seems perhaps maudlin, or self-indulgent. For those, like me, who think these stories need telling – all our stories, and rather wish it were NOT the case that the stories should be told – the silencing of the stories would be a denial. I very much valued this, sharing the story of ‘ordinary Germans who were not Jews’ in that time. We all have a tendency to say this or that grouping of people are bad, this or that grouping are good – or even, make moral judgements on individuals – the good brother became a Communist, the bad brother joined the Brownshirts. But, from my comfortable, safe armchair in 2015, I am not pressurised and vulnerable to any kind of radicalisation – I am an adult, more fixed now in my beliefs, less needing of ‘peer approval’ than I was at that vulnerable teen-age.

There is a tipping point, where those peddling unthinkable prejudice seem stupid, risible, and not worthy of any serious consideration or resistance, because they are so clearly dismissed. That’s the point where they are the powerless minority. And then, if they are not taken seriously by the more rational and sensible, there may come a time when the rational and the sensible find that they are the powerless ones. This book shows how some of all that plays out in all of us ‘ordinary people’.

I recommend this, though it is a difficult and painful read, because of its subject matter. Wheelaghan’s book reminds us that in the end, there is only a common humanity, and that the accident of being born in specific times and places exerts pressures and forces on individuals, sometimes way beyond what humanity can suffer, without breaking and damage.

Those of us lucky enough to be born in less demanding times, less demanding places, may not always realise how lucky we are, never to have had our own humanity challenged beyond its breaking point.

In many ways, this is as much an account of this reader, and her response to this book, as it is about the book itself. I tried, I really tried, to hold a position as a kind of observing, dispassionate reader, to be able to make some kind of assessing of the writing, the story, the narrative, to do the comparisons to this or that other writer. But, in the end, the ‘about’ of the book, and the personal place from which it came from for the author, and the personal place from which I read it, as a reader, precluded that kind of distance.

So I can’t offer the kind of analysis which might help any other potential reader know if it’s a book which they will want to read, and whether the ‘authorial voice’ will speak to them, and whether the style will be real for you, or not. It clearly all was so for me. Marianne Wheelaghan

Go take a look inside, as we can happily do, on the Amazons, and make your own decisions! But as you will see, the reviews (pretty well all very positive) seem to suggest that the powerful effects felt by me, were also experienced by others. And if some of the criteria for ‘good writing’ IS that we are engaged, involved, made to think, to care, and perhaps, even to be transformed or extended in some way, then The Blue Suitcase seems to have done all of that for other readers too.

The Blue Suitcase Amazon UK
The Blue Suitcase Amazon USA


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