Edie is finding the world around her increasingly difficult to comprehend. Words are no longer at her beck and call, old friends won’t mind their own business and workmen have appeared in the neighbouring fields, preparing to obliterate the landscape she has known all her life. Rattling around in an old farmhouse on the cliffs, she’s beginning to run out of excuses to stop do-gooders from interfering when one day she finds an uninvited guest in the barn and is thrown back into the past.
Jonah has finally made it to England where everything, he’s been told, will be better. But the journey was fraught with danger and many of his fellow travellers didn’t make it. Sights set firmly on London, but unsure which way to turn, he is unprepared for what happens when he breaks into Edie’s barn.
Haunted by the prospect of being locked away and unable to trust anyone else, the elderly woman stubbornly battling dementia and the traumatised illegal immigrant find solace in an unlikely companionship that helps them make sense of their worlds even as they struggle to understand each other. Crossing Over is a delicately spun tale that celebrates compassion and considers the transcendent language of humanity.
As I started to read Crossing Over I was knocked backwards by how incredibly innovative the narration was, but also how incredibly brave. Edie’s inner world is fractured and of course we don’t know why or what’s going on at first. The author trusts her reader to carry on, to make sense of what’s happening and never underestimates us. We’re plunged headlong into Edie’s world and her desperate attempts to communicate her place in it. The timeless farmhouse she seems to have known all her life, the villagers and her routine of church or WI events all seem to be constants. What’s changing is Edie, as she drops backwards through time, forgets commitments and even visitors or why they are there. As we get to know her, the narrative works on two levels. We are with Edie in whatever time and circumstance her mind places her, but also with Edie as she becomes painfully aware that there’s a way she should be behaving, but even when she’s sure of the proper behaviour it’s often in the wrong context. She’s just on the edge of awareness most of the time, just about recognising from people’s response or facial expressions that she’s not quite hit the mark. Her brusqueness and artificial bonhomie only faintly cover the confusion and fear underneath. The chaos is brilliantly written, in jagged prose that contrasts the inner truth of how much Edie is struggling and the world’s response as it becomes more and more obvious that all is not okay. As Jonah comes into the narrative, also operating at fight or flight level, things become even more confused and complicated. Edie thinks he’s there to spy on her and he’s baffled by the way she communicates, her poor memory and her lapses into the past. Can they come to an understanding of each other and somehow help each other move forward?
This could have been one of those really sentimental novels, designed to be uplifting, but the author avoids that with these complex characters. Not everything about them is sympathetic, they are real and flawed. Edie isn’t a cosy little granny and through her time lapses we start to realise she has experienced traumatic events in her younger years. She has also made bad choices in life. There’s a deeply ingrained sense that there’s one correct way to be and her standards are slipping. Some of the muddled events are a strange mix of humorous and heartbreaking. The cake sale springs to mind, where she has lapsed back to being younger and wears an outfit that’s far too colourful and revealing for an elderly lady with varicose veins to cover. She then offers to keep track of the money and ends up making mistakes, as well as eating a whole batch of highly prized cakes. These types of escapades made me giggle and I loved the way she keeps her head high and won’t bow to their concerns or questions. Yet the fear and anxiety running underneath this forceful front made me feel for her, perhaps because I have a life limiting and degenerative illness I could understand her desperation to stay independent and deny what’s happening to her. Fear makes her angry and lash out, imagining the embarrassment of the vicar and other do-gooders if she let slip some of the secrets she holds about them. I could sense that the past held the clues to Edie’s character and I was waiting for something quite dark to be revealed.
Jonah also holds some dark secrets and memories deep inside, things he has experienced on the journey and from his life before. I read that the author had been very careful writing his character, with a great awareness of the sensitivities involved in writing a black character without that lived experience. She has used sensitivity readers and has revised the novel several times. Yet Jonah isn’t a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out, he has real depth. No one can go through what Jonah has and remain untouched and all credit to the author for not following an easier, and potentially more lucrative, redemption narrative. As a result this might not be to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed delving into two such complex and damaged characters and the disjointed way their stories are told. Have patience with it, get used to the complicated and unreliable narration and you will be rewarded with a rich and thoughtful read about people society increasingly sees as problems to solve, rather than human beings.
Thank you to Renard Press for my proof copy in exchange for an honest review.
I once began a masters in Victorian Studies and did a lot of work around literature, art and visual culture. Through it I developed a lifelong love of the Pre-Raphaelites and the design of the Arts and Crafts period, so the scandal of Victorian wallpaper poisonings was something I’d researched and written about before. I was very keen to see how the author had used this moment in history to inspire a Gothic story and I was utterly seduced by that divine green cover. As the 19th century progressed, more intricate and vibrant wallpapers were the fashion, in much the shame way that they’re having a moment now. In the early part of the century a rich, vibrant green named Scheele’s Green had pemerged. The colour was so incredibly popular that by the 1850’s it was being used in the production of household items from wallpapers, paints, and candles, to clothes and children’s toys. A vibrant green called Schiele’s Green emerged in the 1850’s, but was manufactured using large amounts of copper arsenite. Arsenic had a completely unique property that enhanced colour pigments and stopped them from fading, perfect for items like wallpaper that would be affected by sunlight over time. Manufacturers knew that arsenic was toxic, but chose to promote the line that it was only harmful if ingested – a dangerous lie that lasted decades. As wallpaper became ever more popular, reports began of people suffering slow and agonising deaths. Damp homes amplified the problem because of toxic fumes released by moisture on the walls. Rooms with large fires created the same problem meaning that many Victorian homes were veritable death traps. Alison Matthews David, who wrote about the problem in ‘Fashion Victims: The Dangers Of Dress Past And Present’, explains that “arsenic didn’t fade and looked bright under lights. It was stunning and became hugely popular in clothes. A ball gown would contain enough arsenic to kill 200 people and a hair wreath 50. The amounts used were lethal.’ This background knowledge had me champing at the bit for some horrifying deaths and characters terrified by intricate, poisonous wallpaper.
Braithwaite and Company are a Victorian wallpaper company caught up in the arsenic scandal and murky work practices at their copper mines in Devon, where the family are from. When our heroine Lucy Braithwaite, along with her brothers Tom and John were young and living at the family’s country home there was an accident in the copper mine. There were small children from the village sent into the most remote and claustrophobic points of the mine, because only they could fit. They were all killed. Mr Braithwaite died soon after and the family chose to move to their London home, nearer to the company’s offices. The company ran under the management of long running manager Mr Luckhurst, who had worked closely with Mr Braithwaite for many years. Mrs Braithwaite concentrated on the home front, filling their home with the latest wallpaper patterns from the company. Apart from Being I love oLucy who chose to have her room painted in the palest blush pink to be a calm and quiet space in contrast to the rest of the house. Yet the family’s luck was still on a downward turn after the death of Tom, who seemingly declined while being tortured by terrible hallucinations. Were these visions from within or without?
Their luck seems set to change completely when Lucy is a young woman and a new, young and dynamic manager takes over after the death of old retainer Mr Luckhurst. Mr Rivers is young, handsome, gallant and personable, immediately charming Lucy’s mother and brother John. John is the obvious successor to the company, but he has become frail since moving to London. Lucy decided to move his bedroom down to their father’s old study so he doesn’t have to contend with stairs. His room is a combination of workplace and bedroom, the desk enabling to go through company papers and keep abreast of matters. He and Mr Rivers hit it off immediately and it’s soon common for them to retire to John’s bedroom after dinner and talk about the company. Lucy finds it strange that despite coming from Devon and apparently working under Mr Luckhurst for years, she has never met Rivers before. However, his knowledge of the company and it’s history is entirely accurate. I found Rivers suspicious straight away and I loved how the author creates this uneasiness in the description of his expressions, his speech and the sense that he’s saying all the right things, but is he just saying what the family want to hear? His name in a Victorian novel seemed significant, because my brain went immediately to Jane Eyre and St.John Rivers. The author’s description of Rivers and his gleaming eyes reminded me of the Jane Eyre character whose own eyes betrayed his fanaticism, of a religious kind in his case. Jane didn’t accept his proposal because there was no love there, but also due to this steeliness and determination, which meant he would pursue his aims to the end. I sensed this same determination in Rivers here but his aim seemed more dangerous and liable to bring harm to the family.
I loved the tension the author heightened towards the end and as I was reading on NetGalley I didn’t expect it to stop where it did. It felt rather sudden. Rivers assures Lucy and her mother that the recipe for the wallpaper colours is not being altered and isn’t causing any harm. However, his endless industrious meetings with brother John would suggest some sort of changes were being made. Also, John’s health is in serious decline. Lucy is called to his room in the night by screams of terror, apparently he sees phantoms but are they caused by his green wallpaper and it’s writhing botanical pattern? He insists on how much Rivers means to him and I started to wonder if there was more than a working connection. Was the attachment one that was considered unnatural? I felt like Rivers was trying to romance every member of the Braithwaite family, using whatever weakness he could find. I found Lucy intelligent, perceptive and able to think differently from her mother. Mrs Braithwaite really did want someone to sweep in and look after everything for her, whereas Lucy has been actively looking for evidence, befriending the boy Rivers uses as a lookout and appealing to those in their circle that they can still trust. Is there a chink in her armour? It’s perhaps likely that Rivers expects the archetypal Victorian heroine who might swoon at a mention of romance, but I was desperately hoping he was wrong. As the reckoning approaches would she be able to remain clear headed and courageous enough to form a plan? I found the final part of the book perplexing. It was exciting and nail-biting, but still with a shroud of mystery over certain details. I came away wondering and I still find myself thinking about it three or four days later. I know sooner or later I will have to pick it up and read it again. Another novel that left me with this feeling was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; it’s scary and unsettling but difficult to pinpoint exactly what happens. I think this author wanted to wrap the reader in those toxic fumes till we were unsure which parts are real and where the supernatural creeps in, rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. It doesn’t ruin the book, in fact it enhances that sense of the uncanny that always terrifies. Mysterious, gothic and brimming with historical detail I definitely recommend it, but don’t expect a mystery where every loose end is neatly tied.
Published by Baskerville 16th March 2023
Meet the Author
Jon Michael Varese (J.M. Varese) is an American novelist and literary historian whose first novel, The Spirit Photographer (2018), was published to critical acclaim. He has also written widely on Victorian literature and culture, and has served in various capacities, most recently as Director of Outreach, for The Dickens Project at the University of California for over two decades.
‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way’. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
I’ve been wanting to try a Sarah Stovell novel for the last couple of years, because it’s a name that’s come up with other bloggers as someone I would enjoy. This story had me gripped to the very last page. This is the history of a family, but told like a thriller. We know that one central incident is the lynchpin of the whole story, explaining the family’s geography, personalities and dynamics with each other. Yet the incident isn’t laid bare for the reader. We must go back and forth in time, with the truth only revealed in short bursts and from different family member’s perspectives. Minnie is an academic, a professor of sociology and women’s studies and is married to Bert, another academic. Minnie is also the matriarch of the Plenderleith family: Owen, his wife Sophie and daughter Layla; Lizzie who lives in a platonic partnership with Tamsin and has a daughter, Ruby; then there’s baby Jessie and her wife Anna who have had two babies in quick succession. For the first time, Minnie will have her entire family under one roof for Christmas. This is a rare occasion because Owen lives in Australia and everyone leads very busy lives. Plus there is a tension at the centre of this family, something they never talk about, which has led to misunderstanding, distance and fear. Fear that if the incident is brought into the open and talked about, the family might implode. However, Owen hasn’t brought his wife to England and his teenage girlfriend Nora is in the village, sorting out her father’s house after his death. Could Nora be the catalyst that for an explosive Christmas?
The depth of characterisation in these family members is brilliant. I found myself understanding each family member as I read their section of the narrative. Even where their point of view clashed completely with someone else, or where they’re acting from a complete misunderstanding, I could empathise with their position. I fell in love with Lizzie, probably because I am overweight, nearing middle age and have an abusive relationship behind me. There was an instant understanding of her emotional need for calm, quiet and meditation. I also understood her medication, whether it was food or a prescription from the GP. Lizzie left a physically abusive relationship when her daughter Ruby was 16, with her self-esteem and sense of self eroded almost beyond repair. Lizzie is the jolly, overweight sister who jokes about her love of cake and seems outwardly confident, someone who owns her choices. Underneath though, is a animal that stays curled into a ball waiting for the next kick. Perhaps unable to trust men, or even trust her own judgement, she has found solace in a platonic family unit with friend Tamsin and although they perhaps don’t fully understand it, the family accepts it as a life choice and Tamsin is very much part of the family. Twenty years earlier, when Owen started dating Nora, Lizzie made friends with this unusual girl. Nora is the opposite of Lizzie, she looks like a fragile waif that you would want to feed and look after. Having lost her mother at a young age, Nora only had her father and it wasn’t an ideal relationship, so when Owen started bringing her home, his family became Nora’s family too. Minnie is impressed with her son’s choice, because she’s not into fashion or anything superficial, she’s bright, idealistic and wants to change the world. She’s going to spend summers working on conservation projects in different parts of the world and she follows through on her dreams. She might seem frail, but she’s determined and not scared of stepping out into the world alone. She’s so different to Owen but they have a connection that’s natural, deep and all encompassing.
I really did understand Minnie, a woman with so much education, intelligence and personal experience. She is the centre of the incident and takes so much of the blame for what happened, even though her point of view isn’t unreasonable. Minnie is on her second marriage, her first was to Owen and Lizzie’s father who was a drunk. Minnie was trying to hold down an academic position, run a household and two children, but always on tenterhooks for the next crisis to hit. Would she come home from work and find their father had hurt himself, given away the family car or worse? When he died, it was more of a relief than anything but Minnie was burned out. I could see immediately that Minnie was one of life’s ‘copers’. She’s used to picking up the pieces of whatever disaster her family members bring home, always without complaint and assuring them it will be ok. Holding the anxiety and responsibility for everyone creates burn out and resentment. When is it someone else’s turn to hold it together? She just wants one opportunity to fall apart. So when the big incident happened Minnie decided this was one mess she would not be clearing up. The fall out from this decision will last twenty years, compounded by miscommunication, layers of regret and grief, and the blame never apportioned out loud.
When trauma isn’t processed and discussed it grows and can come out in the most unexpected ways. Like on Christmas Day, when at least three generations of the family bring the trauma into the present. I loved how the author brought all those strands together to create this tension filled and momentous day. There’s all the usual stuff; prepping the veg, opening the presents and playing games. Between the celebrations, we’re told parts of the story by those who were there and those who are living in the aftermath. Even the grandchildren are affected, because things that are never spoken about can be misunderstood and blown out of proportion. The sections become shorter and faster towards the end, driving then tension and compelling you to keep reading. This is a brilliant, emotional and addictive read that’s a must read for this spring and would make a great TV thriller.
Published by HQ 30th March 2023
Meet the Author
Sarah lives in Northumberland, England, with her family. She teaches creative writing at Lincoln University. During the Covid pandemic, she was unable to write because her children kept interrupting her, so she started baking instead. She now spends her time writing, teaching, hanging out with her kids, baking fine patisserie and trying to believe her luck.
One of my April reads is Lucy Atkins’s new novel Windmill Hill, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about one of her previous novels. I have been a fan since her very first novel The Missing One and we read it as a book club choice. I have enjoyed all Lucy Atkins other novels and it seems they get better and better. I enjoyed the character of Dee and became drawn in by her straight away. There’s a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere, but she is curiously at ease with who she is. Something of an outsider in Oxford, she doesn’t belong to any of the colleges but is one of those invisible people who provide services to those who do belong. Dee is a nanny and makes a very disturbing observation about the academics who use her services – when desperate, people will let a near stranger look after their child. The new master and his wife, Nick and Mariah, hire her after a chance meeting on a bridge early one morning and one hasty conversation. They do not ask for references or do a police check. If they had, they would have found that Dee has a criminal record. It is no coincidence that Mariah restores old wallpaper. She is adept at papering over cracks. She tells Dee that Felicity is selectively mute, that she met Nick after his wife died from a longstanding illness and that they both did everything to get Felicity talking again. There us a stifling atmosphere in the lodgings and the author carefully links the house with the people in it – with both there is a long history being erased and retold through renovation or retelling. Is the start of this couple’s relationship as simple as they portray? Mariah’s chirpy and wholesome exterior might, just like the new decor, hint at a darker, more murky interior world. The house’s history is slowly being unearthed by Linklater, a social historian hired by Nick. It shows how out of step these two characters might really be. Nick wants to disturb and discover the chequered past of their new home, while Mariah is whitewashing it. Linklater discovers family dramas, haunted occupants and a possible answer for the ‘priest’s hole’ in Felicity’s bedroom that may be even more malign than the original poisonous Victorian wallpaper.
Felicity isn’t just mute. She is a very distressed child, seemingly obedient but full of simmering anger and confusion. She roams the house while still asleep, makes patterns on the floor with her collection of bones and artefacts, and seems to be drawn by the ‘priest’s hole’ in the middle of the night. She slowly starts to speak to Dee, but also makes a surprising connection to Linklater when the three of them start to take tea together after school. They are a group of misfits, finding each other and developing trust. There seems to be a distinction made between those who appear genuinely themselves, however odd they may seem, and those who are putting on an act; a natural family forming where there is a forced family unit at home. It has to be significant that the one person Felicity never speaks to at all is Mariah. Dee becomes more than a passing childcare worker, she is deeply involved with this little girl. I like the way the author foreshadows this relationship as Dee sees Felicity for the first time and notices her curls, just like those of another child she once knew. Is this another nanny’s role or is she giving hints of a past we don’t know about? If Dee once had a family what happened to them? This is where we come to discussing Dee’s role as narrator and whether she is not as candid with us as she seems. I kept waiting for a terrible secret to emerge and for Dee’s reaction to being exposed. The tension is ratcheted up when we learn that Felicity has gone missing and the narrative passes back and forth between the present day and what has happened in these character’s pasts.
I enjoyed the ending, although I raced there a little too quickly. I was desperately hoping for a happy ending for both Felicity and Dee. Watching Mariah and Nick’s ‘perfect’ life completely implode was oddly satisfying. With her perfectly calm exterior ravaged by the birth of her first child, Mariah struggles to function normally and seems haunted by Felicity’s mother Ana. She starts to spend days in pyjamas while coping with a colicky baby and this break in her usually ordered world threatens to break her. I was left feeling that Nick and Mariah didn’t deserve Felicity, but was that what the narrator wanted me to feel. I was left wondering whether I’d been manipulated all along. As the police wondered and questioned, the reader does the same. Is Felicity as disturbed as Dee would have us believe? Or was Nick right in his assessment that it was Dee’s presence, her inability to sleep, her encouragement in discovering something supernatural and the constant buckets left in the kitchen to bleach animal skulls that are to blame? Finally, I liked the way maths was used as a theme in their interactions; Dee’s proof is an example of how something seemingly factual and definite can still be manipulated. A maths problem can have two correct answers. It simply has to be worked out differently. Which version do we trust? This is an intelligent, psychological, thriller that keeps you guessing long after reading, Lucy Atkins has done it again! A great read.
Meet the Author
Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her latest novel, MAGPIE LANE, was picked as a ‘best book of 2020’ by BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, the GUARDIAN, the TELEGRAPH and GOOD HOUSEKEEPING MAGAZINE. Her other novels are: THE NIGHT VISITOR (which has been optioned for TV), THE MISSING ONE and THE OTHER CHILD. Lucy is book critic for The Sunday Times and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, and many magazines. She teaches on the creative writing Masters degree at the University of Oxford.
She has written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, FIRST TIME PARENT (Collins).
I’m continuing my series with Rachel Kelly’s collection of poetry for each season of the year. Today I want to share with you another poem from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ because it speaks to me about being authentic and I know how liberating that can be.
Wild Gees by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over, announcing your place,
In the family of things.
In You’ll Never Walk Alone – Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs. Ed. Rachel Kelly. Yellow Kite. November 2022.
I love that we come to this poem in the middle of a conversation. Editor Rachel Kelly suggests that it might feel odd at first, to hear this voice telling us we do not have to be good – a lesson we are taught from being a small child. In order to be loved these days we are told we must be good, but also to behave in certain ways and look a particular way. We must have no body hair, thick lustrous hair on our head, the perfect figure and whitened teeth. But this poem says no, a goose only has to be a goose, the natural way a goose is meant to be. It follows it’s inner instincts, to fly to warmer climates in winter and back home in the spring. It isn’t trying to be something it’s not. It is unapologetically itself.
At this time of year I can go out with a cuppa into the garden and I identify the different clumps of leaves, what will become the aquilegias, daffodils, tulips and even foxgloves. Every year they are in the same place in the garden and will bloom at their set time, bringing bursts of scent and beautiful colour into my world. Even when I’m struggling with pain and I can’t walk far, I can get into my garden and enjoy my flowers. The consistency of their blooming brings me so much hope: of warmer days coming, having the doors and windows open, reclining in my garden chair with a good book – usually with a cat or two in my lap. When I did an authentic self workshop this was one of the activities when I felt most like my true self, just being outdoors with my animals and enjoying a good book. Nature is the backdrop to this and is grounding in a way. ‘The natural world unfolds anyway’, Kelly tells us not because it was told it must or should be a certain way. She goes on to talk about the metaphor of the geese, flying freely, following their instincts and but also being part of something bigger. It’s a powerful message, that we have a place in nature and can return to it any time for sustenance and to quieten that constant noise we’re bombarded with.
To listen to your inner self I ask clients to get out a notebook and write down the times in life when they’re at their most comfortable with themselves. ‘When you’re not questioning how to be or whether you’re wearing the right thing. When you feel totally in tune with what you’re doing and in the present moment’. This will be different for everyone but my first list was:
When I’m with my dog walking on the beach or in a forest
When I’m at a concert, caught up with the singing and the crowd
Sitting in the garden with a good book and my cats with me
At the theatre watching a ballet or a compelling play
From that I could pick up certain patterns, such as I like quiet or activities where people aren’t expecting conversation. I like solitary activities or being in a crowd that’s in tune with each other. I like to observe more than participate or perform. I find animals and nature soothing. This meant I could lean more towards activities that felt natural rather than activities that made me anxious or feel out of place. I will look back to this poem from time to time and probably use it in sessions, because it does remind us to take time in nature but mainly to stop trying to be what others tell us we should be. Be who you are and love what you love.
The first thing I have to say is ‘Wow! What an opening.’ I read the first page then went to find my other half so I could read it to him. He’s one of those people who say ‘just chuck me in a bin bag’ so I thought he’d love it too. Of course it’s horrifying, but I also found it blackly comic and with Irish ancestors myself I can honestly say it’s an Irish trait. We laugh at the story of Mother – my great-grandmother – putting her head in the oven and wondering why it was taking too long. Slowly realising it was an electric oven. Tragic, horrifying, but hilarious at the same time. I felt this all the way through the story of Sally Diamond, a young woman having to negotiate a new life after the death of her incredibly protective father. He was an academic doctor and it turns out Sally was his subject. He leaves Sally letters to read after his death to give her all the information about what to do next. However, Sally can be very literal and by carrying out his verbal wishes to be in a bin bag, it turns out she may have committed a crime. Luckily family friend and GP Angela comes to the rescue, explaining to the police that Sally is ‘different’ she’s been sheltered and her childhood before her adoption was very traumatic. In fact her father left specific instructions in his letters, but as Sally points out he should have labelled the envelope ‘open this as soon as I’ve died’. Sally learns that she was born in terrible circumstances and it’s only chance that saved her. How will Sally cope with the detailed news about her past and how will she integrate into the community and learn how to manage by herself?
I found Sally rather endearing, despite her tendency to ask personal questions and disappearing to play the piano when things get too much. Sally knows that her mother died, in fact she committed suicide after their escape. Sally was born Mary Norton, in a locked extension attached to the home of Connor Geary and his son. Sally’s mother was abducted by Geary and brought back to the specially built annex where he chained her to the radiator. Denise Norton was subjected to all forms of abuse and violence and gave birth to her daughter in captivity. They were only found when a burglar broke into the house and Denise shouted to him ‘I am Denise Norton’ over and over, in the hope he’d tell the authorities. Sally doesn’t remember anything about her earliest years, but when she’s sent a grubby, old teddy in the post she knows instinctively that he’s hers. Sally was adopted by the husband and wife psychologist team who were treating her and her mother after they left hospital. After a short space of time, it became clear that Denise would not recover well and it was decided that in order for her to develop, Mary must be removed from her mother. Tragically, as soon as this happened, Denise committed suicide. Ever since, and with the new name Sally, she has lived an isolated rural life in Ireland. Sally has her quirks: she asks deeply personal questions; she would tear out her hair if upset; she could be extremely violent. As we followed Sally’s journey it started to feel really uplifting and I was so happy for her, finding the ability to live a fuller life would be a real happy ending to the story.
Then the book changes and we’re listening to a boy called Peter from New Zealand, having emigrated from Ireland. I found Peter’s father terrifying, he is a misogynist and incredibly controlling to the extent of telling his son he has a rare disease that means he can’t touch other people. This lie will have terrible consequences, when Peter tries to make connections with others. Slowly a terrifying story emerges about their home in Ireland and the ghost who lived through the wall. Sometimes he’d hear the shrieks and moans from that room. When Peter was left to be looked after by the ghost, something terrible happened and the trauma has stayed with him for life. I felt so moved by Peter’s story, but terrified by what he could become. I felt as if the loss of his friend Rangi that was the turning point. Peter can also be extremely violent and even though he is assailed by guilt afterwards, the damage is done. I hoped and hoped for a point of redemption for him. When his father starts to build a barn and look for another victim he has no choice but to be complicit. If something happened to his father, would he able to come clean and let them victim go? Does he ever wonder about what happened to his mother’s family in Ireland?
I was hoping that these two damaged people would get to meet each other. Both of them need family and a sense of where they’re from, even when the truth is awful to comprehend. The author has such a talent for playing with the reader’s emotions, letting us feel for a character then finding out they’ve done something terrible or making us feel sorry for a character we dislike, because of something they’ve experienced. Her characters are always complicated and flawed, but this was the next level. I loved watching Sally start to thrive with the support of those around her. She uses the money she inherits to renovate a cottage closer to the village. She starts to build relationships with her dad’s sister Aunt Christine and her Uncle Mark too. The high point is a lovely party at Sally’s cottage with a bouncy castle for the kids, which she is even persuaded to try herself. Then a stranger from New Zealand turns up at her door and I was riveted to the story from then on to see how this will affect Sally. Can two damaged people console and support each other, or will they drag each other down? We are about to witness the difference of growing up on opposite sides of the wall. This was a fascinating novel, especially if you love psychological thrillers and studying how someone’s start in life contributes to the person they are. I was also fascinated with the idea that those who heal can also hurt. When your adopted child is also your subject, your academic reputation and possibly even your funding, lines become blurred. I desperately wanted a happy ending for Sally because she’d made so much progress but can so much trauma ever be left behind? The author created a character that I was so emotionally invested in, she will definitely stay with me. She’s so complex and nuanced that she felt completely real to me. The book is incredible and is up there with my top reads of this year, it’s one of those that will keep coming back to me until eventually I grab it from the shelf and read it again.
Meet the Author
Liz was born in Dublin in 1967, where she now lives. She has written successfully for soap opera, radio drama, television plays, short stories and animation for children.
Liz’s first novel Unravelling Oliver was published to critical and popular acclaim in March 2014. It quickly became a firm favourite with book clubs and reader’s groups. In November of that year, it went on to win the Ireland AM Crime Novel of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards and was long listed for the International Dublin Literature Prize 2016. She was also the winner of the inaugural Jack Harte Bursary provided by the Irish Writers Centre and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Dec 2014. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, was published in July 2016 and went straight to number 1 where it remained for seven weeks. Liz won the Monaco Bursary from the Ireland Funds and was Writer in Residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco in Sept/Oct 2016. In Nov 2016, Lying in Wait won the prestigious RTE Ryan Tubridy Listener’s Choice prize at the Irish Book Awards.
Aside from writing, Liz has led workshops in writing drama for broadcast, she has produced and managed literary salons and curated literary strands of Arts Festivals. She regularly does public interviews and panel discussions on all aspects of her writing.
Well, what an exciting book month it’s been! Not to mention a busy one. I’ve been straight from one book to another without a break without the usual time to contemplate a bit and wonder what was next. I was surprised to find myself reading one brilliant novel after another, from some of my favourite writers and publishers. There were some great writers who were totally new to me as well, with incredible debuts full of atmospheric mystery, emotions and relationships. I’ve moved from a future dystopia where stories are banned, to a Japanese love story that turns into an action thriller, then driven through Scotland with three fugitives and a space cephalopod in a van. Two psychological thrillers kept me guessing about human relationships: from a mother and her daughter, befriended by a woman who is at least careless and at worst manipulative with others feelings; to a wife and mistress coming dangerously close to knowing the truth and the man in the middle becoming increasingly desperate to escape the situation. Finally there are two historical novels, one taking us to Jane Eyre territory with a large mysterious house, a governess and a ghostly presence. The last is set in the aftermath of WW2 where a woman tries to revive a garden as an escape from her changed husband, just returned from fighting alongside the French resistance. So my brain has been all over the backwards and forwards in time and all over the world! But from the thirteen books read this month, it was these books that I simply couldn’t leave out.
This atmospheric debut was our Squad Pod Collective book club choice for March. Written with inspiration from Jane Eyre the book follows Margaret Lennox, a recently widowed woman who has secured a post as governess at Hartwood Hall. On arrival Margaret looks forward to working for Mrs Eversham and her son Louis, but there are doubts about the hall. Villagers won’t come near the place, amid superstitions about spirits and spectres and rumours about Mrs Eversham. Margaret is told that the East Wing is kept locked and out of bounds, but one night she follows an apparition with a candle towards that part of the house. The same figure is glimpsed at twilight in the gardens. Added to this is blackmail, a lost daughter, marital abuse and an illicit affair. I loved how Katie subverted the novel that inspired her, especially towards the end and the atmosphere she creates is classic 19th Century gothic. I found myself carrying the book around so I could dip into it and come closer to finding out the truth. What a fabulous debut this is.
I’ve come a little late to this story of two fascinating women, the wife and lover of the same man. Set in the 1920’s and a country still in mourning, this has so much period detail and is based on a real case. Beatrice is alone in life and is moving towards the age where marriage and children will definitely have passed her by. She lives in a women’s hostel and works in the offices of a London firm. She’s so good at her work that the current office manager has her in mind to replace her when she retires. Just when romance seems unlikely, she strikes up a friendship with a salesman at her firm, the handsome and charming Tom Ryan. There’s just one snag, Tom is married with a little girl and Beatrice’s reputation could be ruined. Kate is Tom’s wife and is largely in the dark about Beatrice till the police turn up at her door. This isn’t the first time that Tom has strayed, but this could be the first time that she doesn’t stand by him. When Beatrice falls pregnant, the pressure starts to build for Tom. Will she tell his wife? He could lose his job, his family and his status. As both Beatrice and Tom become increasingly desperate, all three are moving towards a terrible crime. The women are the stars of this show and the ones I felt most empathy for as the tension built. Their alternate narration was a brilliant structure and really took us inside these characters. Psychologically complex and compulsive reading as a domestic thriller, I’m going back to read Emma’s previous novel on the strength of this one.
This was a beautifully written debut about female friendship, with an undercurrent of clever manipulation. Sunday has lived and worked on a farm belonging to Dolly’s father ever since their divorce. She also has quirks that could be seen as neuro-divergent traits – she doesn’t speak to strangers, only eats white food and doesn’t like noise, especially several at once. It’s a surprise when her new neighbour at the cottage next door embraces Sunday’s differences and is determined to make friends. Sunday feels very lucky that the rich and glamorous Vita wants to be her friend. It’s the little touches, like always making sure there are plain white rolls at dinner and the fizzy drinks that Sunday prefers. She feels like Vita and Rollo accept and embrace her. One particular Friday night, after dinner, Dolly asks can she stay overnight with Vita? Sunday has no objection, but when it becomes a regular thing Sunday feels excluded. Is it her imagination, or since Dolly has been staying with the couple, hasn’t Vita stopped coming over so much? However, she doesn’t want to prevent Dolly having opportunities and making connections. We are just as unsure as Sunday, because the changes are subtle, but could be seen as manipulative and exploitative. What does Vita want with her daughter and if she stops Dolly seeing them could she lose her altogether? This is so emotionally literate and subtle psychologically, but also a beautifully written debut.
I loved this historical fiction novel, another fantastic debut, set in the aftermath of WW2. This is a story about what war did to those who left to fight, but also explores what it did to those left behind. Alice, or Lady Rayne to give her full title, is struggling under the pressure of keeping the family estate going. Two successive world wars have depleted their finances due to two sets of death duties. Her husband Stephen is the unexpected heir and has come back from war troubled and angry, far from the gentle, affectionate man she fell in love with. The hall is falling apart round their ears and the gardens have also fallen into disrepair, apart from the vegetable plots. Since returning, Stephen has retired every night to a small room in the servants quarters, instead of the marital bed. So she decides to try and resurrect a small part of the garden first, the walled garden. In the hope it might spur her on to do more and inspire Stephen to come up with solutions for the house. The author contrasts the couple with the village G.P. and George the parish vicar. The doctor is keen on social justice and full of concern for those in the village who are less fortunate. The vicar, George, did not fight because a lung disease kept him at home and he wrestles with the guilt of that while trying to minister to those troubled souls who have seen and done things in the name of their country that cause terrible nightmares. He falls into an easy friendship with Alice, they have a lot in common, but could that friendship deepen into something more? This is a thoughtful and moving account of the post-war years in a rural community and I liked the way we learned about the effects of war across class boundaries, as well as the differences between London and the more rural communities. This was a great debut from the author and I’m sure she’s one to watch.
The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone.
As most of you know I’m a mad Skelfaholic, in love with Doug’s trio of female private investigators/ funeral directors. This is a stand alone novel, but does have the usual mad combination of science, philosophy and psychology that underpins his story. On an evening in Edinburgh, people witness a bright light in the sky, an object hurtling towards earth. It’s vivid light display is noticed by Lennox, being confronted by a gang of lads, Ava who is in an argument with her husband which will only end in the usual way, then there’s Heather, a loner who after a terminal cancer diagnosis was wading into water with her pockets full of stones. All three wake up in hospital, which is a miracle since none of the others who saw the light is going to recover. All of them have suffered a cerebral haemorrhagic stroke, a type of stroke that’s usually unrecoverable. When a strange creature washes up on the beach, it’s guarded by local police until a more specialist team can come and pick it up. It’s a cephalopod, something rather like an octopus but without the eight legs. Lennox knows immediately that he must rescue the creature, so with Heather, Ava and a borrowed camper van they take Sandy towards the northern coast. With a journalist and strange suited men in pursuit, will they reach Sandy’s destination? This is brilliant, thoughtful, funny and touching all in one. Loved it.
End of Story is absolutely stunning and had a huge impact on my emotions. Our narrator Fern Dostoy is a writer, one of the ‘big four’ novelists of the not too distant future. This is a future where the Anti-Fiction Movement’s campaign to have all fiction banned has been successful. It was Fern’s third novel, Technological Amazingness, that was cited as dangerous fiction likely to mislead and possibly incite dissent in it’s readers. All fiction authors, including Fern, are banned from writing and the only books on sale are non-fiction. The message is that fiction is bad for you, it lies to the reader giving them misleading ideas about the world and how it’s run. Facts are safe. I had strange feelings of anger and frustration with the narrative, not because it isn’t brilliantly and vividly brought to life, but because I could sense something else going on underneath. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it. As the pressure built and the compliance officers started to push Fern into telling the truth, I inexplicably felt a lump building in my throat. I’d no idea why I was feeling so choked up. I read the final third with tears streaming down my cheeks, followed by full-on sobbing. I hadn’t known my emotions were so engaged with Fern’s story until my husband came home and I couldn’t even speak to explain why I was crying. It was like I’d known this was where the story was going all along. I loved it and I know it will be on my list for the year’s end.
This is science fiction with a heart and a lot to say about the human experience. Our narrator John is an awkward 17 year old, from a dysfunctional family and with deeply personal body issues. He also happens to be a coding genius, talented in quantum code and greatly in demand by tech companies. He is spending some time in Tokyo while signing a deal with Sony and comes across a small cafe that offers ear cleaning. Inside he finds a huge Japanese man working behind the counter, a quirky dog with a spherical head and his owner, a pretty and rather enigmatic young girl called Neotnia. This chance meeting develops into an incredible journey that will take them from the neon city of Tokyo, to the tragic past of Hiroshima and finally the beautiful mountains of Nagano. The world the author creates is mesmerising and the love story that develops is touching. Then there’s a twist and we’re through the rabbit hole into sci-fi and a road trip to find Neotnia’s father. Then we morph into a thriller and my heart was racing to the end! I loved how this was so many different things at once and I particularly loved the philosophical and historical elements. This was an incredible read and I was surprised at every turn.
All out in paperback now.
I just wanted to give a mention to some paperback releases of books I loved from last year. Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth is set in Victorian London and the world of the freak show. Zillah is the star of a theatre show appearing as a terrifying tribeswoman, but she was born in London and has never been to Africa. When her consciousness is raised she is compelled to help the showman’s latest acquisition, the Leopard Woman. Fantastically immersive historical fiction. One Italian Summer takes us to Positano with Katy, who’s recently found out her mother spent time there as a young woman. As Katy waits in the foyer of her hotel in walks a young woman called Carol. Carol is Katy’s mother. Has she gone back in time or or is this her mother’s ghost? What might she find out about her mother that she’s never known before? I absolutely loved Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? and the title character. Yinka has been the perfect daughter who did well at school and university. She now has a great job too, but is still the subject of prayers when her British Nigerian Aunties get together. She doesn’t have a husband, or even a boyfriend. We follow Yinka’s plan to have a relationship by the date of her friend Rachel’s wedding. What if the things that it takes to attract a man, mean you’re no longer being yourself. Funny and really heartfelt too. Finally, in the follow up to his first novel we are back with Evie Epworth in Matson Taylor’s All About Evie. We’re ten years on from the first novel and Evie is working for the BBC in London, but thanks to a mix-up with a member of the Royal Family and a mug full of something unfortunate, she’s looking for new employment. She wants to write for a magazine, so when she sees magazine Right On she thinks it might be the right for her. They agree to give her a trial on the listings pages, essentially long lists of what’s on in London across the arts from opera to poetry evenings. With the offer of help from Lolo (Radio Three producer, homosexual, basset owner) on the classical music listings, Evie decides to give it a go and sprinkle some sunshine over her work, in her own inimitable way. As always this is an uplifting, joyful and funny romp through Evie’s life with a sprinkling of romance too.
Years ago, Juliet left a little piece of her heart in Paris – and now, separated from her husband and with her children flying the nest, it’s time to get it back! So she puts on her best red lipstick, books a cosy attic apartment near Notre-Dame and takes the next train out of London.
Arriving at the Gare du Nord, the memories come flooding back: bustling street cafés, cheap wine in candlelit bars and a handsome boy with glittering eyes. But Juliet has also been keeping a secret for over two decades – and she begins to realise it’s impossible to move forwards without first looking back.
Something tells her that the next thirty days might just change everything…
I hadn’t read any of Veronica Henry’s novels until I did a blog tour for her novel The Impulse Purchase. I found it delightfully escapist and optimistic while exploring female relationships, especially familial ones, in an interesting way. In her new novel we’re more focused on one woman; Juliet is a middle-aged, ghost-writer who’s at a huge crossroads in life. She and her husband have taken the very brave decision to separate as their last child leaves home for university. Most of their friends think they’re crazy, because the couple still get along, they’re probably the best of friends in fact. However, they feel they’ve drifted into two different paths. As her husband has embraced all things cycling – including the Lycra and the diet – Juliet isn’t enamoured and would rather curl up with a good book or go to the theatre. They’ve each become comfortable in their own routines and as the time to sell their large family home has come around, they can’t see the point of trying to meld their differing lifestyles into another joint home. So each will take half of the house sale and do their own thing and Juliet would like to take a trip into her past. Years ago, when she was still a teenager, Juliet went to work as an au pair in Paris, but returned in shame and sadness only a few month later. She has rented an apartment for a month to reacquaint herself with the city and spend some time writing her own story. However, revisiting the past is never easy and Juliet finds there are experiences she still needs to process and come to terms with.
I found reading this book a little lie watching Sex and the City or perhaps more aptly, Emily in Paris which I binge-watched over the Christmas period. Everything about Juliet’s time in Paris is simply gorgeous from the description of the patisseries near her apartment, to the clothes worn by her friend ….. and the work Juliet starts on her book project. Thanks to the two series mentioned, along with a teenage diet of Judith Krantz novels, I find Paris ridiculously romantic and imagine it full of quirky shops, artists, vintage bookshops and incredibly elegant women. Every walk she takes I was imagining the decorative shop windows, acres of pastel coloured macarons and fairy lit trees, not to mention the incredible bridges, cathedrals and art galleries. I’m also a sucker for transformation shows like the old Gok Wan and those wedding shows where people choose their dress and I also had that vibe too. This might seem like I’m making the book sound trivial or all about appearances, but it’s far from that. This isn’t just about visual transformation. The author takes what can be a difficult period in a woman’s life: empty nest syndrome; menopause; relationship breakdown and that sense of having lost who you are. Veronica Henry takes us into that process of grieving and growth and I kept reading in the hope Juliet would come to that place of finding herself – the person she is now and the way she wants the rest of her life to be. Before she can do that she needs to face what happened all those years ago when she was such a young girl and just starting out in life.
I really felt for the younger Juliet and these sections leapt off the page. I loved how brave she was in leaving her cozy home and family to do something completely different. That sense of being a fish out of water really comes across as she tries to settle into the apartment of the French family she’ll be living with. Her French is minimal and I could feel the nerves as she tries to fit in, especially when the children’s mother is quite volatile and erratic in mood. However, the father seems kind and tries to make Juliet feel at home by taking her out for Sunday lunch with the children. Juliet comes across as a kind young girl, good with the children and concerned about their mother whose moods fluctuate between treating Juliet like a little sister and angry, tearful outbursts. I warmed to Juliet because she doesn’t become angry or resentful, but is worried that her employer is struggling as a working mum of three children and perhaps needs extra support. I had concerns about the way the children’s father acted around Juliet early on and couldn’t decide whether he was trying to make her feel like family, or whether the late nights, sharing a bottle of wine, might lead to more. Juliet’s affections are completely engaged by Luke as soon as they meet. Her friend calls it a ‘coup de foudre’ or love at first sight and it does seem to be an immediate connection, as if their souls know each other before they even speak the same language. In the present day sections, Juliet hints at a disastrous ending to her time in Paris and a separation from Luke that leaves unfinished business. I wondered whether she would feel the urge to reconnect and explain what happened all those years before.
If you’re looking for an enjoyable, escapist read this winter/spring then this is definitely the book for you. Juliet is interesting and her earlier years in Paris really help us understand her character’s choices later on. I wondered how much her stable, but safe, marriage was a response to these early romantic mistakes and terrible heartbreak. I would say that her return to Paris, especially her rekindled friendship with Nathalie, brings out her spontaneous and playful side. Nathalie takes risks, from visiting less salubrious parts of the city, to accepting random invitations and wearing some quirky outfits. Their friendship picks up where they left off and I would definitely be the demographic buying Nathalie’s memoir and cookbook. I loved the way Juliet tackled what happened in the past and it showed the difference in attitudes between then and now; where once Juliet took on a lot of the blame, she can now see other people’s part in what happened and how they took advantage of her naivety. While I wasn’t necessarily rooting for a romantic ending to the story I was rooting for Juliet to build a totally new life for herself where she’s with the people who inspire her. I enjoyed the ending and felt it worked well for the character, especially when a call from home dangles her old safe life in front of her. I wanted her to continue growing and trying new things, because just reading about it felt like taking a holiday.
Meet The Author
I was so interested in reading Veronica’s author section on Amazon because it’s so personal. So I’ve reproduced part of it below.
‘People often ask me what kind of books I write and it’s a very difficult question to answer in one sentence. Primarily, I love to take my readers somewhere they might like to be, whether a gorgeous house in the countryside or on a seaside clifftop. There, my characters go through the trials and tribulation of everyday life, embroiled in situations and dilemmas we can all relate to. Love is at the heart of it, but all kinds of love, not just romantic: the love of friends and family, or a place, or a passion for what you enjoy (food, wine and books, in my case . . .)
I have a background in writing television drama (Heartbeat, Holby City) so that has been an influence – creating lots of characters whose lives impact on each other. Working on The Archers I was taught ‘Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; but above all, make ’em wait’!
I hope my books are beautifully written, uplifting and a little bit escapist. I’d love to know what you think, so do leave a review. Or you can contact me via Twitter @veronica_henry, or on Facebook or Instagram @veronicahenryauthor
A little bit about me: I live by the sea and head to the beach every day with my dog Zelda. I love cooking and discovering new restaurants on city breaks, with a bit of yoga to offset the calories – and I’ve just bought an e-bike. My biggest writing influences are HE Bates, Nancy Mitford, Jilly Cooper and any book that has a big rambling house and an eccentric family.’ From http://www.amazon.co.uk
It was only yesterday on the blog that I was welcoming spring by talking about a book of poetry aimed at helping people with their mental health. Nature was one of the main ways we could boost our well-being, so it seems very fitting that I was also reading this beautiful memoir by Anna Vaught where she shares her very personal mental health journey and how nature became her best coping mechanism from a very young age. The book is made up of a series of essays, each one beginning with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature including the book’s title.
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One.
His words bring a sense of wonder to the natural world, and if kept and nurtured, that sense of almost childlike wonder is an amazing antidote to the hurried and stressful way of life we now have. In fact if we still have that ability to stop and be with the natural world around us, it becomes a time out of time. We come out of those moments and back to reality amazed at how much time has passed and how everything else in life receded and allowed us that enjoyment. As some of my bookish friends know, I have recently been struggling with my mood due to the frustration of having a multiple sclerosis relapse. While I am in pain and battling fatigue, my very busy brain is desperate to carry on writing my book. Basically my body can’t keep up with the breadth of my imagination and the desire to put it down on paper. Yesterday, we drove to our local farm shop and on the way home we passed a field that’s had a winter crop harvested and is only just growing a short covering of grass. From a distance away I suddenly saw two young hares – my favourite animal – chasing each other, weaving and winding around each other at speed then every so often stopping to stand on their hind legs and attempt to box. We pulled over and for a short while we lost ourselves watching these mystical creatures performing the rituals of their ancestors. My partner commented on how my face lit up while watching them, possibly because one of my earliest memories involves a leveret found by my dad that I was able to hold in my palm. I remember the softness of it’s fur, the cartilage of it’s ears and the way the light shone through the pink inside of the ear to show blood vessels coursing their way through.
Like Anna Vaught’s family we were rural working class, with my father either a farm labour or working in land drainage – a very important role in Lincolnshire where the 14th Century system of dykes designed by Vermuyden still keeps the county’s land drained for farming. As children, my brother and I would leave the house in the morning and not return till late afternoon. Vaught’s description of her childhood reminded me of those days where we would lie and read in trees, suck the nectar from sweet nettle flowers and watch the wildlife. I was obsessed with the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, so while my brother was fishing I’d do botanical sketches of foxgloves, campions and cow parsley. These countryside hours feel idyllic, but the truth was my mum struggled with untreated depression till I was a teenager. Since then my brother and I have both had our own bouts of depression, but thanks to better treatments and to my training in mental health I had the skills to know what was happening and ask for help. I have also developed my own toolbox for days when my mental health and physical health are having a battle with each other. Like the author, spending time in nature is definitely a large part of that. I truly bonded with this incredible, honest and moving book and was profoundly moved by the author’s decision to share her more painful life experiences. This is partly why my response is also very personal.
The author bases each chapter on a plan, such as Rosebay Willowherb or lichen and moss. She writes about the wonder of each living thing, but it’s also a kicking off point for her own memories and feelings at the time. She writes a deeply moving section in the first chapter where she admits that she was reciting the Latin names of plants in her head to calm herself and try to get to sleep. She told many different adults – the dinner lady, the teacher, the vicar – that she felt compelled to say them out loud ‘so as not to make the dreadful thing happen’ possibly the emergence of OCD. These little glimpses of the child Anna show how lost and unsafe she felt with her parents:
If, as a child you are surrounded by a sort of passionate morbidity, by a frightening psychiatric incident in the family – which is frightening because it is spoken of behind closed doors and euphemism – it may be that you need to latch on to things around you which provide stability and reassurance. Much of this was in the natural world for me.
Vaught is open, raw and deeply moving in the sections where she writes about her childhood experience and it is worth mentioning that the book contains childhood mental illness, emotional abuse, suicide, depression and anxiety. She places her own warning for these subjects at the beginning of the book so I felt they were worth mentioning here. It is emotionally devastating to read someone crying out for help, but receiving nothing from the people expected to care for her most. She describes feeling dissociated, cut off from the world and the people in it as if she was living behind a sheet of glass. She writes quite bluntly that her parents did not talk about it or try to help her. Her mother’s view was the depressed people were indulging themselves. Teenage moods and PMS were imaginary and people who professed to be mentally I’ll had ‘failed to control themselves.’ I felt this in my core. To be so dismissed and gaslighted to this extent in your own family must be devastating to self – esteem and leaves you questioning and testing yourself permanently. She writes that she felt, not just unwanted, but a malevolent creature that might easily do someone harm, an idea that meant making friends and keeping relationships with extended family was quite difficult. It was also instilled in her that it wasn’t just her mum, that other family members and visiting friends had notice she was different too. Her father was distant, but when she was allowed to go out with him she felt chosen and would chatter away to him, probably making up for lost time, until he would snap and tell her to be quiet. On one occasion telling her that they preferred to spend their time with their ‘Number One Son because he listens and likes to be with us, and he never says a word. And you should know you are here under sufferance.’ How crushing must it have been to hear that, especially with her mother so angry with her, something she can only say now after years of therapy.
However, this is far from a misery memoir. I would say it is a story of resilience, of finding the things that boost it and removing from your life those things that crush your spirit. She provides possible mindful exercises that might calm and lists the places she finds most inspiring to visit and experience nature. She signposts the reader to other books that might give you coping mechanisms, while being mindful there is no one size fits all approach because we are all very different. One thing that caught my eye was something I have taught to my groups with chronic ill health and pain; that even in the depths of depression we must be mindful without our bodies and our emotions. We must observe how depression is making us feel both physically and emotionally. What is it about the weeks leading up to this bout of illness that you notice? Were you under stress at work? Were there financial pressures? Were you worried about someone else in your life? Then also make notes on what you did during the worst weeks that made you feel okay? Which strategies brought calm when your mind was spiralling with anxiety? Which people were the best to have around and vice versa? So in this way, a bout of depression or mental ill health has taught us something – what are the best ways to live that might help boost our resilience in the future? As with illnesses like MS, M.E. and various types of chronic pain, stress does worsen symptoms. Using these personal strategies may not totally remove the mental or physical ill health, in fact we may live our lives in seasons ( I always know I will have a short relapse in spring and another in the autumn) but we can be resilient, we can keep in mind that despite being in the depths of winter we can always come out the other side. This is one of the main lessons that the author has always taken from nature, it’s ability to heal itself and come back in the spring. We have faith that at this time of year, plants will start pushing through and now the hellebores and snowdrops of late winter are giving way to tulips, daffodils and bluebells. We plant our brown, unpromising bulbs in the late autumn into cold soil with complete faith they will push through and bring us joy, just when the winter has seemed so long.
If you can cope with the internal winter of depression then depression can be your friend’.
Not that we would wish depression on anyone, but that it can be a learning experience. It can teach us how to manage the next time it recurs and realise that even a life with limits has richness. This is something I’ve taken on board while reading and it started me off writing a short journal piece about what my bouts of MS can teach me and again it’s resilience. That just as it’s sure to happen again, I can also be sure that it will pass. I can use it to rest, to read and scribble notes, perhaps even to read solely for pleasure. My relapses are simply my body’s winter. To finish I loved her reference to Wilson A. Bentley who lived in Vermont and gave a great deal of his life to studying snowflakes, a natural phenomenon that’s so transient, simply melting away as though it never existed. Bentley felt they were a reminder of how transient earthly beauty can be, but that rather than rendering his study of them pointless, it made it more special because:
‘In the ephemeral nature of phenomena, however, he also found comfort, because while the beauty of the snow was evanescent, like the seasons or the stars he saw in the evening sky, it would fade but always come again.’
Introduction, The Envoys of Beauty.
Meet the Author.
Anna Vaught is an English teacher, mentor and author of several books, including 2020’s Saving Lucia. She has also written a short story collection, Famished. She is currently a columnist for MsLexia and has written regularly for The Bookseller. Anna’s second short fiction collection Ravished was published by Reflex Press in 2022 and 2023 will see five books including this one published across Europe. She volunteers with young people and is founder of the Curae prize for writer-carers and edits it’s journal. She works alongside chronic illness and is a passionate campaigner for mental health provision. Anna is published by Reflex Press and is currently working on another novel.
When I was offered this book of poetry to review I wanted to do more than just a basic review. This is the sort of book I would use when working with clients and the collection has been gathered with writing therapy in mind. For me spring is the perfect time to start working with clients, because it’s naturally a time of growth and change. It’s a much more natural time to make life changes or start to challenge ourselves rather than the dead of winter. Our moods tend to lift and we want to be outside enjoying the milder weather. So over the next few Sundays I’m going to use this book to show how I work with clients and some exercises you might want to try. Firstly, I’m going to write about how I felt about the collection and how it’s been framed by the editor and then look at how we respond to poetry.
This is a fantastic collection of poetry, cleverly sectioned into seasons and the emotions those seasons might inspire in us. Alongside her chosen poems are illustrations and a thoughtful reflection on how each poem has come to mean so much both to the author and to years of readers. As Kelly starts off in her introduction, ‘words can be a way to make sense of our feelings’ and I would definitely back that up from the writing workshops I’ve held. Even when we can’t find our own words, reading someone else’s can light a spark of recognition in us. Not only does it help identify feelings, it shows us that someone else has felt how we do, We are not alone. This is where this book excels, it’s a companion. It would be a great bedside table book, then if we wake in the night feeling sad or anxious we can flick through and find someone who expresses exactly how we’re feeling. It’s good to keep a notebook to hand as well, to jot down your responses. The book also excels in the way it’s laid out, split into seasons of the year. There are specific emotions that we attach to the seasons and with it being early spring I noted how hopeful spring poems are. They signify beginnings, new growth, the banishing of winter and hopefulness. As growth appears in the garden, we hear the new dawn chorus or smell a hyacinth, it can’t fail to raise our spirits. So the seasons in the book can follow the emotional seasons we experience – for example, we can sink into hibernation when feeling low or depressed. The poetry chosen really does suit it’s season well. As a writing therapist I can see how I could use this book when designing short courses on identifying feelings, beginnings and endings, how to use poetry to boost your well-being and so much more. As a reader I think it’s a great collection, beautifully illustrated and a fantastic bedside book to dip in and out of from time to time when you need support.
Response To Poetry
One of the most astonishing things about working with words is that the simplest things work. I sometimes felt, early on in my practice, that I wasn’t writing nearly enough for a session. With experience I learned that just doing a couple of exercises – a check-in, warm up write, then a longer piece – is more than enough. You have to factor in feedback time and sometimes that can take longer than the writing itself. It’s vitally important, because not only does it help the participants process what they’ve written, it bonds the group together and lets that person feel safe and listened too. Putting something down on paper then sharing it aloud is a double process where we get to see it in black and white, then say it, releasing it into the world instead of keeping it hidden inside. Either or both can unleash incredible and unexpected emotions.
Responses to poetry are a simple and powerful way for a group to get to know each other and share where we are in our life journey. Spring poems are great for this opening moment because spring is a season full of the things we might identify with – beginnings, trepidation, light, promise, hope and relief. We might be putting down a heavy burden, perhaps for the first time, so we feel lighter, we’re letting sunshine in and we’re trusting things might get better. We might be skeptical, stunned by the sherbet lemon yellow in a clump of unexpected daffodils, yet reminding ourselves there might be frosts to come. It also sounds so easy doesn’t it? So we write down how we feel and miraculously feel better? The answer is yes, it’s a process of course, but I’ve never had a participant feel substantially worse.
So, the idea is to pick up an anthology of poetry like this one or search online for poems about spring, then simply flick through until something grabs your attention. Read it through a few times then make some notes. Ask yourself a few questions about the poem, here are a few ideas:
Note down any words or phrases that jump out at you. Is it the meaning of the words or their sound that grab you? What images jump out in your head? Does the poem conjure up pictures of people or particular memories and what’s their significance? Do any words lift your spirit and which ones? What meanings come to mind for the poem’s imagery or for the poem as a whole?
I did this for my favourite poem that evokes spring and is included in Rachel Kelly’s collection. Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ is so meaningful to me that I had it turned into a decal for my bedroom wall. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning, alongside some carved wooden wings.
Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul/ and sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.
This is so meaningful to me because when I first moved into the house I’d gone through the hardest years of my life. My husband had died from complications due to multiple sclerosis. A while later I’d met up with someone I’d known a long time before, when I was a teenager. We had a whirlwind relationship and married about two years after my husband died. What followed was two years of confusion, emotional pain, self-loathing and feeling like I was going mad. It took two different periods of counselling and re-education to realise I’d married an abuser. Someone who enjoyed dragging women down, eroding their confidence and telling them something was wrong with them. It took a terrible betrayal for me to leave, because if I’d stayed he would have succeeded in taking me away from my closest family members. I have no doubt the abuse would have worsened had I stayed. So I started a period of self- healing and it was hard, because I had a distorted sense of who I was, how I looked and my own worth. I thought that waking up to that poem every morning would help, would lift my mood and give me that grain of hope. It gave me that lift in mood, experienced when we hear the dawn chorus in spring. I also felt held safely by the promise that the bird’s song will never stop. That even when I was depleted and depressed, the bird would keep singing for me. Hope will always come, just like spring always follows winter. I have a tattoo on my back of a birdcage with an open door and the bird flying off into the distance. It represents this time too and my eventual ability to fly and sing for myself.
Meet The Author
Rachel Kelly began her career as a journalist at The Times. She is the author of four books covering her experience of depression, recovery and her steps to wellbeing. Rachel writes for the press, gives interviews and public talks sharing her motivational and holistic approach to good mental health. Her memoir ‘Black Rainbow: How words healed me: my journey through depression’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) on the healing power of the written word was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the Best First Book prize at the Spear’s Book Awards. All author proceeds from the book were donated to mental health charities – Rachel is an ambassador for SANE, Rethink and The Counselling Foundation and campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. ‘Black Rainbow’ is published in Sweden and the USA and in 2020 it will be published by Larousse in France. She has also written about the holistic approach which helped her recover – her second book, ‘Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness’ (Short Books, 2015) is an international bestseller and has been published in Canada, Croatia, Germany, Poland, Turkey, the USA, Korea and China. In 2016, Rachel co-wrote ‘The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food’ (Short Books, 2017) with the nutritionist Alice Mackintosh, a happiness-focused cookbook which offers over sixty recipes that promote mental wellbeing. ‘The Happy Kitchen’ has been published in the USA and Canada. Her latest publication is titled ‘Singing in the Rain: An inspirational workbook – 52 Practical Steps to Happiness’ published by Short Books in January 2019.