Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy.

This book was a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that can transform the wearer’s through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,

It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.

When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that could mean paying the ultimate price.

Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.

The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival. I would definitely recommend it to friends.

Meet The Author

Fiona is an acclaimed number 1 bestselling author, whose books have been translated into more than twenty different languages worldwide.She draws inspiration from the stories of strong women, especially during the years of World War II. Her meticulous historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place.

She spent seven years living in France, having moved there from the UK in 2007, before returning to live in Scotland. Her love for both of these countries, their people and their histories, has found its way into the books she’s written. Fiona says, “To be the first to hear about my NEW releases, please visit my website at http://www.fionavalpy.com and subscribe to the mailing list. I promise not to share your e-mail and I’ll only contact you when a new book is out.”

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson.

Jane Sanderson’s new novel, Waiting For Sunshine, is on my most anticipated list for the summer. So it’s a great time to look back on her previous work and MixTape really resonated with me. I loved this book. Is it because I had a Dan? A musician who started as my best friend, but who I fell in love with. I was 18 and he took me to my first prom. His band were playing and it was 1991 so perms were everywhere and we were just adopting grunge. I would turn up for school in jumble sale floral dresses with my ever present oxblood Doc Martens. They played some of my favourite songs on prom night: some that were contemporary like Blur and others were classics like Wild Thing. I most remember Waterloo Sunset. Then, like a scene in a rom-com we walked across town to his house – me in a polka dot Laura Ashley ball gown and him in his dinner suit with the bow tie undone. He had a ruffled shirt underneath that he’d bought from Oxfam. We crept into the house and into the playroom so we didn’t wake any of his family, then watched When Harry Met Sally. I remember a single kiss and then we fell asleep but the love carried over the years.

When I think of Elliot I always think of those best friend couples, like Harry and Sally or later, Emma and Dex in One Day. Now I can add Dan and Ali to the list. Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city is still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Catherine, Alison’s mum, is a drinker. Not even a functioning alcoholic, she comes home battered and dirty with no care for who she lets into their home. Alison’s brother, Pete, is her only consolation and protection at home. Both call their mum by her first name and try to avoid her whenever possible. Even worse is her on-off lover Martin Baxter, who has a threatening manner and his own key. Alison could never let Dan know how they have to live.

In alternate chapters we see what Alison and Dan are doing in the present. Now a music writer, Dan splits his time between a canal boat in London and home with his partner Katelin in Edinburgh. Alison has written a new novel ‘Tell the Story Sing the Song’ set in her adopted home Australia and based round an indigenous singer. It’s a worldwide hit and she finds herself in demand, having to negotiate being interviewed and getting to grips with social media. She has an affluent lifestyle with husband Michael and has two grown up daughters. She has a Twitter account that she’s terrible at using and it’s this that alerts Dan, what could be the harm in following her? The secret at the heart of this book is what happened so long ago back in Sheffield to send a girl to the other side of the world? Especially when she has found her soulmate. She and Dan are meant to be together so what could have driven them apart? Dan sends her a link via Twitter, to Elvis Costelloe’s ‘Pump It Up’, the song she was dancing to at a party when he fell in love with her. How will Alison reply and will Dan ever discover why he lost her back in the 1970s?

I believed in these characters immediately, and I know Sheffield well, here described with affectionate detail by the writer. The accent, the warmth of people like Dan’s dad, the landmarks and the troubled manufacturing industry are so familiar and captured perfectly. Even the secondary characters, like the couple’s families and friends are well drawn and endearing. Cass over in Australia, as well as Sheila and Dora, are great characters. Equally, Dan’s Edinburgh friend Duncan with his record shop and the hippy couple on the barge next door in London are real and engaging. Special mention also to his dog McCullough who I was desperate to cuddle. Both characters have great lives and happy relationships. Dan loves Katelin, in fact her only fault is that she isn’t Alison. Alison has been enveloped by Michael’s huge family and their housekeeper Beatriz who is like a surrogate Mum. It’s easy to see why the safety and security of Michael’s family, their money and lifestyle have appealed to a young Alison, still running away from her dysfunctional upbringing. She clearly wants different fir her daughters and wishes them the sort of complacency Dan shows in being sure his parents are always there where he left them. But is the odd dinner party and most nights sat side by side watching TV enough for her? She also has Sheila, an old friend of Catherine’s, who emigrated in the 1970s and flourished in Australia. Now married to Dora who drives a steam train, they are again like surrogate parents to Alison. So much anchors her in Australia, but are these ties stronger than first love and the sense of belonging she had with Dan all those years before?

About three quarters of the way through the book I started to read gingerly, almost as if it was a bomb that might go off. I’ve never got over that unexpected loss in One Day and I was scared. What if these two soulmates didn’t end up together? Or worse what if one of them is killed off by author before a happy ending is reached? I won’t ruin it by telling any more of the story. The tension and trauma of Alison’s family life is terrible and I dreaded finding out what had driven her away so dramatically. I think her shame about her mother is so sad, because the support was there for her and she wouldn’t let anyone help. She’s so fragile and on edge that Dan’s mum has reservations, she worries about her youngest son and whether Alison will break his heart. I love the music that goes back and forth between the pair, the meaning in the lyrics and how they choose them. This book is warm, moving and real. I loved it.

And what of my Daniel? Well he’s in Sheffield strangely enough. Happily partnered with three beautiful kids. I’m also happily partnered with two lovely stepdaughters. We’re very happy where we are and with our other halves. It’s nice though, just now and again, to catch up and remember the seventeen year old I was. Laid on his bedroom door, with my head in his lap listening to his latest find on vinyl. Or wandering the streets in my ballgown, high heels in one hand and him with his guitar case. Happy memories that will always make me smile.

Meet The Author

A former BBC Radio 4 producer, Jane Sanderson’s first novel – Netherwood – was published in 2011. She drew on much of her family’s background for this historical novel, which is set in a fictional mining town in the coalfields of Yorkshire. Ravenscliffe and Eden Falls followed in the two subsequent years, then in the early summer of 2017, This Much Is True was published, marking a change in direction for the author. This book is a contemporary tale of dog walks and dark secrets and the lengths a mother will go to protect her family. 

Jane lives in Herefordshire with her husband, the journalist and author Brian Viner. They have three children.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey.

This week’s reading took me back into the world of the Bright Young Things, the young generations of aristocrats in 1920s Britain intent on living it up and shaking off the aftermath of WWI. The Mitford sisters were part of this scene and it was while reading about Nancy Mitford’s exploits in 1920’s London that my mind was drawn back to this beautiful book depicting that new generation. A book I read originally for the blog tour back in 2019. Iona Grey shows young people coping with a legacy of loss and parents that are still stuck in the hierarchical society of the Edwardian period. Our heroine, Selina Lennox, is one of those ‘Bright Young Things’ who were followed by the press from party to party, determined to the live the full life that their parents, and especially older siblings, have missed out on. Her family are part of an ailing aristocracy that still has its property, but is running short on money. Her elder sister is making an advantageous marriage and since the death of their brother in the war they have the pressure of producing a male heir. Selina is being steered towards the heir of a ruby mining business situated in Burma. Rupert is a war veteran, and it is possibly active service that has made him so stiff and taciturn. Selina finds him too serious and prefers the company of her friends and the social whirl of extravagant parties thrown during the season. One night, while careering through London on a treasure hunt, the car she is travelling in hits a cat. Selina can’t leave the poor creature and is horrified to see her friends disappearing into the night, leaving her in a garden square somewhere in Bloomsbury.

Young, struggling artist Lawrence Weston chances upon Selina and offers his help. They climb into the locked garden square and give the cat a proper burial. Selina is drawn to this dark haired young man but also knows she is taking a huge risk disappearing at night with a stranger who isn’t from within her social circle. Lawrence is transfixed by Selina’s golden beauty and feels an instant connection. He knows she is far above him and her family would be horrified. He lives in a shared house and rents a studio where he paints portraits of the aristocracy’s lost sons of war in all their military splendour. This pays the bills, but he would really love to be a photographer and as yet no one sees this as art. Realistically, he has no chance with Selina but can’t seem to stay away despite receiving warnings from most of his friends.

Interspersed with this is the story of Selina’s daughter Alice in the years before WW2. Alice lives on the family estate and is looked after by Polly who was Selina’s maid. Alice’s grandparents are still in residence, still living the values of a bygone age. Miranda has now given birth to Archie, the all important heir for the estate. Selina is in Burma with her husband and we see their journey in a series of letters she writes to Alice. They clearly have a very loving relationship, so it seems strange that Alice is hidden away in the cold nursery corridor? I kept wondering why, if she loves her daughter as much as she seems to, would Selina leave her with a family who show her no affection? Alice has been sent a treasure hunt from her mother and Polly gives her the clues to follow. Solving the clues takes her to different parts of the estate and her mother explains their significance, they’re part of Alice’s origin story. The clues help Alice come to know and love the gardens, especially the deserted Chinese House with its old gramophone. What exactly is their link to Selina’s past and Alice’s future?

Iona Grey has created a beautiful novel here, filled with moments of joy and sadness. For me, the meaning of the title is so poignant encompassing both the historical period and the love story at the heart of the novel. The 1920’s is a decade that stands alone. A moment of extravagance, partying and glamour, between two world wars – a glittering hour. This glittering generation defied the death that had stalked their fathers and elder brothers in the trenches and were determined to enjoy life while they could. It has a romantic meaning too – for Lawrence, Selina is his glittering hour, they share a moment of pure love and beauty that burns bright but can’t burn forever. Grey shows what happens when we dare to break away from the boundaries and societal rules of our class and how the reverberations from this can last for several generations. The love may not last, but the memories can sustain us for a lifetime.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK and Random Things Book Tours for the chance to read this novel and join the blog tour. See below for the next stops.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh.

I’ve been putting together a list of all the summer releases I’m looking forward to and one of my most anticipated books is Rosie Walsh’s The Love of My Life. So I thought it was a great time to look back on her last novel which I absolutely loved.

I read this in two long bursts – one of which started at 3am. It’s a book I couldn’t put it down because all I wanted was these two people back together. The harsh realities of grief and lifelong family rifts are well drawn and believable. All of these people are trying to move forward despite their lives missing a beat one day on a country road, where a split second decision has lifelong consequences. This book explores grief, loss, loyalty, loneliness and the incredible ability the human heart has to heal.

Sarah has a 7 day whirlwind romance with Eddie. They meet by chance on a country road while Sarah is visiting her parents. She thinks Eddie just might be the one. But, Eddie goes away on holiday and she never hears from him again. Is Eddie a heartless playboy who never intended to call? Did Sarah do something wrong? Or has something terrible happened to him? Instead of listening to friends and writing this off as a one night stand, Sarah begins to obsess and is determined to find the answer. Every clue she has comes to a dead end and she is in danger of completely losing her dignity. As her time back home in the UK starts to run out, Sarah looks for clues to track Eddie down. What she hears is confusing her further. His friend doesn’t give the simple answer, that Eddie has moved on, but gives her a warning; if she knows what’s best for her, she needs to stop looking for Eddie

I quickly became invested in Sarah and Eddie’s story. I think we’ve all been subjected to the watched phone that never rings and how crazy it can make us. It could have made me dislike Eddie early on, but for some reason I never did. I’m definitely a hopeless romantic so I seemed to accept Sarah’s hope that this could still work out. The other characters in the novel are also well-written and compelling. I’m a therapist so I was particularly interested in Eddie’s mother and her mental ill health. I think her symptoms and the way she manipulated Eddie showed a streak of narcissism. She finds it impossible to see this situation from his point of view, only how it affects her. Anything that threatens their dynamic as carer and patient is a huge threat to her and she responds with emotional blackmail and hostility. Eddie is as much a prisoner of her mental ill health as she is. I also had empathy for Sarah’s friend Jenny who is struggling to conceive and undergoes IVF treatment to the point of financial ruin. Her character probably leapt out at me because I’m also not able to have children, and know how difficult it can be to come to terms with. Her stoicism and determination to support her friend in the face of her own loss is very moving.

I stayed up late to finish the book, because I had everything crossed that the mystery would be explained and these two people could move forward together. To different degrees, all the novels characters are imprisoned by the past and losses they can’t accept. My husband died when he was 42 and I was 35. It’s like a chasm opened up and I had to choose between staying on one side forever, with the past and my feelings of loss and fear. Or I could choose to jump over that chasm into a new future. I never forget what happened or the love I have for Jerzy, but twelve years later I have a wonderful partner and two beautiful stepdaughters. Thankfully, I had the bravery to move forward knowing I can’t lose my memories of the past but I still have a future full of possibilities I never imagined. That’s what the characters in the novel are trying to do. Grief is different for everyone and there are always tensions between those who are trying to heal and those who can’t imagine healing because it feels like a betrayal. Rosie Walsh draws these different threads together beautifully, creating a bittersweet novel that captures that moment of choice – to draw on our reserves of resilience, jump over the chasm and live again.

Meet the Author

Rosie Walsh is the internationally bestselling author of two novels, the global smash hit THE MAN WHO DIDN’T CALL, and – new for 2022 – THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, a heart-wrenching, keep-you-up-all-night emotional thriller, which was an instant New York Times bestseller and stayed in the German top ten for several weeks. 

Rosie Walsh lives on a medieval farm in Devon, UK, with her partner and two young children, after years living and travelling all over the world as a documentary producer and writer. 

The Man Who Didn’t Call (UK) / Ghosted (US) was her first book under her own name, and was published around the world in 2018, going on to be a multimillion bestseller. 

Prior to writing under her own name she wrote four romantic comedies under the pseudonym Lucy Robinson. When she isn’t parenting or writing, Rosie can be found walking on Dartmoor, growing vegetables and throwing raves for adults and children in leaking barns.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Small Island by Andrea Levy.

I have been looking for second hand copies of this book, because I’m creating a book stall at our village book exchange for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. My plan is to include books based in the Commonwealth countries or that represent a definitive moment in the Queen’s reign. This book sits a little early, starting in WW2, but sets a scene for those early years of her reign and shows how the people of the Commonwealth felt about their ‘mother country’. I first read Small Island after university, where I’d become the student obsessed with diversity, disability and all of those words that mark out difference. In my final year I looked closely at Caliban in The Tempest because my heart went out to him. I did a module in the Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous, and another in Post-Colonial literature. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was ploughing a very specific furrow and my dissertation in disability earned me a solid first. These studies really did hone my taste in reading and while I read across the breadth of fiction genres and subjects, the books that really get me in the heart have a thread of social justice and characters coping with prejudice. This book appealed to me because I hadn’t read much about the Windrush generation. Andrea Levy won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ as well as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Whitbread for this novel. It was also described as ‘possibly the definitive fictional account of the experiences of the Empire Windrush generation’, when it was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’.


It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours don’t approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but with her husband, Bernard, not back from the war, she has little choice in the matter. Gilbert Joseph was one of the many Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight Hitler. But when he returns to England as a civilian he doesn’t receive the welcome he was expecting, and it’s desperation that drives him to knock at Queenie’s door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, who for years has longer for a better life in England, soon joins him. But London is far from the golden city of her dreams, and even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.

Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.

I loved the slow pace of this novel, allowing each character’s story to unfold fully, and meander across each other. I felt deeply for Queenie, with a father-in-law shell-shocked from the First World War and her husband Bernard still away, even though WW2 has ended. I could understand how her friendship with lodger Michael started, she must have been so lonely. However the consequences of the relationship only serve to isolate her further. Gilbert follows friend Michael to the U.K. for active service, only to return in 1948 when the British Government put a call out to the colonies for workers. Many English men were lost during the war leaving a labour shortage and Gilbert knows he has the skills to help. Hortense has always had a dream of going to England, where she would want to be a teacher like she is in Jamaica. As married couples are more likely to be accepted, Gilbert and Hortense make a pact, to have a marriage that fools the authorities and forge futures for themselves in England. He knows exactly where they’re going to live, 21 Nevern Street, because Queenie’s were the only lodgings that didn’t have a card in the window saying ‘No Blacks.’

I fell in love with Gilbert, who proves himself to be a loyal and trustworthy friend to both Queenie and Hortense, although there are times when the latter would test the patience of a saint. Hortense is so haughty! She made me smile with her airs and graces. I love the way she dresses, with her gloves and handbags strangely reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s style. In her mind she has done everything her mother country asked of her. She’s been to a good school and become educated, she has her teaching certificate and is a dedicated Anglophile. When the call comes to the colonies, that England is in need of workers, she thinks she can be useful. Gilbert tries to explain to her that England won’t be what she is expecting, her education will be looked down upon and instead of welcoming, people may be hostile. She tells him he’s wrong. England is a massive shock to Hortense, not just the cold, but the shame of everything she’s worked for being worth nothing. She’s also misjudged their friend Michael, who had passed through during the war. Back in Jamaica, Michael is practically a saint and Hortense is taken in by his good looks and nice manners. Another hard lesson to learn. At least Gilbert is there, faithfully keeping her going, trying to soften the blows and always sleeping on the chair while she takes the bed. I had so much sympathy for Queenie, who is overwhelmed and exhausted. Her father-in-law can be hard work, he doesn’t speak and is prone to wandering. I can feel that she is very fond of him. Her pregnancy is conceived in the spirit of war; a mix of attraction, plus loneliness and a sense that death might not be so far away. Women who conceived while their husbands were away, often hid the pregnancy under the respectability of their marriages. If their husband returned on time they could announce a baby which was then born prematurely. If not, the woman was very reliant on her husband to accept and choose to bring up the child. Sadly for Queenie this choice isn’t open to her and we see what society’s reaction might be to a mixed race child. Would her father-in-law or her husband even accept her baby?

I thought the structure was brilliant, moving back and forth from before and during the war, to post war. It also moves geographically, from England to Jamaica. These changes in structure were helpful to the storyline, because of the perspective it gives us on events. Going to Jamaica shows us the attitude of our characters to England and how that changes once they’ve helped us through a war. Gilbert expected to be treated better. He answered the call to go to war and then goes to England’s aid a second time. It’s a shock to find there isn’t a welcome. In fact a lot of people are downright hostile and it feels so unfair. Hortense thinks her skills and presence will be welcomed too, but they’re not. Why ask them to come if they aren’t welcome? By visiting each character in turn we get to know them intimately, their whole inner world is open to us. We might see reasons for behaviour that had seemed strange before and we might change our mind about a character. The slow pace helps the reader really get to know them and how they change through their experiences. Through these people the author brings to life issues of identity and our cultural heritage, bringing to mind interesting contrasts with today’s attitudes, especially in light of the more recently discovered Windrush Scandal. Levy created characters that years later still feel as real to me as my friends and by the end I cared about them so much that there were tears. I’ve re-read this novel so many times and it’s power doesn’t fade, nor does the impact of the characters, and it’s this that makes Levy’s book a masterpiece.

Meet The Author

After she passed away on the 14th of February 2019, the Bookseller wrote: ‘Andrea Levy will be remembered as a novelist who broke out of the confines assigned to her by prejudice to become a both a forerunner of Black British excellence and a great novelist by any standards.’


Born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948, Andrea Levy wrote the novels that she had always wanted to read as a young woman, engaging books that reflect the experiences of black Britons and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. She was described by BBC News as ‘a writer who tackled important social issues . . . her writing . . . witty, humane and often moving, and full of richly drawn characters’.


She was the author of six books, including SMALL ISLAND, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Whitbread book of the Year, and was adapted for TV and for the stage, by the National Theatre. It was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’. Her most recent novel, THE LONG SONG, won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was adapted for TV by the BBC.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Flames by Sophie Haydock

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Despite recognising the featured portraits, I didn’t know much about Egon Schiele, other than he was a protégée of Klimt. I have only seen one of the paintings, Portrait of a Woman modelled for by his sister Gertrude Schiele because it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Schiele is described as a figurative painter and as an artist under the banner of the Vienna Secession he was pushing the boundaries, trying to create something completely new or ‘art nouveau’. This was the time of a rebirth in painting, writing and all other art forms towards a new way of describing the world – the birth of Modernism. The unusual shapes and colours in his work is reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf who were throwing out the rule book and wrote novels with unusual timelines, streams of consciousness and complex characters whose inner world was often more important than events outside it. Haydock’s book uses some of these devices and a way of ‘writing back’ to art history and challenging Schiele’s representation of these women. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Here we get to hear the women’s stories as they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele.

We start with Adèle, one of a pair of sisters living opposite Schiele in an upmarket district of Vienna. Adele is transfixed on Schiele as soon as he arrives on moving day and is glued to the window seat every day in the hope of catching his eye. However, both Adèle and her sister Edith are from a very well respected family and there isn’t a chance that their father would accept Schiele as a choice for his daughter. Adèle is persistent though and soon the sisters meet Schiele on the street outside, alongside the woman they see coming and going from the flat, Wally. Although there is a part of her who knows the relationship between Wally and Schiele must be a complex one, she tucks it to the back of her mind, and begins to feel she might be making headway with him. Surely Wally is a maid, someone who cleans and models for him? Using Edith as her foil they do have a cinema outing, a very awkward foursome, and Adèle is so glad to have a sister that’s quiet, in the background, and goes unnoticed. She’s the perfect chaperone for this relationship she’s building in her head. She’s in love with Schiele and he must be in love with her, in fact she never has a moment’s doubt. Haydock writes a brilliant opening section here, with a perspective that we’re never fully sure of and a course of action that could be leading to disaster. It’s almost painful to be inside the mind of this highly strung young woman, whose class and status keeps her in a constant waiting position. There’s so much she’s dreamed of doing, but can only do them when she is a married woman. Women of Edith and Adèle’s class can’t make decisions for themselves, don’t get up and go travelling, or go to university or even go to the theatre alone. There are times, imprisoned behind her window when she envies Wally’s freedom to come and go as she pleases. Adèle is bored and I feared some of her reality was little more than the daydreams of an under stimulated mind. There’s a sense that an emotional storm is brewing.

The second section of the book is focused on Gertrude Schiele, Egon’s younger sister who started posing for his sketches when they still lived at home. Through Gertrude we experience Schiele’s early years, with her perspective as the filter. Born to a man who worked on the government railways, the family were respected, although the shadow of mental health does fall here too. We see the germination of an unusual relationship between brother and sister, with hints of impropriety on both sides where her modelling for him is concerned. It’s clear to see Schiele’s incredible artistic drive, thriving in limited circumstances and with a father who wishes his son wanted to follow him into a respectable job on the railways. Art is no way to make money, but there is a sense it’s more than that driving his father, possibly the praise that would come his way for having such a loyal son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, when his father’s behaviour becomes erratic what will happen to them all? As for Gertrude we see a strange dynamic when Schiele uses other models or is in a relationship? There is jealousy there which is interesting to watch as we move through the next few years. In the third section we meet Wally, artist’s model for some of Schiele’s best work and a partner to him in every way. I loved this section, because I found Wally inspiring in her choice to live in the way she wants despite the consequences. Wally is probably his most professional model, with an energy and intensity that leaps off the canvas. She openly lives with Schiele, travelling with him to a couple of country houses before settling in Vienna near her family. Wally knows where the line is and in the years she is with Schiele his behaviour gets them noticed in all the wrong ways, including with the authorities who label him a pornographer. She does not leave his side. There’s a core of steel in this woman, who will not hear him talk of love – possibly because she knows what verbal declarations are worth – and will never ask him to stay. However, I wanted him to stay with this woman, who I felt understood what he needed better than anyone, but didn’t ask for the usual protections her gender would be afforded, like marriage. I wondered whether, as she watched Wally from the window of her gilded cage, Adèle truly understood the responsibilities and the cost of being as ‘free’ as Wally seems?

Finally we come full circle, back to Schiele’s arrival in Venice and moving in opposite Adèle and her sister, but this time from Edith’s perspective. It was fascinating to see the same events play out through a different pair of eyes and we soon realise that despite her quiet demeanour and acquiescence to the rules her parents lay down, Edith is not as passive as she has appeared up to now. In fact she has the determination and deceptive skills her sister does, but the difference is that it’s not expected of Edith. As a result she has more freedoms than her sister and doesn’t get caught. She too is mesmerised by Schiele, but by the man rather than what he represents. Adèle wants freedom, to challenge boundaries, to scandalise society. Whereas Edith just wants the man, but does she truly know him and will she risk losing her sister to get him? We do get a sense of Schiele through these women, particularly Gertie because she’s there for the formative years. I often found him infuriating, because I felt he wanted to be a modern man, unrestricted by society’s rules and expectations on one hand, but then showed a total disregard for the women who were willing to break rules with him. There was a slight Madonna/Whore complex at work here, where women were compartmentalised into those to have fun with and those acceptable for marriage. Some of his choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something picked up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in two sessions, but I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.

Meet The Author

Sophie Haydock is an award-winning author living in east London. Her debut novel, The Flames, is about the four muses who posed for the artist Egon Schiele in Vienna more than 100 years ago. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers.Sophie trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend magazine, Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s. She has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works as a digital editor for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory literary organisation. She judges writing competitions and hosts her own short story club.Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen – dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele – has a community of over 100,000 followers. For more information, visit: sophie-haydock.com

Published 17th March 2022 by Doubleday

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

In the wake of this talented writer’s new novel Devotion, for this week’s Throwback Thursday I decided to look at her debut novel Burial Rites. Set in Iceland in 1829 and based on a true story, we follow the final days of Agnes; a young woman accused of the murder of her former master. Housed at an isolated farm until her execution, Agnes is accompanied by Tóti, a priest she has mysteriously chosen as her spiritual guardian. The family are horrified to be housing a murderer, but as time goes on and her death looms closer, they start to listen to Agnes and hear a different side to the sensationalised story they’ve accepted as truth. How can Agnes cope with her impending death and the realisation that history will define her: as a murderess, a monster, a woman without mercy?

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this book is the stark scenery and the way it’s linked to Agnes’s emotions. She reminded me of my favourite literary heroine Jane Eyre, in that she’s so passionate, with every emotion unfiltered, raw and open for the reader to see. Jane is condemned as too passionate when she’s a child, but even though she learns to rein her emotions in as an adult, there are glimpses of her true nature in her eerie paintings and her feelings for Rochester. Jane’s warning of what happens when a women’s passions are unbound, comes in the shape of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife and the madwoman in the attic. Bertha acts on her feelings immediately; her anger leads to the burning of Rochester’s bed and the wounding of her brother Richard. However, in his explanation after their abandoned wedding, Rochester tells Jane of mood swings and childlike behaviour, but also hints at an unladylike lust that’s unbecoming in a wife. This is certainly implied strongly in Jean Rhys’s impressive post-colonial prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, where his wife’s enthusiasm in the bedroom feels unchaste and his claims of being duped by her family might relate more to her virginal state than her potential for insanity. Agnes is similarly passionate about her lover:

“I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realise I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”

Just as Jane’s heartbreak and spiritual battle after her flight from Thornfield is characterised by the biting wind and lack of shelter of the bleak moorland, Agnes seems so deeply in tune with her Icelandic surroundings. The claustrophobic atmosphere of her final days is heightened by being sequestered in someone else’s space and marooned in the middle of an Icelandic winter. There is nothing soft here. The relentless freezing air and sparse vegetation echo the frozen glares of the women in the family, the barren and friendless days that count down slowly without joy or pleasure to make them bearable. Both the landscape, and Agnes herself, are haunting and have stayed with me way beyond the final pages.

I love how the author plays with the idea of self and it’s construction in fiction. She takes a real person, with a real criminal case against them and starts to give them thoughts and feelings. The Agnes Magnússdóttir she could read about in records and news reports is a distant, lifeless, individual. In fact any contemporary writing about her that gives more than the bare facts, is only one person’s idea of who she was and what her motivations might have been. It’s a false self and what Kent tries to do is breathe life into Agnes, to create a real person with thoughts and feelings, someone we can perhaps start to understand and empathise with. I love though how Agnes has an awareness of this and how even in Kent’s story, she isn’t real. She explains that people will think they have a sense of who she is through her perceived actions, but that isn’t her. She knows she will be labelled and for some people that will forever define her, but only she knows her true character and her true motivations. How can a woman hope to survive when her very life is dependent on the stories told about her by others, rather than her own word?

“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

Paperback Published by Picador 27th Feb 2014

Meet The Author

Hannah Kent’s first novel, the international bestseller, BURIAL RITES, was translated into over 30 languages and won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the Prix Critiqueslibres Découvrir Étranger, the Booktopia People’s Choice Award, the ABA Nielsen Bookdata Booksellers’ Choice Award and the Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, amongst others. It is currently being adapted for film by Sony TriStar. 

Hannah’s second novel, THE GOOD PEOPLE, was translated into 10 languages and shortlisted for the Walter Scott Award for Historical Fiction, the Indie Books Award for Literary Fiction, the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. It is currently being adapted for film by Aquarius Productions. 

DEVOTION, Hannah’s third novel, will be published in November 2021 (Australia) and February 2022 (UK & Ireland) by Picador.

Hannah’s original feature film, Run Rabbit Run, will be directed by Daina Reid (The Handmaid’s Tale) and produced by Carver and XYZ Films. It was launched at the Cannes 2020 virtual market where STX Entertainment took world rights. 

Hannah co-founded the Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings. She has written for The New York Times, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Qantas Magazine and LitHub.

Hannah lives and works on Peramangk country near Adelaide, Australia.

Read More

https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/literary/burial-rites-iceland-photos-hannah-kent-setting

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/dec/13/jennifer-lawrence-to-star-in-film-adaptation-of-hannah-kents-burial-rites

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Breath, Eyes, Memory from Edwidge Danticat


At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child shouldever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti – to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence.

In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti – and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women – with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.

Reading this incredible debut novel at university sparked a lifelong interest in the history of Haiti and its people. The republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and despite only occupying three eighths of the island, it has a staggering population of 11.4 million making it the most populated island in the Caribbean Sea. However, there is a huge Haitian diaspora with many residents relocating to the USA, probably due to the fact that Haiti has the lowest Human Development Index in the world. The indigenous Taino people seem to have been the original residents of the island, but the first European settlers landed in the 1400’s claiming the island for Spain and it remained part of the Spanish Empire until the 17th Century. The French then laid claim to the most westerly point of the island and they brought the first slaves to Haiti for labour on their new sugar plantations. It has the incredible honour of being the first island in the Americas to abolish slavery after a successful slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture and eventually declared sovereignty on Jan 1st 1894 under his successor Dessalines. As the country slowly united there were attempts to declare the whole island as Haiti, but eventually they recognised the Dominican Republic as a separate state. Haiti has been notoriously unstable due to crippling debt owed to France, the dearth of resources left by the French and Spanish, as well as political volatility. The USA took control of the island in the early twentieth century, until Haitian leader Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier took power in 1956 and it is this period that is explored in the novel. Papa Doc’s reign and the following rule of his son known as ‘Baby Doc’, was characterized by state-sanctioned violence, against any political opposition and it’s own civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. It was only after 1986 that Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system.

Danticat’s story is about the women of Haiti, particularly the three generations of Sophie’s family, and how this period of history impacted upon the women of Haiti. Sophie has been brought up by her Tante Atie and this is a beautifully warm relationship that really grounds Sophie in her Haitian identity. They are also incredibly close to her Grandma Ifé who tells Sophie stories passed down orally about people who could carry the sky on their heads. Atie is beautifully conveyed as a loving but slightly abrupt woman, conflicted between the needs created by her own motherlessness and her love for this child who has been left behind. Both Sophie and Atie have a void that each other can fill, but Atie is honour bound not to replace Sophie’s mother and to be sure that her mother’s wishes are carried out. This comes to a head one Mother’s Day when Sophie takes a Mother’s Day card home from school clearly wanting to give it to her aunt, not the woman living thousands of miles away who she’s never met. Danticat is very adept at evoking her homeland with recipes and descriptions of mouth watering food. It’s not been a wealthy upbringing, but it is rich in stories, colour, warmth and nourishment. So when Sophie is sent to live with her mother in New York City the contrast is stark and confusing. Whereas Tante Atie seems comfortable in her skin, Sophie’s mother is shown to diet and use skin lightening creams, showing an obvious discomfort about her body and possibly even her identity as a black Haitian woman.

Men are largely absent in this novel, but their impact is enormous. Maxine lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and Sophie hears her mother’s nightmares through the wall. Left alone for long periods, Sophie forms a friendship with a male neighbour in the apartment block. This seems to trigger Maxine and the truth of Sophie’s family starts to come to light, as her mother becomes obsessed with protecting her. She begins the horrific practice of ‘testing’ her daughters virginity – something apparently passed down from her own mother – causing shame, confusion and trauma. Sophie learns she is a child of rape and we travel back to the Haiti of Maxine’s teenage years where she is spotted by one of the ‘Tonton Macoutes’ – Papa Doc’s foot soldiers and the bogeymen of every Haitian child’s nightmares. He drags Maxine into the sugar cane field and assaults her. It will take a return to Haiti, for both Sophie and her Mother, to bring about healing. Danticat beautifully portrays inter generational trauma and the oppression of women that’s caused by the patriarchal system, but enacted by mothers on their daughters. Daughters who were virgins kept their value in the marriage market, just as in other cultures the men want wives who have undergone FGM. It takes rebellion and refusal from the women to create change. Sophie must also face the the ghosts of slavery, represented by the sugar cane her ancestors were brought from Africa to cut. Danticat paints a vivid, colourful but painful picture of a country created by trauma that is still felt many centuries later. She explores how each new generation must find some way to live with that past, whether by leaving the country of their birth for something different or by staying to face the past and break the chain of hurt each generation has passed on to the next. This is an emotional, evocative and difficult read in parts, but is a beautiful debut from an author whose love of her homeland shines through.

This edition published by Abacus 7th March 1996

Meet the Author

Edwidge Danticat picture from Fresh Air Archive

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She graduated from Barnard College and received an M.F.A. from Brown University. She made an auspicious debut with her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and followed it with the story collection Krik? Krak!, whose National Book Award nomination made Danticat the youngest nominee ever. She lives in New York.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

I’ll own up to the fact that this beautiful book remained on my shelves for about five years before I read it. I’d bought it while doing my degree in literature, so I was already reading five books a week and although I loved the blurb I just couldn’t get into such a weighty book. I remember picking it up and reading the opening paragraph, then slotting it back on the shelf a few times too. When I finally did read it I was absolutely enchanted and amazed by the incredibly detailed world the author had created.

The year is 1806. centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell hoards books of magic for his library and can perform incredible and unexpected feats of magic. He is approached by Sir Walter Pole whose wife has died and he begs Norrell to revive her. Despite his scruples about old magic he knows this might be the only way to bring this beautiful young woman back to life. So, he is tempted by a richly dressed gentleman fairy, who agrees to help Norrell on two conditions. First he would like a keepsake of the lady and takes a finger which he keeps in a jewellery box. Secondly, if he is to give life back to her, it seems only fair that he should have half of it. Norrell does a quick calculation and decides it will not matter to have a few years shaved off her life. However, as Mr Norrell himself knows, fairies can be tricky, deceptive little creatures and this one may have ulterior motives. After this amazing feat of magic MrNorrell becomes the talk of London and finds himself working for the government, conjuring illusions to aid England in their war with the French. However, Norrell would still like to keep magic controlled, only performed by serious and studious men. Constantly, at the back of his mind, is the bargain he’s made with the fairy creature. Can he be trusted and will the magic that brought Lady Pole back to life work as planned?

Marc Warren and Eddie Marsan in the BBC adaptation.

Norrell becomes challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. He only begins to study magic because he is in love and she loves him back, but there is a very stern father in the way, who does not like Jonathon. He thinks he’s an idle layabout with a rich father, but no real prospects. Unless he commits himself to a profession, he will not give permission for Jonathon to marry his daughter. Jonathon Strange finds he is surprisingly good at magic and he’s certainly a showman, enjoying the performance element of magic. As word spreads of this new magician on the block, Mr Norrell becomes concerned. In a bid to contain the situation he asks to meet Jonathon Strange and offers him an apprenticeship. This will control Jonathon’s wild exhibitions of magical power. He sets him to studying, but Jonathon is increasingly frustrated by Norrell’s unwillingness to perform magic. A row erupts and so begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the war between England and France. Each man’s obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine, while all the time Norrell’s dabble with the fairy gentleman and old magic is coming back to haunt him.

It’s really hard to explain the richness of the detail in this beautifully written novel. There’s the amazing historical background with 18th Century society vividly brought to life and the rural home of Jonathon Strange contrasting sharply with London society. There’s the city of York, where an incredible scene in the Minster involves Mr Norrell bringing all the statues to life in front of a terrified magician’s society. Of course the illusions are spectacular, but so is the fashion and just wait until you enter the dreams of our poor resurrected Lady Pole! The characterisation is playful and humorous, with both magicians thought of as great men but each ridiculously comical in their own way. Mr Strange is like an overexcited puppy who has just found a tennis ball and might trample the whole garden in his exuberance. Mr Norrell on the other hand, is like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter, collecting all the magic and storing it in a safe place where no one else will find it. He is fussy and persnickety in his manner, but can also be rude and abrupt with people. This is where Mr Strange excels, he is handsome and charming, making his magic appear to be an innate talent rather than the result of studying dusty books. We go from rural England, to London, to France and Venice with every setting evocative and rich. I loved incidental characters like the street magician who plies his trade in a rather tongue in cheek way, using props that Mr Norrell finds deplorable. Mr Norrell’s servant is also a fascinating puzzle. I was truly sucked in by the story of Stephen, a servant in the household where Mr Norrell dabbles in fairy magic. The way he is slowly sucked into something he doesn’t understand is incredibly well done, from the bell ringing that only he can hear and the mysterious guest upstairs who he didn’t see arrive. Stephen serves with pride and is proud of the place he has reached in life as a black man in 18th Century society, but promises of greatness from the new guest appeal to his need to be respected. Why is he offering these opportunities and why is Stephen so incredibly tired all the time? It’s as if he hasn’t slept at all.

TV Tie-In Edition showing Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell

The novel explores the 18th Century preoccupations with reason and madness, but also with classification and includes long academic style footnotes referencing an entire fictional body of literature on magic. Last year Collins released her second novel Piranesi, a full seventeen years after Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. It had taken her almost ten years in her spare time to write this debut novel, which isn’t surprising given the level of detail. It was revealed recently that she struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome and having experienced this level of fatigue for many years as part of my MS, I can only marvel that she managed to write such a substantial debut. However, if Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell had been the only novel she wrote in her lifetime, I would still think of her as a genius, because this novel is an absolute masterpiece.

Showing the original editions of the novel

Meet The Author

Susanna Clarke

Susanna Mary Clarke was born 1 November 1959 in Nottingham and is an English author known for her debut novel Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), a Hugo award winning historical novel. Clarke began Jonathan Strange in 1993 and worked on it during her spare time. For the next decade, she published short stories from the Strange universe, but it was not until 2003 that Bloomsbury bought her manuscript and began work on its publication. The novel became a best-seller.

Two years later, she published a collection of her short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006). Both Clarke’s debut novel and her short stories are set in a magical England and are written in a pastiche of the styles of 19th-century writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. While Strange focuses on the relationship of two men, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, the stories in Ladies focus on the power women gain through magic.

Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi was published in September 2020, winning the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths

Ruth Galloway is one of my all-time favourite characters in fiction, because I love her perspective on life, her intelligence and the fact that she doesn’t give in to all those things women are pressured to worry about. So, as I read her latest exploits, imagine my shock when she is lured to a Lean Zone meeting! I was horrified. I can’t cope with a Ruth who avoids cake. Rest assured, our favourite forensic archaeologist isn’t about to become a calorie counter. I gave a huge sigh of relief. When chatting about her decision not to continue at Lean Zone, Ruth tells her neighbour she was only inspired to go because she’d seen a school friend who lost an enormous amount of weight. The neighbour asks ‘and you thought she looked better?’ Ruth considers for a moment and replies ‘no I thought she looked worse.’ This is just one of the reasons I love Ruth and have followed her through 14 novels. How long will it take for someone to turn this into a TV series? There’s so much material to work with and she’s such a relatable character. I’ve entered into debate on Twitter over who should play these characters I love, even with Elly Griffiths herself. I know Ruth Jones was discussed, but I favour Olivia Colman who’s actually from Norfolk. David Tennant was put forward as Cathbad and I’m sure he’d pull it off admirably, although for some reason Rhys Ifans floats into my mind. As for Ruth’s love interest, the slightly ravaged and wonderfully Northern, DI Harry Nelson I’m thinking of either David Morrissey or Phillip Glenister (a little bit worn, but still a certain something that’s attractive).

There are several mysteries in this latest book in Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series, both professional and personal. Ruth is called in to excavate human remains discovered by a roadworks crew, in the evocatively named Tombland area of Norwich. This alerts her to Augustine Seward’s House, close to the cathedral and rumoured home of the Grey Lady – a young girl locked into the house during the plague with her sick parents in order to stop them spreading the virus. Plague sufferers were often barricaded into their homes, but rumours suggest that this young girl was alive long after her parents death and had tried to eat them when she was starving. Another grim discovery is the death of an older woman, found by her cleaner after taking an overdose in her bedroom. A prior case had already caught DI Nelson’s eye because he couldn’t understand why someone suicidal, would put their ready meal in the microwave first. This latest death adds to Nelson’s suspicions, because the cleaner is convinced she had to unlock the room, from the outside. There is also a personal mystery for Ruth, who is clearing out her mother’s things. Her widowed dad has remarried and after several years leaving things as they were, his new wife would like to redecorate their home. It falls to Ruth to sort her clothes and belongings. She finds a box of photographs and is shocked to find a picture of her own cottage – a place her mother never really warmed to. Written on the back is Dawn, 1963, a full four years before Ruth was born. Why would her mother have kept this and why did she never share that she’d been there?

The pandemic is woven so well into the story and Griffiths really captures the disbelief, mental struggles and frustrations of trying to live in this strange time. It was interesting to see characters who are so familiar to us, reacting to something we’ve all lived through. Nelson is sceptical at first, but a few weeks later as wife Michelle ends up locked down with her parents in Blackpool, will he cope with living alone? Ruth takes lockdown in her stride, trying to juggle home schooling, lectures via Zoom and supporting her students. Griffiths weaves in the story of those students who haven’t been able to go home and are isolated in halls of residence, including one young man who is very interested in Dr. Galloway. Judy is as practical as ever, but surely this is the sort of crisis her partner Cathbad is ready for? Druid, wizard and all round mystical being, Cathbad is teaching yoga in the morning and has a pantry ready for any crisis. I felt quite tense though, waiting to see how COVID would affect these characters I love and worrying for them. Nelson’s team are struggling to investigate their case with the restrictions in lockdown, but the case is still fascinating with a lot of red herrings to muddy the waters. I loved how this mystery really looks at mental health and how difficult life events can leave us vulnerable to those who would prey on us. All the possible victims are women, live alone and have faced difficulties in life such as the loss of a partner. It also seems that all have been to weight loss groups, but is that a clue or a sad indication of the modern pressures of being a woman?

The personal mystery of Ruth’s had me hooked even more than the crime this time around. Ruth’s mother had never understood why she wanted to live her life in such an isolated place and there are times during lockdown where Ruth has wondered this herself, especially for Kate who is now 11 and has been totally reliant on the Internet to talk to friends. Ruth’s dad is equally befuddled by the photo she’s found which predates even his relationship with his wife. Ruth keeps wondering why, when she found her cottage, her mother never mentioned seeing it before. Plus, if it wasn’t important, why keep the photo for all these years? Answers come, but they’re unexpected and even life changing. It’s the personal relationships that shine here and the unexpected places and people that bring us comfort. For Judy, used to the ethereal and spiritual Cathbad, it’s her straight talking old sidekick Cloughie who brings the solace she needs from a friend. Ruth is surprised to find she has spent most of her time feeling almost separate from the world. She feels the strangeness of her daily life changes: more time in bed, the different way of working, and the jarring first sight of shoppers queueing outside the supermarket in their masks. Most of her observations are practical changes though and she’s remarkably comfortable, just her, Kate and Flint the cat. In fact the upside has been the lack of other people, the beautiful scenery and wildlife on their doorstep. They even have a new neighbour, who Ruth enjoys getting to know with a socially distanced glass of wine each evening separated by the garden fence. They can walk together on the beach and do Cathbad’s daily yoga, making them feel a connection rather than isolation. Nelson however is completely alone with only his dog Bruno for company. Used to a house run by Michelle and the rough and tumble of young son George he’s strangely lost and finds himself drawn mentally to the cottage on the coast and his other family.

There are little observations that make Griffith’s world feel so real to me. Lured to a small school reunion while staying at her parent’s house in London, Ruth observed how everyone had aged. In fact her school boyfriend Daniel is bald and she observes she wouldn’t have recognised him a line-up. She then does the middle aged calculation that all of us over 45 do in these circumstances; she wonders if she’s looking as old as they are. Then as the pandemic hits, these people she’s not seen for decades, are sending her messages on social media prompted by the ‘strange times’ we’re living through. It’s something I observed over over the last two years, when daily life is put on pause we look for things to ground us or start to re-evaluate our lives. These touches are grounded in that incredible Norfolk setting, fully formed in my brain now I can immediately see inside Ruth’s cottage by the salt marsh. This mysterious and wild space is offset by the city of Norwich and in this case, the setting of Tombland around the cathedral. This spiritual and ghostly space felt unsettling, as friend Janet explains to Ruth about sitings of the Grey Lady who wanders the house with a lit candle, but also walks through the walls where there used to be doors. It’s no surprise that Cathbad has once seen her in this area and the ghost story adds to the confusion of those final chapters as the case builds to a climax. I really loved the theme of the outcast dead, whether they are the undiscovered plague pits that one of Ruth’s students becomes fascinated with or the graves of those who committed suicide. Historically, people who’ve committed suicide are placed outside the boundaries of the graveyard in unconsecrated ground. The idea of punishing someone in so much pain seems archaic now and I loved the idea of a yearly church service to acknowledge all these outcast people. There are interesting elements of coercive control in the investigation and our team have to ask questions about their preconceptions of who commits crime and what criminals look like, never mind how and if they can prosecute. However, my mind was also occupied with worrying over which of my beloved characters might catch COVID and how their loved ones might cope. I’d set aside two days to read this novel on publication and I only needed one, because I had to know all my characters were safe and when I reached it, I was immediately hooked into waiting for my next instalment.

Meet The Author

ELLY GRIFFITHS is the author of the Ruth Galloway and Brighton mystery series, as well as the standalone novel The Stranger Diaries, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and The Postscript Murders. She is the recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She has published a children’s book, A Girl Called Justice. She has previously written books under her real name, Domenica de Rosa.

The Ruth books are set in Norfolk, a place she knows well from childhood. It was a chance remark of her husband’s that gave her the idea for the first in the series, The Crossing Places. They were crossing Titchwell Marsh in North Norfolk when he mentioned that prehistoric people thought that marshland was sacred ground. Because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in-between, they saw it as a bridge to the afterlife; neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. In that moment, she saw Dr Ruth Galloway walking towards her out of the mist…

She lives near Brighton with her husband Andy, an archaeologist. She has two grown-up children. She writes in the garden shed accompanied by her cat, Gus.