Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Melmoth by Sarah Perry.

‘Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand – I’ve been so lonely!’

This week for Throwback Thursday – which has rolled onto Friday since I’m in a remote part of Wales with poor internet access – I’m going to take a spooky turn and tell you about one of the most terrifying and gloriously gothic novels I have ever read. Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering.

Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen who finds a manuscript. It tells of a winter in Prague, with all the darkly gothic details of cobbled streets, shadowy corners, and jackdaws patrolling the city walls. One winter night in Prague, Helen Franklin meets her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies that take them from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.

This is based on an 1820 novel by Charles Robert Maturin called Melmoth the Wanderer, that very few people will have read. I studied a wonderful module at university entitled The Gothic, Grotesque and the Monstrous and I know from experience that early gothic novels can be long winded and difficult to read. What was found terrifying in 1820 does not necessarily translate today. In the original novel, Melmoth is a man who makes an almost Faustian pact, in this version she is one of the women who visits Christ’s tomb. She could have borne witness to the resurrection, but lied and is now damned to wander the world forever. She’s like a Sybil, heralding evil and disastrous events, but never listened to and doomed to witness the worst humans can do to each other over and over. I love the ambiguity of her pleas to ‘take her hand and follow her’ because she’s lonely, is she friend or foe? Her pleas are all the more tempting because she’s a woman and we associate that with gentleness, nurturing and perhaps even needing protection. There’s also the element of seduction and persuasion that might make a gentleman take her lonely hand. I think Sarah Perry made this choice because of those qualities. How much more effective could a woman be in gathering souls?

I love how Prague is turned into a haunted city and it’s history certainly might have drawn the wanderer to it’s cobbles. The city is the book’s second biggest character, dark and mysterious with magical landmarks like the astronomical clock. Perry’s descriptions of night in the city are haunting, and if I ever visit the capital I might well look over my shoulder when out in the evening in the same way I do in Venice. It is the perfect backdrop for the modern section of the novel, with every inch of the city steeped in history and the endless pull between light and darkness. Perry brings to life fears we have all had, as Helen draws the curtains at night, because she fears looking up at the window and seeing that lonely, beseeching face. The most terrifying thought is that Melmoth bears witness to anything we have ever done, including those awful things we hope no one witnessed or found out about.

I think an important aspect of the novel for me is something any sort of ‘listener’ has to think about. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book is brief compared to the original novel, but still takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman.

Something very strange happened while I was reading Paul Sussman’s book. I was up at night feeling unwell and made it half way without even taking a break. I had never read any of his books so as far as I knew this could have been a debut novel or one of hundreds. I launch straight into books without reading introductions, forewords or acknowledgements because I don’t like to be swayed by them. I don’t want someone else to tell me how to read a book, or in what context; I like to make up my own mind and read them later. I must admit on this occasion I was drawn in by the cover, but beyond that and the back cover blurb I knew nothing.


I realised half way through that I was reading with a smile on my face, despite feeling physically grotty! It made me smile because of the dark subject matter, the humour and sheer ingenuity of Raphael. I put it to one side and thought ‘I really wish my husband Jez had been around so I could read this to him’. He died 7 years before I found this novel and prior to his death he couldn’t read himself. He couldn’t hold a book and couldn’t see to read for himself. He could get listening books but there were certain, funny, books that we liked to share so we could fall about laughing together. They would usually be ingenious, darkly comic and just a little bit bad – rather like this. This was definitely one of those books. I then turned to the foreword and noticed it was written by Paul Sussman’s wife Alicky. I was so sad to read that she had been through the same loss I had, but amazed by the parallel. I contacted her and she was lovely, sharing about her loss and listening to mine.

The character of Raphael Phoenix is irresistible. A cantankerous old pensioner, living alone in a castle, he decides that 100 years of living is enough. He has a plan and he also has a pill. He has had the pill his whole life since his birthday party with his childhood friend Emily. Emily’s father is a chemist and in his poison cupboard, among the ribbed glass bottles, is an innocuous white pill with a simple nick in one side. It has very particular ingredients that ensure an almost instant and painless death and it is the only thing he wants for his birthday so the pair replace the pill with mint of the very same size, with a nick from the edge to match. Raphael keeps the pill with him through his incredible life either in his pocket, in a gold ring or in more difficult circumstances, sellotaped under his armpit. He trusts his pill and knows that it will deliver the death he wants as he sits in his observatory, with an expensive glass of red wine (over £30 a bottle) watching the millennium fireworks. However, before then he has a story to tell us, several stories in fact, which take us through some of the most important periods of the 20th Century and he has a very peculiar way of splitting these stories into sections. Raphael has had some very singular life experiences, and has a talent for getting into scrapes and challenges. Even more surprising are his ways of getting out of them.

I had no idea what to expect and so I was surprised and charmed by this magical piece of work. It manages to be both, earthy and funny, but also incredibly poignant. The only two things he can depend on through his life are the pill and his friend Emily. Emily isn’t always by his side, but just manages to be there at the right times and seems to set his various destinies in motion. Raphael works backwards with his tales until the reader is desperate to know how all of these incredible twists and turns are set in motion and also whether his trusty pill will work so he gets the end he has been working so hard towards. I would read this if you enjoy dark humour and tall tales and like your narrators to be, ever so slightly, morally ambiguous. It is darkly enchanting and I fell in love with it.

Published by Doubleday 22nd March 2014.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Missing One by Lucy Atkins.

This was the book that first started my love affair with Lucy Atkins’s writing. I remember when I first read this novel for my book club, I was so impatient to find out what happened back in the 1970s to Elena and Susannah. A terrifying and traumatic event has linked these two women for over 30 years and it can’t stay a secret for ever. In the present is Elena’s daughter Kali, who has just lost her mother to breast cancer, a mother she could never make sense of or bond with as she wanted. In the aftermath of Elena’s death, Kali is trying to make sense of that difficult relationship when she finds a hidden pile of postcards from a woman called Susannah in her mother’s things. Thinking she has found the clue to her mother’s past she pursues this woman to find out about events leading up to her birth and a family history that has resolutely stayed hidden.

Driven forward by grief, and the constant worry that her husband is having an affair, Kali takes her son Finn on an odyssey to unearth her mother’s secrets and to find herself. She has many theories about what she might find: maybe her father had an affair; could Susannah have been his lover or her mother’s? Yet, what she finds is something she never suspected. Set against the backdrop of wild North America and Canada we learn about a woman’s quest to understand the Orca. Distressed by witnessing the killer whales at Seaworld in California while doing her PhD, a young Elena leaves everything to record killer whale pods in the, ocean. The Seaworld orca gave birth to a calf that was so disorientated by his tiny tank he kept banging himself against the glass trying to navigate through echolocation. His desperate mother keeps pushing him away from the sides to protect him from damage, but in her efforts to protect she forgets to nurture and the calf dies because she has forgotten to feed him. Kali was similarly starved of nurturing by her mother because she was so intent instead on protecting her from this awful secret.


The novel is an incredible insight into relations between mothers and daughters. Kali’s sister Alice has a great relationship with her mother that seems easy, whereas Kali and Elena clash over everything. Kali sees that her mother finds her hard to nurture and believes it is her fault. It takes putting herself in danger to find out why and in finding out she also discovers that essential piece of the jigsaw that tells her who she is and grounds her in a history. The novel shows how when you become a mother it becomes more importantu cc than ever to know where you are from and how you belong. It also shows how the secrets of one generation have a huge impact on the next, even if the secret is kept with the best of intentions. The book cleverly shows the difference between generations since we have now moved into a world where we put our own lives on show for fun. In a world where counselling and therapy are becoming the norm it is no longer seen as acceptable to keep such huge secrets and we know as post-Freudians what effect those early years of parenting have on the adult we become.


Aside from the complex human relationships are the family ties within the Orca families. We see how there are resident pods and transient pods with different feeding habits and rules to abide by. It is also clear that parallels can be drawn between the whale relationships and the human ones. Elena is so moved by their mothering instincts and the possibilities to map their language and understand their emotions. She gives up everything to spend as much time with them as she possibly can even going to sleep on her floathouse with the sounds of whales drifting up from a microphone in the water. I learned so much about these incredible creatures without losing the majesty of them and the awe a human being feels when a huge tail rises up out of the water next to their boat.


The book reads as a dissection of family relationships, a thriller, a study of whales and a study of grief. Grief causes Elena to suffer with depression throughout her life, grief traumatises Susannah to the extent that she is unbalanced by the things she has witnessed and it is grief that compels Kali to jump on a plane to Vancouver with nothing but a few postcards and the internet to go on. I struggled to put the novel down because of the thriller element. Like a good crime novel, you desperately want to know the truth of who- dunnit. Yet it is those final chapters I like best, after everything is resolved and each character is living in the aftermath of exposed secrets and recovery from physical and mental injury. The novel could have ended there and I am glad that it went further, back into Elena’s past so that we can see her happy on her floathouse making coffee and then hearing those whales come to greet her.


She would go back to that throughout her life, right to the very end. But the last time, when the world had shrunken to the contours of her skin and she leaned over the railings, it wasn’t the whales that she saw in the water. And so she jumped.

Meet The Author

Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her most recent novel, Magpie Lane, is a literary thriller set in an Oxford college. Her other novels are The Night Visitor (which has been optioned for TV), The Missing One, and The Other Child. 

Lucy is a book critic for The Sunday Times and has written features for UK newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, and many magazines. She was a Costa Novel Award judge in 2017, and teaches creative writing to Masters students at Oxford University. 

She is mother of three and has also written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, First Time Parent (Collins). She has lived in Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle and now lives in Oxford, UK. 

For news, events and offers see http://www.lucyatkins.com

Follow Lucy on Twitter @lucyatkins

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers. Anything she writes is a pre-order in my house, so there may be some bias in my next statement. For me, she is one of the best writers of the 20th Century with, hopefully, more to come. More recently, she has dabbled into the early 20th Century and even WW2 for her novels The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, but she started back in the 19th Century and this is my favourite from that series. Amazon calls her genre Lesbian Victoriana, which made me giggle a little, but I think Waters is doing more than that; she is chronicling women’s experience. She includes lesbian encounters and women falling in love with women, but in this book that’s an aside rather than the main focus of the plot. I think to term these novels as lesbian novels is reductive and has a sense of prurience. I remember the fuss and excitement when Tipping the Velvet was serialised at the BBC, and male journalists practically salivating over Rachel Stirling and Keeley Hawes. I think they’re intended to be read as women’s experiences of living in Victorian England, with the women’s sexual relationships as part of an unspoken subculture only just emerging into the open. She is using the device of ‘writing back’ to the historical period and bringing a group into the limelight who were hidden at the time and never portrayed in fiction. It’s about seeing the Victorian era and women’s lives in totally new eyes, and accepting that the literary canon only shows us a small part of a vibrant and varied world. As with history being written by the victor, literature of the early to mid 19th Century tends to be written by white, straight, middle-class males. Waters is trying to redress the balance and give us a minority viewpoint which I love.

Orphan, Sue Trinder, lives in a family of petty thieves and is trained to become a ‘Fingersmith’. Based in London, the den is run by a motherly woman who has a hard and ruthless side. All the thieves congregate and bring their wares to ready them for sale, while a baby farm is run on the side. It is here that a man called ‘Gentleman’ recruits Sue for a scam to defraud a wealthy heiress. We also meet a young woman called Maud Lily, she’s an orphan too, but with a home in a gloomy mansion as the ward of an odd Uncle. She has a very comfortable life, helping him with his work as some sort of secretary, but his subject matter might raise an eyebrow or two. He is an avid collector of Victorian pornography. This makes Maud very uncomfortable, but it seems an unspoken agreement that her help is in return for his protection. This strange upbringing makes Maud very sheltered and naïve in one respect, but also strangely knowing in others. Gentleman has devised a long con that starts when Sue is placed within the mansion as Maud’s lady’s maid. She will then encounter the Gentleman who will try to court Maud. They hope, that with Sue’s encouragement, Lily will fall for his charms. His long term aim is to marry her, because according to 19th Century marriage law, all of her fortune will then become his property. Then it’s a simple case of claiming she’s mad, and as long as a doctor agrees, a man could sign his wife into an asylum leaving him free to use her money. If she helps, Sue will be entitled to some of the ‘shine’.

As always with Sarah Waters books, the depth of research is obvious and this feels so real. The sense of place is so strong, in the filthy detail of the London terrace streets and the silent unease in the mansion. These two places feel entirely opposite. Where Sue grew up there’s constant noise, people running in and out, babies wailing upstairs and other people’s belongings being appraised and sold on. There’s squalor and poverty, so for her, the change to being a lady’s maid is a massive leap. By contrast the mansion is quiet with the sound of ticking clocks, days without seeing another soul. There’s a feeling of being imprisoned somehow, it’s stifling and the scene where she works in the library with her Uncle feel so uncomfortable. The tension as the con slowly starts to work is terrible. Then, in what is probably my favourite twist in fiction, the pace picks up and the reader is left reeling as everything changes.

In the second section of the book we go back in time a little to Maud’s story, some of this overlaps with the first part and some of it is her history and how she ended up closed away with only a perverted Uncle for company. We follow Sue’s journey as Maud’s lady’s maid and see how a friendship develops between the two young women. Maud is living like a prisoner and has experienced years of coercive control leaving her timid and unsure. The con would only work if Sue stays focused and doesn’t get involved with her new mistress, but their friendship is deepening and Sue is starting to have doubts about the plan. There is an attraction between the two women that was unexpected, but is there anyway to back out of the plan or is it too late? There is something hypnotic about this book. It is a long read, but unlike the Victorian novels it emulates, it didn’t feel long-winded or become boring. I was engaged at every point of the story, absolutely fascinated with the twists and turns of the plot and never quite sure who is telling the truth. I was desperate to find out who has really been conned in the end. This is one book where BBC adaptation is very good too, with great casting and a definite feel of the book.

However, the novel is perfection. It’s a historical thriller, told through unexpected heroines and delving into the more deviant side of Victorian life: pornography, pick-pocketing, theft, fraud, confidence tricksters, and baby selling. Not to mention the lesbian aspects of the storyline that would have been unthinkable in fiction of the time. In fact I clearly remember a tutor at university telling me that all the focus on deviant sexual behaviour was focused on gay men and prostitution – intimating that the thought of two women having a relationship was so taboo that it didn’t even exist in most Victorian minds. I loved that we were seeing a totally different section of Victorian society and it had a voice. There is a feel of Dickens in the poverty and living conditions, and of course he had his own wife detained in an asylum. However, there’s none of that Victorian moralising that comes with fiction of the period. This is the underclass speaking for itself and the character of Maud’s Uncle hits home the idea that even the middle classes were not necessarily as respectable and God-fearing as they seemed. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction whether in the form of historical novels or of the period. It’s also a great thriller with enough double-crossing and revelations to keep any reader satisfied. This really is Sarah Waters at the height of her writing powers and should be on your TBR list immediately.

Meet The Author.

Sarah Waters OBE, was born in Wales. She is the author of six novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, which have been adapted for stage, television and feature film in the UK and US. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and she has won the Betty Trask Award; the Somerset Maugham Award; The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger. Sarah has been named Author of the Year four times: by the British Book Awards, the Booksellers’ Association, Waterstones Booksellers; Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade in 2015; Diva Magazine Author of the Year Award and The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2017, which is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work. Sarah was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sarah Waters lives in London.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Wake by Anna Hope.

She misses him. Fraser. Here in the shrunken hours of the night. She misses him still so much. Who is there to share her thoughts with? They wither inside her. She cannot even write them to him as she used to, can’t take a cup of tea back to bed and sit with a candle in the blackoutand think of him, trying to imagine where he is, what he sees. She cannot imagine where he is, because he is nowhere, he is nothing. All of the many tiny things that he was – the way he turned his head towards her, the slow breaking of his smile, the laughter in him, the roll of his voice; the way that he eased her, eased her – these are all gone. These are all dead.

Last year I couldn’t move on Twitter without seeing that someone was reviewing and reading Anna Hope’s Expectation. I’ve had such a ridiculous TBR that my copy is still languishing on the pile, but I wasn’t surprised to see the book become a runaway hit. I’d already fallen in love with her writing in 2014, when I read her novel covering the aftermath of WW1. Wake is a brilliant piece of historical fiction based around the real historical event, the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As he is taken from the fields of France, on his journey towards London, three women are linked by a mystery that is starting to unravel. As the Unknown Soldier is meant to provide closure to the war for the British people, these three women can’t look into the future while they are still inextricably linked to the past. Hetty’s wounded brother won’t speak, Evelyn grieves for her lost lover and Ada waits for confirmation of her son’s death, every day that she doesn’t get a telegram is another day he feels alive. We follow these three women over five days, while the selection of the Unknown Soldier is made and his journey towards Westminster Abbey begins. Slowly, a tragic tale of war’s aftermath emerges and links them all.

Hetty lives with her mother still, and her mute, shell-shocked brother. He can no longer work so Hetty has taken a job as a dance instructor at the Palais. It is there she meets an educated, wealthy, man who she quickly falls for. Every indication she has, makes her think he feels the same. However, there’s something she can’t put her finger on, a distance or sense of being unreachable that he has. Where does he go in his mind, when he seems distracted? Evelyn comes from a wealthier background, but feels equally lost. She’s working at the Pensions Exchange, where men returning from the front pass through, claiming benefit for their physical or mental wounds. Evelyn’s own loss is still raw and she feels detached from her parents who can’t understand her experience. She starts to become closer to her brother instead, because he is of her generation, also altered forever by his experience at the front. Ada is haunted by visions of the son she’s lost. She still sees him on the street and for a few moments she’s convinced he is alive. She also feels like she’s struggling alone, because her husband is grieving in his own way, becoming increasingly withdrawn. A door to door salesman attracts her attention and it’s so clear he has suffered from his war experiences and has struggled to find work. He exhibits some worrying symptoms but Ada recognises shell-shock. During one of his disturbed episodes he says the name of Ada’s son. Can she find out what happened to him? The tension really builds as the public spectacle comes closer, the ceremonial internment of this unknown young man can be a catalyst, allowing people to grieve for those whose bodies are lost forever on the fields of France or Belgium.

This is a very interesting part of history for me, because of the tumultuous social change that took place, especially for women. This period is where we saw huge adjustments and change within the aristocratic class. Some families had lost two generations, father and son or the ‘heir and spare’. This led to an estate crippled by death duties and having to be sold, or the new heir forced into reducing costs and servants, or searching for a more advantageous match – marrying American heiresses was sometimes the answer. These changes often brought less formality to the family. Women had worked throughout the war, in jobs usually done by men. There was tension on their return to the workforce, some women didn’t want to return to the home and men who couldn’t find work were reduced to begging or selling door to door. Crime was on the up and families were coming apart at the seams. There was a sense of the old order being overturned and old values like manners, morality and knowing your place being lost.

Finally I loved the significance of the title ‘Wake’ and it’s several meanings: to rouse from sleep; a ritual for the dead; the consequence or aftermath. All of these meanings are apt to the women in the book and their circumstances. This is the moment that the 20th Century finally dawned on people, and society woke from the Victorian era. Victoria’s reign had been so long that some people had never known another monarch, now there would be change from that Victorian order. The ritual refers to the Unknown Soldier, a representative of every man lost, but also representative of that death of the old order, and it’s sensibilities. The consequences of WWI were seismic, we had just fought the first mechanised war and it was hell on earth. Society did not know how to cope with the wounded who returned, whether the ranks of the physically disabled using wooden legs or metal masks to cover burns, or the shell-shocked, constantly trembling and lashing out when feeling threatened. Many ended up in institutions, because they were constant reminders of something younger people wanted to forget. The following few generations would be changed, with the war hanging over them like a giant monolith casting a long shadow. Why couldn’t people be allowed to forget? As the Unknown Soldier passes by someone comments ‘is this supposed to make it all okay?’ This is such a moving read and captures it’s era so perfectly it felt like being there, which isn’t an easy thing to achieve. I felt for each woman, but Evelyn particularly moved me. This is an exceptional piece of writing and a great introduction to this author’s work.

‘I’ll remember you he thinks, and as the gun carriage with it’s coffin and it’s dented helmet passes him by, he closes his eyes. Nothing will bring them back. Not the words of comfortable men. Not the words of politicians. Or the platitudes of paid poets.’

Meet The Author.

ANNA HOPE studied at Oxford University and RADA. She is the internationally prizewinning and bestselling author of Wake and The Ballroom. Her contemporary fiction debut, Expectation, explores themes of love, lust, motherhood, and feminism, while asking the greater question of what defines a generation. She lives in Sussex with her husband and young daughter.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

I’m going a long way back in time for Throwback Thursday this week. I read this book in my early teens, but still hold it close to my heart. I’d read 101 Dalmations much earlier and hadn’t realised that the author had written anything other than children’s books. The truth is I’d been waiting my whole life for a heroine like Cassandra Mortmain. There are a lot of different influences to blame for turning me into the adolescent I was. Years trawling round stately homes had given me a yearning for a house I could hide in. We lived in a 1960’s bungalow with just enough rooms to live in, but I longed to hear lines like ‘ Hayley? No I haven’t seen her since breakfast. Could she be in the pink drawing room?’ Period dramas, particularly 1970s productions of D.H. Lawrence novels and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between , both loved by my mum, had left me hankering after a wardrobe of full, floaty skirts and the sort of accessories that looked out of place. Like tramping down to the village shop wearing a feather boa, ten layers of petticoats, whilst dragging a grumpy spaniel. I would constantly imagine I was in a book or a film, walking the poor dog’s legs off while hoping to meet a man who looked like Mr. Rochester and lived in a Gothic mansion, minus the mad wife.

I also developed a fascination with Edith Holden thanks to the TV series of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and I even wrote off for a pack about the series. We already had the book, so I bought a sketchbook and some watercolour pencils with my pocket money. My brother and I would go out early, him with his fishing gear, and me with my books and paints. There was an old track down to the woods with a drainage dyke running alongside. About halfway down there were two willow trees that had bent so far over the water it was possible to climb up and lay down along the trunk. My brother would fish from his tree, and in mine I would paint flowers and butterflies and read my book. It was the closest thing I had to room of my own. So, in finding Cassandra Mortmain I felt like I’d found exactly who I was supposed to be. I wasn’t meant to be Hayley Baxter, lives in a sixties bungalow, with a working class family and no money. I was meant to be the broken down castle, bohemian sort of poor. Where parents were trying to make money from art, roof leaks dripped into buckets instead of being fixed and they were invited to tea by the landed gentry or their new American millionaire estate owners.

I loved Cassandra Mortmain’s confidence. She was determined she was going to be a writer and nobody told her she couldn’t be, so she was always curled up in some unlikely place, writing in her journal. If I said I wanted to write novels, my close family were supportive – my mum had always wanted to write. Wider family and friends would say ‘well, as long as you do well at school and have something to fall back on.’ There were aunts and uncles who would have been bemused if I walked constantly around with a journal and pen. Writing was seen as something you had to do – you wrote a letter, or a postcard – but not something pleasurable that you devote time to. That came much later, when I had my own home and my own wardrobe of floaty skirts. When I first read her story I was much like Cassandra herself, there were parts of life that she was recording without really knowing their importance or meaning. Although she narrates her own story, as an older reader there were things I understood that Cassandra didn’t as yet. This is a story of growing up and leaving some of that innocence of youth behind.

I thought on first reading that her sister Rose was incredibly beautiful, but grumpy and not very nice to be around. However, reading her years later I could see that because Rose was older, she understood more about the realities of life. For her, the broken roof and the lack of income were not romantic, but a real problem that needed fixing. Their father’s only published book can’t keep them forever and his writer’s block makes him a very difficult man to live with. Rather comically the women lock him in his study, in the hope that inspiration will strike when he’s forced to stare at his typewriter. It’s very clear to Rose that they are in dire financial straits. This is where the book takes on some Austen-like romantic tropes, as the Cotton family come to visit the estate where they are the rightful heirs and the Mortmains are their tenants. Mrs Cotton brings her two sons, the eldest Simon being the rightful heir, and Neil, the younger son. Simon is ‘detestably bearded’ but the most eligible and able to rescue the Mortmains from their current circumstances. Cassandra’s father and stepmother Topaz are seen as delightfully eccentric by the Cottons and the whole family are invited for dinner. This is where the romantic problems begin, as Simon is besotted with the beautiful Rose, and as Cassandra develops a crush on Simon, she is in turn adored by the Mortmain’s servant and helper, Stephen. Stephen is incredible handsome, but the Mortmain girls are about to find out that the heart is an unruly organ and wants what it wants. Despite this, it isn’t long before Rose announces her engagement to Simon. This solves so many of the Mortmain’s problems – it’s as if one of the Bennett sisters actually accepted Mr Collins. As the preparations for the wedding gather pace, Rose and Cassandra spend more time with the Cotton brothers.

Simon finds that he gets on well with Cassandra. He is the more cerebral of the brothers and while Rose is beautiful, she is not blessed with brains. Yet, Cassandra is too young for romance, and a very touching friendship starts to develop. The younger brother, Neil, is more stereotypically American, loud, brash and very active. He and Rose are usually swimming or messing around in boats, with Neil often play fighting or indulging in horse play. Cassandra has never seen her sister so lively, actually forgetting to be lady like and being in the moment. Everyone is touched to see Rose so happy, and assume it is her approaching wedding. To an adult reader the attraction between these two beautiful people is obvious, but Cassandra is stunned to find out they have run away together. If we hark back to Austen, her sister has turned out to be more of a Lydia than a Jane. How can the Mortmain’s fortunes be improved by their daughter’s marriage to the second son?

This is a novel drenched in charm and nostalgia. Interestingly, it was written by Smith when she was living in America, and that may explain it’s rose-spectacled view of England. There is something slightly melancholy in that we’re watching a young girl lose the charming innocence that makes her narration a delight to read. She falls in love, but not with the person who adores her and sees the devastation that can be caused by betrayal and jealousy. We realise, as Cassandra grows up in front of us, the chaos of a household run by adults who have no money and no rules, the embarrassment of having a stepmother who will happily walk around in the nude and that moment when you find your own sister inexplicable, because you understand storybook romance, but not adult desire. Cassandra is mostly in love with life. One character describes her as ‘the insidious type–Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” Her narration makes even minor characters jump off the page and straight into your heart. Finally, I loved how Cassandra leaves us with an open ending. We shouldn’t be surprised that some loose ends are left dangling, because she has told us how much she hates ‘a brick wall happy ending.’ I think it’s true to say that in me, she found a reader as romantic about life as she is. This is one of those books I’ll re-read again and again, so I’m on the look-out for a very special copy to put on my forever shelves.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

Following on from last week, I wanted to feature this novel which is one of my favourites from the last twenty years and shows that Kate Atkinson is truly one of our best British novelists. It follows another wonderful novel about the Todd family, Life after Life, which focused on the many possible lives of Ted’s older sister Ursula. This is written as a standalone novel, rather than a sequel and has the honour of being one of the few books that genuinely made me cry towards the end. We meet Ted as he’s a pensioner, living in York, and dealing with living his life alone after the death of his wife. However, we don’t stay there, because as with Life After Life, Atkinson mixes past, present and future with great impact. The novel is also told from Teddy’s point of view, although he does seem slightly omniscient at times, knowing things he wasn’t present for. It is such a poignant history of a man who has lived through a world war, and it feels so authentic. In true Atkinson style, it cleverly manages to be a book about fiction itself.

In Life After Life when the focus was on Ursula, Teddy seemed to be set on course to marry childhood sweetheart Nancy and their life was portrayed as idyllic. Yet in this novel we see that their relationship was far from perfect. Despite this we do follow the lives of their daughter and granddaughter too, to great effect, because it opens up all the changes Ted has seen over his long life. Teddy’s mind often wanders back to his time as part of Bomber Command – something I’ve grown up with because I live in Lincolnshire which is known as Bomber County. In fact in the course of his work as a land drainage engineer, my Dad has accidentally dug up a whole Lancaster Bomber, probably trying to limp home to RAF Blyton, only a mile and a half away. Here the bomber raids were described so authentically, they were harrowing in parts and I could imagine the anxiety of waiting back at base to count the planes back in, knowing some would be missing.

Atkinson manages to combine the personal story of Teddy’s family, with societal shifts that occurred between the wartime generation and those who came of age in the second half of the 20th Century. Teddy is an old school gentleman, often showing acts of kindness and chivalry that make him very loveable. His values are challenged by his daughter Viola, the voice of her generation, who is always looking for the next cause to adopt. She campaigned for nuclear disarmament and supported the women protesting at Greenham Common. She’s a feminist and a vegan, something very unusual until fairly recently in the 21st Century. We are shown how the generation gap creates arguments in a family, where one generation fought in a war and later generations don’t appreciate or fully comprehend the sacrifices that were made for them. Viola could be seen as an unsympathetic character, especially when compared with Teddy’s service. However I wondered if her character developed as a reaction against Teddy’s courage and heroism. Such perfection is hard to live up to. In fact, when Viola tries to reconnect with friends from her travelling days she finds one of them has died and one works in finance – far from the ideals they held before. Unlike Teddy’s generation they have had a chance to regret behaviour and change outlook. Teddy’s friends will always be the same age.

I enjoyed the interesting structure of the novel where we float back and forth in time, between characters and settings. At times Atkinson lets slip a future plot, while still in the past. All of this felt very Virginia Woolf-esque and it suited the narrative. She is such a skilled writer that this never feels overtly literary or highbrow, it remains a light easy read. There is a huge twist at the end that has a bearing on everything you’ve read so far, but it’s not there just for the sake of it. Yes, it’s an excellent example of the post-modern novel, in a similar vein to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but that’s not all. It’s impact of the twist was devastating to me and this is where tears emerged. This unexpected direction is truly a tribute to the men of Bomber Command, especially those who didn’t come home, like the men in the Lancaster my Dad dug up who were only a couple of miles from safety. This novel is simply one way Teddy’s life could have played out and it’s all the more powerful for it. This was an intelligent, well-researched and poignant novel that I think should be viewed as a modern classic.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Have you ever wished that you had a chance to do something all over again? To iron out the mistakes or maybe create a different outcome. To maybe get a second chance at life, right from the start; a life with a blank slate again. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life is one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside its sequel A God in Ruins. I loved her Jackson Brodie novels and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but this novel is something extra special. I’d never read anything like it outside of sci-fi novels.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Atkinson does something profoundly special with this novel. It could have been a perfectly acceptable novel if it simply explored this baby girl’s lives from a personal and family perspective. However, Atkinson weaves Ursula’s personal story in with the state of flux in the early Twentieth Century. She takes in the demise of such upper middle class family’s like the Todd’s, from changes to social mobility, women’s roles becoming more prominent, and the loss of male members of the family due to WW1 and WW2. She explores the descent into WW2 and women’s roles in places like the war office and the secret services. In the multiple lives Ursula lives she can explore whether or not war could have been avoided, and what role she could have played in that mission. There’s so much going on that I can understand some reviewers finding it complicated to follow. The trick is to simply go with it. Eventually Ursula has longer lives where these issues can be explored in depth.

I fell in love with the Todd family and their genteel English way of life that can be summed up in a single phrase; ‘one does as one must, and then has tea’. All the female characters, including Sylvie and Pamela, are well fleshed out and it’s interesting to see what different paths their own lives took because of Ursula. I also had an incredible soft spot for Teddy – and loved that he got his own story in her follow up novel A God In Ruins. However, it is Ursula who holds our attention most and the endlessly inventive ways she dies in childbirth, from Spanish Flu, from drowning or by murder. She always has very strong perceptions, and experiences strong episodes of déja vu – although she doesn’t know she’s been here before, it seems she has gained some gifts from her other lives. There must be some residual wisdom from times when she’s been a mother or not, a wife or a mistress, someone who leads a quiet life in the country or goes to Germany and changes the course of history.

Atkinson’s sense of place is incredible. There are the lazy summers at the Todd family home, lounging in the garden or the kids exploring freely, climbing trees in the idyllic countryside. Her scenes in London are incredibly evocative, especially her descriptions based in historical fact. In one section their maid goes to a huge gathering in the capital to celebrate the end of WW1 and brings Spanish Flu back to the house. Her description of the London Blitz brings home how devastating and terrifying it must have been. We have a unique perspective as readers, we have an overview of every life Ursula lives, while she only knows the one she’s living in. Of course there are some events that repeat in every life – her birthday in 1910 is replayed twelve times – but these are important moments, where even the most subtle difference can send Ursula hurtling towards a different path in life. The novel evoked several other novels for me. The scenes at home with family in the early Twentieth Century reminded me of the long, languid summer of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between. Scenes in London during WW2, and the concept of written lives versus the truth, reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan. I never became bored of going back to the beginning, but the other characters in Ursula’s life are so strong and well-written, it seems odd that once she dies, they no longer exist either. The author explores the dynamics of family, class, and how that changes so much at this point in history. There’s also grief – for other people, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and how that affects characters differently. I think this is an astonishing novel, beautifully written and managing to be both playful in structure but profoundly moving at the same time.

Next week for Throwback Thursday I will be looking at Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins overlaps with Ursula’s story in places, but is more focused on her little brother Teddy.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Film tie-in paperback.

‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard) […] leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road’.

Beloved is one of those books that seeps into your soul and never really leaves. In that powerful opening paragraph we see a house full of supernatural activity. A house that men leave. Where only women have the strength to live alongside the demons of the past. The baby ghost who haunts Sethe is full of rage and throws tantrums like a toddler, yet instead of throwing her bottle on the floor she has the power to fling furniture at the wall, even the dog doesn’t escape unscathed. Sethe escaped Sweet Home, the farm where she was enslaved, over eighteen years ago. She has borne such terrible suffering and yet has survived, whole in body and mind. There is just this one thing, the possession of the house by her first daughter, who died when she was a baby. All it says on her grave stone is one word, Beloved. So when a teenage girl turns up at the house claiming to be her daughter, Sethe wants to believe it’s true. If it’s true, maybe what happened back at the farm was just a terrible dream. When Paul D arrives – a freed slave from the same place – his remembrances and ability to look forward instead of over his shoulder, will clash with Sethe who is stuck.

“To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one.” […] Yet the morning she woke up next to Paul D, the word her daughter had used a few years ago did cross her mind and she thought… Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?”

Until now, being in this liminal space is the only way she can be with her other daughter. Neither fully in the past, nor creating a new future, Sethe can’t move on without acknowledging the cost of slavery. At No 124, the ghost of slavery is literal and inescapable. Sethe may no longer be enslaved as the novel opens, but she can never forget what slavery as an institution did to her as a person. When a young woman claiming to be the now-adult Beloved comes to Sethe’s house, Sethe begins to believe that she might avoid facing the truth. Instead she might at last be able to forget: if Beloved is truly alive, then her terrible fate never happened, and so slavery may also be erased, forgotten, papered over. But it rapidly and inexorably becomes clear that forgetting is impossible. This incredible book has the feel of the supernatural, but it’s haunting is one of traumatic memory. Sometimes things happen to us that have to be pushed to the back of our minds. It’s as if we’ve accidentally forgotten, but really it’s a conscious choice to build a mental wall between our psychological ‘self’ and the trauma.

However, Sethe’s trauma is now embodied twice. The scar that covers her back looks like a tree. The lash has broken up and knotted the skin leaving a texture like bark. When Paul D sees her back for the first time, he does not flinch. Instead he traces the lines and kisses the branches, framing the mark of what she’s gone through as a positive thing. The tree could symbolise Sethe’s growth. She stands, a mighty oak of a woman, who doesn’t have to be cowed by her experience. Then Beloved arrives – an angry, spiteful young woman who seems to be very sweet at first, and only wants to be near the mother she’s never had. Denver and Paul D can also see Beloved so she’s not an apparition or figment of Sethe’s imagination. She’s a real woman. In the film, Beloved is played beautifully by Thandie Newton – full of languid grace and always fixing huge pleading eyes on Sethe whether she wants more sugar, more attention, more love. In fact her needs are like those of a baby and must be satisfied. There’s a baby’s narcissism in Beloved and she wants her newly found mother all to herself, trying every means possible to drive a wedge between Sethe and Paul D or her baby sister Denver. She’s not above lying, pleading or even seduction to get her mother to herself.

As Denver and Paul D leave, Beloved is satisfied. However, Sethe is slowly being drained by the girl. She loses energy and isn’t seen in her garden so much. She stops visiting the market for food. The women in the neighbourhood notice and share the strange stories they’ve heard: about a young woman suddenly living at number 124; that Sethe has lost her man; that her daughter Denver left for work in the city; and that Sethe grows thin waiting on her house guest hand and foot, while Beloved grows fatter. The women gather outside 124 in a prayer circle and began to ask God to take back this demon inhabiting Sethe and her home. They don’t believe Beloved exists, not as an actual flesh and blood girl. Can they give Sethe the strength needed to recognise this? Can she own and confront a crucial part of her past?

She will need all of her will for this embodiment of Beloved to leave. She has to recognise that she no longer needs a physical reminder, because instead she needs to integrate a terrible, horrifying act she committed into her psyche. She starts to accept that Beloved’s death was caused by slavery. The descriptions of what happened to Sethe at Sweet Home are truly harrowing and they need to be, so that we as readers understand her actions. Sethe remembers: the lashing that tore her back open; the awful scene in the barn where her husband, hiding in the rafters, is forced to see Sethe pinned down as their master’s sons suckle her baby’s milk away; the horrifying sight of Paul D wearing the ‘bit’ – a terrible metalwork mask that prevents him from speaking. The remarkable thing is that these experiences are not recounted with buckets of emotion. They are merely factual and all the more devastating in their quiet retelling.

In the aftermath of Beloved’s disappearance, Sethe starts to grieve. She acknowledges the beautiful little girl she held in her arms that day. The day that her love for her children was so great, she could not bear to see them taken back to the horror she’d fled. As Paul D tries to comfort her she keeps repeating ‘she was my best thing’.

“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.”

Now Sethe must learn to put herself first. Not to forget Beloved, her first born who liked to eat the burned edges of bread, but to forgive herself. To place the blame at slavery’s door, rather than her own. Paul D has returned to something for the first time in a life where he’s done nothing but run. He can’t articulate his feelings for Sethe, but when he’s with her he can let the horrors that slavery inflicted on him melt into the background. She has shared his experience and this removes any shame he feels for being collared and yoked like an animal. His memories no longer remove his manhood from him. He encourages Sethe to move forward with him, to start experiencing less yesterdays and more tomorrows. Beloved, in hindsight, becomes an embodiment of their past. Resurrecting the past is always painful, and Beloved is painful, difficult and confusing to encounter. In Beloved, a traumatic history is restored and rescued from years of buried memories and enforced silence.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mr Wroe’s Virgins by Jane Rogers.

‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.

In 1830, as he thought the end of the world approached, the charismatic, hunchbacked prophet of a religious sect settled in Lancashire heeds the biblical injunction and chooses seven virgins ‘for comfort and succour’. Basing her novel on the life of the real John Wroe, a leader of a group called the Christian Israelite Church, Rogers crafts an impeccable narrative, interweaving the diverse mindsets of some of the chosen women and the prophet during the nine months of complex interaction. Part morality tale, part history, packed with accurate details of early 19th century life, the stories of Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha unfold as they cope with the hypocrisy, blind beliefs and idealism of the sexually threatening prophet.
Told with humour, irony and a generosity that embraces even the sinister Wroe, this is a compelling story of astonishing depth, elucidating religious idealism, the beginnings of socialism and the ubiquitous position of women as unpaid labourers.

I came across this novel, even before the BBC TV series of the same name. Having seen/read both, I can recommend them equally, although I think the novel is slightly more successful in a few different ways. The way the book is structured into four different narratives allows the women’s characters to develop fully, as over nine months, the story of their lives unfold. Through them we come to experience all seven women: a pious believer; two sisters, still too young to understand their place in the world; a disabled woman; a beautiful, but egotistical woman; a mute and badly beaten woman; a girl donated by her aunt and uncle, who doesn’t believe in the prophet or his religion. It is only through the women that we experience the prophet, a clever reversal of power. In fact these narratives are the only power the women have at first, these are their only words free from restriction or religious dogma. This power shift is especially interesting when it comes to Martha, who is mute. When I first encountered her narrative I thought I’d bought a book with pages missing. However, it’s just Martha trying to express herself the only way she knows – depicted in staccato monosyllabic language, Martha writes about what she knows, eating and sleeping in the first instance. Yet instead of cutting off her narrative, Rogers leaves a blank page. This is the space into which Martha can develop and come to know herself. One of the most powerful parts of the book is watching this transformation.

We hear that Mr Wroe is a powerful speaker, and we can hear his preaching and religious teaching. However, we don’t fully come to know and understand the man. He doesn’t get to construct himself through language. So, we know something of his belief system and his interpretation of the Bible, but nothing personal. This could be because he is a conduit of God, simply meant to deliver God’s teaching. It also leaves him as something of an enigma. Why and when did he become the person he is today? The belief system he has is very selective, patriarchal and seems to benefit him more than his congregation. He sees no problem in allowing Leah to bring her illegitimate child to live with them. He accepts Hannah into the fold despite her lack of faith, and her doubts allow him to admit his own. He uses all the women as unpaid domestic servants and the exploitation doesn’t end there. He seduces the pious Joanna by convincing her that they will beget the new Messiah. For each woman his approach is different, but it works. I found his exploitation of Martha particularly difficult to read and his ability to take Joanna’s faith and use it against her in such a manipulative way is despicable. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll reserve any more detail, but such an arrangement can’t last and I kept reading hoping for the women’s emancipation.

I have always enjoyed this book and further reading shows it has stood the test of time. The historical detail is so accurate and the scene she sets is vivid – Martha’s time in the pig sty with the animals really sticks in my memory. It may seem hard to believe that any parent would willingly give up their daughters to this man. However, I understand how religious fervour can sweep through a community. Having family on my Dad’s side from the Isle of Axeholme, I know my ancestors would have experienced the Methodist revival started by John Wesley who hailed from Epworth. The real life Mr Wroe’s congregation firmly believed he was a holy man. Maybe they felt that God would look favourably upon them if they supported his vision. There were of course monetary reasons too; offloading a disabled or mute woman who would never earn money or marry could have helped a family who were stretched financially. Also, the stigma of having a disabled daughter, an old maid still living at home or a a girl who has a child out of wedlock could be wiped out by their inclusion in the prophet’s household, This can be a challenging read in parts, but worth the work as you become pulled in by the voices of these women. Little is known about the real ‘virgins’, but here Rogers gives them a voice and a power they clearly didn’t have in life.

Meet The Author

Jane Rogers has written 10 novels ranging from historical to contemporary to sci fi. Books include Mr Wroe’s Virgins (which she dramatised as an award-winning BBC drama serial), Island, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (ManBooker longlisted, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012). Her short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks was shortlisted for the Edgehill Award.
She also writes radio drama and Classic serial adaptations (most recently of John Wyndham and R.L. Stevenson).
Jane has taught writing to a wide variety of students, and is Professor Emerita at Sheffield Hallam University. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest novel, Body Tourists, is a dystopia set in 2040.