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

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark.

I’m wary of books written by people in the public eye. There are those who have clearly used a ghost writer. Others have no writing skill, just a big enough name to sell the book anyway. I worry for myself and all those other aspiring writers who won’t be able to get a book deal because the lists are full with celebrity memoirs and books set in Cornwall! However, there are some celebrity authors who get it right, often those who started out as reporters before becoming famous. Jeremy Vine’s debut novel was a pleasant surprise, and my stepdaughters loved David Walliams stories. I knew Dawn French could write well only a few pages into her memoir. I can now add Kirsty Wark to this list, since stumbling on her book second hand in Barter Books, Alnwick. I started to read it while still on holiday and loved it.

The author lets her characters tell the story. Firstly we are told Elizabeth’s story from her journal and we meet her at the beginning of the First World War, a time of big changes for her family. She is moving with her mum from the isolated family farm to the small fishing village of Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. The house they will live in is Holmlea, which has a beautiful sea view out to Holy Isle and the monastery. We are then immersed in Elizabeth’s life: their family friendship with the Duchess of Montrose; an incredible passion for gardening; all the relationships in her life. These relationships ebb and flow, but into her old age she has two men in her life. There is Niall the rather passionate gardener who works as an architect and Saul, a Buddhist monk from Holy Isle. When working in her front garden she notices a young woman, walking past with her baby in a pram. The young woman is Anna, and she is very taken with Holmlea and asks Elizabeth to contact her if she ever decides to sell it.

Our other narrator is Martha, the daughter of Anna Morrison, who is surprised to find her mother has been offered the legacy of a house on the Isle of Arran by a woman she’s never heard of before. Anna is now struggling with dementia, so much so that Martha is now her full time carer and deals with her finances. It is Martha who organises help for her mother and takes a trip up to Arran to see the house. So it is also up to Hannah to uncover Elizabeth’s reasons for leaving the house, but also discover more about her life and secrets. There was once a fiancé in Elizabeth’s life who moved out to Australia to start a sheep farm. Elizabeth was reluctant to go, feeling she needed to be there for her mother. She passes her time walking in the hills and during the war, helped in looking for lost and crashed airmen. Eventually, it is too late to follow her fiancé and at the end, Elizabeth has lived on Arran for 90 years. More recently she’s had friendships with a young man whose sister runs the local hotel and he has worked with her to create her beautiful garden. It is her friend Saul who encourages her to write her story down. He is a struggling Buddhist monk who is staying at Holy Island and meets Elizabeth when she volunteers in the gardens.

The books major strength is in description, creating a strong sense of place. This is a bleak but beautiful place, and she situates Arran and Holy Island as sustaining to the people who live there or come for solace. These islands feel like a cornerstone or anchor for the people who are born there and almost like medicine to those lonely or desperate people who seek them out. Gardens are featured heavily as a source of sustenance for the body and the soul and I truly understand that need to be in nature and feel your senses drink it in. I thought it was a wonderfully calm and quiet novel, but quiet doesn’t mean it’s without impact. I really loved Elizabeth’s story, it shows how quiet and seemingly unassuming people can have hidden depths. We often overlook the elderly, thinking they have lived their lives. I’ve worked in nursing homes and advocacy, and it’s surprising how many elderly people are cared for by people who don’t really know them and never try to. They talk to other carers as if the person they’re helping is deaf or not really there. I created a memory project where I found old photographs of residents and wrote down stories they told me about their lives. I then put up a display outside each bedroom, so that carers could see their residents as individuals with experience and stories to share. This book reminded me of that project and what a difference it made to the resident’s everyday lives.

Meet The Author

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who has presented a wide range of BBC programmes for more than twenty five years, from the ground-breaking LATE SHOW to the weekly arts and cultural review show THE REVIEW SHOW and the nightly current affairs show NEWSNIGHT.

Kirsty has won several major awards for her work, including BAFTA Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, Journalist of the Year and Best Television Presenter. Her debut novel, THE LEGACY OF ELIZABETH PRINGLE, was published in March 2014 by Two Roads and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Her second novel, THE HOUSE BY THE LOCH, was inspired by her childhood memories and family, particularly her father. She is currently working on her third novel, set in Glasgow.

Born in Dumfries and educated in Ayr, Scotland, Kirsty now lives in Glasgow.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Hours by Michael Cunningham.

I came across The Hours in my university bookshop, as a companion piece to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. We were studying it for our Twentieth Century Literature module. I had read Woolf’s book very quickly, surprised by how modern it was in the way it was told. I did a disappointing essay based around the whether there were recognisable differences between Modernism and Postmodernism or whether it was simply a continuation of the same ideas. In hindsight I was arguing the wrong side, but the books stayed with me and I did enjoy the film adaptation of The Hours where Nicole Kidman won her Oscar playing Woolf. Arguably, it was Julianne Moore who really deserved an award, playing the second of Cunningham’s women who was sinking under the weight of motherhood and expectations in 1940’s Los Angeles. In the book I felt the same narrative was very strong, but I also enjoyed the Woolf sections – perhaps because she seemed to exist more strongly in the written word than in the flesh. The third narrative was a modern day meditation on Mrs Dalloway, as our character does the same things in one day that Woolf’s character does, but brought to a post- millennium New York City.

Our three women are Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan – who is affectionately nicknamed Mrs Dalloway, by her terminally ill friend. The three timelines give us a glimpse into societal changes for women across the Twentieth Century. Yet it also shows us that there are experiences and struggles that are universal and echo down the centuries. For such a slim volume, the depth the author writes into his characters is extraordinary. I feel like I know these women, deep down to their soul. They’re going through some tough things here, with themes of illness, suicide and depression somehow explored sensitively despite the books brevity. Those who’ve read Mrs Dalloway know that it explores similar themes, despite feeling light and almost insubstantial. This is similar, as Clarissa goes out to buy flowers and Virginia takes tea with her sister Vita. These things are slight, but behind them is a turmoil of finding identity, moving beyond the tiny restricted role society expects, finding a way through tragedy and deep troughs of sadness. All three are searching for those elusive things we all want – love, happiness and a sense of who we truly are. Can we ever find these things or keep them? Are we doomed to live out our lives and others expect, rather than being our authentic selves. Most of us have to make do with one of these, or maybe all three for brief, elusive moments. How do we get through life without them? Or are we doomed to lurch desperately from one moment of happiness to another? When we are in those depths of depression or grief, how do we keep going and what would force us to take that final drastic action?

The answer is in those hours of the title. These are those happy, golden hours that we remember always. The memories we wish we could bottle and keep forever. These precious hours are the beauty of life and they illuminate all those dark moments. They are what keep us going, they hold within them the hope that things can change. That we will feel that way again and that they will warm our heart enough to get us through.

‘There’s just this consolation; an hour here or there where our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything for more.’

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.

From the bestselling author of The Dovekeepers comes a spectacularly imaginative and moving new novel in the vein of The Night Circus that has been acclaimed by Jodi Picoult as ‘truly stunning: part love story, part mystery, part history, and all beauy’.

New York City, 1911. Meet Coralie Sardie, circus girl, web-fingered mermaid, shy only daughter of Professor Sardie and raised in the bizarre surroundings of his Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

And meet Eddie Cohen, a handsome young immigrant who has run away from his painful past and his Orthodox family to become a photographer, documenting life on the teeming city streets. One night by the freezing waters of the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie, who has become enmeshed in the case of a missing girl, and the fates of these two hopeful outcasts collide as they search for truth, beauty, love and freedom in tumultuous times.

I was inspired to revisit this novel after reading and reviewing Elizabeth MacNeal’s Circus of Wonders at the weekend. Regular readers will know how much I love Alice Hoffman and that The Night Circus is one of my favourite books of all time. What you might not know is that I love the age of La Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, New York City, and anything to do with the circus and freak shows. So, it stands to reason that I would fall madly in love with this incredible novel. Tucked within this wealth of aesthetic and historical details is the story of what it really means to be ‘other’ and how that difference affects us politically, culturally and psychologically. However, it also shows that, when people labelled as different come together, a powerful subculture can emerge. A subculture that rejects everyday societal norms, turning them upside down and creating different rules and markers of status? There’s also the interesting and complex issues around freak shows. Now, they horrify us. They are associated with thoughts of the Elephant Man and years of disability awareness training has left people viewing them as exploitative and cruel. However it could be that the issue is more complex and there are other ways to look at them?

The novel takes us to turn of the century NYC and we really meet the city in its formative years. While there are residential buildings, factories and the beginnings of what will be Manhattan, there are areas where it is still wilderness and it is here that Hoffman takes us to meet Eddie. He is a photographer, living in a friend’s shack in what will eventually become Queens. While out with his camera, early one morning, he sees what he thinks is a mermaid slipping through the grey and choppy dawn waters of the Hudson. She’s a strong swimmer too. Cutting through the swell with ease. However, when he sees her properly, he can see she’s a girl. What he doesn’t know is that Coralie Sardie does have a physical impairment – she has webs between her fingers and toes. This slight difference inspires her father to exploit her, keeping her separate from other children so she never questions him. She grows up uncomfortable with others, shy and ashamed of her physical difference. Her father, self-proclaimed man of science and keeper of curiosities, has an idea for Coralie. He aims to be the only showman with a real live mermaid.

Eddie is a Jewish immigrant, also brought to NYC by his father. The trauma of this journey and of losing his mother, leaves Eddie struggling to adjust. His father however, completely falls apart, making Eddie feel responsible for his parent rather than being a child. They are estranged from each other and as a result Eddie has become dislocated from his religion and culture too. The novel follows these two characters, Eddie and Coralie, as they make their way towards each other and pursue the feelings that seemed to hit them both at first sight. He’s also pursuing his own path as a photographer, rather than studying towards a profession like medicine as his father would have wanted. The work he does, particularly his photos of a fire in a sweat shop and the attractions of Coney Island, is fascinating and compelling.

Eddie’s work contributes to the historical setting and the sense of place Hoffman creates here. New York City in its infancy, already has the pull that still sends countless tourists there every year. It becomes a character in its own right, achieved by Hoffman’s historical research and the richly layered descriptions she constructs. The sights and smells of Coney Island and its fairgrounds are intoxicating and the account of a fire in a clothing sweat shop is particularly memorable. This was based on the real Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, where girls living above the workshops were trapped and jumped from the windows to their death rather than burn. This sets Eddie down the road of investigative journalism and photography, rather than art photography. What will he make of Coney Island? More importantly, what will he make of Sardie’s museum and it’s main attraction?

Coralie knows she has been groomed for her father’s museum her whole life. The webbing she has on her hands is usually hidden by gloves, but at the age of 10 she is given a birthday gift that seals her future.

It stood in place of honour; a large tank of water. On the bottom of the tank were shells from all over the world. From the Indian Oceans to the China Sea. Beneath that title was carved one word alone, my name, Coralie. I did not need further instructions. I understood that all of my life was mere practice for this very moment. Without being asked, I slipped off my shoes, I knew how to swim.’

Her cruel father, only seemed to see Coralie in terms of ownership and monetary value. He has been making her take freezing cold baths, and practice staying under he water as long as she could. He gives her a breathing tube for the tank, but she barely needs it since her swims in the Hudson in winter. She will now be exhibited as a mermaid, alongside other ‘freaks‘ such as a woman without arms who has been given silk butterfly wings by Sardie. There’s a ‘beast’, completely covered in hair and a woman so pale she seems translucent. After looking at freak shows as part of my undergraduate degree, my feelings about them became more complicated. Yes, of course there is an element of exploitation in a figure like Sardie and his real life counterpart, Barnum. Yet, for a lot of the exhibits, this is the first sense of freedom they’ve had and their only chance to live independently. Often locked away in their towns and villages, by parents who either didn’t want others to see them, or felt like they were protecting their child. Parents might sell their child to a man like Sardie, feeling like they would be looked after or just to make money for the rest of the family. This might be the first time they encountered a community of people with differences like them. While we might think it barbaric to ‘show’ people with disabilities, it might be the only job open to them and give them a more comfortable living than they ever imagined. Real life ‘exhibit’ Prince Randian was brought to the USA by Barnum, and was known as The Human Torso amongst other names. He was born without arms and legs, and was usually dressed in a one piece, tight fitting garment. He appeared in the controversial Tod Browning film Freaks and had a party piece of rolling and smoking a cigar. His take was that he was being paid handsomely for simply doing normal everyday activities. We have to ask the question – who is exploiting who? There is also kudos in being the most transgressive as the disability subculture turns expectations upside down.

Prince Randian

I love this book. I enjoyed the character of Maureen – the Sardie’s housekeeper – and her love story with the wolf man. She has so much loyalty, and love for Coralie, that she stays despite Sardie’s insults and unreasonable behaviour. Being at the centre of these unusual people, we realise they have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. Being in a group seems to give confidence to the individual characters and I loved seeing them grow into their authentic selves. There’s an acceptance of their differences, which maybe wasn’t present in their small villages and towns, where they stood out or even became a target. The performers have a complex relationship with what they do. It elevates them, thousands of people flock to see them, they are well paid and the thing that’s always been a negative part of their life, has become their meal ticket. Coralie and Eddie have had the same yearning in their childhoodthey want to be free, not held to account by their fathers, their religion or their obligations. Most of all though, this is a love story and they want to be together just like any other couple.

Further Reading:

Fiction:

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Non-Fiction:

The Body and Physical Difference by David T. Mitchell and Darren L. Snyder.

Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body by Rosemary Garland Thomson.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier.

The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.

The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:

“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”

The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?

From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.

Edinburgh in the 1930s. The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter. Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society. Something will have to be done.

Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released.

Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’s questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family’s history?

This book was the first Maggie O’Farrell I ever read, and it really is a little gem. I fell head over heels for the confused and bewildered Esme, discharged from the mental health unit she’s been in for almost sixty years. Great niece Iris, is contacted out of the blue, to be told that the unit is closing and patients are ok to be looked after in the community. Iris had no idea she even existed. In a dual timeline we learn how she and Iris get on, but also how this family managed to remove Esme from their tree so completely. Where does it begin?

Let us begin with two girls at a dance… Or perhaps not. Perhaps it begins earlier, before the party. Before they dressed in their new finery, before the candles were lit, before the sand was sprinkled on the boards, before the years whose end they were celebrating first began. Who knows? Either way it ends at a grille covering a window, with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.

The beauty of Maggie O’Farrell’s description here is typical. A layering of small details captured in the narrator’s mind, that takes us to the preparations for the party towards the end of the book, but also how it appears in our narrator’s field of vision. We drift across three narrators: Esme, her sister Kitty and their great-niece Iris. They stumble across each other sometimes, one pushing in before the other’s quite finished as families tend to do. Esme was a feisty, wild little girl in a time when there were rules about how little girls should behave. In a household overseen by their rather austere grandmother, with her mother and father struggling to control her. This is the 1930s, so their methods are cruel, tying her to a chair for example and forgetting about her. One day they leave her home while they go on a trip out, not wanting to deal with her behaviour. While she and her baby brother Hugo are alone, something terrible happens and from then on, their mother will barely look at her.

We hear through Kitty’s narrative, how differently the family treats her. Now in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, Kitty has always told her great niece that she was an only child, but Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister. Kitty remembers in fits and starts, disjointed scenes that come to her, then drift away again. This is beautifully managed by the author, who creates a fragile lace work of memories, that shed further light on the sister’s relationship. Kitty was the conforming child, moulded to the will of the family. Esme was more inventive, creative and has constant questions. Finally there’s Iris’s narrative and she really had enough on her plate already, without having a great-aunt with psychiatric problems dropped on her without warning. She has a vintage shop, a married lover who won’t make a decision and a grandmother with dementia to visit. Now she’s fascinated with what she’s discovered, while trying to understand what happened to Esme. She trawls the records at the old Cauldstone Hospital, discovering a list of women and the reason for their admittance to the asylum. She reads with horror, that within these walls, were women who had wandered from the house at night, another who had taken too many long walks, refused too many offers of marriage or had eloped with a legal clerk. All of these reasons deemed enough to commit a woman to time in the asylum, often forgotten about.

What slowly emerges is a heartbreaking secret, so terrible it stuns Esme to silence. I love the way that the author understands how psychological trauma can affect someone. In Esme’s case a build-up of traumatic incidents and abusive behaviour slowly breaks her down. It’s distressing to see a girl with such spirit, slowly being broken like a wild horse. After sixty years inside she has turned into this mute, biddable old lady. Having worked in mental health for over twenty years, I understand the dilemma of what to do with people who are so institutionalised they can’t cope outside the walls of their prison. I looked after some of these people in the 1990s as homes closed and terrified people were being pushed out into the community. Perhaps because of them, Esme is one of those characters I fell in love with. What she experiences is so hard to overcome and I found myself at turns furious and devastated for her. The ending was perhaps inevitable, but still took me aback. This book has stayed with me for years and I think it always will.

Meet The Author


Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, and eight novels: AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and HAMNET which readers will know was my favourite book of last year. She lives in Edinburgh.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Lucia Lucia by Adriana Trigiani.

Lucia Sartori is the beautiful twenty-five-year-old daughter of a fine Italian immigrant family in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1950. Fuelled by the post-war boom, in which talented girls with ambition are encouraged to follow their dreams, Lucia becomes an apprentice for a made-to-wear clothing designer at a chic department store on Fifth Avenue. Though she is sought after as a potential wife by the best Italian families, Lucia stays her course and works hard, determined to have a career. She juggles the roles of dutiful daughter and ambitious working girl perfectly. When a handsome stranger comes to the story and catches her eye, it is love at first sight for both of them. In order to win Lucia’s hand, he must first win over her traditional family and make the proper offer of marriage. Their love affair takes an unexpected turn as secrets are revealed, Lucia’s family honour is tested, and her own reputation becomes the centre of a sizzling scandal. Set in a time of possibility and change for women in America, in a city that celebrates its energy with style and elegance, LUCIA, LUCIA is the story of a girl who risks everything for the belief that a woman could – and should – be able to have it all.

When I want something to read that isn’t challenging, but is heartwarming, funny and emotional I turn for an Adriana Trigiani novel. Her stories, often based within Italian American culture, have feisty heroines, epic love stories, and wondrous descriptions of either food, clothes and shoe making, decorating or the music business. Lucia, Lucia begins as we meet Kit Zanetti, a playwright waiting to be discovered, who meets her upstairs neighbour. Lucia Sartori offers Kit some tea, and this evolves into a museum or gallery visit as Lucia shows Kit just some of the treasures she has accumulated over her life. Astounded by some of Lucia’s possessions, Kit asks for her story. So Lucia begins to tell a story that starts in 1950s New York when she was the most beautiful girl in The Village. She and her four brothers are brought up in NYC within a close knit Italian community and she is engaged to a lovely Italian boy, Dante. She also has a career she loves as a seamstress in a big department store. Worried that her marriage would mean giving up the job she loves, she decides to end her relationship. She is fighting against the very role her society expects of her – to become a wife and mother, with all of her energy focused on the home.

Then, John Talbot arrives on the scene. John is a businessman who appears wealthy and could take Lucia away from the ‘little life’ she was promised by Dante. She imagines a more upscale lifestyle where she can continue her work designing and creating on Fifth Avenue, plus have all the trimmings of an affluent home life. I kept thinking that this was a pipe dream and everything was going to go wrong. I understood Lucia. It wasn’t just about having money, but having choices. She wants the cushioning afforded by John’s money to pursue her own dreams without it being such a struggle. Yet, John has drawbacks too. He isn’t Italian for a start, but also he’s secretive and quite tight lipped about where his money is from. I worried that Lucia was being conned and that choosing John would be a harder path than she expects.

In-between this love story, Lucia has a wonderfully described trip to Italy with her family. Here Lucia discovers art and culture, swaps incredible recipes with her sister-in-law and even has a job offer from her co-employer. This is where Lucia could make choices that give her true independence, but is she now too entwined with John? Will she find herself choosing between marriage and a career after all? She may have to face more serious revelations about this man than she ever expected. It’s clear to me that John is a bad choice very early on, but I’m older and have made poor choices in relationships when I was young. Lucia doesn’t have that hindsight or experience. It’s easy to think she could have stayed with Dante and still worked as a seamstress, but we forget that before the contraceptive pill, marriage automatically meant children. Once children came along it would have been very hard to pursue a career as a designer, she may have been able to take in sewing, but not pursue a career.

There’s so much to like about this book. I loved the portrayal of the Italian American community and Lucia’s relationships with her family. The author gives us just enough information up front, but we don’t find out how Lucia’s life moved on until the final section when she finishes relaying her story to Kit. It keeps the reader engaged, because we’re dying to know how things worked out for her. This is a bittersweet novel that reminds us we can’t have everything in life. Many choices, no matter how hopeful and happy they seem, can come with a sacrifice in the long term. The sort of romance we see in the movies, all hearts, flowers and candlelit baths, is rare in real long term relationships. Living together, especially within a family, can be anything but romantic. However, if we prefer the hearts and flowers, we can miss out on the closeness and support in those tougher times. Lucia gives us the benefit of her hindsight as she evaluates her life, perhaps hoping to pass on this wisdom.

Meet The Author

Beloved by millions of readers around the world for her “dazzling” novels (USA Today), Adriana Trigiani is “a master of palpable and visual detail” (Washington Post) and “a comedy writer with a heart of gold” (New York Times). She is the New York Times bestselling author of eighteen books in fiction and nonfiction, published in 38 languages around the world, making her one of the most sought after speakers in the world of books today. 

Adriana is also an award-winning film director and screenwriter, playwright, and television writer and producer. She wrote and directed the award-winning major motion picture Big Stone Gap, based on her debut novel, filmed entirely on location in her Virginia hometown. Big Stone Gap spent 11 weeks in theatres in the fall of 2015 and was the #2 top-grossing romantic comedy of the year. She wrote and directed the documentary film Queens of the Big Time, winner of the Audience Award at the Hamptons and Palm Springs International Film Festivals. Her screen adaptation of her bestselling novel Very Valentine premiered on Lifetime television in June 2019, launching their National Book Club. She directed the feature film Then Came You, starring Craig Ferguson and Kathie Lee Gifford, filmed on location in Scotland. Adriana co-founded The Origin Project, an in-school writing program which serves over 1,700 students in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Adriana is at work on her next novel for Dutton at Penguin Random House for release in 2021, and a children’s picture book for Viking at Penguin Random House for release in 2021. She lives in New York City with her family. 

Follow Adriana on Facebook and Instagram @AdrianaTrigiani or visit her website: AdrianaTrigiani.com.
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Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Engleby by Sebastian Faulks.

‘My name is Mike Engleby and I’m in my second year at an ancient university’.

In this book Faulks creates one of the best unreliable narrators in fiction. His voice is mesmerising, intelligent and strangely compelling. I found myself strangely drawn in by him. In fact he’s very funny, in a darkly humorous way. We’re restricted to his first person narrative and his tale of a working class upbringing, affected by poverty and physically abusive treatment from his stepfather. Despite his disadvantages, he wins a place at a Cambridge college. Although he’s intellectually capable of fitting in, socially he’s a misfit, struggling on the edges of college society. Then he sees a girl in the tearoom of the University Library and an obsession starts. He observes Jennifer to a degree that’s detailed and creepy.

‘She was smoking a cigarette and trying not to laugh, but her eyes looked concerned and vulnerable as Robin’s low voice went urgently on. She is alive, Godammit she is alive. She looks so poised, with that womanly concern, beginning to override the girlish humour. I will always remember that balanced woman/girl expression on her face.’

This is the detail of someone who is watching constantly. He seems to have very little empathy for others, apart from Jennifer. So when she disappears, we are left in conflict. Where should our sympathies lie? Has Engleby lost someone he truly cared for or is something more sinister going on? Now I can’t claim that Faulks created the unreliable narrator, but this is the first time I truly had the rug swept from under me by a book. It’s not so much a twist, as a seismic shift that makes me question absolutely everything I’d read up to this point. The next books that surprised me this much was Atonement and We Need To Talk About Kevin so the book is in great company.

The build up is very slow, but the tension soon becomes unbearable. We’re waiting for something to snap! I felt myself weirdly torn between compassion and contempt for this boy who has been subjected to cruelty and possibly developed this faux intellectual and pretentious personality to survive. Or, has simply been lying to us all along? Faulks is questioning the way writers construct identity on the page and the reader’s tendency to believe the person presented to them, often without question. Is identity as fluid as he presents, or are some of our characteristics set in a permanent ‘self’ as most of us would like to believe. It’s an uncomfortable read, not just because we might feel confused with our own fixed and fluid selves, but because we feel complicit with a narrator we’ve enjoyed. Even more uncomfortable, could it be because there might be a little bit of Engleby in all of us.

Meet the Author


Sebastian Faulks was born in April 1953. Before becoming a full-time writer in 1991, he worked as a journalist. Sebastian Faulks’s books include A Possible Life, Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Engleby, Birdsong, A Week in December and Where My Heart Used to Beat.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Miniaturist and Meeting Jessie Burton.


Me and Jessie Burton! I never imagined I would meet the author of a book I picked up at my local indie bookshop Lindum Books. They run regular evenings with authors at The Collection in the city of Lincoln – I can’t wait to attend them again in the future. This was a great evening listening to Jessie Burton talk about her exciting debut novel The Miniaturist. Admittedly the book was displayed well, but I picked it up because it looked so intriguing. There was an element of mystery as well as a historical setting, plus a cover with a vintage bird cage and since I have a bird cage tattoo I am attracted to them all the time. I had read the book before the evening and loved it, so I was very eager to hear about how it was written and as a very amateur writer I am always interested in a writer’s inspiration and the writing process.

Jessie’s ability to tell stories means she is immediately engaging and natural with an audience. In her potted biography we learned she had a drama background and that definitely came across in her reading of the novel and during a humorous and lovely question and answer session. Jessie’s inspiration was a beautiful cabinet house in The Riijksmuseum, Amsterdam belonging to Petronella Oortman. The house is made up of 9 rooms that are so ornate and richly furnished that it cost as much as a real house. This fact and the sheer beauty of the piece piqued Jessie’s interest so much that she built her novel around it. Spending only ten days in Amsterdam but doing plenty of reading and researching, writing started using the name of Petronella Oortman but reimagining her as a new young wife entering Amsterdam for the first time. Nella needs to make a good marriage to support her family and marries business man Johannes Brandt who owns an incredible house in the wealthiest district of Amsterdam. However, when Nella arrives she is greeted by an open door and Johannes Brandt’s sharp tongued sister and housekeeper, Marin. Johannes buys Nella a cabinet house, an exact replica of the grand house they live in and its appearance in the novel is based on the one in the Riijksmuseum. Jessie did a reading of an early chapter entitled The Gift where Nella, disturbed by the fact she rarely sees Johannes in the day or at night, explores the house and starts to ask questions of Marin. It is a chapter where we see the beginning of an interesting tension between the two very different women and as Nella explores the house we start to see a major theme of the novel developing too; the conflict between interior and exterior worlds.


The questions began with one about research and how Jessie had gained her expertise in 17th Century Dutch culture. The audience also wanted to know how long the research process had been before she started writing. Jessie did most of her research the old fashioned way, by reading and writing in a piecemeal way (This amateur was pleased to know that writing while researching is ok). She shone some light into the publishing process too, it’s not as simple as getting an agent and then getting a publishing deal. There were 17 edits and 3 different drafts of the whole novel during the process and several different endings including one where every character had a happy outcome that was vetoed by her friends. One of the terms she used was to ‘write out’ something I was very interested in as a writing therapist where I am constantly using exercises to write out emotions and past experiences. She was referring to it as her writing process of working things out as she went along; there was no single moment where she sat down to write and it was all worked out with plot, characters and ending.

Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house.


I learned an enormous amount about the culture the novel was set in and there were some interesting parallels with Lincolnshire. Jessie felt that the people of Amsterdam were in the strange position of having built their own land by draining the area using canals and dykes. This was very pertinent to me because my ancestors on my father’s side were Dutch and came over to implement the same system of land drainage here in Lincolnshire. Jessie talked about the tension between the immense wealth of the city and the people’s Calvinist principles as well as the interesting roles of women in the city who often married later than their European counterparts and worked in business with their husbands. She was also interested in their liberality in that area but their barbarity in others, such as the practice of drowning homosexuals with a millstone round their necks. The African character, Otto, was discussed in his historical context; apparently wealthy merchant’s coats of arms were decorated with black faces as well as buildings in Amsterdam -probably a nod towards the city’s involvement with the slave trade. Otto would never have received the magnanimity he enjoys in the Brandt household anywhere outside. One of the most interesting ideas to me was the exploration of interior and exterior decor and architecture. The grand house has rooms that are lavishly decorated, but they are mainly to the front of the house where they can be seen from the street or where they are seen by visitors. Similarly, Nella’s cabinet house is a condensed version of the home but only contains the best rooms and it takes the miniaturist’s pieces to highlight the similar difference between what the character’s show and what remains hidden. The revelations of these character’s private rooms and their private lives is what makes the novel so compelling.


I still can’t recommend this novel enough. It combines intelligent research and just the type of relationship tensions, secrets and surprises to keep you reading. There will be a certain character that will grab you and Jessie admitted to having a soft spot for Marin who comes across as abrupt and harsh, but does have incredible depths beneath the icy exterior. The miniaturist of the title is a shadowy figure who has more insight into the characters than anyone else but only ever appears in glimpses despite Nella’s efforts to find her. This was intentional and although Jessie was asked whether she was planning to write a sequel there are none at present. Jessie is writing a second novel and is finding that a completely different experience because she has less time and is under more scrutiny since The Miniaturist ended up in an 11 publisher auction and there are rumours of film rights being obtained. The new novel is provisionally titled Belonging and is set across two times; the Spanish Civil War and 1960s London. Even now, years later, I am intrigued by the mystical and spiritual character of the miniaturist who knows all but cannot be seen, and has an ending that’s very much unfinished.

Published by Picador 3rd July 2014.

I have remained a huge fan of Jesse and loved the BBC adaptation of The Miniaturist in 2017. I have also built up a signed collection of her novels The Muse and The Confession and of the children’s book, The Restless Girls. Her novels have been translated into 38 languages, and she is a regular essay writer for newspapers and magazines. The Miniaturist ended up being a Sunday Times number 1 bestseller in both hardback and paperback, and a New York Times bestseller. It sold over a million copies in its first year of publication, and was awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year, and Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. The Muse was also a Sunday Times number 1 bestseller in both hardback and paperback, and has sold more than 500,000 copies. The Confession is Jessie’s third novel, and became an immediate bestseller too.

Visit her website at https://www.jessieburton.com, and follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jessieburton