Posted in Random Things Tours

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.

I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways.

There were scenes in this that made me laugh and some that made me cry. His need for sexual release is having a huge impact on his carefully ordered life. His swimming sessions have continued at the same time and day of the week, all the way from childhood, but his inability to see why his nakedness is different to the children’s has meant they must stop. When Veronica takes Seb to the sexual health clinic, because she’s desperate for advice, their lack of help and understanding infuriated me. The nurse seemed more concerned about whether Seb might hurt someone, or how Veronica’s thoughts about paying for it would be harming him. She even threatens to report her to social services. There’s no compassion or admission that they really don’t know what to do. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a long time, having supported people with learning difficulties or autistic spectrum disorders in an advocacy role. Sadly, the figures for sexual violence against women with learning disabilities are terrifyingly high. While young people are often infantilised by parents who don’t want to accept their child is an adult. I read many years ago about an initiative in Holland very like our Direct Payments/Personal Budget system for care if you have a disability. However, social workers could add a component that would pay for the disabled person (physical disabilities) to hire a sex worker if they needed that for an sexual outlet. As Seb himself says:

‘People seem to get dead upset about it. But it’s just like paying for swimming lessons. You want to learn to do it and someone who knows how to will show you for an agreed fee’.

He sees it as a simple business transaction. Offsetting the worry, sadness and anger I felt in their behalf it’s Seb’s frankness that brings the humour. His mother greets him in the morning with a cheery ‘what do you want to do today?’ and his reply is ‘I want to have sex’. He goes on to explain that he might pay for sex:

‘If I was rich. But I’m not. I’ll just have to find someone who appreciates me before I die. I hope it’s this week. I’m feeling very sexual today.’

Seb is such a loveable and interesting character. He’s also handsome, so does draw attention from women when out and about, but Veronica knows that as soon as he speaks they will start to lose interest. She meets with Violetta and proposes her plan. However, there are real ethical concerns here and everyone is keeping secrets. Veronica isn’t planning on telling Seb the truth about his ‘sessions’ with Violetta, but she isn’t planning on telling Seb she’s been hired or why she needs the money. Seb has his own secrets and there is an ending to this that neither woman envisaged, showing a prejudice they didn’t know they had. They’ve discussed concerns that Seb may become attached to his tutor, but they didn’t imagine that she might become compromised in some way or that Seb might transfer his affections to someone new.

This is brave new ground in fiction. I have a physical disability, and I can count on one hand books that have a disabled character who openly discusses or explores their sexuality. This is almost society’s last taboo – the sexual disabled body is not to be looked at or mentioned. This is partly about the infantilisation of people with disabilities, they need care and are therefore vulnerable and untouchable. It’s partly to do with an innate reflex to reject what is different – often the fear of urine bags, colostomy bags, and other paraphernalia is so great, that the person becomes neutral to other people and they close their minds to the fact that this person is a sexual being. We saw this prejudice in action with the controversy around Marc Quinn’s statue of Alison Lapper. Not only was this a disabled woman who was naked, she was also pregnant. People rejected her body strongly, calling it ugly and disgusting. However, I think a large part of the furore was down to people being uncomfortable that Lapper’s pregnancy was a visual clue of a healthy sex life. Most of the same people would probably be uncomfortable with this book, but I was so excited to see the issue out in the open. We need to talk about it more. People with disabilities are having sex, often more adventurous and inventive sex, because they have to communicate more and find a way round their disability. It’s only by talking about it that we start to break down these prejudices and accept that a healthy sex life is a normal part of life for all adults able to consent. This was a difficult subject, handled with frankness, but also the greatest care and sensitivity. I’m so grateful that this talented writer turned her hand to this subject, writing characters that felt utterly real and incredibly relatable. It was funny, moving, and full of love, of every kind.

Meet The Author

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her 2019 novel Call Me Star Girl won Best magazine Book of the Year, and was followed by I Am Dust.

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 Netgalley

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

From the cover..

The spellbinding novel from the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Doll Factory. 1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea. But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her. In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother? Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

‘Do you like stories?’ Nell asks, and the child nods. She picks up the book of Fairy Tales, weighs it in her hand. She remembers Charlie’s wafting hands, trying to fix her, to make her ordinary. She puts it back, takes a breath. Instead, she tells Pearl about a mermaid with a blue-scaled tail. ‘Her tail was so beautiful,’ she whispers, ‘that if men caught her, they’d dry her out and place her behind a sheet of glass, and thousands of strangers would pay to see her.’ She tells her how the mermaid swam in the deep waters where nobody could find her. ‘A little like you in this wagon,’ she says. Pearl smiles, and Nell carries on, explains how a prince’s ship was blown off course and he fell in love with her. He longed for his own tail so much that he visited a witch who ripped his legs from his body and stitched on fish scales with a sharp needle’.

Those of us who loved Elizabeth MacNeal’s first book The Doll Factory have been waiting impatiently for the next novel to spring from her imagination. The wait was worth it. I am always drawn to books about circuses and freak shows – it follows on from research I did at university in my Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous module and for my dissertation on disability. However, not all works that feature freak shows, in whatever form, have their research based in disability studies and culture. While The Greatest Showman has Hugh Jackman (swoon) and some incredible songs, it doesn’t really tackle the ethics of such an enterprise as Barnum’s. Yes, the freaks had a great song about being their authentic selves and not being hidden away, but it never tackled that deep inequality in their relationship as showman and exhibit. The act of singing This Is Me, led by the bearded lady, shows their strength and character when Barnum doesn’t allow them to attend the party with dignitaries. However, it doesn’t address the fact that they are getting paid to display themselves as different and whether or not this is a choice. MacNeal uses Barnum as the inspiration to her showman, Jasper Jupiter, but she does see the problems inherent in a concern that displays ‘other’ bodies for entertainment. She then explores the concept of difference using the circus performers, fairy tales and concepts of monstrousness. She manages to do this while writing a story that is thrilling, full of strong characters and told with such vivid description.

Our heroine, and eventual Queen of the Moon and Stars, is Nell. As Jasper Jupiter’s troupe visit the small village where her family farms violets for confectionery, he notices Nell’s wild abandon as she dances with her brother. This is an after show party for the performers, but there are locals too, enjoying the atmosphere and partaking in a lot of alcohol. Nell is usually shy, covered in birth marks head to foot, she tends to stay where she isn’t seen. However, the alcohol she tries removes all the inhibitions she usually hides behind in public. Jasper sees her as a leopard girl, covered in spots, and imagines how she would look in his circus. Eventually though, he settles on Queen of the Moon and Stars; Nellie Moon, with a skin covered in constellations. He approaches Nell’s drunkard of a father and offers him twenty pounds for her. He creates a caravan for her, beautifully decorated and with three well chosen books for her to read. Then with her father’s help, he kidnaps her, locks her in the caravan and trundles off with the rest of the circus into the night. His plan is to make her fly, constructing huge feather wings on a harness and a system of ropes and pulleys to give the impression she is soaring above the crowd. His troupe are ‘performers’ not just exhibits to be wheeled out, poked and prodded. Jasper believes that with Nellie Moon he might start to earn the sort of money that would make a trip to London viable. Maybe in a show tent in one of the pleasure gardens? Most of all he’d like to entice Queen Victoria to see his show, because she is a famous ‘freak fancier’ and what a coup it would be if Jasper’s Circus of Wonders was her first choice of entertainment since Albert died.

I loved the way the author used the books in Nell’s caravan to bring in the idea of fairy tales and how they victimise people who are different. When Nell is reading to Pearl, an albino little girl that Jasper buys, she manages some retelling worthy of Angela Carter – including The Little Mermaid quoted at the beginning of my review. Nell thinks about the book of Hans Christian Andersen tales she would read with her brother Charlie:

‘They read about Hans My Hedgehog, half-boy, half-beast; about the Maiden without Hands; about Beast and his elephant trunk and his body glittering with fish scales. It was the stories’ endings which always silenced her, that made her pull her dress over her fingers. Love altered each character – Hans shucked his hedgehog spines like a suit, the maiden’s hands grew back, Beast became a man – and Nell pored over the woodcuts so carefully, staring at those plain, healed bodies. Would her birthmarks disappear if somebody loved her?’

The thought would make her tearful even then, but she didn’t know why. Stella, the bearded lady, tells Nell that she will find her strength in performing. It’s a way of taking up space in a world that doesn’t see them. She gives voice to the dilemma at the heart of the ‘freak show’; instinctively, it feels wrong to exhibit someone for their difference, but where else would they earn so much money and live so well? Of course in reality there were horror stories and the author does name check some of them in the book. Sara Baartman, a slave from South Africa, known as The Hottentot Venus was exhibited all over the world until her death. She was then bought by naturalist George Cuvier who dissected her, then pickled her genitals and kept them in a jar. Barnum was known to treat animals appallingly, but he also exhibited a freed slave called Joice Heth after removing all her teeth! He did this so he could name her the Oldest Woman in the World. However, for every horror story there were famous ‘freaks’ such as Siamese Twins Chang and Eng who earned so much from being exhibited that they bought a plantation for themselves, and their families. It isn’t just the money though, as Stella explains:

‘There’s power in it,’ Stella says, twisting a curl of her beard around her finger. ‘In what?’ ‘Performing. You control it. How they see you. You choose to be different. Nobody else looks like me, and I’m glad […] I was a hungry gutterling, not worth a gentleman’s spit. And because of this, the source of all my powers—’ she smiles and pulls on her beard – ‘I’ve been to Vienna and Paris and Moscow, and done as I please. I’ve made enough money to make my mother turn in her grave. I could give you a thousand names of wonders whose lives are richer, bigger, brighter, because of shows like this.’

Nell can’t imagine feeling like this. She has always kept her body covered and stayed in the background. She’s used to being called ‘leopard girl’ or being asked if her mother was startled by a leopard during her confinement. She is used to being whispered about and pitied. How will she feel about her body being displayed, flying high above the audience? Being pointed at and talked about, her body on posters, matchboxes and as figurines. Yet, when she gets there, she does feel what Stella is talking about.

‘Someone throws flowers into the sky. A bouquet dips and falls. She watches these people, grown fat on wonder. They have seen a giant juggle, a bearded woman chirrup like a blackbird, a dwarf ride a miniature pony, tumblers and contortionists, fire-eaters and dancing poodles, and she is the finale. They admire her, want to be her. All her life, she has held herself like a bud, so small and tight and voiceless. She has not realised the potential that lies within her, the possibility that she might unfurl, arms thrown wide, and take up space in the world.’

I loved the stance the author takes and I loved this awakening in Nell too, but there’s so much more to the book. The luscious descriptions of costumes and performers made me feel I was there. The heat of the lights, the smell of the animals and gaudy caravans.The sounds and smells of the pleasure gardens were also really vivid, especially the morning after. The flashbacks of Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimean War were horrific and I loved the interplay of the brother’s roles as watcher and doer. The author plays with the idea that appearances never lie, through Toby’s photography, how he chooses his images and for which audience. Toby was an interesting character who never truly fits anywhere, not even in his natural place as Jasper’s brother. His difference doesn’t show, so when he tries to make his otherness visual will the other performers accept him? Jasper himself is mercurial, full of ideas and with a lot of success, but always reaching for more, to his detriment. I found his relationships to women interesting, he has no lovers and his ties with his friend Dash were the strongest he’s had with another person. He seems to see women as things to display, to possess and assert power over, but not as allies or equals. Yet, in his troupe, he has some of the strongest women you could imagine. There are some parts of the ending that were inevitable and others that were unexpected and left undone, which was perfect. I loved this book so much, I’m going to buy a very special copy of it and keep it forever.

Meet The Author


Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages and has been optioned for a major television series. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.

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 Uncategorized

A Fight in Silence by Melanie Metzenthin

The subject matter of this book is very close to my heart, so despite the WW2 novel market feeling a bit saturated at the moment, I decided to give it a try. I have a disability and have studied disability and literature to post-grad level so Hitler’s treatment of disabled people and eugenics in general are subjects I’ve read about widely. I’ve encountered novels exploring the issue of eugenics in 20th Century North America. However, I have never seen it in a novel based in WW2.

The novel starts in Hamburg in 1926 when our two main characters, Richard and Paula, meet and fall in love. Soon after they marry, Paula becomes pregnant with twins. She gives birth to a boy and girl and this is the happiest time in their lives, with only one problem; their son Georg has been born deaf. They vow to protect him and have optimism that with his family’s help, all will be well. However, as I was reading, I was aware of the time period tucked in the back of my mind. I knew that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner and everything will change. This was uppermost in my mind as it had recently been depicted in the BBC series World On Fire. As the Nazis seize power, they begin to round up adults and children with disabilities for euthanising. Richard is a doctor and finds himself falsifying documents to help his patients. On a personal level he is hiding the disability of his own son. Will they be able to remain hidden, or even stay together?

What makes this book unusual is that we are reading about WW2 from the perspective of German citizens. Ordinary Germans suffered hardship through bombings and loss of both loved ones and their homes and livelihoods. In 2014 a memorial was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 300,000 German people killed by the Nazis. That’s without counting those in Poland, Austria and other occupied countries. The book ends Post-war and describes how the Germans were treated in the years following. I think the fact that this a German author accounts for the incredible detail and historical fact woven into the story. Where it lacked occasionally was in the emotions. This could be a realistic depiction of a culture shell shocked by war or it could just as easily be an issue with finding the right words in translation. I felt the book was well researched and characterised. It shows the other side of a war that we’re used to hearing about from the victor’s standpoint, I really enjoyed this different.

Translation Deborah Rachel Langton #NetGalley