Posted in Netgalley, Personal Purchase

The Illustrated Child by Polly Crosby.

This beautiful and original book hit me straight in the heart and I was reading the last few pages with a massive lump in my throat. Romilly Kemp lives in the run down Bräer House with her father Tobias, an artist who is both inventive and eccentric in equal measure. This situation reminded me of a classic favourite I Capture the Castle, but Romilly’s story is much more than a coming of age tale. Romilly and her father live alone and are struggling for money, when Tobias has an idea for a children’s book based on his daughter. Featuring his original illustrations, the books follow Romilly and her Siamese cat Monty through a series of adventures at the circus, in a windmill and at Christmas. She is preserved forever as a 9 year old in her patchwork dress and her red hair flying behind her. Romilly loves looking for the tiny little additions to his main illustrations – a tiny mouse holding a forget-me- not, two miniature hares boxing, and sometimes Romilly herself being chased by a animal. The public fall in love with the books and the idea grows that there is some sort of treasure hunt contained in the pages leading to trespassers at Bräer and some horrible encounters with reporters and photographers.

Romilly can see secrets of a different kind in the pages her father has drawn, but she’s used to secrets. She hasn’t seen her mum for so long she’s largely forgotten her and they have no other family. Where does her friend Stacey go when she is missing for weeks? Who is the beautiful, pink costumed circus lady she meets who knows her father? She notices differences in the way she’s drawn in the book and also a very faintly painted lady in the background often with her head in her hands. Her dad gives her a puzzle box he’s made, which starts to tick when it’s her birthday releasing a memento or object that’s important to her – Monty’s silver bell, a pink feather. When her dad’s memory starts to fail, Romilly wonders if all these clues are for her, or are they triggers for her dad’s memory? More importantly, I was starting to wonder who would look after Romilly and what had torn this close family apart?

is meant to be home schooled, but has no real curriculum or structure. There are times when heat and food are scarce, and set mealtimes never seem to happen unless someone is visiting. As Tobias declines, Romilly is having to cope alone with no family to help. I wanted to swoop in and look after her and Monty. There’s no doubt that she’s independent, resourceful and intelligent, but is that innate or something she’s had to develop having been left to fend for herself so often? There’s a deep understanding of the psychology of a child in this position underlying Romilly’s story. Even her name means ‘strength’ and she has so much, using it to defend her tiny family and her home.

Underlying all of this is an understanding of trauma and how grief can tear apart the strongest families. In one part of the book Tobias explains to his daughter that people grieve in different ways and sometimes that means doing it apart. I know grief well, and at different stages in my journey I’ve done things differently, avoided certain places and people. At first I struggled to talk to anyone who was as shattered by my husband’s death as I was. I couldn’t deal with anyone else’s needs, only my own. I was very angry with people who turned out for the funeral claiming a relationship with my husband, who I had never met in the seven years we’d been married, the last four of I’d been caring for him 24/7. Later I wanted to seek out people who grieved as strongly as I did because we could reminisce and understand each other’s profound sadness. When reading the book I found myself both very angry with Romilly’s mother because I felt she was selfish, but I also sympathised and understood her decision that she shouldn’t be a parent. There were parts of the novel where I felt nobody understood or fully cared how much their decisions impacted on this little girl. I was so profoundly sad for her and at that point where she realised she needed help, she allowed herself to be vulnerable which must have been so difficult for her.

This is a beautiful book: it’s invocation of childhood and play; the magical atmosphere of Bräer and it’s surroundings; the stunning artworks done by Tobias and the complex history he’s trying to convey. I loved how the author showed objects sparking memories, for Romilly, but also for Tobias who, befuddled by dementia, recognises his daughter through Monty’s silver bell. I hadn’t unravelled the mystery so I could sit back and enjoy it as it played out and when the truth was finally revealed everything made sense, even if I did think Tobias could have handled it so differently. I have a particular affinity with hares, so his drawing under the book’s dust jacket of the two hares was particularly moving. What I loved most was the way the author showed a difficult childhood still being magical and full of memories. I think we can probably all look back and remember times that feel golden to us, but might be very different from our parent’s perspective. Romilly’s freedom, her ability to invent and imagine, to follow her own interests when mixed in with the magical circus, the panther stalking the area round the village and buried treasure seem magical. How much of this would she be willing to trade for security, routine and someone to care for her? This book will stay with me for a long time and is a definite candidate for my ‘forever shelves’.

Meet The Author


Polly Crosby grew up on the Suffolk coast, and now lives with her husband and son in the heart of Norfolk.

Her debut novel, The Illustrated Child (The Book of Hidden Wonders in the US and Australia) is out now.

In 2018, Polly won Curtis Brown Creative’s Yesterday Scholarship, which enabled her to finish her novel. Later the same year, The Illustrated Child was awarded runner-up in the Bridport Prize’s Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a First Novel. Polly received the Annabel Abbs Creative Writing Scholarship at the University of East Anglia, and is currently working on her second novel.

Twitter: @WriterPolly
Instagram: @polly_crosby
Website: pollycrosby.com

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Film tie-in paperback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! 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.