Posted in Publisher Proof

Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister.

This is the first novel I’ve ever read by Lesley Glaister and when I finished, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her before. Set in one of my favourite historical periods, during and after WW1, this novel was evocative and moving. The author clearly has a deep understanding of the period and the rapidly shifting society her characters are living in. Her characters are fully rounded, with depths to get lost in and the effects of trauma to unravel and understand. This is an exploration of the effects of war and loss on our two main characters, Vincent and Clementine. The scars are both physical and mental, halting their progress as they try to move forward and making it very difficult to be who they truly are. When they, quite literally, bump into each other a strange relationship emerges that will have a haunting resolution. I could see these two people in my mind’s eye and I found myself thinking about them, even when the book was closed.

Clementine was a hands on during the war, volunteering as a Red Cross nurse close to the front. Her boyfriend Dennis had proposed and he didn’t want her to interrupt their lives. He didn’t fight, being a doctor he could claim to be needed by the patients in his area, so he wanted their lives together to start. Clem wanted to be part of the war effort, so along with her friend Gwen she ‘ran away’ (Dennis’s words) and became part of a medical unit. She wasn’t just taking temperatures either, her stomach is strong enough to be in the operating tent, helping to hold patients down during amputations and disposing of mangled limbs. The author’s depiction of working in the medical tents is vivid and gritty. I was able to imagine the struggle to keep wounds clean in the squalor and sick men comfortable on camp beds crawling with lice. The description of Clem’s hair stayed with me, tied up out of the way, but greasy and alive with lice. I could feel her desperate need to wash it, and the shock she feels when the doctor, Powell, finds hot water and washes it for her. I found that image so romantic, because he’d realised what she most wanted at that moment and provided it for her. He washes her hair with such kindness and a gentle touch, I almost fell in love with him myself. They have a deep and immediate connection, so Clem knows she must write to Dennis and explain what has happened.

However, before Clem can write two things happen. She realises she is pregnant and tragedy strikes, when the unit is bombed both Clem and Powell are injured in the blast. Clem has a picture in her brain, like a flashback, of a stove pipe from the boiler embedded in Powell’s back. She knows in that first second that she has lost him. Only days later she miscarries alone in the toilets, and this scene was so real and so emotive I cried. She’s lost the love of her life and now the last part of him has gone too. Numb and shocked she returns home and seems to sleepwalk into the same situation she left behind. In the next section of the book she is married to Dennis, who doesn’t know about her wartime experiences. They live above his doctor’s surgery and they have a child together, a little boy, but she grieves Powell and their little girl. I felt she was living behind a mask, being who she thinks she has to be rather than who she is. The ambivalence she feels towards her son is well represented, because she still grieves for that first child. There are physical signs, written on the body, that she has Edgar. The silvery stretch-marks mark the time she was pregnant, yet there are no signs of her daughter. It’s like she never existed.

Vincent meets Clem when she’s visiting her sister-in-law Harri. Feeling stifled, Clem goes out for some air and keeps walking, until she’s miles away and not sure of how to get back. She takes a quick breather at a bridge and steps into the road, just as a biker comes along. As he swerves to miss the crazy lady stood in the middle of the road, he loses control of his bike and crashes. Clem strangely sees something of Powell in him at that first glimpse. Actually, Vincent is a product of the same terrible war that left Clem bereft. For Vincent it left him wounded physically and emotionally. He has a facial disfigurement that means he wears a mask, literally and figuratively. Vincent has been left in a very reduced position by the war. His marriage has failed and the job he was assured would still be his when he returned from the front, has been taken away from him. How can a man who looks like him, be the face of an insurance company? He has nowhere to live, so he’s latched onto a woman called Doll, who runs a local pub. She’s easy with her favours, and Vincent takes advantage of this to lodge upstairs. He can’t cope with how much he’s lost and wants to replace it, with visions of marriage to Doll and being the welcoming host from behind the bar. He doesn’t love Doll, but they get on and there are worse places to be. Similarly, he notices how well dressed Clem is and thinks she might be manipulated into paying for his bike’s repairs. In the end, she visits him at the hospital and offers to pay, leaving her details and the possibility of a connection between them. They are both suffering the effects of trauma and might sense that shared perspective on the world. If Vincent is willing to settle with Doll, might this be another opportunity for him? What exactly can their relationship be?

I was worried for Clem, who is vulnerable. However, I was worried for Vincent too, he has lost so much and is vulnerable in his own way. He’s not one of the ‘glorious fallen’ heroes, and unlike Clem’s husband doesn’t have any status here at home either. He’s a reminder of exactly how ugly and terrible war can be, and nobody wants to remember. Dennis certainly doesn’t want to hear his wife’s tales of war. The author pitches him perfectly, a man who chose not to fight, but likes to remind everybody that he was fighting to keep the families of those soldiers fit and healthy. He represents the old order of things, with class barriers and men as head of the home. His need for control extends to his sister as well as his wife; there’s one right and respectable way to be in the world. When her friend Gwen visits for tea, he makes it quite clear that she’s not the right company. Not only did she get Clem to run away to war, but now she’s clearly having a lesbian relationship. His way of dealing with the world is on the wane though and he felt to me like a dinosaur that doesn’t know it’s extinct. He hasn’t been through the seismic change the others have and can’t identify with them. War has changed a whole generation of people around the world. I felt for Clem, who is part of this changed generation. She knows the future is different, but she’s chained herself to the past. Is it too late?

This was so beautifully written, with well-chosen words that create rhythm and take the reader on a journey through their senses. This explosion of sights, sounds and sensations bring an immediacy to the prose. This is not some long winded description of what a battlefield was like, it is the sounds and smells as they happen. I felt like I was there:

‘Where was the fear? She searched herself as she listened: sometimes the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, rapid and snippy like the keys of two vast, duelling typewriters battering out threats to each other on a paper sky; crumpings like oil drums being crushed by massive fists; a whistling followed by the soft whoomph of a missile striking, then virtual silence, then the battering of the typewriters again’.

The author truly does show us what’s happening and the contrast of passages like the one above and the quiet, clock-ticking, stillness of Clem’s home is so effective. No wonder Clem takes to walks; she needs to breathe. Every character is flawed, but no one is irredeemable. Through Clem she shows how women were restricted by society and I love that Gwen and her girlfriend had chosen a different path. Most poignantly, she shows how war interrupts lives and takes away people’s livelihoods, opportunities and in Clem’s case, even her creativity. I think this is one of the best books I’ve read on the aftermath of trauma. The author has so much compassion and empathy for her characters and because of that, so does the reader. I didn’t want this book to end and that’s the biggest compliment a reader can give.

Meet The Author.

Lesley Glaister is a fiction writer, poet, playwright and teacher of writing. She has published fourteen adult novels, the first of a YA trilogy and numerous short stories. She received both a Somerset Maugham and a Betty Trask award for Honour Thy Father (1990), and has won or been listed for several literary prizes for her other work. She has three adult sons and lives in Edinburgh (with frequent sojourns to Orkney) with husband Andrew Greig. She teaches creative writing at the University of St Andrews and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Published by Sandstone Press on 7th May 2020

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 Random Things Tours

When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

Published: 29th October 2020

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ISBN: 978-1471192173

This was an exquisite, slow-paced, historical novel that moved me so much. It was a window on both individual, and collective, grief. It also explores the psychological rehabilitation process which is my day job, as a counsellor. Regular visitors to my blog will know that I am fascinated with this period of history depicted in novels as varied as Emma Donoghue’s recent novel The Pull of The Stars and in the last few years Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, Adele Park’s Spare Brides and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. All deal with a different aspect of this period of huge social change. The nation is grieving, for lost sons, husbands and brothers but also for a time of innocence now lost to them. Young women struggle to find husbands as the policy of neighbours fighting together meant villages losing whole generations of men. Distinctions between the classes come tumbling down as men from all backgrounds fought together for a common purpose. Many estates were crippled by death duties, often for two generations at once, and men who never expected to shoulder the burden of a family estate were suddenly dukes, but without any means. Institutions like the debs ball seemed trivial and outdated, with many new heirs marrying money from abroad bringing Americans and their new money into the ranks. Others lost their estates altogether and had to consider working for the first time ever. Women who had held the fort, while the men went to Europe to fight, did not want to return to the home and wifely duties. Even men who had jobs held for them, faced a fight to get them back. Women were not the same, they’d been stretched and depended upon in wartime and wanted more equality at home, work and in the political system. The upheaval in our class system, in gender roles and working life is unimaginable. When set against the backdrop of national mourning and a worldwide flu pandemic we can perhaps imagine a little the seismic psychological shifts happening. On the plus side it’s a dynamic time, where the old order is overturned, people born in poverty or the wrong gender could change their lives because of the social mobility created.

We see these issues through the characters in Caroline Scott’s book and understand how some want to recover a lost past however unlikely it is, whereas others want to blank out their experiences and start again without memories or baggage. Scott starts her book with an epigraph from the tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey. Also used as a focal point for Anna Hope’s wonderful post WWI novel Wake, the burial of this young man is full of symbolism. One man chosen from the many lost in France, to symbolise both those who died and those who would never be recovered or identified. His burial in the abbey would be broadcasted in cinemas and over 100,000 visited his grave to pay their respects in the next few weeks. In Durham, another anonymous young man is found using chalk to write on the flagstones in the cathedral. He is arrested and taken for treatment with Dr James Haworth who aims to slowly help his patient recall who he is and what has brought him to Durham. Named Adam Galilee by the police who found him, he is subject to many different methods, including covering the walls of his room with mirrors. They spend so much time talking and questioning, gently in case they force him into distressing memories. As Haworth observes ‘something strong within him is resisting recalling the pertinent parts’.

As a counsellor and writer I think a lot about the concept of ‘self’ and how it’s constructed, and I loved how Scott explores this in the chapters marked as belonging to Adam. He talks about how they ask him for a first memory and he knows they’re avoiding more recent times, despite there being a complete void where his time as a soldier is concerned. He knows they’re looking for a beginning to who he is and all he does know is that it doesn’t work like that.

‘It isn’t linear. That’s not the way it works. It doesn’t have momentum, or a narrative arc, and he doesn’t know where it starts. It surprises him, if they are doctors of minds, that they can’t understand that’.

I thought this was so clever, because it questions the very nature of the self. Are we ever one fixed set of characteristics or are we fluid and ever changing? If any of us are asked to describe who we are we tend to come up with a list of things we love to eat, listen to, wear and watch. As if the self can somehow be captured and solidified by these objects. When asked who we are, we refer back. So what happens when we cast our minds back and there is nothing there to hang on to. All Adam can do is ‘be’. To exist, try things and see what sticks. Rebuild from now. Maybe this is preferable to remembering before, the trauma and the hell of the battlefield? It was beautiful to see Adam gain a love of nature, whether rediscovered or a new appreciation it has a healing quality. He also has a talent for sketching and he captures the nature around Fellside, as well as the repeating a young woman’s face, which may be a clue to who he is. Supporting him through this self-discovery is James, himself a lost man due to his war experience and very much a wounded healer in these circumstances. His marriage to Caitlin is struggling under the weight of grief, I wanted him to share his war with his wife, but also understood his need to forget.

Just like the unknown soldier, Adam is a cipher for every young man lost in the war. When James puts his picture in a national newspaper, he hopes that someone will recognise him – what he didn’t expect was that three people claim that Adam is theirs; Mark, Robert or Ellis. Caroline weaves the women’s narratives into this tale so we see what war has done to the women left behind. My heart ached for them all and I wanted Adam to belong to each of them in turn; to be Celia’s son, to smooth away the rough edges of Lucy’s tough existence, to absolve Anna and bring resolution to her life. Of course he can’t be all things to all people. This is an intricate balance of viewpoints and Scott weaves a beautiful tapestry from them. Through these people we see a snapshot of post-WWI Britain that is truthful. Art is able to move beyond the patriotism and glory, to see the real cost of war. This is an incredible piece of work. Haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.

Meet The Author


Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She has a particular interest in the experience of women during the First World War, in the challenges faced by the returning soldier, and in the development of tourism and pilgrimage in the former conflict zones. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in south-west France.