Book Review: My Sweet Orange Tree

My Sweet Orange Tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (translated by Alison Entrekin), is an autobiographical novel set in Rio de Janeiro. It introduces the reader to five year old Zeze, a precocious and mischievous child who lives much of his life in his imagination. Zeze is the second youngest of seven surviving siblings. Their father is out of work so their mother must put in long hours at a factory to keep the family afloat. There are many others living in poverty in the city but Zeze still finds their situation challenging, especially at Christmas when there is no money for fine food or presents. The hardships the family endure lead them to take out frustrations on their little troublemaker. Zeze suffers regular beatings, believing those who tell him he is a devil child and that it would be better had he never been born.

The family move house when their rent arrears become untenable. In the new back garden is a little orange tree which becomes Zeze’s friend. He plays games around it with his little brother, turning their backyard into exciting new worlds. At school he reveres his kind-hearted teacher, behaving well to please her and excelling in his lessons. Zeze earns what money he can from polishing shoes and assisting a songbook seller. He finds a friend in a wealthy adult who teaches him tenderness exists.

Zeze’s escapades are undoubtedly naughty but he is punished so regularly and severely he regards himself as unlovable. The smallest kindnesses offered are grasped and held close. Zeze may lie and swear with abandon, copying the adults around him, but he feels deeply the unfairness of the life he must accept. He shares his thoughts with his little orange tree which he believes listens and responds.

The narration is way in advance of any five year old I have come across but Zeze’s life is also unlike any situation I have known. He is cunning but never malevolent, although at times he harbours thoughts of bloody revenge when mistreated. He dreams of being a poet, finds beauty in music, is eager to learn and to be seen to attain.

Alongside the poignancy of Zeze’s day to day life there is humour, such as the inappropriate lyrics he sings because he likes the popular tune. He asks the adults he encounters whatever questions come to mind without filter, delighting in new words and their meanings. He ponders why Jesus rewards only those who already have plenty.

This is an unusual little story but one that draws the reader in. The author achieves a fine balance between conveying Zeze’s distress at his circumstances and his imaginative coping strategies. The harshness of the boy’s life is clear yet the telling never feels heavy. A story of survival and a search for love as seen through the eyes of an insightful, lonely child.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 



Book Review: A Cage of Shadows

A Cage of Shadows, by Archie Hill, is an autobiographical account of the author’s troubled early life. He was raised in the Black Country during the depression of the 1930s, the eldest but one of eleven children. His father was an abusive alcoholic which exacerbated the family’s poverty. Archie nursed a rage against his home circumstances that moulded what he became. He had mentors in his father’s friends who taught him how to poach and steal food from farms and local woodlands. His admiration for these men, and the hatred of his father, never waned.

I rarely read autobiographies having been turned off the genre by numerous self-aggrandising celebrity memoirs, the proliferation of misery memoirs that followed the publication of Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), and the questioning of the veracity of these and the likes of A Million Little Pieces (James Frey) and Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson). A Cage of Shadows was first published in 1973 so predates these works. It was also the subject of controversy when Archie’s mother successfully sued for libel resulting in a rewrite that removed most of the sections where she is mentioned. The version I review here is a reprint of the original, described now as a classic, which was critically acclaimed when first released.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the story, what is portrayed is a life of bitter hardship that was endured by too many. With jobs hard to come by – three men ready to take any vacancy – worker safety and renumeration were pitifully scarce. Archie had part-time work in an iron foundry while still at school and describes the conditions that damaged the employees’ health. Throughout his childhood he dreamed of escape.

The hand to mouth existence – where Tally Men and Means Test Men wielded their small power like little dictators – was relieved by drink and savage entertainments. There were illegal cock fights, rat killing contests, and bets taken on bare knuckle fighting between the men. The vernacular comes across as authentic although some of the terms would now be deemed offensive. The camaradarie perhaps explains why some look back on such difficult times with a degree of affection.

Archie did eventually get out but it was not the escape of his dreams. He enjoyed a stint working the canals, briefly falling in love, before signing up for military service with the RAF. From here he joined the police but was by now struggling with alcoholism. He did time in prison, in mental asylums, and ended up a ragged vagrant in London’s underbelly.

Archie’s account of each of these experiences is told with unsentimental candour and a degree of self-reflection. Of his poaching he notes that wild animal killing was deemed acceptable by those in authority if done as a sport but not to feed starving families. The antics may rightly be frowned upon but this is life lived on a hard edge. Many of his problems may have been self-inflicted but when Archie fell he could find no safety net.

The writing is assured offering a window into a life that reminds readers of the truth behind what some still refer to as ‘the good old days’. It is intriguing for the insights given, the imaginative reuse and recycling, the petty thievery that enabled survival. Poignant in places and sometimes brutal but with certain attitudes that remain all too familiar. This is an account steeped in history worthy of contemporary reflection.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: The White Goddess


The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough, was the first book published, in 2012, by the newly created Galley Beggar Press. It is quite different from their subsequent offerings. Introduced as “a fragment of autobiography written in narrative form” the author states that his memories “should not be distorted or contaminated by the opinions of others”. What follows is a series of recollections of two defining periods in his life – when he was ten years old in 1953 and spent a seminal month in Majorca, and then seven years later when he enrolled at a university in Franco’s Madrid and visited the island for the second time. Although brutal in places the memories are dreamlike in quality. The privileged lives of the artistic elites with whom he consorted are laid bare.

The author was raised in boarding homes and schools until he was fifteen years old. His actor parents divorced when he was ten and it was during this summer that he was first summoned to the tiny village of Deya in Majorca where his mother was recovering from one of her many illnesses. They stayed with Simon’s Grand-uncle, the poet and author Robert Graves. Robert relished his assumed role as patriarch of the village, handing out favours to those who were loyal to his whims and banishment to any who failed to pander to his desires.

Simon was smitten both by the power of Robert’s personality and by the beauty of his adopted home. The lovelorn and brutally controlled schoolboy enjoyed a month long sojourn wreaking havoc alongside Robert’s eight year old son, the out of control Juan. Their escapades would have been enough to condemn a modern child to criminal incarceration. On the island in 1953, amidst the community created by his Grand-uncle, they were tolerated as irritating high jinks.

Simon’s mother appears vain and capricious. At times over-protective, she willingly abandons her son to schools where she knows he is suffering stating that others survived and it made them what they are. She appears intent on imposing her values on her child rather than furnishing him with the tools to enable him to discover his own. Although typical of a certain parenting style, this read as limiting and insensitive to me.

Simon reluctantly returns to his miserable life in England until he can revisit Deya, aged seventeen, before moving to study in Madrid. He discovers that the sixty-five year old Robert has a new muse, the beautiful twenty-four year old Margot. Simon is instantly besotted and struggles to deal with the intense emotions she evokes. He becomes embroiled in passionate intrigues whilst in Madrid, the outcome of which will affect him for life.

The writing is intense and in places ethereal but I felt discomfited by the portrayal of the many gilded people, expats living their lives disconnected from the natives of their adopted homes. Robert’s belief in his intellectual superiority was fanned by those around him, his creativity held in such esteem by them that he was granted leave to ‘own’ his devotees and demand that they bow to his will. It is not only poets who “live so deeply in their own worlds, among their own obsessions”, yet it is hardly admirable however talented they may be. Many of Robert’s personal habits were repugnant yet as nothing to the emotional trauma he was capable of inflicting. I had much sympathy for his children, although the author does not draw them too deeply into this tale.

Simon was amongst many in thrall to his Grand-uncle. When he attempts to seduce Margot and she says no he desists and then feels unmanned for not forcing himself on her as he feels others would have done. I found this disturbing, especially as it may be typical of the attitudes of such men.

There is little attempt at justification in these recollections although it is hard not to sympathise with an eighteen year old caught up in a rarefied world. There are echoes of Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ in both Simon’s passion and naivity. The esteem in which he held his Grand-uncle, the beauty of Majorca before multiple tourists despoiled the island with their presence, the impact of his family’s associates tasked with looking out for the boy who considers himself a man, are all well evoked.

I cannot fault the quality of the writing or the construction of the story yet I did not enjoy reading this tale. The world conjured reminded me that those who consider themselves superior, either through wealth or popular accomplishment, are still granted leave to use our world as their personal playground. Simon’s experiences are presented competently and with feeling, but in looking through his offered window I was left feeling only despondency.