Book Review: You Shall Leave Your Land

leave your land

“what happened in Huánuco two centuries back, when those men and women, who performed actions and took decisions without awareness that they would become our ancestors”

Renato Cisneros comes from a large, wider family with forebears who moved amongst many of the great and the good of their times. As a young man he felt proud of his name, linking him as it did to a past filled with characters celebrated at regular family gatherings. He was therefore perturbed as well as intrigued on discovering that they should all have gone by the name of Cartagena rather than Cisneros. His great-great-grandmother had been the long time lover of a priest, bearing their children out of wedlock and inventing for the offspring a father they never met. The historic affair was rarely mentioned across subsequent generations, a family secret that nevertheless reverberated.

“We all have wounds and that doesn’t mean our lives are nothing but frustration and trauma.”

You Shall Leave Your Land is referred to as a novel rather than biography. It tells the story of those who came to form the author’s paternal lineage from this shadowed beginning. Many of the men featured are serial adulterers, fathering children whose emotional needs are subsequently ignored as carnal appetites are sated elsewhere. The women of the family are referenced but remain mostly two dimensional.

“I can picture now my grandfather bewitched by the young Esperanza, completely outside of himself, forgetting his wife and his children, or perhaps remembering them all too well and for that very reason trying to evade his responsibilities and his role if only for a moment, knowing how unhappy he was in the marriage that Hermelinda Caicedo’s pregnancy had made necessary so many years earlier.”

Much of the tale is set in Peru. The ongoing political changes in this country provide the scaffolding within which the family history is built. As well as trade and diplomacy, there is a legacy of poetic output. It is hard to gauge how impressive this literary strand may have been, especially as a particularly admired bullfighter’s moves are described: ‘that is poetry’.

The author ponders the question of who owns family secrets, and how choices made can affect those living and also still to come. Despite the unsavoury aspects of characters’ lives delved into, the spare prose with which their story is told is rendered beautifully. I did not buy the suggestion that a propensity for infidelity can be inherited. Nevertheless, behaviour detailed here is what happened, offered with thankfully limited moralising.

Money is made and lost throughout the family history. Certain characters travel abroad – some by choice, others forced – to Europe and around South America. There is much name dropping, particularly within the Paris chapters. As this is based on facts the reader may assume the Cisneros enjoyed privileged connections.

An intriguing depiction of generational family dynamics and how, within such an institution, unvarnished truth is so often avoided. An engaging if louche family biography presented with verve and aplomb.

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


Book Review: My Second Home

My Second Home, by Dave Haslam, is the fourth book in the author’s Art Decades series. These beautifully produced mini books explore ‘a variety of subjects rooted in cities’. The latest work focuses on a holiday Sylvia Plath took in Paris over the Easter period in 1956. Her visit was to prove pivotal.

As someone who has visited Paris on several occasions, I have never understood its appeal. Sylvia Plath adored the city and would have liked to live there. The explanation given for her desire to make it ‘her second home’ provided the most convincing reasons I have encountered as to why the place may be regarded fondly.

Sylvia was born and raised in America but, by the mid 1950s, was on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge in England. She does not appear to have enjoyed her time there, struggling to make female friends.

Apparently, a young woman who wears bright red lipstick and dyes her hair blonde can’t possibly be taken seriously as a person, let alone a poet.”

Sylvia had been dating Richard Sassoon for some time. Having spent Christmas 1955 with him in Paris – her first visit to the city – he told her they were finished and she was not to contact him again. Her Easter trip was an attempt to see him, to get back together.

Good girls were expected to be decorous, aspiring to marriage and babies. Paris in the 1950s was a  place of ‘expatriates, gay bars, desire, faithlessness and illicit liasons.’ Most visitors experienced only the bourgeois side, never travelling to working-class neighbourhoods. Sylvia was entranced by the literary history – along with the art, theatre and her walks by the Seine. Her mood at the time was crashing between euphoria and despair.

A month before this second trip to Paris, Sylvia had met Ted Hughes for the first time – at a launch party for a new poetry magazine. After her death he would write of her love for the city, which they visited together following their marriage. He derided her ‘manic enthusiasm’ – so different from his more dour perspective.

“He suggests she perceived a fantasy Paris. He lists the sources which had created her sense of the city, including writers in the interwar years like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Her Paris, he suggests, was an aesthetic rather than a realistic version.”

From journals and letters written by Sylvia at the time, the author pieces together how she spent each day of her vacation, along with her fluctuating state of mind. Using what is now known about her life and work – before and after Paris 1956 – it may be deduced the influence this trip had on what came next.

“Fate, decisions, a conversation with a stranger, a moment of irresponsibility, someone hearing your faint cry. And opportunities, choices”

The writing is spare yet compelling, a potted biography of a now widely revered young woman that gets under her skin. Sylvia’s life has become legend with Ted Hughes cast as the villain. In this short book the reader may view how she embraced a beloved city and the prospect of freedom it granted. Hers is never, it seems, a truly happy story, but there are moments of sunshine that she pounced on with an exuberance her husband would begrudge and disdain.

A short read but one that deserves to be savoured and will satisfyingly linger. Recommended for anyone with an interest in Sylvia Plath and the times in which she lived.

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

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

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

Book Review: Dinner with Edward

Dinner with Edward, by Isabel Vincent, is a memoir of the author’s friendship with an elderly gentleman who was the father of one of her long time friends. Isabel meets Edward shortly after the death of his beloved wife, Paula, who he was married to for sixty-nine years. She is invited to dinner at his apartment at the behest of his daughter who is afraid that her father is giving up on life despite his promise to Paula that he would make the effort to keep going for the sake of their two daughters, Valerie and Laura. Valerie tells Isabel, ‘He’s a great cook’. Perhaps it is this, or the fact that Isabel’s own marriage is unravelling. Whatever the reason, she agrees to the arrangement. It is the start of a mutually valued friendship.

Each chapter opens with the menu for dinner. Isabel and Edward usually meet over a delicious meal that he has put much thought, time and effort into creating. Also included are details of how Edward prepares aspects of certain dishes. Isabel keeps journals so is able to recount their many conversations over the years – during visits, phone calls and in letters. The pair are open with each other about issues they are facing. They also share stories from their past lives, thereby gaining better understanding of where they are today.

Both middle aged Isabel and nonagenarian Edward come across in this tale as generous and attentive. Each is willing and able to listen, whether or not advice given is acted upon. Edward is of his time and encourages Isabel to put effort into her appearance. She discovers that this can sometimes make her feel better about herself.

“The problem with too many women is their lack of self-worth.”

Isabel is not Edwards’s only friend. He invites many people to his apartment to share meals and conversation. Thus their dinners are not always à deux, although these are Isabel’s favourite. Edward is a raconteur but remains gentlemanly with his guests.

“We live in the age of communications but nobody knows how to communicate anymore.”

The book manages to share condensed histories of both Edward and Isabel without delving into too much gratuitous detail. There is warmth but also realism. Sometimes life becomes busy or illness must be dealt with. Isabel is not family but she is loved and valued by Edward. She comes to realise just how important a contribution he made to her busy life.

The passion and emotional sensation are reserved for descriptions of the food served. Preparation is never rushed and important details are adhered to. Each meal is a sensory experience to be remembered, as are the stories they are served with.

A delightful book about a friendship that accepts time passing, savouring without rushing and accepting that life cannot remain stationary. Edward knew that Isabel was writing about his life, thereby sharing his stories and outlook more widely. The reader will be reminded that even ordinary people are extraordinary if time is taken to ask and listen. How fortunate are those who find such a mutually trustworthy friendship.

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

Book Review: Wrestliana

Wrestliana, by Toby Litt, is part memoir, part biography. It is an exploration of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man, particularly in our modern world. I wondered whilst reading if I could be amongst its audience, if I could understand. Certain elements of the narrative made me uncomfortable. I found myself wanting to point out that girls play football and mothers stand on touchlines. Despite it being an intensely personal story I needed to step back from the author and focus on the writing.

Toby Litt’s forebears lived in Cumberland in the eighteenth century. One of them, William Litt, was, for a time, a local wrestling champion. He was also a writer and published the original Wrestliana – ‘a history of wrestling from its origins’. Toby grew up hearing his father talk of his great-great-grandfather: the wrestling; his time as a smuggler; the loss of a small fortune; his escape to Canada where he died. When Toby decided that he wanted to be a writer the only story his father wanted him to tell was that of William.

This is also, however, the story of Toby. As well as exploring the lives of his wider family, he shares: how he was bullied at school; his time living in Prague; his hopes for his own two sons; how he teaches Creative Writing. When teaching dialogue he tells his class:

“When two men say Hello in the street, one of them loses.”

Toby describes himself as competitive and many of his musings are around whether, in any given situation, he has won or lost. This attitude overflows into his writing life, his thoughts on other writers and their work. I baulked at the apparently disparaging comments about John Boyne whose books I enjoy. I understood better when I read an interview Toby gave to The Word Factory from which I quote:

“For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me.”

Following the John Boyne encounter, Toby mentions his reaction when a book he believed was amongst his best work was entered for the Booker Prize, and the crushing disappointment he felt when it was not longlisted. The pages on writers and literary prizes are enlightening.

Toby has long eschewed sport but, once immersed in his extensive research about William, found himself considering the importance placed on a man’s physical size, strength and prowess. William’s politics, his beliefs, are described as

“manly, patriotic, straightforward”

Toby considers: his own life as a family man and writer, those moments when he ‘won’; if this is all that matters and if, in aging, the best times are gone. There is an undercurrent, a fear of, inferiority, or being seen as such. Perhaps a more competitive person than I will empathise.

Everything that William wrote, of which there is still a record, is dissected and examined in forensic detail to provide a picture of the man, the life he led, and why. This includes gaining an understanding of the style of wrestling at which he excelled and which is still practised in the north of England. Toby visits to observe and talk to those involved. I found the sections describing in detail the sport the least interesting. The history on the other hand proved engaging, as did the comparisons and attitudes across the generations.

Toby deploys the analogy of wrestling to life and this spills over into his relationships with his father and his sons. There appears to be a need to prove oneself different yet better, to escape from under the family shadow yet still be deemed worthy. Near the end of the book he regrets that his sons cannot compete in the traditional wrestling bouts he has been learning of. I wonder what they would think of this idea.

Despite my inability to empathise with the author’s attitude to being a man in the modern world, the book offers an interesting history and perspective. I would have preferred the impact of the women involved to be taken more into account but understand it is intended to be only about the men. A need to feel macho may be beyond my comprehension but in presenting his thoughts and feelings so honestly the author offers insight into what can prove toxic concerns. It is an alluring read.


Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press. To support their work please consider buying direct, or from an independent bookshop.