Book Review: The Bone Flower

bone flower

The protagonist of The Bone Flower, Edward Monteith, is a wealthy young man who, at the beginning of this deliciously chilling novel, is living a life without purpose in Victorian London. His mother died in childbirth. His father is distant and mostly disinterested in his only child, so long as no shame is brought on the carefully constructed family name. Having completed his education there is little for Edward to do each day other than attend the exclusive club his father insisted he join, a habit that helps assuage his ennui and loneliness. Here he listens in on the conversations of the other men who frequent the place, believing himself unobserved.

“They were of various ages and professions, or of good enough family to have no profession, and were united less by common interests than by their common standing, of which club membership was a guarantee.”

Edward is taken under the wing of an eclectic group of gentlemen. Frederick Bell is a qualified doctor who feels no compunction to practice medicine. Rickman is an explorer who entertains any who care to listen with tales from his exploits in Africa. Arthur Poynter describes himself as both an optimist and a sceptic, seeking out the mystical in hope of finding no fraud in what is being presented as macabre, if popular, entertainment. It is he who introduces Daniel Giles, a recently arrived American who becomes Edward’s friend. Giles suggests an outing to a music hall, outside of which Edward first encounters a beautiful young woman.

The woman is selling flowers, a lowly trade, but Edward is mesmerised. Unable to shake the memory of her, he is delighted to come across her again at a séance the group of men subsequently attend. From here the pair arrange to meet and begin a passionate affair. Edward believes himself deeply in love but recognises his father would strongly disapprove of his paramour, and this could affect his inheritance. With no skills or trade to fall back on, such a prospect appears untenable.

Events come to a head when Edward foolishly puts his trust in Bell. Desperate to escape from the consequences, Edward and his trusted valet, George, travel across Europe. By the time they return to London a couple of years later, Edward has married. The young couple settle in Highgate but can find no happy ever after despite love now being reciprocated.

“The dead are always with us”

The story being told is cleverly constructed with elements of horror and the fear of ghostly possession. Guilt may feed the imagination but not everything in life has a logical explanation. Differing cultural beliefs may be misinterpreted as witchcraft and condemned. The author is skilful in building a shadowy atmosphere and introducing fearful elements around the beautiful and everyday.

The horror of the penultimate scenes linger through the denouement – will sweetness turn to rot before the final page? The reader is trusted to remember small, uncanny occurrences that were briefly mentioned.

An evocative reminder that not everything a person was will necessarily end when they die. A spooky season love story layered with justified disquiet.

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

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Robyn Reviews: Babel (or, the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution)

‘Babel’ is one of the most ambitious novels I’ve ever read. It blurs fantasy, historical fiction, social commentary, and linguistics into a shining silver piece of alternate nineteenth century history. As a work of literature it’s a monumental achievement. This is a book to be read slowly and savoured, allowing time to sink into the world and admire the intricacies of each thread. As a story, unfortunately, a little is lost to the sheer scope of everything else going on – but that shouldn’t take away from what RF Kuang has achieved here.

In 1928, a boy is orphaned by cholera in Canton, China. This in itself is not unusual – but this boy, soon to be known as Robin Swift, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell and tutored extensively in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese. The purpose? For Robin to enroll in the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford – colloquially known as Babel. Babel is the crown jewel of the British Empire – the seat of translation, but more importantly silver-working, the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation to magical effect. Silver working has granted the British Empire unparalleled power and helped it colonise the globe. At Oxford, Robin has everything he ever dreamed of – but everything he does furthers colonialisation, betraying his Chinese homeland. Robin finds himself trapped between Babel and those who would work to bring it, and therefore the Empire, down. He must decide what he is willing to sacrifice – and what is required to truly engender revolution.

The research RF Kuang has done to bring this novel to life is exquisite. It’s full of pieces of real nineteenth century history and social and political commentary of the time, each with a slight overlay in the context of silver-working. The worldbuilding is exceptional, absolutely capturing the atmosphere of academia and Oxford, both from the perspective of the average white male student in the nineteenth century, and the foreign, non-white, and not always male students of Babel. Every aspect feels tangible and believable.

Silver-working, the fantasy spin, is a smaller part of the novel, simple but immensely effective. It isn’t explored to its fullest potential, but this is less a fantasy novel and more a novel exploring social and political commentary, so that’s to be expected.

The characters are wonderful. This is a single POV novel with the exception of three interludes towards the end, but Robin is strong enough to carry the story on his own. Robin loves language and loves to learn, but he struggles with his position at Oxford. He’s constantly grappling with issues of identity, of privilege, of Empire, and of what it is he actually wants. He loves his classmates – they’re the three people he’s closest to in the world – but he’s also, in many ways, very alone. Robin is a likeable and relatable protagonist, making many aspects of the book much more accessible. His development throughout is immense, and whilst his actions at the end may prove divisive, its easy to see why.

Robin’s classmates – Ramy, Victoire, and Letty – each add a new dimension to the story. Ramy, Robin’s roommate and a Muslim constantly referred to as Hindu by his Oxford contemporaries, is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and observant in a way Robin is not. Victoire, Haitian in origin from a family still wounded by the slave trade, is fiery and downright angry at times in a way Robin initially struggles to understand, but gradually comes to. Letty, an English rose, is vastly different to her contemporaries – kind and easy to love and absolutely determined to fit in, but always on a different course by consequence of her birth. The characters play off each other well, and each feels well-rounded.

There are a few minor criticisms. At just over five hundred pages this isn’t the longest book in the world – especially for fantasy – but the first half is very slow, requiring concentration and patience as the worldbuilding and characters are established. Kuang does well at creating atmosphere and a sense of foreboding before things start to unravel, but the change of pace doesn’t quite work, and several points lack the emotional impact they should have. The ending itself is likely to divide opinion. I understand why Kuang did it, but it did feel a little like a cop out. This is definitely a book which prioritises the philosophy and social commentary over the story.

Overall, Babel is a monumental undertaking and Kuang almost carries it off. It’s a book with crossover appeal to fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction fans, and worth a read for anyone who enjoys social commentary, exquisite worldbuilding, British history, and the complexities of human psychology. There are many things to love and the impact lingers after the final page. A recommended read.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd August 2022

RF Kuang is also the author of The Poppy War trilogy – I review the first book here.

Book Review: The Hidden Child

hidden child

“He has an easy grace, a birthright, like all of those of his class, suave sophistication and certainty of their own superiority being served up alongside their morning milk.”

The Hidden Child, by Louise Fein, tells the story of a well-to-do family living in leafy Surrey towards the end of the 1920s. The patriarch, Edward Hamilton, is a respected scientist with a particular interest in eugenics. His wife, Eleanor, supports her husband in his thinking. Her mother was murdered by a man who had suffered severely all his life due to mental health issues. When the couple’s young daughter, Mabel, starts having seizures, they must face the personal consequences of policies they have been vocally promoting as for the wider good.

The story opens on the day of Mabel’s first seizure. This enables the reader to see how gilded the Hamilton’s lives had been. Eleanor has taken the pony and trap to the local railway station to pick up her younger sister, Rose, who has been touring Europe as a way to complete her education. Edward has been supporting his sister-in-law financially but now hopes to find her a suitable husband. He and his wife are horrified to discover she has indulged in a liaison with a French artist. Rose, it turns out, has developed certain socialist leanings.

Friends, neighbours and colleagues are introduced at house parties, conferences and other meetings. These characters and their conversation serve to portray how the privileged view what they regard as the lower orders. With the advent of birth control and a growing demand to have their opinions listened to, wealthier women are choosing to have fewer babies. The eugenics movement draws support from those who observe how the poorer in society continue to have large families, and that they are believed more likely to develop criminal or other deviant behaviours due to inherited low IQs. Edward lectures and writes papers promoting possible solutions, which include incarceration of those with supposed defects alongside their sterilisation.

Edward suffers vivid nightmares that stem from his experiences during the war. He is a decorated hero but knows the truth of what happened in the trenches. This is not his only secret. Although accepted by polite society due to his education and subsequent career success, his background is not as salubrious as his peers may assume. Eleanor, although falling into a degree of hardship following the deaths of her brothers and parents, had a more privileged upbringing.

All of this adds depth due to the issues being explored within the story of a family in crisis. The eugenics movement believed good genes were key and that inheritable diseases could be eradicated by curbing procreation amongst those with defects. Epilepsy was on their list of conditions. For the sake of his work, and to protect Eleanor and their new baby, Mabel’s existence must become another of Edward’s dark secrets.

A loving mother and loyal wife, Eleanor struggles with the decisions Edward makes, especially when she discovers some of what he has kept hidden from her since they first met. With a potential knighthood on the cards, Edward ploughs on with the work he truly believes in. Eleanor starts to question all she had once viewed as certain – the sanctity of marriage and family, the efficacy of her husband’s research, the dehumanising of the ill and the poor – and must make some difficult choices.

I had some familiarity with the eugenics movement in England but this tale opened up just how prevalent such thinking became throughout the western world at the time, especially within circles of power and philanthropy. What is most chilling is how it still lingers, even after what is now known of the genocide in Nazi Germany. The current state of affairs in America makes this horrifically relevant.

A  story, then, of a privileged family but one that digs deeper than much historical fiction. It is all the more effective for avoiding polemic and politics, presenting behaviours as perfectly normal during the time it is set. Although engaging and easy to read, it asks difficult questions around even the well intentioned plans for societal improvement – the effectiveness of state interventions and how this may be measured. Eleanor and Edward trusted the experts without considering fully how scientific knowledge is constantly changing, how research is skewed to ‘prove’ desired outcomes.

Much may have changed in the past century but the prejudices that drove the eugenics movement sadly remain. Fiction such as this has the potential to encourage readers to think about issues that do not have clear cut and easy answers, within the framework of a compelling tale.

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

Book Review: Voting Day

voting day

“He’ll be doing the right thing for his country, a country that has been well ruled by decent men for seven hundred years.”

Voting Day, by Clare O’Dea, is set in Switzerland on 1 February 1959. On this day the adult male citizens of the country were voting in a referendum that asked if females should be granted the right to vote too. Told from the points of view of four interlinked but very different women, the story offers a window into their everyday world and the challenges faced by being female. Only one has any particular interest in the vote taking place despite their circumstances being stymied by gender.

The first part focuses on Vreni, a farmer’s wife and mother to four grown children who has lost something of what she once was along the way. Her daughter, Margrit, works in Bern where Vreni is preparing to travel for a medical procedure. Her three sons are living at home along with a foster child, Ruedi. Although a conscientious wife and mother, the young boy is not treated as one of the family. Vreni believes he must be prepared for the hard life he will likely lead later.

“It’s not a good idea to show affection to these children. They get the wrong idea.”

The second part of the book focuses on Margrit who has a serious problem with her boss to deal with. What I found most fascinating about these first two sections was how the mother and daughter regarded each other and themselves. There is obviously love between them but the lens through which they view the same incidents are very different.

Margrit’s story offers the perspective of a modern career woman who is just starting to understand the difficulties encountered when living without the social and financial protection of a husband.

The third part introduces the reader to Esther who works at the hospital Vreni is admitted to. She is Ruedi’s mother and her backstory explains why the boy was taken from her. This section depicts a Switzerland that offers very little to those struggling financially, who do not have family to fall back on. Esther was also taken from her parents, when she was seven years old. They were Yenish, leading a lifestyle many did not approve of.

“Somebody somewhere decided that our little home was too full and too free. They took three of us away and left the younger ones. They wanted to see children in straight lines with clean dresses and plaited hair. They wanted us meek.”

Esther misses her son dreadfully and is doing all she can to turn her life around that he may be returned to her. She understands this will be difficult given her low earning capabilities. Her current job and accommodation were organised by Beatrice, on whom the final part of the book focuses.

Beatrice, at sixty-one years old, is a successful hospital administrator. She chose not to marry, a choice made easier due to her personal financial stability. Well organised and capable, Beatrice enjoys her work.

“she was proud of how smoothly everything functioned. She had the respect of all the doctors, the board, the staff. Her salary was generous, for a woman.”

Beatrice has been working hard at the Bern Women’s Vote Association and cares deeply about the day’s outcome. The difference in how men act and are treated compared to women has long bothered Beatrice.

“I used to hate how the men sat for the duration of the party and filled the room with their voices, never fetched or served a single thing or moved from the spot to deal with interrupting children”

Covering for a sick colleague at the hospital, she returns home to learn of the result from her visiting brother.

“it was the recognition I imagined with such intense craving. I wanted them to say, this is your country too”

When Beatrice first came across Esther and learned of her situation, she did what she could to help. Galvanised by her disappointment at the vote result, she concocts another plan in an attempt to make a real difference, one of which her brother disapproves. He has his own difficulties and can only see her concern for Esther through his resentment of how he is regarded by society. As many would do well to remember today, helping one struggling minority does not mean a lack of care for others who face discrimination.

An epilogue takes the reader to a year later and an event that brings the four women together. Although Vreni proved earlier that she could act decisively when she had to, she is in awe of how Beatrice has dealt with the authorities – mostly men.

“You just have to act like them, as if the world belongs to you, too. It confuses them.”

This denouement sweetens what has gone before although little of substance has changed.

In her Author’s Note at the end, O’Dea explains how Swiss women were eventually enfranchised.

“In the end, an outside catalyst was needed to force the next, successful referendum in 1971 in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention dated from 1953 and by 1968 the Federal Council (Swiss government) was keen to sign, just without the clause concerning women’s political rights.
This ridiculous prospect galvanised the upcoming more radical generation of the women’s movement, giving them enough fresh outrage to persuade the government to deliver a new referendum. Times were changing.”

It seems incredible that a modern, European democracy withheld the vote from half its population for so long, and felt it was acting reasonably in doing so. This was a slice of history of which I was unaware.

Written with warmth and understanding, the story is well paced and offers nuggets of insight into women’s lives and how disinterested men tend to be in specifics that do not detrimentally affect them. Succinct and perceptive, issues are explored with pleasing depth whilst avoiding polemic – a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Still Life

still life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The scale of man – spatially – is about midway between the atom and the star”

I didn’t seek out Still Life when it was released in hardback. Although I have enjoyed all Sarah Winman’s previous novels, Tin Man was such a tour de force – and achieved in less than two hundred pages – that the prospect of a longer read didn’t, at the time, appeal. I am, however, glad I gave into temptation – curiosity – when the beautifully bound paperback was offered. This novel is magnificent, and I don’t use that descriptor lightly.

The story being told encompasses art and life and love – a sweeping saga that explores the many lenses through which these subjects may be viewed when minds are open to new experiences. It engenders an appreciation of the moments that matter, lighting up the mundane and offering a deeply felt sense of optimism – a willingness to embrace change for what it may bring. Above all it is a story of friendships that enrich and nurture – a reminder that families exist beyond the bounds of blood relations.

Opening in the Tuscan hills towards the end of the Second World War, a chance encounter brings Evelyn Skinner and Ulysses Temper together. Evelyn is a sexagenarian art historian, in Italy to seek out important artworks moved to hidden spaces due to the conflict. Ulysses is a young British soldier who, having survived thus far has hopes of returning to his wife, Peg, in London. Over bottles of plundered fine wine, Evelyn and Ulysses talk of their lives as reflected in the paintings recovered from a cellar. By the time they part from their brief acquaintance, each has had an effect on the other that they will carry through the following decades.

The setting moves to East London where the remaining key players are introduced.  Col – rough around the edges – runs his pub and worries about his daughter, ‘a woman in body and child in mind.’ Peggy Temper works for Col and is watched over by Cress, an ex-dockworker possessing uncanny foresight. Pete is a skilled pianist, always on the cusp of musical success. Finally there is Claude, an inspired if somewhat bizarre addition. Around this group revolve further colourful characters – the shady, the generous and the critical. Each adds depth to the development of the unfolding tale.

The war ends and Ulysses returns to London where he lives and works at Col’s pub. There are births and deaths, marriages and divorces, fights and fortunes that prove life-changing. The setting moves mostly to Florence, a city portrayed as almost mystically magical in its affect on those willing to embrace its ways. Around the edges of everything is how art in its many forms can change a person’s outlook – art that is valued for how it makes one feel.

Evelyn’s story is told separately to that of Ulysses. She comes from wealth and has used her bohemian privilege to enjoy a lifestyle she has chosen for herself. In beautiful prose the author presents an understanding of artists through the ages. Evelyn’s coterie of the famous shines brightly but, for me, lacked the depth of the relocated cockneys. Evelyn’s life is one of ease through which she moves effortlessly, enchanting those encountered with her knowledge and repartee.

Although Ulysses and his friends have known hardship, they become beneficiaries of luck and coincidence. Some of this may appear farcical but is made acceptable through skilful rendition. I found this the more interesting storyline and it is rightly the focus of attention. Sections follow the group through the decades of the fifties, sixties and seventies as they build their lives on opportunities offered and worked with.

In 1966 a devastating flood destroyed lives, homes and businesses in Florence. The devastation caused is vividly depicted – a deeply moving account of loss and resilience. This is just one event in which the group of immigrants prove it is possible to live and be accepted abroad if willing to assimilate. Their experiences are in contrast to many visitors, those who seek out food familiar to them and complain of locals’ behaviour.

“The usual movement of English tourists, oblivious to life around them, looking for answers in their guidebooks.”

The tale being told is one that sparks many emotions with its richly mixed palette of joy, hope and humour, alongside grief and forbearance. The characters may benefit from financial good fortune but at the core of their being is the unconditional love and care they offer each other and those who befriend them.

Any Cop?: A story of generosity of spirit that truly enriches – a movingly memorable but ultimately joyous read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: these days

these days

“It was impossible not to think that this was a film set. This was photographs of some war zone somewhere. Of Franco’s Spain. The fires, the tramlines wrenched from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky.”

these days, by Lucy Caldwell, tells the story of two sisters living through the horror of the Belfast Blitz. Audrey and Emma are the daughters of a respected doctor and his stay-at-home wife. Their life is one of conformity and privilege yet they are straining against the constraints this imposes – the choices they feel they must make.

Audrey has just turned twenty-one and works as a junior clerk at the tax office. She has been stepping out with Richard, a young doctor working with her father, for almost a year. She imagines they will get married but understands this would require her to give up the job she enjoys and is good at. Her colleague, Miss Bates, just a few years older but already an inspector, talks casually of attending interesting lectures and cultural events that Audrey would love to experience herself, something she cannot imagine happening. Her day to day existence has always followed a staidly predictable trajectory.

“it was somehow unreal, so exactly had she pictured it, so much did she feel like an actor going through the motions of her own life”

Emma is the younger sister and volunteers at a First Aid post where she has met Sylvia, a decade older and living independently. Emma’s mother is concerned that such work will not help her daughter meet a man considered suitable. Emma struggles to talk to anyone in her family about the frustration she feels at such expectations. With Sylvia she discovers a life where she feels fully alive and authentic.

“she felt an irrational lightness come over her, a giddy sense of possibility: I can do, now, I can be, anything that I want to”

The story opens in April 1941 with the first air raid of the Blitz. The family take cover inside the cupboard under the stairs, a reaction planned but not prepared for. When they emerge their world has been inexorably changed. Over the next two months, as the death and destruction increase exponentially, they will be affected in ways previously unimaginable.

The horror of each air attack is brilliantly evoked. The terror, noise, stench and damage wrought to people and place bring to life the fear and dissociation required to somehow cope in such a situation. The Blitz Spirit is portrayed through looting and men trying to take advantage of young women removed from their more normal protective environment. This seemed more realistic than the saccharine version too often conjured from nostalgia.

Belfast suffered terribly over four air attacks that spring. In between, the sisters must deal with more mundane considerations. Audrey longs for Richard to show more passion, whereas his desire is to protect her. Emma comes to realise that her feelings for Sylvia cannot be proclaimed publicly.

Secondary characters are given chapters that skilfully portray how Belfast was at this time. There are deep inequalities: the poor living in badly maintained, cramped accommodation; the wealthy holding parties in their spacious and luxurious properties, promoting causes they are drawn to but rarely affected by. A trip to Dublin offers a reminder of the impact of customs checks on the recently divided island. Audrey and Emma’s younger brother, Paul, reminds readers how the media glorified the horrific war through propaganda. Women make choices that will be frowned upon, that in a future these may become accepted. Such depictions add depth to the lives Audrey and Emma must deal with.

What comes through most strongly is how searingly affected even those who did not lose a home or loved one were by what they encountered walking familiar streets now bloodied and razed. Adults as well as officially evacuated children left the city, an exodus that was frowned upon by the authorities as causing issues with where they would end up staying. There may have been ‘a grim, stoical sort of endurance’ but there was a mental price to pay.

The final chapters move key characters forward although the timeline left me a tad confused about the choice Audrey made. Having reread these sections several times, I formed an interpretation of what happened, although not its full effect. This was the only slight bump in what remains an impressively told tale.

The author captures the essence of Belfast brilliantly, including how it was regarded by the English elites.

A novel of wartime that focuses on character development amidst a powerful evocation of time and place. An affecting yet piercing story, beautifully written and fully three dimensional.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber & Faber

Book Review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

battles kings elephants

Mathias Enard’s Compass won numerous awards and garnered rave reviews from the great and the good of the literati following its release. Whilst recognising the quality of the writing, I found reading the story akin to hard work – ‘A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia’. It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants. I did so because of recommendations from fellow bloggers – discerning readers but without the literary baggage carried by certain professional critics. I am glad I did not turn away from the author due to my reaction to just one of his works.

The protagonist of this story is a young Michelangelo. He has completed his apprenticeship in Florence, funded by the Medici’s. He has created his famous statue, David. The tale opens with him fleeing Rome – and a Papal commission for which he has not received the promised payment – for Florence, from where he travels to Constantinople. The Sultan there has offered a huge sum of money for the design and planning of a bridge to span Istanbul’s harbour. The Great Turk has already rejected the drawings submitted by Leonardo da Vinci.

“You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal”

Based on historical fragments – what is known about true events – the author creates a tableau of the Ottoman Empire in the early sixteenth century, complete with sights, sounds, smells and cultural attitudes. Due to his esteemed reputation and commission, Michelangelo moves within the upper echelons of the city. He comes across as a somewhat temperamental aesthete, albeit one who eschews many offered pleasures.

Structured in short but richly evocative sections, the reader travels through Constantinople on strolls the artist takes alongside those tasked with looking after his needs. He befriends a poet and is drawn to a beautiful singer / dancer. He struggles to picture the bridge he knows he must help create.

Although this latter issue is drawn out in the telling, what fills the pages is a picture of an elite with sensuous appreciation of the arts but one that still harbours deeper, more bestial dangers. The powerful wield their systems of reward and punishment with ruthless vigour. Michelangelo is favoured but, as an infidel, is a magnet for his patron’s enemies.

“Here too there are conspiracies and palace intrigue; jealousies, plotters ready to do anything to discredit Ali Pasha in the Bayezid’s eyes”

A beautifully written account of a time and place that remains concise without sacrificing detail. A skilful imagining of a defining period in Michelangelo’s life that is as much about Constantinople as it is about the artist.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home

matilda windsor

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin, explores changing attitudes to sexual activity and pregnancy across the decades of the twentieth century. The main threads of the story are set in the late 1980s and early 90s. The titular protagonist, a septuagenarian, is being assessed for her suitability to benefit from the new Care in the Community policy – an attempt to deinstitutionalise those who have spent years locked away for supposed health reasons. If selected, Matty would be required to leave the psychiatric hospital where she has lived for the past fifty years. Having been incarcerated for so long she struggles now to recognise or acknowledge reality. Matty believes the asylum is her mother’s stately home, the inmates her guests and the staff her servants. She believes it important to treat all these people well whilst retaining a certain decorum and distance.

Another thread follows Janice, a newly qualified social worker who applied for a job at the institution to be near her boyfriend. The couple separate before she starts working there. Janice takes a particular interest in Matty having discovered she was placed in the asylum with a diagnosis of ‘Moral Turpitude’ – likely because she was pregnant, although her notes contain scant details.

“That can’t have been uncommon. If every unmarried woman who fell pregnant was diagnosed with moral-whatever the wards would be chock-a-block.”
“Most would’ve been packed off to the country,” said Sister Henderson. “Once the child’s adopted, they’d slot back in at home.”
One woman’s loss another’s gain. “And Matty Osbourne?”
“Maybe her father smelt a whiff of scandal. Mebbe she’d been a bother and he wanted shot of her.”

Notice the change of Matty’s surname there – it has an interesting explanation that effects plot development.

The third main thread follows Henry Windsor, a bachelor in his late fifties who has worked all his life at the local council. He lives alone in the house he was born in, that he keeps furnished as it was in his late father’s day. Henry refuses to leave the place overnight, even to go on holiday, as he expects his beloved sister, Tilly, to return to him. She left without explanation when he was six years old having raised him from when he was a baby. She promised she would be back and Henry has spent decades trying to track her down, to no avail. Henry is having an affair with Irene, a married younger woman and mother of twins. Henry harbours a hope that Irene will leave her family for him.

As the backstories to Matty, Janice and Henry are revealed, plans for their futures hit setbacks. In amongst the unfolding events are pregnancies that end in a variety of ways. A morning after pill takes care of one unexpected, drunken coupling. An abortion frees a woman from an unwanted child. A miscarriage is mourned, the suffering mother subjected to careless commentary. Adoptees, raised by loving parents, consider searching for those who gave them away. A social worker recounts a distressing visit to a young, single mother who is struggling to adequately care for her baby. In amongst all this is the spectre of AIDS. There are still varying degrees of societal stigma attached to all these events.

Matty is a wonderfully complex if pitiful creation. Henry is less admirable, especially as regards Irene. It is interesting to consider how mental capacity is assessed and the role family prejudice can play. Janice, although well meaning, comes across as naive. The cast of characters that surround each of these key players offer ample opportunity to explore attitudes and obligation, particularly within neighbourhoods and families.

Short chapters move the story along although the pace was, at times, frustrating. The reader is offered a window into encounters that the characters rarely pick up themselves. Henry, having spent so long trying to trace Tilly, appears not to follow through when he is finally granted a potential lead. He has strange turns at key moments – perhaps a hint at his own mental incapacities. The staff at the asylum may talk to the residents regularly but seem unaware that some of them knew each other before they were sectioned. Patients’ ramblings are regarded as delusional rather than a lens to their history.

The author grew up in Cumbria where the tale is set. We are told that ‘her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a longstay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.’ I am therefore happy to defer to her expertise on mental health matters. This makes it even more upsetting when the patients’ stuttered attempts to communicate appear to be ignored or dismissed.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters set in the 1930s in which we learn of Matilda’s childhood and how she came to care for the young Henry.

Be aware that, in amongst the humour and pathos, are disturbing incidences of sexual abuse – historical and contemporary.

The author presents a thought-provoking yet always entertaining story, written with knowledge and verve. Once the pacing picked up and enough reveals had been shared, this was a book I did not want to put down until the satisfying denouement.

A good read that covers difficult issues through accessible characters whose flaws add to their depth. No easy answers are offered and this seems appropriate when exploring issues surrounding mental health.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Amongst Women

Amongst Women

“‘Be careful’, Moran advised when he kissed each of them in turn as they were ready to leave. ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.'”

Amongst Women, by John McGahern, tells the story of an Irish farming family over a few decades in the twentieth century. It is bookended by the demise of the elderly patriarch, Michael Moran, a widower whose second wife, Rose, was welcomed by his teenage children for the relief it brought them. Moran is unpredictably temperamental, with strong views on how his family should behave. He has kept them distanced from the local community, something the children accept.

“Maggie looked at this isolation he had built up around them as distinction and strength. In her heart she felt that Rose was a little common in knowing so many people.”

Moran adheres to the rituals of his religion, with daily prayers – graces and rosaries – recited by the family together. Having fought and distinguished himself in the Irish War of Independence, he is now disappointed at how the new country turned out. He bought his farm with money received when he left the army, and turned the land into a living. Having done the best he knew how to raise his children, the sense of loss felt as each chooses to leave cuts deep. He had hoped that one of his sons would run the farm after him but neither were interested.

The slow peeling back of Irish family life is affecting if unrelenting in its honesty. Moran may be a difficult man to live with but there is a great deal of love and respect for him within the family circle. This doesn’t mean the children are always happy with what he demands of them. In their own way, each quietly rebels against imposed strictures. The choices they make are not always for the best.

“The whole empty strand of Strandhill was all around them and they had the whole day. There is nothing more difficult than to seize the day.”

When the children do need help they turn to each other. The obligations towards family are deeply ingrained. This is also true of the wider community, although perhaps not as powerfully as amongst the Morans.

“Such is the primacy of the idea of family that everyone was able to leave work at once without incurring displeasure. In fact their superiors thought the sisters’ involvement was admirable.”

The story offers snippets from the past: Moran’s fighting days; his courtship with Rose; how he treats his children and the limitations this incurs as they reach adulthood; his acceptance if not respect for the partners they choose, who each carry their own family baggage. That the children continue to visit Moran regularly, despite his outspoken views and behaviour, says much about the duty instilled.

The writing is taut and spare yet richly evocative of the time and place. It is hard to like Moran – the way he treats both family and neighbours; the cruelties he inflicts on Rose; his tightness over money when he is not poor – yet he elicits sympathy for doing what he believes best for his children.

There is a poignancy in the denouement that he did not recognise the loyalty of his family. His authoritarianism was, after all, of its time in Ireland.

“‘Who cares anyhow?’ Moran said. ‘Nobody cares.’
‘I care,’ she said passionately.
‘That doesn’t count.”

While in many ways a troubling story, the depth of feeling conveyed will linger. A remarkable achievement in a slim yet satiating read.

Amongst Women is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: Learwife

learwife

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on Leir of Briton, a legendary king whose tale was recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Bard modified the ending of the story, turning it into the famous tragedy. In both versions there exist the machinations of an aging king and his three daughters. The girls’ mother, the queen, is assumed dead but barely warrants a mention. JR Thorp has taken this lacuna and filled it with a fascinating character – an astute and cunning wife banished overnight to a convent following the birth of yet another daughter when a son was desired.

Learwife opens with a messenger arriving at a northern abbey bearing news of the death of Lear and his daughters. The late king’s resident wife, fifty-five years old, the past fifteen spent in rooms from which she appears only when fully veiled, enters a period of mourning for the family she loved but who turned her away. No reason for this punishment was ever given. She was permitted to take with her just one young maidservant who has remained loyal.

The queen has befriended the Abbess but otherwise kept herself apart from other residents of the abbey in which she remains incarcerated. Now, assuming herself freed from obligation, she allows herself to be seen. She plans to leave and pay her respects at whatever graves Lear and their daughters may have ended up in.

Plans are made and thwarted, the queen discovering that Lear had never countenanced recalling her as she had always expected. Still, she continues to plot her departure until a deadly sickness strikes and the abbey is placed in quarantine. The balance of power within its walls shifts and the queen, newly emerged and taking an interest, finds she has become legend. She draws the nuns to her as she once did courtiers, recounting nuggets of her history and finding these women know more of certain gaps than she does.

The story is told from the queen’s point of view and permeated by her memories. The reader learns that she spent a portion of her childhood in another convent, confined until she was old enough to marry the boy she was promised to. She was there to be trained in obedience. It was not a happy upbringing. The hunger instilled could never be sated. She learned young how families regarded their surplus girl children.

“Overflow daughters, pious children of overstuffed houses, or the poor ones: to send a girl for a nun because a dowry was too dear is old practice.”

Once married she gradually acquired the skills required to manipulate to her advantage, taking advice from Kent who became a trusted friend. Her first marriage was unhappy but in Lear she found a husband who valued her council. She encouraged him to be ruthless when needed, a trait that may have worked against her when she could not birth a live boy child.

“Who ever thought that gentleness is the nature of women! When it is such violence – that we come from, that we live within.”

Lear loved his daughters but regarded them as a useless legacy – another powerful man demanding a son that his wife, once beloved, could not provide. The queen wished to be valued by her daughters, to offer them the mothering she was denied. That she punished misdemeanours as she felt was needed, and would countenance no other woman influencing them, led to tensions whose cost she did not foresee despite her astuteness.

“Is there any pain like a child who does not want you anymore”

The denouement sees quarantine lifted at the abbey and the queen changed. She has made friends but also enemies, understandable given her behaviour. Within the cloistered walls there exists a microcosm of a kingdom.

This is a clever idea for a tale providing interesting historical fiction with breadth and depth. The language employed is not Shakespearian but fits well in the period and setting – both skilfully rendered. The restrictions within which a high born woman of the time must live – how she may use cunning to gain power but this may at times misfire – are only one element of what is a character driven narrative.

The telling, however, is slow paced. The reveal of the queen’s history is too often circuitous with gaps filled gradually and, by then, mostly predictable. The plot is impressive, as is the writing, but a tauter delivery would have been more engaging. That said, it is a book I am glad to have read.

Any Cop?: A beguiling new perspective on why Lear’s daughters behaved as they did.

Jackie Law