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

Book Review: The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Emperor-of-Ice-Cream

The Emperor of Ice-Cream was recommended to me by an author on Twitter whose book, Source, I very much enjoyed. Having heard Brian Moore mentioned by other authors I rate highly, receiving the recently released new edition of this book offered me a chance to find out what I made of his work. The tale being told is set in Belfast during the early years of the Second World War and culminates in the blitz that killed around 1000 people, hitting half the houses in the city and leaving 100,000 people homeless. My parents lived through this event, my father being of similar age at the time to the protagonist in the story.

Gavin Burke is seventeen years old and has just failed his Schools Leaving Certificate, much to the disgust of his solicitor father who had planned for Gavin to join his older brother at Queen’s University. Gavin is straining at the leash his family hold him by. He has lost faith in the god they worship yet fears he is being punished for his impure thoughts and actions, especially his sexual desires. Fond as he is of his girlfriend, Sally, her unwillingness to step outside the constraints of her religious upbringing cause frustration and a questioning of how suited they are.

While he prepares to sit the London Matric, an alternative and supposedly easier route to university, Gavin joins the Air Raid Precautions unit – a chance to earn some money and step beyond the bubble he has been raised within. His nationalist father is appalled that any son of his would be willing to don such a uniform. It is his view that Hitler offers a chance to defeat the British colonisers and return the North to a United Ireland. Gavin has little time for his father’s opinions, although he still struggles with ingrained shame at the route he has chosen.

“Gavin, watching him, decided that his father read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which would confirm him in his prejudice.”

The ARP trains recruits in first aid, their role being to provide a first response to casualties of air raids and bear the stretchers that will take them to the local hospital. Gavin is assigned to a unit run by an unhinged and power hungry Post Officer. He quickly discovers that most of the men and women he will work with are misfits from a variety of walks in life. Nevertheless, he makes friends and joins them in outings to pubs and dance halls. He tries to hide his drinking from family and Sally – drunkenness being regarded by them with disgust. He longs to escape the confines of expectation but then dislikes how he acts when offered the chance to break out.

“The grown-up world was no different from school, it was a world where bullies came out best, where excuses satisfied no one, least of all one’s self”

There is humour within these pages, such as when the literature loving Gavin encounters a group of arty types and it is revealed they are homosexuals. Suddenly he is questioning his own prejudices. Like his view of Sally, he had considered himself tolerant and interesting until forced to make choices.

The ARP training comes to appear pointless as the war continues to be waged only on distant shores. Unsure of the direction he now wishes his life to take, Gavin struggles when his father states he is washing his hands of his failed son after another refusal to follow the line set out for him and go to work for a wealthy uncle. Neither Sally nor his father can understand why Gavin won’t conform to this future, especially when he can offer no acceptable alternative.

When the war finally arrives in Belfast, it shakes things up both physically and emotionally.

“Now, for the first time, his father would have to put his principles to the test. Would Hitler still be a great fellow, if Hitler bombed one’s house?”

I was fascinated by this historical setting and the attitudes portrayed. I had no idea people in Liverpool took to the streets in protest against the government continuing with the war after the terrible bombing they endured. I had no idea there were those who admired the fascists, who would do almost anything to see the British government and their pay lords stripped of power. We are taught only the glory and heroism of the victors, the ‘blitz spirit’, rather than the looting. In this story there are men pushing women and children off overloaded vehicles attempting to escape the city. There are men refusing to help casualties as their condition is too sickening to stomach. The heroes are not the brave but rather those who, in the moment, can distance themselves and recognise the personal benefits of being regarded heroic.

The writing skilfully captures the insularity of family life alongside the frustrations of children on the cusp of adulthood. Gavin wants to break away from the religious and political ideologies inculcated by the parents he no longer respects yet cannot help but care about what they think of him. His encounters with a wider variety of cultures proves thought-provoking – portrayed here with understated nuance.

I pondered if the prejudices portrayed, although obviously realistic for the time, could be written of so openly today without bite-back, especially the anti-Semitism. Gavin’s thinking and development around these issues are allowed to be irresolute as he experiences his own reactions in settings where, in his head, he would have acted admirably. His inflated disdain of others’ actions and intolerances is pricked by his disappointment in himself when tested.

His final test is both tense and evocative, his actions and reactions offering a powerful elucidation of how young men function in the moment. I sped through these pages, desperate to know what the outcome would be. The author takes the reader into the heart of the blitz with stunning clarity.

An engaging but never sanitised portrayal of the apathy and horror of the war years. It is also a story of family and community – how these can both stifle and anchor those seeking to spread their wings, only to find the sun can burn.

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

Book Review: Small Things Like These

small things

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a novel comes along that is a gift to readers such is the beauty of the language and the way the author captures the essence of family life and community in ways that are profound. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack comes to mind and now Small Things Like These. Although the latter has a more conventional structure, both focus on family men who understand and appreciate how fortunate they are. It is not that they are huge successes but their mix of good character, luck and hard work has offered them a chance to build a stable home life they value. The pacing is measured but never slow, the story told affecting in its honesty.

The protagonist here is Will Furlong, a coal and timber merchant living in a quiet Irish town. It is 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and times are hard with increasing job losses. Will is married to Eileen and they have five daughters. The family is well respected locally, with Will, especially, trying to offer kindnesses Eileen fears they can ill afford.

Will was raised by his single mother, suffering others’ attitude to this but cushioned by the benevolence of his mother’s wealthy employer. When he encounters the victims of the Catholic Church’s ‘laundry’ system while delivering coal to the local convent, it brings home to him what could have been his mother’s fate.

The Catholic Church in Ireland ran the schools and also many sideline ‘businesses’. What this involved was broadly known but most avoided thinking on it. Girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were derided as fallen, their families hiding them away for fear of the shame they would bring on those associated with them. Will considers all this from the point of view of his mother’s experiences but also as a father of five daughters who he is doing his best to raise well.

The threads of damage wreaked on communities by a powerful church are skillfully rendered as Will goes about his day to day business. Eileen may be considered the more pragmatic of the couple but each must live with the decisions they make. These have repercussions not just for them but on their daughters who are currently benefiting from what the church offers.

Here we have an author who weaves words together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story that is both powerful and poignant. The various lives depicted in the community may appear ordinary but behind this is an acceptance of a darkness that people avoid looking at for fear the shadows cast could damage them and theirs.

Any Cop?: Although exploring within the story how Mother and Child Homes and Laundries could continue for so long in plain sight, the writing is far from polemic. Rather it is a hauntingly lyrical account of one man’s conscience when doing right might damage the prospects of those he loves. In taut and piercing prose the author offers up a social history of rare acuity. It is a reminder that for evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Case Study

case study

“This was what people did. They sat in pubs drinking beer and gin and listening to each other talk. They pretended to be interested and then took their own turn at talking. It was difficult to see the point of any of it.”

If you enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, then you are going to love Case Study. Set in the 1960s it explores what Shakespeare expressed so well:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

In the preface, the author explains that the tale he is about to tell came about when he was offered a series of notebooks written by a young woman whose supposedly successful sister, Veronica, died of suicide. The woman blames a notorious psychotherapist her sister had been seeing, without the family’s knowledge, for Veronica’s unexpected action and sets out to gather evidence. The author had written about this man, Collins Braithwaite, in a blog post and the current owner of the notebooks believed they would be of interest.

The story is then structured as a variety of entries written in appropriate literary styles and compositions. The contents of the notebooks are reproduced along with key pages from books written by Braithwaite. There are also chapters that tell the man’s life story.

The young woman starts her quest by making an appointment with Braithwaite under an assumed name, Rebecca Smyth. She does not wish to reveal that she is Veronica’s sister. Having little knowledge of mental health issues, she assumes that Braithwaite’s clients must be ‘nuts’. This assumption injects humour into the narrative as she gives herself leave to behave in ways her carefully controlled and repressed normal self would never countenance. As Rebecca, she will flirt with a handsome admirer and become inebriated. She also finds herself talking freely to Braithwaite about her past, something that surprises her and makes her think this is why people pay a therapist for their time. Braithwaite states of her:

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone quite as hollow as you”

Braithwaite was a contemporary of R. D. Laing and railed against how the mentally ill were being treated at the time – drugged and electrocuted more than listened to. Despite agreeing on many issues, the two men were not interested in collaboration. Each thought their own work deserved the greater recognition, along with the wider respect this would garner.

Braithwaite gained fame through notoriety. He took on clients to earn money and provide cases he could write about in his books. Veronica appears in one of these under the name Dorothy. When her sister reads the account given of Dorothy’s relationship with her family she dismisses it. This was not the Veronica she had known and often derided. She could not accept that her sister may have differed from her assumptions.

As the story progresses, Rebecca Smyth and Collins Braithwaite emerge as fully formed characters, their thoughts and behaviours being at least as ‘nuts’ as those imagined people Rebecca initially tried to emulate. Perhaps if one looks closely enough at the life decisions made by any supposedly sane person, societal behaviours and constraints make little sense in terms of seeking contentment.

The author writes with skill and verve from the points of view of both men and women. There is only the one jarring inclusion. The narrator in the notebooks writes of her time at a girls’ school where sex was discussed but remained mysterious:

“At St Paul’s there was frequently exciting talk about The Penis, this chiefly concerned its dimensions”

Personally, I have never known any girls or women discuss the size of a man’s penis, although plenty of males have expressed interest in the subject. In the author’s favour, he avoids bizarre mentions of women’s breasts in descriptions of sexual encounters.

There are cringeworthy moments when Rebecca is out drinking with her admirer, Tom. These add flavour to her acknowledged difficulty in making conversation. Mostly the story builds on the emotional repression those at the time lived under, and how some strained and suffered at the behavioural shackles placed on them. Braithwaite may have pushed at the boundaries but even he could not fully escape what had shaped him as a youngster.

The young woman lives with her widowed father and has no particular wish to change this situation. She foresees for herself a future looking after him. When he encourages her to find a job, he then takes on a housekeeper his daughter soon grows jealous of. It is only when she invents Rebecca that she starts to question how she would choose to behave if freed from the constraints ingrained by her late mother.

There is much name dropping as real people coexist alongside those invented by the author. Rebecca relates many tall tales of encounters with the famous that Tom laps up. This adds to the sense that the young woman behind this mask is not as content with her lot as she has convinced herself.

The various strands come together effectively, leaving the reader questioning the fictions we create about ourselves and others. Even within close families people are unlikely to be understood, thereby building resentment, often unacknowledged. Social interactions are indeed a performance. Personas evolve but always around the foundation of upbringing.

A wise and witty portrayal of attitudes towards non conformists – how they appal but are also envied. This is impressively addictive storytelling, with breadth and depth, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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

Book Review: Winter Flowers

winter flowers

Winter Flowers, by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), brings to life the everyday hardships of ordinary working people living in Paris at the tail end of the First World War. Its protagonist is Jeanne Caillett, a talented flower maker living with her young daughter, Léonie, in a cramped two room apartment on the fourth floor of a building situated in the 2nd arrondissement. Jeanne’s husband, Toussaint, was called up to fight in the summer of 1914. In late 1916 his face was blown apart by shrapnel. He asked his wife not to visit after he was eventually evacuated to Paris for treatment and to convalesce.

The tale opens with Toussaint finally returning to his home and family. It is not just his looks that have been changed. Jeanne has been “waiting for a husband who’s been replaced by a stranger”. Unable or unwilling to speak, Toussaint hides his injuries behind a mask – physical and emotional.

The story explores loss in many forms and how this is dealt with by those directly affected or who stand witness. The authorities hold up the war dead as heroes. Those who return disfigured are openly pitied but expected to cope and fit back in. The Spanish Flu is also reaping lives, while others succumb to illnesses such as tuberculosis. Parents must deal with the deaths of their partners and children with chilling regularity and little compassion given how common such suffering is.

While Toussaint was away, Jeanne worked hard to keep herself and Léonie warm and fed amidst the shortages of fuel and food. They befriended neighbours, a small group of women offering mutual support, sharing what little they had when they could. Hunger and cold were rife. Long working days necessary for survival.

Toussaint’s return means there is another mouth to feed. His lack of communication leaves Jeanne unsure if he will work again or even leave the apartment. Léonie is put out that she no longer has so much of her mother’s attention, especially as her place in the big bed has been taken by a stranger who bears little resemblance to the picture she knew as her father.

As the family dynamic shifts, one of the neighbours finds her burden increased. With only so many hours in the day, Jeanne struggles to offer the support she would have managed previously. So much is being asked of her and still she must work.

The writing is spare and exquisite, the characters given depth, their plight drawn with care and empathy. Although a war story the focus is on the experiences of those who stayed home and must now deal with the aftermath. It is a poignant reminder of the many and varied hardships they faced.

I have read of the war disfigured in The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, and of another father’s return after the war in Her Father’s Daughter. Winter Flowers adds an additional dimension and is as subtly powerful and thoughtfully written while never descending into the sentimental. A perceptive story written with incisive skill.

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

Book Review: Some Rise By Sin

Some Rise By Sin cover

“But do not be like one of those cold, calculating men who know much and in consequence, believe others to be of lesser worth. Acquire knowledge and understanding of the world and also of your neighbour, not for what it may bring in worldly goods, but for its own end.”

Some Rise By Sin, by Siôn Scott-Wilson, is historical fiction set in 1829 London. Told from the point of view of a young man named Sammy, it focuses on the hardships faced by those who possess scant assets and capital, who must scrape together a living by whatever means available. Sammy works with Facey, a friend from their shared childhood in Portsmouth. With help from a network of friends, informants and labourers the pair steal freshly dead bodies from graves to sell to wealthy men with an interest in anatomy. These grave robbers are known as Resurrection Men.

The story opens with a heist that, unbeknown to Sammy and Facey, will lead to a great deal of trouble. Amongst the poor and struggling there are those who would wield power through violence, raising themselves up by crushing any who threaten their nefarious business dealings. Sammy and Facey are well aware of who to steer clear of but cannot always avoid coming under the radar of those with eyes across the city’s underworld. A mistake can lead to brutal punishment, sometimes death, and the authorities have little appetite to investigate.

The tale told focuses on those living hand to mouth existences, who must do jobs such as: collecting faeces for tanneries and vegetable gardens, running errands, transporting goods on handcarts, begging from those passing by on the streets. In the background are the wealthy, most of whom care little for the labourers and scavengers who they regard as no better than animals. As in any strata of society, some are capable of kindness but there are also many users and ne’re-do-wells.

The first half of the book sets the scene, bringing to life a dark and vicious London barely imaginable to the privileged of today. Descriptions are sordid and explicit, capturing the stench, gore and violence. The rich men who feature are a mix of callous and condescending. Those who mean well often conflate poverty with ignorance. The author’s character development is impressive, the sense of place key. Although a somewhat slow read in places, details add depth and are there for a reason.

Around the halfway mark the pace of the plot picks up markedly. There is a chase scene that crosses the city, almost descending into farce but adding welcome elements of black humour. From here the tension is retained, the reader becoming more invested in outcomes as characters’ mettle is tested – sometimes in what may seem foolish confrontations. The brutality continues but the pulling together of threads – kick-started by one key section of expository dialogue – makes sense of the inclusion of previous descriptions. I was left with questions but these did not detract from the page-turning race to the ending.

Notably, there are few female characters with only one fully developed, who also serves as a love interest for Sammy. This was a time when death was common – from violence, illness, infection and childbirth. The precarious healthcare of the time is explored within a thread, as is the means of survival for children left without parents. Poor men lived through their wits, fists and dubious morality. If those featured sought women this is not mentioned.

For readers who cannot bear mention of animal cruelty, be aware this is graphically described – a reflection of the times portrayed. Entertainments often involved watching the deaths of fellow creatures, with betting on outcomes amidst heavy drinking. The book opens with a dog being cruelly punished for theft and this is accepted as fair.

In amongst the stench and dirt there are good people, although also many who will place acquaintances in danger when offered money for information. The law exists only for the gentry – one scene brings to life the flawed reasoning for this. Justice for any is rare, predicated as it is on protecting wealth and status.

The tale told provides a strong depiction of an historical period focusing on the paucity of lives being lived day by day rather than on aristocratic marriage machinations, politics or national affairs. Although not always a comfortable read this is due to the realism. As well as offering a strong story featuring goings on many may not have been aware of, it is a timely reminder that if an underclass exists without redress to legal protection, they will seek to survive by whatever means they feel necessary. For those who derided the pomp and inaccuracies of escapist Bridgertonset in a similar time period – this antithesis may be right up their street.

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

Book Review: Forty Lost Years

forty lost years

Forty Lost Years, by Rosa Maria Arquimbau (translated by Peter Bush), tells the story of a woman born and raised in Barcelona during the turbulent years of the mid twentieth century, when Catalonia suffered insurrection, war and fascism. It is not a political book but rather one of how ordinary lives were affected by authoritarian change. The author lived through this time and, in an epilogue written by Julià Guillamon, it is suggested that she wrote her own experiences into her central character. This is not memoir but offers a portrayal of lived history.  

The tale opens in 1931 when the protagonist, Laura Vidal, is fourteen years old. She lives with her parents and siblings in the cramped quarters provided for the concierge of their building – her mother’s job. Her father works for a furniture maker but money is tight. Laura has recently become an apprentice seamstress at an up-market workshop, along with her good friend, Herminia. Following elections, the president has proclaimed the Republic of Catalonia leading to widespread if short-lived celebrations.

Laura has little interest in these wider events being more concerned with her day to day existence and social life. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on her through lack of money and parental demands that she conduct herself with decorum. She is impatient to acquire womanly curves, to grow up and gain independence. Although developing an interest in boys, she draws little attention.  

The story follows Laura, her family and friends over the coming four decades. There are times of hardship when food is scarce and the young men, required to complete military service, are endangered by numerous conflicts. Laura is ambitious but requires backers if she is to set up the business she dreams of. Throughout her life she retains a pragmatic approach to securing what she needs.

There are marriages, babies, affairs and deaths as the years pass. In their twenties, Laura and Herminia leave Spain along with many other refugees in an attempt to relocate to Mexico. The trials faced in this period are described in the epilogue as autobiographical in nature. Eventually, Laura returns to Barcelona where she prospers in the opulent post-war years.

In many ways Laura is fortunate, finding those who are willing to help her when she is hungry or in need of accommodation. She works hard and feels no need to rely on a partner, noting the compromises married acquaintances must make. In her fifties, however, she observes how younger women now regard her and feels regret at some of her decisions. 

The spare prose offers little emotion yet succeeds in drawing the reader in. The portrayal of an independent woman as she navigates her way from naive teenager to successful business owner is rendered engagingly. Laura occasionally faces criticism from her family and friends but, despite this, mostly acts as she sees fit. Given her earlier approach to life – her attitude towards other’s expectations of her – I was surprised by the denouement, that she was so affected by what is natural aging. Her reaction to others’ opinion appeared out of character, or maybe this is also a change that comes with age.

Certain sections of dialogue could flow better – I wondered at some of the translator’s choices of spoken words – but this may be true to the region. Encounters with the young idealists who then turn to profiteering offer a reminder that principles are rarely fixed.

An enjoyable read set in a time of great change that refuses to pander to a stoicism that so often veneers survivors who are later regarded as worldly successes. The characters portrayed here have flaws as well as strengths, and this adds to their depth. 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum D’Estampa Press.

Robyn Reviews: The Wolf and the Woodsman

‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’ is a dark, gritty tale inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish folklore. It has its weaknesses, but its beautifully written and tells an intriguing tale with gorgeous atmosphere.

In Évike’s pagan village, all women are blessed with magic by the gods – all, that is, except her. To be without magic is to be foresaken by the gods, leaving her an outcast. When the feared Woodsmen come to the village to enact their yearly toll – a powerful Wolf Girl as payment to the King – the villagers send Évike instead. However, en route to the city, the Woodsmen are attacked, leaving only two survivors – Évike, and the mysterious one-eyed captain. Alone in the dangerous forest, they must learn to trust each other if they’re to survive. But the captain is not who he seems, and there are far more dangerous threats than the monsters in the woods. Always the outsider, Évike must decide where she really fits in, and what she’s willing to give up to protect it.

Évike is a damaged woman, all snarls and sharp teeth. All her life she’s been looked down upon and belittled – bullied for her lack of magic, and for her Yehuli father sullying her pagan blood. Évike trusts no-one, and she craves power like a drug. Her words are sharp and she’s a talented huntress, but she’s never been strong enough to truly damage anyone else. In a cruel world, she dreams of finally having the strength to hit back. In many ways, Évike is an unlikeable character – but its difficult not to be sympathetic to her plight. Her character has been shaped by circumstance, and whilst she might not be pleasant she knows what it means to survive.

Gáspár, the Woodsman, is a complete contrast. He puts on a tough front, but inside he’s soft and kind-hearted – far too gentle for a world as cruel as his. He’s also smart and patient, knowing how to play the long game. His weakness is his heart -and a certain amount of naivety born from wanting to believe in the best of others. Its impossible not to like Gáspár, but his gentle nature lends itself to mistakes and betrayal.

Unfortunately, the romance between them doesn’t quite work. Enemies-to-lovers is incredibly popular at the moment, and often works well – but the chemistry between Évike and Gáspár isn’t fully convincing. Évike’s sharp edges are hard to reconcile with Gáspár’s softness, and the chasm between them is just too wide. There isn’t enough on-page character development to show any common ground.

Character development in general is the book’s biggest weakness. Évike feels almost exactly the same at the end of the book as she does at the start of her journey. She makes some seismic discoveries, but none of them have any convincing impact on her. Gáspár starts off as a mystery and then has a solid story arc, but Évike remains stubbornly the same. The story is still enjoyable, but it would be vastly improved if Évike ‘s character was explored a bit deeper and allowed to grow more obviously – especially in the second half.

On a more positive note, the writing is exquisite. Ava Reid has a knack for scene setting and descriptive writing, painting a gorgeous yet eerie picture of both the forest Évike is from and the city her and Gáspár end up in. The atmosphere is always dark and gritty, but there are elements of real horror interspersed with lighter elements – the sun peeking from behind the clouds. There are points where you want to stop and just admire the phrasing of a particular sentence.

The plot is engaging and twisty, with several distinct parts. In some ways, this would work better as two or even three books. The second half is faster paced than the first, but both are engaging. It takes some time to settle in and get past Évike’s prickly exterior, but beyond that, the first half becomes reminiscent of ‘Uprooted‘ or ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’, with the second half adding the politics of ‘We Ride the Storm‘ or ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. There are a couple of moments where things become repetitive, but overall everything meshes together well.

Reid packs a lot into just under 450 pages, yet manages to get away without information overload. It does mean that some things aren’t explored as deeply as they could have been – the Yehuli, Évike’s father’s people clearly based on the Jews, get less page time than might have been nice, and similarly it would have been good to see more of the Northerners – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The atmosphere and excellent writing goes a long way to papering over the cracks of the minor flaws. This is a debut novel, and the skill Reid has with words leaves little doubt that she has bigger things to come.

Overall, ‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’ is a mixed book, but one worth reading for the atmosphere, more unusual folklore basis, and the exceptional writing. The characters and relationships aren’t the strongest, but there’s still plenty to like. Recommended for fans of folklore-inspired tales, lyrical writing, and complex explorations of culture and identity.

Thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 8th June 2021