Charmed Life – Diana Wynne Jones

I read some Diana Wynne Jones! Finally!

I’m ashamed to say that I can’t 100% remember which lovely blogger pointed me in the direction of the Chrestomanci books as a place to start (Lory @ The Emerald City Book Review – I feel like it might have been you??) . But someone did, and I’m very grateful.

While there are probably tons of people who think I’m really late to this particular party, I’m sure there are a few who’ve also (somehow) overlooked this series, despite being a huge fan of magical, otherworldly children’s stories. For those people, what is Chrestomanci? Well, Chrestomanci is more than one thing – it could be a person (a powerful magician or enchanter, with nine lives, who works within the British Government to supervise the use of magic and enforce magical law), a place (Chrestomanci Castle in the South of England, the headquarters) or even a world (referring to the parallel world, in an unspecified time, in which the stories take place).

Little did I know when I first dipped a toe into Chrestomanci waters how complex a world it is. [Disclaimer: everything from this point on is likely riddled with inaccuracies and drawn together from various sources ranging from Wikipedia and goodreads, to fan sites and this awesome website that I discovered called ‘How to Read Me’. If I’m wrong, feel free to tell me at great length in the comments! I’m desperate for feedback…]

I think there are six books. Then there are also some short stories. The simplest route in is via the first published book (Charmed Life). Then you could proceed via publication order, or you could juggle the books into chronological order. OR, as if this wasn’t challenging enough, you could attempt them in Diana Wynne Jones’ suggested reading order, which it appears people can’t entirely agree on (some put Charmed Life first, others do not). *Breathe*

I suspect it probably doesn’t really matter, particularly if you read them all relatively close together like some kind of Chrestomanci immersion therapy, but I do feel drawn to Wynne Jones’ reading order, if I could just figure out what she actually recommended.

Anyway, all that aside, I’d not be interested in reading any further if Charmed Life hadn’t been so great. To sum up the plot, Gwendolen and Eric (Cat) Chant are orphaned when their parents die in a steamboat accident. Gwendolen, who shows great potential in witchcraft, is currently being tutored by the clearly dubious Mr William Nostrum, but she’s chafing at the bit and believes herself worthy of a greater teacher. Following the discovery of some letters amongst their parents things, Gwendolen petitions the mysterious Chrestomanci for help and she and Cat end up being taken in at Chrestomanci Castle, to live and learn alongside Chrestomanci’s own children, Julia and Roger.

I just loved the middle section of the story set in the castle. It’s a brilliant exploration of what would happen if you put some squabbling children together and added powerful magical abilities into the mix. Really funny and somehow wholly believable. Gwendolen and Julia clash in a big way, culminating in Chrestomanci taking away Gwendolen’s magical abilities as punishment. And in so doing, her true colours are revealed. Plus we, of course, find out that Cat isn’t the magical dolt he thought himself to be. Nor is he the sidekick in the story…

I won’t say anything more plot-wise, but it twists and turns in pleasing ways. Books that add magic into otherwise ‘normal’ scenarios are just my absolute favourites and this didn’t disappoint. Despite having The Magicians of Caprona from the library already, I think I want to read The Lives of Christopher Chant next, which focuses on the story of Chrestomanci himself, and how he came to lose so many of his nine lives presumably.

The best kind of escapist read.

Bed – David Whitehouse

Look at that cover – isn’t it fabulous?

I hadn’t read any Whitehouse before this review. Truth be told, I hadn’t even heard of David Whitehouse until I saw a note about his latest book The Long Forgotten and thought it sounded really intriguing. My local library doesn’t have a copy of that yet, but while poking around I found Bed and couldn’t pass it up.

Bed is a story about Malcolm Ede. Mal starts out as a remarkable kid, full of eccentricity, charisma, conviction and a convoluted type of courage that makes him entirely his own unique person; inspirational and also maddening to live with. Mal looks like he is destined for greatness until one day, in his early 20s, he goes to bed and stays there for 20 years. So his life continues to be remarkable, but not at all in the way his family might have expected.

Bed is also about Mal’s younger brother, who narrates the story. Fighting to get out from under Mal’s shadow, the book opens with the revelation that after a brief escape, he is back in his childhood home, disabled in a mysterious accident and once again sleeping in the bed next to Mal. This time, a Mal who has become a grotesque, 100 stone immobile figure.

The real question of course is why. Why has Mal retreated from life? What is he escaping from? What point is he making? The book goes someway towards answering those questions but it ends up being bigger than that; it’s an exploration of what it means to love someone, the line between love and dependency, and how powerful a force it is to be needed. Looking back at the story, it’s interesting to note that I didn’t really like any of the characters. Mal is a force of nature but he is infuriating. In fact, most of the people in the book are frustrating, largely as a result of their seeming inability to break out of their habits. Mal’s brother, mother and father are all stuck to some degree. Even Lou, Mal’s girlfriend at the point at which he takes to his bed, and the girl which Mal’s brother loves from afar, is infuriatingly passive, and at times appears nothing more than a vessel through which we see the motivations of the Ede brothers and Lou’s own father, who is repeatedly unlucky in love and life.

If I’m honest, I suspect they’re all so frustrating because they tell uncomfortable truths about how difficult it is to change the patterns in the way we live and the way we react in any given situation. It’s hard to break the mould. It’s harder to live than to exist.

While it’s not a perfect book, it is blackly funny, challenging and original. Definitely worth a read.

In which I join the Classics Club

A big shout-out to Lory of The Emerald City Book Review for this one, because I’ve loved reading her Classics Club posts and it’s through her that I originally discovered the Classics Club.

In short, the Classics Club was created to ‘to inspire people to read and blog about classic books’. Which is a great goal and I’m totally on board. There are plenty of books that I feel are gaps in my reading. In fact, there are some on my list I’m downright embarrassed about.

You’ll note that there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking about much that I’ve included. I think that’s part of the problem. Many of these books are considered such classics, that it’s almost assumed everyone must have read them and you start forgetting that you haven’t yet got round to it. But I also have no intention of reading for the sake of it or because I feel I should. In front of witnesses, I declare my intention never to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, and I’m going to be honest about my plan never to read Dostoevsky again because The Brothers Karamazov pretty much did for me. The books below are there because I think (hope) I’ll love them.

So here’s my accountability. Five years. Fifty books. Some ‘classic’ blogging. [I’ll update the list below with links as and when I review a book. So you can click through to read my verdict.]

Angelou, Maya I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Barrett-Browning, Elizabeth Aurora Leigh
Barrie, JM Peter Pan
Bates, HE Fair Stood the Wind for France
Blackmore, RD Lorna Doone
Carter, Angela Wise Children
Cather, Willa O Pioneers!
Defore, Daniel Moll Flanders
Dickens, Charles David Copperfield
Dickens, Charles Bleak House
Didion, Joan Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Du Maurier, Daphne My Cousin Rachel
Du Maurier, Daphne Jamaica Inn
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Eliot, George Daniel Deronda
Ellison, Ralph The Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo The Essential Writings
Faulkner, William As I Lay Dying
Fenimore Cooper, James The Last of the Mohicans
Fitgerald, F Scott The Great Gatsby
Ford, Madox Ford Parade’s End / The Good Soldier
Forster, E.M Howards End / A Room with a View
Gibbons, Stella Cold Comfort Farm
Heaney, Seamus Beowulf
Hemingway, Ernest For Whom the Bell Tolls / East of Eden
Jackson, Shirley The Haunting of Hill House
Jerome, K Jerome Three Men in a Boat
Lee, Harper To Kill A Mockingbird
Lessing, Doris The Golden Notebook
Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain
Maugham, Somerset The Painted Veil
McCullers, Carson The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Panter-Downes, Mollie One Fine Day
Perkins-Gilmore, Charlotte Herland
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the western front
Rhys, Jean Wide Sargasso Sea
Robinson, Marilynne Housekeeping
Salinger, JD The Catcher in the Rye
Spark, Muriel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Taylor, Mildred Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
Thackeray, WM Vanity Fair
Voltaire Candide
Walker, Alice The Colour Purple
West, Rebecca The Fountain Overflows
White, EB Charlotte’s Web
Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass
Wiesel, Elie Night
Wolf, Naomi The Beauty Myth
Woolf, Virginia A Room of One’s Own

Is anyone else taking part already? What are your favourite classics?

The Patience Stone – Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone was an impulsive read for me – I was browsing in the Hive in Worcester, spotted a shelf of books by writers from Islamic countries and had a brief moment of thinking that I really don’t read diversely enough and should take a look. I’m glad I did, because this is a thought-provoking read for just 130 pages.

Set in just one room, in a war-torn village somewhere in Afghanistan, at an indeterminate time, the story follows the thoughts and confessions of a woman tending her wounded husband. He has been shot in the neck and is comatose; the only sign of life the regular breaths he takes. She cleans him, replaces his drip, puts drops in his open eyes to prevent them drying out. And in the silences between the sound of tanks, the rippling of gunfire and the unwanted interruptions from the local mullah, she begins to talk to him. Slowly, and painfully, she confesses to some of the darkest secrets of her life.

The setting is so powerful. The action never moves outside of the four walls in which the woman’s husband lies. She moves freely in and out but we have no choice but to stay behind. When she leaves, we wait for her to come back, watching her husband take one breath after another or a fly buzzing around the prone body. It’s such a clever way to make a statement about war. It’s just outside, and occasionally has the power to penetrate into the room itself. This approach reflects the majority of people’s experience of conflict – noise, uncertainty, fear, cowering indoors. The war intrudes into the homes of people who are trying to maintain some degree of normality despite the horror outside.

The Patience Stone, or sang-e sabur, is a magic stone to which you tell ‘…your struggles, all your pain, all your woes’. The stone absorbs everything over time, until eventually, one day, it explodes and sets you free from the burdens you’ve carried. As the woman’s catatonic husband becomes her sang-e sabur, her stories become more shocking and raw. His role in the exchange is not passive, however, given that he is the source of much of her intense anger. I thought Rahimi presented the woman in a brave and unflinching way. She’s as capable of cruelty and deceit as she is duty, honour and love. She’s so powerfully human and very much a sexual being, in stark contrast to the way that women are presented and expected to be in many cultures. Most of all, she is desperate, driven to say the sort of things one says to a confessor when they’ve given up on absolution and just want some kind of peace for and within ourselves.

The story feels like an anti-parable. No one is named. There is the woman, her man, her two children, her aunt, her father-in-law. Rahimi appears to use the woman as a mouthpiece for the suffering of so many. In the introduction by Khaled Hosseini, he speaks to this aspect of the book, saying ‘…far too many women continue to languish under the unquestioned, absolute domination of tribal customs that deprive them of meaningful participation in societal life. For far too long, Afghan women have been faceless and voiceless. Until now […] In The Patience Stone, they have their say at last.’

While the former statement is indisputably true, I’m uncomfortable with the implications of the second. I’ve always been uncomfortable about the idea of ‘one’ speaking for ‘many’. It’s hard to distil down such widespread misery and pain into one story after all. But this is just an interpretation of the book, and you’re free to make your own. I prefer the idea that the woman’s experience opens a door into a hidden world and, in so doing, encourages an understanding of the hundreds of other stories that are yet to be told, and the millions of other women who live lives of unimaginable hardship in silence and behind closed doors.

Folk – Zoe Gilbert

I haven’t been thinking about my ‘best of’ 2018 but I wouldn’t be surprised if Zoe Gilbert’s Folk ends up on the list. It really isn’t quite like anything I’ve read before and I completely loved it. Although described as a novel, it’s not at all a conventional narrative. It’s actually a series of interconnected short stories about a community unlike any other – the fictional island village of ‘Neverness’.

Gilbert’s background is in short stories. Although Folk is her first published novel, her stories have appeared in many different journals and anthologies. She’s also a former Costa Short Story Award winner and runs The Short Story Club at the Word Factory.

Given all that, Folk is an excellent showcase of Gilbert’s short story writing ability. While each story has more than enough impact to stand alone, they are woven together in a masterful way. The stories move us from one house to the next, into the lives of one person, then another, but they also subtly shift us through time so that we see how people’s lives change as they age, we see them marry, we meet their children. Some of them end in tragedy and some hold on to hope.

In the opening story, ‘Prick Song’, the village boys force themselves deep into the gorse maze to retrieve marked arrows belonging to the village girls; the bearer of the arrow is entitled to a kiss and the girls wait for their suitors, with the bloodiest kiss carrying the highest honour. In ‘Long Have I Lain Beside the Water’, an aspiring young fiddle player ventures into the wilderness in search of her musical spirit and discovers the fate of her long-dead aunt and the true nature of her mother. In ‘Water Bull Bride’, the water bull rises with the tide on ‘wild nights’, assumes the form of a man and hunts for a maiden to slake his lust.

‘Folk’ seems like a very deliberate and multi-faceted choice of title. At its simplest, it’s a book about people – there’s nowt so queer as… But the stories are also about the folk of ‘folklore’, the stories that tell of the traditions and cultures of a community, the rituals that bind them together. In keeping with this, there are hints of magic and a sense in which the people are inextricably rooted in the natural world. In many instances, people and animals quite literally merge together either permanently or via magical shapeshifting. And in the way of all things rooted in nature, there is both strength and fragility. There is blood, fear, sexual threat, violence and death, but also endurance and renewal.

Gilbert’s way of writing the natural world is bleak at times but wonderful. It brought back to me my initial reaction to Lucy Wood – another writer I love who writes stories about people who cannot be separated from their surroundings. There’s a familiar harsh cruelty to both place and people that one often finds in nature amid the distracting beauty. The people seem perched perilously on the edge of their rituals, products of a time when stories had the power to hurt, heal or teach. There’s a strong sense of natural rhythm throughout both technically, in the language that Gilbert uses, and thematically in the emphasis on the turning of the seasons, the pulse of the earth and the beating of living hearts. There are also powerful themes of circularity – the book opens and closes with the same language to describe the same event, but separated by a number of years. Traditions persist. Life repeats itself and each generation takes on the mantle of the one before.

The magic in the stories adds another layer. Gilbert has done something so clever here, making it impossible to pin anything down. Some magical elements are woven so tightly into the fabric of the characters’ lives that we accept them in the way the characters themselves do. Other elements feel dream-like or occur as stories within stories, so that both we and the characters question what is real and what is fantasy. There’s Verlyn Webbe’s single, glorious wing, Sil’s cobweb shawl, drawn from the sea, or the eerie night flying made possible by Guller’s strange potions.

The last story is an incredible piece of writing, weaving many of the characters’ lives together and making painful sense of some of the earlier events, in a tale that asks questions about life, death, and the space between dreams and reality. It left me with goosebumps.

In her acknowledgements, Gilbert thanks ‘the entire Isle of Man, a place of gorse-scented inspiration and fantastic folk tales’. But Neverness is way more than just one place. Gilbert has created a world which is close enough to ours to feel familiar, particularly for those already a little in love with the old tales, which are so beautifully reimagined here. But she also takes us a step beyond, into a place where what is old becomes new and what is familiar becomes strange. Her writing is poetic, immersive, tactile and raw.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death – Maggie O’Farrell

I mentioned a little while back that I’d read I Am, I Am, I Am. I’m very glad I did, but ooof. It’s a bit of a sucker punch. If you don’t like dwelling on your own mortality – or anyone else’s for that matter – you might want to avoid it. Ironically I didn’t read O’Farrell straight after James Agee as my last review would suggest. That might just have pushed me over the edge. But if you’re up for a bit of shadowy self-reflection, then I’d heartily recommend O’Farrell’s book. It’s an excellent read and will push you into considering some perspectives that, while uncomfortable, have the potential to be life-affirming. [I Am, I Am, I Am actually appears in Goodreads highest rated non-fiction of the year to date, which I discovered via Doing Dewey’s fab Nonfiction Friday posts.]

The book is a memoir of sorts, based on 17 episodes from O’Farrell’s life during which she came close to death, from near drowning to a robbery at knife point, dysentery to haemorrhage. Some events were fleeting and seemingly based on pure luck, others were more harrowing and connected to her own health. Some of the events are just terrifying and one can only imagine how long they may have taken to get over, if she ever did. The stories aren’t told in chronological order, jumping from adulthood to childhood and back again to create an impression of a life. And as they build you can’t help but get a bit overwhelmed at just how much can happen to one person. It’s an interesting lesson in perspective – is O’Farrell the unluckiest person in the world or the luckiest?

On the surface, O’Farrell’s book paints a portrait of a life almost entirely defined by fear and tension. It’s powerful but did make me occasionally long for something light, restful or inconsequential. It also made me wonder what impression(s) I could create of my own life if I chose to emphasise certain moments above others.

But in between the terror there are glimpses of the counter-balance – the love, joy and inspiration that ideally make up a full life. I ended up thinking a lot about O’Farrell’s intention because it was clearly something very deliberate. This is not at all a conventional memoir, instead it’s a series of careful choices, linked in a considered and structured way. Most lives are random – it’s only in retrospect that one can impose structure and meaning. So O’Farrell’s choices are inevitably seeking to impose meaning. One could argue the book isn’t about death at all but our constant proximity to it. It’s possible we’ve all experienced moments where death was closer, whether we realised it or not. After the first few brushes, O’Farrell’s approach gives the impression that death is a constant in life and the only variable is how close it is to us at any one time. Accepting death as an inevitability in a roundabout way downgrades its importance, pushes it to the background in favour of the things you do have a degree of control over. While we all have to live with the knowledge that death is but a hair’s-breadth away, some people do seem to sail a little closer to the wind. More so than most, O’Farrell’s life has been lived in the shadow of death. But I don’t think that’s her take-home message. I think that her focus pushes you to consider hard questions in order to address your priorities, and creates a longing for balance, an appreciation for the life that you have now.

I read a really interesting review in The Guardian, which I’ll quote here because it made a great observation that I hadn’t considered. Apparently the idea for the book came to O’Farrell while caring for her daughter who:

“…has a severe immune disorder that has, as detailed here, repeatedly required life-saving treatment. On average her child suffers between 12 and 15 allergic reactions a year. If she eats something with a trace of nuts, or sits where someone might have consumed them, or near someone who might have eaten them, she might go into anaphylactic shock. Consequently, O’Farrell’s life “involves a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors. The nurses in our local A and E department greet [my daughter] by name. Her consultant allergist has told me several times that we should never take her outside the range of a good hospital.” This book is, then, O’Farrell’s way of letting her child know that, in facing down death on a regular basis, she is not alone. She is showing her that life is still possible.”

Structurally, I also think O’Farrell does something very clever that speaks to her own identify. The reason why she orders events in the way that she does becomes suddenly clear towards the end of the book. There’s a bit of a spoiler coming up. It’s not like it ruins the ending or anything but I found the late reveal and the retrospective impact it had on my impression of earlier events so impactful and illuminating that I think it’s better not to know it before reading. So…spoiler coming… [go make tea if you don’t want to know].

At the age of eight, O’Farrell contracted encephalitis (a severe inflammation of the brain). She was hospitalised for months and it was not clear whether she would live and, when she defied the odds and did, whether she would walk again or recover her fine motor skills. The impact on her life – both mentally and physically – was profound. Her left arm was permanently weakened, and the illness left her with lasting problems with her balance, vision and perception, as well as, in her own words, ‘a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk’. Long-term effects of cerebellar damage include ‘impulsiveness… deregulated responses to fear…’. Suddenly so much of what happened to O’Farrell and the decisions she made fell into place and made sense of her previously, at times, frustrating attitude to risk and failure to learn from experience. I could see why she left it till much later in the book to gather up the threads. It immediately becomes harder to judge and easier to explain. Perhaps that’s the journey a lot of people in her life have gone on in order to get to know her?


In a final note, I loved the source for the title. It’s taken from a beautifully succinct quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and says everything in just a few words, illuminating the positivity at the heart of O’Farrell’s book. I won’t spoil it here – you’ll have to read it to find out!

James Agee – A Death in the Family

Oooh, I’m so behind with reviews. At last count there are about 11 or 12 to catch up on. And such good books too, so I can’t quite bring myself to let any of them slip through the cracks. Rather than starting with the oldest first, I suspect I’m going to end up writing them up in the order in which the library is shouting loudest for me to return them, leaving books from my own shelves until last.

First up is James Agee’s A Death in the Family, a book chosen from my list of ‘books that I must read in my lifetime based on everything I’ve ever heard about how important they are’.

Agee was an American poet, novelist, film critic and script writer, born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1909. A graduate of Harvard, he wrote for both Fortune and Time, and was well-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), born out of a proposed Fortune assignment during which he spent six weeks living alongside sharecroppers in Alabama with the photographer Walker Evans.

As a novelist, Agee wrote just two books – the novella The Morning Watch, published in 1951, and A Death in the Family, published in 1957. Both books are autobiographical: The Morning Watch is about the religious experiences of a 12-year-old boy and A Death in the Family is about how the unexpected death of a man – Jay Follet – in a car accident impacts on his wife, children and close family in the hours and days immediately after the event. Heartbreakingly, particularly once you’ve read the book, Agee’s own father was killed in an automobile accident when he was just six years old.

It was really interesting to discover that A Death in the Family was actually published posthumously. Agee himself died at just 45 from a heart attack, the second in his short life. There’s an interesting introduction in my copy of the book (it’s the Penguin Modern Classics edition pictured, if you’re interested) by the English writer Blake Morrison about how the book came to be published and decisions that were taken about where to place sections of the text – told from the perspective of Jay’s son, Rufus – that Agee hadn’t yet incorporated in his narrative. I also discovered that Agee’s original plan had been to write a novel with a much grander scope – ‘several years and three different generations’ – but I think that the impact of the three days he covers in the published text likely have more impact as a result of being so concentrated.

With little knowledge of either Agee or his Pulitzer prize winning work, what I discovered was one of the most moving and emotionally intelligent books I’ve ever read. Agee’s detailed writing style couples with the short time-frame of the book so that it’s almost like reading in ‘real time’, which has a powerful effect. He’s a true craftsman, writing sentences almost as if playing with time. Long, meandering, endlessly punctuated sentences describe fleeting moments so that you find your impression of an event, and therefore your memories of it, become stretched and distorted in the way they would be if you later revisited it under the influence of strong emotion. At other times, his writing functions like a series of snapshots, working perfectly to underpin the subject matter. Details become painfully acute to us in the aftermath of death and loss, whether in the suddenly unbearable minutiae of daily life or in the constant picking over of memories.

There’s just so much to say about this one – it’s such a beautiful exploration of love, pain, faith, guilt, grief and the nature of being human.

Ultimately, the book’s power lies in the simplicity of its scope and plot. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Jay Follet is an ‘everyman’, nor is his wife Mary, or his son Rufus (who is modelled on Agee himself). But their experience is so relevant to one that pretty much every person I’ve ever met has directly lived through or been a close party to, that it can’t help but stop you in your tracks. We all know we’ll be bereaved at some point in our lives and we all share the 4 am terror at the knowledge that death can come on any one of us with heart-stopping suddenness. There’s a powerful universal experience at the heart of the story and each little detail Agee includes, no matter how personal to the lives of Jay, Mary and their families, seems somehow to make their story even more applicable to our own lives; to make us see even more clearly how easily it could be us sitting at the heart of it. It takes some genius to write a story about one event in the lives of a small group of people and to make it feel like an all-encompassing work about the human condition.

Tom Rob Smith – The Farm

For most of us, or at least the lucky ones, our parents are a unit. While we might stop thinking of them as effectively the same person, once we grow up a bit and accept that they are capable of clashing, when it matters, they’re still a united force and it’s easy to assume they’ll always agree on the important things. Which is what makes Tom Rob Smith’s psychological thriller, The Farm, particularly chilling. Instead of clear-cut good guys and bad guys, Daniel has his distressed father – a man who never cries – sobbing down the phone at him from their remote farm in Sweden about how his mother has lost her mind and begun imagining terrible things. Then the same day, in a second call, he has his mother, discharged from the hospital, lucid, seemingly clear-headed, and explaining that everything his father has said is a lie and that she is about to fly to see him in London to explain it all.

From this point on, you get a pacy, absorbing thriller that is never quite what you think it’s going to be. Allegiances are exchanged, stories are told and Daniel is forced to make a horrible choice based on conflicting evidence. I really don’t want to say much about the plot because so much of it hangs on that one choice, but I can probably safely say that Daniel ends up in Sweden himself to follow up on elements of his mother’s story that he can’t shake off. And the truth, when it finally unspools itself from the messy tangle of increasingly unbelievable stories, isn’t at all what you expect.

Smith also conjures atmosphere and place very well; his remote Swedish farmstead is wholly believable, as is the secretive community surrounding it. For me, the book made an interesting point about the connection between our external environment (our home) and our interior sense of self.

What made Smith’s book extra interesting for me was finding out that the central event – those terrible phone calls – actually happened to him. Back in 2009, Smith’s mother had a psychotic break and he found himself temporarily suspended between his heartbroken, frightened father and the chilling coherence of his mum. That is where the two stories deviate – the fictional retelling of what happens next doesn’t seem to overlap at all with reality. But it’s scary to find out that what feels like a clever plot device is based in a real experience. I’m not sure how Smith dealt with the aftermath of that experience. Mental health presents such a challenge in many respects because it doesn’t deal in clear-cut lines or black and white. Smith himself states in an article he wrote for the The Times magazine that he had wondered whether the same thing could happen to him. Perhaps the book was a kind of catharsis for him. It’s definitely a very accomplished piece of writing that leaves you feeling properly unsettled.

My blog’s name in TBR books

As a way of easing myself back in after a blogging hiatus, I recently spotted this meme and thought it sounded like a fun way to waste  productively spend some enjoyable time poking around on my TBR shelves, which I don’t spend a lot of time looking at these days since (wasting some different time) making my TBR jar. The meme originated on Fictionophile but I spotted it on both Stuck in a Book and A Life in Books.

Turns out having two ‘U’s in your blog name is tricky. And ‘R’s are hard. Who knew? Plus I wasn’t sure whether you could cheat with titles that started with ‘The’ by jumping to the next word in the title (e.g. ‘The Signature of All Things’ or ‘Signature of All Things, The’). Then I decided I was overthinking it and in the end I only had to cheat once anyway.

Poking around on bookshelves is so great.

Here’s what I came up with, although it’s worth noting that some categories had multiple options and I overthought those too.

Molly Keane, Loving and Giving – I loved Good Behaviour and picked this up ages ago to read more of Keane’s work. How brilliantly grotesque is that cover art? Based on that, I’m expecting more delicious darkness from this one.

Maggie O’Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave – I just read I Am, I Am, I Am, of which more later because it is brilliant but hard and I’m still digesting and shaking it off somewhat. And after finishing, it occurred to me that, oddly, it was the first of O’Farrell’s books I’d read. So this is next on the list.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship – Testament of Youth is still one of the most beautifully written, affecting books I’ve ever read and I bought this copy so I could make sure that at some point in my reading life I’d read all that Vera Brittain had to say. This book is about Brittain’s friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby (see below).

Artemis Cooper, Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence – I love EJH so much and have quite a few of her books rattling around the shelves. This was a gift and then I made the mistake of putting it in the TBR jar when I really want to read it right now so I might cheat and bump it up the list. From what I understand of EJH, she had a very interesting life indeed. Plus we know from this gem of a book that she had a famous collection of jewellery comprised of mostly ancient gold. I still love that detail so much.

Max O’Rell, Rambles in Womanland – Oh would you look at this glory of a book. It’s a real favourite of mine and although I haven’t yet read it all the way through, I have picked it up and read passages at random. Firstly in the wonderful Wantage secondhand bookshop where I bought it to make sure that O’Rell wasn’t of the ‘Women! Know your place!’ school (spoiler – he isn’t) and then each time I pick it up or spot it from a distance.

Plus it has this wonderful inscription inside, which I’m still trying to decode (Bristol Church Congress??) and which contains a story all of its own. Note that the book was also published in 1903:

Josceline Dimbleby, A Profound Secret – I bought this secondhand, not long after reading a couple of history-slash-memoir books about family secrets and catching the bug.

Winifred Holtby, South Riding – I’ve had this far too long without reading it. This is a gorgeous copy too, found in a charity bookshop in Wallingford, near where I used to live. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about this book and now that I’ve dug it out, I feel it too may need promoting from bottom of TBR jar to the basket by the side of my bed where my imminent reads get to hang out.

Mary Wesley, An Imaginative Experience – It could have been this one or A Sensible Life, which is also lurking on the TBR shelves. Mary Wesley is one of many female writers of the period 1930-2000 which I unofficially collect, so there are also a lot of her books kicking around these parts. I find her writing style to be ‘no nonsense’ in a refreshing, perceptive, palate-clearing way.

Carol Shields, Unless – This looks hard going and I’ve shied away from the subject matter a little since my daughter was born. I’ve read a lot of Shields and I’m sure it’s brilliant but it might need to wait a year or two, or ten, until I feel braced and ready to tackle it. Alternatively, I’ll keep defaulting to my new favourite category of book – Books I one day want to read with my daughter. Just yesterday we bought a copy of Bedknobs and Broomsticks from a charity bookshop. She seemed super excited about it for all of 25 seconds, but then she is two and a half so anything over 8 seconds is a definite win.

Joyce Grenfell, Requests the Pleasure – I can’t remember how old I was when I first read some of Grenfell’s comedy monologues but I really wasn’t very old. I think my mum might have put me onto them. This is one of two memoirs that Grenfell wrote – the other, In Pleasant Places, is also on the TBR shelf – and I’m really excited to read them. Bet they’re great.

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum – *cheat klaxon* *cheat klaxon* So two books beginning with ‘U’ defeated me. In this category, therefore, you get ‘Umberto’. I’ve only ever read The Name of the Rose and, as you can see, the New York Times says this is ‘deeper and richer’. The only problem with Eco is that he is so deep and rich and clever (in a thrilling rather than a smarty-pants way) that I feel I should be operating with maximum neurons before reading and I’m really not at the moment, thanks to a combination of 2/3 parenting, 2/3 working etc. (you do the maths) and so I fear he’ll have to wait a bit longer.

Jess Richards, Snake Ropes – I don’t know anything about this book. Nothing. It is a complete mystery to me. I can’t remember where I bought/acquired it. I haven’t heard of the author before. I couldn’t tell you what it’s about (although if I wasn’t feeling so lazy I could walk across the living room and read the back cover copy, of course). Interestingly, only now that I’m looking closely at the cover image do I see those faint, super-imposed, mysterious sea creatures lurking under the water.  Which immediately makes me more intrigued about it than I was two minutes ago. Anyone else heard of this one?

Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia (#1977Club)

I am currently most-way through Chatwin’s seminal work, In Patagonia, which I’m reading for Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at StuckInABook’s #1977Club, the biannual celebration of a particular year in literature. I hope you don’t think it’s too much of a cheat that I’m writing it up before it’s finished…

Travel writing is an interesting one for me because, with a few exceptions, I usually gravitate more to books about places I’ve already been rather than using it as inspiration for future travelling. Maybe it’s a little like wanting to read the book before you see the film, so as not to let someone else’s impressions influence your own too heavily. Although having said that, I love seeking out fictional characters in their ‘real’ locations, so I don’t know. Anyway, I’ve always felt I should read this particular Chatwin because of how important it is to the genre.

Patagonia was a place Chatwin had always wanted to visit and he ‘ran away to South America’ (to quote from his letter to Francis Wyndham) in November 1974, arriving in Patagonia a month later. In so doing, he left his role as staff writer for The Sunday Times to pursue a story that he had always wanted to write. This story eventually became In Patagonia and Chatwin himself described the book as ‘the narrative of an actual journey and a symbolic one’.

In Patagonia is definitely not a conventional travel narrative and I can see why it had the impact it did when it was published, as well as paving the way for some of the travel narratives it inspired. My copy includes an introduction by Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, who says: ‘…it was in photographic terms that Chatwin preferred to describe his odyssey to his friend Colin Thubron. “I was determined to see myself as a sort of literary Cartier-Bresson going SNAP, like that. It was supposed to be a take each time.” Stay longer and the picture would fog.’

I can’t think of a better way to describe the book because it really is like a photo album in words not pictures. But somehow the words can’t be pinned down in quite the same way because the impression they create isn’t fixed. It’s more like a mood, which catches you in an instant but is also changeable over time. There aren’t lists of must sees; instead In Patagonia is a elaborate construction of story, impression and – occasionally, by Chatwin’s own admission – embellishment for effect. There are stories from sources Chatwin met along the way, as well as tales he purposely tracked down. It’s not always clear whether some of them are true or not, but that’s not the point. This is very definitely Chatwin’s Patagonia.

Most striking of all is that, despite the many wonderful descriptions of the landscape of Patagonia, this is primarily a book about the people Chatwin met on his travels. This is a land of exiles as well as people who have travelled from one country (sometimes generations before) and recreated it in another. Like Gaiman – a little patch of Wales transplanted to the other side of the world. There’s a sense that many of the characters in the book had their own reasons for coming to Patagonia, and that some are still searching for their promised land.

Not all the ‘snapshots’ land for me but when they do, they shine. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Butch Cassidy, who settled in Patagonia with his share of the spoils from the Winnemucca First National Bank Robbery but refused to consider a quiet retirement. There are also lovely descriptive touches and many arresting images, like this one: ‘The ticket salesman had the face of a private drinker.’ I do struggle a little, however, with Chatwin’s reputation for entwining fact and fiction. Blurring the line in a work of non-fiction, about real people, seems less acceptable than, say, an openly fictionalised account of a real person or event. But then perhaps Chatwin wouldn’t have classed his writing as non-fiction in the conventional sense.

On the whole, I’d say I’m enjoying it, although I’d prefer to read some of his letters next to see how his ‘private’ voice compares to his public one.

If you want to see some more books reviewed for the #1977Club, do have a look at the home-page here.