Seeing double with Flavia Leng’s ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’

After lining up my library pickings, I went and left them all downstairs the other night and found myself tucked up in bed without a library book in reach, and too lazy to go downstairs. So, instead, I rifled through the TBR pile of charity shop findings by my bed, which I’ll show you sometime. Now that it’s as tall as my bedside table, it’s in danger of becoming a reserve bedside table.

A while ago I was thrilled to stumble on a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, growing up Daphne Du Maurier’s middle daughter in the eponymous Menabilly. So thrilled in fact, I forgot all about the last time I was thrilled to find a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, and so on. So I have two, both with distinctive red spines, side by side in the leaning tower of TBR.

I figured it was high time to read one of them.

Daphne DM is one of my reading obsessions. Like the Mitford sisters, the Brontes and a few others, I will happily squirrel away any and every book I come across that even mentions them in passing. I have Forster’s chunky and well-researched DM biography and somewhere, as yet unearthed in the book boxes that remain sealed while house renovations happen, is a copy of Letters from Menabilly, a glorious collection of correspondence between Daphne DM and her friend, the writer Oriel Malet. Growing Pains, Daphne’s own notes on her life, features in my new header image. I found that in Hay-on-Wye and a patient bookseller had to climb into the window display to retrieve it for me.

I’ve tried before to explain to people the attraction of reading about the same thing over and over again. I suppose it’s a little like visiting a much loved garden. If you go in the spring, it’ll look quite different to how it does in the blaze of autumn. Picnicking by the flowerbeds and listening to the thrum of the bees will be quite a different experience to hiking up to a high vantage point and looking out over the whole.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. And I’m really drawn to the idea that, whether you’re talking about a person, an event or a whole historical period, there are really just multiple truths. Reading around the topic will allow you to see a bigger picture or colour it in a little more vividly, but it can (and should) never be definitive.

Forster obviously says a lot more than Leng in her book. If you want an analysis of Du Maurier’s works in relation to her life, then it is to Forster you should turn (although with a weather eye always to the influence of how interpretation is a mirror that reflects both author and subject). Leng, understandably, really only mentions the books in the sense of their having been written at particular times and omits much of the exploration of DM’s more private motivations. Leng’s book is ultimately about how Daphne DM’s life pertains to Flavia Leng herself, which is exactly as it should be. But it’s no less valuable an insight for that. It’s often what each writer chooses to emphasise or leave out entirely in their respective books that speaks about both them and Daphne Du Maurier herself. I love the whole process of reading in this way; it’s almost like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle only to find that pieces from two different pictures have been mixed up in one box. But it’s not at all frustrating; more fascinating. Each book adds a little more detail but the final image is mine to determine. I kind of want to go for the full immersion now, re-read Forster and Letters, then read Growing Pains for the first time.

In fact, hang the potential library fines. I might do just that.

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There’s a bit more space in my local library

When questioned by my husband about the new book stalagmites on the living room floor, I’m going to claim they’re a kind of public service. After all, there’s no way the library would manage to fit in all the books if I didn’t help them out.

Sometimes it’s fun to see them all together as a snapshot of where my reading mind is currently at. This little formation represents the combined fruits of about three trips and indicates that I’m still fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction with a leaning towards books about books and writers, stories by people with quite different lives to mine, and a smattering of history.

I’ve also spotted this year that I tend to choose books (both fiction and non-fiction) with a largely unconscious bias towards women writers. I can’t say I’m that all that bothered, more interested. Most of the men on my ‘read’ list this year crop up in particular genres too (I re-read some Dahl and Morpurgo earlier in the year, and reached book 7 in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries). I might have a browse through my TBR list too. I’d quite like to see whether the bias comes through there as well… [Update: it sort of does. Oops.]

Anyway, on to the books.

Recent late-night adventures with Daddy Love aside, I’m not afraid to tackle darker topics and I’ve been meaning to read Primo Levi for just ages. Jennifer Teege’s book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me was a recent find and is a good example of my preference for reading history via the perspective of individuals with a particular connection to the events in question (in this case, Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth who needs, and perhaps deserves, little introduction).

There’s a Christie, because there’s always a Christie. I’d kind of like to have read them all one day.

Gods Behaving Badly sounds like fun and I can see how much I remember about my Greek myths. I’m looking forward to Euphoria because I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere. And Pym’s autobiography via letters and diary entries sounds like a perfect read.

 

David Lodge’s Lives in Writing [not pictured as accidentally pushed under the coffee table, sorry David] features Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett and H G Wells, amongst others.

And just to round it off, there’s Georgian England, witches and some fairly committed messing around in boats.

Now, which one first??

p.s. If, like me, you looked again at the pictures and noticed that Gods Behaving Badly is the wrong way round and is the ONLY ONE, and you were bothered by it, let’s be friends? 

 

New look, new books, plus some Joyce Carol Oates

I haven’t much fancied writing about books recently, although I’ve been reading a lot of them.

Then suddenly, last night, I was reading a Joyce Carol Oates book and becoming gradually more horrified. And all I could think about was how much I wanted to talk to someone about it. Writing structured reviews has been putting me off a bit; it had started to feel like a ‘job’ that I had to do after finishing a book. So I’m going to try something a little different. More like a journal of books; more fluid and open-ended than reviewing in the conventional sense.

So this what I wanted to say at nearly 2am this morning: “I really really wish I’d known that this book (Daddy Love for those of you who’ve been there and done that) was about an abducted child but I didn’t really get that from the blurb, which is superbly brief and ‘hooky’ without actually saying much of anything at all, but it turns out that it is and now it’s slowly getting darker and darker than anything else by Oates I’ve read recently, or perhaps ever, and there is no way on earth that I can possibly go to sleep and leave this child in this situation and these parents going through this unspeakable thing, so the only option left is to just keep reading until it’s done and hope with all my might that the ending is more bearable than what I’m reading right now.”

So I did. Until such time as I was guaranteed to be woolly-headed and unfocused today.

Then I lay there in the dark thinking that the ending was just about the meanest thing. I’m not sure what Oates intended to do with the ending, other than perhaps take the knife and give it a sharp twist to drive the blade in a little further.

Would I recommend the book?

To someone who isn’t a parent, perhaps, or to parents who are made of robuster stuff than me and didn’t cry every time the recent Pampers ad was shown. But if you want to be unsettled to typhoon level, then Oates doesn’t disappoint.

Where do stories come from? Neil Gaiman and Kate Mosse

The genesis of stories is endlessly fascinating to me and I particularly love those that end up being a bit ‘so I was on a bus…’ or ‘I was staying in an old house in the middle of nowhere…’. For this reason, I’m always drawn to short story collections that include notes from the author on the origin or history of each story; the how, where or why they came to be written. Usually they’re relatively brief, but they do provide an enticing peek behind the curtain.

Two such collections that I ploughed through in January were Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and other Haunting Tales and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things – Short Fictions and Wonders. Both of them include author notes on each story and, while pretty different in style, they each reflect their author’s dominant passions and share more than a few themes, such as ghosts, myths and legends, and a sense of homage to existing tales.

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To quote from Mosse’s introduction, her stories:

‘…have in common…a protagonist in a state of crisis, someone whose emotional state makes them more susceptible to experiences or happenings outside everyday life. They are women and men who, for a moment at least, have slipped between the cracks of the physical world we can see and understand and into a shadow world that may not even exist.’

Given that most of Gaiman’s oeuvre and many of the protagonists in Fragile Things reside in the ‘shadow world’, they do make good companion pieces. Nicely creepy, they’re also a perfect gloomy January read.

Those author passions I mentioned are pleasing to unpick. In Mosse’s case, there’s the influence of the surroundings in which they’re set (in many cases her beloved Languedoc and Brittany regions of France), the folk tales that endure in local stories and the way that personal and emotional history affects the present, often via ghostly visitations or visions. In Gaiman’s case, there’s a strong sense of the Gothic and the darker regions we inhabit, where the line between this world and the next becomes blurred, as well as a regular seam of tongue-in-cheek jibing at convention. Mosse’s ‘Duet‘ was a clever play on perspective and ‘The Revenant‘ pleasingly spine chilling. Gaiman’s ‘Feeders and Eaters’ was terrifying as much for what it doesn’t explain as what it does, and ‘Other People’ is a bit of a masterclass in short story craft.

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I’m a fan of both authors and, in particular, of the fact of that they both have such obvious writing obsessions if you read around their various works. To quote Mosse again, much of the enjoyment of these kind of collections is as a direct result of the way they help you get to know them as writers.

‘Any collection of work written over many years must, by its very nature, tell another story too – of how the author came to be the author she or he is.’

Tod Wodicka – The Household Spirit

What an unusual book this is. The setting, the people, the premise – everything about this book is just so other. And it made for an absorbing, challenging and fun read.

23346447Howie and Emily are neighbours. They live side by side in isolated houses (in Wodicka’s words ‘...twins. Once identical, now fraternal.‘ – isn’t that great?!) on Route 29; a community of two. And yet they have hardly ever spoken. Howie has ‘the last face on earth’ – Wodicka’s brilliant way to describe his ever-mournful demeanor – an ex-wife and a daughter called Harriet who is a troubled artist. Emily has recently lost her beloved grandfather, Peter Phane, and is now back in his house, slowly losing her mind. Emily has started acting strangely at night and Howie has noticed.

Over the course of the book, we get inside both Howie and Emily’s heads as Wodicka masterfully plays with point of view, learning more about how they see themselves and each other. Eventually their paths overlap, drawn together by unfolding events and their shared ‘otherness’. At times this is terrifying – Emily has a problem with sleep that is among the scariest things I’ve ever heard about. I always read credits/acknowledgements and was fascinated to see that Wodicka himself shares Emily’s affliction, which may explain the intensity of his insight. Often the book is laugh-out-loud funny, largely thanks to Wodicka’s wry wit and pithy talent for description, particularly in the character of Howie. Howie’s face is full of ‘gaunt, arboreal lonesomeness‘. The ‘microwave in the kitchen would say it was 5.44 p.m., but the microwave had been insisting, silently, on a different time zone for years. You learn to be tolerant.

This is a book that is very big on detail. Character’s lives, homes and thoughts are meticulously described but somehow it isn’t overwhelming. Just vivid and immersive. It made me feel part of the tiny, strange community of Route 29 and ultimately, I feel richer for having been inside both Howie and Emily’s heads, for very different reasons.

Further reading:

Literary Linking #9

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Some reading and inspiration from the virtual world for you:

Spotlight on bloggers:

The Englishwoman’s Wardrobe – Angela Huth

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Sometimes it’s more fun to read ‘history’ when it’s not intended as history at all. This is very recent history, although I was still a bit stunned to realise it was published 30 years ago. I spotted it while browsing through the titles at an online secondhand bookseller. I was looking for Flavia Leng’s biography of her mother, Daphne Du Maurier, and as you can probably tell I got a little sidetracked.

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And I’m so happy I did. This is such a fun and often slightly cutting read. Take this for example, from Huth’s introduction. Poor unknown ‘English Wedding Guest’:

“…the Epitome of the English Wedding Guest, who inspired me to write it. She was a middle-aged lady whose smile indicated how pleased she was to have the opportunity to dress up. Perversely, making the least of that opportunity, she had plucked her ‘Smart Uniform for Special Occasions’ from the cupboard and, possibly, added a new hat… The uniform scarcely needs describing: patent court shoes, flesh-coloured tights, black pleated crepe skirt, plum velvet jacket from whose neck sprouted the inevitable frills of a silk shirt, rising to meet the frills of rather too long greying hair….”

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Words and pictures combine to create a perfect slice of life (albeit slightly privileged society life for the most part). There are some familiar faces. Princess Margaret, a very young Martha Fiennes, Jilly Cooper and Sue Lawley rub shoulders with the Honorable Pearl Lawson Johnston, first woman High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, historical novelist Vivian Stuart, sportswoman of the year 1985, Virginia Holgate, and film producer Laura Gregory. I was also thrilled to see the familiar face of Elizabeth Jane Howard and to learn that she was ‘famous for her jewellery’ which includes ‘mostly ancient gold’.

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The clothes are often brilliantly crazy – this is the 80s after all – but what I found most interesting was the fact that so many of these disparate women shared similar opinions on getting dressed. The vast majority were horribly uncomplimentary about the Englishwoman’s ability to dress herself in a way that wasn’t dowdy, slapdash and drab. Princess Diana was a common style inspiration. And with just one exception, everyone bought their pants at good old M&S.

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What comes across most strongly though is how in thrall we all are these days to the ubiquitous fast fashion. These women kept their clothes, often for years, sometimes decades. They were stored carefully, cared for and a particular dress would bring back memories of all the occasions when it was worn.

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It made me nostalgic for a way of life where we didn’t treat possessions with such carefree abandon and thought more about where and how they were made, something I’ve been struggling to be much more mindful of in my own shopping habits.

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If you’re at all interested in clothing or taking a sneaky peek into the lives of others, it’s well worth seeing if you can track down a copy of Huth’s book.

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