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Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Reviewing

Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and Eudora Welty Reviewed in the Tablet

In The Tablet, three reissued books recommended this week: The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen, O Pioneers by Willa Cather and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty:

“The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage, £9.99) Dinah Delacroix, an elegant, whimsical woman, tracks down two childhood friends, nostalgic for their closeness at St Agatha’s, the school where they met before the First World War. It is not a touching reunion but rather a guarded one, with excellent spiky dialogue whose disjointed sentences reveal the characters’ inner worlds. Objects take on a symbolic importance and in two instances, are treated like a treasure to be hidden for future generations…


Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Reviewing

Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

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Recent review for TheBookbag of Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel.


Clara’s Daughter, in the short space of 144 pages, paints the portrait of the relationships threatening to destroy a family unit. The intensity is conveyed with sharp stabs from Ziervogel’s spare sentences.

Michele’s mother Clara can no longer live on her own. Should she be put into a home, as Jim, Michele’s husband, insists on? Or should she move into Michele’s basement? Filial love doesn’t seem to play a part in the ultimate decision. Concerns over the inheritance on the part of Hilary, Michele’s emotionally manipulative sister, and Michele’s own guilt are the driving forces. The daughters are caught up in the demanding routines of busy lives, leaving little time to analyse and feel. Clara is more clear-eyed. In her role of matriarch, she will eventually see the extent of the unfolding tragedy much more accurately than the others do. The pain this causes her will jolt her out of her own dejection.

We feel sorry for Michele, who is a bound by her unemotional personality (a ‘cold fish’, in the words of her mother). But Clara is the most tragic character. A complex woman, mother of two middle-aged daughters, she’s always been defined in relation to them. Yet when she works at her pottery, we get a feeling of a potential misused talent, of a yearning to do other things. But Clara finds it impossible to escape domesticity and after a promising sculpture of a mother and daughter, spends years making indifferent vases. The symbolism of the mother/daughter sculpture is potent. It looms over the book. Is it Clara’s best sculpture because its subject was so important to her? Michele is aware of the honour of receiving the statuette as a gift, but her husband scoffs at it.

Jim is described as ‘accommodating’ yet it is his intransigence, brought on by an untimely middle-aged crisis, which endangers the couple’s relationship. His character is subtly drawn, even though his reactions are no different to those of similar men, in similar novels and films. In such a situation, the range of gestures available to people is limited, especially in the setting of an upper middle class Hampstead household. But the force that drives him, the final, mulish single-mindedness, we recognise as one of the tragic masculine waves capable of destroying everything before them. The area of the potential disaster is small – a comfortable family in North London – yet Ziervogel’s talent means the reader cares about the outcome of the drama. She uses flashbacks of the couple’s warm embraces to precisely convey how harmonious their marriage used to be. She circles the defining incident between them with these flashbacks and with leaps forward in time. This structure works well; it feels like the autopsy of a network of family relationships, with the writer as a highly skilled pathologist and the readers as mesmerized medical students.




Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Reviewing

Wreaking by James Scudamore Review


Wreaking by James Scudamore

Wreaking by James Scudamore, reviewed for The Bookbag.


A derelict mental hospital, gloomy railway arches, the bleak countryside of the English coast. It all comes at us in grey flashes. If Wreaking was a film, it would saturated with cool tones. It’s an easy novel to visualise: Scudamore’s spare, elegant style creates an almost palpable atmosphere.

The main characters, Jasper Scriven and his daughter Cleo, are estranged. Their difficult relationship is based on painful past events, which for most of the book we can only guess at. Their attempts at communication have us holding our breaths. Indeed, the intricacies of the father-daughter relation are the most gripping elements of this novel. Each tentative telephone conversation is like a battle between them. There are no screaming rows but silence proves to be as important as words and is certainly more threatening. It is easy to relate to both characters. Both are loners; they have a self-sufficiency which is close to harshness yet is laced with vulnerability. But it’s Cleo who we fear for during the phone conversations and during the flashbacks to the past.

The flashbacks take us to Wreaking, the derelict psychiatric hospital which Scriven bought when Cleo was a child and where he continues his reclusive existence. Roland and Oliver, who were teenage friends of Cleo’s when she lived at Wreaking, were also affected by events there.

In particular, Roland, a hulking man who works for seedy characters in a labyrinth of railways arches, is still haunted by what happened. We follow him around the rainy London streets, tortured by his thoughts and uncomfortable in his large body. In fact the other characters are constantly aware of their bodies too – Scriven needs an oxygen mask to breathe and Cleo often fiddles with her glass eye.

If the bodies cause discomfort, mental health looms large over the characters, which is unsurprising in a novel featuring an old psychiatric hospital. As the story unveils in complex layers, we realise that nothing is definite. Sanity, memory and identity prove unstable. The structure of the novel, told in a mix of flashbacks and of present and past tenses, mirrors this (…)



Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Memoirs, Reviewing

Wasafiri – Writing the Balkans



WasafiriThe latest issue of Wasafiri is out and it’s all about the Balkans…It’s full of interesting fiction, interviews and articles, and includes my review of Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs and Adnan Mahmutović’s short story collection, How to Fare Well and Stay Fair.


Adnan’s Mahmutović’s How to Fare Well and Stay Fair and Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs are books by two Eastern European writers at opposite ends of their careers.

Mahmutović is a young writer, born in 1974, who moved to Sweden in 1993 as a refugee from the Bosnian war. His short story collection is predominantly concerned with home, or rather the homelessness of refugees and their unsettled identity. This concept permeates the collection yet is treated with level-headed subtlety. Mahmutović excels at getting his ideas across by involving the reader in the daily lives of his characters.

The title story gives us a darkly ironic overview of the experiences of a refugee. Set like a ‘how to’ guide, it takes us through the lives of people who fled Bosnia. It covers everything from the horrible to the routine. (…)



Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Reviewing

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell



Summer Half by Angela ThirkellSummer Half by Angela Thirkell reviewed for TheBookbag. Virago have been reprinting Thirkell’s books for their Virago Modern Classics list.


If one didn’t know of Angela Thirkell’s distinguished background as a granddaughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and daughter of a classicist, it would be tempting to describe her as a kind of country cousin of P.G. Wodehouse’s. An unaffected and intelligent one, whose humour is less sophisticated but bubbles over with just as much glee. The middle-class world she has created, where young men come from families that are comfortably wealthy rather than outrageously so, offers a counterpoint to the Mitford or Wodehouse worlds with their aristocratic characters who travel the world and mingle with more louche, bohemian ones.

There is no bohemia in ‘Summer Half. It tells of Colin Keith, a university graduate who is supposed to be training for the bar but decides to take a teaching job at Southbridge school instead. He’s spurred on by a sense that at his age, he should be earning his keep. He feels both heroic and dejected by his decision; how will he fare, faced with a classroom full of bright, sarcastic boys? The adventures that follow make for an excellent comic novel inhabited by teachers, pupils and Colin’s family members.

The environment is typical middle England, with a gentle suspicion of anyone who stands out too much. Two men are described as having ‘middle’ political opinions. Indeed, throughout the book, the characters who come out best are the commonsensical ones who hold no extremes of political or personal views. The atmosphere brings to mind the Twins at St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton, in which people are good sports, where vanity and affectation are relentlessly bulldozed over by timely doses of ridicule.

For instance Rose Birkett, the vain and feather-headed daughter of the headmaster, is far too pretty; such prettiness is suspicious and comes out a loser when compared to the unselfconscious sartorial disorder of Colin’s young sister Lydia. Thirkell opposes Rose, a delightful apparition in ‘pale pink organdie,’ to Lydia, who was sitting on the ground, her feet straight out in front of her, her face, neck, arms and legs bright red, and her hair tied back with an old tie of Swan’s that she had borrowed.

Less suspect than beautiful Rose is Kate, Colin’s other sister, a practical young woman. Thirkell pokes kindly at her obsession with sewing people’s buttons on for them, darning socks or and worrying about navy thread having been used instead of black.

In one funny passage, well-bred Kate tries to make polite conversation with Philip Winter, a communist teacher who is in a bad mood because he’s in love with flirtatious Rose. He replies with sour rejoinders about poor people ‘in the depressed areas’ and the evils of fascism, much to Kate’s bewilderment. A general conversation ensues; other people butt in, good old common sense wins out and Philip is made to look pretentious.

In such scenes, Thirkell’s exquisite observations skills are apparent. Out of a deceptively simple mix of people she creates conflict to great comic effect. The characters are multi-layered and yanked in different directions by their moods and internal worries, just as people are in real life. And Thirkell displays subtlety in the development of her characters; they evolve realistically, learn from each other and avoid becoming caricatures.

The setting of a school, its rituals and daily life, is entertaining and informative to a contemporary reader. Teachers and pupils alike show a deep passion for literature. Their lively discussions offer a respite from the intrigues and crossed lovers’ quid pro quos . As young Colin hesitates between his law studies and his school-teaching job, we get an insight into what the two different careers would mean, both socially and intellectually.

This portrait of parochial England in the 1930s is enlightening and charming. It is striking to be reminded of the impending war (the book was first published in 1937). When Rose comes back from an outing with two admirers, they describe the man in a black shirt they saw outside the cinema. Fairweather Junior says: It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows, you know, like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey. I don’t know why, but it was awfully funny. Lord! It was funny!

The blackshirts are treated with derision. Lydia adds that no one knows who they are; they are ‘seedy’ whereas the communists, like Philip, are people you meet having tea at people’s houses:

I’ll tell you another funny thing about these blackshirts, said Lydia. No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy?

Such historical nuggets add to the interest of Summer Half. Virago is reprinting Thirkell’s books, with three coming out this May, for which readers will be thankful. The writer’s ability to create a fully formed world peopled with attaching characters should ensure her success lives on.