This is the first in a series of my Christmas book advent Calendar, describing some especially festive moments of a few favourite books.
Today’s chosen book, has the theme of a spooky, eerie and magical Christmas.
‘A Christmas Card’ by Paul Theroux is a short Christmas novella set in the countryside of the east coast of the USA. Paul Theroux was himself born in Medford, Massachusetts and the snowy scenes and cold climate described in the book are indeed evocative of that part of the world during wintertime.
The story is told through the eyes of a young boy called Marcel. One year, Marcel’s father returns from working abroad in Asia and it is his idea to spend Christmas in the solitary country house, deep in the woods that the family has recently acquired. The small family consisting of Father, Mother, Marcel and his little brother Louis, set out early one winter morning from their warm apartment in the city, towards the wilderness of the woods along the coast. They drive all day and as evening and darkness approaches and they are stuck in a heavy snowstorm, Father realises that he is lost.
The family seek shelter for the night in an old, rambling looking mansion – what they presume to be a hotel and the owner, an old man in a crooked hat and black cape shows them the old treasures paintings in his house and the next morning just disappears.
He does, however, leave them a Christmas card on the mantelpiece that young Marcel believes has magical powers. The card provides them with magical bursts of light, guides them and has a will of its own …
As opposed to a cosy Christmas tale, ‘A Christmas Card’ by Paul Theroux is a bit of a spooky, eerie Christmas tale. If you enjoy a hint of magic and the supernatural during Christmas time, then this might be the ideal novella for you. The perfect length to read over an afternoon, with a mince pie and a hot chocolate to hand.
Let me know of your favourite books to read during Christmas.
‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier is a fascinating novel, half steeped in reality, half steeped in fancy and flights of imagination that will captivate the reader from start to finish.
Published in 1927, this book is another product of the interwar years, a story centred around a lonely, single woman, a ‘surplus’ woman of the Great War- who is left quite, quite alone in the world after the death of her Mother.
The depth of Agatha Bodenham’s loneliness is so deep, she remembers an imaginary playfellow from her youth, a young girl called Clarissa and thinks about her constantly and the make-believe games they used to play. One night, Agatha dreams of Clarissa and the dream feels most real and offers Agatha some respite from her loneliness. But slowly and surely, Clarissa visits Agatha during the day time and little Clarissa gains more life-like qualities.
Worried about what the servants might think of the sudden appearance of this strange child, Agatha flees to live in a hotel in Brighton for a few months. There given the peace and solitude needed to live happily with Clarissa without scrutiny, the young girl turns slowly but surely into a girl with real flesh and bones and human characteristics, observable by fellow guests at the hotel.
On returning to her home, Agatha introduce Clarissa to the servants in her house as her adopted daughter, a young girl belonging to their extended family who has recently been orphaned. The servants and neighbours accept this fact without demur, pleased to find their mistress with a renewed interest in life.
Life is blissful for Agatha. She and Clarissa live a beautiful life, constantly in each other’s company, playing games and reading books and preoccupying themselves with all those activities that Agatha had been denied as a child herself.
And then one day, a neighbourhood policeman demands to know details of Clarissa’s parentage and threatens to take her away to the Workhouse if facts are not furnished. Agatha in her despair tells a lie and describes Clarissa as being her ‘love-child’ – a fact that embarrasses the policeman but succeeds in silencing him.
Clarissa is now secure in sight of the law, and no one can take her away from Agatha. But as Clarissa grows up and finds interests, pursuits and friends of her own, Agatha is thrown into a constant tumult of jealousy and frenzy and Clarissa’s existence is jeopardised once more.
‘The Love Child’ is one of those rare novels where realism mingles with fantasy and whimsy and the whole is rendered quite believable. What is most interesting to observe are the forms that Clarissa takes – how she waxes and wanes between imagination and real existence, how her life blood ebbs and flows in perfect harmony with Agatha’s most inner and tender emotions.
I enjoyed watching Clarissa’s gradual appearance in Agatha’s life. I was astounded at the way in which she achieved human form and was gradually recognised by others and it was interesting to watch the interplay between Clarissa and Agatha.
It was also very interesting to witness the fact that Agatha would rather heap ignominy and shame on herself by referring to Clarissa as her ‘love-child’, at a time when illegitimacy was severely shunned in society, rather than lose the child altogether. There is a gnawing sense of loving and wanting to be loved, a need to nurture that pervades the book and haunts the reader.
‘The Love Child’ may start out as a novel about loneliness but mostly it is a novel that centres on possessiveness – the idea of controlling and being consumed by a relationship, barring all outsiders. And Clarissa is undoubtably the projection of Agatha’s psyche, a person not to be shared by others.
What happens to Clarissa? Does Agatha have her happy ending? You will need to read the story for yourself to find out. The writing is very good, the storytelling compelling and original. A page turning novel that will keep you guessing right down to the last word.
I was sent this book as a review copy from the publisher but as usual, all opinions are my own.
I’m writing this review of ‘Sally on the Rocks’ as part of the British Library Women Writers Series Blog Tour. I’ve been sent a review copy of the book but all opinions expressed about the book are my own.
‘Sally on the Rocks’ is the story of Miss Sally Lunton’s attempts to secure a husband for herself, to ward off future financial insecurity- in an attempt to prevent herself being flung ‘on the rocks’, as such. On the surface, it sounds like a mercenary tale but it is based on a unique social situation, which affected a whole generation of women, maimed by their inability to either earn a living or marry- due to so many men fighting and perishing at the Front, in the Great War of 1914.
Miss Salome Lunton or Sally Lunton is on the rocks. She is single, 31 years old and without means of income in war-struck Paris of 1915. The bohemian lifestyle that was supported by Sally’s dubious painting career is no longer viable. Sally, hence, returns to her place of comfort and shelter – to the small village of Little Crampton under the care of her elderly guardian of sorts – Reverend Adam Loveday. Reverend Loveday is old and ailing, his days are numbered and Sally realises that she must marry and marry well to secure a comfortable future for herself.
A letter from neighbourhood gossip and busybody, Miss Maggie Hopkins, reveals that an eligible bachelor has arrived on the scene of Little Crampton, by the name of Mr. Alfred Bingley. A pompous, self-absorbed, portly man, Mr Bingley, is the new bank manager of the village and already a young widow, by the name of Mrs Dalton has set her cap for him. Sally and Mrs Dalton both vie for Mr Bingley’s affections. The whole village watches the ongoing attempts to woo Mr Bingley and the question is who will win Alfred Bingley’s heart?
Mr Bingley in the meantime is ruled by his deceased Mother’s ‘Book’. A holy book of sorts, it is a book written by his Mother with all sorts of lessons, insights and quotations to guide Mr Bingley in securing a suitable bride. Whenever, Mr Bingley falls into a predicament, he consults ‘The Book’ and the Book delivers the most astute observations. It is both ridiculous and funny. Mr Bingley is only Mr Bingley in name. He reminded me ever so much of Mr Collins of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ fame in parts.
While this charming love triangle battle is being waged there are more love interests for Sally. As you can tell, the book is full of incident. An old flame from Sally’s past, comes into an inheritance and comes to reside in Little Crampton. This man’s appearance and his connection with Sally, arouses the interest of interfering Miss Maggie Hopkins and she threatens to reveal secrets from Sally’s past that might lead to a compromising situation for Sally. Another wounded and mentally disturbed war veteran also enters Sally’s life and she endeavours to help him recover from his mental and physical wounds. Life is not without excitement in Little Crampton and ‘Sally on the Rocks’ makes for an entertaining read.
Even though the bare bones of the story are serious, the storyline of ‘Sally on the Rocks’ is delightfully light and funny. Filled with the most absurd characters and peppered with satire, Miss Austen would have approved of many of the well drawn characters from Little Crampton in ‘Sally on the Rocks’. Certainly, Mr Alfred Bingley is a nod to ‘Pride and Prejudice’; Little Crampton bears resemblance to Mrs Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’.
‘Sally on the Rocks’ was published in 1915 when the First World War was still being waged and when the full extent of the war was not yet known. The men of the village are hence absent and the women are superfluous and yet without means of earning a livelihood. There is a hint of the hardship and atrocities of war from the narrative of Robert Kantyre, the wounded soldier from the Front. But mostly ‘Sally on the Rocks’ is a novel about the people who were left behind at home. A whole generation of women who were on the brink of great change. They would not only suffer the great hardship of losing loved ones, they would also have to accept social change and a different way of life. As seen in this novel, many women would have to brave a new life and seek opportunities with their menfolk, sometimes on a new continent. It was a time of immense change and more than anything else, ‘Sally on the Rocks’ spoke to me of such upheaval, new horizons, hard work and fresh opportunities. Poised on the precipice of great change, ‘Sally on the Rocks’ is the tale of Sally and many women of her generation.
‘The Rector’s Daughter – A Classic Story About Love and Loss
I recently finished reading FM Mayor’s classic novel – ‘The Rector’s Daughter’, recently published by Persephone Books.
It was such a poignant read that it is taking me a few days to mentally recover from reading about poor Mary’s life. Recover from reading about the depths and constancy of her love, devotion and emotions. Her deep-rooted devotion to her Father and the man that she loved with her heart and soul.
The ‘Rector’s Daughter’ is about Mary Jocelyn’s life. She is, as stated in the title of the novel – the current Rector of Dedmayne’s daughter. Dedmayne, a rural backwater in the eastern counties of England, is a place where nothing much ever happens. The Rector, is a stern, scholarly, authoritative figure – often appearing to live for only himself, with little care to the emotional needs and wants of his middle aged daughter. The house is a solitary one. In it reside the old Rector and his daughter Mary and an invalid sister – Ruth, whom Mary nurses with great devotion. The grown up sons have all flown far from the family nest – trying to flee from the pervading sense of academia and religiosity that the Rector emanates. It is left to Mary to look after her feeble needy sister and her stern father – and she does these things with all her heart. Nevertheless, there are times when Mary longs for love and children and a home and life of her own. She experiences moments of resentment – when she realises she has not been given the freedom to seek out a life partner and lead a life outside of the Rectory.
Mary is thirty five years old when she meets the love of her life – a scholarly man, similar in this aspect to her Father – a man called Robert Herbert who becomes a close friend of the family. With Robert, Mary discovers an intelligent mind, a passion for reading and their friendship gradually develops into a very deep love – which consumes Mary in ways, she had not thought previously possible. As with all other things in life, Mary loves Robert passionately and in her mind contemplates a life with him, filled with love and light and family. But what happens to Mary is a fate too cruel to behold and as a reader we share Mary’s feelings of dismay and disappointment.
Apart from the central plot, there were many details of the story that I enjoyed. Most of all the descriptions of the quiet life that Mary led – not completely devoid of pleasure. The books she read and her enjoyment of the passing of the seasons. There’s a particular paragraph that describes the books Mary enjoyed :
“Mary liked the long Dedmayne winter evenings. In October, as regularly as the leaves fell, she began the winter habit of reading her favourite novels for an hour before dinner, finding in Trollope, Miss Yonge, Miss Austen, and Mrs Gaskell friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness.”
Mary had a firm, lifelong friendship with her childhood friend Dora – a spinster like herself and it was Dora who visited Mary, especially in times of need and loneliness. Interspersed throughout the novel are descriptions of the small pleasures in living in the countryside and the appreciation of nature and the turning of the seasons.
“A robin flew up to greet them; a toad crawled forth and squatted on the path, turning his bright eyes to Mary while she talked to him… Mary and Dora stopped to look through the gap in the hedge at the view beyond, quiet, domestic, English scenery – a pond, meadows, and elm trees. These are the solace of the lonely in the country.”
The reason why I think that the narrative of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is so powerful is perhaps due to the fact that the reader deeply sympathises with poor Mary’s plight. To discuss her life and plight would reveal too many aspects of the plot – so it is difficult to discuss in great detail.
The feeling of pity for Mary is completely overpowering. Even though Mary never complained of her lot in life and never demanded pity. This characteristic of Mary’s personality, for me, added greatly to the poignancy of the book.
I will end with these lines :
“Such was Mary’s life. As the years passed on, the invalid’s room became more and more her world. Sometimes she felt the neighbourhood, the village, even her father, becoming like shadows. In the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.”
Persephone Books kindly sent me a press copy of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ for review, but as always, all opinions are my own.
The Bookshop on the Quay’ by Patricia Lynch was a book find that I picked up serendipitously at a used book fair a couple of years ago.
I was immediately drawn to the title – who can resist a book with ‘Bookshop’ in its title and it’s beautiful, atmospheric cover design.
‘The Bookshop on the Quay’ certainly didn’t disappoint. The story is set in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950’s. The tale opens in the living room of the ‘Four Masters Bookshop’ situated on Ormond Quay in Dublin. It is a dark and cold autumn evening, the kind of evening that makes you thankful to be indoors, beside a cracking fire, in a cozy living room. Inside the living room are the bookseller – Eugene O’Clery, his wide, two children – son Patrick and nine year old Bridgie, a cat called Mog and Bridgie’s beloved rag doll called Migeen. The Widow Flanagan, housekeeper to the O’Clery’s presided over the evening meal and the O’Clery’s are eating their meal, some of them with books propped up against milk jugs – enjoying the treasure of books in their bookshop.
There is a cruel east wind blowing in from Dublin Bay and Bridgie who is looking out of the window, spies a forlorn, waif-like young boy who is staring at a copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ that is displayed in the bookshop window. The young boy is Shane Madden, who has embarked on a trail of discovery, all the way from Ballylicky, near the Cork Road. The O’Clery’s find out that the orphan boy is searching for his beloved Uncle Tim, a drover, who Shane has reason to believe has visited Dublin recently.
The kind O’Clery’s feel sorry for the young boy, so alone in the world and offer him a warm meal and a place to stay for the night. They learn about his fondness for books – in particular ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, which Uncle Tim had once given Shane as a present.
There are various trails that point in the direction of Uncle Tim but many of them lead to disappointment. Whilst Shane is looking for his Uncle, the O’Clery’s decide to give Shane a job as shop boy in their bookshop – a job that Shane loves and cherishes. Despite the tribulations Shane faces in looking for his Uncle, he finds new purpose to his life and finds great satisfaction and happiness with the O’Clerys.
This is a lovely book filled with examples of genuine human kindness. The O’Clery’s are the loveliest people. They are a good example that bookish people are often the most empathetic.
Some of the things I loved about this book :-
Firstly, the setting. One developed a sense of the Dublin streets and the people, how they lived and worked in the big city. Another thing I absolutely loved was the sense of Autumn that pervaded the book. Especially the opening scene, where the family are gathered cozily together inside against the cruel Autumn wind – is especially evocative. There’s a particular chapter dedicated to Halloween and how the neighbourhood children dress up and celebrate the festival.
Mrs O’Clery was a favourite character. One got a sense that she was a trifle absentminded and forever reading her book and knitting and perhaps not paying attention to domestic details. Mr O’Clery wit his penchant for buying old, vintage books and not having the heart to sell them or part with them- was another very lovable and funny character. I could identify with this trait of his.
‘Bookshop on the Quay’ was a fantastic, atmospheric, bookish read. A perfect book for Autumn too. I hope you can find a copy of this elusive, forgotten Puffin Classic, which I think should be better known.
*My experience of reading Richard Cobb’s ‘Still Life’ published by @foxedquarterly *
Historian Richard Cobb’s memoir about growing up in Tunbridge Wells in the 1920’s and ‘30’s and thereafter feels very much like a miniaturist painting – only transmuted to book form.
For as the dextrous miniaturist painter adds infinitesmal detail to his work of art, so too has the author added layer upon layer of minute detail of his retelling of childhood.
As a reader, this has a few challenges. Some of the details might seem excessive at first or unnecessary, but in retrospect it is those details that render the painting or work so full of depth and it can ultimately feel quite rewarding. Cobb doesn’t write solely about important noteworthy people and events. His pen sweeps in every aspect of every person and place that his young person encountered, in the most quotidian detail. Mostly, as a young and sensitive boy he seeks reassurance in the continuity of things. Be that the presence of a town person walking on the common, or of the presence and unchanging aspect of Tunbridge Wells itself.
Cobb’s family moved to Tunbridge Wells when he was four i.e in 1921. His family consisted of his father an ex serviceman in the Sudan Civil Service, his mother, with a penchant for playing bridge at the Ladies’ Bridge Club and his elder sister.
Though Cobb’s mother seems to have a slightly snobbish character, enjoying her Club activities and being sensible of her middle class friends there, there was an absence of such class related sensibilities in Cobb’s personal narrative. This is why, we learn about all types of people who lived in Tunbridge Wells. Cobb leaves no-one out. No person is too lowly, no incident is too ordinary to prevent it being mentioned.
In the early chapters, Cobb with the thoroughness of the historian goes into great depth regarding the geographical approach to Tunbridge Wells. Don’t be deterred by the minute details however, the later chapters relate incidents related to his mother and father, his assortment of relatives, some of them quite unusual – residing in Tunbridge Wells, how the Second World War affected (it didn’t affect) the towns people and more.
An interesting chapter was that describing the Limbury-Buses – relations of the Cobb’s – who lead an extraordinarily insulated life, even during the war, not allowing any of their daily routines to be upset or any outside news to penetrate to the interior of the house.
I came away knowing about a place that I had never known before. I felt that perhaps I knew Royal Tunbridge Wells better than many places I had actually been before. Now that’s quite a feat of writing for you.
I’d however, recommend this book for the reader who has an interest in small, exacting details. If you delight in the minutiae of a place and it’s people – then this memoir is for you.
I was sent this book as a press copy from the folks at Slightly Foxed but all impressions are entirely my own.
It’s hard to pen this review without revealing certain details of its plot. The following review may contain some spoilers. If this may affect your future enjoyment of the book – I would come back to my review after reading the book.
Late last night I finished Marghanita Laski’s poignant and soul searching novel ‘Little Boy Lost’ published by Persephone Books.
Once in a while, there comes a book that is so much more than the series of events it retells. Some stories have the power to evoke major existential questions, deal with emotions so raw and that lie so heavy on the heart, that the novel becomes deeply psychological and grapples with the character’s inner conundrums and dilemmas, inviting the reader to take part in the discussion. ‘Little Boy Lost’ is just such a book.
Before the Second World War, English poet and writer Hilary Wainwright meets Lisa, a Polish girl who becomes the love of his life. Subsequent to their marriage, World War 2 strikes and the pair are torn apart – each to their own war related undercover activities. Hilary works as a British agent and Lisa is involved with the Resistance in Paris.
Lisa gives birth to a child, a son who Hilary manages to see for one day – the day after he is born and the very day before the Germans occupy Paris. And then Lisa’s ruse is discovered, the child is smuggled away to a friend for safety and the chaos of war ensues.
In the enfolding terror and panic surrounding the War, Hilary’s small family is torn apart. He hears from Lisa, one last time. In her letter she fears for her safety and that of her child and pleads to Hilary, to come and rescue the child, keep him safe, in the event of something happening to her. And then the inevitable happens… Lisa is discovered.
On Christmas Day 1943, Hilary is alone in London celebrating Christmas with his Mother and sister. A Frenchman, a friend of Lisa’s turns up on his doorstep and tells him that his son has disappeared without trace.
“It was only then that Hilary fully realised that his son was lost. Since Lisa’s death he had ceaselessly dreamed that he would one day find happiness with a child who was not yet an imagined person but only a surviving symbol of his and Lisa’s love.”
‘Little Boy Lost’ charters Hilary’s rocky road to searching for his lost son, three years after he goes missing. There are certain tenuous clues, a possible candidate- a little boy who might be his son. But the trail is very difficult to trace, the child is merely a five year old with little or no memory of his past life, having been separated from his mother at the age of two.
However, Hilary is struck with the moral dilemma of not wanting to open himself up to vulnerability, of loving and losing again … And though many points favour the fact that young Jean (the orphanage boy in question) may be his son, there is no instant recognition, no facts that absolutely determine that the boy is his, at least to Hilary’s doubtful mind.
Set in post-war France, in Paris and an obscure provincial town blaster beyond recognition in northern France, ‘Little Boy Lost’ is also a depiction of the mass destruction that ravaged France and what it was like to live in France at such a time. The images that Laski evokes are haunting to say the least.
“This street curved away so that only its beginning could be seen from the square. He rounded the curve, and then found a wilderness of desolation. Save for a roofless church higher for the contrast of emptiness, there was not a building standing for half a mile in every direction. Red bricks and grey bricks, roof tiles and stucco, reinforced concrete spouting thick rusty wires, all lay huddled in destruction. Nothing seemed to have been cleared away save what was necessary to allow a few tracks to pass through, it was ruin more complete and desolate than Hilary had ever seen.”
‘Little Boy Lost’ is a book about ideals, about personal freedom and the search for happiness. It is a book tinged with poignancy but there are glimmers of hope tucked away in its pages. The innocence of the young child, his pleasure in simple pleasures and objects and his happiness in experiencing them – is joyful.
I loved this book so much. From start to finish it was perfectly penned. And the ending still gives me the shivers …
‘The Swiss Summer’ by Stella Gibbons was just one of the books reissued by Dean Street Press recently, as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow Collective.
In the absence of any real summer holidays this summer, buying a copy of ‘The Swiss Summer’ seemed the best ticket to booking a summer holiday of armchair travel to a favourite country, in the heart of the Swiss Alps.
This summer holiday in Switzerland did not disappoint – let me tell you that in advance.
‘The Swiss Summer’ is set in the Grindelwald-Interlaken region of the Swiss Oberland, famed for its proximity to the giant peaks of the ethereal Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The story begins in the aftermath of the Second World War. The story is told through the eyes of a forty year old married woman called Lucy Cottrell. Lucy is tired of her busy life in London as the wife of an insurance agent, with its rush of social events and people. So when, a chance encounter with Lady Dalgleish, a woman owning a Swiss Chalet opens up an opportunity to spend a few weeks in this idyllic spot, Lucy jumps at the opportunity. The main reason for her visit is to act as an assistant to Freda Blandish, Lady Dalgleish’s companion, to catalogue Lady Dalgleish’s husband’s vast library of books and artifacts. However, what starts off as a secluded blissful holiday is converted to an uproarious holiday lodge with a crew of weird and wonderful characters.
Though the loss of complete peace and quiet is a loss for Lucy, the people who stay at the Chalet Alpenrose form close bonds and forge friendships that will last them a lifetime. The book discusses issues such as childlessness, parenting, the breaking up of class structure in Britain in the aftermath of WW2, class sensibility and the way the British tourist was viewed by native Europeans, first love and the ideal of marrying for love versus money. It’s a lovely book – but to my mind – the wonderful sense of place in ‘Swiss Summer’ was the highlight of the book.
From the moment that Lucy views the ethereal vision of the silvery peak of the mountain Silberhorn, from her bedroom window she is mesmerised and she subsequently takes us along on her many many walks and trips to the surrounding countryside. Sometimes, it reads better than a tourist guide book. Here are actual locations and tourist spots to be read about and savoured. And they are written in the masterful storytelling style of Stella Gibbons.
“For a long time she stared up into the clouds, and presently it seemed to her that at one point the grey was changing colour… And while she watched, with eyes refusing to believe in so much beauty granted to this world, the clouds as fleetingly began to drift across it again and it went in and was hidden. It was the Silberhorn.”
Many more trips to the peak of the Jungfrau, a trip to a mountain ridge named the Harder, rising high above the river Aare via funicular railway, to a ridge of the Augustmatthorn where wild ibex abound, a visit to the Aare Gorge, multiple trips into Interlaken and so much more – ‘The Swiss Summer’ has a wealth of opportunities for virtual travel.
Perhaps, I will take this book out each summer and take a little virtual trip to the Oberland. This is a book to treasure and read again and again.
‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton is the story of the relationship between a 41 year old widow, Joanna Malling and a married man, six years her junior. The relationship is complicated by the fact that the young man is her son-in-law, the husband of her most beloved daughter.
Joanna Malling was tragically left a widow at the age of 21, when her husband succumbed to a deadly bout of pneumonia. Left with a young baby daughter called Elizabeth or ‘Libby’, Joanna, though overcome with loss and grief was able to carve out a life for herself and her daughter.
It is at the age of 41, when we meet Joanna Malling again. Libby has grown into a young woman and is staying with her friends the Mortimers. The Mortimers have a daughter, Janet, who is Libby’s close friend and confidante. One day Libby writes to Joanna to tell her that she is engaged to be married. The relationship between mother and daughter is quite a strong one, which is apparent because of the dismay and sense of loss that Joanna experiences on discovering the news. Newly relocated to a Victorian house in the small suburban town of Tadwych, Joanna awaits the arrival of her daughter over the weekend, to learn further news about her daughter’s engagement.
Joanna learns that Libby’s fiancée is a 35 year old decorated soldier in the army, much older than Libby, in fact closer in age to her mother than Libby herself.
When Joanna first meets her future son-in-law for the first time,there is a certain degree of awkwardness between the two of them. Although both of them try to forge a feeling of friendship for the sake of Libby, it is rather forced.
After their marriage, Libby and her husband take up temporary furnished rooms in London, anticipating news of Steven’s foreign posting. Young and naive, Libby spends her days dreaming of exotic foreign idylls and impossibly romantic scenarios in which she reigns supreme with Steven. Her bubble is burst, when Steven contracts a nasty bout of pleurisy and has to be admitted to hospital. Extremely upset, Libby stays with her friends, the Mortimers and promises of evening parties, the planning of evening attire, good food and stimulating company quickly assuage Libby’s troubles and please her slightly snobbish sensibilities.
Joanna is seized with terror that the fate that struck her at a young age, that is the death of her husband, will similarly strike a blow to Libby. Luckily, however, Stephen recovers and spends time recovering at the Mortimer’s house in London.
When news of his next posting reaches the young couple, Libby is particularly disappointed to find that rather than be posted abroad, the posting is to Tadwych, the small suburban town where her mother resides. However, after a while Libby is comforted with the thought that she would be near her mother.
Despite strenuous effort, Joanna is unable to find suitable housing for the young couple and suggests that they move into her house and that she find rooms for herself. Libby and Steven protest and an understanding is reached where the young couple agree to a separate sitting room, so as to allow the young couple their own freedom and much needed space.
However, the three people confined to one house develop routines and rituals to occupy their time during the evenings. They often find themselves solving the crossword together, talking and gradually discussing books and poetry. Steven and Joanna discover they have much in common intellectually – a meeting of two minds- a rare thing for Joanna – who had not shared this facility with even her husband. One thing leads to another and suddenly Steven and Joanna find themselves in a situation too close for comfort. It is during this time – that sometimes Steven drops the use of his adopted name for his mother in law – ‘Mamma’ and uses Joanna instead. But although there is an increasing awareness and realisation of this mutual attraction for one another, Joanna and Steven share a great love for Libby and they must choose between hurting Libby or sublimating their romance. It is a hard decision to make, but it must be made.
Tutton cleverly juxtaposes Libby’s immaturity, preoccupation with self, hint of snobbishness and her naive belief that she can change the world, including the appearance and manners of her husband against Joanna’s maturity, wisdom, superior taste, intellect and wider reading. Though Libby has youth on her side, Joanna also has her charms but they are mostly of her mind.
…Libby said: “Go on talking about poetry, you two. I like listening to my clever relatives.”
‘Mamma’ deals with quite a taboo topic – a relationship between two people, who though not related by blood are related to one another by that of close affinity. The common link in this case is a most beloved daughter/ wife. This is quite an unusual and brave topic to deal with and I must say that Tutton navigates the difficult topic with great sensibility. This is not a premeditated story of lust and want. It is a story of the mutual attraction of two people who find they are on the same intellectual plane. From this, is derived a need for greater intimacy.
Joanna imagines what Steven’s hair would feel like to touch in her wildest imaginings. This is a woman who has been robbed of sexual intimacy for the majority of her adult life. Yet, towards the end, Joanna feels that she would be satisfied if only Steven would admit to her – that he loves her too. This knowledge would fuel the rest of her lonely, solitary life.
The relationship that develops between mother in law and son in law is not at all pre meditated. It very slowly and naturally develops as a result of living at close quarters and the genuine meeting of intelligent minds. In this way, the development of plot isn’t nauseating although it can make for quite uncomfortable reading at times. There is a strong degree of sexual tension in the novel as well.
Ultimately, ‘Mamma’ is a story about protracted loneliness, the loneliness that a widow might experience when she has been bereft of intimacy and companionship for the majority of her adult life. At the end of the story, do we feel sympathy for Joanna or not? … I will leave the reader to find that out.
I received an ARC of ‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton from British Library Publishing but all opinions are my own.
‘Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer’ by Molly Clavering is the story of one particular summer in Mrs Lorimer’s life, in a small village, set in the Scottish Borders.
Mrs Lorimer and her husband, Colonel Lorimer, a retired army soldier, try to live a quiet life in their small Scottish village. They have a modest circle of acquaintances, reliable domestic help in the home, a close circle of friends and participate, whenever feasible in the main village activities.
Lucy Lorimer is a writer of fictional stories and try as she might to write peacefully in her study at her home, there’s always something that needs her attention. The beginning of the story finds her wishing for a larger family home – so that she might host her rather large family of grown up children and grand children under one roof during the summer. There’s a particular property in the village that has Lucy’s attention but that has been bought by some Glaswegians, which she discovers to her dismay, when her maid informs her one morning, early on in the summer.
“The Legion meetings get all the news that’s going. They just sit there and blather like a lot of old sweetie-wives. It’s a stranger that’s bought Harperslea, a widower with a daughter. Better drink yer tea before it gets cold.”
Lucy Lorimer’s fellow writer friend and neighbour, Grace or ‘Grey’ Douglas comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to host some of the family members at her nearby cottage. All is well and Lucy looks forward to some quality time spent with her family but rather than being the quiet summer that Lucy had hoped for, the children bring along their own troubles and Lucy and her husband must come to the rescue. An old flame from Lucy’s past also resurfaces and Lucy also finds this perturbing to her equilibrium.
This was my first time reading Molly Clavering and I really enjoyed this slow-paced, humorous read. This is a character driven story and the characters are very well drawn. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the knowledge that the main two characters in the book – Lucy and Grey- are based on the characters of the author DE Stevenson and Molly Clavering herself. Both were neighbours and mutually admired each other’s writing. Whenever I read about Lucy Lorimer, in my mind – she was DE Stevenson. I am such a big fan of Stevenson’s writing and so this book made such an interesting read for me. Whilst I was reading Lucy Lorimer, DE Stevenson and Mrs Tim became one and the same although this might not be wholly accurate.
I found myself flagging a number of quotes that I found amusing. Phrases and witty dialogue. Lucy remarks to her husband one day about returning a book to a neighbour :-
“It’s that book she lent me weeks ago, of very dull reminiscences, and I have read as much of it as I can bear. Why will people insist on lending me books? They are never the ones I want to read.”
In another instance, Grey Douglas remarks about her unmarried status, that of being an old maid.
“Once you get over the shame of being an old maid, there is something to be said for single blessedness.”
To this, Lucy Lorimer remarks that Grey can hardly be categorised as an old maid when she has had marriage proposals. To which Grey responds :
“…one can hardly go about wearing a placard with ‘I’ve had a proposal but I didn’t choose to accept it’ printed on it.”
One of the most humorous characters was that of Colonel Lorimer – whom Clavering turned into a domestic god. His love for his dog, low level tolerance for interfering neighbours, obsession with looking into the quality and washing expedience of the household linens by the local laundrette and many other things made me chuckle. The couples in the book also had varying and interesting relationships. The arrival of new neighbours – in the form of the unfortunately named ‘Smellies’ added interest to the story.
Mostly I enjoyed the description of walks, garden fetes, casual dinners, shopping trips into town and other mild activities. In ways it reminded me of O Douglas’ style – particularly that of ‘Penny Plain’.
What added real value to the story were often the deep and philosophical observations of Molly Clavering.
Though a quiet book and not a brilliant book by any means, Molly Clavering’s story had my heart. I am so looking forward to reading more of her gentle stories.
This e-book was an advance press copy from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.