22 April 2018

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

It's safe to say the winter that didn't want to let go, has finally gone.  And it's a good thing as we have tickets for a Blue Jays baseball game next week and no one wants to attend a game in their winter coat!  These longer days and warmer temperatures scream for the sort of lighthearted fun you'll have with Stella Gibbons, and The Yellow Houses was way more fun than I was expecting.

The town of Torford, seventy miles from London 'on the side that goes east...' has rebuilt the damage resulting from the Blitz.  Wilfred Davis, recently widowed, sits on a park bench watching people go about their day before a flood of tears blurs his vision.  Suddenly, a man appears before him wearing something that resembles a white raincoat, offering a linen handkerchief that smells of fern.  It's not the loss of his wife causing Wilfred's wracking sobs, it's the note from his sixteen year-old daughter saying she feels it's time to leave school and find a job in London.  Mary also hopes to find a young man to marry and father the three children she's already chosen names for.  Mrs Davis would be spinning in her grave to know the time spent she's spent promoting education has been lost on her daughter. 

So far, so good.  As a reader I've been roped in.  I was prepared for the man in the white raincoat to be some sort of mystical guiding light, but that's only the beginning.  Enter comedy....Mr Davis has a lodger by the name of Mrs Wheeby who delighted me no end.

   'Round the rhododendrons, accompanied by the sound of panting, came Mrs Wheeby, who lodged in Wilfred's house, and suffered with her chest.  She was bundled in layers of elderly wool, and wore a hat of felt; hard in outline and fawn in colour, cocked above an unmemorable face.'

Mrs Wheeby is besotted with her canary and whale music, both of which push Wildred's level of comfort and acceptance to the limit.  Poor Wilfred is contemplating a move but he's worried about how to tell Mrs Wheeby it's time to move along.   At the same time, Mrs Wheeby begins to assure Wilfred she will never abandon him to loneliness.  In the meantime, poor Wilfred seeks the counsel of the head at his daughter's school.  Opening the door, he's greeted by 'Slutty' Singer, the feckless mother of five children by different men.  What would Wildred's dear wife think of the slipping standards at Torford's lovely school for girls?

  'Wildred had never accepted the mentally deficient theory, believing, for his part, that Slutty was what Pat had called careless, and the twentieth century would have called fruitful.'

'Slutty' lives down the street from Wilfred's father, who acts as something of a part-time caregiver to two of her very young daughters.  I was touched by the way he would leave his front door open so they could watch television from his front step as he handed out biscuits and other light refreshments.

Meanwhile in London, Wilfred's daughter has quickly found work in a clothing shop near the Liverpool Street station.  Owned by Mrs Levy, a native of Germany, Mary has a difficult task in convincing the owner that not all young women are interested in being lazy, young men, and shirking responsibility.  And then Yasuhiro Tasu, of noble birth, appears in the neighbourhood wearing a fabulously well-tailored coat, catching Mary's attention.  Coincidentally (or is it?), Yasu rents a room at her B&B to improve his English, share his thoughts on samurai warriors and spend an exorbitant amounts of money on flowers.

Can you imagine presenting these plot devices, in one treatment, to a team at a publishing company?  It sounds completely bonkers, which might be part of the reason this novel was tucked away for decades in a desk at Stella Gibbons's grandson's home.  Brought to the light of day after her death and eventually published by Vintage in 2016, The Yellow Houses is absolutely delightful! 

My husband bought this book for me last Christmas simply because it was by Stella Gibbons.  She's one of my favourite authors, admired to the point in which a synopsis doesn't even warrant a consideration; her name on the cover is my assurance of a good read.  If someone in a book shop tried to sell me a book about an adventurous drop-out who falls in love with a Japanese fellow of questionable political views, while mystical characters spread cheer around 1970s England I would usually run a mile.  But in the hands of Stella Gibbons, you feel as though you're reading something of a grown-up fairy tale with each voice written so convincingly. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read and highly recommended for fans of Stella Gibbons!

Highgate Village High Street by Lynn Bindman

5 April 2018

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

If you're considering a good book to read while on your summer get-away, let your quest end here.  Oh sure, the latest bestseller might keep you occupied, but if you want to be swept away...look no further.

Published in 1915, the first pages of Virginia Woolf's first novel set the scene of a London filled to bursting with people.  The pavement is so busy you can forget walking side by side with your partner.  Mrs Helen Ambrose is on the verge of tears...

'...she only felt at this moment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty of her forty years had been spent in a street.  She knew how to read the people who were passing her, there were the rich who were running to and from each others' houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workers driving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who were unhappy and rightly malignant.  Already, though there was sunlight in the haze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats.  When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath.'

Helen and Ridley Ambrose are making their way to a steamship owned by Helen's brother-in-law, Willoughby Vinrace.  Their destination is South America, a voyage which will take several weeks.  Mr Vinrace asks Helen to take his twenty-four year old daughter Rachel under her care.  Since her mother's death when she was eleven, Rachel has been raised by aunts in Richmond.  With her environment and reading material censored by her caregivers, Rachel remains ignorant about the emotions that bring two people together in a loving relationship.  And then the Dalloways board the ship when it stops in Lisbon.  There is a moment of frisson between Richard and Rachel that reveals much to the young woman.

If you have read Mrs Dalloway, and loved it as much as I did, you must The Voyage Out.  The way Woolf describes the couple in toe-curling delightful detail....their clothes, the snobbery...it is absolutely brilliant.

    'Ridley engaged her to come to-morrow.    "If only your ship is going to treat us kindly!" she exclaimed, drawing Willoughby into play.  for the sake of guests, and these were distinguished, Willoughby was ready with a bow of his head to vouch for the good behaviour even of the waves.'

Turning to a personal moment, I raised an eyebrow while reading a paragraph that mentions Portuguese fathers marrying Indian mothers and intermingling with the Spanish.  My results from one of those ancestry DNA kits revealed my background as 21% Iberian Peninsula with a smidge of South Asian.  The rest is Western Europe, but who knows...perhaps Virginia Woolf has provided a clue!  I digress....

As is so often the case when thrown together in a claustrophobic setting, friendships occur.  Two young men, Hewet and Hirst, are on a voyage of discovery, Miss Allan plays the part of the spinster, Hughling Elliot, Miss Warrington, Mr Venning (loves tea!), Mr Perrott - a barrister who secretly wishes to be a pilot instead, and Evelyn Murgatroyd seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat but what she really craves is someone to care for, and the Flushings.  At the young end of middle-age, Mr Flushing is a collector with a very interesting character as his wife.

'They had moved out into the garden, where the tea was laid under a tree, and Mrs Flushing was helping herself to cherry jam.  She had a peculiar jerking movement of the body when she spoke, which caused the canary-coloured plume on her hat to jerk too.  Her small but finely cut and vigorous features, together with the deep red of lips and cheeks, pointed to many generations of well-trained and well-nourished ancestors behind her.'

I've read that Woolf was a terrific observer of people, as I suspect most exceptional writers are, which leads me to think she has seen this very woman somewhere about London.  It's also why I savoured every page in this book - it's so rich with detail, spoiling the chances of anything else on the shelves today.  The heat, the villas, the countryside, the picnics, not to mention the sheer loveliness of a holiday that goes on for weeks and weeks of leisure time.  

I could go on and on about the many reasons why I love this book, from Woolf's statements about the unfair treatment of women in education, marriage and society, to the moments of humour that made me laugh out loud such as when Miss Allan has Rachel taste fresh ginger for the first time.  And then there was the sadness when I wasn't expecting it.  

The copy I read caught my eye while emptying the return bin at the library, but I'm going to buy one to call my own.  

The Pilgrim's Rest in Burma, circa 1900

20 March 2018

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Several years ago a colleague at the library, performing a bit of collection maintenance (weeding), handed me a copy of The Closed Eye.  What followed was a statement along the lines of...you might enjoy this but don't read too many, they're depressing.  Perhaps some people may find a bit of brutally honest introspection to be depressing, but I've come to enjoy the fact that not all stories end happily or the way I would like them to.  If you've never ready anything by Anita Brookner, this is an excellent place to start.  Contrary to the opinion of how some people view Brookner's novels, this book made me laugh out loud several times.  Well, during the first half.

'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.   In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.'

But this is not a story about Dr Weiss the academic, it's about a young woman who reaches the level of Ph.D against the odds.  As Brookner takes the reader back to the setting of Ruth's childhood, it's clear that parts of the story are autobiographical.  Ruth is an only child whose grandmother (Mrs Weiss) has left her 'sad European past'  behind in Berlin.  She cooks and cleans for her son and his family despite being less than approving of her English-born daughter-in-law Helen, the stage actress.  It is apparent that both Helen and George are happy to leave Ruth's upbringing to her grandmother.

George Weiss owns a small bookshop on Mount Street in Mayfair.  His assistant Miss Moss, is also his confidant.  George panders to Helen's whims while hoping other women will pander to his.  When George's mother dies, Mrs Cutler is hired to perform the housekeeping duties.  Quite quickly, formality is cast aside and Maggie (as she's now known) is serving up drinks to George, Helen....and herself.  Simple cooking and very light housekeeping is performed while a cigarette dangles between her lips.  Ruth watches from the periphery....

    'She did not like Mrs Cutler.  She knew, without understanding, that Mrs Cutler was one of those louche women who thrive on the intimacy of couples, who are the cold-eyed recipients of many a confidence, who then repeat it to the other party in the interests of both....'

While at school, Ruth becomes friends with Anthea.  Edgy and wise to the ways of the world she is Ruth's polar opposite.  Inviting Anthea to dinner is the setting for comic brilliance...Helen dons '...a caftan, gold earrings and a great deal of scent.'  George buys a cake from Fortnum's and the tea is ready half an hour before Anthea's scheduled arrival.  The reader is very aware that this is the most excitement the Weiss's flat has seen in some time.  Once Anthea leaves, Ruth's parents comment...

    'What a delightful girl,' said George, when Ruth returned to the drawing room.    'Quite pretty,' said Helen, blowing smoke down her chiselled nostrils, 'but not your type, darling.  She has the soul of an air hostess.'

The relentless complacency, selfishness and lack of support from her parents threatens to quell Ruth's ability to seek the higher learning she craves.  She must strike out if she ever hopes to achieve something of a normal life.  An opportunity to stay with acquaintances of her parents leads her to Balzac's Paris where she can immerse herself in study.  Her path to personal growth has a few pitfalls that had me cheering her on or a bit disappointed in turns.  The point being that Brookner has written these characters in such a rich and skillful way as to make me care.  Ruth's journey from naivety to awareness and the choices she's faced with are ones that most people will, in part, will have encountered at some point in their lives.   

A Start in Life is the perfect introduction to Anita Brookner's writing.  It will make you laugh (a lot) and wince, but you will thoroughly enjoy it.  I loved it.

Reading Woman on a Couch by Isaac Israels

11 March 2018

The Windsor Faction by D J Taylor

While out on one of our book buying trips to support independent bookshops, it was the cover that drew me to this book.  A black and white photograph of a woman wearing a hat low enough on her brow to hide her eyes, her lips are tinted red.  The blurb on the back was interesting and the setting is England, 1939.  On the way home, with a keener eye, I clued in that this was one of those 'in an alternative world' stories, which is not in my wheelhouse at all. There was a possibility this book could die a slow death on my tbr pile.  While in the mood for something difference a few weeks ago I decided to read the first few pages and found myself backing onto a chair.  This book is wonderful!

The scene described in the prologue features drizzling grey skies, dignitaries, policemen, and a Romanesque church with tolling bells.  The bells toll for Wallis Simpson, whose death from heart failure while on the operating table, has left the King despondent.  It's 1936, before the King's abdication and their subsequent marriage, which means that the course of history as we know it never happens.  Are you hooked yet?

Next in the cast of characters is Cynthia Kirkpatrick.  Barely into her twenties, she lives with her parents in Ceylon as her father is in the tea trade.  Politically, there is unrest in Europe centering around activitity in Germany's Nazi Party.  England is calling its expats home, which is just as well for Cynthia....

   'She was a tall, thin, pale-faced girls of twenty-one who, although she had been spoiled since birth, frequently told herself that she had not had much of a life.  Sometimes she thought she would like to mannequin in one of the big department stores in Oxford Street, and at other times she thought she would like to be an undergraduate at Cambridge and bicycle to lectures in a black stuff gown...'

A devastating accident while out with a young man her parents are keen to see Cynthia married to, drives a wedge between both families.  Change, even in the form of a possible outbreak of war, spares Cynthia from playing the role of heartbroken girlfriend.  Arriving back in Bayswater, the young woman takes a job at the office of a magazine located in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

Blending fictional characters with historically significant individuals, D J Taylor weaves an incredibly entertaining story.  I loved the office scenes, the cups of tea at Lyons, the strolls on Tottenham Court Road and cabs to Kensington, there's also dealings with Heywood Hill bookshop.  For someone whose experience with political thrillers is almost nil, I found myself on the edge of my seat at times.  Cynthia's relationship with Tyler Kent, working at the American Embassy, draws her into the world of spies, louche characters, and plenty of gin.  What she discovers once it's too late to remove herself will test her reserves of willpower and trust.

My notebook has pages full of notations marking atmospheric sentences, wonderful description, or witty sentences that made me read certain lines twice....

'People already talked about 'before the war' as if the phrase was a guillotine, severing at a stroke any connection that the past might have with the present'

'He wonders what Wallis would have made of all this.  Sometimes she was fascinated by the protocols of the life he loved; at other times merely bored.  He woke up the other morning trying to remember the last words she ever spoke to him.  He has a feeling they were 'I'm not having that bitch Lady Carpenter to dinner'.

'Mr Woodmansee's arrival in the outer office had had once unlooked-for effect, which was to dispel the faint air of moral laxity that had hung there since the previous autumn.  In fact, the girls were quite daunted by his presence.  For some reason nobody, seeing him at his desk in the far corner of the room, felt like discussing the party they had been to the previous night or the man they had danced with the previous weekend.  Conversation either became anodyne or lapsed altogether.  For his own part Mr Woodmansee ate occasional pink-wafer biscuits out of a tine kept in his briefcase, looked at the cartoons in Punch with an expression of absolute passivity and did his best to laugh at the jokes.'

'As Cynthia went to follow her, Mrs Bannister laid a restraining arm on her elbow.  'My dear, you mustn't mind Hermione.  She isn't quite herself.'   This warning had been uttered so many times during Cynthia's adolescence, had been pronounced over so many variegated female heads, that its implications were unguessable.  It could mean that the person referred to was clinically insane, mildly unwell, or simply in a bad temper.'

The Windsor Faction is heartily recommended for anyone drawn to fiction centred around London and /or World War II.  Not exactly a 'Home Front' novel but a fabulous way to introduce a bit of British Secret Intelligence, as well as background into Mosley's Fascist Party into your feminine middlebrow-style fiction.  Wonderful!

Tower Bridge by Eve Kirk