Novella a Day in May #24

The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford (1945, 192 pages)

The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first novel in a trilogy about the Radletts, a bonkers upper class family.

“My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me all over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls.”

The narrator is Fanny, cousin to the Radletts and rather different in temperament. Her mother leads a peripatetic life according to which man she is with, earning her the nickname The Bolter. Fanny is therefore raised by her lovely Aunt Emily, and the two have a placid, ordered existence, but it is the chaotic holidays Fanny spends with the Radletts which occupy the story.

“The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waves of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.”

It’s thinly disguised biograpy of course. The Radletts are home educated along similar lines to Nancy and her famous sisters: in French and horsewomanship, and not much else.

“They picked up a great deal of heterogeneous information, and gilded it with their own originality, while they bridged gulfs of ignorance with their charm and high spirits, they never acquired any habit of concentration, they were incapable of solid hard work. One result, in later life, was that they could not stand boredom, Storms and difficulties left them unmoved, but day after day of ordinary existence produced an unbearable torture of ennui, because they completely lacked any form of mental discipline.”

Fanny focuses the story on that of Linda, her cousin and best friend. Linda is more like The Bolter than Fanny ever is, and has a disastrous marriage to a Tory followed by a disastrous affair with a communist, before finding a true love. The Pursuit of Love is not romantic though, Mitford’s comic eye is far too sharp for that. If it wasn’t for this, my inverted snobbery may have come to the fore and left me thinking ‘So what? Who wants to read about a bunch of ill-educated, over-privileged idiots?’ Well, as it turns out, I do. I find Mitford truly funny and accomplished in her writing. No-one escapes her wit, least of all the upper-classes and their mores:

“The behaviour of civilised man really has nothing to do with nature … all is artificiality and art more or less perfected.”

She’s not above the downright silly either, such as describing a baby as “the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig”.

The Pursuit of Love does provide some intriguing insights into the mid-twentieth century landowning classes though, such as their attitude to travel in the post-war period:

“it would never have occurred to the Alconleighs to visit the continent for any other purpose than that of fighting”

The Pursuit of Love is very funny but there is a brittleness there; a sense that things easily splinter and true sadness and tragedy are only ever just below the surface. The ending emphasises this element and is truly moving, all the more so as it is something of a jolt given what has gone before.

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Novella a Day in May #7

After Claude – Iris Owens (1973) 206 pages (cheating my own criteria by 6 pages)

Trigger warning: mentions rape

I bought this one day when I finished the book I was reading more quickly than expected and I was waiting for a friend, who was late. I don’t like being without a book to read on my person and I found a late-opening charity shop. Amongst the Da Vinci Codes and James Patterson’s entire back catalogue I was thankful to spy a New York Review of Books logo. They’re a reliable, interesting publisher and so I found myself launched into the acerbic wit of Iris Owens, totally unprepared.

After Claude is funny, but it also features a despicable heroine. Kudos to Owens for not feeling it is necessary to write an attractive, likeable female for her lead, but really, Harriet Daimler is one of the most infuriating, obnoxious and unpleasant people ever committed to paper. She moves from friend to friend, sponging off them until her unrelenting selfishness alienates them and they chuck her out. She may be depressed: she sleeps all day, watches trashy quiz shows and eats, that’s it. But any sympathy the reader may feel is limited by her rudeness, prejudice and manipulations towards all who cross her path. She frequently uses homophobic language; she is racist; she denies her own Jewishness without realising that her denials illuminate that which she is trying to hide:

“ ‘Mazeltov,’ he congratulated me in an unfamiliar tongue.”

Who doesn’t know what Mazeltov means?  Harriet is also completely delusional. The story begins “I left Claude, the French rat.” What quickly emerges is that Claude has thrown her out, sick of her utter selfishness and bitterness.

“Claude, who had learned his English in England, spoke with one of those snotty, superior accents, stuffed into a slimy French accent, the whole mess flavoured with an occasional American hipsterism, making him sound like an extremely rich, self-employed spy.”

What Claude quickly learns is that trying to throw someone out who won’t listen and is totally self-interested, is no mean feat.

“ ‘Me a bore?’ I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.”

Over the course of the story we learn how Harriet and Claude met, when she was thrown out of her friend Rhoda’s house, for something horrific which I won’t include for fear of spoilers, but would you live with someone who treated you thus?

“Had I been insensitive when I told her ‘Rhoda, I have nothing per se against your karate classes but rather than pin all your hopes on a rapist, wouldn’t a cruise make more sense?’”

What kept me reading was partly wanting to see what would happen to someone so extremely selfish and self-serving that normal rules don’t apply: Harriet could do anything. Also, amongst the rancour are some bitingly funny observations, such as this regarding a friend’s marriage:

“It goes without saying that though ideally suited and ecstatically happy, Jerry and Maxine had flown directly from their wedding ceremony to group therapy, paying top prices for the privilege of insulting each other in front of an audience.”

What happens to Harriet after Claude is bizarre. She meets a guru-type and ends up begging to be allowed to join their cult, even after suffering sexual humiliation at their hands. Ultimately then, Harriet is both horrible and pitiful, extremely vulnerable but bent on destroying anyone who might want to help.

Like a pratfall in which someone ends up genuinely hurt, After Claude is funny but you feel you shouldn’t laugh; it’s painful and you want to tear your eyes away. Owens is an accomplished writer but I’m not sure I could have stood a much longer novel.

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

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Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

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Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

“There is nothing so intractable as a calendar.” (Margery Sharp)

I thought the title quote rather apt, as I’m late to Margery Sharp Day this year, but I couldn’t let it pass after falling for the author since reading two of her novels for Margery Sharp day 2017. She’s so witty, she writes with such brio, and also with such humanity and warmth that I’m a confirmed fan.

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And yet, when reading The Faithful Servants (1975), these wonders of Sharp’s writing were not quite so evident. Jane from Beyond Eden Rock, who organises Margery Sharp Day and is a great champion of her writing, had said that her later novels were not quite as good, and how right she was. The Faithful Servants is absolutely still worth reading, but Sharp’s penultimate novel is not as sparkling as her earlier work.

It’s a great idea: a trust is established at the end of the nineteenth century by dissolute Jacob Arbuthnot for aged servants down on their luck. In portraying the requests to the trust, Sharp is able to track the huge societal changes that took place between the start of the trust and well into the twentieth century, by which time the welfare state has been established and the servant class almost entirely disappeared. The various visitors to the trust’s offices are colourful and the staff only slightly less so. But…. it doesn’t quite work. The characters are all well-observed as I would expect from Sharp, and there are are some lovely touches, such as the relationship established between two beneficiaries, Miss Xavier and Miss Quartermaine, of whom “neither had the least idea that they were Lesbians.”  Sharp’s wit is also in evidence:

“ ‘Lady P. simply meant that the children should drop whatever they were doing to make up the rosettes for a Tory party candidate, or sew bean bags for a Tory fete. As you know by now dear, I’ve always been a convinced Liberal; but I can assure you I didn’t object from party politics. What I objected to was the assumption that absolutely any activity took precedence over Moliere.’ ”

But it just doesn’t have the verve of her other novels. It reads more like a series of sketches, which in a sense is exactly what it is. Of course, this is a series of sketches by Margery Sharp, and so they are entertaining, sly and funny, with strong women in evidence:

“Mr Blackburn thought of her as a field flower plucked from its native heath; Mr McIntyre, as some shy little creature of the woods. Of course neither mentioned the fancy.

Then in 1874 she was arrested on a charge of murder, To be explicit, of having introduced arsenic into her employer’s night cap of tea.”

The Faithful Servants did not diminish my love for this author, but if Margery Sharp is new to you, this would not be the best place to start. A clever idea, not entirely fulfilled, but with moments of witty brilliance which act as a reminder that Sharp off her game is still better than many at their peak.

Secondly, back to 1965 and The Sun in Scorpio, which sees Sharp very much on form. The Pennon family live on a small outpost of the fading British empire, “The Next-Door Island” to Malta.

“They weren’t Army, and they weren’t Navy, they were irretrievably civilian; it was a measure of Mrs Pennon’s social insecurity that she always felt nervous before giving a dinner-party in case no-one came. At least they weren’t Trade however, and she always made a point of explaining her husband’s chest was weak.”

Sharp writes about the warm climate wonderfully and casts a similarly acute eye towards the familial relationships. The children Muriel, Cathy and Alan don’t particularly get on, and neither do their parents. Cathy especially loves the island and its warmth, and she has a formative moment with the governor, a bachelor the ex-pat ladies flutter around. However, the start of the Second World War sees Cathy wrenched away as the Pennons return to England, where their shortcomings are made even more apparent.

“Indeed, their new, heavier clothing swamped them all, diminishing individuality, and as it were underlining the fact that whereas on the Island (among some few hundred of the Ruling Race), they’d been at least petty someones, at Home (amongst some fifty millions) they were nobodies.”

Cathy in particular struggles under the grey skies of Britain. Muriel thrives as a hockey-playing school leader and Alan finds girls to fall in love with, but Cathy doesn’t excel at anything.

“In general they were a sulky lot, and Cathy was amongst the sulkiest. It was very hard on Mrs Pennon, but she had developed such a technique of losing herself in a novel, a daughter’s obvious misery disturbed her no more than a husband’s equally obvious lack of any will to live.”

Sharp follows them through the years, and while Alan is able to move away for work and Muriel turns into a unbearably smug married suburban mother, Cathy remains somewhat adrift. Once her parents are dead, she is financially bereft and has to live with Muriel. This situation depresses all involved, and when the opportunity arrives for Cathy to become a nanny to the daughter of landed gentry she gratefully escapes to Devon.

The mother of her charge is very beautiful, and very much younger than her husband.

“ ‘Alas!’ sighed Lady Jean (probably the only woman of her generation who could sigh alas and get away with it.)”

She is also manipulative and unfaithful, and her charm in referring to Cathy as her “attendant sprite” is not entirely successful. Cathy has no great affection for her small charge, but she also has no real choices in life. Sharp’s depiction of Cathy’s domestic situation is highly entertaining as she is wholly unsuited to being a nanny and has little in common with the media and image-obsessed small girl she is nannying:

“ ‘Poor gwandpa!’ lisped Elspet – out of flannel and into frills again. ‘Mummy says he’s tewwibly pwessed for money.’

‘Nonsense, he must be worth a million,’ said Cathy bracingly.

‘But all in land,’ pointed out Elspet. (It occurred to Cathy to wonder whether besides reading Vogue and Tatler her charge ever dipped into the Financial Times…..)

‘You don’t own entailed land, it owns you,’ explained Elspet. ‘Poor grandpa! I can’t go to sleep for worrying about him. You must read to me out of Peter Pan.’ “

The years pass and we see what happens to Muriel and Alan, and also Jacko, an islander who was friends with Cathy and taught her poker, who similarly finds himself in London. The main focus remains mainly on Cathy however, and Sharp doesn’t trouble to make her likable. Cathy has nothing particularly to recommend her and she isn’t very nice, but she is also unhappy, and as a woman in the early part of the twentieth-century she doesn’t have enough control over her life to try and remedy the situation.  It doesn’t matter one bit that Cathy is so unlike a heroine though. It’s actually refreshing, and realistic, and told with Sharp’s wit, economy, and verve it’s a hugely enjoyable journey towards a perfectly realised ending. The Sun in Scorpio is an absolute joy.

To end, the beautiful Harry Belafonte singing a song Cathy would appreciate:

“It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural.” (Margery Sharp)

This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!

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First, Cluny Brown (1944) which portrays one of the most original, idiosyncratic and appealing fictional heroines I’ve encountered:

“She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown, and at the same time, stepping in with the milk, she looked as though she belonged intimately to her surroundings.”

Cluny is a young woman, living with her plumber uncle as both her parents have died. She resolutely goes her own way and harms no-one, and can’t understand why people find her habits – such as the decision to stay in bed all day eating oranges – so objectionable.

“She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea – put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors – and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box – in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.”

After a misunderstanding which sees Cluny fix the blocked sink of an amorous older man in Chelsea, Uncle Arn sends her away to service in Devon.

“She wasn’t resigned, for she was never that, but she felt a certain expectancy. At least something was happening to her and all her life that was the one thing Cluny Brown consistently desired.”

At the country house, Cluny encounters certain types: an upright colonel, a horticulturally obsessed matriarch, the feckless heir, a young society lady leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake… yet in Sharp’s hands these portraits are wholly believable rather than clumsy stereotypes. A tentative love affair begins, and Cluny Brown is nothing if not contrary…

I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. This novel is an unmitigated joy.  Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…

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Secondly, The Eye of Love (1957), the middle-aged love story of Harry Gibson and Dolores Diver.

“For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted from life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.

To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball.”

To outsiders they appear ordinary, and laughable.  But to one another, viewed through the eye of love, they are brave, noble and glamorous:

“ ‘My Big Harry! My King Hal!’ cried Miss Diver.

‘My Spanish rose!’ cried Mr Gibson.

They clung together in ridiculous grief, collapsed together on the Rexine settee.”

The grief is due to Harry needing to marry the daughter of a business rival, in order to amalgamate the businesses and save his shop.

“He wanted her to want to be married, as he himself wanted not to be made a bankrupt; he had an idea that as between man and woman it came to much the same thing.”

And so it is a novel with lovers parted. We follow Harry’s attempts to integrate into a new family, and Miss Diver’s attempts to earn money without his support by taking in a lodger (Mr Phillips, who finds the house – which he believes his landlady owns – very attractive). Meanwhile, around the edge of all this trauma, is Miss Diver’s niece, Martha. A self-contained child who Sharp frequently describes as “stolid” Martha does as she pleases. She doesn’t attend school – Miss Diver didn’t arrange it and Martha has no inclination to go – and instead walks around town, sees her shopkeeper friends, and soon discovers an all-consuming passion for drawing.

“To say she didn’t like the new lodger would have been an over-simplification: and the true root of her malaise lay so deeply entwined with her innermost feelings, she couldn’t bring it to light. Put briefly, while Martha didn’t mind carrying up Mr Phillips tray, to have to look at him and say Good morning represented an imposition of alien will.”

I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George, which I will hunt down forthwith.

Back to the adults. The Eye of Love is quite a feat, because while Sharp does not expect her readers to view Harry and Miss Diver as they view each other, at the same time she does not present them as harshly as the other characters judge them (particularly Miss Diver’s pretensions of Spanishness (real name Dorothy Hogg)). Her writing is acutely observed, with dry humour, but it is also kind.  The foibles of the characters are funny but oh-so-human.

 “At least once a day he took out Dolores’ comb, and warmed it back to life between his hands. He had to hang on hard to his Britishness, not to press it to his lips. A sad and ridiculous sight was Harry Gibson – large, stout, fifty years old – holding himself back from mumbling a wafer of tortoiseshell, as a child hangs back from sucking a forbidden sweet.”

Poor Harry. Poor Dolores.  Will they find their way back to one another? All I’ll say is, as with Cluny Brown, I thought the ending of The Eye of Love was perfect.

Well, it’s early days in 2017 but already things are looking up. I’ve met a new love in my life and I make no apologies for the gushing superlatives she inspires in me. Margery: where have you been all my life?

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If you’d like to know more about this wonderful author, do check out The Margery Sharp blog as well as all the other posts today 🙂

To end, I was going to go for a song from the period, but ultimately I chose this, as I think Cluny and Martha would approve of the sentiment:

 

“I don’t know what London’s coming to — the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” (Noël Coward)

It was the autumn equinox last week here in the UK, which means summer for us is officially over and everyone’s back at work. For this reason I thought I’d look at the theme of London as it’s where I live and work, alongside eleventy-million others. Those heady summer days are rapidly becoming a distant memory under the realities of train strikes (salt rubbed into the wound of a service so bad it often seems like Southern rail are running a surrealist immersive art installation they’ve forgotten to tell anyone about) and falling temperatures. For this reason, and after the tribulations of The Notebook last week, I’ve chosen 2 comic novels for a bit of light relief.

Firstly, NW by Zadie Smith (2012) or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Zadie Smith, if you will. This is Smith’s fourth novel (she recently published her fifth, Swing Time) and it’s the first of her much-lauded fiction that I’ve truly enjoyed. Until this point I always preferred her journalism and essays, but NW is the point at which her fiction really grabbed me.

Set in the part of London whose postcode gives the book its title, NW experiments with various forms, hopping between stream-of-consciousness, text-speak, first and third person, diagrams… It is a successful approach, creating the multiple voices and sensory overload that London offers, without descending into a chaotic mess. Edgware Road:

“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life size porcelain tiger, gold taps.”

Leah, Natalie (who used to be called Keisha), Felix and Nathan grew up on the same Caldwell estate and went to the same school. As adults, their lives have diverged, but they all still live in the area (Willesden) and their stories overlap and layer one another, broadening each of their individual tales.  Leah and Natalie are each other’s oldest friend.  Both are married – more or less happily – and employed, building their lives. But whereas Natalie spent the 90s knuckling down to work and is now a successful barrister, Leah spent it enjoying rave culture and now has a socially responsible but low-paid job, which creates a tension in their relationship:

“Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How did you get to be so full? And why so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.”

Of course, when we get to Natalie’s version of the story Leah has alluded to, we realise all is not as it seems. Natalie is not entirely happy; she has not shrugged off Caldwell, nor does she entirely want to. There are areas of her life where she still refers to herself as Keisha, and when she gives birth to the first of her beautiful children it is her childhood friends and family that give most comfort:

“People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people.”

Another section of the novel follows recovering addict Felix around the borough. He is emerging from a destructive life into something more positive.  As he moves around the area, between the people of his old life and new, his story simultaneously captures the transformation which his home town is undergoing:

“He steadied himself with a hand on the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognise it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shops, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pub by the refits.”

Nathan meanwhile, beautiful and talented at school, now a physical wreck, has not managed to pull himself out of the sort of life Felix had been living. NW is funny and sad, effectively capturing born –and-bred Londoners at a specific time in an ever-changing city. As a born-and-bred Londoner myself, around the same age as Zadie Smith and therefore her protagonists, I thought it was highly effective in capturing place, time and voice(s). I still think Zadie Smith’s editor needs to be heavier-handed, and one of the characters makes a leap at the end that I thought didn’t quite hold up, but NW means I’m now really looking forward to reading Swing Time.

Not the only member of her family to engage with ideas around language, here is Zadie’s brother Ben aka comedian/rapper/actor Doc Brown, proving that apparently the whole family are good-looking, talented and witty, damn them (little bit rude and mild swears):

Secondly, Capital by John Lanchester (2012). In 2010 former journalist Lanchester wrote a non-fiction book, Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010) about the credit crunch. This is a fictional look at the same time, through the residents of Pepys Road in south-west London.  Pepys Road, like much of London, has seen the value of the property rise exponentially:

“For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop of their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had already become central actors in their own right.”

Hence Capital is about the capital city, and also about the financial capital which the city propagates and runs on.

“She wasn’t sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes, the shops, the talk, the very air. People got it and spent it and thought about it and talked about it all the time. It was brash and horrible and vulgar, but also exciting and energetic and shameless and new”

In Mr Phillips, Lanchester wrote a slim novel detailing one man’s life over one day. By contrast, this is a 577 page (in my edition) novel takes in the lives of many: Petunia, an elderly lady who has lived in Pepys Road most of her life and her grandson, a Banksy-style artist; Roger and Arabella, a city worker and his materialist wife, their Hungarian nanny and Polish builder; the British Muslim family who run the corner shop; the Senegalese footballer whose club owns one of the houses; the Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden, ticketing the Aston Martins and Jeeps in the road.

Unsurprisingly, it is Roger and Arabella who are most affected by the financial collapse.  At the start of the novel Roger is anticipating his million-pound bonus:

“His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money’, but it did not pay even for his two mortgages. The house in Pepys Road was double-fronted and had cost £2,500,000, which at the time had felt like the top of the market, even though prices had risen a great deal since then. They had converted the loft, dug out the basement, redone all the wiring and plumbing because there was no point in not doing it, knocked through the downstairs, added…”

The chapter continues in the vein, listing all their running costs and conspicuous consumption before concluding “it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Good grief. Arabella’s whole existence revolves around spending money – she doesn’t work, a nanny takes the kids out all day, (“Matya had no theories about children, she took them as she found them, but it seemed to her that many of the children she had looked after were both spoilt and neglected.”) she has no hobbies or interests and seems to define herself through what she owns, so Roger and Arabella’s entire lives pretty much rest on his bonus.

Meanwhile, someone is sending postcards to the residents of the street, which only say “We Want What You Have”. The campaign escalates and the various residents start to feel uneasy:

“the thought of other people wishing they had your level of material affluence was an idea you could sit in front of, like a hearth fire. But this wasn’t like that. This was more like having someone keeping an eye on you and secretly wishing you ill.”

Detective Inspector Mill is called in to investigate:

“His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get into his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.”

Underestimate this unlikely copper at your peril, though.  Mill’s investigation forms the background mystery to the novel, but really this is a story about the variety of overlapping lives that take place in a typical London street: their hopes, triumphs, tragedies and the banal stuff in between. It’s a clever novel and extremely well-written, the pace doesn’t flag and I cared about all the characters (even a tiny bit about Arabella, who is clearly deeply unhappy and has no idea why). Unlike NW, there is one consistent authorial voice, but similarly to NW, Capital succeeds in capturing some of the complexity of a huge city and its many residents.

Capital was adapted into a 3-part BBC drama last year, starring the brilliant Toby Jones as Roger and a great turn by Rachel Stirling as the terrible Arabella:

 

“Middle age is when your age starts to show around your middle.” (Bob Hope)

This post is my contribution to the 1938 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book – do join in! As I rooted through my enormous TBR for books published in this year, I was astonished by the number I owned published in 1937 and 1939 – despairing, I turned to my Persephone pile and found two, hooray! So although it was scary biscuits there for a while, it all came up ticketty-boo in the end…and I promise that’s the last dubious 1930s slang you’ll hear from me 🙂

As it turned out, the two novels were linked thematically too: both are comic portraits of middle-aged women rediscovering themselves and proving that life can still hold surprises. Both were an absolute joy, so thank you Karen and Simon, for moving these to the top of the TBR and bringing them into my life that bit sooner!

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Firstly, Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan. Patricia is a wild, horse-loving redhead, part of the landed gentry but determinedly not a debutante, not wanting to marry someone like her sister’s choice:

“Victor, a pink young man with china-blue eyes and hair as golden as Angela’s, who could and did express all life was to him and all his reactions to it in two simple sentences, ‘Hellish, eh?’ and ‘Ripping, what?’”

Patricia falls for Hugh, a middle-class scholar who offends her mother’s upper-class sensibilities:

“‘it’s the small things that jar – cruets and asparagus servers and ferns..’

‘Patricia,’ said Lord Waveney winking at his grand-daughter, ‘isn’t such a fine piece of porcelain that she can’t stand a jar. If I were a woman, I’d sooner my husband kept a cruet than a mistress. Damn it, I’d sooner he helped himself to asparagus with servers than whisky without discretion.’”

Patricia marries Hugh and as they both change over the years she ends up feeling vaguely disappointed; he is preoccupied professor, she has compromised who she was out of all existence. They have three children and as they grow older Patricia wonders what is left of her life:

“I’ve just got to grow old and feeble and ugly. And what then? She asked, passing the marmalade factory, diving under the bridge, fleeing on between lighted dolls’-houses, and answered herself: some foul disease- a paralytic stroke and your face all sideways, or cancer and your last words on earth a howl for morphia”

I realise this may sound resolutely depressing but it really isn’t. Princes in the Land is written with a light touch and is filled with witty observations. Cannan laughs at human foibles but does so with affection. Patricia soon cheers herself with the thought of her children, the fact that she is:

“Mrs Lindsay with a charming house and three nice children, one going into the Army, one not sure yet but perhaps publishing, one still too young to know but almost certain to do something with horses”

One by one, her children break the news to her that actually, they do not have the remotest inclination to follow the paths she has imagined for them. Patricia is a nice person, she is sensible and she loves her children, and so she steps back to let them make their own choices and mistakes. It means however, that she is not fulfilled through them, and so she is thrown back to thinking about what on earth she is going to do with the rest of her life:

“The kingdoms she had won for them they had rejected. August with his shiny black bag and his bowler hat, his two pounds a week and his gimcrack villa; Giles dispensing God as a remedy for discontent, boredom or sex repression; Nicola without an idea in her head beyond combustion engines – these weren’t the children for whom she’d given up fun and friendship, worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, supressed, surrendered and seen her young self die.”

I hope it’s not too much of a SPOILER to say she works something out – the tone of the novel means I remained hopeful that she would, and it would have been a real shock if a depressing, bleak outcome had won. Princes in the Land is just lovely, and truly moving: I don’t think anyone on the bus noticed me having a little cry as I reached the end…

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Secondly, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Unlike Princes in the Land, Miss Pettigrew is all light and very little shade, but that is not a criticism. It’s a joyous novel: a day in the life of the titular poverty-stricken spinster, a woman society has written-off as having nothing to offer, whose willingness to embrace new experiences sees her reborn.

In desperate need of a job, Miss Pettigrew arrives at the apartment of the glamourous Delysia La Fosse:

“In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify and harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace negligee. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.”

Miss La Fosse has lots of experience but little common sense, Miss Pettigrew has no experience but much common sense. As she gets swept up in Miss La Fosse’s complicated love life, this virtue means she soon becomes indispensable. Rather than sitting in judgement of this Bright Young Thing, Miss Pettigrew finds herself enjoying this foray into a life hitherto unknown.

“ ‘Do you know what that is?’

‘It looks,’ said Miss Pettigrew cautiously, ‘very much like a Beecham’s Powder. Very good, I understand, for nerves, stomach and rheumatism.’

‘That’s cocaine,’ said Miss LaFosse.

‘Oh no! No!’

Terrified, aghast, thrilled, Miss Pettigrew stared at the innocent-looking powder. Drugs, the White Slave Traffic, wicked dives of iniquity, typified in Miss Pettigrew’s mind by the red plush and gilt and men with sinister black moustaches roamed in wild array through her mind. What dangerous den of vice had she discovered? She must fly before she lost her virtue. Then her common sense unhappily reminded her that no one, now, would care to deprive her of that possession.”

As the day progresses Miss Pettigrew dives headlong into events and finds herself forever changed.  This is a novel to read when you need a lift, to be carried along as Miss Pettigrew is on a wave of fun and silliness. It is also a reminder that to open yourself to the unknown is to allow space for hope, and for change, at any time in life.

“She didn’t care what happened. She was ready for it. She was intoxicated with joy again. Past questioning anything that happened on this amazing day.”

I haven’t seen the film of Miss Pettigrew but I definitely plan to – Frances McDormand, wonder of wonders: