None So Blind by Alis Hawkins – an historical novel reviewed and with author’s answers

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Historical fiction at its best, this is a book set in 1850 featuring a young man with more than his career as a lawyer on his mind. The action takes place in West Wales in a period of social upheaval typified by the Rebecca Riots, and combines a subtle set of social rules with a deviously complex plot. The fight for justice for the death of a young woman is made painfully human as Harry Probert – Lloyd discovers that nothing in this situation is as it seems, and everyone has their mysteries and withheld truths.  I was so pleased to be asked to read and review this story of ‘The Teifi Valley Coroner” which I very much enjoyed in so many ways.

Harry has returned from his practice as a barrister in London with his friend Gus. What he has not told his father, who is a landowner in Cardiganshire, is the real reason for his return following his exile to Oxford and the capital. As Harry says “There is never a convenient moment to discover that you are going progressively blind.” Gus has become his guide and interpreter of a world that he remembers, but cannot focus on except in the periphery of his vision. The shattering discovery of the body of Margaret, his one time love, means that he feels forced to press for an inquest into her death. In doing so he stirs up all kinds of inbuilt prejudices, hatred and terrors of a return to a time of confrontation, when no one feels safe from being dragged into scandal and worse. John is a young lawyer’s clerk who discovers a sympathy for Harry, as he begins to discover the extent of his obvious weakness and less apparent abilities. John has his own secrets as he soon realises that he has been involved in the fear and betrayal caused by the riots of years before, and is surrounded by those who all too clearly remember old hatreds. Harry’s investigations turn up all sorts of strange revelations, including within his own home, and he is striving to conceal his special knowledge and consuming guilt about Margaret.

This book is an exceptional and substantial work of imagination built on solid research. Each character swiftly demonstrates his or her own ‘voice’, and moreover the accent of the people echoes in the reader’s head. While this is a work of fiction it manages to ring true throughout the novel as depicting how people react. The sounds, smells and settings are brilliantly described as Harry struggles to work out the tiny things he is not seeing and the non verbal clues which he can no longer appreciate. The concept of having a main character with sight problems means that the narration is of an unusual quality, and I believe works exceptionally well. I really enjoyed this book, and cannot wait for the next installment in this brilliant new series.

In today’s mammoth post, I wanted to add the questions and answers that Alis contributed. Sorry it’s so long!

  1. The novel is obviously set in West Wales. How much is the place important to you, and did you always intend for the setting to almost become another character?

Getting the feel of the Teifi Valley right was very important to me as it’s where I grew up and where my family still lives; the site of my main character’s family home is less than a mile from the our farm. Added to that, it’s not a well known area. People are often familiar with the beaches of the Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire coast but their knowledge ends there and I felt a real responsibility to represent the area accurately. It’s such a beautiful part of the world but it tends to get overshadowed in the popular imagination by more dramatic landscapes like Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than a pastoral river valley.

As to whether I intended the setting to become almost another character, that just happened. I think  there are three reasons for that:

Firstly, as a teenager, I got know the area where None So Blind is set really well on foot, on horseback (astonishingly useful) and on a bike, so I’m able to describe it in much greater detail than if I’d only ever driven around in a car. You notice different things when you’re on foot, or when you have a higher vantage point on horseback.

Secondly, having Harry see the topography through the lens of his partial sight was one way in which I was able to convey how he feels about his blindenss but it also gave me a very different appreciation for the landscape. What does it look like when you only have peripheral vision, what becomes important then?

And, thirdly, in a very real sense, the events which form the backdrop to the murder  – the Rebecca Riots – were brought about by the particularities of the landscape of West Wales. The maintenance and improvement of roads in an area with so many hills, woods, valleys, rivers and streams – not to mention rain – is a huge undertaking; that’s why the Turnpike Trusts, against whose tollgates the farmers rioted, were necessary in the first place.

What Harry calls the ‘tangle of wooded river valleys’ that form the topography of the lower Teifi Valley also gave rise to a very particular kind of society with close-knit and interdependent communities. It is out of these communities that both the independence of spirit and the secrecy necessary to the Rebecca movement were born. Added to that, the farmers and labourers knew their fields and hills and valleys so well that they could literally disappear into the landscape, consistently foiling the metropolitan police and dragoons who were brought in to try and quell the riots. It was very important to me to convey the sense of deep rootedness that is implied in that ability.

As research sites go, however, where you grew up does lacks a certain exoticism – I often envy friends who set their books in sunny places and write off trips against tax as research – but it does mean that I get to see friends and family more often!

  1. How much research did you do on the Rebecca Riots? Do you enjoy the research, and how do you know when to stop?

I’ve wanted to write a book about the Rebecca Riots since I was at school and I’ve been researching the period off and on for twenty years. So, when I decided to write None So Blind it was a case of refreshing my memory and getting certain key facts right – like the timing of the movement of rioting into the Teifi Valley and the dates when police and the army were brought in. Then I could get on with researching the nitty gritty of life at the time as the book grew, researching as I went.

Of course, I needed to know the basics like the details of what people wore –what did the working men of 1940s Cardiganshire wear on their heads, for instance, who wore ‘stovepipe’ hats and what exactly is a betgwn, mainstay of Welsh national female costume; what people ate – I discovered that potatoes and buttermilk were the mainstays of the poor; and what people’s houses were like – appallingly primitive in the case of those at the bottom end of society.

But I also needed to know other specifics:

What stage railway development had reached. As lines were being developed and grand new stations built at an enormous rate, it was really important to get the exact timings right as Harry and John travelled to London.

When did gaslights make their way into private homes? This was a very real question for Harry as he sees better in good light, and it was a huge disappointment to him to discover that though gaslights were catching on in private homes in London, the necessary infrastructure made it highly unlikely that West Wales would be gaslit for decades.

How far can you realistically walk in an afternoon on non-tarmaced roads? Depends on how many hills there are. Duh!

When did people stop building their own houses in the West Wales countryside and start employing others to do so? This was, it emerged, getting well underway in the period of None So Blind as people began to lust after two-storey houses built from stone as opposed to one storey built from turf or cob. Interestingly, most ‘traditional’ nineteenth century cottages in the area date from the period just after the riots, so I found myself making a lot of (somewhat educated) assumptions.

How were contemporary inquests held? This was a hugely difficult one to crack until I discovered the work of Pam Fisher of Leicester University whose papers on the internet – including the intriguingly titled ‘Getting Away With Murder? The Suppression of Coroners’ Inquests in Early Victorian England And Wales’ – were a revelation.

When did people plant and harvest potatoes? A crucial issue in West Wales at the time as a family relying on potatoes as their main carbohydrate only needs a quarter of the land that a family relying on grain as its staple does.

As for when to stop researching, as you probably guessed from the breathless enthusiasm of the list above, I basically don’t until I hit ‘Send’ on the final version of the publisher’s proofs. I’m forever putting new bits in which will need checking, or double-checking things I’d already nailed down, just in case!

So, to sum research up, I suppose I do the ‘grand sweep’ – the broad understanding of my chosen set of events – before I begin a book and then I keep researching minutiae as I write. I know some writers make notes for themselves as they go in the text – eg: [check whether it’s possible to walk from Cwm Cou to Cardigan in three hours] – and then back-fill when the book is done but that doesn’t work for me. Even slight changes tend to change tiny but vital bits of plot, so I work it all out as I go.

  1. When I read the dialogue in the book, I can almost hear the accents! If there was a plan to produce an audio version, would you have a view on the readers being able to convince listeners that a lot of the characters were Welsh?

That’s such a great thing to hear – thank you!

I worked really hard on making the dialogue sound authentic, and on making John and Harry sound different. (though, unless you’re a grammar nerd like me you won’t spot the lengths I went to – eg John never uses passive constructions and I try and keep his use of Latin-derived words and subordinate clauses to a minimum.)

I love writing. Characters talking to each other always drive my stories.

And yes, I have very definite ideas about how I’d want the characters to sound in an audio version. Just to have Welsh actors wouldn’t be enough. It drives me mad on the telly when they have characters supposedly from one area of Wales but whose accent is from a different area entirely. It’s like having someone supposedly from Cornwall sounding like a Scouser! So John, at least, would need to have a south Cardiganshire/west Carmarthenshire accent to be authentic. Harry I’d be able to live with sounding English, though I’d like him to have a bit of a twang, just to acknowledge how he feels about being Welsh.

Don’t ask much, do I?!

  1. At what point did you decide to make Harry blind? Is it so that the descriptions have to be different? How central do you think it is?

What a perceptive question – because, of course, the descriptions do have to be different. Harry’s descriptions are fragmentary, or rely on memory, whereas John can afford to be lazy about what he sees and, paradoxially, doesn’t always describe things in as much detail as Harry.

When I first started writing None So Blind, Harry wasn’t blind. But, pretty quickly, I realised that he didn’t have a sufficiently compelling reason for coming home from London, so I decided that it would be convincing – and, incidentally, a bit of a unique selling point which never hurts! – to make him partially sighted. However, as soon as I started writing in his voice, Harry’s blindness stopped being a plot device and became central to who he is. The loss of his sight gave me an insight into the rest of his personality. How a person reacts to adversity can tell you a lot about them.

His condition is a real one. Today it’s known as Stargardt’s Disease or Juvenile Macular Degeneration. It was important to me to know the parameters within which Harry was working and macular degeneration is relatively easy to work out for yourself. I walked around quite a lot while I was writing the book with both index fingers held over my central visual field to give me a rough idea of what Harry could see. I’m sure the people out and about where I take my walks thought I was highly eccentric!

It was fascinating to realise how much of our lives are predicated on our visual sense – particularly non-verbal communication – and to see how that might stand in Harry’s way as an investigator. That’s why, for some things, he relies so heavily on John. On other occasions, however – and one in particular – his increased auditory acuity, unmasked by the dominance of sight, stands him in good stead.

But I also found that I got caught up very easily in the emotional aspects of Harry’s condition. It was easy to imagine his frustration, his grief, and the way in which, every so often, the implications of his condition would hit him.

  1. What do you think about women’s choices in the novel? Is Margaret always wiser in the world than Harry?

Ah… Harry’s a dreamer. He was really born in the wrong century – he would have been far happier in the late eighteenth century with Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and the revolutionary fervour of the American and French revolutions. Many things seemed possible then – universal suffrage, equality between the sexes, education for all – but that kind of idealism had been trodden down quite a bit by the time Harry came of age.

But, still, he flies the flag for equality and women’s rights, as well as he can – though even he is brought up short every now and again by his own illiberal attitudes.

Margaret, on the other hand, didn’t have Harry’s education and hasn’t read political philosophers. Even the Christian egalitarianism of Nathaniel Howell, the Unitarian minister at her chapel, has to be taken with a pinch of salt as far as she’s concerned. As someone of lower social status with little or no family support, Margaret has to be pragmatic. She tries to live her life to the best of her ability and to take her chances where she finds them. And, within her own very limited sphere, I think she probably is wiser than Harry the idealist. Had she heard him say it, she would have agreed with Harry’s friend, Gus, when he told Harry that, ‘The world won’t alter to suit you, however much you want it to.’

But there are other women in None So Blind who are making choices and making things happen. Esme Williams, for all she is a figure of ridicule to John and a nuisance to Harry, is brighter and a better maker of choices than her husband whom the book shows her running rings around.

Rachel Evans, in weighing up when to tell the truth and when to keep silent, in a context where getting it wrong might see her and her family turned out of their home, shows a moral flexibility that’s beyond Harry.

And then, of course, there’s Lydia…

  1. Without spoilers, where is the series going next if you can say?

The second book in the series, In Two Minds (which will be published in May 2019) begins where None So Blind ends. Given that the series is called the Teifi Valley Coroner, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell readers that, by the end of None So Blind Harry has been asked to stand in as coroner for the area. There’s a certain amount of urgency as the current incumbent is dying and a naked corpse has been discovered on a local beach.

Despite his father’s disapproval, Harry grabs the opportunity with both hands as an alternative to the status quo where he is simply squire-in-waiting. However, in his determination to plough his own furrow, he gets off on the wrong foot with the local inspector of police, setting up an enmity which almost derails the whole investigation. 

Harry enlists John’s help once more but, for reasons which will be clear to the reader by the end of None So Blind, things are rather strained between them which makes the investigation more difficult than it needs to be.

As well as Harry and John, In Two Minds introduces readers to a new character who’s going to be a fixture in the series. I intended Dr Benton Reckitt to be a bit player in In Two Minds but he assumed such a life of his own as soon as he opened the door to Harry and John that he became one of the plot’s main actors and his obsession for performing autopsies turned out to be a second, and quite crucial, theme.

As for whether Lydia makes another appearance, you’ll just have to read In Two Minds to find out!

The Fourth Victim by John Mead Police – Police Procedural and much more

Fallible police, unlikely suspects, multiple murders; this is a book that has it all. A contemporary murder mystery with some innovative narrative strands, but with much good solid police procedure. Without ostentation, Mead manages to give a sense of place and time which linger in the mind. His characters are desperately human, with all the humour, betrayal and loyalty of real people. This is a reasonably fast paced, surprisingly complex read, which combines the traditional methods of hunting for information with the inspiration of people. There is real insight in the writing as to what motivates people, and is an interesting picture of mystery and life. I am very glad that I was asked to read and review this novel.

Detective Sergeant Julie Lukula is quickly on the scene as a young jogger is found dead in a park by a nervous elderly woman. She quickly sums up the situation as more than a random attack, but there are disappointingly few leads as to who killed this apparently harmless young woman. She realises that the investigation will be lead by a man who is already on his way out of the department, the interestingly named Inspector Matthew Merry. She describes him to another police officer as “You’ll recognise him easily enough, he’s big and looks like he works in an undertakers.” As they break the worst news to families, the different reactions are fascinating. The police officers each emerge as having their own agendas, which sometimes conflict with each other and the needs of the investigation. I found Inspector Merry somewhat inconsistent in his behaviour, but Mead generally handles each character very well and deals well with even the most minor characters. I found myself carried along with the story as it twists and turns, incidentally presenting an interesting picture of twenty first century life. While there are parts of the environments described which are shabby and downbeat, a visit to Fort William in Scotland represents a refreshingly real break, even if somewhat confused by Merry’s moral behaviour. The painful details of families torn by grief and the lack of contact which is the lifestyle of others are snapshots of very human emotions well handled by Mead. He peoples the scenery of London with interesting individuals, before he explores the fragility of the mental states of certain people.

This is undoubtedly a confidently written book in which Mead gives the impression of an experienced eye trained on police procedure, criminal motives and, most impressively, all the people involved. While not gratuitously violent, this book does not hold back on being a real thriller and depiction of murder as well as not sugar coating people and their motives. The book is not filled with the simply good and bad; there are many possibilities in virtually every person. A small point is the interchangeable use of surnames and first names without any obvious consistency; the sergeant is often “Julie” as well as “Lukula”, whereas the Inspector also appears as both “Matthew” and “Merry” without apparent reason. This is a small criticism of a genuinely enthralling book which kept me involved and interested from the first to last page. I recommend it as a good read for many, even those not usually fans of crime novels, and Mead is an author to watch in the future.  

 

Meanwhile, the pursuit of nativity scenes continues. A few more offerings turned up so I may well get enough to put on a display, even if not fill the church. The “German Style Market” which runs alongside is also getting ready to roll out some hot and cold drinks and food. So, Christmas is coming!

The Lingering by S.J.I. Holliday – A supernatural story in a frightening setting

Haunting, compelling and remarkable, this is a book for anyone who is fascinated by the edges of life, memory and the power of the mind. The setting, a large house which itself seems to have memories, exerts its power throughout on those who live in and around it through the years. Vague suggestions, extreme hatred and twists dominate the narrative, even if at times there is a little over working of the idea. Clever changes of the point of view ensure that the reader is left in no doubt as to who is really guilty, and who knows what is going on in a community with high ideals but dealing with forces beyond control. Suspicion and hard facts form a story which has a potential to linger in the mind. I found this an interesting book and I was glad to have an opportunity to read it as part a tour.

Ali and Jack are shown arriving at Rosalind House, a community of ill matched people led by the quiet but intuitive Smeaton Dunsmore, who are apparently trying to find a way to live together. On the surface this is a gentle, self – sufficient life style, with hints of an ill – defined spiritual dimension as the emphasis on peaceful existence is set out in a handbook. It soon becomes obvious that one of the people has her own agenda of discovering what exactly has happened in the house and grounds before, and how best to find out what is left behind by people who suffered trauma. While Ali’s exploration of the house allows the reader to witness some of the supernatural elements of life left behind, her own unnatural level of concern for Jack means that she obviously feels they have something to hide. How she deals with such minute introspection is one of the dynamics of the book, as well as the interface with the other residents, who appear to feel uncomfortable by her evident influence over Jack. Angela in particular finds Ali and Jack a troubling yet intriguing intrusion into both the building and community, and it is in their interaction that the heart of the story emerges.

I felt that there were several important themes emerging through this novel, and certainly the reader’s interest and involvement is maintained until the last page. I was not always certain how much of the novel is realistic, but the author’s background seems to guarantee that much of the narrative is viable. This is a memorable book with a highly original premise; certainly the house as a character is well done and disturbing at the right level. The community is perhaps a little too idealistic, and there is a little overwriting of some elements, but this is a confidently handled book with the author writing a compelling if disquieting narrative. While some of the characters are extreme, the nature of the book is such that this is necessary to fulfil its early promise. Altogether an impressive read, this is a strong book for lovers of the supernatural and the suggestion that there are no easy explanations for human relationships.

So life at the Vicarage continues as we gear up for Christmas. I am madly trying to find nativity scenes/ cribs for next week. Every year we try and put on a display in the church, but every one I buy seems to be small and difficult to display effectively. This is of course not the case with the knitted nativity sets that a much loved Aunt used to produce, which had the advantage of being quite child resistant! I hope that we get a few of these offered, as my sets are showing their age…

A Gift from Woolworths by Elaine Everest – 1945 – a challenging year for a special group

Friendly memories of a much missed shop, mixed wartime experiences, and a group of tremendously engaging people are all ingredients of a most enjoyable novel. Elaine Everest has repeated her successful formula to produce a lovely book, with people that it is easy to feel interested in and even concerned about throughout the book. Confidently handled and with a clearly developed narrative, this is a saga which delivers on the promise of earlier books in the series. Trauma, grief, and dislike of certain new characters contrasts sharply with those characters that we have been keen to follow through several years of development so far. This could also be enjoyed as a standalone novel which goes far beyond the Christmas feel given to the title and cover. It could truly be enjoyed at any time of the year, as the vast majority of the book deals more with a wedding, marriages challenged and work attempted. This is a novel set during 1945, so this a tricky time when the end of the War seems possible, but still far off as regards the danger to loved ones. I was really pleased to be given the opportunity to read this book as part of a blog tour, and eager to review it here.

This book opens with a Prologue in set in December 1945, and features Betty, a much loved character in the series. Despite how the previous book finished, with her seemingly living an ideal life at last, in this brief section she seems distracted and discontented. It will take most of the novel to find out why, and what happens to her and those she most loves. As the book begins properly in February 1945, Sarah is in labour with a baby and struggling. As her friends Maisie, mother in law Maureen and others gather to help, there is a gentle reminder of what has happened to some characters during the preceding books. Ruby, Sarah’s grandmother, is very present as she prepares for her special day promised for so long. As the last air raid warnings sound and bombs fall, the cast of characters realise that there are still dangers to themselves and their loved ones. There is bravery and loss still to contend with as the last few months of the War proceed, as the much loved children of various characters play and grow and demand attention. The mark of a good book is that the reader almost audibly cheers, sighs and generally reacts strongly when the cruel or nasty characters are dealt with, especially when achieved as cleverly as here. A cheating man is humiliated, a thoroughly dislikeable character comprehensively dealt with as part of a joint effort, and justice is meted out. Someone who threatens part of Maisie’s family appears, and cannot easily dismissed, and as may be predicted there is at least one birth which will cause problems. Alongside all the challenges and joys, difficulties and misunderstandings, Woolworths is a character, with all the demands of selling rare everyday goods to be met.

This is a clever book, which shows so well the skills of writing really engaging stories and well worked out themes. Every character, however minor, is rounded and developed, consistently drawn and identified. I really enjoyed this book, which in a way is a quick read, but one which I was not eager to finish as I was enjoying it so much. I can thoroughly recommend this as a book to lap up at any time, but which seems particularly suited to this time of year.

So this is a very different book from some of those I have reviewed recently!It is definitely not just a book for Christmas, though many would enjoy it and its predecessors as a special present. Going round a Supermarket in the last few days it is so clever how you get the impression that you must buy now in good time for Christmas. Although not a particularly late shopper, I can always seem to think of things that I need. Of course, living in a Vicarage means that we work until Christmas day lunchtime , then sleep! Not for us the Icelandic Book Flood this year…

Tales from the Pays d’Oc by Patricia Feinberg Stoner – a French interlude of Summer in Winter

Hot sun, fine wine, lovely food and gossip. This is the long days of sunshine captured in a book, as unofficial groups of friends and associates enjoy simply living in the blissful setting of wine growing villages in southern France. Locals who have lived in the area for generations, visitors and other temporary residents from the U.K. and U.S.A, all combine to form a loose community where many have their roles. This is a gentle read which offers a non – challenging invitation to join in the gossip and tales of distinct individuals who come together for high days and holidays, and most crucially the animals which provide the animation for many of these tales. I was pleased to be offered an opportunity to read this delightful book.

The sights, smells and sounds of village centres draw the reader into a sunny square where members of the Saturday Club and other patrons of l’Estaminet gather to swop observations on local life and gossip about their neighbours. Cats prowl, obsessions about vehicles are resolved, couples explore the area to the amusement of the locals, and surely most of human life is here. Dinner parties form the background for gentle espionage and parties happen with or without a specific organiser, merely as a result of community goodwill. This is a community where many would love to live; where even marital disputes are a matter for cheerful reflection. This is a happy place, full of reasonable people and harmless eccentrics, where ex pats and local characters blend together with no serious disputes. Nothing here is grim or challenging, all pets, people and occupations tolerate and live with others.  The dogs have charming names and mannerisms in the main, as they earn their places in family affections and local folklore. Even the summoning of the emergency services is not so traumatic, though very interesting.

Though a little predictable at times, this is a book which continually charms and always entertains. Its setting means that many little French phrases and names are sprinkled throughout, but this did not cause any problems even for the stubbornly monolingual. Cheerful and positive, this is reminiscent of Gerald Durrell’s memoirs of a peaceful life where the humans are often more remarkable than animals in their behaviour. I enjoyed greatly its pictures of the exchanges between very realistically drawn people. As a restful, comforting read which brings a glimpse of a French summer in midwinter, this is an excellent choice.

Meanwhile I am writing and reading furiously here in the Vicarage – lots of lovely books to tackle. I have quite different books to review over the next few days, and no one will be able to say I stick to one genre!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer – Some Book Group Questions

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This is the first in an occasional series of sets of questions for book groups which I have used with some success on a particular book; they can be discussion points, or just for looking at as individuals. I hope that they will be of interest!

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society must be one of the longest titles for a novel; do you think that it works? Why?

The format of this novel is a bit unusual – while some of the earliest novels were in letter form (Clarissa, Pamela) – it is not that common today. Do you think it works? Why? Did you need a crib sheet of characters? Any other comments?

One comment is that all the characters in this book are “loveable”. Is this true? Are there any that show themselves as less than pleasant (not counting the anonymous German soldiers)? Can you get an idea of what they are like from letters, either their own and other people’s? What about Elizabeth, who has not actually written? Is it significant that most of the important characters are female?

The setting, Guernsey, is well described as a place and closed community. How do you feel about it having read the book? How is it contrasted with post war London? There is also the question of the American involvement in the character of Mark. What about the German characters?

This book is set in 1946. How significant is that timing?

Mary Ann Shaffer was unable to publish this book alone, owing to her health. Is that important?

This is a book about a book group and the power of reading when times are hard. You could try listing all the books and authors mentioned, which could be enough to keep everyone occupied for a while! How important are reading and books to your life?

Finally, this book has been made into a film. How many people have seen it? Is it like the book? What did you think?

 

I hope that this has given a few thoughts on a book that has been popular with both book groups that I have been in when looking at this very readable novel. My thanks go to members of the Bookworms group in Derby, who are an immensely cosy lot… Would this sort of post be of interest again? How many of you are members of a Book Group? If you cannot get to a Book Group, would this sort of post be of interest to you?

 

Over the next few days I am due to review some varied books. I do hope that there is at least one that will interest you; they are very different from each other!

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard – The Second of the Cazalet Chronicles -1939 – 1941

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The second volume in the Cazalet Chronicles moves an extended family into war. At least three generations are living in a large family house, but it is the children who have come into focus as the decisions of their parents, the actions they take, have a profound effect on these young people and their daily lives. As in the first book in this series, what is unsaid is often as powerful as what is said in a gloriously realistic portrait of not only a family, but those people who come into contact with them. This is a picture of a world going into a War that everyone expected, but that no one understood what it would mean on a daily basis. While the young people fight all the normal battles of growing up, the increasingly shabby setting of a world of shortages and loss begin to creep into a desperately realistic portrait of life.

The novel opens with the announcement of the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, and the immediate aftermath of the news broadcast on the radio. The Brig, the patriarch of the family, acknowledges silently that his older two sons have fought in the First War, and that Hugh still bears the physical and mental scars. We see the scene from Polly’s view, as she begins to assimilate the implications of this new conflict. Evacuation of children, movement of adults to the countryside, shortages of food and the difficulties of getting in and out of London all begin to bite, in this novel seen through the eyes of young people. Even three houses and associated buildings become crowded as elderly relatives, servants and Miss Milliment all congregate at Home Place. They are not secluded from war, as a plane comes down in a local field, and Christopher takes control. Louise finds alternative places to be, though becomes bitterly confused by the nature of love as she feels betrayed by her member of the family.

Howard cleverly portrays the long term issues through the novel, as love and even lust continue, devotion and concealment keep people together and apart, as illness and hope defy logic. She manages to describe the settings so vividly that sounds, smells, textures and impressions dominate the narrative to make the experience of reading this book so immersive that the considerable length feels necessary and natural. Some books in various series can be read in isolation, but to really appreciate this book reading the first would truly help and make the characters understandable to the reader. This book is a tremendous experience of reading about people who feel real. Real life is messy, throwing up lots of questions about relationships, especially for teenagers who are bored, isolated and forming temporary alliances. There are two sections which look at the family as a whole, compared to six sections which detail events from the point of view of the older girls. Little things become important, especially for the girls who feel poised, waiting for life to begin. There is a desperate love, a despairing among some of the adults, amid the compromises to duty they must all make on a daily basis. There is also humour, some hope, and lovable, understandable characters and actions. The Cazalet Chronicles are Howard’s great achievement, and this second episode is such a well written novel in any sense.

We have had a busy Remembrance Day or indeed weekend. We sang in a concert on Saturday evening featuring many songs with war themes, then several services yesterday. Daughter and I sang in a service containing the main pieces of Karl Jenkins “The Armed Man”, which is a challenging but wonderful thing to sing. We also went to see the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” about Freddie Mercury and the group Queen. Having loved their music for as long as I can remember, I was (very quietly) singing along at many points. I don’t think anyone heard me….