Vanessa and her Sister – Priya Parmar

On holiday in beauteous Northumberland and I am working my way through several books from the wonderful library. They have recently managed to get me some lovely books on request. Which goes to prove that even if you think you have books of your own, there’s always something to be found in your library…yet another reason to keep them open!

Anyway, one of the books was a novel I had been looking forward to reading. Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar


This is a novel which describes the relationship between Vanessa Stephen/Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf.

I have read a fair few Woolf writings, including her novels, essays and diaries. I have not read everything, and I am not an expert by any means. I recently went to  talk by Maggie Gee, who is an expert, and caught a lot of the enthusiasm that is felt for this writer. She would, by any understanding, been a difficult person to live with on the showing of this novel (and some of the underlying text of her diaries).

The novel is largely in the form of Vanessa’s fictional diary, with some letters within the Bloomsbury set. It describes the difficult life Vanessa led keeping her sister’s fragile mental health on an even keel in the face of family tragedy and the interesting artists, writers and critics that surrounded the sisters.

I honestly enjoyed this book. It was not a gripping mystery, as we knew that Virginia eventually marries the largely absent Leonard. To be honest, it was a bit tricky to keep the characters clear in my mind as nicknames and the early life of well known historical figures was a little confusing. The central story, of Vanessa trying to survive and develop as an artist came through, as well as coping with her own courtship, marriage and children. This is against a well drawn background of the artists and critics who behaved in completely unexpected ways. The jealousies and romances, the achievements and challenges are suggested in  clever ways. Virginia is seen as fragile but manipulative, complicated yet transparent, an all too human genius.

I found this an informative, well written, fascinating book. Perhaps it would be as well to have a little knowledge of the main players, but equally I imagine that this book could be read as a book about family relationships and complex friendships. The afterword about the later progress of the characters in real life completed the novel well. This is a good book about women in the early twentieth century who are not financially struggling, but finding many other parts of life difficult. It is a good read, and more cheerful than I have probably made it sound!

Antidote to Venom -another British Library Classic

I was in the mood for another murder mystery, but I had read a lot of Christie recently and am a bit bogged down in Sayers Gaudy Night so I looked out my copy of the recently reprinted Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts.

I had one of his books a while ago, and remembered that it was well written, but very dependent on trains. Now while the husband is a bit of an expert, my eyes tend to glaze over a bit at the mention of timetables and impossible journeys. This book does not mention trains (well, possibly incidentally, but certainly not as important plot devices), and is really well written. The main character, George, is all too human, too understandable, with money worries but a worryingly one dimensional wife. He is in charge of a zoo, which gives him a position in society, but not as much money as he would like. This becomes important as he takes on another lady in his life. The death in this book is not as predictable as the reader is expecting, and it swerves one way and another among a small but well drawn group of characters. It is by no means a predictable book, and the style owes more to the Golden Age writers than modern gritty writing. It is elegantly written, the main character is engaging, and the book draws you in, and keeps you reading. I notice that the British Library is going to produce more by this author, and they will be worth looking for if you are interested in great crime writing.

While on the subject, would it be possible for The British Library Publishing wing to produce a list of when they are releasing reprints in this series? I’ve spent a lot of time hunting  for them on a certain website, then seeking them out in my local independent bookshop. I am finding out about them more by accident than design though! Or if not a list, a website highlighting them? I have tried ploughing through the online shop range,  but it’s still too general. I am enjoying these books far too much to miss out!

In other news, I am really enjoying the new Persephone London War Notes. My bookshelves of these stylish grey books look wonderful. I’ll try for a photograph soon. I’ve also just finished Rebecca for the Book group. I’m due to see the play in Newcastle next week, so watch this space…