All that I have and all I have lost: A review of Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari

‘You come from war?’ The old woman reached out and patted Aisha on the knee, and this time she did not pull away or jump in fear. ‘Seeking refuge? That’s all right.’ She beckoned to Aisha. ‘Come and shelter in old Elder’s wood. Aisha stay here with my wartime spirits.’

I have read many beautiful books; some of them beautiful and powerful; some beautiful and wondrous. While thinking about what makes a beautiful book for me, I conclude, yes, the beauty of the words used, the words together, the types of words. But probably over and above this, it’s the reality of the words. The deep seated human connection it has with its reader, I think, is very important. It’s the core of it all. Anything can be said with pretty words, but it’s the meaning that makes it beautiful.

Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari shines for me. The truth in its pages is dazzling. Books like these reach out and touch the heart of the reader. There is something recognisable or familiar, either an experience or an opinion or a set of values – whatever it is, it clicks it all into place for you. This wonderful YA novel covers the themes of homelessness and seeking refuge after tragedy whether in your own country or another. It is an epic subject, a subject which is often swirling around somewhere among my thoughts. Because isn’t this the ultimate fear? Having something awful happen in your life that separates you from your family and your home and everything that you know? Losing your children, parents, or siblings? Losing all your security and being thrust into the darkness of life?

Aisha is one such child who had everything taken away from her after witnessing the most horrific acts. Everything including her childhood and peace was snatched from her and thrown away. Children should never see what she saw and experience what she had lived. Aisha’s world was destroyed. Coming to the U.K. and finding some sanctuary with her loving foster mother, Liliana, goes a long way in settling her into a stable happy life, but when she is faced with the prospect of having to leave another home and all that she has made familiar, Aisha makes the decision to run away. She finds herself hiding in the ancient city wood not far from her neighbourhood. There, she meets Zak, a boy struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce and Iona, a homeless girl, whose own family life was shattered long ago. Unexpectedly, they find solace in each other and their natural world surroundings, and together with Elder, an old, somewhat mystical, homeless woman, they each try to make sense of their pasts and find a way to make a brighter future for themselves.

This poetic story connects past and present with heartbreaking scenarios; the casualties of war, war orphaned children, parent-child separation, broken homes and homelessness. The loss of something – often everything – precious; and the continuous coping and building, and the searching for equilibrium, even happiness. It is harrowing yet uplifting in its themes and message. The essence of the human spirit, the resilience, the strength as life goes on, despite the horrors some people witness. It is very much a story told from a young person’s viewpoint, and in this way it is a tremendous book for children and teenagers as it seemingly effortlessly encourages compassion and tolerance. It highlights the inequality and discrimination of refugees, and inspires an empathetic response.   

Red Leaves is a book to be read as a youngster and as an adult. I cannot recommend it enough if you are touched by this subject. It is not just a book with a beautiful cover; it is a book with a beautiful spirit and a beautiful core. It encompasses so much of the bare bones of life; what we need and what we, sometimes unknowingly, have to have in order to feel human. It strips it all back. 

How could you have a past like Aisha’s and still want to sing?

An unquestionable 5 stars.

Troubled waters: A review of The Doors of Riverdell by Marianne Rosen

She glanced past Moth to see Riverdell in the background, high-browed and proud in the vibrant grass embankments. Home was this place, this moment. The river running beneath her waiting feet, the meadow stretching away on the other side, the woods hovering above, the lawns like tempting velvet, the house watching it all. Every view was home.

The Doors of Riverdell is the first novel in a four book saga about the Threlfalls, a privileged and dysfunctional family residing in a rather grand old house in the historic English market town of Ludlow. But this is no Downton Abbey – it has a solid contemporary setting with short flashbacks no further in the past than the 1950s. It is author Marianne Rosen’s debut – and what a debut! At well over five hundred pages, it’s an epic and fitting introduction to a somewhat unhappy and unsatisfied family on the brink of change. 

At the start of the novel four girls meet at boarding school and seemingly form a lifelong friendship, bonding over absent parents and their unknown place in the world. Fast forward fifty odd years and we meet their children – all but one, the estranged Threlfall heir, who has been killed in a car accident along with his wife, And so begins the drama of Riverdell…

We follow Elsa: the Threlfall matriarch, trying her hand at a second wave of parenting; Isabelle: her thirty-something niece, freshly back from India; Kit: Isabelle’s pursuer – a lusty workaholic control freak; and Moth: Elsa’s newly orphaned teenage grandson – all knowing, moody, secretive, with a great big chip on his shoulder. The four points of view run through the book, nicely blended after the initial hurdle of getting used to the novel’s tone and pace and multiple timelines. 

For such a big book, The Doors of Riverdell speeds along, sweeping its reader off to the world between its pages – a world of family troubles, conflict, complications and passions. It’s sometimes difficult to relate to the characters as they seem so rich, privileged and spoilt. They can come across as distant, with the exception perhaps, of Kit and Kate, who have much more feistiness than the rest of the players. Moth is a troubled young man that frustrates in his overtly secretive manner, compelling the reader to want to give him a good shake. Isabelle is flaky, and her inconsistency and commitment phobia grates. Elsa is in the shadow of Kate, her ancient BBF, and we wonder what’s going on in the background with her. But, remember, this is a series and character development is ongoing. It’s a sign of a good book where the characters take you on their own personal journey, with its ups and downs, triggering dislike sometimes and admiration at other times. After all, life is like that; people are like that.

The overriding aspect of the novel that stands out for me – and much more than this, made me all warm and tingly when reading – is the sumptuous, the beautiful, the lovingly descriptive, prose. I used to read, read, read, not really knowing why I liked certain books and not others. I used to say it was all about the story – I was a story lover and it was that that did it for me. Yet, it’s only fairly recently that I realised it’s the writing that really ignites my spark – the detailed, descriptive prose. I want to know what the room looks like, I want to know what the weather is, I want to get inside the protagonist’s head, I want to be able to see what the characters see, and picture in my mind every scene. Descriptions are important to me. They enable me to feel an atmosphere unique to that particular book, and add to it my own imagination. Marianne provides this satisfaction for me in Riverdell. The detailed writing does its job of creating a sense of place, of time, of character, so well that I am taken down into its depths, lost in a good book, as they say.

Ludlow is the setting of Riverdell, and I relish a real place setting, especially if I’ve been there and especially if it’s not a widely known place. Who has been to Ludlow? I’m hoping that everyone has had the pleasure, but it’s a fairly small town in rural Shropshire, and if I didn’t have past family connections there, I probably would not have heard of it. Ludlow is magnificent in its historic prettiness and has a lovely feel to it. As I remember, it has bookshops galore, and so it is really worth a visit or two. Marianne’s admiration for the town comes wonderfully across in her narrative, painting a vivid picture of her hometown. It’s a gorgeous tribute to Ludlow.

At the reaches of her flawed vision, the hills were shimmering, trees cavorting shadows across their flanks. She picked out land points, that compressed golf ball of the radio station shining on the Clee, the Mynd a long frown on the northern horizon, the grasses rippling across the meadow flanks of Climbing Jack and tumbling into the deep creases of the valleys, The breeze was firm, blowing across the long valley of the Teme, wafting the country up to her. The richness of the fields, the unctuous fumes of the traffic, the dust from the development of the old petrol station, the teasing odours of bread, coffee, pie. She grabbed her bag, leaving the calm oasis and plunging into the town’s belly, the tune of the vagrant piper following her through the streets.

Old Ludlow postcard

As part of the launch team for The Doors of Riverdell, I loved reading the book with some bookster buddies. It is a great meaty novel for a read-along or with a book club, although as it’s a series, be warned that there are a few loose ends to be tied up in later books. However, don’t let this put you off as I am sure having read this one, you will want to continue with the saga of the Threlfalls and their associates at Riverdell.

This is a book to be savoured and enjoyed over long reading sessions with plenty of hot drinks and sweet treats. It is gorgeous inside as well as out, beautifully constructed and sumptuously written. Marianne Rosen has presented us with a magnificent debut showcasing her wonderful talent for interweaving storytelling and silky rich prose.

Life on the Moon: A review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“She should not have been doing the cooking,” said Mrs. Wright strongly. 

“Well, of course, there is the root of our trouble. Certainly she should not have been doing the cooking if her intention was to destroy all of us with poison; we would have been blindly unselfish to encourage her to cook under such circumstances. But she was acquitted. Not only of the deed, but of the intention.”

“What was wrong with Mrs. Blackwood doing her own cooking?”

“Please.” Uncle Julian’s voice had a little shudder in it, and I knew the gesture he was using with it even though he was out of my sight. He would have raised one hand, fingers spread, and he would be smiling at her over his fingers; it was a gallant, Uncle Julian, gesture; I had seen him use it with Constance. “I personally preferred to chance the arsenic,” Uncle Julian said. 

For a little book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes a powerful impression.  I expected something like I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and I suppose it is in a way, with the teenage female protagonist and the place of residence. But of course, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is much darker in its subject matter, yet still humorous and light hearted all the same. 

Merricat is our narrator and she lives with her older sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Six years earlier, Constance had stood trial for her parents’, brother’s and aunt’s murder, but was exonerated. Now, the three remaining family members live in isolation, if not ‘exile’, in their grand aristocratic summerhouse-come-all-year-round-home, the ‘castle’. Merricat is one hell of a character and she owns the book, telling her story exactly how she wants to. We quickly realise how unreliable she is, yet it doesn’t matter because this is her tale, and her voice is the only voice we hear – we need no other. She is enchanting, imaginative, twisted, and mischievous. She is idle yet dominant, optimistic yet psychotic. 

This is a fantastic story with a gothic feel. Despite having murder at its heart, it isn’t as sinister as you’d expect and the creep factor is replaced by humour and fun and love and laughter between two sisters.

I loved the book and am delighted my copy was enriched by a wonderful afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, giving her own perspective on the story. It is widely considered to be Shirley Jackson’s greatest work, and as it is the only one I have read, I can’t argue with that. It’s strange and addictive, and cosy and charming, with delicious descriptions of food to boot. A lovely read for Halloween. It is the kind of book, as most good books are, that encourages different readers to get different things from it. It is a multi-layered masterpiece. 

Perfection in Provence: A review of The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

As the great range of hills slumbered in evening shades of rust and indigo, we listened to soupy jazz on the CD player. We’d cook together, drinking rosé and talking in companionable murmurs. Sometimes we’d light the sconce on the wall outside the kitchen. It is a sinister creation: a disembodied arm emerges from a wrought-iron picture frame, extending a candle. It was left by a previous occupant; we would almost certainly not have bought such a grotesque artefact; yet we left it hanging there, and often lit it. Inside and out, pools of light burned from hurricane lamps, candelabras, chandeliers, tea lights, and the rusty lantern we found in the courtyard and used on the dining table on the terrace.

This is the book that led me back. Back to the beauty of the half and half: a dual narrative  with a contemporary story and a historical story; a firm formulaic favourite of mine. It’s just my cup of tea: a lush and sophisticated novel full of sumptuously descriptive language: prose that will totally transport me to its geographical setting and fully immerse me in its emotional atmosphere. This is my ideal read whatever the weather. This is the type of book that deepened my love for sitting alone and delving into the pages of a story.

The Lantern is told in first person by Eve, a twenty-something commercial translator who is swept off her feet by Dom, an entrepreneur turned composer. Dom has a passion to move to the French countryside, so when they find the perfect crumbling farmhouse in Provence, they set up their dream home. However, what begins as a wonderful whirlwind romance quickly turns into an uneasy and increasingly sinister union. Dom has secrets, and his distance from Eve disturbs the whole equilibrium of their perfect life.

It has loud echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: a naive protagonist cast under the spell of a mysterious older man with skeletons in his closet, and a house filled with ghostly memories of the past desperately trying to escape. Eve is not even our leading lady’s real name as her narrative conveys, drawing explicit parallels with Rebecca’s young narrator. She is overcome with thoughts of Dom’s ex-wife and what happened to her; and her sinister suspicions, along with Dom’s refusal to talk, drive a dangerous wedge between the two. The tension is rife and we are sucked into Eve’s lonely world of unease, trepidation and doubt. Our other leading lady in the historical thread of the narrative is Benedicte, an equally, if not more so, haunted figure. Alone in her memories – if not for her frightening visions and visitations – Benedicte tells the story of her family and her life in the house. At one time it was blissful but gradually she reveals hardships and heartbreak. Benedicte and Eve are connected by location, but they are also drawn together by  mysteries and unresolved rifts in their lives. However, while Eve strives for answers, Benedicte is much more placid and accepting of her situation, making an interesting and curious parallel. 

The Lantern is a spooky story that will appeal to the lover of mystery, ghosts, and old houses. It will pull you in if you love rich, lavish and heavenly descriptions of location and experience. For the greatest joy of The Lantern is it’s sense of place: seeing it, feeling it, smelling it. There are a thousand things I could say about the descriptions in this book, but I’ll leave it at this: I’ve been to Provence and I loved it. Thank you Deborah Lawrenson. 

When I smelled that perfume, I was drawn back helplessly into a sunlit world of Maman’s flaky almond biscuits with a hint of bitter apricot kernel, earth-like cocoa powder clinging to her bare legs, light, warm winds sifting sugared scents from the kitchen where orange mirabelles were being bottled; and on, far beyond the aromatic, to the distant sound of the goat bells, and the whispering of the trees, the butterflies on meadow flowers and the scrubby spikiness of the land underfoot as we chased them, the taste of dried cherries sucked from their pits and of the honeyed nut wine; the soft,  guttered candles waiting on the table in the courtyard where we dined at night, cool at last, a floury embrace before bedtime: all the fragrances in one, of the four months of the year when we all lived outside in the immense wide open valley, a season of warmth and enchantment…

I saw your a Face in a Dying Fish: A review of We Are Animals by Tim Ewins

From its title, you may think this book is a retelling of Noah’s Ark, or it may even conjure up images from a certain song by Bloodhound Gang, making you wonder if there’s a naughty  theme in there somewhere – but it’s neither of these. Not really anyway. It’s a love story – a love story of love stories. It has alcohol and sunsets, exotic places and simple pleasures. It’s the best kind of love story – one of friendship and strong bonds.

During their single week on Palolem they visited a spice farm, learnt to ride motorcycles and tried yoga for the first time. One day they climbed over the rocks at the end of the beach and found another beach with rocks at both ends. Over those rocks they’d found yet another beach which they walked down for about an hour, and then, at the other end of this beach, they’d found more rocks. It was a magical week.

The central story is between two Jans, a boy and a girl, who become world travellers, both together and apart. But it is their togetherness that the book yearns for, and which one of the Jans (Manjan) is hoping to encounter again. For, at the opening of the book he is standing on a beach in Goa, waiting for a sighting of the girl (Ladyjan) who stole his heart and his passport in 1970, and whom he now hasn’t seen in thirty-eight years.  As the sixty-four year old Manjan sits, sipping his red wine, a young traveller named Shakey approaches, inviting him to a silent disco, and what follows is a somewhat reluctant recounting of the significant bits of Manjan’s life to a somewhat distracted listener.

We Are Animals is a homage to both the enthusiastic and the weary traveller. It’s about escaping, and searching for something you think you want,  but discovering something else. It’s about finding what you didn’t know you wanted and then losing the only thing that mattered. It’s about holding on and letting go. These themes repeat throughout the book and it’s quite cathartic. It has a certain and poignant truth to it that I found it very life affirming.

The tale of Manjan and Ladyjan is humorously told by its author, Tim Ewins, a part time comedian. You have to be funny to be a comedian and Tim is exactly that. The prose is flawless in its wittiness. Gentle sarcasm, observational humour, and much attention to detail make his debut novel a joy to read. The main story is interspersed with tales – the joys and woes – of different animals along the way. They are all hugely lovable and their individual narratives are quite emotional. It’s such a touching portrait of life – of the ordinary person and the ordinary animal – caressing your feelings of empathy and compassion, while also tickling your insides with merriment. I’m a huge fan of humorous writing and here I’ve found a king. We Are Animals is a book that will break your heart a little, warm your cockles a lot, and have you giggling into your beverage of choice. Five stars.

‘I think I’m glad I’m home,’ Jan said to his mother as he threw his stick-and-bed-sheet bag onto the kitchen table, ‘I wanted to come home when I saw your face in a dying fish.’ Jan’s mother sat down, feeling both offended and loved at the same time.

She Captures the Castle: A review of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.

Written in 1922, The Enchanted April, not only takes you back in time but it takes you across the seas to a little medieval castle high in the hills of northern Italy. And what more could you want? Not much! But there is a lot more to delight and enthral. For, this novel is completely and absolutely wonderful. It’s a brilliant bit of escapism amidst our times and troubles of viruses, social distancing, self isolation and lockdowns. This will take you far away from all of that, sweeping you along in its romance, in its sunshine and sweet scent of spring. This is a story that is sure of itself; it knows exactly where it is going and it is confident that you’ll be travelling along for the ride too. From the very first page we are introduced to the promise of “Wisteria and Sunshine” on the “shores of the Mediterranean”…

Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) are drawn to an advertisement in The Times offering a chance to rent the Italian castle for the entire month of April. Both have unhappy marriages and are captivated by the idea of blissful escape. They recruit a young aristocrat, Lady Caroline and a rich elderly ex socialite, Mrs Fisher, to share the lease with them. And so, what begins as an awkward union full of assumptions and judgements, rapidly and delightfully turns into a euphoric experience for all. 

Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish. Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.

This is an entirely delectable story of the bewitching power of beautiful surroundings and heavenly liberation from the dreary everyday. There is so much to be gained from this novel if you are a dreamy romantic and believe a little bit of romance can uplift you whatever your circumstance. Lotty and Rose are both desperate in their own ways; desperate for something more that their present lives offer them. Ruts are hard things to get out of and getting stuck is easy and almost expected when your world seems unchanging and your relationships seem mundane. Disappointment makes itself comfortable in your daily tasks, in your work, in your leisure time, in your home life. But disappointment, even subtle disappointment, takes it toll – and what do you do then? …You go to a little castle in Italy, of course!

The Enchanted April is more than a little bit mischievous, inviting you to join in the fun of observing the guests’ inner thoughts, conversations and, more poignantly, their battles. The characters spend a lot of the time on their own: reflecting and contemplating, considering their positions and their relationships to others. Elizabeth Von Arnim really captures each woman; their desires, their sorrows, their plights, their regrets. It’s very penetrating and touching, but also gorgeously and incredibly witty. I was so charmed at the wisdom the author seemed to have for life. The book gives us a great insight into Elizabeth Von Arnim. She possesses a lovely imagination, yes, but much much more than this. She seems confident and all knowing in the ways of love. Indeed, if you read even a little bit about her life, it becomes clear what a steadfast, strong and determined woman she was. She had two husbands and five children. She lived in several countries and moved house an astonishing amount of times. She had huge literary success in her lifetime and was desired and in demand at parties, sparkling wherever she went. She wrote The Enchanted April while on holiday in Italy, and staying in, wait for it, a small castle. Her books do seem to reflect a lot about herself and her life, but they say you should write about what you know, so perhaps this is partly why she was such a hit. She knew about people, specifically her class of people, and so she wrote engrossing stories about them.

The place she had found was a hidden corner where the sun-naked stones were padded with thyme, and nobody was likely to come. It was out of sight and sound of the house, it was off any path; it was near the end of the promontory. She sat so quiet that presently lizards darted over her feet, and some tiny birds like finches, frightened away at first, came back again and flittered among the bushes round her just as if she hadn’t been there. How beautiful it was. And what was the good of it with no one there, no one who loved being with one, who belonged to one, to whom one could say, ‘Look.’ And wouldn’t one say, ‘Look – dearest?’ Yes, one would say dearest; and the sweet word, just to say it to somebody who loved one, would make one happy.

This magnificent little novel will undoubtedly be in my top favourite reads of the year. It is a perfect book for me; it has so much charm and romance – romance in the best sense of the word, romance of the beauty of life. It is whimsy and dreamy but also all knowing and truthful. It is for the old romantic, the starry eyed, and the idealistic dreamer. It is that old cliche, life affirming. It is adorable.

This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.” 

Dark, Tense and Passionate: A review of The Rebirth of Henry Whittle by Gertrude T. Kitty

Phoenix Whittle is an orphan on the brink of adulthood. Mercilessly bullied at school, and belonging nowhere, she is trapped in a half miserable life, her only happiness coming from her two friends.  But news of a long lost uncle who wants her to live with him, gives her new hope. She dares to believe she will now have a true home, somewhere she is wanted and nurtured, somewhere she is safe. Yet when she meets her Uncle Henry she is left cold, for he seems, at best, uninterested and, at worst, actively hateful. Phoenix is now locked in a battle of wills with an uncle that clearly doesn’t care for her. With a nightmarish home life and a hellish school life, Phoenix struggles to keep it together. Her stress is multiplied when a serial killer appears to be targeting people all known to Phoenix – all known to her as her assailants.

The Rebirth of Henry Whittle is Gertrude T. Kitty’s utterly thrilling second book. From the first page, I knew I was in for a treat. The book speeds along in Kitty’s capable hands, and the reader is swept away and very quickly consumed in a dark story of fear and murder. The darkness, though, is lifted by the vibrant young characters, particularly Phoenix and her friend Luke. The conversations between the two friends provide some laugh out loud moments, and the depiction of the fun side of adolescence is captured perfectly: it’s not all doom and gloom for Phoenix.The narrative conveys a freshness so characteristic of Kitty’s work. Consistently told in the first person and present tense, it’s modern and current with references to contemporary culture. It’s the here and now, and this adds to the pacy rhythm of the book. Phoenix is a feisty girl with bags of resilience, a great sense of justice and always drawn to helping others. Her kindness and determined nature and ultimately positive spirit, spurs her on to fight for the life she deserves. And this makes her such a great protagonist and young heroine for all those YA readers out there.

The novel also focuses on Phoenix’s sexual awakening. As it is aimed at the YA readership, prepare to be titillated! I think back to Forever by Judy Blume – borrowed from the library and kept hidden in my bedside cabinet so my mum wouldn’t discover that I was reading a ‘naughty’ book! The novel encourages us to be in allegiance with Phoenix all the way and it feels like we are one of her best friends, privy to her inner thoughts and internal conversations, and always wanting the best for her. The themes of the book could be quite sensitive to some readers, so it carries a trigger warning of physical abuse especially, and is recommended for the older YA reader.

Kitty always makes use of the multi perspective narrative, and she does it in a unique way. I found this with her debut novel, Random Attachment. It struck me as very distinctive, and I was glad to find the same structure in Henry Whittle. Some of the characters’ narratives are very short, so there may be pages with as many as four points of view. This notably quickens the pace of the novel while also adding to the tension. And it works brilliantly.

The book’s geographical setting needs a special mention, as the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Harrow take me joyously back a few years to some of my old haunts. It’s thrilling reading about places you’ve lived in or been to in a novel, and Kitty always gets this spot on with me. I love books that make me conjure up vivid pictures in my mind and The Rebirth of Henry Whittle did this so well. I was able to picture places and scenes clearly, and even though I hadn’t been to all the locations, knowing of the areas referred to was a great advantage for my mind’s eye. I absolutely love it when this happens while reading a book!  As I have seen some other reviewers mention, the story would be superb as a film or TV series. It is begging to be adapted for the screen – it’s fresh, it’s British, it’s dark, it’s edgy, and it’s sexy. Who wouldn’t watch that?

If you are looking for a one or two sittings contemporary, quick paced, exciting and passionate thriller, The Rebirth of Henry Whittle will satisfy all your reading needs. A fabulous novel.

A Life of Death: A review of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

How vast London was. How great the extent of its housing and commerce and population. There was not a living soul in the city, not so far as the eye could see, who would not at some point have need of the goods and services provided by Bellman & Black. He looked out, turning slowly, in all directions. Birds were sweeping and diving in the darkening sky and beneath them, streets of houses stretched in all directions, grand and modest and impoverished. In one of those houses, in Richmond say, a fellow would be sneezing, right at this very moment. Just as in Mayfair someone was shivering. In Spitalfields, a tainted oyster was slipping down someone’s throat, and in Bloomsbury someone was pouring the glass that would prove one glass too many and…oh, it was endless. They would come all right. Sick today, dead tomorrow and on Thursday Bellman & Black would open its doors to the bereaved. It was an enterprise that could not fail.

This is the tale of William Bellman. William Bellman is a man of prospect. He works hard to achieve the best he can in everything he does. He is a man of business. A high flyer and a workaholic, utterly dedicated to his job; a job that is much more to him than a means to an end – it is an opportunity to reach perfection. He’s a brilliant problem solver, transforming everything he touches to gold. He’s a series of success stories. Yet, it is not a happy tale. Yes, indeed, William Bellman has it all, but life is such that, in a blink of an eye, all can change. Not everything can be weaved to your own will, not everything can be mapped out or predicted. Some things can’t be solved.

Diane Setterfield’s second book, after the much loved The Thirteenth Tale, is a story about death. There’s no escaping it – death permeates every line, every page. It’s almost oppressive and certainly gets under your skin. Like The Thirteenth Tale, it is beautifully told with the same richness of prose, but also the same hint of woefulness and distance. There’s no happy-go-lucky here, and even from the onset, when events are to be celebrated, there’s an underlying distress. An impartiality in the storytelling adds to this creation of distance; the protagonist is rarely referred to as just William – it’s always William Bellman, or Mr Bellman or simply Bellman. We are willed to feel separation, yet it’s this separation that piles on the sadness we feel. It’s a piece of dark Victorian Gothic, and we are wholly immersed into a powerfully haunting story of grief, a desperately sad story of a man on a downward spiral into nothingness.

At a certain point of drunkenness William understood a good many things that had evaded him previously. The world, the universe, God too, if there was one, were raged against mankind. From this newly unveiled vantage point he saw that his good fortune was a cruel joke: encourage a man to think he is lucky all the better to bring him down afterwards. He realised his essential smallness, the vanity of his efforts to control his fate. He, William Bellman, master of the mill, was nothing.

Throughout the novel, we are told, in detail, about the ever present rooks: the rooks that seep into the background of William Bellman’s life, and from which he recoils, ever since he killed one with a catapult as a boy of eleven. It leads us to question the connection between the rooks and Bellman’s luck/bad luck. The explicit implication is yes, there’s an obvious connection; but it’s a clever enough book to dare us to conclude no, there is not. And here lies the poignancy of the narrative: it’s so entrenched in death and the impact of it on one man that you can’t help but think about your own mortality. There are no thrills in this story of grief and loneliness, although the few lovingly constructed tender moments are dazzling.  

From the coins, any number of other scenes might come to mind, all as bright and as vivid as the day they had happened. One day and another and another, days and days of living there had been, and she remembered everyone with such freshness and vigour that it was scarcely less true and real than life itself. Her eye lingered on faces and expressions, she received again her mother’s loving looks, she made her brothers laugh, she sniffed the sweet and musty baby smell of her sister.

Bellman & Black is no ghost story as described by some critics, yet it weeps darkness. It is understandable why it was a shock to the system for some Setterfield fans. It largely feels like a one trick novel, completely and utterly about a single subject and about a single character. It certainly is capable of evoking mixed feelings in the reader. In conclusion, it appears to me that Bellman & Black could be read as a complete tragedy, or it could be read as one in millions of stories of life cycles, focusing on the real and persistent fear of death that many of us know well.

Love and Loss in Ceylon: A review of The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

Just married Gwendolyn Hooper is only nineteen when she travels across the seas to join her husband, Laurence, and start a new life on his vast tea plantation in Ceylon. Full of excitement and optimism at first, she is then disappointed to find her husband somewhat changed from the light hearted and easy man she married in London. His broodiness unsettles her, his lack of affection depresses her, and it is clear his mind is occupied elsewhere. While Gwen has no idea what is going on, she is soon consumed with her own troubles and what follows is a heartbreaking story of secrets, suspicion, betrayal and guilt.

Dinah Jefferies tells Gwen’s story with empathy and beauty, describing both her protagonist’s emotions and the story’s setting with vivacity and accuracy. We are carried away to the lush landscape of 1920s and 30s Ceylon, with its mountains and lakes and it’s tropical heat. We almost experience for ourselves its fierce monsoons and oppressive humidity. Jefferies enables us to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the country in all their exotic brilliance. The colours of the flowers, the sounds of the birds and insects, the smell of the lemons, the cinnamon, the tea. It’s all richly described to us within a heartfelt, compelling, and often, tense narrative.

Ceylon achieved political independence in 1948, not long after the time period of the novel. The novel reflects the country’s tensions just as it’s on the brink of change. Resentment of the many intricacies of colonialism is rapidly increasing and showing itself in violent outbursts. Moreover, agitation is rife among the plantation workers: conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil workers is bubbling, aggravated by their unequal treatment; and resistance to progressive change in favour of the old, familiar ways is causing trouble at the top. This backdrop to the main thread of the story adds another layer, throwing more tension into the mix. It’s an essential part of the narrative because it shows Gwen and Laurence’s stance and feelings in relation to the country’s situation, and it connects their personal story to the country’s story.

The theme of motherhood is central to the novel – in fact it is very telling that the author dedicated the book to the memory of her son. Maternal love weaves its way through every part of the novel. And if you mix loss into that love you get a great labyrinth of heightened emotions. Heartbreaking is the most accurate word to describe this story; from the tangled web of misunderstandings and misjudgements, to the colossal grief of losing a child, to the even bigger picture of racial intolerance, prejudice and hatred. For if you question why something ugly is happening in this book, are you not always led back to the horrific happenings and attitudes during British colonialism? Nothing in this story is easy to take. If you have a strong sense of justice you will be appalled, if you are a mother you will be lost. The story cuts through your heart and lingers long after you have turned the last page and walked away.

With its beautiful prose and roller-coaster story, The Tea Planter’s Wife will both delight and depress you. It is a magnificent read.

She took a step towards him and her efforts at keeping calm fell apart.

‘Actually, Mr McGregor, I do not think I did anything wrong in helping that little girl. Only a person with a heart of stone could think otherwise. It was not I who caused this, but you. The days of flogging a man over a trifle are over, and if they are not, well, shame on you.’

‘Have you finished?’

‘Not quite. You will be very fortunate if the Ceylon Labour Union do not pick this up. You are a mean-minded man who sees nothing but the bad in people. I believe in treating people kindly and fairly, whatever the colour of their skin.’

His face spasmed. ‘This has nothing to do with colour.’

‘Of course it’s to do with colour. Everything in this country is to do with colour. Well, mark my words, Mr McGregor, all this will come back to bite you one day, and on that day none of us will be safe in our beds.’

Are you sitting comfortably?: A review of Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

He was well enough connected to have secured a living in one of the prettiest villages in England, complete with a vicarage about which anyone might be moved to write poetry. Verdant lawns, bushes, shrubs, climbers; light-filled rooms with elegant lines, and old, good furniture. Wonderful views from its hilltop site, across three counties which today all lay under a shifting blanket of snow.

Do you like a cosy yet gripping whodunit? Is an English country village murder mystery your thing? Yes…? I bring to you Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. Light the fire, make a hot drink and snuggle up in your favourite chair for it’s Christmas Eve and snow is falling heavily on the village of Byford when Chief Inspector Lloyd is called to attend a violent death at the vicarage. It soon emerges that the victim is the vicar’s son in law, estranged from his young wife. While it seems the suspects are few, the case proves to be more puzzling than straightforward for both the detectives and the reader. 

First published in 1988 under the title Redemption, this is Jill McGown’s second book featuring Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill. There’s a lovely relationship  between the two detectives, both personally and professionally, and this is a great perk of the book. They are a very good sleuthing team and there’s some fine dialogue from them. McGown creates a strong double act, a duo that between them has the intellect, shrewdness, directness and dedication to solve murky, misleading and baffling mysteries. But it is their love affair which also had me hooked. It seems very genuine despite its complications and it is the catalyst for some truly touching moments.

He watched as Judy worked her way through her copious notes, in which every little puzzle had of course been entered, and he found himself thinking how soft and shining her hair looked, how pleasing the line of her jaw. Unprofessional. He had never admired Sandwell’s hair or Jack Woodford’s jaw-line, fine specimens, though they doubtless were.

Billed as a homage to Agatha Christie, this is indeed a traditional crime story in the sense that it is told sequentially; there are no flashbacks here. The golden age of detective fiction is also emanated by the whole point of the story (though it may sound obvious) being the unraveling of the mystery, and the elements of said mystery being clearly presented at an early stage. Our curiosity is then aroused throughout, with clues offered within the narrative leading to our gratification at the end and the great unveiling. It’s setting also follows the cosy whodunit format, in all its  picturesque snow-covered village glory, with an old isolated vicarage as the crime scene. There’s a non believing vicar with a wandering eye, his dutiful and dedicated wife, their seemingly hapless daughter, and the organ-playing harlot from the church playgroup. Except she’s no harlot, she’s just a woman that the vicar falls for, and this is just one example of how stereotypes are less stereotypical than in the golden age of crime genre. The balance of traditional and modern is just right. There’s no obvious classism which I find rife in Agatha Christie’s work, but there’s also no cringeworthy cop speak that I find abounds in contemporary crime fiction.

The reader is treated to a truly flummoxing whodunit. Who *did* do it? That’s the question we all want the answer to, isn’t it? But we also want to be taken on a riveting and stimulating investigative ride. There is much toing and froing in this investigation and the reader is allowed to feel included in the discussion. Paying attention is vital though! This is part of enjoying a crime mystery – picking up on details and clues that will add to the satisfied feeling at both the case and story’s conclusion.

Does that seem likely to you? He arrives drunk, gets drunker, beats her up, and it all ends happily ever after? Or would have done, if the invisible man hadn’t popped in and murdered him?

So what are you waiting for? Is the kettle on the boil? Is the fire lit? I hear that armchair calling! It’s time to lose yourself in a marvellous murder mystery.