Smiling on the Scythe: A review of All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison 

The autumn of that year was the most beautiful I can remember. For weeks after harvest-tide the weather stayed fine, and only slowly that year did summer’s warmth leave the earth. In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes.

All Among the Barley is the second book by Melissa Harrison I have read this year; and the first, At Hawthorn Time, readily prepared me for what was between its pages. I knew I wasn’t going to be reading a happy, uplifting book, but I also knew I was going to be treated to a slice of our natural world – a love and celebration of it, and beautiful detailed descriptions of nature and the changing seasons. It was, for me, a fair trade-off.

Fourteen year old Edith (Edie) finds friendship with journalist Constance FitzAllen when she becomes a regular visitor at the girl’s family farm. She has been commissioned to write a series of articles about upholding the old rural traditions for a magazine. Edie is captivated by her easy and confident personality and impressed by her charm and winning ways with people. But Constance is not all she seems and Edie has her own mounting troubles.

This is a novel with an undertone of disaster and some very dark themes. The personal is political here. Folklore, poverty, debt, mental breakdown, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse, intertwine with both traditional and progressive ideas, industrial change and modernisation, class division, patriarchy, nationalism and emerging fascism.

The depiction of British rural life between the World Wars is captured like I’ve never encountered before in a novel, and its sense of realism communicated through it’s vivid detail of how life was lived, would not be out of place in a non-fiction book written at the time. The characters for me seem secondary to the big themes that are going on. But each character is perfectly placed to convey an idea or ideas essential to the storytelling of an exact time and place. At first, everything seems subtle and everyday, but then the realisation hits you that it is exactly this that leads on to the bigger things in life: the change, the fortune, the tragedy, the make or break.

All Among the Barley was an education for me. I learnt the names of plants, birds, words and phrases that I previously wasn’t familiar with, and happily looked them up. I now know what a landrail looks like and what a barley-rick is. I loved this aspect of it. Although not an entirely enjoyable novel, simply because of its subject matters, it has much beauty and depth.  I wholly recommend it’s talented author with her absolutely gorgeous nature writing and hypnotic prose.

Beautiful descriptions of rural England in the 1930s
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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. 

Suffragette City: Strong writers, strong leads

Inspired by Bookstagram and the hashtag #whoruntheworld, the following eight books are ones that I have enjoyed, and recommend unreservedly. But much more than this, they are books by brilliant female writers, featuring strong female characters. All characters, I may add, that I loved when reading them, and that will stay with me, I hope, forever. 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee ‘only’ published two books in her lifetime, but the magnificence of To Kill a Mockingbird will endure forever. It is one of the very few novels I have read more than once. It’s female lead, six year old Scout, is just fantastic, and I sooo wanted to name my baby girl after her! She is a very clever child with a questioning and combative nature who has her faith in humanity tested when her lawyer father defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. The story is known for its great warmth, despite its harsh themes of racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

With its similar time and place setting to To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel is also told from the perspective of a young girl, and tells of racism in its pages. Cassie Logan is the feisty but naive protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the unimaginable ugliness of prejudice in her community. Mildred D. Taylor tells Cassie’s story with skilfulness and beauty, describing Cassie’s happy home life with scrumptious detail, while refusing to shy away from the realities of racial inequality.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 

Is Jane Eyre the ultimate feminist heroine? Of course, that is subjective, but she is certainly a very strong character who endures much hardship and heartache, and always fights to preserve her sense of self. Charlotte Brontë wrote a formidable story and created a celebrated and timeless character in Jane Eyre – one which I will always love.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain is the seventeen year old narrator of this wonderfully enchanting novel. Her observations of her life in a dilapidated castle with her family and eccentric father, are charming and witty. Dodie Smith – a playwright and novelist, famous for writing One Hundred and One Dalmatians – created a book that had me totally captivated, at times in stitches, and that whooshed me away with its thrilling love story. It has one of the most famous opening lines in novels: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Fabulous.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I read this following the first couple of series of the television dramatisation by the same name. I fell in love with Vanessa Redgrave’s narration and wanted to discover the real Jenny. Jennifer Worth was a nurse who worked in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s, and recounted it all in a trilogy of memoirs of which Call the Midwife was the first. A harrowing read with great moments of elation, this book overflows with gorgeous prose and beautiful wisdom.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

My favourite of Maggie’s novels. Just one word needed: Motherhood.  Arguably the greatest challenge a woman faces, motherhood is the overriding theme of this book, and the reason why I am drawn to it so much. It’s a heartbreaking, touching novel by one of my most familiar writers. I saw myself again and again in this narrative and I will always recall the effect it had on me.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I loved this epic book. Donna Tartt is an amazing writer whose second novel – published a decade after her first – centres around Harriet, a twelve year old girl whose older brother was found hanged in their garden at the age of nine. The murderer has never been found and Harriet makes it her mission to solve the mystery of what happened and enact revenge on the killer. A fabulous read – enjoyed all the more because of its length – by a super talented American author. This is a novel to get your teeth well and truly stuck into.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 

Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian classic, for both it’s heroine and it’s author. If you’re not familiar with Anne (with an e) one way or another, where have you been? I read this book as a young teenager after falling completely and utterly and wholeheartedly in love with the 1985/7 TV serialisation. After the depiction of Anne Shirley by the stunning Megan Follows, I must admit I found the literary Anne to be quite annoying! But this is where the Megan Follows character came from and I soon began to appreciate this fact. Anne, like Jane Eyre, is an orphan who clambers her way up, making the best of what she’s got at any given time, and forges the way to make the life for herself that she really wants. Lucy Maud Montgomery writes consistently with compelling beauty and wisdom, creating and shaping the character of Anne so lovingly that she has become one of the most well loved literary characters of all time.

I know there are many more books like this that I have yet to find and adore, but, Reader, I will, I will. Who are your favourite female writers? Who are your favourite female leads?