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

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…

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.’

Love is the Answer: A review of Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

On the next floor, Ephraim unlatched an old looking door.

‘This is where you’ll sleep,’ Ephraim said, pushing it open.

‘Gosh!’ I gasped. ‘I mean…wow!’

It was perhaps the nicest room I’d ever seen. For one thing, there was so much light. I counted at least six windows – little ones, arched at the top and set deep into the walls. Everything was painted white, even the floor. On either side of the room two beds hugged the curved lighthouse walls. Above each was a shelf of books from which hung beautiful, sea-blue lanterns.”

Firstly, I have to say that novels featuring lighthouses on the cover are irresistible to me. I love lighthouses, I love pictures of lighthouses and I love books about lighthouses. And Letters from the Lighthouse has an especially scrumptious one. I purchased this lovely little book purely based on…can you guess? – the lighthouse on the front. 

And now for the story…

The year is 1941 and young teenager Olive and her little brother Cliff know all about the devastation of war. They’ve already lost their dad, and now it looks like they’ve lost their sister Suki. Yet, Olive is convinced there is more to Suki’s disappearance than is believed. So when they are evacuated to the Devon coast, Olive makes it her mission to solve the mystery and find her sister.

I have a guilty enjoyment for Second World War stories in all formats – books, tv, films. It’s not the war that I am fond of, but the seemingly cosy era portrayed. Was it cosy? No of course not – there was a war on! – but people like to look back with nostalgia, and – I like to think – focus on moments of light in the dark. However, Letters from the Lighthouse doesn’t shy away from the grimness of the time, and a really strong theme of the book is the plight of refugees. I was surprised, but delighted, by this as I think it is an extremely important subject; one which is so close to my heart.  This is a book aimed at eight to twelve year olds, yet its message of empathy and acceptance is a great one for all ages (of course), and particularly appropriate in today’s abismal political climate. The young characters rally ‘round to ‘save the day’, and Olive, in particular, is a superb heroine for school-age readers. She is portrayed with innocence but also is shown to possess a strong sense of justice, and her strength and level-headedness gets her through some very tough times.

Emma Carroll writes simply but charmingly and with sophistication, creating a world you would want your children to share. So much thought has gone into the execution of this story and the message it sends. It is a joy to read and I will most definitely be reading more of her books in the near future. So, come on over and spend some time in her lighthouse.

‘That’s for what you’re doing to our boys.’ Mrs Wilcox spat at him. The other woman prodded him with her foot. The pilot pleaded, using words I didn’t know.  But he was sobbing – that I did understand. 

‘Don’t!’ I burst out. ‘He’s injured!’ 

Someone told me to be quiet.

Surprisingly, Mr Barrowman stuck up for me: ‘Olive’s right. We should do things properly and follow international law. Hand him over – ‘

‘Oh belt up, Mr Barrowman!’ snapped the fishermen who’d argued with Queenie yesterday. ‘The chap’s a German. When’ve they ever done anything properly, eh?’

Shouts of ‘Call the police!’ and ‘Give Jerry what for!’ rippled through the crowd. Yet still no one knew what to do. It infuriated me how Mr Spratt did nothing. He’d been so particular with Ephraim about the lighthouse, checking and double-checking the logbook,  yet now he very conveniently chose to look the other way.

I only hope that when Dad’s plane came down someone kind had found him, to hold his hand when he was hurting and tell him not to be scared. Better still if it’d been so quick he’d died before his plane hit the ground.

No, I wouldn’t keep quiet. I had a voice, and it was time to make some noise with it.

Luscious letters and luscious lighthouses

Sweet Summer’s End: A review of The Legacy by Katherine Webb

I remember exactly when I started reading The Legacy. It was my birthday and I was sitting in the car in the car park of our local Lidl in Wembley, waiting for my husband who was probably getting booze. I had no idea that in a few days I would’ve turned the last page and exclaimed a silent wow to myself. It was read at perfectly the right time – summer’s end, with the days still long and warm.

One of the things I love about reading books is that some are very season specific, and you can get much more from a book if it is read at the right time of year. For example, you should only read A Christmas Carol at Christmas (obviously), and there are clearly books that should only be read lying against a big ancient oak in a summer meadow (like, um, Larkrise To Candleford). You get my drift. But more than this; books can improve your enjoyment of a season, as in winter when you curl up with a good book (coal fire optional). It’s a thing you do in winter to make the season cosier. And then, in summer, you take a book to be read on the beach for some relaxing holiday me-time. You choose your book to suit the season, and if you haven’t already done this, I highly recommend trying it.

Anyway, The Legacy, for me, falls into the category of a great summer read. However, if you do happen to pick it up in the colder months, do not save it – devour it at once – as the modern strand of the book is set in winter, making it a superb read all year round.

I have read three novels by Katherine Webb so far and they have all had the same narrative structure – two stories told parallel to each other, one set in the past and one in the present, with a connection. In the case of The Legacy, that connection is slowly revealed in the course of the book. There is a mystery (or two) to be solved, and the two stories coming together is the key to its conclusion.

Both stories are told beautifully. I loved them equally, and that’s unusual. More often than not, one is preferred over the other. Yet, it is a testament to the author that both were able to capture my attention and keep me hooked and reading on. The Legacy is a near perfect read. My only issue with it, as with many great books I have read, is that it wasn’t lengthier, simply for me to enjoy it longer.