The Belovéd Vagabond by William J Locke (1906)

This is a wonderfully old-fashioned story, very well – and rather wordily – told.

‘To Paragot I owe everything. He is at once my benefactor, my venerated master, my beloved friend, my creator. Clay in his hands, he moulded me according to his caprice, and inspired me with the breath of life. My existence is drenched with the colour of Paragot. I lay claim to no personality of my own, and any obiter dicta that may fall from my pen in the course of the ensuing narrative are but reflections of Paragot’s philosophy. Men have spoken evil of him. He snapped his fingers at calumny, but I winced, never having reached the calm altitudes of scorn wherein his soul has its habitation. I burned to defend him, and I burn now; and that is why I propose to write his apologia, his justification.’

Those are the words of Augustus Smith, the long-suffering son of a drunken London washerwoman. He would tell the story of the man who would become his mentor,  and was quite unlike anyone he had ever met before or would ever meet again.

That young man was sent to deliver Paragot’s laundry, with clear instructions that he was not to hand it over – and not to come home again –  until he had extracted payment for the last three weeks. He was struck by a man unlike anyone he had ever met before.

‘Paragot lay in bed, smoking a huge pipe with a porcelain bowl and reading a book. The fact of one individual having a room all to himself impressed me so greatly with a sense of luxury, refinement and power, that I neglected to observe its pitifulness and squalor. Nor of Paragot’s personal appearance was I critical. He had long black hair, and a long black beard, and long black finger-nails. The last were so long and commanding that I thought ashamedly of my own bitten fingertips, and vowed that when I too became a great man, able to smoke a porcelain pipe of mornings in my own room, my nails should equal his in splendour.’

Paragot’s interest was piqued when Augustus pulled out the tattered copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost that he had found, mistaking it for the laundry book. He asked if the young man could cook herring. Augustus wasn’t at all sure that he could but he was hungry, he gave it a go, and he was delighted to find he could. That was the first step towards him being adopted and renamed by his hero.

‘ “Now if there’s one name I dislike more than Smith its Augustus. I have been thinking of a very nice name for you. It is Asticot.” I learned soon after that it is a French word meaning the little grey worms which fishermen call ‘gentles’, and that it was not such a complimentary appellation as I imagined. But Asticot I became, and Asticot I remained for many a year.’

That was how the gloriously unconventional education of Asticot began.

He would rise each morning to cook herring and then he would study under the tutelage of Paragot; in the afternoon he was sent out into the London streets with a mission that would be both educational and entertaining; and in the evening he would assist Paragot with his work in the kitchens of the Lotus Club.

It was a wonderful life, but it didn’t last for long. Paragot had an argument with the new owner of the club, who wasn’t at all happy with the ramshackle way his business was being run. It ended with him smashing a violin over the man’s head, and after that he decided that he and Asticot should take to the road in the furtherance of his protegee’s education!

The pair set off for France. A stray dog joined them along the way and they fell onto the company of two travelling entertainers, an old man and his granddaughter. The old man was frail, he died quite suddenly, and when Paragot realised that his granddaughter had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go he invited her to join his travelling party. She accepted happily, and he re-named her Blanquette de Veau.

Paragot was a wonderfully complex and charismatic creature, and it was easy to see why Asticot and Blanquette loved him

‘So many of your wildly impulsive people repent them of their generosities as soon as the magnanimous fervour has cooled. The grandeur of Paragot lay in the fact that he never repented. He was fantastic, self-indulgent, wastrel, braggart, what you will; but he had an exaggerated notion of the value of every human soul save his own. The destiny of poor Blanquette was to him of infinitely more importance than that of the wayward genius that was Paragot. The pathos of his point of view had struck me, even as a child, when he discoursed on my prospects.

“I am Paragot, my son,” he would say, “a film full of wind and wonder, fantasy and folly, driven like thistledown about the world. I do not count. But you, my little Asticot, have the Great Responsibility before you. It is for you to uplift a corner of the veil of Life and show joy to men and women where they would not have sought it. Work now and gather wisdom, my son, so that when the Great Day comes you may not miss your destiny.” And once, he added wistfully—”as I have missed mine.” ‘

Asticot knew a little of Paragot’s story, over time he would learn more, and the day would come when Paragot was given a second chance to claim the life – the destiny – that he thought that he had missed. Could he step back into the life he had always dreamed of, or did the very different man he had become – The Belovéd Vagabond – have a different destiny?

What did that mean -and what did the future hold – for his two protegees?

Those questions are very well considered, Astico did a wonderful job of telling the story, and I really didn’t know quite what was going to happen until the very end. It was’t quite the ending I expected but it did tie everything up satisfactorily.

I am so glad that I heard about this book, and I can warmly recommend the reading on Librivox.

The Wych Elm by Tana French (2019)

I have loved Tana French’s books for many different reasons.

The books that preceded this one have been compelling contemporary police procedurals, with a wonderfully real Irish settings. They have been  was a compelling character studies, written with real insight and understanding. They have been  perceptive state of the nation novels, speaking profoundly about a particular time and place …. and they have been linked, but not quite in the way series are usually linked.

Each book was centered around a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, who had usually appeared in an earlier book before becoming the protagonist of their own story. A story that would usually draw out their own story as well as the part they had to play in the investigation of a crime.

That was a wonderfully effective way to both link books and allow then to stand alone; but this book breaks the chain.

All of the familiar elements are there but the perspective is different. This time the character at the centre of the story has no connection to the police or law enforcement.

Toby is a good-looking young man, he is bright and charming, and he comes from a comfortably off and closely-knit middle-class family. His passage though life had been smooth, and he had just survived a crisis at work that would have felled most others, when woke up to find burglars in his flat and was violently attacked. He was left with physical and psychological damage.

His recovery was slow, and so he retired to the family home to convalesce. His uncle – who was terminally ill – had always lived there and other family members – his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his cousins – congregated there for lunch every Sunday and passed though often.

It was after Sunday lunch that the two young children of one of Toby’s cousins made a grisly discovery in the old wych elm at the bottom of the garden. That discovery led to a police investigation, and to the realisation that someone he knew had been murdered and that the evidence pointed to one or more of his family being involved.

Toby began to question his memories of his family, of his past and of his own nature. He tried to work out what happened but he feared what he might learn ….

I don’t want to say more than that about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil the story, and because it is difficult to pull things out and have them make sense on their own.

The  story moved slowly and inexorably, and the narrative voice was perfectly realised. I saw that Toby had strengths and weaknesses, and  I could understood what made him the person that he was. But I had to ask questions about how reliable he was, whether he really couldn’t remember or whether he had chosen to forget, and just how damaged he really was.

All of the characters around him, everything that happened, was utterly believable. The portrayal of someone who had to struggle for the first time in his life is so well done; and the drawing of a family living with a terminal illness is both acute and sensitive.

The writing is clear, lucid and intelligent, and the conversations were so very well done that I could hear the voices in my head.

It was strange not to come to know the detectives well, not to follow the case from their perspective, not to be able to link them to the Dublin Murder Squad. I understand why that wouldn’t have worked for this story, but I did miss the momentum and the depth that I have found in Tana French’s earlier books.

Following a case with a detective was more rewarding than following one man’s story.

I was always engaged but the story took a little too long to come together. When it did come together it was extraordinary. The crime story was intriguing, but the exploration of what happens when a charmed life is derailed and of coming to terms with the past and with new knowlege about that past is the greater story.

This is a very good book, and if the earlier books hadn’t set my expectations so high, if I didn’t have comprisons to draw, I would be able to focus on the many things done so very well in this book and think much less about my relatively small concerns.

I think that the change of perspective unsettled me’ and I think that I need to see where Tana French goes next to put this book into context ….

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (2018)

I fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s first book, I was disappointed by her second; but when I saw the title of this third novel I thought that everything would be alright and as soon as I started to read I was quite certain that it would.

Imagine curling up in a big armchair by a blazing fire on a wild and stormy night and listening to an story-teller who will have you hanging on every world and completely wrapped up in the story from beginning to end.

Reading this book was rather like that.

Back in the latter years of the 19th century there were many inns along the banks of the Thames and each one was renowned for something different, from music to gambling, from brawling to storytelling …

It was the Swan Inn at Radcot that was known for its storytelling. It had been run for generations by the Ockwell family and it was a place where grand stories, with a good sprinkling of folklore and magic, were told, talked over, and re-told.

40130093

The grandest of all of the stories that would ever be told at the Swan Inn began on the night of the winter solstice. A badly injured stranger came through the door, carrying what all of those present believed to a large, bedraggled puppet.

They were wrong.

The man was carrying a lifeless young girl.

Rita Sunday, the local nurse and widwife, was called and she quickly established that the girl had no pulse and was not breathing and that there was nothing she could go for her. She was laid out in a cold outer room while Rita treated the man’s injuries. Later she went back to the girl, because she couldn’t understand how she had died, and she was astonished to small signs of life. The girl would live. Rita’s scientific interest is piqued, because she cannot comprehend how anyone who is so clearly dead can recover and live.

Nobody knows who the child is or where she came from, and she is unable to speak or tell to tell anyone anything about herself or her history.

She might be the child of a wealthy couple who had been kidnapped years earlier.

She might be the granddaughter of a gentleman farmer who knew that his estranged son had abandoned his wife and child.

She might be the sister of a poor young woman who had never given up hope that she would come back one day.

These are just some of the different characters whose stories – past and present – are wrapped around the story of the unknown child. The stories are rich and vividly told, the characters live and breathe, and it is so easy to be drawn in and to care deeply about what happens.

There are good and hard-working people who do their best to help their friends and neighbours; there are people whose hearts have broken but who know that they can do nothing but carry on; but there are also scoundrels and evil-doers who will take advantage of any situation for their own ends.

All life is here.

Rita and the man whose life she saved – a photographer named Henry Daunt – become close and they set out to solve the mystery at the heart of the story.

It is a story rich with the best kind of magic – magic rooted in nature and humanity

Stories are told of Quietly, one of a long line of a family of mute ferrymen, who travels between the worlds of the living and the dead. He will rescue river travellers in distress and will either deliver them safely to one side of the bank if it is not their time to pass, or to another destination if it is ….

The river is always there, flowing through the story and its lovely prose.

The story moves slowly and it rewards slow reading. The writing is gorgeous, there are so much many stories within the story to read and appreciate, and it is lovely spending time with all of the people who are part of those stories.

Every detail was right, every note rang true, and the world of this book felt utterly, utterly real.

Everything comes together beautifully and without a hint of contrivance.

It was a wrench to leave, and I can’t quite believe that I couldn’t go to the Swan Inn and listen to the descendants of the people I have been reading about telling tales of them, telling the tales of this book, telling tales of their own ….

I was spellbound from the first page to the last.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (2018)

When this book first caught my eye I picked it up and but it down again, because I thought that the story it had to tell might pull me down at a time when I needed to be lifted up; but a warm recommendation and the news that the author would be appearing at my local literary festival sent me back to the bookshop to buy a copy.

It was a wonderful investment!

A story of people who had more than their fair share of trial, but who fought back by realising what was important in life and living their lives accordingly!

Raynor Winn’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness; the couple lost a court case and incurred massive debts that would swallow up everything they owned, because the evidence that they were not liable arrived to late to be admissible in court; and that was why baliffs were hammering on the door to complete the process of taking their farm and livelihood away.

They hid under the stairs, because they didn’t know what else they could do.

‘I was under the stairs when I decided to walk. In that moment, I hadn’t carefully considered walking 630 miles with a rucksack on my back, I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly one hundred nights, or what I’d do afterwards. I hadn’t told my partner of thirty-two years that he was coming with me.’

It was mad but it was the only thing they could do to stop being dragged down by the ruin of their past lives, to not undermine friendships by having to accept help and be grateful, and to avoid being a burden and a worry to their two grown-up children.

The idea was sparked by the book ‘500 Mile Walkies’ by Mark Wallington. I haven’t read it but the Man of the House has and he loved it.

Their only income would be £48 per week, they were homeless anyway, so why not walk the south-west coast path?!

The couple harboured their meagre resources to buy a new lightweight tent, a couple of sleeping bags and new rucksacks; and to get themselves to their starting point – Minehead in Somerset.

The walking was gruelling – especially for Moth, who had been advised that the best thing he could do for his condition (corticobasal degeneration or CBD) was to take life slowly and steadily – but as long as they kept moving the couple could forget that they were homeless and be happy that they were doing something together.

They had no money for official campsites, so wild camping was the order of the day, and it wasn’t easy to find a suitable spot each night, or to get up, pack up and be out of the way before anyone could object to them being there in the morning. Their limited budget meant that their usual diet was noodles, tins of tuna, and sweets. It was tough – particularly when they saw visitors using amenities and eating pasties and ice creams – but they endured and they became healthier.

The walk would not be a miracle sure for Moth, but it slowy became clear that it was having a positive effect in his health.

‘The path had given us certainty, a sense of security that came with knowing that tomorrow and the next day and the next we would pack up the tent, put one foot in front of the other and walk.’

Along the way he and his wife saw the best and the worst of human nature. Many people when they heard that they were homeless, or when they saw that they looked shabby and were eating the most basic rations, shunned them, called them names and made unwarranted assumptions. But others were supportive and encouraging, offering food and drink, and offering sensible and useful advice.

All of that gave the author a very real concern for the plight of the homeless.

She wrote beautifully about her emotions, her experiences, and about the path that she and her husband for walking. Sometimes when I read books about the south-west I’m looking out for the places close to home that I know well but that didn’t happen with this book, because I was so caught up in the moment. Reading was rather like hearing an account from a friend who is open and honest, who has a wonderful way with words, and who knows exactly what details to tell, which anecdotes to share to make a good story.

When I heard her speak her voice was exactly as it had been in her book.

There is much that I could share, but I’m just going to say that you should read the book and find out those things that way.

There are highs and low, there are moments to make you smile and moments to make you sigh, in this wonderful true story of homelessness, love and endurance.

A Book for Rumer Godden Day: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963)

The opening scene is captivating.

Two children are walking through an unfamiliar garden, and into an a house. Rumer Godden captured their points of view quite perfectly and he writing was gorgeous – she was so good at houses and gardens. The children see so much that it lovely and that is quite new to them, but as they move indoors it clear that they have a sense of purpose, and it also becomes clear that this story will not be a happy one.

‘The villa was on Lake Garda in northern Italy. ‘But it doesn’t matter where it was, said Hugh afterwards. It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle. ‘ The battle of the Villa Fiorita,’ Caddie called it afterwards and always with an ache of guilt.’

Hugh, aged fourteen, and his sister Caddie, aged eleven, have just arrived in Italy, after a long and difficult journey mainly by train from London. They ran away while their father was overseas for work and the housekeeper was distracted, with the express intention of reuniting their father and mother and rebuilding their family home.

Neither Darrell nor Fanny Clavering had been unhappy in their marriage, but when a film crew came to the village where they lived Fanny began to realise that her life was unfulfilling, that the role of wife and mother was trapping her, and that the world offered so many possibilities that she had never explored. She began an affair with the film’s director – Rob Collett – and the depth of attraction between them was such that they ran away together and her husband divorced her. The lovers settled at the Villa Fiorita, planning to get married once the dust had settled.

Darrell closed up the family home – because he knew that a country house required a wife to manage things – and moved to a modern flat in London with his children and the family’s housekeeper.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the children, who had been presented with their parents’ divorce as a fait accompli, who had been abandoned by their mother, and who had lost the home and the life they loved and been tipped into an unfamiliar new world. I had to be impressed at the way they laid their plans and made their way across Europe; Caddie even selling her beloved pony, Topaz, to provide the necessary capital.

Seeing her children again stirred feelings that Fanny had buried

‘I was going to roll it all up, roll it into a ball that I could keep hidden in my hand, or in my heart. It was to be only Rob, Rob and I, together for the rest of our lives. I had accepted that, then … and across every thought and plan and feeling came this new triumphant song: ‘They ran away. Hugh and Caddie ran away to me.’

Rob was more pragmatic, and insisted that they must be sent home; but when Hugh was struck down by food poisoning he didn’t have the heart to send Caddie – who was so like her mother back alone; and when Darrell suggested that the children stay for a few weeks, until he returned from his travel, the stage was set for a battle.

The introduction of Rob’s daughter, Pia, who had been brought up by her grandmother and was terribly spoilt, exacerbated the situation and unsettled that relationship between brother and sister.

The children were completely caught up in their mission to bring their mother home. They could not – or would not – see that she was so much happier in her new life with her love than she had ever been before; and they failed to see that some of their actions could have serious repercussions.

Rumer Godden moved seamlessly between past and present, between the childish and adult perspectives, balancing everything quite beautifully. She drew the children so well, understanding their world views, their stages in life, and the way they see and deal with the things life throws at them. She understood their parents, and the other adults in their world, just as well; and most importantly she knew that their were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings at different stages of life.

I thought of another novel that explored the consequences of divorce for adults and children thirty year before this one – ‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy – and I was struck by how little had changed.

The story told in this book was compelling and utterly believable. There was – of necessity – a little more drama and less gradual pressure than real life, but it worked.

I’ve seen concerns expressed about the resolution of the story, but I saw signs of how it would be early in the story, and as the end drew near I realised that it was inevitable.

I’m still thinking about that, thinking about everything that happened, and wondering what happened next.

 

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett (1964)

This second book of the Lymond Saga opens in 1550, two years after the events described in ‘The Game of Kings’.

Mary of Guise, queen dowager and regent of Scotland is planning a journey to France; to visit her eight-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who is being brought up at Henri II’s court as the affianced bride of the Dauphin. She knows that the fate of Scotland is tied up with the fate of its young queen, and her she has been given reason to believe that her child is in danger.

She is right to be concerned.

She knows that there are some very unscrupulous people in and around the French Court and that the English and the Irish in particular would seize any chance to break the alliance between France and Scotland. Queen Mary of England is struggling to contain the Protestant movement and keep her land as a strong Catholic power, and she knows that the alliance will make that more difficult to achieve. The Irish want to end of the English occupation of their country, they need France to help them and they are ready to use any means necessary ….

Francis Crawford of Lymond, newly restored to favour, is the man that the queen dowager wants to accompany her to France, and to uncover any plots against the little Queen. Her advisers counsel against that, they warn her that he would not agree, that he was not biddable, that he would too recognizable to the French; but she is quite certain that he is the best man for the job and she agrees to his terms – that he may carry out the job as he sees fit.

Given such a charge, most men would travel discreetly, live quietly, and observe the court from the sidelines; but that is not Lymond’s way. He sets about winning a place at the very centre of the court, hiding in plain sight,  and putting himself in a position influence people and events – and to reveal the machinations of all of the interested parties. It was intriguing to watch as  Lymond stepped into and between fraught political alliances and schemes, knowing that any one of them could pose a threat to Queen Mary’s life – and that the slightest misstep could herald the end of his own life.

I found the difference in scale and perspective interesting when I compared this book with ‘The Game of Kings.’ On one hand this book was concerned with greater matters – affairs of state and the future of countries rather than one man’s future –  but on the other hand it felt smaller and more enclosed, in the confines of the court rather than moving freely and at will.

That gave a different perspective on Lymond, a different view of his many accomplishments, his skill at managing people and situations, his resourcefulness and the resources he had to draw upon …. but because he was playing a role for most of this book I can’t say that I understand too much more at the end than I did at the beginning, or that I am at all sure where the performance ends and the person behind it begins.

That plot is complex, multi-stranded, and so cleverly constructed. I couldn’t say that I had a good grasp of what was going on, but I was captivated by wonderfully rich and detailed writing; by a wealth of scenes that had different tones and different tempos but were all quite perfectly painted; and the set pieces were dazzling. There’s a near disaster at sea, a stampede of elephants, a wrestling match and – best of all – a moonlit roof-top race that I could quite happily re-read and re-live time and time again.

The court of Henry II was so well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is such a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, I’m sure that I missed things, that a second read will reveal more, but this book lived and breathed and I know that I have to read on, to find out what happens next and understand where this series of books is going.

I was unsettled at first by the loss of so many characters from the first book who I thought would be of continuing importance, and I am not sure that this book – caught up with one particular quest – moved things forward too much and that means that I have to say that I couldn’t love this book as much as I loved ‘The Game of Kings.’

I’m sure that it has a purpose – I think saw seeds being sown – I think I met characters who will move forward,  beyond this story- and it might be that I will appreciate it more when I see its place in the series as a whole.

And I think I need to stop writing and go back to reading ….

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018)

The concept – the whole book – is extraordinary,

A man wakes up in an unfamiliar body, with no idea who he is, where he is, what he has done or what he should be doing. He will learn that he has been sent to a house party to solve the mystery of the murder of a young woman – Evelyn Hardcastle – at exactly eleven o’clock that night.

He has eight days, he will experience eight different lives; and if he fails to solve the murder by the eighth day he will be sent back to the first day to will start all over again, remembering nothing of those eight days. That cycle will continue, time and time again, until he presents the correct solution.

I was drawn from the start by the voice and the confusion of the narrator. He woke in a forest early in the morning, he heard a shot and believed that there had been a murder that he might have prevented, and he really had no idea who he was, where he was, or how he might find his way out of the forest.

All he knows is a name – Anna.

A sinister figure – who he suspects is a murderer – directs him to the stately home set in the middle of the forest. He learns that he is a house guest there, that no one has any idea who Anna is, and his urgent request to investigate a murder in the woods are not taken seriously at all. All he can do is use his wits to work out who he is and what is going on; because even when he taken up to his room, even when he looks in the mirror, he has no idea who he is, what he has done or what he should be doing.

He begins to find out a little about who he is, he learns a certain amount by listening to what is going on around him; but when he wakes up the next morning he finds that he is someone else entirely.

Later that day he begins to learn about his position and his mission from the strange and mysterious figure who will be his guide – The Plague Doctor.

As the days pass by he will try to complete that mission, but he doesn’t know who he can trust, who might be involved in the crime, and which other lives he might come to occupy; and he has no idea at all why he has fallen into such a nightmarish situation.

He does knows that he must find Anna, and understand what connects the two of them.

I thought that this book might sink under the weight of its complexity but it didn’t; and I had a wonderful time caught in the moment with the narrator and his many hosts.

I loved the different perspectives, and though I didn’t make a significant effort to see if all of the pieces of this gloriously complex puzzle fitted together I can say the things that I spotted did; and that said puzzle and its the myriad overlapping and intertwining story-lines can only have been the work of a brilliantly inventive mind.

They wouldn’t have worked if the characterisation hadn’t been so very well done. All of the hosts were complex, nuanced characters; and to make them live and breathe while maintaining the character and the story of the man who was occupying their bodies and their lives was a magnificent balancing act.

The central story had the familiarity of a Golden Age mystery, but the puzzles were shiny and new. Why was the Hardcastle family throwing a party to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of their child ten years earlier, having invited all the people who were present that day back to the decrepit home they had abandoned years ago? What was the connection between the events that were playing out in the present and the events that had played out ten years earlier?

That could have made a very good book on its own. It would have worked, because although the story is strange and fantastical, the human drama and emotions feel utterly real and its world is so utterly real that it is easy to step into it and be caught up in the story.

The book is so full of unexpected twists and turns, and I had a wonderful time wandering through its pages, knowing that I had some idea of what was going on and waiting for revelations. Those revelations came tumbling out in the final chapters, some of them sticking and some of them being blown away by the wind that bought more answers.

Does the ending live up to what came before? Not quite – but nearly – and I think it was the right ending.

It left me with a head full of thought and ideas, it left we wondering if this strangely real and fantastical world was still spinning, and it made me want to go back to the beginning and make my way though its intricate paths, examining the evidence and admiring the structure and the decoration, all over again.

 

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (2018)

In the beginning I was captivated by this book.

Even before I started to read I loved the sound of it, I loved the cover, I loved that the author shared her name with my grandmother ….

The first chapter spoke to my heart and my head, as a woman wrote of the joy and the pain of finding a mother who had been lost to her for many years, and of living with somebody she both knew and felt was a stranger, because the passage of time, things that had happened to her, and the coming of old age had left her mentally damaged.

It was profound, and it was richly, beautifully and distinctively written.

“I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this or that. The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor. That was why I looked for you all these years. Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall. But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.” 

I realised that I was reading one of those books that remind you that every single person you might pass in the street, however unremarkable they might look, however eccentric they may look, has a whole life story of their own, their own world view, and maybe a story to tell.

36396289The story that this book has to tell moves backwards and forwards in time, held together by a thread that follows the daughter as she searches for her mother and tries to understand what shaped her life and what made her leave her life  – and her daughter – behind. She meets people who had roles to play in her mother’s life story, and ultimately she learns some of her mother’s deepest and darkest secrets.

This  isn’t an easy story to explain, there is a great deal that is open to different interpretations, and what happens in the story isn’t as important as what the story has to say and how it says it.

It speaks of the complexity of the bond between mother and daughter; a bond that can be twisted out of shape by actions or circumstances, that allows roles to shift or even be reversed, but that can never be broken.

It speaks of the importance of language, of how it can be a joy, of how words can mean so much, of how they can make things clear but they can also make things opaque; and about how a child who shared an invented language with her mother might grow up to be a lexicographer.

There is a reversal, a reaction there, and this book is full of reversals and reactions.

There is folklore too, and a wealth of symbolism.

I loved the telling of the tale, the way pictures of lives were gradually built up from different pieces, and the way that some things came into the light while others remained in the shadows. The way that Daisy Johnson wrote, the way that she created this book, makes me want to describe her as an alchemist.

I wish I didn’t have to write anything negative, but I must.

One of the threads that runs through this book is the retelling of a very old story. It wasn’t wrong, but it was too literal and in the latter part of the book I couldn’t help thinking that it had compromised some of the characters and their stories and that a less literal retelling might have been much more effective.

Some of the ambiguity and opacity of this book is by design; but some of it is because rather too much had been crammed into it. And I think that is why I found so much to love but I couldn’t love the book as a whole in the same way.

I understand why this book has been lauded, and I might have found its failings easier to forgive if I had been a younger reader who hadn’t read many of the authors who must have infuenced her.

That said, I will rush to read whatever Daisy Johnson write next; because when she finds right balance between language and ideas and story the results should be sublime

A Book for Patricia Wentworth Day: Run! (1938)

Patricia Wentworth was a wonderful spinner of stories, and in this book she spins a story of high drama and romantic suspense with a cast of quintessentially English ‘Bright Young Things’.

It’s a confection – no more and no less!

The opening was wonderfully attention-grabbing.

Our hero, James, worked for a high class London car dealership, and he was fetching a new car for an important customer. Thick fog descended as he was driving through unfamiliar country, and it wasn’t long before he had to admit that he was lost. He caught a glimpse of a big house, and so he set off to ask for help.

He didn’t find help, but he did find trouble.

There were no lights on, there was no sign of life, but the front door was ajar. James went in, hoping to find a telephone, but seeing only a girl whose face is white, whose eyes are wide with horror, and who looks as if she is about to scream. She doesn’t, but she yells ‘RUN!’ and before he as time to react he hears sound of a shot and he feels the breeze as a bullet flies past him. James doesn’t need telling twice. He runs, and between them he and the charming but scatty girl manage make their escape.

Back at work in London he ponders on the puzzle of a girl who was clearly terrified, but completely unwilling to explain any part of the reason why to the young man who helped her. He is still thinking when he bumps into her again, and discovers that he went to school with her brother and that they have enough friends in common to make it surprising that they had never met before; though that isn’t enough to make her tell him any more or to stop her from insisting that it is better for him not to know and that he should stay away from her.

Sally has good reason to be scared, and for speaking and acting as she does, because she is an heiress, someone is after her inheritance and willing to go to any lengths to get their hands on it, and she fears that even her beloved guardian is involved. James won’t be told though, because he is very taken with Sally and because, when one of his colleagues has what looks like a nasty accident, he realizes that whoever fired that gun is trying to get him out of the way too.

There is much intrigue – and a good dash of romance – before a grand finale back at the country house where the story began.

There were moments in the early part of the story, when James didn’t know what was going on and Sally wasn’t going to tell him, when I wished that Miss Silver would put in an appearance. She would have had no trouble working out what was going on and sorting everything out, but of course that would have made this a very short book and it wasn’t long at all before I felt very fond of both James and Sally.

The perspective with James as the protagonist who was concerned about Sally was interesting, particularly when I had figured out what was going; but I think that Patricia Wentworth does best with female protagonists, and while he was eminently likeable he wasn’t as interesting as many of the young women I have met in her books.

(And that reminds me to say the young woman on the cover and what she is doing bear no relation at all to this story.)

I loved the young lady who worked at James’s car dealership, and I couldn’t help thinking that if Miss Silver ever wanted to hire an assistant they would work together rather well.

It wasn’t at all difficult to identify the villains and to understand their motives, and that made me realize what a terrible situation Sally was in and why it was quite reasonable for her to act what she did.

The building blocks of the story were all ones I’d come across before, but the structure that they built was sound. The story was entertaining, it was engaging, and it was suspenseful to the very end.

There was a certain amount of silliness and much that was a little too unlikely – especially towards the end of the story – but there was enough substance and enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages to the very end.

Patricia Wentworth wrote much better books –  of the books I’ve read, Danger Point/In the Balance is my favourite investigation with Miss Silver and Kingdom Lost is my favourite stand-alone story – but I did enjoy my time with this confection of romance and suspense.