The Confessions of Franny Langton by Sara Collins (2019)

I hesitated before I picked up this book, because I thought that it might be just another example of a kind if book that I have read many times before. I did pick it up, and I was glad that I did as soon as I read the author’s introduction.

‘On the small Carribean island where I grew up, I re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, trying to imagine windswept moors, drawing rooms draped in silk and sighing women, and men dashing about on horses – corrupting or taming or rescuing.

My own word stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point their came a realisation that those books I loved didn’t quite love me back. And that left questions in their wake.

Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’

Frannie Langton, the star of this gothic romance, is a wonderful answer to those questions.

She was born a slave early in the 19th century, beginning her life as the only mulatto on a Sugar plantation worked by slaves belonging to the Langton family from England. The Master and Mistress brought her into the house, she was educated, but that left her isolated because she would never fit into their world and she couldn’t fit back into the world of her fellow slaves.

When circumstances forced the Master to return to England he took Frannie with him. She hope for freedom, for a new life; but he gave her to friends, to becomes a servant in their grand house. She catches the eye of her new Mistress, she keeps Frannie close to her, and a bond grows between them ….

The story moves forward to tell the story of Frannie’s life in London and it looks backwards to tell the story of her childhood in Jamica.

Frannie has much time to think about her past, because one morning she awoke to find the Mistress she had come to loved lying dead and covered in blood. She was arrested, she was imprisoned, and she was put on trial. She knew that she hadn’t – that she couldn’t have – done what she was accused of, but she knew that the circumstances made her look guilty and that her background and her situation would be held against her, and she wanted to understand how her life had reached that point, because she had a great many questions about her own past that she could not answer.

Sara Collins writes so well. The cast of characters is wonderful, and each and every one of them has different aspects – nobody is there simply to play a part, they are all fully realised human beings who have pasts – and hopefully futures. That cast is deployed well in an engaging plot, and interesting questions are explored along the way.

The atmosphere is wonderful, allowing the characters and the story to live and breathe, and bringing the period and two very different characters to life.

The prose is gorgeous and Frannie’s voice rang true.

‘English rain weighs nothing. It’s the air that is heavy, and always has the seep of water in it. The streets were wet, and seemed to be tumbling under some giant peggy-stick. I stood there among the dizzying clatter of hammers and scaffolds and barrows moving piles of bricks that were either crumbling our of buildings or being plastered into them, so it seemed to be a city building itself and eating itself at the same time. Waiting carriages lined up along the high wall, horses shying under the dark bulk of warehouses. A crossing-sweeper was knocked down and the line of foot passengers just curved around him, like a river around a rock.’

I loved the way that the author honoured her influences while telling her own story. That passage made me add Dickens to the list of names that were mentioned in the introduction. I was disappointed thought that there were elements in this story that were over-familiar from other recent books that were set in the same period, and that the set-up of the murder mystery was rather too elaborate and improbable.

That meant there were too many times when this book felt generic, and the writing and the ideas underpinning the story were so much better than that.

This is a promising debut but I think – I hope – that the author will go on to write better books.

Consequences by E M Delafield (1919)

Until I picked up this book, I had completely forgotten the old-fashioned game of consequences; taking it in turns to write out a boy’s name, a girl’s name, where they met, what he said, what she said and the consequence of their meeting; folding over the paper each time so that nobody could see what had been written before their turn came.

I had never thought about the boy or the girl whose tales – sometimes odd, sometimes funny, sometimes sad – were folded over in discarded scraps of paper, but E M Delafield did, and it made her think of the world she grew up in and of young women whose life stories played out in a way that could be as haphazard and in a world where the only possible – the only acceptable – consequence was the acquisition of a wedding ring.

In this book – beginning with a game of consequences in a nursery – she asks whether there was an alternative.

The answer that she reached was a sad one.

She tells the story of Alex Clare, who is first seen as an insecure and awkward child. Alex is the eldest of her siblings, and she proud of the status she believes that gives her. She is bossy and the children’s nanny is protective of the younger children and critical of Alex.

I found that it wasn’t easy to like Alex, but it was very easy to feel sympathy for her. She lacked the understanding and empathy with others that many people are born with or quickly learn, and it seemed that there was nobody who would guide and teach her.

Alex pushed her sister, Barbara, to ‘tightrope walk’ on the stair rail, and the first consequence of that was that she fell and was lucky not to break her back. The second was that her parents decided that their eldest child was unmanageable, that they had to protect her siblings, and that she must be sent away to school – at a convent in Belgium.

This was possibly the worst thing that could have happened to Alex. She had nobody who would love her, nobody who would give her the guidance that she so desperately needed; and she had no aptitude for making friends. She developed intense crushes on certain other girls,  but she was so intense in her affections that even when the other girl was kind there was no real prospect of a true friendship

Alex felt that she was a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy, but she clung on to the hope that one day things would be different

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Of course there was no magical transformation.

Alex ‘came out’ as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, did everything right. She took Alex to the right parties, she made sure that she was beautifully groomed and dressed, she carefully explained what Alex should do in every situation. But Alex had no more empathy, no more understanding, than she had when she was a small child.

‘She was full of preconceived ideas as to that which constituted attractiveness, and in her very ardour to realize the conventional ideal of the day failed entirely to attract.’

She had dance partners, she thought that she was a success, but in time she realised that other girls had much more interest from young men, and that their dance partners would return to them at other functions. Alex’s didn’t do that. She began to doubt herself, her small successes dwindled, and she becomes an unhappy wallflower.

I felt very deeply for Alex as she watched other girls achieve what she most wanted, what she had been quite sure she would have,  while she was failing and understanding why. The worst indignity came when a young man took her down to dinner and she found that he had asked her because he wanted to talk about his love for her school-friend; when she went home to bed and desperately prayed that somebody would love her like that one day ….

It seemed that hope was lost, but a holiday romance led to a proposal and an engagement ring for Alex.

Success at last!

After the proposal, it seemed that the romance was over. Alex’s fiance showed no interest in wedding plans and a new life together, though he wpuldtalk at length about himself and his plans for the land he was to inherit. Alex tried to persuade herself that she loved him, but she knew that she was not loved as she hoped to be loved, that she was a means to an end, and she began to fear the prospect of a loveless marriage.

She broke off the engagement.

She thought that she was doing the right thing, she thought she was being brave, but her family was horrified. She hadn’t realised that marriage was the only option for her and that she had thrown away the only chance of success she ever had.

‘Alex almost instinctively uttered the cry that, with successive generations, has passed from appeal to rebellion, then to assertion, and from the defiance of that assertion to a calm statement of facts. “It is my life. Can’t I live my own life?”

“A woman who doesn’t marry and who has eccentric tastes doesn’t have much of a life. I could never bear thinking of it for any of you.”

Alex was rather startled at the sadness in her mother’s voice.

“But, mother, why? Lots of girls don’t marry, and just live at home.”

“As long as there is a home. But things alter, Alex. Your father and I, in the nature of things, can’t go on livin’ for ever, and then this house goes to Cedric. There is no country place, as you know—your great-grandfather sold everything he could lay his hands on, and we none of us have ever had enough ready money to think of buyin’ even a small place in the country.”

“But I thought we were quite rich.”

Lady Isabel flushed delicately.

“We are not exactly poor, but such money as there is mostly came from my father, and there will not be much after my death,” she confessed. “Most of it will be money tied up for Archie, poor little boy, because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it. It was all settled when you were quite little children—in fact, before Pamela was born or thought of—and your father naturally wanted all he could hope to leave to go to Cedric, so that he might be able to live on here, whatever happened.”

“But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?”

“Your father said, ‘The girls will marry, of course.’ There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you being able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible,” said Lady Isabel very simply.’

That was horribly true, and from this point Alex’s life goes steadily downhill. She then turns to religion and enters a convent, but she was drawn there by a love of the mother superior – an echo of her schoolgirl crushes – and when she moves to a new community, nearly a decade later, Alex realises that she does not have a vocation and must leave.

Back in a world that has changed, where she has never lived independently, where she has never handled money and has no resources at all, she struggles to cope. Her family try to be kind, but Alex is beyond any help that they can give to her ….

‘Consequences’ is a desperately sad story but I had to keep turning the pages because E M Delafield was such a wonderful storyteller and she wrote with lyricism and with clarity. I could never doubt the truth of the characters and their circumstances, and I understood how trapped they were by the strictures of a society that might work for some but could never work for all.

I knew that there could not be a happy ending but I had understand exactly how the story would play out.

I felt the author’s anger, and I knew that it was justified.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (2019)

I was drawn in by an intriguing title, a beautiful cover, and the promise of a dark tale set in a cold country.

Then I was captured by a striking image.

On the coast of Iceland in November 1686 a a tremor cracked the ice and a body floated to the surface of the sea. One arm was raised and its bone-white fingers waved, as if it was alive.

A group of villagers gathered to watch and talk, but there was one man among them who remained silent; because he knew the who the person under under the ice had been and he knew how that person had come to be there ….

9780718188979Some months earlier, a young woman named Rósa was living in a small, impoverished community with her widowed mother, Sigridúr. She knew that her mother was growing frail and would not survive the winter if she could not find more money to buy food and fuel.

She had received an offer of marriage from Jón, the wealthy leader of a settlement some distance away.  He promised to look after her mother and the local community; and so, though she didn’t want to leave her mother, her home and Páll – her childhood sweetheart who she had always thought she would wed – she knew that she had to accept the proposal.

When she travelled to her new home in Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Rósa was concerned that her husband was taciturn, that he had them sleep in the open rather than seek lodgings, and that when they did meet other people he gave a false name.

She hoped that things would be better when she was settled in her new home, but her husband made it clear that she was to be subservient and remain at the their croft to keep house and leave only at his bidding.

He told her that he didn’t want his wife mixing with the people in the village; and when she approached her neighbours she  found that they were reluctant to speak to her, that there was a mystery surrounding the death of the death of Jón’s first wife, and that they would say to her was that she should obey her husband.

Just one woman, Katrin, tried to do a little more to help her.

Rósa couldn’t help being fearful of her new husband, and of his apprentice, Pétur. She tried to please Jón, and sometimes she succeeded, but  she struggled to cope with staying in their croft alone, with little to occupy her time.

She loved reading and writing, she loved the old sagas, but her mother had warned her that her husband would not approve of any of that, and so she wrote only a little and hid her writing very carefully.

She wondered what was in the loft space he insisted must be kept locked at all time, about what made the floorboards creak at night when her husband was away and she was in her bed alone, and about what had really had happened to the wife who came before her ….

Rósa was a wonderfully engaging character and I really felt that I was living through this story with her. I understood her feelings, and I appreciated how carefully she walked the line as she tried to please her husband and to establish a life for herself.

The storytelling kept me close to her, and while it moved slowly at times I realised that it had to, to catch the reality of Rósa’s situation.

The writing was dark and lovely, and it caught the time, the place and the atmosphere wonderfully well.

I had reservations though.

My first reservation was that the time and place didn’t seem that specific. The setting was beautifully realised, the landscape had a significant part to play in the story; but I couldn’t help thinking that the story might have been set in any isolated community in a cold country, at a point in history where there were tensions between old and new traditions.

My second reservation was that the structure didn’t work as well as it should. At first the story was told purely from Rósa’s point of view, but some way into the book another perspective was added into the mix. I completely understood the need for that second voice, it enriched the story but I wish it had been introduced a little earlier and that the transitions had been done with a little more finesse.

Luckily, there was much more that I loved.

I thought I might be a retelling of a traditional story, and I might have been in the beginning; but in time that story  was subverted quite beautifully, and I found that the truth of this story and its characters were not at all as I had expected.

I was caught up in the story from the beginning but in the later stages, when it reached the time when the body emerged from the icy sea and the consequences of that played out, I realised how real Rósa, the people around her and the world that they lived in had become to me.

This book, with its secrets and its silences, worked so well in this dark, cold winter.

The Binding by Bridget Collins (2019)

I was drawn to this book by its intriguing title, by its beautiful cover, and by the promise of a story in which books were fundamental. They were but they were books quite unlike any that I had ever read. They were books that held dark secrets and unhappy memories; drawn out from peoples minds and bound into the elegant leather-bound volumes by Bookbinders, so that memories were erased, secrets were concealed and the troublesome pasts were securely locked away.

The story was set in a place somewhere like the British Isles, a hundred or so years ago. Young Emmett Farmer had always worked on his family’s farm, but he was summoned to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder. He didn’t want to go, he  didn’t want to take up an occupation his friends and neighbours viewed with fear and suspicion, but he had been told that he had a vocation and so he had no choice.

Emmett learned his craft slowly, under the watchful eye of an old woman. She told him that he was following a sacred calling, and she stored rows upon rows of books that she had bound over the years over the years in a secure vault below her workshop. But Emmett would find that there were Bookbinders who were much less scrupulous, who would trade in books and exploit their contents.

Then, just as he had begun to settle into his new life and occupation, he made an extraordinary discovery: there was a book in the vault that had has his name on it ….

The concept was intriguing, and the story that played out in three acts explored the questions and issues that spun around that concept wonderfully well.

What might be the consequences of not remembering, of cutting parts of a life away?

Was it fair that the wealthy and powerful were able to buy books and learn things about other people that they didn’t know themselves?

Was there a danger that people could be pushed towards Bookbinders for the wrong reasons, for the benefit of others not themselves?

What would happen if people who had had all of their memories of each other bound into books met again?

So much could go wrong …..

The story speaks profoundly of love and loss, and it speaks quite naturally of issues that are very relevant today – the class divide, homophobia, the abuse of power, sexism ….

I wish that I had liked it more than I did.

I couldn’t warm to the protagonists, maybe because their backgrounds, their lives and relationships, weren’t fully drawn and I only learned what was necessary to move the story that was being told forward.

That story was well told, but it was predictable in places and there were too many times when I knew what was going to happen and wished things would move forward more quickly.

I think that I might have been the wrong reader for this book; and that my expectations of what it would be were wrong and that the magic I hoped to find was of a different kind.

But I also think that a bit more editing and an opening out of the story would have made this a much better book.

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 ….