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Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This week my contribution to Judith Reader in the Wilderness’s meme is my shelves of recent fiction written in English. They include UK, US, Irish, Canadian, Australian, Nigerian, Malaysian and Egyptian writers and even one part Vietnamese author. Click on the photos to enlarge.

There’s barely a dud here. Notable to me are Philip K Dick’s non-Science Fiction novels (stretching recent there a bit.) Sadly these were not published till after his death.

Also there, though, is Samuel R Delany’s autobiographical book The Motion of Light in Water not to mention some commemorative china and wooden elephants.

English Language Fiction Books

Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee would be there too if the good lady hadn’t swiped it for her 20 Books of Summer reads.

However that would be on the next shelf stacked on its side as it’s one of those large paperbacks. I put those and some hardbacks from below upright to take the photo below. (The James Wellard is also hardly recent.)

English Language Fiction Tall Books

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2020, 889 p, including 4p Author’s Note and 1 pAcknowledgements, plus ii p Contents, vi p Cast of Characters and ii p Tudor and Plantagenet descendant family trees.

The Mirror and the Light cover

As we have come to expect of Mantel this is exquisitely written. Each word, it seems, has been chosen with care, the prose burnished to perfection. At nearly 900 pages, though, it is not a quick read.

This final instalment of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is bookended by two executions, that of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own. Despite the reader’s knowledge of its narrator’s ultimate fate (surely no-one coming to this book could be unaware of it?) there is no sense of tension defrayed. We are in the moment – often in his past moments – with Thomas Cromwell in his efforts to serve Henry VIII and to frustrate the king’s enemies both at home and abroad (and for Cromwell to climb the greasy pole as high as possible while incidentally enriching himself, his family and his entourage.)

The Tudor dynasty is still on insecure ground, its already tenuous claim to the throne threatened by the lack of a male heir, Catholic pretenders (the Poles and the Courtenays) intriguing against Henry with the Spanish Emperor’s envoy and with the Pope, gossiping and insinuating against Cromwell but in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s death the most urgent task in the king’s households seems to be to chip out the HA HA insignia from all the heraldic emblems on the walls and to unstitch them from the embroidered cushions. Meanwhile the king’s latest marriage – to Jane Seymour – goes well, bringing benefits to the Seymours and Cromwell both, not least the marriage of Cromwell’s son into the Seymour family. Then, after producing a legitimate son for Henry, Jane dies; and, though Prince Edward thrives, everything is thrown into the air again.

This is an easy to absorb foray through the history of the times as seen through the eyes of one of its prime actors; the uprising against the King’s religious policies in the North of England that became known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, allayed by worthless promises and later crushed by the Duke of Norfolk; the diplomatic dance surrounding the marriages of James V of Scotland with French heiresses; the dissolution of the monasteries and the bounty that brings, both to the crown and to its servants; the arm’s length negotiations for Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves; that project’s dismal failure on the pair’s first sight of each other; the insinuation by the Duke of Norfolk of his flighty niece Katherine Howard into the King’s orbit; rumours that Cromwell seeks to marry the King’s first daughter, the Lady Mary. All goes well for Cromwell until suddenly it doesn’t, things he said in innocence are twisted against him, hoist by his own petard.

There are some quotable moments. Thinking of his dead wife, Cromwell remembers, “She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.” (She needed to write them down?) Under questioning by Cromwell, Margaret Pole comments on the position of aristocratic women, “‘I have noticed’” she says, “‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’” At one point Cromwell reflects that, “men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

However, at times I found myself struggling to concentrate on the text, perhaps due to this third Cromwell book’s length (or even its weight) or that I was reading it during lockdown with other things on my mind.

It is obvious in retrospect, though, that the whole trilogy has been the thoughts of Cromwell on the scaffold, scrolling through his life as he awaits the axe.

Overall, this trilogy is a tour-de-force, a great feat of evoking another time, of imagining another mind, and a brilliant achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “her family sweep in” (sweeps in.) “None of them have kept their looks” (None of them has kept her looks.) “‘I am sure you she remembers you’” (no need for the ‘you’, or else ‘I assure you’ was meant,) burger (x2, burgher,) dottrels (dotterels.) “‘Did you not use to be’” (Did you not used to be’,) “lands at the town of Fife” (Fife is not a town, it’s a county, though it’s still sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife.) “His party travel” (His party travels,) pyxs (pyxes,) “to see that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “spout it from their maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

The Apple by Michel Faber

Crimson Petal Stories. Canongate, 2011, 206 p, plus xi p Foreword.

 The Apple cover

Faber’s foreword tells of the countless letters he was sent praising his novel The Crimson Petal and the White, or lamenting its inconclusive ending, the entreaties he received to let his readers know what happened next. This volume contains stories featuring characters who appeared in the earlier book (which I have not read, but did watch the television adaptation) but only those tales that demanded to exist. The rest he had to let slip away.

It has to be said that, here, Faber’s writing is masterful. In a few deft strokes he conjures up the times he is writing about and the characters he depicts.

Christmas in Silver Street sees sixteen year-old but nevertheless experienced prostitute Sugar give little Christopher, the brothel’s drudge of a linen-fetcher, a surprise Christmas gift of chicken and pastries.
In Clara and the Rat Man Clara has fairly recently been reduced to prostitution by an insensitive reference from a former employer. The Rat Man, a veteran of the Afghan War gives her a shilling a week to grow the nail of her middle finger and, once it has grown, ten more to insert it in a particular place while his dog is engaged in pit ratting.
Miss Emmeline Curlew’s father worries that if she doesn’t marry while young she never will, as she has inherited his aquiline nose, long face and strong jaw. Along with a photograph, Chocolate Hearts from the New World are an addition to the courteous reply upon which she muses after receiving it from a US slave owner (a contrast to the usual vitriol directed to her) to her entreaties to give up slavery.
The Fly, and its Effect upon Mr Bodley is the tale of the discomfiture of that gentleman who is unmanned by the memory of a fly landing on the buttock of a prostitute displaying herself as he decided which orifice he preferred to penetrate, a discomfiture two days later in the same house in Fitzrovia unallayed by the allures of a new girl, whose name is Ping or Pang but whom the establishment calls Lily, whom they are teaching English starting with the essentials (a four letter word of course.) Mr Bodley is prevailed on to sleep things off but is unprepared, “‘I can’t sleep without a nightgown. It’s not natural.’”
In The Apple, Sugar is awoken by an evangelist singing beneath her window. She observes the singer with a child and is enraged by the blow the child receives from her carer after she drops the apple she has been given. This prompts Sugar to rush out to remonstrate but the pair have gone. This along with Sugar’s perusal of the latest Trollope novels and penny dreadfuls makes her resolve to seize her chance of escape should it arise. It is counter-intuitive (brave?) for an author to include the thought that Sugar has about reading as “an admission of defeat …. it shows that you believe other lives are more interesting than yours. All of it is trickery, a Punch and Judy show for the gullible masses.”
William Rackham hopes his Medicine does not contain morphine or cocaine as he ingested other narcotics just an hour before. Sitting at his desk he recalls the way his life was turned upside down by Sugar.
A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing is narrated by an old man in a care home in the nineteen nineties. He was born the day Queen Victoria died and brought to England from his home in Australia in early 1908. At his new school he falls foul of the unwritten codes of English life. “That’s Britain for you … how much unease can be generated out of bloody nothing.” He remembers the day of a huge suffragette march in June 1908. In what might be seen as Faber’s riposte to those who questioned Crimson Petal’s ending. “I do understand how maddening it is to get so far, and not know what happened next.” The narrator’s mother Sophie had once revealed to him she had been taken away from her home by her governess, a Miss Sugar, because she had felt unsafe there. “Life defies our intentions to be rational; it misleads and teases us until we are driven to do foolish things.” He also berates the reader’s tendency to bring sex into everything. Born one day earlier he’d have been a Victorian, “And you know what those Victorians were like.”

After reading the stories in The Apple we know exactly what those Victorians were like.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Virginias” (in 1850? Didn’t Virginia only split into two States once the US Civil War began in 1861?) “‘I had to go see my father’” (go to see,) “outside of” (outside, no ‘of.’) “Go play with” (go and play with,) “came to nought” (naught. The sense is ‘nothing,’ not ‘zero.’ There is a difference.) Some missing commas before direct speech, “prime minister” (Prime Minister.)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Leather-bound. Collins Clear-Type Press, 1953? (No date was given but the book contains stills from the 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier,) 373 p. Originally published in 1847.

 Wuthering Heights cover

Approaching a classic like this is an odd experience, as it trails a cloud of expectations. I was led to believe it to be a great love story. It isn’t. There is very little evidence in the text of a grand passion between Catherine (Earnshaw as was) and Heathcliff, only a close mutual regard through childhood companionship. She marries someone else, Edgar Linton, apparently quite happily. So does Heathcliff, of course, but that is purely to spite Edgar (who never made any secret of his disregard for Heathcliff) by ensnaring his sister.

The book’s reputation also carries something of the uncanny and indeed it starts with a Gothic touch as Mr Lockwood stops for the night at Wuthering Heights with its strange occupants and we look to be set for a ghost story with Lockwood sleeping in a room where he hears the voice and feels the presence of the long-dead Catherine outside the window. Yet apart from Edgar Linton’s propensity for sitting by Catherine’s grave for hours on end this aspect of the weird is dropped for the entirety of the novel until the last few pages where Heathcliff says he believes spirits live on after death. (And then we have the last line about “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”)

I was troubled early on by the unexamined – and class-ridden – assumption that because Heathcliff was a foundling and as a child brutish in appearance, he must therefore be brutish in fact. (Another writer once reminded us, “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” after all.) True, Heathcliff’s later behaviour is abhorrent beyond belief but, apart from Edgar Linton’s dislike, Brontë makes little or none of the case that others’ attitudes to him might have conspired to make his character so. After all, Catherine sees something in him. Then again, without his dark character there would have been no story.

In common with many nineteenth century novels the book is to modern eyes wordy and over-written. Also, its structure is overly convoluted. Supposedly narrated by Mr Lockwood, much of the story is relayed to us second-hand through servant Nelly Dean’s recounting (and sometimes even third hand as she tells Lockwood what Catherine Linton has said to her.)

The resolution is rather sudden and, it might be said, convenient. In addition, Catherine Linton’s accommodation with Hareton Earnshaw appears too quick. Even the title is something of a misnomer. Many of the scenes of the story take place in Thrushcross Grange. But that name does not have the Gothic attraction of the gloomy, allusive, adjective “wuthering”.

Pedant’s corner:- “pushed passed” (past,) an occasional missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘if I wished any blessing in the world, is was to find him’” (in the world, it was to find him,) “she learned also than her secret visits were to end” (also that her secret visits,) skurrying (scurrying,) “what inmates their were” (there were.)

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

Abacus, 2011, 173 p, plus x p Introduction by Josef Škvorecký. Translated from the Czech, Mĕstečko, kde se zastavil čas (A Small Town Where Time Has Stopped,) by James Naughton.

 The Little Town Where Time Stood Still cover

It makes sense to publish this story in the same volume as Cutting it Short since it carries on the story of Francin Czilágová and his cousin Uncle Pepin from that tale.

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still has an odd narrative, though, since it starts being narrated by the son of Francin and Anna, describing how, inspired by the tattoos of the working men at the Bridge Inn (where the patrons are much amused by tales of the local priest Dean Spurný lifting his maids up to the ceiling by the leg of the chair they’re sitting on so that their skirts flap round their cheeks) he wished to have a tattoo of a small boat. Mr Alois obliges him but when he finally sees his tattoo it is of a stark naked mermaid. Thereafter the narrator’s own life is as if forgotten and the novel reverts to the life story of his father, Francin, and Uncle Pepin.

By now Francin has swapped his Orion motor-bike for a Škoda 430 car, which, despite it never going wrong, unlike the Orion, he still takes apart every weekend to see why it works so well. Pepin is still riddled with nostalgia for the old Empire and for the pair, “time was slowly standing still while another time, of different people, was out there full of its own élan and new energy and endeavour.”

Details of everyday life fill the pages while wider events take place more or less off stage. The Second World War is almost an incidental occurrence, impinging little on the town even though Pepin gets into a confrontation with Mr Friedrich, in his Reichs uniform, over whether Austrian or German soldiers would win, Pepin insistent that, “Austrian soliders will ever be victorious,” with an almost pantomime exchange of “wills” and “won’ts” kept up between them over the years afterwards. The arrival of Soviet troops is marked by Pepin being involved in a dancing competition with them.

When the brewery is taken over by the workers they agree Francin had been good to them – unlike the chairman – but they explain that made his behaviour worse as it had served to reconcile them to the old regime. The way the brewery is managed from then on is viewed by the text with a critical eye (not the sort of thing to endear Hrabal to the authorities that were) as Francin and Uncle Pepin carry on seeing the world in the same old way. The progress that wasn’t is all but an irrelevance to them as they continue to live in their minds in a town where time stood still.

Except it didn’t. Pepin becomes bed-ridden, and Francin realises, “what a benefit it was for an old person to be able to do things for himself, not to be dependent on people” and on watching a cemetery being torn up that, despite some resistance, “they had succeeded, they had to succeed, in tearing those old times out of the ground.”

Once again the text is sprinkled with Scottish terms; Hogmanay, ploutering, and wee (for small.)

Pedant’s corner:- vicarage (is this the correct word for a priest’s house?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “ammonium” (ammonium carbonate I should think, ie smelling salts,) missus’ (missus’s,) galop (gallop,) bandoleer (bandolier.)

Cutting It Short by Bohumil Hrabal

In The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Abacus, 2011, 134 p. Translated from the Czech, Postřižiny (Cutting,) by James Naughton.

 The Little Town Where Time Stood Still cover

From the sixty-metre chimney of the limited-liability municipal brewery it is obvious that the small town where this short novel is set is situated on an island in the Elbe. The story is narrated by Anna Czilágová, (born Kalovice, in Moravia.) Her husband, Francin, manages the brewery and loves order and regularity. They are somewhat ill-matched as Anna loves chance and the unexpected. Francin constantly complains that the ways she does things are not suitable for a decent woman. Only when she is sick can he feel that she needs him as much as he needs her. He owns an Orion motor-bike, which very rarely survives an outing without breaking down and which he sequentially invites every man in the town to help him service (which takes hours) so that they avoid his eye thereafter.

Uncle Pepin, actually Francin’s cousin, descends on the couple one day to stay for a week or so but never leaves. In his spare time he frequents only drinking establishments which have ladies’ service. He is a hit with the ladies, or likes to think he is. Nostalgic for the old Empire, Pepin’s recurring phrase is, “a soldier of Austria can never be defeated.”

Anna’s golden hair (which is always lifted out of the way by the local shopkeepers as she mounts her bicycle to keep it from tangling in the wheels,) which she had to avoid treading on on the way up, flies out like a beacon in the wind, where she sits having scaled the brewery chimney with Uncle Pepin, watching the fire brigade called out to rescue them from their perch, as those below thought they were engaged in a suicide attempt. This is only one of the scenes which have a magical realist feel, but there is also a layering of everyday detail, as when Anna helps the local butcher to make sausages, or she consumes cream horns (in an unsuitable unlady-like manner, of course.)

The new fashion comes to the town with the advent of wireless, soldiers bringing in the apparatus, allowing everyone in turn access to an earpiece with the sound, but thinner, stretched out, of a brass band playing Kolíne, Kolíne all the way from Prague. In the build-up to the book’s final significant event various things get cut short, the brewery chairman’s horse’s mane and tail, Anna’s skirt, her dog’s tail.

A curiosity is that the story is partly translated into Scots. At first, because the words appeared in Pepin’s speech, I wondered if this was an attempt to represent a regional Czech accent but then Scots words (doucely, spale, wame) cropped up in the main text. (The translator was brought up in Edinburgh.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the dynamo pumping the …… where the light bulbs shine, the dynamo starts to” (dynamo was probably repeated in the original Czech but its repeat is superfluous,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.) “‘Direktion!’” (why use the German spelling?) pelargonias (pelargoniums. If, in any case, the word had a Greek plural it would be pelargonia,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “hundred of barrels” (‘hundreds’.)

Passing On by Penelope Lively

Penguin, 1990, 214 p.

 Passing On cover

Helen and Edward Glover have into middle age lived with their overbearing mother Dorothy (from whose clutches their younger sister Louise had long since escaped by marriage) in a crumbling pile called Greystones which has an accompanying area of land known as the Britches. The novel starts at Dorothy’s funeral with Helen reflecting, “Eternal life is an appalling idea, especially in mother’s case,” and thereafter traces the lives of Helen and Edward in the following weeks. Helen has a part-time job at the local library, Edward teaches at a nearby girls’ school but it is their inner lives which foreground the book.

In its initial stages the novel is deceptively light in tone, like a cross between The Shell Seekers and The New Moon with the Old, but as it progresses it develops an accumulation of detail which underpins its seriousness.

The terms of Dorothy’s will come as a shock. She has left Greystones to Louise’s teenage son Phil, now in that rebellious stage, adorned by a black crest of hair streaked with green, but with Helen and Edward having the right to live in the house until death. Only the Britches has been left to the Glovers. This is in one sense suitable as Edward has always felt more at home with nature than people (“the natural world thinks nothing and neither laughs nor cries,”) awkward at dealing with the world, and Helen is increasingly brought into the company of solicitor Giles Carnaby through dealing with the probate. She finds herself falling for him. She still sometimes sees her mother in the house and hears Dorothy’s voice in her head commenting on her foolishness. Dorothy’s classification of girls had been, “Pretty was best, clever was worst.” Her disparagement of any friend – especially male – Helen might bring home made sure she stopped doing so. While clearing out a cupboard Helen finds that Dorothy many years ago, by accident or design (but the narrative leaves little room for doubt which,) prevented an attachment developing by not passing over a letter Helen had received from Peter Datchett. Running in and out of the narrative is local builder Ron Paget, whose yard neighbours Greystones, and who is always out for the main chance and has perennially had his eyes on the Britches as ripe for development.

The interactions of the characters can verge on the seemingly mundane, Helen’s almost adolescent infatuation, her does-he doesn’t-he should-I-contact-him thoughts, Giles’s slipperiness, the hints at and revelation of Edward’s true nature, Louise’s battles with Phil, his blossoming at Greystones when he comes to get away from mum for a bit, Ron Paget’s persistent unsubtle attempts to wheedle the Britches out from under the Glovers, but the picture they build becomes more and more compelling.

I would say this does not quite achieve the heights of excellence which the same author’s Moon Tiger did but is another demonstration that quiet lives lived (more or less) quietly still have their dramas and deserve recording.

Pedant’s corner:- frequently commas were missing before pieces of direct speech, Windowlene (for the glass cleaner. It’s spelled ‘Windolene’,) a mack (this abbreviation for mackintosh is usually spelled mac,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ would mean ‘from from where’. I know the two words appear as such consecutively in the text of a hymn but that doesn’t make it correct.)

Slade House by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2016, 236 p, plus 32 p of the Bombadil Tweets.

 Slade House cover

Slade House, accessed from Slade Alley (itself dank and narrow, with a bend, and easy to miss from its connecting streets) through a small iron door in the wall, which appears only once every nine years. Slade House, bombed to rubble in 1940 and its grounds built over since, yet still able to effect the disappearance of Rita and Nathan Sharp in 1979, Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds in 1988, Sally Timms along with her paranormal investigation group in 1997 and then her sister Freya in 2006. Slade House, on whose walls certain visitors will find portraits of themselves and whose stairs lead only back to whence you came. Slade House, inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer (who can both take up all sorts of appearances, inhabit others’ bodies,) adepts of the Shaded Way from whom they wish to keep themselves hidden. Slade House, wrapped in an orison. (The word means prayer but the Grayers have adopted it to describe a bubble out of time.) The later sections tend to invoke Fred Pink, who saw both the Sharps outside Slade Alley just before he was hit by a car and went into a coma. Trying to fill in the gaps in his life years later he recognised the Sharps in newspaper photos from the time.

Mitchell’s story – an off-cut of his previous novel The Bone Clocks – is narrated in five sections by Nathan, Gordon, Sally and Freya as they make their visits, with the final section (set in 2015) from the viewpoint of someone calling himself Bombadil (whose uploads to Twitter from Monday 7th September to Saturday 31st October, 2015, act as an appendix to the book) but whose body has been taken over by Norah. Five different narrative styles, six if you include the tweets. Each internally consistent and – until the strange stuff begins to happen – realistic in tone.

In the guise of Pink and much to Norah’s dismay Jonah Grayer reveals to Freya they were Victorian twins with telepathic ability, taken under the wing of a medium called Cantillon who hustled them off to the Atlas Mountains for tutoring in the Shaded Way by the Albino Sayyid of Aït Arif, toured them round the world, then went too far by proposing to reveal their secrets in a book. Their longevity has been ensured by enticing ‘Engifted’ to Slade House and stealing their souls, a process which needs topping up every nine years. Mitchell’s facility with fantasy and SF is underscored by reference to the Midwich Cockoos among others.

As ever Mitchell is totally in command of his material and the read is never less than entertaining. There is a sense, though, of marking time, of promise unfulfilled. Perhaps it’s unreasonable, though, to expect another The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Wolverhampton Wanderers play in black and orange” (black and gold in fact. Orange and black, though, recur as a motif in the book,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, liquified (liquefied,) lasagna (lasagne,) Tinker Bell (x4, Tinkerbell,) smidgeon (smidgin or smidgen,) Timms’ (x2, Timms’s.)

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, 1981, 186 p. First published 1960.

The Country Girls cover

Narrated by Caithleen (Kate) Brady, this is the story of two childhood companions. I use that word as friends doesn’t seem to be quite right since Bridget (Baba) Brennan, the other girl concerned, isn’t really a true friend and is always likely to lead Kate astray.

The book is set mainly in rural Ireland in the very early 1950s. Kate’s mother is put upon, her father a drunk, and feckless. When her mother is drowned as she was returning to her parents’ home (apparently having decided to leave her husband) Kate’s life changes as she is taken in by Baba’s parents. Kate wins a scholarship to a convent boarding school to which Baba is also going as a paid-for pupil. Boarding schools are of course hell, convent ones even more so.

Kate’s life is only made bearable by the attentions paid to her by the local rich man known to everyone as Mr Gentleman. Gentlemanly in manner he may be but married as he is and much older than her his behaviour to Kate is nothing short of predatory (and nowadays would be called grooming) even if it is a long time before it comes close to becoming sexual conduct beyond kissing. That his wife seems to be in poor health (or at least highly strung) is no sort of excuse. Nevertheless, Kate is enraptured by him.

Details of Irish rural and urban life (after school, from which Baba contrived to get them both expelled, Kate gets a job in a grocer’s in Dublin where she and Baba share a flat let by a landlady of Central European origin) are scattered through the book. Expressive of the repression prevalent in those days, things barely hinted at, is that, even at sixteen, Kate’s naivety in terms of the facts of life is profound.

Reading this I was struck by the similarities it bears to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a later work of course, and the descriptions of landscape are akin to those in Scottish novels.

Also worthy of note is the book’s length, at 186 pages, remarkably short by today’s standards. Yet it says all it needs to.

Pedant’s corner:- “which was hundred yards up the road” (was a hundred yards,) some instances of commas missing before and at the end of direct speech, cist (cyst,) gamp (used here for a nun’s headdress,) “crinothine fire-screens” (first result on Google for crinothine is from Google books results and comes from this book,) satchet (sachet?) “a memorium” (an in memoriam.)

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