Monday, June 29, 2020

Dustjackets vs. coronavirus: Mabel Esther Allan edition

In keeping with my firm (if, technically, unproven) belief that luscious cover art strengthens our immune systems against coronavirus, here's an enormous and breathtaking batch of covers (courtesy, as usual, of my Fairy Godmother) of Mabel Esther Allan titles.

Now, if you're looking for an author who can help you forget all about sheltering in place, or if you need to lift your chin off the floor from thoughts of canceled outings and vacations (as ours this fall, to Spain and Portugal no less, is likely to be), then you could do much worse than turning to Mabel Esther Allan. With her fascination for travel and her ability to evoke a sense of place, not to mention making the history of a locale come alive, I'm finding her a perfect companion for these strange times.

And her dustjackets alone are a veritable European tour. I shared some others here, and intended to proceed to share these too, but alas I got distracted... Enjoy them now! (Click to open them full size.)

This one is coming soon from Girls Gone By
(complete with wraparound cover!)

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A cry of joy would go through this house like a sword: ROSALIND BRACKENBURY, A Day to Remember to Forget (1971)

Electricity in all the corners, the walls thin as rice paper. Nobody could ever be so intrepid as to make love in this house, with its thin, listening walls, its lights flashing on at the top of the stairs, its unhappy people lying awake. A cry of joy would go through this house like a sword.

Regular readers will already know that I almost never accept review copies from publishers. I just do not seem to be capable of reading according to a schedule, and when I try to I almost always fail. This is why I don't participate in blog events related to a specific author, even one I love like Margery Sharp, for example, because knowing that I'm supposed to read a Margery Sharp book and write about it for a certain day (even if that day is six months in the future) will almost certainly render me completely uninterested in reading Margery Sharp for the duration of the six months. Some sort of peculiar perversity, no doubt, and likewise a review copy on my TBR shelves begins to glare accusingly at me from the moment of its arrival until I feel so hostile towards it that I'd like to throw it out the window.

However (thank heavens there's a however, right?), when Michael Walmer emailed a while back about this title, by a British woman writer I had never heard of—though she has been quite prolific and released her latest novel, Without Her, just last year—and noted that the introduction was by none other than Margaret Drabble, who is just about my favorite living author, my resistance was breached. Happily, too, Michael is understanding about the fact that I always get round to reviewing his books two or three months after they're first released!

And indeed, I'm very glad I did accept this book, because although A Day to Remember to Forget is rather different from many of the books I write about here, it proved absolutely extraordinary and lovely, and it should not have been the case that I had never heard of Brackenbury!

The novel begins with Lucy and Philip, a rather free-spirited, slightly hippy-ish young couple who have just decided to buy a house in Norfolk. Their hopes and tensions around this decision are beautifully delineated. (It's funny how some authors can make their characters' inner thoughts and feelings so clear to the reader without any feeling of having to work to interpret or understand—we're simply there inside their heads.) They are supposed to proceed directly to Philip's parents' home, where his family is celebrating his mother's birthday this weekend, but instead they hitchhike to a nearby hotel to spend the night, giving us a clear inkling of their ambivalence.

When they do arrive, all sorts of familial tensions begin to work their way explosively to the surface, sucking in Philip's parents, brother and sister-in-law as well as a lonely elderly neighbor. Tensions between the parents, tensions with the brother (who has always been the responsible one but not the favorite), tensions regarding the neighbor and the tragic death of her husband many years before—it's a bit like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? crossed with, well, Virginia Woolf herself!

It's often rather harrowing, and if it strikes home for you, as it did me, then it's a somewhat difficult read at times, but it's also terribly striking and perceptive, with these glimpses into the minds of various characters that so precisely sum up how grievances and insecurities and slights do take root and grow in all sorts of unexpected and unpredictable ways.  I kept having to stop to mull them over and say, "Yes, that's exactly how that happens. I had never thought of that before." And the writing is beautiful and often reminiscent of Margaret Drabble herself, so those of you who love Drabble as I do should take note. Like Drabble, too, Brackenbury understands all of her characters, so while we think in one passage, "Oh, what an impossible woman!", a few pages on we find ourselves touched by the pain that very impossible woman has been through.

Apart from the quotation at the beginning of this post, which really sums up this dysfunctional home, here are two more to demonstrate. First, Philip's rather impossible mother herself, in the midst of an argument with her husband:

She spoke the words just as they occurred to her, not knowing whether or not they were true. What did it matter what one's weapons were, as long as one defended oneself? When he picked his way so pedantically, like a judge, like a prosecutor, forcing her to give evidence, remember dates, produce an alibi and recognise Exhibit A. He terrified her, and she ran backwards, lashing out. The only way was to hurt him, until he stopped. It was like not knowing if there was enough for dinner in the fridge, like people arriving, like being asked a question in class and not knowing the answer. When the masked men came to the door and banged upon it, they would want an answer, or they would push past her and invade the house.

How often do we argue in just such a way? Saying what will work as a weapon in the moment, regardless of its truth. It seems obvious having read the passage, but not every author realizes such things.

And then, just a striking way of thinking captured in this scene with young Lucy:

She stood still on the edge of the orchard, poised for a moment, staring at the house next door which now gave back no sign of life nor habitation, and wondered what it was like to live there, to peer round a curtain and watch a girl in pink shirt and blue jeans cross a garden alone, and disappear into a small shed among nettles. This was such a familiar sensation, this knowledge, sensuously, of what it was to be the other person. As a child, she had felt it overwhelm her, when she held an animal, a cat perhaps, clutched to her and felt that she, Lucy, was the cat feeling herself held by herself, Lucy, who was the girl.

I'm looking forward to exploring more of Brackenbury's work, and I'm so grateful to Michael Walmer both for sending me a copy and for making this wonderful rediscovery of her work.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Charming and delightful, but … : DOROTHY EVELYN SMITH, Brief Flower (1966)

I've had to think a bit about how to write about this book. I acquired it in one of my recent binges on e-Bay, after having meant to get back to reading more of Dorothy Evelyn Smith, particularly after Simon at Stuck in a Book recently wrote in glowing terms about her early novel O the Brave Music.

For myself, her 1959 novel Miss Plum and Miss Penny is an absolute treasure, which I raved about here not long after starting this blog back in 2013, and which I recently announced (yay!) that we would be reprinting in August. As I mentioned in that announcement, I re-read MPAMP just last year and was delighted to find that I loved it every bit as much as before. But my second Smith novel, 1952's Lost Hill, inspired considerably less enthusiasm here, and I unfortunately let her lapse after that. But I always wondered if there were more treasures to be found among her work. O the Brave Music will be queued up next, and Simon has now let us know that it will be reprinted by the British Library's new women's writers imprint, but first I couldn't resist picking up Brief Flower in this well-preserved copy complete with dustjacket (though I'm not entirely sure of the cover image, which makes our heroine look just a bit demonic…)

And now my dilemma. First, the positive, of which there is much. Brief Flower is a coming of age story, a genre I often don't particularly like, but here I was grabbed from the first page, in which two little girls fearfully but spunkily await the end of the world, having been told by a surly servant that the approaching storm signifies some kind of armageddon. It's a brilliant scene, and one which gives a perfect introduction to Bunny, the novel's narrator (narrating the story from the distant future when she is already an elderly woman), a spitfire wild child with enormous self-possession and a delightfully philosophical outlook on her life. A life that is not without its problems, to be sure. She lives with Laurie and Madge, who have raised her from infancy but who are, she already knows, not her parents. She is in fact a bastard, though she has only the vaguest notion of what that means or why anyone would care about it. The other girl is Frankie, a neighbour girl and Bunny's devoted friend, plagued by migraines but with a charming pluck of her own.

Bunny lives at Blackberry Farm, rundown and impoverished, which Laurie halfheartedly farms in between trying to write a novel and periodic drinking binges, the latter of which occasionally lead to him beating Bunny with his belt. Despite this, Bunny remains devoted to Laurie, and is typically philosophical about his violence:

Better go hungry than take a beating. Not that I held it against Laurie when he beat me. I kicked and scratched and swore, and once I bit his hand so deeply that it had to be bandaged up. But when it was over it was over, and neither of us referred to it again. I knew that Laurie was ashamed but I knew, too, that I had usually deserved what I'd got, and we observed a sort of gentlemen's agreement about the whole thing.

Madge, who was formerly on the stage, is less demonstrative with Bunny, but clearly bears her a slightly grudging devotion. And Bunny, due to reasons which we eventually learn, has been allowed to run absolutely wild, a fact she appreciates. She clearly sees the positives in her life rather than focusing on the negative:

Most of the children I knew had fathers and mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and any number of brothers and sisters. I had never envied them particularly. They always seemed to be running errands, minding pram-loads of babies, being called in to meals in the middle of games or packed off to bed while the sun still shone. They had little of the freedom I enjoyed, living with Laurie and Madge. If I chose to stay out late and thus missed supper it was my own silly fault  and I went to bed hungry. If I "answered back" I was either ignored or I had my ears boxed. When Laurie had taken too much to drink on market days he might take off his belt to me but never without real provocation, which I was honest enough to admit. Madge grumbled and whined, but she also made me laugh a lot. Laurie teased me, ignored me, sometimes treated me like a baby and at others made almost impossible demands on my strength and patience; but he allowed me to read any book in his possession, and of ten spent hours alone with me, walking along the beach or climbing the cliff paths, telling me strange stories out of the past; stories of Greece and Rome that came tumultuously alive in the keen air of the Yorkshire coast and filled my heart and mind with a richness that has never faded, after all these years.

It's only when an older boy, Guy, camping with his friends nearby, appears on the scene, that Bunny begins to question some of her savagery…

Before long, however, Bunny's ruggedly idyllic life is disrupted by the reappearance of her wealthy grandfather, who, having ignored her existence thus far, has decided he wants to make amends and take her to live with him at Tarn House, his lavish home, complete with servants, regular, plentiful meals, and elaborate, spacious gardens. We learn the story of Bunny's mother, which I won't spoil here, and how Laurie and Madge came into the picture, and it is agreed, against Bunny's vigorous objections, that she will go to Tarn House for a year and then be allowed to choose where she wishes to live.

Of course, Tarn House is the polar opposite of her life at Blackberry Farm (though her grandfather still allows her considerably leeway), but it presents challenges and puzzles of its own, some predictable, some definitely not.

For the most part, it's all really charming and joyful and funny, with a heroine who is absolutely irresistible (if perhaps slightly unrealistic in her total independence of thought and self-awareness, though perhaps this is explained by the fact that it's all an elderly woman's recollections of herself). There were moments that made me laugh out loud not from hilarity but from sheer delight (particularly a final scene in which Bunny comes into her own with her grandfather's stern housekeeper—unforgettable). For most of the time I was reading it, I was thinking that here, though totally different in just about every way from Miss Plum and Miss Penny, was another Dorothy Evelyn Smith that should be brought back into print post haste. Another treasure.


As I noted, Bunny is eleven years old when the book begins. She turns twelve midway through, and then perhaps ages a bit more right near the end. The trouble starts with her romantic interests. First, there was Guy, age sixteen, to whom Bunny is almost immediately devoted, and who is perhaps a bit unusual in returning the devotion of a girl so much his junior. But it is all innocent enough. Guy is amused and charmed by her, but there's nothing hot and heavy.

Then she arrives at Tarn House, where one of the gardeners is a Gypsy (of course, and as earthy and potent as any stereotype) in his twenties who begins making advances. In contrast with Guy, Lee is openly sexual in his approach, groping and all. What's more, while Bunny doesn't like the Gypsy man, she certainly desires him and is responsive to his efforts. At eleven. Or possibly twelve, by this point. Shortly after, she gets her first period, acknowledged to be a bit early in arriving, so perhaps we are meant to believe that she is just extraordinarily precocious in all areas, but her reaction to it was a wee bit offputting for me:

I had hated Lee. I had hated myself. I had hated whatever it was that made me not hate Lee enough to keep away from him.

Now I knew without any shadow of doubt why I hadn't wanted to keep away from Lee, and the knowledge shattered me.

I might be a woman, but I was an animal, too. I was no better than Moll, who had to be tied up twice a year .... Oh, beastly thought—I was no better than a bitch on heat! ...

Now, I'm all for a liberating acknowledgement that girls and women have sexual desires. Of course they do, and more power to them. But the plotline of a 20-something man groping an 11-year-old girl who clearly desires him in return might give some readers pause, particularly in the age of #MeToo.

But even that's not quite all. As the novel ends (a sort of spoiler alert here, though it doesn't give away everything), we see an only slightly older Bunny vowing not to marry unless she can marry Laurie—the man who, though not a blood relative, has effectively served as her father and raised her from infancy (Madge, her foster mother of sorts, has conveniently been removed from the picture)—and it seems we are meant to believe that this is quite likely to happen.

It's hard not to be just a wee bit distressed by all of that, and I don't think I'm overly sensitive to such issues.

In short, Brief Flower is skillfully written, often quite beautiful, funny, smart in its observations of children, and frequently touching. It's a lovely, lovely novel on almost every level.

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