David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

4*

All I knew about David Copperfield: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) by Charles Dickens is that it is said to be his most autobiographical novel. I think I must have watched a TV serialisation years ago but I remember very little about it. It was first published as a serial in 1849 and 1850, and then as a book in 1850.

It’s a long novel with a multitude of characters, including David’s cruel stepfather, Mr Murdstone, the family housekeeper Peggotty, his school friends Steerforth, who he mistakenly idolises and, my favourite character, Tommy Traddles, who has a heart of gold, and a remarkable upstanding head of hair. Then there’s another favourite character, David’s great aunt Betsey Trotwood, who wages war against marriage and donkeys and her companion, the simple-minded Mr Dick; Mr Micawber, always in debt and in and out of the debtor’s prison, and the odious and nauseating Uriah Heep are both memorable characters.

I was totally immersed in their world, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian England, the living conditions of the poor contrasting with the decadent wealth of the rich, and the dramatic intensity of episodes such as the terrible storm at sea off Yarmouth. There’s drama, comedy and tragedy, melodrama and pathos as the story follows David’s life from his birth to his adulthood, covering his childhood, early schooldays, his time as a young boy working in a factory, then as a student in Canterbury where he lodged with the lawyer Mr Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes.

Betsey later established him in London where he worked in the Doctor’s Commons, under the tutelage of Mr Spenlow, whose daughter, the beautiful, frivolous and to my eyes, the utterly pathetic Dora totally captivated him. The sections of the book involving Dora are rather too sentimental for my liking. Then there’s Pegotty’s family – her brother Daniel, a fisherman, their nephew Ham and niece, Little Em’ly who is David’s childhood friend and sweetheart. They live in a converted boat on the beach at Yarmouth. And not forgetting Barkis, who marries Pegotty, after telling David to tell her, ‘Barkis is willing‘. Their sections of the book are the ones I enjoyed the most. I could go on and on, not forgetting David himself as describes the misfortunes and obstacles he met and the friends he makes.

I enjoyed reading David Copperfield, which was Dickens’ own personal favourite of all his novels, but it is not mine – it’s a bit too long for me. I think my favourite is Bleak House, which I read after seeing the TV adaptation in 2005 with Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, and Charles Dance. Maybe I’ll read it again to see what I think of it now. These days I prefer shorter books and Bleak House, like David Copperfield is long with many characters and sub-plots.

The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson

Harper Collins|20 January 2022|451 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|4*

Publishers’ Description:

As lady-in-waiting and confidante to Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, Joan understands royal patronage is vital if she and her husband, Sir Richard, are to thrive in the volatile atmosphere of court life.

But Tudor England is in mourning following the death of the Prince of Wales, and within a year, the queen herself. With Prince Henry now heir to the throne, the court murmurs with the sound of conspiracy. Is the entire Tudor project now at stake or can young Henry secure the dynasty?

Drawn into the heart of the crisis, Joan’s own life is in turmoil, and her future far from secure. She faces a stark choice – be true to her heart and risk everything, or play the dutiful servant and watch her dreams wither and die. For Joan, and for Henry’s Kingdom, everything is at stake…

My thoughts:

I enjoyed reading Joanne Hickson’s first book in her Queens of the Tower series, The Lady of the Ravens (my review), so I was keen to read the sequel, The Queen’s Lady, continuing the story of Joan Vaux, Lady Guildford. She was a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the wife of Henry VII and had became a good friend and confidante of Elizabeth. Her son Henry, known as Hal, had also became a good friend to the young Prince Henry.

It begins one evening at the Tower of London in April 1502. There’s strange atmosphere, as the ravens sit hunched in silence in the trees around the White Tower, Joan thought, as if awaiting some sad event, sensing death. One of the things I had particularly enjoyed in The Lady of the Ravens was Joan’s fascination for and care of the ravens of the Tower of London firmly believing in the legend that should the ravens leave the Tower for good then the crown would fall and ruin would return to the nation.

1502 had begun with pageantry and the New Year celebrations for the wedding of Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne, and Katharine of Aragon. It looks as if the ravens had indeed sensed death because in April he became seriously ill and died. It was Joan who had to break the news to Elizabeth and help console her in her grief. His death left Prince Henry as the heir to the throne.

In addition King Henry’s agents had uncovered a new Yorkist plot against the throne. Joan’s husband, Sir Richard Guildford is a Privy Councillor and loyal to Henry, but Henry is persuaded that he could be guilty of treason and he is imprisoned. Joan’s life is suddenly turned upside down. What happens next is fascinating to read covering Joan’s involvement in both national affairs and in her personal life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It is beautifully written, grounded in its historical context, full of colour and life. At the end of the book there’s a Glossary of words and terms that are not commonly in use today, which I wish I’d realised was there earlier. Intriguingly, Joanna Hickson promises in her Author’s Note that she has ‘more fascinating fifteenth century lives in sight’. I’m looking forward to see what she writes next.

The Author:

Joanna Hickson became fascinated with history when she studied Shakespeare’s history plays at school. However, having taken a degree in Politics and English she took up a career in broadcast journalism with the BBC, presenting and producing news, current affairs and arts programmes on both television and radio. Now she writes full time.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I read the Wordsworth Classic edition of Little Dorrit with Illustrations by Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) and an Introduction and Notes by Peter Preston, University of Nottingham. As always, I read the Introduction after I’d read the novel. I finished reading it in June and started writing this review. But it is only today that I realised I hadn’t finished it, so, this post is not as detailed as I would like it to be.

Summary from the back cover:

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens’ eleventh book, was published serially from 1855 to 1857 and in book form in 1857. The novel attacks the injustices of the contemporary English legal system, particularly the institution of debtors’ prison. I found it hard going in parts, ponderous, sombre and serious. But as it’s a long book other parts are more lively, comic and far more enjoyable. That said it is also long-winded, far too wordy, melodramatic with a multitude of characters and a long-drawn out and convoluted plot. It is a great sprawling epic of a novel.

It is satire and Dickens spares no one, but it is those sections that hold up the flow of the novel. I found the first rant at the corruption and workings of the government Circumlocution Office, explaining that its purpose is ‘How Not to Get Things Done’, entertaining at first, but eventually repetitive and increasingly incredible. The account of the Barnacle family going round and round in circles, producing nothing but red tape, became excruciatingly boring.

I can’t say that I particularly liked any of the characters, and some of them are merely caricatures. rather than characters. Little Dorrit is so meek and self-effacing and far too good for her own good. Her father, known as the Father of the Marshalsea, is a most annoying character. He is the prison’s longest inhabitant, the longest debtor, the one to whom the other prisoners pay homage which makes him pompous and full of his self-importance. So much so that he fails to realise he is exploiting Little Dorrit.

But it is Dickens’ description of life in the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison, that fascinated me, based on Dickens own father’s imprisonment there. The families could live with the debtors and were free to come and go, until the prison gates were locked at night. It was a separate society that worked on a system of hierarchy, run by the prisoners who had access to a pub, The Snuggery, and a shop, for those who had money. But it carried a terrible stigma of shame and corrupted them all – even Little Dorrit lied to herself about her father’s true situation. Once you were imprisoned there was practically no way you could be freed, unless your debts were paid and that was impossible when you couldn’t earn any money.

There are so many characters and so many sub-plots that I’m not going to attempt to write about them, other than to say at times I was amused and bemused, caught up in the stories, and dismayed at its length and complexity. Although I’ve been critical of some of the novel in this post and I think it could be my least favourite of all of Dickens’ books that I’ve read, overall I did enjoy it enough to give it 3.5 stars on Goodreads.

Short Nonfiction: Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

Little, Brown Book Group| 26 January 2021| 154 pages| 4*

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the focus is on short nonfiction.

I’ve watched TV programmes about Covid-19, seeing what it was like in a number of hospitals as the virus took hold in the UK, so a lot of the information in Rachel Clarke’s book, Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic wasn’t new to me. But, I wanted to read this book to get an inside perspective on what it was like working in the NHS during the pandemic.

There have been so many fears that the NHS would be overwhelmed and reports criticising the way the government has dealt with the situation – and this is still the case now as winter approaches and the number of daily confirmed cases of coronavirus is still high, whilst hospital waiting lists for non-Covid-19 treatment remain high. Add to this there are now reports that doctors are saying that casualty departments are on the ‘edge of a precipice’, leading to dangerous levels of handover delays with patients forced to wait in ambulances for up to 11 hours outside hospitals. On TV I’ve seen the enormous queues of ambulances outside hospitals waiting to admit patients!

Rachel Clarke is a palliative care doctor and her book recounts her experiences during the first four months of 2020, when she worked on the Covid-19 wards in the Oxford University Hospitals system. Taken from her diary that she kept at the time it has an immediacy as she records her insomnia, her fears for her family and also the tremendous resilience, courage and empathy that she and the rest of the hospital staff had.

She tells the now familiar story about the PPE shortages, the lack of funding they experienced and criticises the government for their failure to act quickly enough – which I echo. Although it is a grim account, as I expected, it is also uplifting to know the care they took of their patients and the attentiveness to their patients’ needs despite the fact that many of the staff were not trained in intensive care and had never dealt with anything like this before.The way they had to prioritise patients is shocking, but I suppose inevitable given the lack of resources and staff.

She found that being a pandemic doctor was revelatory:

The crisis has undeniably revealed sweeping truths about social and economic inequalities, class divisions, global interconnectedness and the fact that our society’s most vital key workers were, and remain, among the lowest paid and the least empowered. Historians will dissect the issues for years to come. My revelations were about people. I learned from ward to ward, from bedside to bedside, paying meticulous attention to one human being and then another. I discovered how to distinguish what we absolutely cannot do without from what is really in the end, superfluous. (page 18)

This book is a snapshot, written at the time:

It depicts life and death, hope, fear, medicine at its most impotent and also at its finest, the courage of patients in enormous adversity, the stress of being torn between helping those patients and endangering your spouse and children, the long, fretful nights ruminating over whether the PPE you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile. I needed, I think, to take a stand with my pen and simply say: I was there. I have seen it, from the inside. I know what it was like. Here, with all its flaws and its inherent subjectivity, is my testimony. Make of it what you will. (pages 18-19)

Breathtaking records the compassion and kindness of numerous people, and pays tribute to both NHS staff and volunteers in dealing with such a distressing and immensely horrific situation.

The Way Home by Mark Boyle

I am way behind with writing about the books I’ve been reading. It seems to be getting worse this year. It all began last year during the first lockdown when my ability to concentrate just disappeared and it’s not fully come back yet. Now I have five books that I’ve read but not reviewed.

This is review of just one of them. When I sat down to write this post I’d intended to write short reviews of at least two or three of the books, but once I began I found that was impossible – I had too much to say about them. From being a post with short notes on what I’ve read recently this post as morphed into one of the longest posts about just one book that I’ve written – and I still don’t think I’ve captured the essence of it.

The Way Home:Tales from a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle, a former business graduate, who lived entirely without money for three years. He has written columns for the Guardian and has irregularly contributed to international press, radio and television. He lives on a smallholding in Co. Galway, Ireland. This book follows the events of his first year of living without technology, interspersed with an account of a visit to Great Blaskett off the coast of County Kerry, to the south of Boyle’s new home. The Islanders were eventually evacuated to the mainland in the early 1950s.

The first thought I had about this book is that the concept of living without technology is alien to me. There is no way I could live like that and I wondered how he came to that decision and how he managed it with no running water, no car, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the internet, phone, washing machine, radio or light bulb. He built his home with his bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing.

He had to clarify just what constitutes technology and what doesn’t. It wasn’t that easy to decide when you consider that even the pencil can be described as technology. He questioned where to draw the line such as the Stone Age, the Iron Age, or the eighteenth century? The more he thought about it the less important it seemed. He wanted to explore what it means to be human,

… to discover what it might feel like to become part of one’s landscape using only tools and technologies (if I must call them that) which, like the Old Order Amish people of North America, do not make me beholden to institutions and forces that have no regard for the principles and values on which I wish to live my life. (page 14)

The book follows the seasons of the year and rather than being the story of his life without technology is a collection of

observations, practicalities, conversations over farmyard gates, adventures and reflections, which I hope will provide an insight into the life of someone attempting to pare the extravagance of modernity back to the raw ingredients of life. (page 15)

It’s not a ‘how to’ book, nor is it a guide to living without technology. It’s an account of what it was like for him. He writes about the loneliness he experienced, the lack of contact with his parents and friends, and the damage to his relationships, particularly to his girlfriend, Kirsty, who initially shared his technology-free life. Without the internet and a phone it is difficult to keep in touch with people. There are letters and these became important to him, otherwise the way to communicate face to face was by walking. Formerly a vegan he found it difficult to adapt to killing in order to eat, for example killing a deer, skinning and butchering it. His thoughts on life and death had to undergo a dramatic change.

Life without technology is inevitably slower and more arduous. Living where there is no tap for instant water, and no switches to turn on a light is not simple either. One of the things he found difficult to adapt to was the way of writing. Previously he had used computers to write everything. Hand writing, however, involves a whole new way of thinking. He could no longer use the typed word, or online research, and without the use of spell-check, copy and paste or delete it is much harder to restructure a page and you have to start again. Eventually his thinking slowed down, so that he thought twice in order to write once. As I’m older than Boyle, I remember the process in reverse and my delight at being able to organise my writing using copy and paste with much more ease and speed than before, when I did literally ‘cut’ and ‘paste’, or rather staple, when writing.

There is so much more in this book that I haven’t covered in this post. I think it’s a remarkable and fascinating book, and it gave me much to think about. It’s ironic really, considering its subject, that I bought the e-book version, read it on my Kindle and wrote and posted this review on my laptop. It is also ironic that in order to publish the book, having written every word of it by hand, Mark Boyle had to get it typed up – which he did himself, reluctantly and with big reservations. It was not easy for him. He describes the effects of doing it as follows:

I felt less purposeful, like I no longer knew what my life was about, or what I stood for. By evening I felt entirely disconnected from the landscape around me, like I was no longer a part of it, but in some strange virtual universe instead. The natural light hurt my eyes as I re-emerged outside.

In some ways it was good and important for me to temporarily re-enter that world of things, so as to dispel any romantic memories I had about life being much better and easier with machines. The experience of it was such that, having made the compromise, I’m not sure I would make it again. (page 324)

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Oneworld Publications (4 April 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 334 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1786077272
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1786077271
  • Source: I bought the e-book
  • My rating: 4*

Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

I’ve read some of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series and enjoyed them immensely. But up until now have not read the first book in the series, Whose Body?, first published in 1923. It’s an amusing Golden Age mystery that kept me entertained throughout. Lord Peter is a wealthy amateur detective, a friend of Inspector Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective. He called ‘Lord’ as he is the younger son of a duke.

When the naked body of a man, wearing only a pair of pince-nez is found in Mr Alfred Thipp’s Battersea bathroom, Lord Peter is asked by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, to help solve the mystery of whose body had found its way into the bath. The police investigation is being led by Inspector Sugg, who doesn’t welcome what he calls Lord Peter’s ‘interference’ in the case. He thinks the dead body might be that of Sir Reuben Levy, a wealthy London financier who had vanished from his bedroom, leaving no trace. Meanwhile Charles is investigating Sir Reuben’s disappearance himself. Although the body in the bath at first appears to be Sir Reuben it soon becomes clear that it is not and that the two cases are not connected. But are they?

As I began reading I was a bit put off by the dialogue between Lord Peter and his valet Bunter, who used to be his batman in the army. The dialogue is supposed to be witty banter between the two of them but to my mind it was irritating and superficial, definitely dated, and reminded me a just a tiny bit of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. But that was just at the start – it’s not at all like Jeeves and Wooster! I enjoyed watching the mystery unfold, which put Lord Peter’s life into grave danger. There are many complications and twists and turns that did stretch my credulity. It has a serious side too as events trigger traumatic memories for Lord Peter of his time in the trenches of the First World War

My rating: 4*

There are 15 books in the series (linked to my reviews when I’ve read the book):


   1. Whose Body? (1923)
   2. Clouds of Witness (1926)
   3. Unnatural Death (1927)
   4. Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)
   5. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
   6. Strong Poison (1930)
   7 Five Red Herrings (1931)
   8. Have His Carcase (1932)
   9. Hangman’s Holiday (1933)
   10. Murder Must Advertise (1933)
   11. The Nine Tailors (1934)
   12. Gaudy Night (1935)
   13. Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
   14. In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939)
   15. Striding Folly (1972)

A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

Canongate Books| 19th August 2021| 405 pages| Review Copy| 5*

This is the third book in Ambrose Parry’s historical series starring Will Raven & Sarah Fisher, set in 19th century Edinburgh. I loved the other books, The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying and A Corruption of Blood is equally as good, if not better.

Description

Edinburgh. This city will bleed you dry.

Dr Will Raven is a man seldom shocked by human remains, but even he is disturbed by the contents of a package washed up at the Port of Leith. Stranger still, a man Raven has long detested is pleading for his help to escape the hangman.

Back at 52 Queen Street, Sarah Fisher has set her sights on learning to practise medicine. Almost everyone seems intent on dissuading her from this ambition, but when word reaches her that a woman has recently obtained a medical degree despite her gender, Sarah decides to seek her out.

Raven’s efforts to prove his erstwhile adversary’s innocence are failing and he desperately needs Sarah’s help. Putting their feelings for one another aside, their investigations will take them to both extremes of Edinburgh’s social divide, where they discover that wealth and status cannot alter a fate written in the blood.

Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym of crime fiction author, Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist. Will is a doctor working with Doctor James Young Simpson, a professor of midwifery, who discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform (a real historical character), and Sarah, is the Simpsons’ housemaid, but she now assists Professor Simpson and is studying medicine. The two of them have a complicated and somewhat spiky relationship, which continues in this novel.

The combination of a crime fiction writer and an anaesthetist works excellently in Ambrose Parry’s novels. The research into the history of medicine is extensive, making this book a combination of historical fact and fiction, a tale of murder and medical matters, with the social scene, historical and medical facts slotting perfectly into an intricate murder mystery. 

The mystery begins when the body of a baby wrapped in a parcel, is found floating in the Forth. The child had been strangled with a length of white tape. Sarah meanwhile is involved in finding a missing child. When Sir Ainsley Douglas, a prominent and wealthy member of Edinburgh society is found dead from arsenic poisoning, Will reluctantly gets involved in the murder investigation. How the mysteries interlink gradually becomes clear and although I soon realised how Sir Ainsley had been murdered, I was puzzled about who did it and was completely taken by surprise when the culprit was revealed.

Like all good historical fiction, this book weaves together fact and fiction. The Historical Note at the end of the book sorts out what was real and what was invented. The subjects covered include details about infectious diseases, the difficulties women experienced in obtaining a medical degree, and crimes children suffered in the 19th century. I think A Corruption of Blood is an exceptionally excellent murder mystery and an informative historical novel, with great period detail and convincing characters. I look forward to reading more books by Ambrose Parry.

Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan

Penguin| 19 August 2021| 339 pages| Review copy| 4*

Synopsis:

Most of us give little thought to the back of the book – it’s just where you go to look things up. But here, hiding in plain sight, is an unlikely realm of ambition and obsession, sparring and politicking, pleasure and play. Here we might find Butchers, to be avoided, or Cows that sh-te Fire, or even catch Calvin in his chamberwithaNonne. This is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known past. Here, for the first time, its story is told.

Charting its curious path from the monasteries and universities of thirteenth-century Europe to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first, Dennis Duncan reveals how the index has saved heretics from the stake, kept politicians from high office and made us all into the readers we are today. We follow it through German print shops and Enlightenment coffee houses, novelists’ living rooms and university laboratories, encountering emperors and popes, philosophers and prime ministers, poets, librarians and – of course – indexers along the way. Revealing its vast role in our evolving literary and intellectual culture, Duncan shows that, for all our anxieties about the Age of Search, we are all index-rakers at heart, and we have been for eight hundred years.

My thoughts:

This book is not just about the history of the index, but also about the history of reading and the evolution of the book from the scrolls, manuscripts and the codex before the the invention of printing – how they were produced and used. I was interested in reading it as I’m an ex-librarian and cataloguer, later an assistant in a county record office where a large part of my job involved indexing. If you think like me that an index is an indispensable part of a non fiction book then you’ll enjoy this book, which is both informative and entertaining. And I often wish fiction books were indexed too – one of the advantages of an e-book is that you can search the text, even better if it has the X-Ray feature.

It explains the difference between the index and the table of contents, goes into the evolution of page numbers and the problems of alphabetisation. This is not a dry, factual account it is written with humour and insights into the past, using examples from historical texts, and from indexes complied as satirical attacks on their authors. I never knew indexes had been used as weapons! Nor did I know that some works of fiction had been indexed in the past – full details in Chapter 6 ‘Indexing Fictions: Naming was Always a Difficult Art’, quoting from Lewis Carroll’s works. Carroll was fascinated with indexes, leaning particularly towards the whimsical, using his logician’s wit.

Neither is it stuck in the far distant past, Duncan brings it up to date in the digital age and the ubiquity of the search engine with the rise of anxiety that this is changing our brains, shortening our attention spans and eroding our capacity for memory. But this, Duncan explains is nothing new as the history of the index shows that there have always been fears that nobody will read properly any more when they could just use an index to replace the ways of close reading. The ways we read have changed over the generations.

The Index, a History of the is simply fascinating.

About the Author

Dennis Duncan is a writer, translator and lecturer in English at University College London. He has published numerous academic books, including Book Parts and The Oulipo and Modern Thought, as well as translations of Michel Foucault, Boris Vian, and Alfred Jarry. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books, and recent articles have considered Mallarmé and jugs, James Joyce and pornography, and the history of Times New Roman. 

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

This is another ‘catching-up’ post about a book I read a while ago. It’s one of my TBRs and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s a novel with an under current of psychological suspense.

Description

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naïve and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

My thoughts:

I read The Dressmaker because I’ve enjoyed other books by Beryl Bainbridge. It’s a novella, really, as it’s only 160 pages. I love her style, clear, concise prose, with fully realised characters and descriptive settings. It was first published in 1973 – my copy is a Fontana edition published in 1985.

The Dressmaker was runner up for the 1973 Booker Prize and also for the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Sunday Times, is quoted on the back cover: ‘ Like the better Hitchcock films Miss Bainbridge suggests a claustrophobic horror … An impressive, haunting book.’

It’s a wartime story of life in Liverpool in 1944, where Rita, aged 17, is living with her two middle-aged aunts, Nellie (shown on the cover of my 1985 copy) and Margo, also called Marge. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she had lived with them as her father, their brother Jack, was unable to bring her up whilst single-handedly running his butcher’s shop. Rita, although she knows he is her father, calls him ‘Uncle Jack’. She is naive and innocent, and after meeting Ira she fantasises about being a GI bride, but her aunts are not taken in by him and view him in a very different light. She dreams about life in America as Ira’s wife:

After the war he would take her to the States, and they’d have a long black car and a grand piano with a bowl of flowers on the table. There’d be a house with a verandah and wooden steps, and she would run down them in a dress with lots of folds in the skirt and peep-toed shoes. Auntie Nellie would tell Mrs Mander how well-off they were, how Ira cared for her, the promotion he kept getting at work. (page 59)

The opening chapter signals with the word ‘afterwards‘ that something significant had happened, but with no indication of what it was. It left me wondering where this book was going. At first it seemed a rather mundane story of everyday life, but as the story played out I began to feel it was leading up to a tragedy – something terrible was coming towards this working class family.

And indeed it was – and it was shocking, particularly given the domestic setting. It’s only with the final denouement that the mystery hinted at in the opening chapter is revealed in a savage and violent climax. Even though I was expecting a tragedy the actual nature of it took me totally by surprise.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

Chatto & Windus| 18 February 2021| 294 pages| Review copy| 5*

It was a complete pleasure to read A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. I loved the clarity of the narrative, focused on three main characters, each perfectly distinct and finely described and the sense of location in a small town is excellent.

It’s set in North Ontario in 1972, but looks back to events thirty years earlier when Elizabeth Orchard first met Liam who was then a small boy of 3 when he and his family lived in the house next door. The last time she saw him he was still only 4 years old. It was not a happy time for either of them, and thirty years later, when she is dying she wants to make amends and gives him her house.

Clara lives next door to Elizabeth, who she loves, and she is alarmed when she sees Liam moving into Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth had given her a key and she goes in every day to feed Moses, Elizabeth’s cat. She has no idea that Elizabeth is dying and is furious when she discovers that Liam is moving Elizabeth’s things and packing them in boxes. Her life is in turmoil in any case as she is devastated that Rose, her 16 year old sister has gone missing.

The narration moves between these three people, seeing events through their eyes. Elizabeth, in hospital looks back over her life, remembering her despair at not having a child of her own, and her love for little Liam that ended badly, despite her good intentions. Clara spends the time before and after school at the window looking out for Rose’s return and Liam, whilst remembering his sad childhood, is trying to rebuild his life after his marriage ended in divorce.

I loved this book. It’s about families, the things that go wrong, about memories and about friendships and the care that people have for each other. It’s moving and sad, but also filled with hope. And it’s beautifully written.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.