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.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

I first read Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia in 2012 but never got round to writing about it. It was a good choice to re-read for the 1936 Club as I didn’t remember much about it. It’s a Poirot mystery, but he doesn’t appear until about halfway. As the title tells you it is set in Mesopotamia, the area in the Middle East between the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates (the area of present-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey).

An archaeologist’s wife is murdered on the shores of the River Tigris in Iraq…

It was clear to Amy Leatheran that something sinister was going on at the Hassanieh dig in Iraq; something associated with the presence of ‘Lovely Louise’, wife of celebrated archaeologist Dr Leidner.

In a few days’ time Hercule Poirot was due to drop in at the excavation site. But with Louise suffering from terrifying hallucinations, and tension within the group becoming almost unbearable, Poirot might just be too late…

Agatha Christie had first visited the Middle East in 1929 travelling on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. She visited the excavations at Ur and returned there the following spring where she met archaeologist Max Mallowan – by the end of the summer they had decided to marry, which they did on 11 September 1930. So, by 1936 when she wrote Murder in Mesopotamia she had frequently accompanied Max on his archaeological digs and her books set in the Middle East are based on the everyday life that she experienced on a dig and on the people she met.

The murder victim is Louise Leidner, the wife of the leader of the expedition. The novel is narrated by Nurse Amy Leatheran, who had been asked by Dr Leidner to care for Louise, although he is vague about what is wrong with her. It seems she is scared and has nervous terrors. She has fearful visions and the other members of the expedition blame her for the oppressive atmosphere on the dig.

It’s a seemingly impossible murder – she is found in her room, dead from a blow on her head, and suspicion falls on Louise’s first husband who had been sending her threatening letters, or so she had claimed. But no strangers had been seen on or near the expedition house and it is down to Poirot to discover what had actually happened. Fortunately Poirot was in the area, having sorted out a military scandal in Syria (referred to at the beginning of Murder on the Orient Express) and was passing through the expedition site on his way to Baghdad before returning to London.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I think the details of how the murder was committed are rather far-fetched. I was hoping that Agatha Christie had mentioned writing it in her Autobiography, but I couldn’t find any reference to it, although she wrote extensively about her time in the Middle East with Max, and in her fascinating memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live she wrote about how much she loved the country and its people.

Girl in the Walls by A J Gnuse

Fourth Estate | 18 March 2021 |323 pages | Kindle review copy via NetGalley/ 4*

Description:

She doesn’t exist. She can’t exist.

‘A uniquely gothic tale about grief, belonging and hiding in plain sight’ Jess Kidd, author of Things in Jars

Those who live in the walls must adjust, must twist themselves around in their home,
stretching themselves until they’re as thin as air. Not everyone can do what they can.
But soon enough, they can’t help themselves. Signs of their presence remain in a house.
Eventually, every hidden thing is found.’

Elise knows every inch of the house. She knows which boards will creak. She knows where the gaps are in the walls. She knows which parts can take her in, hide her away. It’s home, after all. The home her parents made for her. And home is where you stay, no matter what.

Eddie calls the same house his home. Eddie is almost a teenager now. He must no longer believe in the girl he sometimes sees from the corner of his eye. He needs her to disappear. But when his older brother senses her, too, they are faced with a question: how do they get rid of someone they aren’t sure even exists?

And, if they cast her out, what other threats might they invite in?

My thoughts:

Set in south Louisiana, Girl in the Walls wasn’t quite what I expected from the book description, but I did enjoy its sense of strangeness and ‘the other’. It’s set in an old house that’s full of strange creaks and scary noises as though someone or some thing is creeping around. It’s a house like no other that I know or have read about. It’s a balloon frame house – that is a house with a timber frame within its outer walls, so there are spaces between the inner and outer walls, beneath the floor and in the attic. Spaces where a young person can crawl and exist. So, Elise is not a ghost but a real eleven year old girl, who lives in these spaces, only coming out when the Masons, the family who live in the house, are asleep or out of the house. And she manages to keep her presence in the house a secret, at least for a while.

Elise is an orphan and has returned to her family home, having escaped from the foster care system. At first, Eddie, the younger son, is the only one of the Masons who senses her presence, feeling that he is being watched and almost catching glimpses of Elise out of the corner of his eye. Eventually his older brother, Marshall too feels that there is some one else in the house, raiding the pantry, taking things and moving things and they decide they have to do something about it. First of all they can’t believe she is actually real and fear what they will find. Elise fears that they will find her.

Their fear is intense as the story takes a terrifying turn, and to make matters worse it is the hurricane season. From a slow start it builds up to a intense nightmare scenario. I think that to say much more would spoil the plot. The characterisation is good, the house is integral to the plot and the setting is brilliantly described. But you do have to suspend your disbelief to enjoy this book – I did!

This is a story about loss, and grief, about safety and security, intermingled with the strange beauty of the landscape and the fears and hopes we all experience. I loved the references to Norse mythology and legends that Elise reads about – Odin, the One-Eyed and how he became the wisest of the gods and about his sons, Thor and Loki.

A J Gnuse explains at the end of the book that he was inspired to write this story after talking to a friend about the strange noises his friend had heard in his apartment and remembered that he had spent much of his childhood in an old creaky house wondering whether someone was sneaking around at night, feeling scared and vulnerable. The house in the book is based on his parents’ house in South Louisiana, where he grew up, where the sea levels are rising as the coast is eroding and the coast is hit by hurricanes,

I wasn’t surprised that he lists Charles Dickens as one of the authors who have influenced his work – there is one particular character in his book who I haven’t mentioned, the monstrous villain who is larger than life and very scary, who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dickens’ novel. He also lists other authors including, Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte sisters whose descriptive writing captured the eerie beauty of an old house.

Girl in the Walls is described as a ‘gothic’ tale. Gnuse explains that he has been influenced by the literary tradition of the Southern Gothic novel – which is largely unknown to me – referring to writers like Flannery O’Connor – describing its ‘uniquely Gothic sense of the strangeness of decay, of the past latched onto people like vines grown around their legs.‘ I think I need to find out more about this genre of fiction.

My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for my advance review copy.

The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood

HQ| 7 January 2021|347 pages| Kindle review copy via Netgalley| 3*

I hadn’t read any of Robert Thorogood’s books, but I thought I’d enjoy The Marlow Murder Club based on the blurb. It begins well. Seventy-seven year old Judith Potts is happy with her life, living in an Arts and Crafts mansion on the River Thames, although there are hints that there is something in her past she wants to forget. It’s the height of summer, in the grip of a heatwave, and Judith decides to take all her clothes off and go for swim in the Thames. She was enjoying herself when she hears a shout from her neighbour’s house on the opposite riverbank, followed by a gunshot. Later, when she goes to investigate, she finds him, dead in the river, with a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead.

It’s set in Marlow, which is what attracted me to the book as it’s a place I know quite well. The main characters are Judith, Suzie and Becks, who together discover who killed Stefan. They’re all quirky personalities with secrets they’re keeping hidden. Detective Sergeant Tanika Malika leads the police team and eventually when more bodies turn up she agrees that the three woman can help with the official investigation.

The Marlow Club Murder is a ‘cosy’ murder mystery, easy to read and fast paced. Judith is a crossword compiler, who writes cryptic clues so I really enjoyed that aspect of the book, and the relationship between her, Suzie and Becks is well-drawn. But there is quite a lot of repetition as Judith and her friends go over the evidence that they’ve gathered several times and the solution to the murder mystery is easy to predict. The ending is very rushed and let down by convenient coincidences. Overall, I think it’s light, easy reading that is quite entertaining, and the relationship between the three women is what kept me reading to the end of the book.

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

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Orlando: a Biography has been on my TBR shelves for nearly five years now, so I was glad it came up in the Classics Club spin as this gave me the push to actually read it. I won Orlando in one of Heaven Ali’s Woolfalong giveaways in May 2016 and I’m sorry that I haven’t read it before now. I did start it when I first got it, but found it a bit ‘difficult to get into it’ and left it on my bookshelves for while – the while turned out to be nearly five years!

I’ve read some of Virginia Woolf’s books before – Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Kew Gardens (a short story), Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, A Room of One’s Own and The Three Guineas (in one volume and more recently, I’ve read The Voyage Out, and Death of a Moth and other essays.

Synopsis:

Orlando tells the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman; of his/her encounters with queens, kings, novelists, playwrights, and poets, and of his/her struggle to find fame and immortality not through actions, but through the written word. At its heart are the life and works of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Knole, the historic home of the Sackvilles. But as well as being a love letter to Vita, Orlando mocks the conventions of biography and history, teases the pretensions of contemporary men of letters, and wryly examines sexual double standards.

My thoughts:

Orlando is a fictionalised biography of Vita Sackville-West, based on her life. They had met in 1922 when Woolf was 40 and Vita was 30, when Wolf described her as ‘lovely’ and ‘aristocratic’. I was a bit overwhelmed at times reading Orlando – such a fantastical novel, spanning 500 years. There are copious literary, historical, and personal allusions and despite continually referring to the Explanatory Notes at the end of the book I’m sure I missed a lot of them. And it makes for a fragmentary reading experience, having to stop reading and flip backwards and forwards between the text and the notes, so that I was a bit confused about the story and what happened when.

But having said that the plot is extraordinary, beginning towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign when Orlando is a young nobleman, and continuing for the next five hundred years to the start of the twentieth century. You have to completely suspend your disbelief, not just for the length of his life, but also for his/her gender as in the late 17th century whilst he is an ambassador for Charles II he falls into a trance for seven days, only to find when he comes to that ‘he’ has become a young woman. As a woman she lives with a group of Turkish gypsies and then returns to England in the 18th century, when she has difficulty in being identified as a woman. In the 19th century she falls in love with a young romantic traveller, finally finding freedom in finishing the poem she began in the 16th century and in experiencing the delights of motoring in the early years of the 20th century.

What I’ve described here is just the bare bones of the book, because there are many vivid passages – such as her description of the ‘Great Frost’ of 1608, when the Thames was frozen for six weeks and Frost Fairs were held on the ice. It hit the country people the hardest:

But while the country people suffered the extremity of want, and the trade of the country was at a stand still, London enjoyed a carnival of the utmost brilliance. The Court was at Greenwich, and the new King seized the opportunity that his coronation gave him to curry favour with the citizens. He directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of twenty feet and more for six or seven miles on either side should be swept, decorated and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure ground with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths, etc at his expense. For himself and his courtiers, he reserved a certain space immediately opposite the Palace gates; which railed off from the public only by a silken rope, became at once the centre of the most brilliant society in England. (pages 22-23)

She also writes about writing and about books, about the nature of gender, and about the position of women in society over the centuries. One theme that fascinates me is her depiction of the passage of time, particularly in the final section of the book set as the 20th century reached 1928 (the year Orlando was published). Overall it is a book steeped in history showing how the passage of time had changed both the landscape and climate of England along with its society – and I have only scratched the surface in this post. It is a book packed with detail that deserves to be read more than once to appreciate it fully.

  • Publisher : OUP Oxford; 2nd edition (11 Dec. 2014)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 019965073X
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0199650736