Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

Those who are loved

Headline Review|30 May 2019|496 pages|Review e-book copy|4.5*

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop is one of the most moving novels I’ve read for a long time. But it begins slowly and it was only at about the halfway stage that it really took off for me. And now I’ve come to write about it I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how exceptional I think it is. Whatever I write will not do it justice – it really is ‘an epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live an extraordinary life‘.

It is historical fiction ‘set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Greece, the subsequent civil war and a military dictatorship, all of which left deep scars.’

The main character is Themis Koralis/Stravidis (in Greek mythology Themis is the personification of fairness and natural law). In 2016 she is a great grandmother and realising that her grandchildren knew very little about Greek history she decided to tell them her life story, beginning from when she was a small child in the 1930s, through the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the civil war that followed, then the oppressive rule of the military junta and the abolition of the Greek monarchy, up to the present day.

As she grew up she and her brothers and sister had many disagreements, holding differing political opinions, which came to a head when the Germans invaded Athens in 1941.  Themis and her brother Panos joined the communist party in their fight against the Germans, whilst her other brother Thanasis and her sister Margarita opposed them, hating the communists’ views and believing that Germany was a friend of Greece, not a foe.

During the civil war Themis was imprisoned on the islands of exile, Makronisos and then Trikeri. Her experiences were horrific, but only strengthened her determination to survive. On Makronisos she met Aliki, also a member of the communist party, and when Aliki is condemned to death, Themis promises to find and raise Aliki’s son, Nikos as her own.

During the early part of the book I felt it was rather like reading a history book. But then, the book sprang to life, the pace increased, and I was totally gripped and moved as history and fiction came together dramatically in glorious technicolor, telling the story of the characters personal lives and their parts in the action.

I have only skimmed the surface of this book – there is so much more to the story than I can mention here. But after the slow start I loved it, even though it is not a book I can say I ‘enjoyed’. It is a powerful and shocking story of remarkable characters faced with brutal and traumatic events. It has a completely convincing and vivid sense of location. I knew next to nothing about this period in Greek history before and I was astounded by what I learnt. 

On a personal note, the earthquake in Athens on 7 September 1999 plays a part in the story. We were there then on holiday. We had been out at sea on that day and travelled back to our hotel through Athens, seeing some of the destruction and terror it caused. The earthquake had been felt at our hotel in Marathon – people had been thrown out of the swimming pool and later that evening we could still feel the aftershocks.

Many thanks to the publishers, Headline Review, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

‘a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names and their identities.’

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Zaffre|4 Oct. 2018|320 pages|Paperback|3*

Yesterday when I finished reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I didn’t want to write about it, but I kept thinking about it and in the end I decided I needed to record a few of my thoughts about it. It is not a book I can say that I ‘enjoyed’, because I didn’t – the subject matter is too painful, how can you enjoy a book that describes the horrors of one person’s experience of his time in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau*!

It is ‘based on the true story of Lale Sokolov’.  He was born Ludwig Eisenberg on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia and transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival. He met and fell in love with Gita, a fellow prisoner and he was determined that they would be survivors. The story Heather Morris tells is simply devastating and I could hardly bear to read the horrors of life in the concentration camps; it is appalling as it reveals the brutality, hatred and evil side of human nature. But is also about love, determination, compassion, and the strength of human nature. 

It is simply told in a straight forward, childlike style and in the present tense. It is certainly a most unsettling and depressing book, despite the fact that I knew that Lale and Gita would survive their horrific experience.

Heather Morris wrote the book after meeting Lale and hearing his story. In her Author’s Note she tells how she spent three years listening to him as

he told his story piecemeal, sometimes slowly, sometimes at bullet-pace and without clear connections between the many, many episodes. … Lale’s memories were on the whole, remarkably clear and precise.

The epilogue describes what happened to Lale and Gita after the end of the war. They married, moved to Bratislava, and, after travelling to Paris, eventually moved to Melbourne. There are photos at the end of the book of Lale and Gita in Australia with Gary their son and an Afterword by Gary about their family life and how their years in the camp affected them both.

But the line between fiction and fact can be blurred in a novel and there are claims that ‘the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements‘. I have read the article pointing out the errors etc. It concludes that the book should be seen as an ‘impression devoid of documentary value on the topic of Auschwitz, only inspired by authentic events … Given the number of factual errors, therefore, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of KL Auschwitz.’

It seems to me that it is a novel that clearly conveys what Lale experienced during the three years he spent in Auschwitz, as he remembered it many years later. Despite the errors that have been pointed out, I think it is a story of man’s inhumanity to man and a tribute to the strength of the human spirit for survival.

KL Auschwitz-Birkenau 

The first and oldest was the so-called “main camp,” later also known as “Auschwitz I” (the number of prisoners fluctuated around 15,000, sometimes rising above 20,000), which was established on the grounds and in the buildings of prewar Polish barracks;

The second part was the Birkenau camp (which held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944), also known as “Auschwitz II” This was the largest part of the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis began building it in 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, three kilometers from Oswiecim. The Polish civilian population was evicted and their houses confiscated and demolished. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination was built in Birkenau and the majority of the victims were murdered here;’ (extract from the history page of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum)

WWW Wednesday: 5 June 2019

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


Currently reading: I’m still making slow progress with reading  D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen,  but I’ve almost finished Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck. So, I’ve started to read Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop, one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list.

Those Who Are Loved is historical fiction, set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Greece, the subsequent civil war and a military dictatorship, all of which left deep scars. I know very little about Greece during the Second World War so I’m finding it very interesting, but it is very slow going. It begins as Themis remembers her life and the conflicts within her family as well as their experience of the war.

I’ve recently finished The Ruin by Dervla Mactiernan and will be writing more about it in a later post.

Ruin

Blurb:

It’s been twenty years since Cormac Reilly discovered the body of Hilaria Blake in her crumbling Georgian home. But he’s never forgotten the two children she left behind…

When Aisling Conroy’s boyfriend Jack is found in the freezing black waters of the river Corrib, the police tell her it was suicide. A surgical resident, she throws herself into study and work, trying to forget – until Jack’s sister Maude shows up. Maude suspects foul play, and she is determined to prove it.

DI Cormac Reilly is the detective assigned with the re-investigation of an ‘accidental’ overdose twenty years ago – of Jack and Maude’s drug- and alcohol-addled mother. Cormac is under increasing pressure to charge Maude for murder when his colleague Danny uncovers a piece of evidence that will change everything…

My next book could be:

I think, but I could always change my mind, it’ll be Anything You Do Say by Gillian Mcallister, another book that is on my 20 Books of Summer list.

Anything you do say

Blurb:

Joanna is an avoider. So far she has spent her adult life hiding bank statements and changing career aspirations weekly.

But then one night Joanna hears footsteps on the way home. Is she being followed? She is sure it’s him; the man from the bar who wouldn’t leave her alone. Hearing the steps speed up Joanna turns and pushes with all of her might, sending her pursuer tumbling down the steps and lying motionless on the floor.

Now Joanna has to do the thing she hates most – make a decision. Fight or flight? Truth or lie? Right or wrong?

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

Reading in May

I’ve been reading eight books in May, and have finished reading six of them, but only reviewed four of them:

  1. The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley 4* –  a family saga spanning generations  revealing the dark secret hidden behind the locked door of the Butterfly Room
  2. Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin 5* – not about his mother, but about him and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin
  3. Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings 3* – the basis for the TV series Killing Eve 
  4. The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal 5* –  the story of Iris who dreamed of being an artist and her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites

The other two books I finished are:

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which I didn’t enjoy and I’m just writing a few notes here about it. It won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and was selected by The Sunday Times as one of the top page-turners of summer 2017, so I’m in the minority because I thought it was boring and tedious. The plot is simple – a plane crashes into the sea after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, just two people survive and the mystery is why did the plane crash and who was responsible. The main part of the book is made up of the long backstories of the people on the plane. It’s not gripping or thrilling and definitely not a page-turner. 1*

However I thoroughly enjoyed The Ruin Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel and I’ll be writing more about it in the next few days. Now this is a page-turner, about a current murder linked to a cold case. It’s complex and compelling reading as DI Cormac Reilly unravels a web of secrets. 4*

I’m still reading two books:

D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, from his childhood in Nottinghamshire to his death at the age of 44. I’m reading this slowly and it will be some time before I finish it. An ‘outsider’, he always felt he didn’t fit in or belong either with his family or his work colleagues or the literary elite of the times.

The other book I’ve been reading is Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck, my Classics Club Spin book that I was hoping to finish by the end of May. I’ve only read half of it so far. It’s a follow up to Cannery Row, with some of the same characters and I’m enjoying its humour and view of life in Monterey in the 1950s.

And now it’s June! I’ll be concentrating on reading the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer challenge – and hoping I won’t be distracted by too many other books!

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession

Doll Factory

Picador|2 May 2019|336 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is one of the best books I read so far this year. It captivated me with its tale of Iris, the young woman who worked painting dolls in Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium, but who dreamed of being an artist. It tells of her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite artists – in particular with Louis Frost (a fictional character) who attracted by her beauty and her red hair wants her to model for him. She agrees, despite the disapproval of her parents and twin sister Rose, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. Meanwhile Silas Reed, a taxidermist and a collector of curiosities, worships her from afar and fantasises that she returns his love.  

But it’s much more than my brief outline conveys. This is historical fiction that transports me back in time and place to the 1850s when the Great Exhibition is being constructed and then opened to the public, a time when the young artists who had recently formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, first formed in the summer of 1848, are challenging the art world with their vivid paintings, at once both stylised and naturalistic. The descriptions take me straight into London of the early 1850s with all its sights and smells, its squalor and bustling crowds as people go about their daily lives.

There are some really memorable characters, such as ten year old Albie, who collects dead creatures for Silas. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, in a ramshackle house down a dead-end alley and with just one tooth he dreams of buying a set of false teeth. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt also appear alongside the fictional characters and I loved all the details about their paintings, and their fascination with wombats. Rossetti owned two wombats – the inspiration for Louis’ wombat, Guinevere, who lives in his studio.

As I read on I began to feel a growing sense of menace and the tension between the characters rose almost to an unbearable peak as the book reached its conclusion. It’s full of atmosphere, dark and gothic towards the end as it reached its climax – and left me wanting more. It’s wonderful – historical fiction, art history, and a love story as well as a dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.  I loved it!

About the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

WWW Wednesday: 22 May 2019

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


Currently reading: Three books,  D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck and The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal.

I’ve made more progress with D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider. It’s a thorough and detailed account of his life and I’ve just got up to 1912 when he first met Frieda Weekley, the wife of Ernest Weekley, a Nottingham University professor of modern languages. Lawrence had finished writing ‘Paul Morel‘ (Sons and Lovers) and had needing a break he decided to travel – to go to Germany. He got in touch with Weekley to ask for his advice.

Sweet Thursday is my Classics Club spin book to read by 31 May. So far I’ve only read a few chapters. This is a follow on from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row which I loved. Set after the Second World War in Monterey, on the California Coast, Sweet Thursday is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that’s just naturally bad.

I’ve included The Doll Factory in my 20 Books of Summer challenge and I made the mistake of looking at it and before I knew it I’d read 20%. It really is compelling reading for me – historical fiction set in London beginning in 1850 as the Grand Exhibition is being built in Hyde Park. Twin sisters Iris and Rose paint dolls for a living but Iris dreams of a life as an artist. This is the period when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are making their mark in the art world.

Recently finished Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, the basis for the BAFTA-winning Killing Eve TV series. I enjoyed this but not as much as the TV version. See my review here.

Codename Villanelle

My next book could be:

As usual I’m not at all sure what it could be, but after reading Codename Villanelle I’ve got my eye on No Tomorrow by Luke Jennings, which continues the story.

No tomorrow

Blurb (Amazon):

In a hotel room in Venice, where she’s just completed a routine assassination, Villanelle receives a late-night call.

Eve Polastri has discovered that a senior MI5 officer is in the pay of the Twelve, and is about to debrief him. As Eve interrogates her subject, desperately trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, Villanelle moves in for the kill.

The duel between the two women intensifies, as does their mutual obsession, and when the action moves from the high passes of the Tyrol to the heart of Russia, Eve finally begins to unwrap the enigma of her adversary’s true identity.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.’

Mrs Whistler

The Borough Press|2 May 2019|465 pages|Paperback Review copy|5*

I loved this novel about the American artist James McNeill Whistler and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin, the ‘Mrs Whistler‘ of the title. I’m familiar with some of his paintings, his Nocturnes and the portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, known as Whistler’s Mother, but knew nothing about his private life. He was painting at the same time as the Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century and some of his paintings seem to me to be similar in style to their work, but I think he is above all an individual, standing on his own. I love his signature, a stylised butterfly based on his initials, that heads up some of the chapters in Mrs Whistler.

Whistler Arrangement in White and Black Maud Franklin 1876
Maud Franklin (Arrangement in White and Black) by Whistler 1876

The book covers two episodes in their lives during the years 1876 to 1880 – a bitter feud with his patron Francis Leyland about his fee for painting The Peacock Room, and the libel trial in which Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin, over a review that dismissed him as a fraud. Ruskin had criticised Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, accusing him of asking for ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ These two events brought Whistler to the point of bankruptcy.

Whistler Nocturne in black and gold
Nocturne in Black and Gold (c.1875, Detroit Institute of Arts)

And interwoven is the story of Maud and her relationship with Whistler. Maud, as the title indicates, is the main character, on the borders of society she is not only his model, but also the mother of two of his children – both fostered at birth. Alongside these two are Whistler’s so-called friend, the flamboyant and duplicitous Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl, and Howell’s mistress Rosa Corder.

It’s a good story, albeit a long one, that moves quite slowly through these four years. I loved all the detail – of Whistler’s impetuous and rebellious character, his relationship with his brother and mother (the real Mrs Whistler), as well as with Maud – and the details of the house he had built in London on Tite Street in Chelsea, which he called the White House, his flight to Venice and most of all about his paintings.

In his Author’s Note Matthew Plampin lists the books he consulted in writing his novel and referenced the online archive of Whistler’s correspondence at the University of Glasgow, which he used, as he puts it, for ‘many of this novel’s best lines.He explains that there are gaps in the records – notably about Maud. The American art critic Elizabeth Pennell and her husband Joseph had compiled a biography of Whistler in 1903, but they found that certain details were elusive. They had questions about Howell, about the saga of The Peacock Room and about Maud. Maud was still alive at the time but refused to talk to the Pennells, as they described it: ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.‘  Plampin’s fictionalised biography fills in some of the gaps in the story, imagining what Maud thought and how she coped with Whistler’s behaviour and attitude towards her and especially about how she felt about her daughters, living with their foster family.

Many thanks to the publishers, The Borough Press for my review copy via NetGalley.

About the Author

Matthew Plampin completed a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art and now lectures on nineteenth-century art and architecture. He is the author of five novels, The Street Philosopher, The Devil’s Acre, Illumination, Will & Tom and Mrs Whistler. He lives in London with his family.