The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

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The Very Thought of You is a book that starts off so well, but didn’t quite live up to its early promise for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but it’s told from so many different viewpoints that my attention wandered at times. Then I found it getting repetitive because so many of the characters were experiencing sad love, lost love, yearning for love, love never known and separation from the people they loved.

Eight year old Anna  is evacuated from London to Yorkshire at the start of the Second World War, leaving behind her mother. Along with other evacuees she goes to live at Ashton Park, the home of Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, who have set up a school in Thomas’s ancestral home. The Ashtons are a childless couple, in an unhappy marriage and Anna gets caught up in their relationship as it breaks down.

There is too much description, too many insights into what the characters are thinking and feeling, but very little dialogue. It all began to feel remote and distant. At one point the children are having a poetry lesson and Thomas reads them a poem by e e cummings, a love poem and Anna sums up the book so well when she says it is a sad poem

because it was about sad love. … it was all distant, as if they could never be together … it sounds as if he thinks he’ll never reach her’ (page 209)

The final section of the book is about the rest of Anna’s life and the effect that the evacuation had upon her. She still yearns for what was gone and reflects on her love for Thomas. She feels detached and ponders whether life was

one long story of separation, just as Wordsworth had said.  From people, from places, from the past you could never quite reach even as you lived it’ (page 300).

A sad and somewhat haunting book. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for me it can’t stand up against Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Sunday Salon – Recent, Current and Future Reading

I keep a record of the books I read but it’s meaningless to think of them in terms of how many I read because that depends not only on their length but also on the nature and complexity of the books.  I’ve read three books so far this month:

But that is no indication at all of the amount of reading I’ve been doing. And this is mainly because one of the books I’m currently reading and have been reading for a while is the massive Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m nearing the end now with just under 150 pages left to read. I read this morning that Henry has married Anne Boleyn, she has had her coronation and given birth to Elizabeth. Henry, of course, wanted a son and I wondered as I read this whether the words Mantel puts in his mouth were from a contemporary source or were her own in the light of her knowledge of future events. Henry is striding about the palace at Greenwich:

We are young enough, he says, and next time it will be a boy. One day we will make a great marriage for her. Believe me, God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess (my own emphasis). (page 485).

The other book I’m reading is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison. I’m torn between wanting to finish it and taking it slowly just because it’s so good. It’s very easy to read (it’s not written in the present tense, which helps enormously) and I could gallop through it at top speed, so different from Wolf Hall, where I sometimes have to flip back a few pages and re-read them to make sure I know what’s going on. The characters in The Very Thought of You are clearly delineated and I don’t have to wonder ‘now who is that?’  as I do in Wolf Hall – thank goodness that book has a Cast of Characters at the front and two family trees as well.

The Very Thought of You begins in 1939 and as I’m reading I’m becoming very aware that I know very little about that time or about the Second World War as a whole. I’ve been meaning to find out more and a while ago I bought Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner, to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, so I keep dipping in to that as I read. It looks as though Alison has done her research well.

As for the books I have coming up next to read, I want to get back to reading more Agatha Christie – Death on the Nile for example and  also Set in Darkness, the next Rebus book in my reading of Ian Rankin’s series. But before that I have some review books to read. The vast majority of the books I read are my own or borrowed from the library or friends and family, but every now and then I receive books from publishers. At the moment I have three I haven’t read yet, although I have read the beginning of each one:

There is one more book that I’d love to read right now and that is The Border Line by Eric Robson (a library book). Robson is a broadcaster and he wrote this book about walking the modern border line between England and Scotland from the Solway Firth to Berwick-on-Tweed. It’s a mixture of history and anecdotes with descriptions of the landscape – the cairns, castles, battlefields and boundary stones along the way. This is the area we spent much time in last year when we were looking for a place to move to in the Borders and where we now live.

Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m now almost at the halfway stage. At times I’m loving it and at times I’m thinking why, oh why is she writing this in the present tense? See, it’s getting to me – I’m not overly fond of books in the present tense. And why does she keep using ‘he’ and I’m not sure which ‘he’ she means? Sometimes it’s Thomas Cromwell, but it could be any number of other ‘he’s’ too. But on the whole she’s winning me over and I have to keep on reading. What a character this man Cromwell is, a man who Cardinal Wolsey describes as:

… rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom. (page 86)

Cromwell knows that

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook … (page 60)

I didn’t expect Wolf Hall to be relevant to the current state of affairs and yet it’s about power, who holds the purse strings, who can command. People, then as now, want change, always hoping for something better. I read this as the present election campaign was in flow with the politicians’ slogans ‘Vote for Change’ and ‘Change that Works for You’. Just see what Geroge Cavendish thought in 1529

‘But what do they get by the change? ‘ Cavendish persists. ‘One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honour, and in comes a hungry and a lean man.’ (page 55)

Talking about elections, Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to be ‘elected’ was rather different from today’s methods.  His constituency was Taunton which he held with the agreement of the king and the Duke of Norfolk because seats in the House of Commons were

…  largely, in the gift of the lords; of lords, bishops, the king himself. A scanty handful of electors, if pressured from above, usually do as they’re told. (page 161)

Well, at least that is different these days.

Wolf Hall engages me on different levels – it’s historical fiction of period I used to know well and as I read it all comes back to me – Henry VIII’s wives and all that. It’s also made me think about writing styles and what I’m comfortable reading. It’s a dense book, one that you have to take your time reading and it helps if you know the history because nothing happens quickly in this book, which is full of description and lots of characters. I’m not finding a page-tuner but a fascinating study in particular of Thomas Cromwell.

Wolf Hall is a long book, and I need to vary my reading. I’m also at the beginning of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, very different from Wolf Hall and also listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Moving forward 400 years from Tudor England to Britain in the 20th century on the brink of war with Germany is quite a leap, but it still feels like historical fiction. The Very Thought of You begins with Anna’s evacuation from London in September 1939 to Ashton Park, a large Yorkshire estate. This is the calm before the storm.

It’s a very different style from Wolf Hall and I’m enjoying the contrast. So far, it has a warm, family feel about it, yet connected to world events with the parallel activity in Poland as Hitler invaded. The British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Clifford Norton, watched the city burn and abandoned the embassy as the Nazis and the Soviets invaded.

I don’t envy the Orange Prize judges their task – how do you compare such different books?