Eva Rice: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (2005)

Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

When seeing The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets referred to as pastiche, I was wondering when historical fiction actually crosses the line. Was it because Eva Rice did not only write a novel set in the 50s but a novel that sounded very much like some of the books written in the 40s and 50s? I suppose so. I haven’t read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, but it seems obvious that there are similarities. Be it as it may, Eva Rice has written a truly charming book.

The story starts in medias res with our narrator, Penelope, an eighteen year-old girl and aspiring writer, being whisked off in a taxi by Charlotte. Charlotte is Penelope’s age, but more self-assured, more stylish, outspoken, and exuberant. Before this day the two girls have never met, but, as the novel will slowly unfold, there are more connections than they see at first.

Charlotte begs Penelope to come with her to tea at Aunt Clare’s and meet Harry, her cousin. A little later they are sitting in Aunt Clare’s messy sitting room, eating scones, drinking tea and Penelope falls under the charm of these three people. They are all eccentric, speak their mind and either say hilarious or almost outrageous things. While Penelope is rather shy, she starts to swim like a fish in water in this stimulating company. Their first afternoon together marks the beginning of a great story and a wonderful friendship.

While the early chapters introduce us to Charlotte’s world, the following will take us to Penelope’s home and introduce us to her mother and her younger brother and the house they live in – Milton Magna Hall, called Magna by its inhabitants. Penelope and her family live in this huge, medieval house in genteel poverty. Her father died in WWII. Her mother, a stunning beauty, who’s only 35 years old, is prone to sudden crying fits and utterly sensitive to everything. Her brother, Inigo, doesn’t care about anything else but pop music. Like Charlotte and Penelope he loves Johnnie Ray, but as soon as his uncle from America introduces him to a new singer, Elvis Presley, who is still unknown in the UK, he only cares for Elvis. Their house, Magna, is as much a character as the people. I love stories that center on big old houses. Magna is such a house but it never sounded beautiful.It sounded rather dreadful, a monstrosity really, and a trap for those living inside. It certainly was one big, money-sucking machine. Sure, it was grand, with its huge galleries and halls, but since they had no money, it was cold, draughty and damp. The furniture had seen better days. Visitors were impressed, but, as Charlotte remarked, they didn’t have to live there.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a s much a book about the beginning of pop music, youth culture, the young Brits’ infatuation with everything American, as it is about coming of age, the definite end of an era, and new times. It’s a love story and a story of new beginnings but, more than anything, it’s a story of friendship.

The novel moves between a few distinct places,—Aunt Clare’s sitting room, the huge mansion Magna, and public places like The Ritz, where they party and listen to their favourite music.

Some of the most wonderful episodes show the four young people together, drinking champagne and enjoying each others company. My favourite scene is almost surrealist. It features Penelope and Harry together in the huge large gallery at Magna, lying on their backs, drinking, talking, and watching Harry’s doves – he’s a magician – fly around the room.

Books like these are often bitter-sweet, but this one is more sweet than bitter— in spite of some tragedy towards the end—because there are so many opportunities and hope waiting for the characters.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a smart, charming, exuberant book, filled with witty, endearing and eccentric characters, whose sharp insights, clever repartee, and uncrushable optimism are a delight to follow. If you need some intelligent cheering up—this is the book for you.


Sarah Moss: Cold Earth (2009)

Cold Earth

Last summer I read Michelle Paver’s excellent ghost story Dark Matter and Max pointed out in a comment that the description reminded him of Sarah Moss’ first novel Cold Earth. Both novels are set in the North, under extreme conditions and both use a similar technique. The protagonists write diaries and/or letters. In Cold Earth the story is told from six different subsequent points of view, while there is only one in Dark Matter.

Cold Earth is the story of an archeological dig, set in a remote part of Greenland. Six young people, under the supervision of one of them, start excavating the remains of a Norse society. Something has wiped out that society, a fact that unsettles our diggers early on. At the same time they are aware that a pandemic is spreading and communication with the outside world isn’t possible. They are not only afraid that their families and friends might die but that nobody will come and get them once the date for their departure arrives. If  that wasn’t enough already, one of the six young people, Nina, the only one who isn’t an archeologist but working on a PhD in literature, pretends that the site is haunted and shows signs of either severe trauma or delusion.

The story is told from the point of view of the six people. The first part, Nina’s part is the longest. She’s the one who reacts the most to the circumstances. She has weird dreams at night that seem to come directly from the past, she is certain that someone or something walks around the camp at night. The others react to that in many different ways. There are those who are affected and those who just find her a pain in the ass. But the letters or journal entries all show that whether they believe in the ghost theory or in the possibility that Nina’s going mad, they have a hard time coping. Some have come carrying a past loaded with grief and sorrow others are badly affected by the idea that the pandemic is killing off their families and friends.

The longer they stay, the colder it gets and they have to expect the worst, namely that nobody will come and get them and that they will run out of food and not be sufficiently prepared to face  the Arctic winter.

I’m sure if I hadn’t read Dark Matter before, I would have liked this better. The elements which are similar, the ghost story parts, are much more scary and convincing in Dark Matter, I even thought that Paver did a better job in using a ghosts story as a means to illustrate fragility of human existence, and the influence of extreme weather conditions and surroundings on people. I also liked the structure better. Cold Earth starts strongly with Nina’s point of view, which takes up almost a third of the book, but the subsequent chapters, narrated by the others are shorter and shorter, as if she’d run out of breath. Of course you could say she chose that approach to create tensions but I felt some parts were too short to be entirely satisfying. What is very well done in Sarah Moss’ book is how she includes the dimension of society. Paver focusses more on the individual, Moss more on society and groups. I found it impressive how she described how hellish the wrong company can be. I’m not exactly a gregarious person and if I choose company it really needs to be the right one. I could sympathize with Nina who felt she wasn’t only among strangers but among people who were even a tad hostile.

I guess it depends on personal preference whether you will like Dark Matter or Cold Earth better. I could relate more to  the idea of a lonely person thrown into an awful situation than to a group facing disaster. I’m glad I read them both, as they are both extremely good, I just loved one more. If, like me, you like extreme and well-captured settings, you shouldn’t miss either one of tem.

If you’re interested here is Max’s very detailed and insightful review.

Jenn Ashworth: Cold Light (2011) Giveaway

This is the tale of three fourteen-year-old girls and a volatile combination of lies, jealousy and perversion that ends in tragedy. Except the tragedy is even darker and more tangled than their tight-knit community has been persuaded to believe.
Blackly funny and with a surreal edge to its portrait of a northern English town, Jenn Ashworth’s gripping novel captures the intensity of girls’ friendships and the dangers they face in a predatory adult world they think they can handle. And it shows just how far that world is willing to let sentiment get in the way of the truth.

Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I loved Jenn Ashworth’s novel A Kind of Intimacy (here is my review). That’s why I am especially pleased to be able to giveaway 2 copies of her new book Cold Light courtesy of Hodder.co.uk.

The giveaway is open internationally. All you need to do is leave a comment and tell me if you would like one of the books. If there is a lot of interest, I will determine the winners with the help of random.org. They will be announced next Monday.

I started reading my review copy and so far I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s different from A Kind of Intimacy but quite captivating as well.

The giveaway ends Sunday June 5 2011.

Literature and War Readalong March Wrap up: The Return of the Soldier

For one reason or the other I had a feeling I knew exactly what this novel was going to be about but I was very wrong. I think that with the exception of Danielle who read The Return of the Soldier for the second time we were all more or less surprised by the book.

When you expect to read a novel about a shell-shocked soldier you don’t necessarily expect to see Freudian theories at work and much less you expect this book to be about a choice, a decision that will change all the lives involved considerably.

What did strike me most in this readalong are the differences between the reviews that have been written which underlines what I wrote in my post where I said this book could be read in many different ways. While I concentrated on summarizing the plot and comparing the symbolical meaning of the three women, trying to link them to Freudian theories, Bookaroundthecorner and Danielle focused on a core theme of the book which is the choice. In her post Bookaroundthecorner points out the following:

The ending is what we call in French a “choix cornélien”, a “Cornelian choice”. The term comes from the French playwright Corneille (17th C). In his plays, the characters must always make a choice between passion and duty, between happiness and what is right. Here, Margaret and Jenny face a Cornelian choice: to cure or not to cure Chris. To cure him is to allow him to be a soldier and be sent to the trenches again, to lead him to a highly probable death.

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) pointed out that what she liked the most about the book was the fact how it didn’t just give easy answers but encouraged you to think about the characters and their motivations. She also mentioned how life changing the death of Chris’ father was, a fact I must have overlooked completely. Anna also wrote that she felt we never really get to know Kitty and Margaret due to the first person narrative and that she would have liked to hear more about Chris, about what happened to him in the trenches. Although I did appreciate the book’s subtle use of war scenes through the means of Jenny’s nightmares, I expected it to be more from Chris’ point of view as well.

Danielle made an interesting comparison to Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Much like the letter that was shoved under the carpet rather than just under the door in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, letters that should have found their recipient but did not meant an entirely different ending for the two lovers until this unusual meeting.

Danielle also mentions that in the introduction West was quoted saying that a novel should have no empty sentences. This struck me as well, when I read it and I think I can agree with Danielle on the fact that this novel really is a fine example of this.

In all the posts and discussions, the treatment of the classes was mentioned. Apart from Kevin, no one really felt like understanding Kitty. I must admit, I felt an intense dislike and think the others shared this more or less. Of course, Kevin is right in pointing out that she is a product of her upbringing and the society she lives in.

What struck me as very interesting is that Kevin perceived the book as non-feminist. I think I disagree but understand very well how one could come to this conclusion. I believe she deliberately created a weak and vain character like Kitty to criticize the passivity of certain women, especially those who had everything, money, looks, status.

I found the treatment of the war very interesting although it was extremely toned down or rather, because it was so toned down and blended into the story. As a final word I’d like to quote Verlyn Klinkenborg.

It is certainly necessary to read The Return of the Soldier as a way of analyzing the experience of war from the civilian side. But it is also imperative to read this novel as West’s means of analyzing the experience of being female. At the age of twenty-four, West is holding up disparate versions of a woman’s experience and waiting to see which one crashes to the floor. (From the Introduction to The Modern Library Edition, p.xx )

I don’t know if you have noticed the different book covers. I think this is the one I like the most.

Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing (2009) A Bookish Memoir

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again. A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

I can’t tell you exactly how long it took to read this book. An evening? Two? Certainly not longer. I devoured it. What is more fascinating to read than a bookish memoir? And written by a writer. On top of that Howards End is on the Landing also contains some information on Strange Meeting, the first book I chose for my Literature and War Readalong.

Shouldn’t we all stop buying books from time to time and first read what is at hand, on our own shelves? This is exactly what Susan Hill did for a whole year. During this year she discovered and rediscovered a lot of books and writers, was reminded of many memories that are linked to books and writing and chose her own personal canon of 40 books.

It is an extremely interesting and entertaining and at times frankly puzzling book. Susan Hill doesn’t read Canadian or Australian literature. Why not? Too foreign. She thinks Joyce, Proust and a few others are unreadable. Are they? There were bits and pieces of information like this that did surprise me. But she is honest. She isn’t pretending for one second. It is obvious that this is the book of a reader, it is nothing like Francine Prose’s outstanding Reading Like a Writer, it is only about personal choices and tastes. There are whole chapters dedicated to her favourite female writers: Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald and Iris Murdoch.  She has met quite many of the writers she mentions and tells anecdotes that are interesting too.

One whole chapter is dedicated to diaries, another one to picture books, one to things that fall out of books, another one is dedicated to annotations in books and  she muses over short stories (not her favourite form).

Sebald gets a whole chapter which surprised me after what she said about Proust and Joyce and others. I’m glad I am already reading his Austerlitz or I would have to rush and get one of his books. She really makes him sound appealing. I agree with her, there is no writer like Sebald.

His subject matter is extraordinary, unpredictable and odd – he seems to collect the unusual and be interested in the outlandish, but, through his eyes, even the ordinary and prosaic becomes somehow strange. Everything he sees, everywhere he goes, every person he meets, all are filtered through some curious lens of his own devising.

Something that I liked is her evaluating some of the classics and giving advice with which one of their novels one should start. One should read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not start with Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. Sounds sensible.

If she had two choose among the ghost stories she knows, she would choose M.R. James’ O Whistle and I’ll Come to You and Edith Wharton’s  Mr Jones. Given that it’s a genre in which she excels, I take her word for it.

When it comes to short stories in general she likes John McGahern, William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield.

Travel books are also covered and here it is Patrick Leigh Fermor who gets a special mention. He is also mentioned in her chapter on editing books, something she has also been doing for quite a while. Fermor is one of her authors.

One chapter I enjoyed particularly was the one on diaries. I would have liked to start all the books mentioned right away and have never heard of some the authors she loves to read and reread. Namely the Reverend Francis Kilvert and Frances Partridge. But she also loves Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and, surprisingly (as she doesn’t like his novels at all), The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.

All in all I highly recommend this book. It’s very colloquial and reading it feels like talking to a good friend about the books and stories he or she likes. I found a lot of books I’m looking forward to reading now, especially those that are waiting on my shelves. In this sense it is an inspiring book that put me in the mood to concentrate more on the books I already have and not acquire so many news ones.

Out of the list of 40 novels she indicates, I chose to reproduce a list of the novels written by women that she thinks to be among the best. I chose only the women because a) they are not as numerous and b) I would like to read more female authors this year and c) you should still have a reason to read her memoir.

I read and reviewed Carson McCullers and read To the Lighthouse as I have read all the novels by Virginia Woolf (except Voyage Out). The Rector’s Daughter and The Blue Flower are those I am most curious about.

Which ones of these novels do you know and like?

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Middlemarch by George Eliott

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

To the Lightouse by Virginia Woolf

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Rector’s Daughter by F.M Mayor

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

Elizabeth Taylor: Blaming (1976)

When Amy’s husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy. Reversals of fortune and a compelling cast of characters, including Ernie, ex-sailor turned housekeeper, and Amy’s wonderfully precocious granddaughters, add spice to a novel that delights even as it unveils the most uncomfortable human emotions.

Blaming was my first Elizabeth Taylor novel. I read a recommendation on amazon a few months back and was very interested to read it. It is Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel. She wrote it while she was dying of cancer and it was published posthumously. This got me thinking quite a bit. To think that someone who knows his own death is approaching rapidly would write such a depressing novel makes me very sad. From a stylistic point of view this is a fascinating book. She is an accomplished writer and I truly admire her art. Her descriptions of places, actions and people ring true. There is an episode in which Martha and Amy are having dinner. Amy waits for Martha to eat but she keeps on talking and puts her fork down again and again. Such an exasperating habit that I have watched many times in people. The world Elizabeth Taylor creates is a very desolate one. There is hardly any person in this book that likes any of the others. Amy is by far the worst. She seems very judgmental of people and most of the time she doesn’t even register them. Her grief is intense but more because she has lost comfort and company than because she seems to miss her husband. I got the impression that she uses everybody and found her very boring. Towards the end she seems to develop a certain consciousness of her failings. Hence the blaming. But she is not the only one who fails. They all fail each other one way or the other.

Elizabeth Taylor ‘s daughter wrote an afterword in which she said she liked this and other novels because of the sense of humour. Especially also in the depiction of the granddaughters. Now that is something that eludes me. I did not think it was funny in any way. Those two girls, especially Isobel, are the most obnoxious fictional children I have ever come across. Unfortunately they seem very realistic.

I don’t necessarily mind reading something sad but this seems such a restrained world and apart from the American Martha and the factotum Ernie, they are  uninteresting people.

Since I often read as a writer and not only as a reader I would probably read another one of her books some day.

Just a quote to illustrate why:

Back along the suburban streets with the admired privet hedges, the houses with their bowed and bayed windows, the skeleton laburnums which in spring would give such pleasure. Gardens were all in darkness now, but television lit up rooms, or shadows passed behind drawn curtains. Sometimes light sprang up in bedrooms.

Any suggestions for another of her novels? Did I pick the dreariest one?