We followed our men to Los Alamos …

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

wives of los alamosThis is not a novel about the development of the atom bomb, but rather the development of the community surrounding the laboratory which produced the bomb. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were seconded to the military from all over the country in 1943 for the Manhattan Project under its director Robert Oppenheimer, who had chosen the location for the new top secret facility.

Many of these scientists were family men and TaraShea Nesbit’s novel tells the story through the eyes of their wives. The need for secrecy was such that the scientists’ families followed them to Santa Fe, and on to Los Alamos on the mesa – much easier to keep a lid on things with them all there. Their wives, and children if they already had them, were installed in a fenced compound of pre-fabs outside the ‘technical area’, and she tells how they established new lives for themselves during the later years of WWII.

Nesbit’s style is experimental. Each paragraph is a little vignette set within a collection of paragraphs on a theme. Each paragraph is written using ‘we’, the first person plural – but makes it clear that within the collective ‘we’ are the many different individuals that made up the community – they all have a voice, so both sides of the story are usually expressed within each paragraph…

We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people’s political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics – we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or maybe only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were  good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

The themed collections of paragraphs built up to present the chronological story from arrival to departure. Many of the families had a hard time settling into the army way of doing things, not forgetting the weather – from snow and mud to blinding, never-ending sunshine. They also had to get used to not seeing as much of their husbands…

Many of us hated the women scientists. And the women scientists hated us, or they had better things to worry about. We tried to be their friends. We invited one of them to lunch but she was busy. We despised what she knew and how she laughed at our questions.

But there must have been something in the water, for soon the community was awash with babies.  The Army General complained. The Director said, ‘I’m not going to interfere in the lives of adults.’ There is a sense of settling down, the women build their friendships and routines; some become friends with the local Tewa women who are hired to be helps. Naturally too, some friendships and marriages will founder and not all will last the course. Not being able to quiz their husbands about their work, the women try to make their often mundane life sound exciting. They just do their best to get on with things as their husbands work towards the big one. You know how that ends – but it’s still shocking to read about it in the novel.

It may be experimental, but the style worked for me. It does require more concentration to absorb all the strands than a straight-forward narrative, and consequently it took longer to read than a conventional novel. What was truly fascinating was the way that the style celebrates the differences in the women, they are all individuals and they each have a story to tell in the book. Having said that the middle section, once the wives were well established in situ, was not as riveting as the beginning or the end, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a brave author that debuts with such an unconventional first novel, but Nesbit shows great promise and I shall look out for her name in the future. (8.5/10)

For another review of this book see Susan’s at A Life in Books here.

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, pub April 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback 240 pages.

P.S. Following Col’s comment below: here is a clip of Deacon Blue singing Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now from 2013. Thanks Col!

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Psst! Want to know a secret?

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Secret

This short novel contains within its 154 widely spaced pages a tale so compelling you will want to read the whole thing in one sitting as I did and still have time to savour the exquisite writing as translated from the French by Polly McLean.

The only problem that I have in writing this review is that I can’t tell you much about it without giving away the central secrets that lie in this family’s past. The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in post-war Paris in the 1950s, the sickly only child of supremely fit and glamorous parents. He wishes he had an older brother and invents one, but it is when he talks to an old family friend once he reaches fifteen that he begins to find out the truth about his heritage, something his parents had wanted to stay buried.

One day while still a child, he helps his mother tidy in the attic …

She had opened a trunk in which she expected to find fashion magazines that used to publish her designs. She jumped when she saw the little dog with Bakelite eyes, sleeping there on top of a pile of blankets. Threadbare and dusty-muzzled, he was wearing a knitted coat. I immediately grabbed him and hugged him to my chest, but had to abandon the idea of taking him to my room: I could feel my mother’s unease as she asked me to put him back in his place.  (page 5)

You should never hide things like that where people may find them – at the very least they should have ‘lost’ the key to the trunk. I shouldn’t be so glib though.  Grimbert himself is a psychoanalyst and he uses all the tricks of the trade to gradually tease out what happened. He also shares a his surname with his protagonist, which will lead you to all sorts of questions, not least the killer one – are there elements of autobiography in this story?  I have no idea of the answer to that by the way.

Published in 2004 in France as Un Secret, and 2007 in the UK dropping the ‘A’, this book was a bestseller in France and won a Prix Goncort. It was also filmed and I can certainly see it as a French drama. Please be aware that it is also available under the title ‘Memory‘.

The style is spare, yet full of the details that we need to get pulled into the story. I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. (9/10)

For another non-spoiler review see Vulpes Libris here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Secretby Philippe Grimbert. Pub 2007 by Portobello Books, paperback 154 pages.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” …

Ragnarok by A.S.Byatt

The Myths series of books by Canongate, is a set I’ve been collecting since their inception in 1995 – I’ve read maybe half of them so far though – something I must address! Every year or two, Canongate are adding titles in the series – short novels by esteemed writers. The latest – by Natsuo Kirono based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi was published in January.  Each of the books takes a tale from world myth and re-tells it. You can read some of my other reviews from this series here, here, here and here.

However, to tie in with my reading of Joanne (M) Harris’ new novel The Gospel of Loki, I turned to A.S. Byatt’s more conventional narrative of the Norse myths and the twilight of the Gods – Ragnarök.

ragnarok

Whilst some of the other authors in this series have brought their chosen myths right up to date, Byatt uses a different style – a framing device to tell the old tales in new covers so to speak.

A thin young girl is evacuated during WWII. She is missing her father and struggling to understand her enforced relocation. One day she is given a copy of an old book about the Norse myths, and it transforms her life, allowing her to transport her worries and make sense of everything. All of life is to be found in Asgard and the Gods, or her other favourite book Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian’s burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there and once been people who brought ‘belief’ to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories. Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hydras and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn’t live in her, and she didn’t live in them.

WagnertheAshYggdrasill

Yggdrasil – The World Ash. Engraving by Carl Emil Doepler

The thin child, she is always referred to thus, reads the book and reflects upon it, the idiosyncracies of its author, and the parallels between the stories and her life. At this point, I should add that Asgard and the Gods (adapted by M.W. Macdowall from works by German Wilhelm Wägner) is a real book. It was published in 1886, as a primer in Norse myths for older children. Amazingly, it is still in print – hopefully with its engravings in tact – several of which are reproduced in Ragnarök (see right), and this book was the inspiration for Byatt too. She says in an accompanying essay at the back, “my childhood experience of reading and rereading Asgard and the Gods was the place where I had first experienced the difference between myth and fairy tale.”

So we go through the creation of Asgard, the installation of the gods and godesses led by Odin.  Then we meet Loki whom the thin child likes as ‘alone among all these beings he had humour and wit‘, even though the clever trickster, Odin’s problem-solving adopted brother, often created as many problems by his actions as were resolved.

I felt sad for the thin child when we got to Baldur’s tale. Baldur being a beautiful god who was doomed to die…

Baldur went, but he did not come back. The thin child sorted in her new mind things that went and came back, and things that went and did not come back. Her father with his flaming hair was flying under the hot sun in Africa, and she knew it in her soul that he would not come back.

As Byatt says, “Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting.”  The thin child sees the parallels between the War, the Blitz, her believed loss of her father and the destruction of her normal life and the downfall of the Norse Gods which stems from the death of Baldur, bringing chaos back to the world. Although she comes to believe her father is doomed too, there is a grim satisfaction to be had from the scale of the destruction involving all who touch it, schadenfreude as Wägner would probably say. What the thin child doesn’t know at this point, is that after the battle, the world will be reborn anew.  As REM sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it.“!

The Norse myths are more than just heroics though, the creation of their world was anchored out of chaos by Yggdrasil – The World Ash, and the force of nature is as strong, if not stronger than that of the gods. The myths abound in biological detail, and the thin child notices the flowers and animals surrounding her too, they help her feel alive. At one point Byatt almost goes overboard letting the thin child enjoy the glories of late spring – a list of which takes over two pages, but I’ll forgive this as from daisies to tadpoles, they’re worth it – mother nature in the form of Yggdrasil has it sorted.

I’ve felt rather stifled by Byatt’s full length novels previously and couldn’t even get started on The Children’s Book, but this shorter form being written from a child’s eye view and all about myths was perfect for me.

Ragnarök is both an accomplished novel and a fantastic primer for the Norse Myths, brilliantly retold. (8.5/10)

See also: Desperate Reader and Tales from the Reading Room for other reviews.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
– Ragnarok: the End of the Godsby A.S.Byatt, pub 2011 by Canongate. Paperback, 192 pages including Appendices.
– The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub 2014 by Canongate. Hbk or pbk 320 pages.
– The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, pub 2014 by Gollancz. Hardback.
– Asgard and the Gods: The Tales and Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors, Forming a Complete Manual of Norse Mythology Work (Classic Reprint) by Wilhelm Wägner.

Practice makes perfect?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-After-Life

Way back, when Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum was published and won prizes, I bought a copy – and struggled with it. Me and it didn’t gel back then, and I’ve not bothered reading any other books by Kate Atkinson since, until now.

I was taken the with idea of Life After Life though, and bought a copy of the hardback from the supermarket last year. It has sat there on the shelf waiting, despite everyone else reading and loving it, until now – as it is our book group’s choice for discussion next week. I needn’t have worried though, for I loved it, and I couldn’t wait until after book group to put some thoughts down.

I had worried before I started reading that Atkinson’s story of the many lives of Ursula Todd would be too much like a literary Groundhog Day, that there were no new tricks in the reliving one’s life game.   While I love that film, Life After Life has a very different time-looping mechanism to it.  In GHD, newsman Phil lived the same day again and again for around ten years until he became a better person and got his girl – but, he was aware of his previous days, so was able to use that experience to learn to play the piano, speak French etc and gradually improving himself. Most days he doesn’t die either.

That doesn’t happen in Ursula’s story – in each life she lives until she dies, then starts again at birth, unaware of her past lives except for an occasional sense of déjà vu at critical moments which enable her to do things differently.

What is fascinating is to see how the little changes can make big changes to her destiny.  The novel actually starts with her death in a very bold scenario that makes you wonder how she’d got there, and if that is the real ending.  I’m not going to tell you, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I refer to, if not, I’ll leave it to you to find out for yourself.

Ursula is born in a snowy February 1910, so her lives go from that day each time through the decades. In her very first life though, she dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next time she is born, she lives and her parents Sylvie and Hugh are bickering gently after the birth…

A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. ‘Oh, look,’ Sylvie Said. ‘How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied.’
‘Let’s hope the local hunt isn’t following on its heels,’ Hugh said. ‘It’s a scrawny beast.’
‘It’s a vixen. She’s a nursing mother, you can see her teats.’
Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)
‘Look,’ Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out on to the grass and tumbled over each other in play. ‘Oh, they’re such handsome little creatures.’
‘Some might say vermin.’
‘Perhaps they see us as verminous,’ Sylvie said. ‘Fox Corner – that’s what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?’
‘Really?’ Hugh said doubtfully. ‘It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it? It sounds like a children’s story. The House at Fox Corner.’
‘A little whimsy never hurt anyone.’
‘Strictly speaking though,’ Hugh said, ‘can a house be a corner? Isn’t it at one?’
So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

life-after-life pbkApart from illustrating the brittleness between Hugh and Sylvie, I chose this passage to quote, as it’s where they first see the fox.

The house, Fox Corner, is to remain a constant in Ursula’s lives, and the fox appears many times during her childhoods. In fact, the cover design of the paperback (right) is graced by the lovely creature.

I also like Hugh’s little joke – The House at Pooh Corner won’t be published until 1928.

I wondered too whether the author also chose the surname Todd as a nod to Beatrix Potter’s Mr Tod – although he wasn’t such a nice fox.

I loved the way that Atkinson finds so many different takes on Ursula’s birth, all the little changes are quite entertaining once we’ve got past her initial death.  However, we don’t get Ursula’s birth every time – the author only gives us the occasions when her life moves on and changes – so we get several different versions of key events, which then lead to totally different outcomes.  It’s very cleverly mapped out indeed.

We’re with Ursula right from the start, grieving each time she dies – again and again; sometimes mouthing out loud ‘Don’t do it!’ when we know that a life will turn bad if she does a particular thing, and cheering when her instincts lead her to do things differently, only for it to go bad again in another way. Will she ever manage to life the right life?

This gradual reveal of the final story reminded me of another novel in which the narrative is told out of time.  The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is actually told in reverse, but it’s only when we get back to the start of the story that we get the full picture.  With WWII playing a big part in both novels too, its a fair comparison.

I am so pleased that I’ve given Kate Atkinson another try, for in Life After Life, she is clearly an author at the top of her game, and I loved this book. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, 2013. Black Swan Paperback, 624 pages.
Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Groundhog Day (Collector’s Edition) [DVD] [2002]

After the war is over …

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

aftermathThe aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself – for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of the British zone in Hamburg after WWII, a city largely destroyed by Operation Gomorrah in 1943.

It is now 1946, and Colonel Lewis, is arriving with his family, to take charge of the British occupying forces.  His staff have found him a house, a large mansion on the banks of the river where an architect lives quietly with his daughter.  Herr Lubert and Freda are due to be billeted elsewhere, but in an unprecedented act of kindness, Lewis offers to let them share the house. The Luberts will move up to the attic servants quarters.

The house is finely furnished, and is full of art, antiques and a grand piano. Before Lewis’ wife Rachael even steps through the door, she is intimidated by the situation her husband has foisted upon her …

‘But I don’t understand,’ Rachael said. ‘Are other families doing this?’
‘None of them has requisitioned a house like this. It’s not really the same.’
Rachael had no space for this. It did not matter how grandiose, how replete with rooms, how exquisite the art of the action of the piano; were it a palace with separate wings and outhouses, there still would be no room for a German in it.

Rachael’s attitude can be easily understood for the Lewis family lost a son in the war, her eldest Michael. She was there when the bomb hit the house, whereas Lewis was away with the Army of course. She has another son, Edmund, but she is still grieving and angry at the Germans and Lewis for not being there.  Her reunion with him after this time will be tough for both of them, and her enforced relationship with the Luberts will become interesting too.

Meanwhile Lewis has to deal with the severe lack of food and jobs for the remaining Germans, who are only allowed to resume their prior work once they have been certified as clean. Intelligence are determined to root out the slightest hint of collaboration or Nazi sympathies, something that goes against the grain of Lewis’ ideals. Lewis is a good man, and is unfailingly polite to his host-nation. He wants nothing more than to let the Germans get back to work, to reunite parted families, to get food to them, start the rebuilding, but bureaucracy is always getting in the way.

Alongside the adults’ stories, is that of a band of feral children, orphaned, living in the ruins close to the Lubert’s house. Ozi their leader, is an expert wheeler-dealer, getting the most for things scavenged.  Edmund spots them one day, and becomes their saviour – Lewis’ cigarettes are better than currency. They are the true forgotten in all of this, living on their wits in terrible conditions.

It turns out that the central premise of Brook’s novel – that of sharing a house with the former enemy – is something that actually happened.  His grandfather, who was in a similar position to Lewis, did just that – he must be proud of him. While all around are taking advantage of being in charge, Lewis and his small team of officers who understand his point of view, show restraint and compassion for their fellow man.

Lewis, Rachael and Herr Lubert are three fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all of them. That Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again, and that Herr Lubert would be able to begin again too – for as an architect, his skills would be needed to rebuild the city.

This was an emotionally involving novel that gave a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Aftermathby Rhidian Brook. Pub 2013 by Viking Penguin, Hardback 336 pages. Sorry – no sign of the paperback yet.

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Peace.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.

A novel of love, war, betrayal and stiff upper lip

Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley

Richard Madeley slightly surprised everyone in 2008 when he published his successful memoir Fathers and Sons which explored male familial relationships through the mirror of his own. Despite journalistic roots, it was somewhat unexpected that one of the most successful daytime TV hosts and champion of the Richard & Judy Bookclub could write. Now, matching his wife Judy Finnegan, he has written his first novel – would it pass muster?

runway_1988b

Madeley hosting ‘Runway’ another 1988 quiz show.

I was intrigued to be offered a copy by his publisher – as many moons ago I met him when I was a contestant on the Granada TV quiz show Connections. That was back in 1988; he was on his way up, having made a name for himself on local shows, now breaking into national TV programmes. We had to rehearse our little introductions with him, and I remember having difficulty describing the branch of high-tech electronic materials I worked with in those days. He came up with a (so him) flippant response that neatly sidestepped the issue.  Recording loads of the shows each day – it was a daily tea-time quiz show – so there was no time to bond further, although Granada treated us contestants really well.  I got to stay overnight in the same Manchester hotel as many Coronation Street actors, and Jonathan Miller breakfasted at an adjacent table!  I lost my match on the buzzer on the final question but felt I acquitted myself reasonably, which was a relief as it seemed that all my UK customers had seen it and recognised me. But enough of all this reminiscing – what was his book like?

some day

Some Day I’ll Find You is a story of wartime romance and betrayal. The prologue starts in Nice a few years after the war, where Diana, sitting outside her favourite café, is stunned to hear a voice from her past as a taxi passes.

As it passed her, she saw the silhouette of a man sitting in the back. He was leaning forward and speaking, in English, to the driver.
‘No, not here. I told you – it’s much further up. Keep going all the way to the Hotel Negresco. And get a move on – I’m late enough as it is.’
Diana swayed and gripped the back of her chair. Impossible.
‘Stop!’ she called at last as the taxi reached the top of the square and began to turn on to the Promenade des Anglais. ‘Oh please, stop!’
But the Citroen entered the flow of traffic and disappeared down the long curving road that bordered the sparkling Mediterranean.
‘Madame!’ It was Armand, the patron, solicitous. ‘Do you have a problem?’
‘No, no …’ She sat down again. ‘Everything’s fine, really.’
But she was lying.
Everything was wrong.
Completely wrong.

Then we flashback to 1938 and war is not yet a certainty.  Diana Arnold is on holiday from studying at Girton, Cambridge.  Her brother John is at RAF officer training school, and has made friends with James Blackwell, an East-ender and chancer who shouldn’t really be there, but has wangled his way in. James is penniless, so when they get leave, John invites him to join the Arnold family at home in Kent.

The Arnolds are well off, Mr Arnold being a successful libel lawyer. Diana is a confident and beautiful young woman, and James immediately sees an opportunity to become set-up for life and he starts to woo her and her family.  We get a hint of how callous James is underneath when he drops the hairdresser he’d been seeing with no explanation.

The Arnolds fall for him, and he spins Diana sob-stories about his past, and she falls for him too and they get engaged.  War intervenes and the boys are called into action. James and Diana decide to get married as soon as they can, and test out their conjugal bliss.  Diana’s father is wary of their marriage, but her mother Gwen reminds him that they did exactly the same during WWI, and Oliver survived the trenches.  Two days of leave give them the window to get married, but after the ceremony with Diana still in her wedding dress, John and James are immediately recalled to take to the skies in their spitfires – neither will return. Diana is widowed, and left pregnant with their child.

She remarries to a rich, older man, who is happy to bring up her daughter, and they relocate to the Côte d’Azur, which is where her troubles begin again, when she hears that voice …

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was undemanding, but the plot had enough drama and the main characters were strong enough to keep me entertained.  Diana, a strong-willed Daddy’s girl, could be rather petulant, and you did wonder whether she’d be able to change James, well for a short while anyway, but she has reserves of stiff upper lip that take over from the wild romance. You hope that she will be the making of James, but that would be rather boring, and when his true character starts to show it adds to the drama considerably – we need him to be a cad and bounder.

Madeley’s text is unflashy, and flows smoothly. I couldn’t help but imagine him narrating the book in my head, as the writing did feel like him reading a book out loud, if you get what I mean.  He definitely has a voice in his writing; it will be interesting to see how his style develops in any future novels as it felt a little too like him in parts in this one.

This was an excellent, light holiday read, and with the twin settings of wartime Kent, and 1950s Nice, I can easily imagine a two-part drama on the tellybox. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley, Simon & Schuster paperback (2013)
Fathers and Sonsby Richard Madeley

Reading Thomas Keneally for Australian Literature Month

Oz Lit MonthApril is Australian Literature Month at Reading Matters. Kim is also generously donating 50p for each linked review to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation which gives books to families in remote parts of Australia, which is a fab incentive to participate!

A swift perusal of my shelves came up with several authors to consider, including Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, but the book that grabbed me more than any other was:

The Widow and Her Hero
by Thomas Keneally

This novel complements my wartime reading perfectly – but looks to the consequences of war rather than its precursors.

Keneally’s novel takes its inspiration from two real covert operations carried out by the Australian equivalent of our SOE (Special Ops Exec) in which a team of commandos mined Japanese ships in Singapore. The aims were similar in intent to the British op which inspired the 1955 film Cockleshell Heroes, in which Trevor Howard led his team in canoes to raid shipping in Bordeaux.

Grace Waterhouse had only been married for a short while to the love of her life, Leo.  It was during the latter stages of WWII, and Leo was seconded to a group planning a daring raid on the Japanese ships moored in Singapore, led by a charismatic Englisman called Doucette.  Their first raid using kayaks was a big success, so they planned to do it again in a different harbour, this time using mini-submarines to get close to the boats, but it was a disaster. The group split up, but were killed or captured by the Japanese.  Leo was captured and eventually executed.

Decades after the event, Grace, now in her late eighties is still finding that it won’t let her go. She eventually remarried and had a child, but the past won’t go away and leave her with good memories of Leo. There were people involved who have personal burdens they still need to unload, there are researchers and authors determined to find out exactly what happened, opening cans of worms with each new piece of evidence they uncover.

I knew in general terms that I was marrying a hero. The burden lay lightly on Leo, and to be a hero’s wife in times supposedly suited to the heroic caused a woman to swallow doubt or to understate her demands. Although, as much as women now, we suspected men might be childish or make mysterious decisions, it wasn’t our place to say it for fear of damage to the fabric of what we had. The Japanese had barely been turned back and had not abandoned the field of ambition. It was heresy and unlucky to undermine young men at such a supreme hour.

But with the confidence of near-on nine decades I can talk about doubt now. I would at least ask, what is so precious about the heroic impulse? Why do ordinary lusty boys love it better in the end than lust itself, and better than love? Why did Leo – judging by his actions – love the Boss, Charlie Doucette, in a way that rose above love of any woman, me included?

Grace gradually tells her story, how she and Leo met and fell in love, and interspersed with Grace’s recollections of her short life with Leo, are excerpts from Leo’s diaries.  We also hear from her how Leo met Doucette – somewhat bitterly, she always refers to him by his surname.  We gradually meet the other characters in their story, including Leo’s colleague Rufus Mortmain and his wife Dottie, who becomes her best friend when the two young couples share a large apartment while they plan the operations.  Then there is the American Colonel Creed who is the liaison with General MacArthur, whom Doucette doesn’t trust.

In later life, Grace has found the pressures of being the widow of a hero very trying. She knows that Leo was a hero, but she hasn’t ever understood his boyish devotion to Doucette, the man who would lead them all to their deaths. There was no doubting of their bravery, but it is the fundamental sense of some element of foolhardiness that she struggles to come to terms with.

With every reveal, we find out more about the true characters of all involved. It’s gripping stuff. In the latter stages, it doesn’t make for easy reading though, as what happened becomes clear, but it allows Grace to come to terms with Leo’s death.

Keneally’s novel is a powerful exploration of what happens to grief and memory when it is modified, when beliefs have to be changed.  It questions what a hero is, but the fundamental love beneath lives on.  Great pacing, great complexity, great questions, great insights.  This novel evoked complex and confusing emotions as I read, trying to understand Leo and Grace’s situations. A thought-provoking read – I highly recommend this book.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Widow and Her Hero by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre paperback, 264 pages.
Cockleshell Heroes [DVD]

When mothers fail their daughters …

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

The past couple of weeks have seen the publication of not one, but two novels featuring the ‘First Woman of the Third Reich’ Magda Goebbels. The first was Black Roses by Jane Thynne – A spy story set in 1933 Berlin. I loved it and you can read my review here.

Magda The second, simply titled Magda, sees Frau Goebbels move up to take centre stage.  This short novel of 113 pages by Meike Ziervogel, (whom many of you will know as the publisher of the superb Peirene Books), is an ambitious imagining of Magda’s life, as seen through her relationships with her mother and her oldest daughter.

The novel is written in eight vignettes, book-ended by Magda’s preparations before going to Hitler’s bunker, and her murder of her six children there before emerging outside and her own and Joseph’s suicides.

Please note – I found it impossible to discuss this book without being a bit spoilerish below.

Although the facts of Magda’s life are history, Meike has found an unique way of telling her story that really seeks to understand, without condoning, what made her the woman she was.

Magda was illegitimate, born at the turn of the 20th century to a maidservant, who successfully pursued her father, who promptly shipped her off to a strict Belgian convent. Meanwhile Magda’s mother finds herself a new man, a Jew, and they eventually retrieve Magda from the convent.  Magda, instead of going to work, soon gets married, has a son, gets divorced, has many dalliances, and quite poisonous relations with her mother. Her mother, relating her story after the events, comments:

Herr Direktor Quandt proved to be very easy-going over the divorce and settlement. I suspect part of him was quite relieved to be rid of my daughter. And maybe he felt a little bit guilty too. I mean, he wasn’t able to offer everything she was after. On the other hand, my daughter surely had too high standards. I don’t know, it just often seemed that way, especially in her relations with men. That was even the case with Herr Doktor Goebbels – although I’m really not looking to defend him now – and all his women troubles. Him too, somehow she managed to put him under so much pressure that he went off looking elsewhere. Everyone knew. That’s what men do.

Magda, Hitler and Joseph with (l-r) Hilde, Helmet and Helga (1938)

Magda, Hitler and Joseph with (l-r) Hilde, Helmet and Helga (1938)

Then Magda discovers ‘him’ – the real number one man in her life. She’s joined the National Socialists and is running a soup kitchen where ‘they queue up to catch a smile from the from the beautiful blonde in her high-heeled shoes with the mink around her shoulders’, when ‘he’ visits, with Goebbels in tow. Invited to dinner, she has found her calling.

Then we jump to 1945 and the bunker. Magda’s oldest daughter Helga takes up the story, writing in her diaries. Magda is ill with constant migraines by this stage, and it is clear that Helga cares for her mother, despite Magda having been remote all her life, and absent for a lot of it. But if Magda had known that Helga was experiencing the first pangs of love, for a young German soldier guarding the bunker, who knows what would have happened.  (I now have a copy of another well-regarded novel written from Helga’s point of view to read too – Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie.)

Then we are onto the endgame, and this is where the author plays her trump cards.  That bunker scene made me cry, again. I can’t think about it, in words or pictures, without a tear forming. Told through Helga’s eyes, it is utterly heart-breaking.  Then Magda tries to imagine life without ‘him’ outside the bunker. Hitler had long replaced God as her personal saviour with Magda as Mary in her warped view of religion and sex.  It is this belief in some kind of hereafter that allows her to coolly murder her children, and then commit suicide herself.

Ziervogel’s vision of a flawed mother raising, or rather not raising, a flawed daughter, who in turn raises a brood of probably flawed puppet children who didn’t have a chance is compelling, and completely plausible in its realisation and language. The structure, in particular, as seen through the three generations of women, is superb. This fictionalised biography, a debut novel, is an absolute gem. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Magda by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, April 2013. Paperback 128 pages.
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie
Black Roses by Jane Thynne

A tale of motherhood across generations…

The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson

The Confidant by Helen Gremillon

I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed. This was quite an event, because I’ve never received much mail in my life. My letter box had never done anything more than inform me that the-sea-was-warm or that the-snow-was-good, so I didn’t open it very often. Once a week, maybe twice in a gloomy week, when I hoped that a letter would change my life completely and utterly, like a telephone call can, or a trip on the métro, or closing my eyes and counting to ten before opening them again.
And then my mother died. And that was plenty, as far as changing my life went: your mother’s death, you can’t get much better than that.

It is Paris, 1975 and Camille is sad; at the loss of her mother, and the fact that the baby growing inside her will not know its grandmother. She is doubly so at the demise of her relationship with Nicholas, who we’ll find out doesn’t want anything to do with the baby.

When this letter arrives in amongst all the condolence cards, she starts reading…  It tells how teenager Louis met Annie back in 1933, and fell in love with her from afar. It doesn’t give many clues to who they are and where it happened. Camille is confused – why has this letter been sent to her?

In the following days and weeks, more letters arrive. Camille, who works in publishing, half wonders if it is a bizarre pitch being made to her, but something about the letters makes it seem that they are intended for her, and that the story therein is true.

They tell of how a bourgeois couple Mr & Madame M move into the village, about how Madam M notices Annie’s painting and encourages her, and how Annie later found out about Madame M’s inability to have a baby and offered to be a surrogate for her.  War intervenes, and it all gets very complicated. Louis loses touch with Annie for several years, but is able to pick up the story later.

I hadn’t seen her for three years. For three years I’d had no news of her at all. At no time did I suspect she might be living in Paris like me. I looked at her fingernails, her peeling red varnish; in the village she never used to wear any. Seeing her again like this: It seemed too good to be true. Outside it was pitch black. I was suddenly overwhelmed by desire for her. She handed me a steaming hot cup.
‘So do you remember Monsieur and Madame M.?’
How could she ask me such a thing.

The story of Louis, Annie, Mr & Madam M is teased out over the course of the novel. It is complex, full of tragedy in many ways and multi-layered, with little revelations that keep Camille desperate to know what happened and full of questions still, not to mention her feeling an increasing bond of motherhood with Annie.

This novel uses two literary devices to tell its story – when most use just one.  The dual narrative combined with the epistolary approach may feel somewhat contrived, but actually serves the story well.  We have the same questions that Camille has about Annie’s life, we feel for Camille’s loss and Annie’s situation,  and end up caring for both women, whereas often in dual narratives, one will dominate. I will say that I didn’t get much of a feel for 1970s Paris in Camille’s timeline though. However, the clever reveal made this a rewarding read, and I’ve yet to read a novel from Gallic books, who specialise in English translations of the best contemporary French books that I didn’t enjoy.  (8/10)

For some other reviews see:  Fleur Fisher and Winstonsdad.

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My copy came via the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Books 2012, paperback 267 pages.