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Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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I try to be a broadminded reader.  I like to try new authors, read topics I know nothing about, and sample different genres.  But the one genre I’ve never been able to take much interest in is crime. This could be because a) I have no idea what distinguishes crime novels from mysteries so am happy to lump them both together under the heading of “Things I Do Not Much Like” and b) I have absolutely no appetite for anything violent.   I don’t find it difficult to read, I just don’t see the point.  My desire for cliffhangers and uncertainty is nil.  So, while I’ve admired the stylish British Library Crime Classics that have been released over the last few years, I’ve never felt tempted to pick one up.  Never, that is, until I heard about Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville.

So what made this one different?  The premise sounded mildly interesting – a young man, our hero Jim Henderson, is invited to a house party hosted by Mr. Carson, a mysterious and decidedly shady jewel expert.  But Jim doesn’t know the host and he and the other guests have nothing in common.  Why are they there and what is in store for them?  When I do dabble in the genre, I enjoy a good country house mystery so the omens seemed good.  But what was even more promising was the book’s introduction, which stresses Melville’s admiration of A.A. Milne’s work, particularly The Red House Mystery, and the strong influence of Milne’s style on this work.  After that, I had to read it. (And I also had to muse about Melville’s chosen penname.  Did he chose Alan in homage to Alan Milne?)

The story was published in 1934, when Melville was in his mid-twenties.  His hero, Jim Henderson, feels about that age but is actually a decade older and, after having served in the war, has spent several years struggling to find work.  When we meet him, he is unemployed but optimistic despite his lack of marketable skills, as noted in his frank self-assessment:

Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job

Though lacking in resources, Jim possesses that which is most important for the hero of any sort of mystery/thriller: an entertaining side-kick, in this case his old school friend, Freddie Usher.  Freddie is a well-heeled chap, in possession of a sporty car, family heirlooms, and a great deal of leisure time.  But his main value to us is as someone for Jim to exchange Milne-esque dialogue with, as when Jim asks for the loan of Freddie’s evening clothes:

“Sorry, old man.  It’s impossible.”

“But, Freddie…”

“Impossible.  Quite imposs.”

“Remember we were at school together.”

“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”

Freddie, like all of Carson’s guests except the penniless and decidedly jewel-less Jim, is encouraged to bring his jewels along with him – in this case, the Usher diamonds.  Not fishy at all.  Alongside the two young men, the party is made up of a varied and mostly forgettable mix of people – the only exceptions being Lady Stone, a redoubtable doyen of charitable causes, and Carson’s lovely daughter Mary.  And lurking in the background are Carson’s household staff, bruisers all of them.  The weekend promises to be interesting.

And it is, mildly.  I had fun reading this – the effortless pacing and snappy dialogue made it a quick read.  But the plot itself is rather silly and a bit all over the place and the ending is marred by an overly dramatic reveal that serves no value at all.  All in all, a pleasant but unmemorable foray into the unknown.  It hasn’t made me one jot more interested in crime or mystery books but that would have been too much to expect from such a slight book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

I am back!  You want to know who is in no doubt as to my return?  My local library branch.  I went in and picked up the shelf full of holds that were waiting for me, no doubt to their great relief.  I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed but in the best possible way.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – I’ve been looking forward to this since Rachel raved about it in the spring.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi

The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker

Holidays in Heck by P.J. O’Rourke

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

The Bucket List by Georgia Clark

The Good Luck Charm by Helena Hunting

The Shortest Way Home by Miriam Parker

The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas – the third in Thomas’ “Lady Sherlock” series

All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay

Hiking with Nietzsche by John Kaag

Turvey by Earle Birney – a quick arrival!  I placed a hold on this after reading Barb’s review over the weekend.

The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking

Vox by Christina Dalcher

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

via House and Home

Perfection.

The wars we are proud of we don’t forget.  We write books and films and televisions shows about them, study them for years, and never tire of discussing them.  We do not let ourselves forget.  We remember because we are proud of what we fought for, what we accomplished, and, even if we lost the war, we can still be proud of how we survived and came to terms with loss.

But there are other wars we cannot forget quickly enough, so urgent is our need to wipe the shame and futility and waste of them from our memories.  Sometimes this begins even as the war is still being fought.

The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted nine messy and fruitless years from late 1979 to early 1989, falls into the latter category.  Only a few years after its start, the Soviet Union was already trying to reshape the narrative and doing its best to hide the true conditions and casualties.  There was anger and frustration among the soldiers, among the families of those whose children had died and were not being honoured, and among the general citizens who felt the truth was being hidden from them.  It was in this atmosphere that Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich was born.

First published in 1990 (and translated to English in 1992 and then again more recently), Alexievich began work on this oral history while the war was still on.  It came from her frustration – one shared by many others – that:

All we know about this war, which has already lasted twice as long as World War I, is what “they” consider safe for us to know.  We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are, and from the fear that such understanding would bring.

Through countless interviews with soldiers, civilian employees, grass widows, bereaved parents, and regular citizens, she gathers all perspectives and presents them in her typically straightforward manner, allowing each subject to speak for him- or herself.  It’s an approach I love and which Alexievich wields powerfully to compose her portrait of a weary, stubborn, distrustful nation and an increasingly weak government, desperate to retain authority and control.

Her title comes from one of the war’s most enduring symbols: the zinc coffins the bodies were shipped home in.  Like so much else about the war, efforts were made to keep these repatriations quiet but they fooled no one:

In those days [1981] no one had seen the zinc coffins.  Later we found out that coffins were already arriving in the town, with the burials being carried out in secret, at night.  The gravestones had ‘died’ rather than ‘killed in action’ engraved on them, but no one asked why all these eighteen-year-olds were dying all of a sudden.  From too much vodka, was it, or flu?  Too many oranges, perhaps?  Their loved ones wept and the rest just carried on until they were affected by it themselves.  (Private, Grenadier Battalion)

For parents who lost children, the collective choice to ignore what was going on or to condemn it was wrenching.  To have your child come home in a coffin is bad enough but to have the death ignored, to be treated as though it had no value, made it even worse.  The days of brave soldiers (men and women, as Alexievich reminded the world in her extraordinary first book, The Unwomanly Face of War) being honoured for their bravery and sacrifice were done.  This was nothing like the communal spirit of the Great Patriotic War – those who suffered were left to do it alone:

…I was sitting near the grave and a mother came by with her children.  ‘What kind of a mother would let her only daughter go off to war at a time like this?’ I heard her tell them.  ‘Just give away her daughter?’  The gravestone had ‘To My Only Daughter’ carved on it.

How dare they.  How can they? She took the Hippocratic Oath.  She was a nurse whose hands were kissed by a surgeon.  She went to save their sons’ lives.

‘People!’ I cry inside me.  ‘Don’t turn away from me!  Stand by the grave with me for a little while.  Don’t leave me alone…’ (A Mother)

But there has never been a war without some soldiers enjoying it and Alexievich includes their stories as well, reminding us that war brings with it travel and excitement, the chance to see new things and challenge yourself daily:

I tell you straight – they were the best years of my life.  Life here is rather grey and petty: work – home, home – work.  There we had to work everything out for ourselves and test our mettle as men.

So much of it was exotic, too: the way the morning mist swirled in the ravines like a smokescreen, even those burubukhaiki, the high-sided, brightly decorated Afghan trucks, and the red buses with sheep and cows and people all crammed together inside, and the yellow taxis…There are places there which remind you of the moon with their fantastic, cosmic landscapes.  You get the feeling that there’s nothing alive in those unchanging mountains, that it’s nothing but rocks – until the rocks start shooting at you!  You sense that even nature is your enemy. (Artillery Captain)

Once home, life could be difficult for those who believed in what they had done in Afghanistan.  The injured and sick struggled to get treatment and respect from civilians.  For soldiers who came back to public apathy and, worse, disapproval of a war they had spent years of their lives fighting, the public debate that eventually emerged was pointless:

Nowadays they say we were an occupying force.  But what did we take away with us, except our comrades’ coffins?  What did we get out of it, apart from hepatitis and cholera, injuries and lives crippled in all sense of the word?  I’ve got nothing to apologize for: I came to the aid of our brothers, the Afghan people.  And I mean that.  The lads out there with me were sincere and honest.  They believed they’d gone to do good – they didn’t see themselves as ‘misguided fighters in a misguided war’, as I saw it described recently.  And what good does it do, trying to make out we were simply naïve idiots and cannon-fodder?  Who does that help?  (Private, Artillery Regiment)

While I enjoyed the entire book, I found the perspectives of the women who went to Afghanistan particularly fascinating.  Alexievich interviewed female medical personnel and civilian employees, who had not just war stories to share but nasty comments thrown at them by soldiers who preferred their women to stay on pedestals back home apparently:

…we couldn’t walk past a group of soldiers without sneering comments like ‘Well, Bochkarevka!  How’s our little heroine today?  Doing our international duty in bed, are we?’  The name ‘Bochkarevka’ comes from the little houses (they look a bit like railway carriages) known as ‘bochki’ reserved for senior officers – majors and above, so the girls who, well, ‘serviced’ them were known as ‘Bochkarevki’.  You’ll often hear soldiers who’ve served here say things like this: ‘If I hear that a certain girl’s been in Afghanistan she just doesn’t exist for me.’  We got the same diseases as they did, all the girls got hepatitis and malaria, we were shot at too, but if I meet a boy back home he won’t let me give him a friendly hug.  For them we’re all either whores or crazy. (Civilian Employee)

I could go on and on with these quotes.  The book is full of fascinating insights from all different perspectives.  But Alexievich’s genius lies in not just interviewing her subjects and obtaining powerful and emotional stories from them; she is wise enough to know how to set them out in a way that builds her narrative.  Through all these voices she tells a full and complete story of a messy conflict and an even messier home front.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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