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Archive for the ‘Allan Jenkins’ Category

2020 is a strange year to look back on.  In some ways it was the year that felt like a decade, with so much happening so quickly and headlines changing every minute.  But in other ways I look back to things that happened in January and February and they feel so recent, largely because there was so little to fill the time memorably since then.

Reading, as always, has been a saviour and with limited opportunities to socialise there was more time than ever for it this year.  I made it through a ridiculous number of books, which provided comfort, distraction, entertainment, education, and companionship through this odd year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Plot 29 (2017) – Allan Jenkins
Not the book I thought it was going to be when I picked it up, but instead far more powerful and memorable.  Jenkins set out to write about gardening and his relationship with his foster family but instead undergoes a very emotional journey, unravelling the mysteries of his troubled birth family.

9. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2019) – Ursula Buchan
I loved this biography of the ever-fascinating John Buchan.  He was a man of such purpose, energy and loyalty and his varied accomplishments and loving legacy are a testament to these increasingly rare virtues.  His biographer is his granddaughter and she paints a rounded portrait of him both at home and at work throughout his too-short and extraordinarily busy life.

8. The Eighth Life (2014) – Nino Haratischvili (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)
A brilliant saga tracing the lives of the members of one Georgian family across almost one hundred tumultuous years, from the Russian Revolution to the early years of the 21st Century.  I loved every page.

7. Madensky Square (1988) – Eva Ibbotson
I think we all struggled with our reading at some point this year, a frustrating process when we know how helpful books can be in times of stress and uncertainty.  I read mindlessly for most of March and April but picked this up at the beginning of May and it broke the curse.  Ibbotson is always comforting but serious times called for serious measures and nothing but Madensky Square, the best of her novels, would do.  I wrote about it years ago and my love for its heroine Susanna and her friends and neighbours on Madensky Square in pre-war Vienna only grows with each rereading.

6. Love in the Blitz (2020) – Eileen Alexander
What a delight!  This collection of Second World War love letters written by a young Cambridge graduate to her future husband bubbles with humour, lust, and anxiety, tracking their romance from its infancy through declarations, separation, engagement and marriage.  I shared a few of the letters (here and here) and had to restrain myself from sharing dozens more.  Alexander is remarkably frank in her letters and they make for very refreshing reading.

5. Out of Istanbul (2001) – Bernard Ollivier (translated by Dan Golembeski)
This story of one man’s journey along the Silk Road was just what I needed in this travel-free year.  In the spring of 1999, the sixty-one-year-old Ollivier set off from Istanbul intending to hike several months each year in the quest to reach his ultimate destination: China.  This volume covers the first leg of that journey, when he made it almost to the Iranian border before being felled by illness.  It’s a fascinating journey and Ollivier is refreshingly free of the arrogance of so many male travel writers, who set out convinced of their invincibility.

4. Beartown (2017) – Fredrik Backman (translated by Neil Smith)
Set in a small hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, Beartown thoughtfully looks at how a horrible event splits the community.  When the town’s hockey star rapes a girl at a party, the majority of the town immediately rallies around him.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about the dangers of group identities, told simply and with great empathy, and deserves every bit of hype and praise that has been heaped upon it.

3. Pravda Ha Ha (2019) – Rory MacLean
A chillingly important journey through today’s Russia and other increasingly authoritarian Eastern European states.

2. Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) – Margaret Kennedy
Kennedy’s memoir of the first spring and summer of the Second World War is a wonderful record of a strange time and reading it through our own bizarre spring was perfect timing.  When everything felt uncertain, it was reassuring to be reminded that people had reacted the same way eighty years before (and ignored the same good advice that was being doled out both then and now).

1. Business as Usual (1933) – Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
Business as Usual was the happiest discovery for me this year, and for many others, thanks to its spring reissue by Handheld Press.  And if ever there was a year where we needed happy books, 2020 was it. This epistolary novel about an optimistic young woman’s move to London and work at a large department store is enchanting and I delighted in Hilary’s determined progress.  It is that rare book that suits me in most moods, giving me something to laugh over when I am down, to comfort me in times of stress, and to inspire action when I am feeling daunted by the world.

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I felt a little shaky and battered after reading Plot 29 by Allan Jenkins.  I thought I was picking up a memoir about how gardening had helped Jenkins throughout his life but was entirely unprepared for the detective story that unfolded as Jenkins seeks to understand his childhood and the family he came from.  At several points in the diary-style chronicle Jenkins stops himself, wondering what his story has become, slightly surprised by the darkness on each page:

It has been a year since I started this journal, my journey through my life and the life of my plot, my past unfurling like leaves.  It was to be different: a story of a small boy and the man he became, wrapped in flowers and food.  Other voices have drowned it out…

It begins as the story of Allan and his elder brother, Christopher, brought together ages five and six after spending their early years apart, in locations and circumstances Jenkins eventually, chillingly, begins to piece together.  Bonded, they are sent to foster with an older couple – the Drabbles – in rural Devon.  Stability never quite turns into family or full acceptance and the cycle of Allan and Christopher parting and living separate lives continues painfully.  But it is with his foster family that Allan discovers the joy of growing things, the certainty and hope that seeds and plants hold, and finds a passion that will help center him throughout his life.

We learn of Christopher’s relatively early death early in the book.  From there, we begin to learn more about their five other half-siblings by their damaged, dangerously unfit mother.  As Allan talks to the siblings who remained to be raised by their mother, he sees the blessing of not having been in her care and the scars of horrific abuse his siblings carry.  But he also tries to make sense of his abandonment when he was only a few months old and to solve other mysteries.  Eventually he even uncovers the identity of his birth father, a mystery to be solved with DNA testing rather than trust in what his deeply untrustworthy mother had put on the birth certificate.

Throughout this year of revelations and unravellings, he tends a shared allotment, a place of peace and renewal, where order can be imposed in small yet meaningful ways, and sense of progress and certainty grasped when all else seems lost.  He also has a holiday home in his wife’s native Denmark to retreat to, a place for family and more time in nature, for being himself.  In a life where identity has not come easily, where his name has been changed repeatedly as pieces of his identity shifted, it is in these natural landscapes that he knows himself best.

I don’t know if I would have picked this up if I had known how dark it would become but I’m thankful to have read it.  It is beautifully and powerfully told and makes me more thankful than ever for the luck of being born to a happy, loving, safe family.

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