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Archive for the ‘Jane Gardam’ Category

I finished reading The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam yesterday and it was perfect, as I have come to expect from her.  It was fluently, imaginatively written, full of haunting images and details I will not soon forget.  But there is one thing it is not: a children’s book.  And yet that is how it is marketed.

At its heart, there are two children (but child characters alone do not make a children’s book).  Bell Teesdale is eight when the book begins, a sensible country boy who, like the rest of his family, is pitching in with the haymaking on their Cumbrian farm.  Rain is expected so the family works through the day and into the moonlit night, to the despair of the London family renting the farmhouse next to the field.  A tractor circling outside their windows at midnight is not their idea of a relaxing summer holiday.  Tempers flare, words are exchanged, and both fathers are fuming by the time they go to bed.  But Harry, the London family’s very young son, and Bell subtly intervene and peace is made the next morning.

So begins the story of twenty years of friendship between the Teesdales and the Batemans, and most especially between Bell and Harry.  The entire Bateman family comes to love their country getaway, where Harry’s writer father comes to work during the school holidays, but Harry feels a particular bond with the place and is never happier than when exploring the fields, dales, and fells or communing with locals, like the egg-witch (whose story is one of my favourites) or the local chimney sweep.

Gardam is a master of the short story and while I always enjoy reading her stories, I sometimes feel frustrated by their brevity.  I want more!  Here, we have the perfect compromise: a collection of exquisitely composed stories all focused on the same people.  It’s not quite a novel – the stories jump about through the years and Gardam has no interest in explaining things the way she would do in a novel – but the satisfaction of getting to see lives progress and learn how things turn out for everyone as they age is absolutely here.

So why is it considered a children’s book?  A number of her early books are (this was published in 1981, relatively early in her career), but then again that classification seems to vary by publisher.  Some consider Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and The Summer After the Funeral to be for younger readers, which I can somewhat understand.  Europa, who have been reissuing Gardam’s books over the past few years, consider those novels to be for adults and yet this collection they consider among her works for children.  I think that is stretching it.  It’s not inappropriate in anyway for a younger reader, it’s just written in a way I would think appeals to more mature readers.  A twelve-year old would be absolutely fine with it, but then twelve-year olds should be reading adult books and not children’s ones anyway.  The language, the sedate pacing, the frequent focus on adult concerns and thoughts, all seem to me to gear more towards an adult reader.  And Bell and Harry’s boyish activities seem perfectly tailored to the nostalgic adult reader who would like nothing more than to spend a summer day exploring abandoned mines or a winter’s one admiring extraordinarily icicles formed by a fierce, fast frost.

Regardless of your age, it’s a wonderful collection and, like Harry, I didn’t want my time there to end.

NOTE: Europa, despite their interesting classification of adult/children’s novels, having been doing great work reissuing Gardam’s older titles over the past few years.  The Hollow Land, Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and a number of her other books are all currently available in excellent editions and all are well-worth reading.  She is a truly extraordinary writer.  And if you need more encouragement to get excited about Gardam, the Backlisted podcast did a wonderful episode on A Long Way From Verona that is well-worth a listen.

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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Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

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10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

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7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

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4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.

TheSmallHouseatAllington

1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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This has been my year for discovering Jane Gardam and I have done so with a vengeance.  I started with A Long Way from Verona and The Summer After the Funeral and after that there was no stopping me.  But there was also no sitting me down to write proper reviews, which is why we’ve ended up here with thoughts in brief about four more of her books that I read this year.

God on the RocksGod on the Rocks, published in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker prize.  It lost (to Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – or, as Simon would put it, The Sea, The Sea, THE BLINKING SEA) but still having it there gives you faith in the whole book prize decision-making process.  This is vintage Gardam, with the complicated world of adults fully observed but only half understood by eight-year old Margaret.  Margaret’s world, as the novel begins, consists of a common but uncommonly religious father, her loving mother (a “still-young woman much given to God and sympathy and immensely loving to babies”), a baby brother who requires far too much attention as far as Margaret is concerned, and the family’s young and wildly inappropriate maid, Lydia.  Into this world come Charles and Binkie, friends’ of Margaret’s mother from childhood, and over the course of the summer Margaret’s world is tilted and forever changed.  Tragic, comic, and with the typical Gardam touch of the grotesque, God on the Rocks is marvellous.

Faith FoxSome books get odder the more you think on them.  Faith Fox is one of those books.  What I haven’t quite figured out yet is whether that is a good or a bad thing.  Published in 1996 and, unlike many of Gardam’s other novels, also set during the 1990s, it is the story of the chain reaction that occurs when Holly Fox (“…a hockey-playing extrovert who never stopped laughing.  A gymnastic outdoor Betjeman girl.  A woman of no subtlety, a bossy, tiny-minded bourgeois.”) dies while giving birth to a daughter, Faith.  Everyone – her friends, her extended family, and certainly her doctor husband – assume that Holly’s devoted mother, Thomasina, will step in to take care of the baby.  But instead Thomasina, who had so looked forward to becoming a grandmother, disappears.  She runs first to a spa and then, having picked up a gentleman friend, to Egypt, and on and on from there.  Meanwhile, Faith is deposited with her uncle in Yorkshire, an idealistic man who is taken advantage of by almost everyone he comes into contact with – his brother, his wife, and certainly the expatriate Tibetans who he has opened his home to.  This isn’t Gardam’s best work but, strangely, it is her most quotable one.  Thomasina is a marvellous character and this is one of those books that grows better the more distance you have from it.

070116963X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Flight of the Maidens is as close as I’ve come– and as close as I ever hope to come – to finding a conventional novel written by Gardam.  In fact, it barely feels Gardam-like at all.  Published in 2000 but set in 1946, it explores the lives of three school mates, Hetty, Una and Liseolette, in the summer before they begin university.  Hetty spends the summer trying to break away from her mother, bicycle-mad Una spends it trying to sleep with her boyfriend, and Liseolette, who came to England as a child via the Kindertransport, finds herself shipped off to California and her only remaining family.  It is good and well-written and not quite as conventional as I’ve made it sound, but still not memorable.

The Sidmouth LettersWith The Sidmouth Letters (1980), Gardam presented me with a book of short stories that I actually liked.  Do you know how rare that is?  Do you know how averse I am to the format?  But this volume is nice and slim and, most importantly, it is written by Gardam.  The title story is about Jane Austen, which is always a good sign.  Other memorable entries include a gothic little piece about a ghost sighting and, the story that stands out the most in my mind, the tale of a woman who, while on vacation with her two small children, runs into a former lover and contemplates what her life might have been like.  Abacus has collected Gardam’s stories and recently printed them in a massive collection.  Based on these few (which are in the new book), it is a collection well worth checking out.

I loved Old Filth but will save that for a proper review, perhaps once I’ve read the whole trilogy.  I also listened to Bilgewater as an audiobook and, though I won’t review it here, it might just be my favourite Gardam to date.  It is as odd and dream-like as you could possibly wish, with all the heart and humour that you could want.  I adored it.

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The Summer After the FuneralJust a quick review today of The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam, a slim novel that is just as entertaining, if not so well formed, as Gardam’s other works.

After her elderly father’s death, Athene Price and her two siblings are shuffled off out of sight for the summer.  Elder brother Sebastian heads north to what he has described to his family as a Buddhist retreat (it’s not), younger sister Phoebe (better known as Beams) is sent to join a sickeningly jolly family by the sea, and Athene herself is bounced from one middle-aged female acquaintance to another – or at least that is the plan.  Meanwhile, their mother bounds round the country in search of gentile employment (for, though written in 1973, the book is set between the wars), writing breezy and slightly bossy letters to her offspring to update them on her findings:

My darling Mim, say your prayers, not particularly for us for we have nothing to fear (see Matthew vi.28: lilies of the field) but for the poor people of Putney who are entirely without occupation other than stirring their tea about.  The streets round Larpent Avenue are utterly silent and everyone makes a great point of not knowing the people next door.  A curious Christianity and I have told both them and this curate and continue to do so.  They have not one word to say in reply.

Athene is a model of all the virtues, an ideal daughter and sister, as dependable and calm as she is beautiful.  Compared to her siblings, her summer plans seem quite boring: a few weeks with her godmother, then a family friend, and then an aunt.  All perfectly respectable and perfectly dull, especially compared to what her siblings have planned.  But, of course, things do not go quite as planned.  She does quite well at the lifeless hotel where she spends the first few weeks, a period enlivened only by glimpses of a handsome boy, but once she moves on to her next destination things go horribly awry.  The next few weeks see Athene running away and spending the night in the cottage of a middle-aged painter before holing up in an empty boys’ dormitory and falling in love with a married schoolmaster.  It is only when the summer draws to an end that others discover what an eventful time she has had and Athene herself finally begins to deal with the fallout from her father’s death.

The plot is a little too flimsy and sequential to be all that interesting and the character development is minimal.  What is so fun about this book is Gardam’s wonderful way of turning a phrase.  What style she has!  When discussing the oddness of Athene’s name, Gardam contrasts it with the names that were normal at the time “back when middle-class English females were called breezy, artless names that went well with tennis.”  I love that.  Gardam also momentarily abandons Athene’s adventures to check in with her siblings.  Though Sebastian’s narrative is pretty standard, Gardam allows herself a bit of a freer rein when it comes to Beams, letting us glimpse the young girl’s summer diary:

Part 1, Sub. Sect. 1. Page 1.

My name is Beams, short for Moonbeams (big glasses), Phoebe at the font.  Ugly as sin.  Alas for me.

I am at present staying in Wales with the Padshaws.  I care nothing for the Padshaws and the Padshaws care nothing for anybody.  What they care about – all they care about – is things like caulking, tacking and drying facilities.  They have a boat.  They worship this boat.  It is a most interesting thing to observe, this boat worship, and I have already made a small study of it anthropologically.  I intend to become a psychiatrist eventually but at present I am studying anthropology as I believe that psychiatrists get pressed for time.

I could happily devour an entire book written from Beams’ perspective.

Not a special book and not a memorable one, but still a very enjoyable read.

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A Long Way From VeronaWith the first line of A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, published in 1971 but set during the Second World War, Jessica Vye introduces herself to the reader bluntly but honestly:  “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.”  This is not some mysterious Ada Doom-esque experience but it is one that has nonetheless changed her view of the world.  At the age of nine, Jessica, already of a literary bent, was told by an established author that she was a writer “BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT!”  Now, at twelve, she still has her calling in mind but she is also struggling with the usual angst of an adolescent girl.  And twelve, as I can certainly remember, is not a fun age to be:

“How old are you about?”

“Twelve.”

“Oh, you poor thing!  Are you indeed?  I really hated twelve – and thirteen.  And then somebody told me that it was all to do with growing.  It was all to do with my inside.  With my stomach I believe in some way.  I was so relieved.  I had thought I was growing unpleasant and starting to hate everyone, and I didn’t want to be that sort of person at all.”

Reassured in this way by one of teachers at her school (an eminently wise and useful sort of woman, obviously), Jessica can focus her worries instead on the other things that are wrong with her:

 

The point is this – in three parts.  Tripartite.  Viz:

1. I am not quite normal

2. I am not very popular

3. I am able to tell what people are thinking.

And I might add

4. I am terribly bad at keeping quiet when I have something on my mind because

5. I ABSOLUTELY ALWAYS AND INVARIABLY TELL THE TRUTH

All of these faults are, unsurprisingly, the things that make her such an attractive protagonist.  Jessica is observant and forthright and impolitely interested in many of the people she comes across, especially the inappropriate ones (who she has a talent for stumbling across).  She is not remotely as odd as she seems to think herself but she is a memorable individual, a winning mix of earnestness and enthusiasm.  She can be a little bit over dramatic (Anne Shirley, for one, would have enjoyed some of Jessica’s theatrical gestures) but mostly she is just eager for activity and experience – neither of which seems within her grasp, either at her stodgy school or at home, where her socialist schoolmaster-turned-clergyman father, lovely but exhausted mother, and younger brother interest her very little.

A sort of wildly inappropriate love interest in introduced for Jessica and he is perfect, though not for her, as Jessica quickly realises.  If I hadn’t already been adoring this book, the appearance of Christian, a surly fourteen-year old communist who Jessica meets while staying with his family (his father is a Dean), would have converted me.  He is beautiful  – Jessica thinks him as attractive as Rupert Brooke, who, having recently seen a photograph of him in a book, had previously been her male ideal – but awful.  Having asked Jessica’s parents’ permission to take her out, they embark on their memorable first outing – a trip to the local slums to educate Jessica on the plight of the poor.  This trips goes disastrously awry and it is PERFECTION.

It is such a delightfully-written book and I adored how very free and breezy Gardam’s writing was and how wonderfully direct Jessica was.  The entire time I was reading, I had that feeling of almost nervous excitement that comes over me whenever I find a new favourite author.  There is something so confident and intriguing about the way Gardam writes that I am always terribly excited to turn the page and see what else she has in store for the reader.

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