BOOK REVIEW: PAINTED LADIES

9781912240487

Painted Ladies
By Lynn Bushell
Out now from Sandstone Press
£7.99 paperback

Opening in Paris during World War I, Painted Ladies, by Lynn Bushell, is the fictionalised story of a real love triangle. The man is painter Pierre Bonnard, the women are his longterm mistress and muse, Marthe, and the much younger Renée, initially recruited as a model, but eventually his lover. 

There is no question that Marthe was vitally important to Bonnard’s work, or that his portraits of her—most famously in the bath—helped make his name. Bushell’s acknowledgements explain that she worked from biographies of Bonnard, and extrapolated the rest using her imagination. It’s what every author turning fact into fiction must do, especially when their focus is the person whose life has been less carefully examined. (That person is usually female.)

Here, Bushell depicts a couple who are steadfast and devoted, but after twenty-five years, it is a relationship characterised by routine rather than excitement. They are struggling to come to terms with the ageing process, both physically and emotionally. Despite the decades of intimacy that precede our meeting them, what’s most noticeable in Bushell’s telling is their emotional repression—which will surely intrigue anyone who Googles his paintings of a younger Marthe, splayed and unselfconscious on a bed or in her boudoir.

Even so, Bushell’s Marthe reveals that Bonnard’s never said he loves her, and she’s 100% certain that his artistic practise means more to him than she ever will. With her rooted to home and hearth in the Paris suburbs, and Bonnard commuting to his Paris studio, the set up is ripe for an extracurricular affair.

In 1893 Bonnard accosted Marthe on the rue du Bac, changing the course of her life. In 1917, when the book begins, it’s Renée’s turn. He spots her in the street and follows her into the department store where she works the perfume counter. Hers is a constricted life: away from the store she shares a flat—and bed—with Marguerite, a controlling, jealous woman who deploys an abuser’s repertoire of coercive control tactics to keep the girl under her thumb. Modelling for Bonnard is the first secret Renée keeps from Marguerite, though not one she’s able to hang on to for long. 

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Photo of Marthe

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Alternating between the women, using close third narration for Renée’s sections, and first person for Marthe’s, Bushell deals with the rivals equitably. There are no monsters here. The joy and anguish on both sides feels authentic, and inevitably, not dissimilar. We’re able to empathise with each in turn: when loving someone gives meaning and structure to your life, bringing with it the stability you’ve longed for, it’s terrifying to feel it slipping away. Panic and distress lead to bad choices: in Renée’s case, being young and inexperienced, she’s prone to lashing out, whereas Marthe’s passivity and tendency to play the martyr work against her. 

Bonnard is, as Marthe understands, devoted to art. He’s basically a good man, even a loyal man, who cherishes the inanimate objects he surrounds himself with in order to stimulate his eye. It’s tempting to speculate—and Marthe says nearly as much—that these women are primarily objects for art-making, rather than fully real to him, or at least he has to be reminded that they’re flesh, blood, and feeling. We learn that he has strayed before, but that Renée is the first serious threat to Marthe’s status. Yet Bonnard’s fastidiousness means that even an illicit love affair is conducted with as much propriety as he can muster. His greatest failure is emotional cowardice. 

Bushell’s background—she studied art history, philosophy, then fine arts, and is herself an artist—comes up trumps when describing the painter at work. She offers an astute distinction between model and muse, and compellingly describes the effect of seeing your likeness depicted on canvas—not to mention the emotional recalibration required between the sense of importance a model has while sitting for a portrait, and feeling redundant once it’s completed.

Now and then Painted Ladies feels anachronistic, notably in dialogue that offers an occasional ‘would they have said that?’ jolt. Likely this was an authorial choice made to bridge the gap of 100 years. It works, since the characters feel immediate and present, drawing us in. We’re most aware that this story is set in the past while the war rages (and when Bushell alludes to the subsequent flu epidemic). The use of detail is judicious and not overdone.

With its tight focus on character, this is a potent reminder that circumstances and technologies evolve, but how we feel when we fall in love or cope with loss endures over successive generations. The past may be a foreign country, but its inhabitants are endlessly relatable.

Painted Ladies is sure to appeal to fans of Tracy Chevalier and Susan Fletcher. 

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Renée foreground, Marthe in profile at the side—this painting is referred to in Painted Ladies

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BOOK REVIEW: WHAT NOT

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What Not
A Prophetic Comedy
By Rose Macaulay
Handheld Press
£12.99 paperback
Out on 25th March

Idiotic government?
Check.
Ministers pursuing harebrained policies they neither understand nor fully endorse?
Check.
Biased, corrupt newspaper moguls and editors?
Check.
An Irish Question? (“. . . there will always be one.”)
Check.

These are not elements of a hot-off-the-presses satire tearing a strip off of Brexit or that fool in the White House. They are elements of Rose Macaulay’s What Not, written as World War I drew to a close, yet alarmingly in synch with current events. There are only so many times one can say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” without weeping about the glacial pace (old school glacial, not current climate-in-free-fall glacial) of ideological enlightenment, social reform, and sane government that works on behalf of the people who elected it. Therefore you may read this novel and bewail its modern parallels, but many of your tears will be inspired by laughter.

Independent publisher Handheld Press has reissued the novel in an attractive, flapped paperback edition, with a thoughtful introduction from Sarah Lonsdale, senior lecturer in journalism at City University London. Lonsdale raises enough interesting points that it is tempting to quote her at length. Instead, read her essay twice, both before and after spending time in Macaulay’s world; it’ll help clarify some of the remarkable elements of the novel. Lonsdale also describes the book’s publication journey, which includes a recall and revision to avoid a lawsuit. (This edition reinstates the problematic text.)

By 1918, with its end in sight, people wondered what Britain would be like after the long, horrific war, and how future wars could be averted. What Not presumes that stupidity is a prime cause of war, therefore it’s up to the government to eradicate stupidity. Or feeblemindedness, to use a more 1919 term.

The novel opens at an unspecified date after the Great War, in a subtly altered Britain. As well as the tube, there are aero buses. Children are wheeled around in motor-prams. House parties play a new card game called League of Nations, “of which the point was to amass cards and go out while presenting an appearance of doing nothing at all.”

In a reconfigured Westminster, the Prime Minister’s been replaced by a United Council (“five minds with but a single thought—if that”). Following the enactment of the Mental Progress Act, everyone must be tested and classified according to intelligence levels. The underlying idea is that a nation willing to toe the line during wartime—embracing rationing, conscription, and other “intrusive regulations”—will surely carry on following rules, however absurd, during peacetime.

A person’s grade (ranging from A to C3) affects whom they should marry and whether or not they’re sanctioned to reproduce at all. The idea is to nip stupidity in the bud. A grades are recommended to take B2 or B2 partners. “To ally yourself with another A or B1 was regarded as wasteful, there not being nearly enough of these to go round.” C1, C2 and C3 individuals are discouraged to breed, and heavily fined for having babies, especially with fellow Cs. Those profligate souls producing three or more infants could face imprisonment. Meanwhile babies born to “superior” parents earn cash bonuses. Unsurprisingly, what looks good on paper to the ministry doesn’t work, practically. All the policy in the world can’t legislate emotions.

What Not is dedicated “To Civil Servants I Have Known,” and its central couple both work in the Ministry of Brains. Kitty Grammont, an A, is a vivid career woman on the rise. She attracts the attention of Nicholas Chester, the Minister for Brains. He is also an A, but uncertified for marriage and breeding because he has siblings classed as “imbeciles.” How will he reconcile his wilful determination to fulfil his desires with their opposition to the laws his ministry enacts, which he drafted?

Should he and Kitty ignore their feelings? Have an affair? Marry secretly? Marry publicly? When the press gets wind of things, an unscrupulous editor attempts to blackmail Chester, and a decision is forced.

All of this takes time to unfold, and it has to be said, this love affair is problematic. Chester never feels fully realised or indeed, loveable, therefore Kitty’s attraction is puzzling. There’s a point—Chapters 8 and 9, precisely—where their debate about What To Do feels polemical, threatening to drag down the story. However it is notable, especially remembering this book is 100 years old, that Kitty offers pragmatic and unemotional arguments, and it is Kitty who, though not without regret, would better endure renouncing the relationship.

Mostly the novel toggles happily, and oh-so-snarkily, between descriptions of life in London and in Little Chantrey (a quintessential English village), where Kitty’s from, and where she weekends amid a sharply-drawn cast of endearing characters. They include vicar’s daughter Ivy Delmer, a typist at the Ministry of Brains, who can’t help admiring her smarters and (she thinks) betters. Special mention goes to Pansy Ponsonby, bidie-in to Kitty’s brother Anthony (inconveniently, especially as they have a child, they can’t marry because she already has a husband). Pansy is a revue dancer and although her depiction is straight from central casting—beautiful, scatty, apt to speak out when discretion should be her watchword—she bewitches with a good humoured approach to life that is infectious.

And Ivy’s father, the vicar, rather than becoming a figure of fun and derision in a book that holds nothing sacred, emerges as a soft-spoken subversive whose pulpit wisdom gently suggests that the British should be “Conscientious Obstructionists,” refusing government interference, and withholding the tax on less intelligent infants.

Macaulay’s a skilful juggler of viewpoints. Those who bristle at entrenched stupidity will surely appreciate the frustrated question (if not the proffered solution): Why can’t people wise up? But equally compelling are the dissenters, among them a range of B- and C-classified citizens who argue that the heart wants what it wants, and people should be free to lead their lives, whatever their intelligence.

There are other dissenters, with other reasons. Captain Ambrose, for instance, didn’t like “all this interfering, socialist what-not, which was both upsetting the domestic arrangements of his tenants and trying to put into their heads more learning than was suitable for them to have. For his part he thought every man had a right to be a fool if he chose, yes, and to marry another fool, and to bring up a family of fools too. Damn it all . . . hadn’t they shed their blood for the country, and where would the country have been without them, though now the country talked so glibly of not allowing them to reproduce themselves until they were more intelligent.”

Once the Mind Training Act is passed, trouble ensues, including a spike in abandonment and infanticide. The cinema and press become flat out propaganda machines. Publishing takes a hit because the light, easy stories that used to sell in quantity and fill the coffers (allowing for the publication of more difficult work) no longer have a market. Amid this unrest the relationship between Kitty and Nicholas is revealed, and it’s not surprising when violence arrives on the minister’s doorstep.

But above all, and the reason it’s so enjoyable, is that What Not does what it says on the tin—it’s properly funny, filled with snarky satire that reliably nails its victims.

Here is Macaulay on one of the newspapers in her world:

“The Hidden Hand was the Government daily paper. Such a paper had for long been needed; it is difficult to understand why it was not started long ago. All other papers are so unreliable, so tiresome; a government must have one paper on which it can depend for unfailing support. So here was the Hidden Hand, and its readers had no excuse for ignorance of what the government desired them to think about its own actions.”

Here she gives us a lesson in show-don’t-tell characterisation:

“Miss Grammont and Miss Delmer walked there, Miss Delmer well ahead and hurrying, because to her it seemed late, Miss Grammont behind and sauntering because to her it seemed superfluously early. The Ministry day began at 9:30, and it was only 9:40 now.”

Even chapters 8 and 9, dense as they are, raise interesting points, dancing round the issue of how Kitty and Nicholas should resolve their feelings vis a vis their mission. Macaulay has a knack for laying out multiple perspectives of her points, then stepping back, leaving readers to make up their own minds.

Lonsdale believes that What Not is unfairly overlooked, especially by scholars of dystopian/utopian fiction. I agree, but luckily, this smart new edition means we can give Macaulay her due.

****    ****

Sidenote: The eugenics question raging during Macaulay’s time is at the heart of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. They had a close mutual friend in Naomi Royde-Smith, a writer who published nearly four dozen novels, biographies, and plays, and who was the first woman literary editor of the Westminster Gazette. Lonsdale says there’s no record of his having read What Not, but that “major themes of Brave New World bear uncanny resemblances to those in Macaulay’s novel.”

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Art & Photography. . .

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Greetings,

The short version—no one needs the long version, least of all me—is that I have a beautiful, eccentric collection of books (photography, art, illustrated history, books about Hollywood, books about places, etc.) for sale. (See tag: Economic Reality.)

Below is a list and a brief description of condition, etc. I’m sure I’ve not adhered to the conventions beloved of antiquarians (anyway, they’re not antiques) and book dealers, but it’s a start. Assume DUST is another adjective applicable to the books! (When I say ‘shelving wear’ I mean the marks that you get from storing books beside one another.)

Willing to do small number of photos of selected titles if you ask nicely, or arrange a visit if you’re a dealer who’s interested. I’d like to sell the books as a job lot, though willing to consider other arrangements. BUYER MUST ORGANISE UPLIFT. The books are too heavy to post.

Primarily hardcover with paper jacket except where noted

FIRST EDITIONS US or UK:

Bruce Weber photographs
Borzoi, 1988, FIRST EDITION,
no paper jacket, signs of wear to binding commensurate with age but overall very good condition

The Audrey Hepburn Treasures, Pictures and Mementos from a Life, by Eileen Erwin and Jessica Diamond
S&S, 2006 FIRST EDITON, 192p, published without a jacket, so images printed onto boards
Scuffing and damage to upper corner by spine at back, and other lighter signs of wear; book was created with inserts kept in glassine envelopes, so the edge is slightly more compressed than it is at the spine side. Contents complete.

English Style, Slesin & Cliff
Clarkson Potter, FIRST EDITION, (US) 1984, 289p
Good condition, light signs of wear to jacket

Italian Style, Sabino & Tondini
Clarkson Potter, 300p, FIRST EDITON (US) 1985
Light signs of wear to jacket, small tear top of spine 

Ballgowns, British Glamour since 1950, Stanfill and Cullen
V&A Publishing, 2012 first edition
Excellent condition, jacket showing v light signs of wear

Art Nouveau Furniture, Alastair Duncan
Clarkson Potter, 1982, FIRST American edition, 191p
Good condition throughout

Christie’s Arts and Crafts Style, Michael Jeffery
Pavillion Books, 2001, FIRST EDITION 192p
Good condition, light shadow along bottom of later pages

Hollywood Moments, Murray Garrett
Abrams, FIRST US edition, 2002, 176p EXCELLENT condition

The Encyclopaedia of Mammals, Edited by David W MacDonald
OUP, First edition 2006, 936 pages full colour throughout
Pristine interior, paper cover has tiny rip centre bottom front and small bending, plus light signs of wear.

Brilliant Effects, A Cultural History of Gem Stones & Jewellery, Marcia Pointon
Yale, 2009, possible first British Edition, 426p, press release included.
Jacket shows very light signs of wear, pristine interior (some discolouration to back end papers b/c of press release storage)

Paris, Edited by Gilles Plazy
Flammarion, 2003, possible first edition, 480 pages
Slipcased (basic cardboard, no decoration), and spine of jacket shows discolouration and rip to top of paper, small crescent-shaped discolouration on cover where thumb indent of case would leave it exposed, interior is pristine.

The International Book of Lofts, Elesin, Clife, Rozensztroch
Clarkson Potter, first US edition, 1986, 248 pages
Paper cover showing light signs of wear, interior pristine

Ancestors in the Attic boxed set: My Great-Grandmother’s Book of Ferns / My Aunt’s Book of Silent Actors, Michael Holyroyd
Pimpernel Press Ltd, 1st UK edition, 2017
Pristine condition

Modern Painters: Writers on Artists, forward AS Byatt
Dorling Kindersley, FIRST EDITION 2001, 352p
Good condition throughout

Biopic, Iggy Pop, by Gavin Evan
Canongate, FIRST edition, 2003, Excellent condition, black and white photography throughout, almost zero text.

Claudette Colbert, An Illustrated Biography, Laurence J Quirk
Crown Publishers, 1985 FIRST EDITION, 212 pp
Excellent condition

Making Marks, Sue Timney
Pointed Leaf Press, 176p, FIRST edition, 2010, die cut hard cover with images (ie: no paper cover)  Excellent condition

Edinburgh, Mark Denton, intro Magnus Linklater
Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2009, First Edition, 192 p full colour throughout, rectangular format
Excellent condition, jacket shows light signs of wear around edges

Picasso and his CollectionArt Exhibitions Australia, paperback with flaps, 312 p, over 250 illustrations; 2008 first edition
Excellent condition

Hats: An Anthology, Stephen Jones, Oriole Cullen
V&A, 128 p, FIRST edition, 2009
paper jacket has small tear at top of spine, small signs of shelving wear, otherwise excellent condition

A Life Drawing, Recollections of an Illustrator, Shirley Hughes
The Bodley Head, FIRST edition, 2002, 209 p,
Some mysterious reside on lower quadrant of paper jacket spine, otherwise excellent condition

British Design from 1948: Innovation in the Modern Age, Christopher Breward & Ghislane Wood
V&A, 2012, FIRST edition, 400p
Jacket shows light signs of wear around tops of flap, excellent

The Rose, Jennifer Potter
Atlantic Books, 521 p, 2010 FIRST Edition
Excellent condition

Charleston, A Bloomsbury House and Garden, Bell and Nicholson
Henry Holt, 1997 FIRST US EDITION, 152 p
Good interior condition, jacket showing small signs of wear

LIMITED OR SPECIAL EDITION 

Pendulum, Portraits by Debra Hurford Brown
signed “With Love”, privately published, no jacket, oversized
Pristine condition

Lee Black Childers, Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks
The Vinyl Factory, FIRST EDITION LIMITED TO 1000 COPIES WORLDWIDE
2012, 124p
Hardcover, printed with text and images, ie: NO paper jacket; in good condition

OTHER

The Scots, A Photo History, Murray MacKinnon, Richard Oram
Thames & Hudson, 224p, 2003
Excellent condition

Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, Edited by Christopher Morton and Philip Grover
Harper Press with the Pitt Rivers Museum, 280p, 2010
Excellent condition inside and out.

Period Details Sourcebook, Judith Miller
Mitchell Beazeley, 1999, 192 pp
Excellent condition, back of paper jacket shows minor signs of wear

The Art of the Tile, Jen Renze
Thames and Hudson, 320p, 2009
Jacket has small rip/bend lower right hand corner; small signs of wear on back; condition excellent otherwise

Rare Bird of Fashion, (Iris Apfel) Eric Bowman
Thames & Hudson, 2007, 159 pp
Excellent condition, jacket showing only light signs of wear from shelving

Embroidered Textiles, Sheila Paine
Thames & Hudson, 240p, 2008 (new edition of book f/1990); 508 illustrations, 362 in colour
Excellent condition throughout

Marilyn by Magnum, essay by Gerry Badger
Prestel, 2012 / pristine condition; short essay, mainly glorious photos

A Passion for Art, Art Collectors and their Homes, Gludowacz, VanHagen, Chancel, foreword Pierre Bergé
Thames & Hudson, 2005, 238p   208 illustrations in colour
Excellent condition throughout

David Bailey Locations, 1970s Archive, designed by Martin Harrison
Thames & Hudson, 2003 293 photographs 59 in colour, 260 pp, oversized trim size
Excellent condition, jacket shows light signs of wear from shelving

Matthew Roylston, BeautyLight
teNeues, 2008, oversized trim size, EXCELLENT condition

Elephant! Steve Bloom
Thames & Hudson, 100+ colour photos, 224 pp, oversized trim size, 2006
Excellent condition

Celebrity: photos of Terry O’Neill, intro by AA Gill
Little Brown, 2003, 192p EXCELLENT condition

Manolo Blahnick Drawings
Thames & Hudson, paperback with flaps; 134 illustration, 205 in colour, 2003
Excellent condition

Manolo Blahnick, Colin McDowell
Casell & Co, 199p, 2000
paper jacket shows signs of wear across top/bottom and doesn’t fold 100% beautifully around front, interior in excellent condition

Blahnik by Boman A Photographic Conversation, intro Paloma Picasso
Thames & Hudson, 2005, oversized trim size, full colour throughout
Excellent condition, minor signs of wear to back jacket, from shelving

In the Arts and Crafts Style, Barbara Mayer
Aurum, 2006 (UK edition of book published 1993 in US by Chronicle), 224 pages
Excellent condition

Quilting, Patchwork and Appliqué, Crabtree & Shaw
Thames & Hudson, 2007, 192p, 520 illustrations 504 in colour
Excellent condition

Duffy…Photographer
ACC editions, 2011, 208 pp
Good condition though spine feels slightly wonky, as if it was shelved badly at some point. Otherwise excellent throughout interior and jacket in good condition. 

The Frampton Flora, The Secrets of Frampton Court Gardens Richard Mabey
Quercus, oversized trim, 208p, 2007 edition of earlier book (1985)
Excellent condition throughout

Tiaras Past and Present, Geoffrey Munn
V&A, small trim size, 128p, 2002
light signs of wear to jacket, excellent interior condition

Art Deco Fashion, Suzanne Lussier
V&A, small trim size, 2003, 96p EXCELLENT condition

Essential Art Deco, Ghislaine Wood
V&A, small trim size, 2003, 96p
light signs of wear to jacket, excellent otherwise

London Minimum, Herbert Ypma
Thames & Hudson, paperback with flaps, small trim size160p, 166 colour illustrations, 2010 edition of book originally published in 1980s
slight crease to front flap, otherwise pristine condition

Morocco Modern, World Design Series, Herbert Ypma
Thames & Hudson, paperback with flaps, 160p, 171 colour illustrations
Excellent condition throughout

The American Circus, Edited Webber, Ames, Wittman [pictured above]
Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts etc.
Hardcover but published w/out paper jacket; 2012, 460 pages; exquisite book

Fred Astaire, Roy Pickard
Crescent Books, NY, 1985
Light damage to paper jacket, small tear upper left front, shelving wear, minor discolouration; COVER BENEATH that has been printed with the image, as well, so can be displayed without paper jacket; interior in good condition

Punk, Colegrave & Sullivan
Cassell, 2001, 400pp, oversized, weighs a ton
Bottom corners of book/jacket mildly bashed, small rip to back of jacket, otherwise in good condition throughout

David Lean, An Intimate Portrait, Sandra Lean & Barry Chattington
Andre Deutsch, 2001, 240p EXCELLENT condition

A Different Country, photographs of Werner Kissling, text Michael Russell
Birlinn/Polygon, 2002, 144 p
Excellent condition

Educating the Eye, Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age, Christopher Lloyd
Royal Collection Publications, pb with flaps, 196p small trim size, 2004
Good condition

A Life in Photography: Steichen
Bonanza Books (US), 254p, 1984 Edition of book originally published by Doubleday
Excellent condition, no tears, small signs of shelving wear

Chanel, Key Collections, Melissa Richards
Hamlyn, 2000, 176p,
Good condition, pages showing faint discolouration around edges, paper jacket signs of wear, one mark and a small tear near lower left front

Art Deco Textiles, Charlotte Samuels
V&A, 2003, 144p, GOOD condition throughout

20th Century Pattern Design, Lesley Jackson
Mitchell Beazeley, 2001, 224p;
GOOD condition overall: upper right hand back corner mildly bent both book and paper jacket, tiny damage to lower left of front jacket

Dress in 18th C Europe, Aileen Ribeiro
Yale, 2002 (revised edition), 318 p
Good condition, light bashing to upper righthand corner

Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry
Thames & Hudson, 2002; 280 illustrations, 185 in colour, 240p
Good condition, minor damage to top of paper jacket at spine

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Treuherz, Prettejohn, Becker
Thames & Hudson, 2003 [accompanied exhibition]
250p 190 illustrations, 140 in colour Good to excellent condition

Klimt’s Women, edited Natter and Frodl
Dumont Publisher, 2000 [accompanied exhibition], 256 p
Excellent interior, jacket showing signs of shelf wear and some creasing

Mary Queen of Scots, Susan Watkins
Thames & Hudson, 2001, 224p; EXCELLENT interior, jacket in good shape

Madame de Pompadour, Images of a Mistress, Colin Jones
National Gallery London (accompanied exhibition), 2002, 176 p
Good Condition

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BOOK REVIEW: The Promise

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The Promise
Love and Loss in Modern China
By Xue Xinran
Translated by William Spence
Out 7th February from I. B. Tauris
£17.99 hardback

Knowing the dates of battles, rattling off royal lines of succession, and memorising the names of every American president—or Chinese emperor—is one way to study the past, but they only provide an outline. Fellow fans of social history hanker to learn how politics play out in that most intimate space, the home. How do laws and policies shape attitudes, and therefore our lives? What happens within a marriage that is contracted for political reasons? Or to a society cut off from communicating with the rest of the world? 

In The Promise, Xue Xinran wonders what the Chinese talk about when they talk of love. “The past century has seen more upheaval than any other time in the 5,000-year-old history of Chinese civilisation. The ways in which people show love for each other have also changed in the face of war and cultural development.” For answers, she dove into the history of one family—encompassing four generations, six voices, and more than 100 years of history.

Xinran, born in 1958, is a Chinese author, journalist and activist based in the UK. Her first book, taken from Words on the Night Breeze, her groundbreaking Chinese radio show, was the bestselling The Good Women of China. She’s written four other nonfiction books: Sky Burial, China Witness, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother and Buy me the Sky, and one novel, Miss Chopsticks. (I interviewed her in connection with that.)

Her great gift is attentiveness, which encourages women to tell their stories, which she absorbs with intense empathy. She recedes, allowing their voices to resonate louder than her own. While this might seem straightforward on the page, it takes tremendous skill to go this deeply into things—especially when speaking with women who’ve never opened up to anyone before.

Xinran was startled by how dramatically women’s attitudes about sex, emotions and love had altered, and how quickly those changes had occurred. It made her realise how little she knew about her ancestors’ histories of love and marriage. She understood it only loosely: that for her grandparents’ generation, arranged marriages were often the norm; during her parents’ generation political turmoil determined their love lives; and within her own generation, money was often a major consideration in choosing a husband.

The Promise tells the story of several generations of the Han family, beginning with Han Junpei and Huang Shiyum, who married in 1919, having been betrothed before birth. Their union produced nine children, born between 1920 and 1935, all nicknamed after the colours that featured in some of their parents favourite poems: Red, Cyan, Orange, Yellow, Green, Ginger, Violet, Blue and Rainbow.

The family fractured into three groups—three children wound up in America and Hong Kong, three married revolutionaries, and three died young. The combined factors of the age range, and the forces of politics and geography, left the siblings unfathomable to one another. The family was riven by politics: relationships were terminated in compliance with party rules (during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards could force couples to divorce), others for reasons of political security. One sister was widowed when her husband, working as a spy, was beaten to death. Even on the rare occasions when siblings were reunited, they couldn’t understand or identify with one another because of their vastly different experiences and attitudes. It’s a sharp reminder of all that we take for granted, growing up in democracies, and how that shapes us.

Thus for many Western readers, some of the anecdotes will be baffling and borderline unbelievable, from the 61-year-long unconsummated marriage described at the start of the book, to traditional Chinese rules for women that excluded them from family trees, forbade them any say in who they’d marry, and in some cases, denied them an education. Reading now, in our age of non-stop over-sharing, it is startling to encounter elderly men and women who’ve spent their lives terrified of expressing emotion for fear of political reprisal.

As readers get to know the family, we gain a cultural education, from learning about wedding traditions circa 1949, to discovering the Zuo Yue Zi, which set out rules to optimise recovery after childbirth. Then there’s the chilling Three Obediences and Four Virtues, “a set of moral principles that dictated how a woman should act . . . Confucian in origin, they set the moral standard both for how women were required to act and how men must choose their wives.” Needless to say, “they allowed no space for women to be themselves or have control of their own live or needs.”

One of the interviewees, Crane, of an age with Xinran, explains: “My grandparents rooted their love in ancient poetry. My parents understood each other through classic Western literature and da-you poetry. The China I was born into didn’t have literature and romance; it didn’t even have movies, books or theatre. It had slogans.”

The Promise depicts a country in turmoil, where extremes were (and still are) the norm, notably in the differences between urban vs rural life. It’s a country where profound poverty afflicts even those toiling at jobs, and where, before the 1990s, you could be jailed for kissing in public. Social mobility was almost unheard of; anyone from rural China trying to move into a city had to secure a special permit. Without it you “basically didn’t exist,” had no rights within the city and could be arrested for being there. 

For the youngest women Xinran interviewed, the generation gap feels especially huge. They’ve grown up with freedom and material wealth that was unimaginable in China until recently.  On the other hand, they also grew up without siblings, and lack the sense of the centrality of family that was so integral to their forebears. These modern lives revolve around technology, and the young women speak about choice, explaining that having multiple lovers is a status symbol. Nevertheless,  loneliness is rampant.

Filled with poignancy, insights, and revelations, this is an ideal book for anyone curious about life in China—and surely, in this day and age, that means all of us.

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BOOK REVIEW: THE HOARDER

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The Hoarder
By Jess Kidd
Out now from Canongate, £14.99 hardcover

Jess Kidd’s debut, Himself (which I reviewed here), was the welcome arrival of a distinctive voice in literary fiction, one lilting with Irish cadences, unafraid to blur the line between reality and the supernatural, shot through with black humour, and blessed with a gift for memorable descriptions.

 The Hoarder shares many themes and elements with Himself, but it’s altogether more antic, as if Kidd decided to cut the brake lines. It is not that the story feels out of her control, and it certainly addresses serious themes, but there’s a giddy, accelerating  playfulness tumbling through this tale. Despite the novel’s clear and present dangers, I regularly laughed out loud. It reminded me of being at the beach, buffeted by a surprisingly strong wave: suddenly you’re flying—whee!—but there’s no telling where your feet will land, or whether it’ll be safe there.

Like Himself, The Hoarder abounds with lavish descriptions of houses and their curiosities; there are family secrets aplenty, and this time, not one but three missing women representing different ages—child, teenager and adult. Kidd plays with the complexities of identity—mistaken, self-invented, and misplaced. She probes the psychology of guilt, worrying the knot where it’s tangled up with grief. She gives us a plentiful number of eccentrics, ghosts, and eccentric ghosts.

This is Maud Drennan’s story, told from her perspective. She’s a self-contained, constrained woman “slaloming towards 40.” She works as a carer through a dodgy London agency that’s  sent her to look after elderly widower Cathal Flood, an artist who is estranged from his only son. He lives in a mansion called Bridlemere, which is filled with mysteries. The most imperative of these is why won’t he throw anything out? The aptly named Flood is the hoarder of the title, barricaded in a cluttered portion of his four-story home, behind a wall of National Geographic magazines that only sometimes part to allow access to the rest of the rooms.

Bridlemere seemed to me to expand and shrink like a living thing. It sits in a garden big enough to contain a disused well, a decaying camper van, and numerous abandoned relics. (While nowhere near as tricksy as the house in Little, Big, the property has an air of M C Escher about it.)

ASIDE: At one point, with regular invitations for her to step outside, the phrase “Come into the garden, Maud” popped into my head. Given Kidd’s dry humour, I’m not sure whether to check in with Tennyson—or Noel Coward.

Maud has a massive job ahead of her, disposing of Flood’s crap: “piles of mildewing curtains, getting caught in cables, hooked on hat stands and assaulted by rutting ironing boards. I flounder over records, books, stained blankets, greasy collections of plastic bags, garden forks, antique mangles . . . . And cats, cats, cats.”

She also has to deflect his crap. He is a cantankerous mix of poetry and profanity, and prone to lashing out physically. Told he attacked his last carer with a hurling stick, Maud remains alert, sizing up anything that might serve as a self-defence weapon, but answering every insult with sardonic humour and immutable calm (at least on the outside). Their battle of nerves is an even match.

Maud digs her way through Flood’s relics like an archaeologist, insofar as the latter are storytellers of history. When mysterious, defaced photographs appear as if by magic, she decides they’re clues to a murder-and-missing-person crime which the dead have recruited her to solve. Certain that volatile Cathal Flood murdered his wife, she sets out to find evidence. She’s sure it’s somehow linked to a girl who was shut up in an institution, and whose disappearance the late Mrs Flood carefully monitored through saved newspaper clippings.

Instead of providing Maude with a steadying, reasonable friend urging caution, Kidd gives her an agoraphobic landlady, Renata—née Lemuel Sewell. She is a treat, but agoraphobics live quiet lives, so she’s right up for this adventure by proxy.

Renata’s not gone the full Anna Madrigal, but lives as a woman, to her conservative sister’s dismay. Nevertheless Lillian turns up twice a week to clean and tut at her sibling. They fight and make up, fight and make up. In this novel all about family dynamics, their antagonistic loyalty makes an interesting contrast with far worse relationships.

Maud spends more time at Renata’s than in her own flat, attended by a host of spectral saints visible to her eyes only. They accompany her everywhere, lolling about on furniture, making faces, re-arranging their draperies, commenting on the action, and suggesting, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not, what Maud should do next. Is she psychic, or are these colourful characters creatures of her imagination? Whatever the answer, and you can draw your own conclusions, they are amusing company.

Despite Kidd’s use of close third person narration, readers quickly realise that Maud’s not the most reliable narrator, hampered by a tendency to get the wrong end of the stick and hang on for dear life. Fixated on Cathal Flood’s perfidy, desperate to implicate him in his wife’s death, and certain that only she can locate the missing girl, Maud fails to spot danger presenting itself elsewhere.

She’s already a carer, why is she so desperate to rescue someone else? The answer’s in her past. Maud had an older sister, Dierdre, who disappeared when she was a teenager and Maud just seven. Her investigation into the death and disappearance of a mother and a child in the present, sends her mind spinning back, dredging up memories—each one subtly altered—of the day of Dierdre’s disappearance, and the ensuing police inquiry.

Maud lost not only her sister that day, but also her mother, who turned against her youngest child. Yet even when her most regular spectral companion, St Dymphna (“family harmony, inadvertent runaways”), offers another, more plausible scenario for what happened, Maud will not—or cannot—abandon her guilt and shame. She knows she made her sister disappear. What a heavy, unnecessary burden for a child to carry, much less carry well into adulthood.

The Hoarder is almost as full of incident as Flood’s home is full of things. It’s a tale told in layers, while the seemingly separate zones off Maud’s life echo one another, as do the past and present. Beautifully written, hilariously funny, this is another winning tale from a talented new voice.

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BOOK REVIEW: OVERLAND

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Overland
By Graham Rawle
Out 22 March from Chatto & Windus
Paperback, £14.99

Rejoice, lovers of all that’s innovative and experimental, for Graham Rawle, whose last novel, The Card, came out in 2012, returns with Overland.

Set in Los Angeles, California, in 1942, it’s a sideways exploration of truth vs illusion, obsession, love, discrimination (specifically, of Japanese Americans post Pearl Harbor), and displacement.

When I say sideways, I mean that literally.

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Graham’s an artist as well as a writer. All of his books experiment with format, making them delightful objects as well as stories. Woman’s World was composed of words and lines cut from vintage women’s magazines, The Card featured a wealth of typographical quirks, and his version of L. Frank Baum‘s The Wizard of Oz is a marvel of ingenuity. He created characters using dolls and stuffed toys, and repurposed household detritus to compose sets—which he photographed, photoshopped, and built up via a complicated series of layers to create striking images. The end result is beautiful and spooky.

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Overland is printed in landscape format, which is just unusual enough to slow you down, encouraging that you savour the see-sawing conversation between two worlds. One is Over, the other is Under. Each is distinguished not only by placement, by by font. Readers toggle between them—though they, themselves, overlap and intersect—following the story through to its surprising conclusion. This back and forth approach reinforces one of life’s essential truths: perspective is everything.

The book is stuffed with allusions to earlier works of art, and this, in particular, functions like a cinematic split-screen effect—apt, given the story’s proximity to Hollywood. Readers become observers, seeing characters converging and diverging, a doubling effect that may cause some to shout, “No, wait, just stay there a few moments longer, someone’s coming.” It’s an effective way of ramping up tension.

The inspiration for Overland comes from the history books. After Pearl Harbor, the US government wanted to protect vulnerable aviation factories along the Pacific Coast. They took special precautions with the vast Lockheed factory in Burbank, blacking out windows and commissioning a camouflage expert to make the complex “disappear.”

Rawle explains: “Using a technique called ‘visual misinformation’ [Colonel John F Ohmer] combined two-dimensionally painted canvas with foreshortened three-dimensional props to disguise the Lockheed plant as part of the California landscape.” Many of those recruited to work on the project honed their craft in Hollywood’s movie studios.

Rawle’s Over is this disguising world, conceived of by Hollywood set-designer George Godfrey, whose attention to detail is so intense that he even has Residents (factory workers spending their breaks in Overland) moving parked cars, and herding artificial sheep from one field to another, lest pilots zipping overhead grow suspicious about a static landscape. Overland benefits from sunshine and clean air. It’s a paradise, meticulously maintained, a playground for Residents offering them respite from the grimy, grubby work of the factory, and the sadness of life during wartime. And it’s rather sweet seeing how seriously these grown ups play.

For Godfrey, his slightly off-kilter creation is realer than reality. He’s so heavily invested in Overland that he lives there—illegally—subsisting on a diet of doughnuts and coffee. He’s on the run from a disappointing marriage. Painful memories of betrayal contrast with his current bliss. He’s traded life with a belittling, adulterous, now ex-wife, for his own private Idaho, where, it has to be said, Godfrey is God. (Knowing Rawle, one suspects that surname’s no accident.)

This idyl is about to be shattered: the military’s evicting him, sending him to Seattle to work the trick again on another munitions plant. But he won’t go quietly.

Under comprises all the rest of the world, including the factory, where workers toil under the dark umbrella of Overland, marvelling at the strange objects occasionally falling from the “sky.” To those unaware of what’s overhead, these out of context arrivals—a fishing hook, fruit— are curious indeed, though no more alarming than everything else going on at the height of the fighting.

Under also encompasses the local neighbourhood, including a rooming house run by Mrs Ishi, who lives there with her talking parrot and stockpiled cans of sardines. One of her long-time lodgers is a young woman called Kay, an orphaned, California-born Japanese American. Despite her birthright of citizenship, Kay can’t find work: her face betrays her ancestry.

Often lonely, Kay finds solace in an old calendar depicting a lakeside cottage nestled in a verdant wood, complete with the blue-grey smoke that promises a cosy fire indoors.

The picturesque scene fuses with her romantic fantasies. She dreams of an artistic man who’s good with his hands, and runs up an inventive list of all the various opportunities that would make him scoop her into his strong, sheltering arms. While there’s an element of comedy in such B-movie swoon fantasies, it’s understandable why someone orphaned in her teens might dream of being alleviated of the drudgery of propelling herself through life, being carried for a while. (Meanwhile Godfrey remembers seeing his wife carried in her lover’s arms. Everything sweet in Rawle’s world also harbours a tang of sourness. Art imitates life.)

When she’s hassled on a bus, Kay meets Queenie, a tough-talking, talent-short wannabe movie star, currently stuck in the role of Lockheed welder. Queenie is accidentally pregnant with an unwanted child, keen to get rid of it. Queenie helps Kay get a factory job (she has to lie and say she’s Chinese), while Kay helps get her in with Mrs Ishi, who never rents to non-Japanese.

We meet our characters around May 4, 1942, six days day before Japanese residents of the city are to be rounded up for evacuation—even those who are American citizens. The future is grim for Kay and Mrs Ishi. It’s grim for Queenie, as she hunts for an abortionist and the money to pay for his services. Godfrey’s got problems of his own, as his obsession with Overland intensifies.

Godfrey’s favourite moments back on the MGM lot were wandering the empty sound stages before shooting, “[when] each set was still a blank canvas onto which any number of stories could be painted.” He had no urge to visit Bali or Manhattan, certain that his imagined version of each was an improved reality.

Somehow Godfrey’s remained innocent, even naive. When someone suggests that Japanese fighter pilots might elect to fly Lockheed P-38s, he rejects the idea because “that’s not fair, is it. . . Pretending to be something you’re not.” The irony escapes him: he utters this standing on a street corner of his contrived city.

For him, and for many of Rawle’s other characters, it’s all about what you want to see. Godfrey recalls a magician at an MGM party who vanished a coin from the palm of Godfrey’s hand. Where did it go, he wonders? The magician says, “It didn’t go anywhere. . . . You’re thinking of it all wrong. I didn’t make the coin disappear. I merely made it so that you can’t see it anymore. It’s still there in your hand.”

Perspective, again—it’s everything.

Who can blame Godfrey for turning his back on such a cruelly disappointing world? Or the Residents, cheerfully spending time revelling in the kind of Andy Hardy ambience that surely conjures up an idealised America worth fighting for? Rawle cleverly celebrates escapism without losing sight of its dangers. He’s crystal clear on what happens if your face doesn’t fit. (Readers cannot fail to notice modern resonances. . . )

The book is crammed with incidents, too many to recount here, and why spoil your fun? Eventually Kay and Godfrey spot one another and are smitten, though prolonged contact is thwarted. Kay is equally enamoured of Overland, which closely resembles her beloved calendar. She sneaks back dressed as Snow White, and falls asleep in Godfrey’s bed. There’s even a wax apple in the fruit bowl. But her lovely dream doesn’t last, and when she returns down Under, things go from bad to worse. The scenes in which the Japanese are rounded up are heartbreaking and shaming.

Eventually Queenie, who’s also made her way between worlds, tells Godfrey, “If you want to meet her you’re gonna have to go down there. . . into the underworld.” Does she mean “you’re going to have to get real?” That would be rich, coming from a woman devoted to her own brand of artifice.

Godfrey does fall to Earth, roaming Under looking for a way back to Paradise, and back to Kay. It’s a delight seeing Rawle revisit and rework some of our most enduring stories—Paradise Lost, Orpheus and Eurydice, fairy tales, even the film mythology that’s as deeply embedded in modern psyches as Homer was in the ancients’.

Rawle’s books are deep pools: though you can cross them at speed, they reward those willing to dive. All his work poses questions about artifice, self-realisation, imagination and story telling—especially the stories forming our personal creation myths. In each of his novels characters wholeheartedly buy in to worlds of their own making. You can’t help wanting to join them.

Rawle asks us to reconsider how we read and absorb information. He asks for a high level of participation from his readers and rewards the studious. Overland is marvellous, and in common with all of Rawle’s work, you may put it down, but it’ll never let you go. The more you recall it, the more you’ll want to go back, asking, “Did that really happen?” and “Did I miss a clue or a joke?”

As I said earlier, Overland is cause for rejoicing.

Highly recommended reading—and re-reading!

 

 

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His Colours, They Were Fine

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Warning—possible triggers re: depression, death by suicide.

Keeping a promise to a friend shouldn’t be hard. Promising to write about an intensely beautiful and moving art exhibition shouldn’t be hard. But lately words don’t seem to belong to me.

On 17th January, accompanied by my friend Jenny, I went to Tate Modern to see the Modigliani exhibition.

Modigliani was a fixture of my childhood, a passion of my mother’s. MoDIGliani, with an unforgiving G, because none of us knew then that the Italian language abhors harsh sounds. I’m not even sure when I grasped that he was Italian, in the way that I didn’t precisely understand Picasso was Spanish. Remember, I grew up in the 1960s, where the establishing query was “What are you?” Answers varied: Italian, Polish, Russian, Korean, Irish—but ultimately, American because that’s where we’d been born and where we lived. As a kid I probably thought these artists were French, because somehow, even then, I knew that art lived in Paris.

I did not like Modigliani. My literal mind couldn’t work its way around his elongated necks and oval faces, the vacant eyes. I frequently confused the whole of his work with one print hanging in our upstairs hallway, Picasso’s Jacqueline with Flowers (1954) which I still find violently ugly and despise. Mostly, though, I did not like him because Gloria adored him.

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The (to me) vile Picasso

Eventually, and without Mom’s input, my antipathy turned to admiration. I became a fan, and did what I inevitably do when my admiration is aroused: I read everything I could about Modigliani. This was pre-internet. My materials amounted to a couple of picture books, one of which was probably a QLP, because I worked for the publisher distributing them in the 1980s.

One day I turned a page and discovered that in January of 1920, Modigliani, a few years shy of  40, died of tuberculosis. My eye travelled down the paragraph and snagged on the coda. Shortly after Modi’s death, Jeanne Hébuterne, his much younger mistress, leapt to her death from the window of her parents’ flat.

She was nine months pregnant.

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Jeanne Hébuterne, photographed in her teens

I must have read those lines dozens of times, trying to absorb them. By then I knew I didn’t want children. But even not-a-maternal-bone-in-her-body-me understood in the most visceral way that at nine months your baby’s a wriggling, kicking, reality, an almost out in the world reality. An entity. And I was old enough to have heard people console themselves after a loss with the existence of children or grandchildren, saying, “At least I have a piece of them left.”

I returned to the stark facts, gobsmacked that she hadn’t waited until after the baby’s birth, to end her life. At that point I didn’t know that she and Modigliani left behind a fourteen month daughter, also called Jeanne. I didn’t know that this desperate young woman was barely grown up herself, three months shy of her 22nd birthday, or that she, too, dreamed of becoming an artist. I would accumulate these and other heartbreaking elements of the story over the next few years, and eventually I wrote them into a novel.

I would learn about misogyny, as well. Several Modigliani biographers (and one rat bastard in particular) take a condescending, harsh line with Jeanne, ignoring her age and inexperience. They depict her as an encumbrance. They blame her for falling pregnant, and blame her for not getting help as Modi lay dying in their unheated garret studio. Well, more about that later, for I have strong opinions about those final days.

They say every novel starts with the question “Why?” For me it was “Why did Jeanne do it?” And also, “Why wasn’t the thought of her unborn child, his child, enough to tether her to life?” That question felt increasingly complicated, the deeper I delved. And delve I did, trying to separate what was true from what might be true, and what certainly did not occur. Even now, I have come across new (to me) information suggesting that some of the drawings I’ve seen ascribed to Jeanne’s hand may be forgeries.

They include these two, offering clear indications that she thought about death, and contemplated ending her life. I’ve spent years believing them to be Jeanne’s, but for now, I suppose the jury’s out.

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Jeanne burrowed under my skin and lives there still. What sends a heavily pregnant young woman out of a fifth floor window? What intensity of hopelessness, what level of grief does that? What abnegation of self? I’ll never condemn her for the abandonment of one child and the death of another. I empathise.

Why? Because I’ve often thought about ending my life. Sometimes, when I am lower than low, planning the details cheers me up. Perverse, yes, but I found the courage to discuss it with a friend who lives with depression, and she understood instantly, so I’m hoping you might, as well. When nothing’s good, when the thought of yet another day to endure presses me into the mattress, ideating about suicide suggests a solution—hope, if you will—and a promise that all the sadness, the bullshit, the weariness can end. It is also (I told you this was perverse), a way of imagining one’s self doing something instead of lying around feeling devastated, drowning in sorrow and self hatred. Obviously, a sliver of light always reaches me. Laughter reaches me. The fear of hurting others has stopped me. The fear of trying and failing, winding up even worse off is another deterrent.

None of these things rescued Jeanne. She leapt. She perished.

In the course of reading everything I could find, I looked at photographs of Modigliani’s paintings hundreds of times and believed I knew them. I certainly knew enough to scoff at Pinterest pinners oohing and ahing over what to me were obvious fakes. (Modigliani’s work is some of the most forged art in the world, and the leading expert, Christian Gregori Parisot, was himself one of the biggest perpetrators of this fraud.)

I’ve been in many galleries with beloved paintings, reproductions of which sit in my books and hang on my walls, including Sargent’s Madame X, an all-time favourite. I am sure I’ve even been in a room with Modiglianis before. But holy shit, fetch me a chair and a vinaigrette of sal volatile! Seeing these paintings, assembled like this, after investing so heavily—emotionally and creatively—in the man who made them and the lives they represent, sent my rods and cones into overdrive. What. A. Revelation!

Until now, Modigliani lodged in my head in shades of umber and orange, lots of brown, and deep reds the colour of blood. He was dark, as was Jeanne, nicknamed Coconut by her friends, for the contrast between her brown hair and milky skin.

How wrong I was! Modigliani’s work is about shape and form, yes. It pays homage to the Italian masters, yes. It reflects the preoccupation with African art that swept through Paris at the start of the 20th century, and echoes the work of Modigliani’s peers, yes. But how had I missed that he was a magnificent colourist? He used blue, green, pink and purple all the time. The mottled backgrounds of some portraits would send Messrs Farrow and Ball into raptures and a frenzy of absurdist name calling. The skin tones on certain nudes contain worlds within them. Even the gorgeous book of the exhibition, a gift from my companion, doesn’t capture the depth and richness of his colours.

They zing and startle the eye.

As for the faces I used to find unrealistic, crude, symbolic rather than representative, the faces that looked cookie-cutter identical to me as a kid? Wrong again. My dears, I’d recognise any of those individuals if they sprang back to life and walked into the room. (Though I admit Modi holds an unrealistic, very boyish fantasy about the buoyancy of breast tissue. In his canvases, never does a heavy breast slide toward the armpit, as gravity insists IRL.)

I felt giddy. I scanned paint strokes and ran my eyes down the edges of canvases, noting every age-darkened nail, thinking, “DNA!” I had daft Jurassic Park ideas about rebuilding Modigliani. I hugged myself, thinking, “They were in the room with these paintings.” This is not my normal reaction. (While it’s true that I think a couple of Lucien Freud’s masterpieces look chewy enough to eat, I don’t kvell that he’s been there, touched that.)

Poor Jenny. We wandered around the exhibition space separately, but occasionally collided, and I’d mutter in her ear. “You see this amazing picture? Cocteau hated it and never took delivery. Asshole.”  “Hmm, Beatrice. She whisked him out of Montparnasse back up to Montmartre in the early part of the War. Remember in my book, how Jeanne’s looking for him? And there’s a rumour he threw her out of a window during one of their legendary fights.”

Did I mention that Jenny read my manuscript and made patient, wise editorial suggestions, for which I am indebted to her? The things she’s endured because of my obsession! I half suspect she chummed me in case I dropped to the floor into a whimpering heap, overcome by mixed emotions, causing a very un-British scene.

The closest I came to collapse was in the virtual reality zone they’d set up. It put us inside Modigliani’s studio, the one that did for him. This is a photo of it (not sure when it was taken) that appeared in Life magazine:

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and this is a more recent photo taken from outside:

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The building, and the studio, still exist though it’s been much renovated. In Jeanne and Modi’s time it consisted of two rooms—long and narrow—at the top of many steep flights of stairs. There was no plumbing, and no heat. They installed a coal burning stove, but you had to be able to afford coal—they were regularly skint—and then had to haul it up all those steps. At the end, Modigliani was too weak, and Jeanne, a small woman, too heavily pregnant to navigate it. Water for cooking, bathing and painting also had to be hauled up from an outdoor pump in the building’s courtyard. Their rooms must have been boiling hot in summertime and freezing in winter.

I strapped in. Goggles on, eyeballs adjusting, the first thing I noticed was that they’d left the window open, and it was raining outside. Nice touch. The tour took me around the claustrophobic space, where a cigarette burned so convincingly that I reached out to push the smoke away.

I nearly crawled out of my skin. Though the museum’s room didn’t look precisely like my version of it, all the same, I’d lived in this space, inhabited it alongside my versions of Jeanne and Modigliani. Together we’d pulled chairs up to the huge windows to watch German aircraft swoop through the skies on their bombing raids. We’d made love. We’d eaten, argued, painted and modelled. We’d entertained Modi’s close friend Chaim Soutine (alas, that scene was eventually cut). In the room next door, my Jeanne painted, sketched, or played her violin while Modigliani worked, half-listening through the walls to the murmur of his voice talking to his model of the day. He spoke perfect French. His mother was French, and he’d been well educated.

And in that other room, where so much of daily life occurred, they endured their final hellish week together. I took time describing it. For me it’s a key moment in their story, and I wanted to contextualise Jeanne’s behaviour. I stayed with them, my heart snagging on every ragged breath as Modi wrestled with death. It reached the point, during my revisions, where I’d fumble for the keyboard blindly (luckily I touch type), shuddering and crying, “Why do I have to kill them again? Why can’t I write them a happy ending?”

I was pretty shook coming out of that VR experience, and still hadn’t seen the room where Modigliani’s portraits of his inner circle were exhibited—a circle that included Jeanne, the girl I couldn’t save. But as keeps happening with Jeanne, she was there but not there. He painted her often enough to fill a room with images, but fewer than ten of those canvases were at Tate Modern. Unlike his other friends, male and female, whose quotes about Modigliani helped make up the signage and the VR experience, Jeanne was silent, her thoughts unrepresented. In some of his biographies their friends claim they never once heard her speak. In other versions of the story, and in mine, she has plenty to say for herself—but also understands stillness and its uses.

Once again Jeanne was an absence, though present. That’s precisely why I have been haunted by her story for twenty or so years, and why I felt compelled to write about her. I am certain she mattered, certain she was important. In a strange, selfish way, I wanted the exhibition to make more of her. I don’t want to be the only one who cares about her and mourns her loss.

But an experiment isn’t a failure if you don’t get the result you’d hoped for. It’s still valid science, worth pursuing. The exhibition is mind blowing, even if you think you know this art. It reminded me of what Dr Paul Alexandre, an early patron, said of Modigliani: “Anyone who knows how to look at his portraits of women, of young men, of friends, and all the others, will discover a man of exquisite sensibility, tenderness, pride, passion for truth, purity.”

Being at the Tate reminded me of why Jeanne (and the world) fell in love with him. That obsessive love, and what it did to her, is what brought Jeanne to the window on a cold 3 am in January. It’s what drew her out into the darkness and oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
By Imogen Hermes Gowar
Out 25 January from Harvill Secker
Hardback, £12.99

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, is Vintage’s lead debut novel for 2018. It’s received a lot of hype and features on nearly every Hotly Anticipated Books of 2018 list. For once, believe the hype. This is smart, absorbing, and suffused with so much everyday (ie: relatable) peril that you’ll race through at a breathless pace. It feels historically sound, its wealth of details as seamlessly integrated as a dovetail joint, and just as hard-working. Best of all, it contains strong feminist and political messages, making mincemeat of hackneyed assumptions about how men and women are “supposed” to behave. (Not for nothing am I calling this 2018’s Essex Serpent.)

It’s 1785. Merchant Jonah Hancock sits in a Deptford counting house awaiting news of his ship and its cargo. He is 45, a careworn widower, whose “great belly and skinny legs [give] him the look of a rat up a post.” The companion of his imagination is Henry, the son lost at birth 15 years earlier, passing “so swiftly from birth to death, exchanging one oblivion for another like a sleeper rolling over.” Throughout the tale Henry’s spectre visits Jonah’s imagination at a range of ages, projecting a lifetime of lost possibilities. Hancock is a family man deprived of the children — and domesticity — he’d anticipated and craved. His yearning is one of the most poignant aspects of the novel, and his grief often painful to witness. Recalling holding his dead newborn in his arms, and how he’ll never know what colour his eyes were, Jonah realises, “It will be the last thing I feel before I die.”

It’s clear why he’d wish for an anchor — his life is full of uncertainties: when you send a ship to sea, there’s no guarantee it’ll return at all, much less with the promised cargo. Fortunes and lives are never secure.

Over the river, in Soho’s Dean Street, courtesan Angelica Neal prepares to re-enter the world after years of countryside seclusion as the mistress of a peer. Alas, the nobleman died before settling a sum on her. With the help of her maid/companion Eliza Frost, she’s determined to keep up appearances and attract a new protector before she’s too old to trade on her looks. She’s 27. There’s no time to lose.

Angelica and Eliza’s is a fractious, intense bond, and Miss Frost lives up to her surname. She importunes Angelica to return to Mrs Chappell’s brothel where the curvaceous blonde launched her career back in her teens. Angelica refuses, but Chappell — enormous, wheezing: picture Miriam Margolyes’s Mrs Mingott in The Age of Innocence —pursues her, reminding Angelica of outstanding obligations she must fulfil as payback. Fortunes and lives are never secure.

When we meet Angelica she’s frothing up her hair, wrapping each tendril in paper made from triangles of the Wesleyan tracts “passed out daily to the whores of Dean Street.” This hints at the novel’s politics, and its wit, the latter of which mainly resides in its salty, glorious women.

Two other vivid, vitally important characters are Hancock’s 14-year-old niece, Sukie, who runs his household, and her annoying mother, Hester Lippard, Hancock’s sister. Hester’s entirely occupied with appearances, status, and the economic futures of her numerous offspring — which she insist her brother, having no children of his own, is duty-bound to secure. Sukie will win your heart. Treated as a daughter by Jonah, she’s mostly allowed to speak up, and is listened to. Her resolve is stronger than his, and she displays tremendous practicality and entrepreneurial flair. Gowar repeatedly demonstrates that Georgian household management was a job as complicated and crucial as anything conducted in the counting houses and market places. It’s not hard to imagine how far a Sukie could go in our century.

And there’s the mermaid. Or should I say mermaids? The first is delivered by Hancock’s captain, who sold the boss’s ship to pay for it. So far, so Jack-in-the-Beanstalk. The captain reckons you can build new ships, but mermaids are rare. Exhibit it, he says, and bank a fortune. Hancock is less convinced, but with Sukie’s encouragement and assistance, sets up viewings in a local pub. The money rolls in.

An unexpectedly tempting offer from Mrs Chappell sends Hancock’s world askew, and introduces him to Angelica. Amid scenes of debauchery in the brothel, Hancock’s revealed as an innocent and a prude. It’s another nice spin, seeing the male of the species embodying qualities more regularly attributed to women. On that same note, some of the most instructive sections describe Angelica’s contraception methods. She has no time for pregnancy, denouncing marriage as no better than servitude and identity theft.

The second, more complicated mermaid washes in on a wave of magic and mythology, foreshadowed early in the story. I predict some will object to the tonal shift in the book’s latter chapters, when the elusive, quicksilver mermaid throws everyone into a depressed, despairing state of mind. But it’s thematically sound, for Gowar consistently explores the idea that some things — and all people — should not be captured and contained. (Here she evokes Scottish folklore about selkie brides, seemingly domesticated, but always eyeing the whereabouts of their pelts — and the exit.)

Her theme continues when she addresses race, via two characters. One is taciturn, noble Simeon, Mrs Chappell’s footman. In his sky blue livery, “half a head taller than most men,” he carries himself as an important man, from an important house, his demeanour “cool as a china dog”.

The other is Polly, one of Chappell’s bawds, a mulatto who flares angrily when anyone tries discussing “the African problem” with her. She says, “‘My father was a Scotsman, and yet nobody once prevailed upon me to dance a reel. But you would have me play a houri one night and a hottentot the next.’” She refuses Simeon’s cautious overtures and offers to connect her with free blacks who could help her escape. She explodes. How dare he think they were anything alike! She is forthright with a customer stupid enough to tell her he’s excited to try it with a black girl, vehemently proclaiming her worth as an individual and the value she’s assigned to her selfhood. She is no sideshow attraction.

Polly’s anger and hauteur make her behave rashly, and the one argument I have with this novel is that her story ends abruptly. We glimpse her briefly later, but there’s no satisfactory resolution for those hungry for information.

As for the upper class caucasians depicted here, they feel England contains too many blacks, who will not — or cannot — work. Angelica’s lover, Rockingham, dismisses the majority as runaway slaves short on loyalty to their masters. One can’t help but compare these ideas with those surrounding Brexit’s immigration and race rows. It’s a sad reminder that attitudes haven’t moved on nearly as much as they should have.

The book’s second Mermaid, as well as linking us with folklore and mythology, also functions as a critique of avaricious desires, and the urge to exert control over people, places, and objects — and the habit of regarding animate beings as objects. Hancock insists, “I am a rich man. I have a right to rare things.” Perhaps he does, but some come at too high a cost. This mermaid is not without environmental overtones, then.

Before we get to Volume III, which finds Angelica and Hancock married (that’s not a spoiler, the title gives it away), Angelica takes a young, virile soldier for a lover, the Rockingham mentioned earlier. That he’ll turn out a bad-un, and a faithless hypocrite, will surprise no one, except poor Angelica. He spurns her for being a working girl, more appalled by the fact that she must support herself than the means by which she does so. (Something tells me Gower is not a Tory.)

Class issues prove problematic for Jonah Hancock, as well. Having attained wealth, and though he already owns properties locally, he’s keen to purchase tracts of land in Marylebone, thinking to build a row of houses as a monument to his prestige. Outraged neighbours argue that he should spend his money in Deptford. “If each man born here were to do as you are doing, there would be no town left at all. Make your fortune in London, sir, nobody grudges you that, but do not spend it there too!”

In the end, Hancock does leave Deptford for a massive house in Greenwich bought as a tribute to his new bride. There, in an underground grotto, he installs Mermaid Two, but her unhappiness casts a pall over what should be a joyous household. Once again, it takes a woman’s resourcefulness to resolve things.

This is the sketchiest of outlines of a novel densely packed with incident, romance, and historical tidbits, conveyed in language worth savouring. (Ex: “Mrs Chappell labours towards a tiny japanned chair, with Angelica and Miss Bewlay clutching at her arms like girls struggling with a marquee in a high wind.”   “. . . her nipples tighten as if a stitch had been tugged in them.”)

If you loved The Essex Serpent or Golden Hill, if you value intelligence, wit, novels filled with characters to love, and with ideas, if you’re a fan of good stories, well told, I predict you’ll admire The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. It’s already one of my books of the year.

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REVIEW catch up, Part II

As promised, or threatened, here are a couple more rapid (ish) reviews. I’m nearly caught up — for now.

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Sargent’s Women, Four Lives Behind the Canvas
 By Donna M Lucey
Out now from  WW Norton & Company, £24 hardcover

John Singer Sargent was a breathtakingly accomplished painter, and though he came to hate the work, it’s portraits for which he’s primarily remembered. Donna Lucey ushers four of his sitters off their canvases, recounting the lives of Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler and Isabella Stewart Gardner. In truth, however, it’s not always the sitter but her family that holds the author’s interest, notably in the case of Sally Fairchild.

If you’ve ever looked at a painting and thought, “I wonder what they were like in real life?”, this is for you. The writing can be aggravatingly repetitive, but push past that, for the gossip’s good, the stories absorbing, and events often astonishing. All these women were enmeshed in high society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, an era Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age. Nevertheless, says Lucey, those years were “floating on a financial boom, revelling in unprecedented excess, heading for panic.”

The book’s organised by age, from teenaged Elsie to middle aged Isabella. Elsie Palmer’s 6’ tall portrait (below), depicting a still and severe-looking teenager, was first displayed in 1891. It was painted in England, where she lived with her mother — known as Queen — and siblings. Queen had a severe heart condition, and doctors told her the air in Colorado, where husband General William Palmer, a railroad baron, had established a base, was too thin to sustain her health. Leaving him behind, she fled to England.

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Queen ran her vast home on a lavish budget, keeping an open house for those affiliated with the arts. She was extremely close to her eldest, Elsie, often telling her “if anything happens, you’re in charge.” The relationship was clouded by doom.

Perhaps because of this closeness, and the sense that she was her mother’s keeper, Elsie spent most of her time with people much older than herself. She became friends with George Meredith, went to concerts with Sargent, and hung out with Ellen Terry.

By 1894 Elsie was embroiled in a “questionable” epistolary relationship with the husband of her mother’s best friend. Peter Harrison was an artist and considered a dilettante, and, writes Lucey, “primarily known today as the subject of a series of informal paintings by Sargent, some of them ‘hopelessly clever.’”

At the end of that year Queen died, and Elsie drew closer to Peter, though she returned with her father to Colorado to play hostess at his estate. They were visited by the eccentric mother and son pair Evelyn Tennant and Leo Myers. Leo, nine years younger than then-29-year-old Elsie, proposed, but she refused him.

By 1902 Peter and Elsie were reunited. They didn’t know that her younger sister, Marjory, instructed by another sister, known as Dos, was spying on them. Now things get complicated — suffice to say Peter was a nogoodnick. He took up with Dos, running both sisters on parallel tracks for a while. In the end, he plumped for Dos, leaving Elsie, now in her thirties high and dry.

She returned to Colorado. Her father was paralysed in a riding accident, and it seemed that once again Elsie’s life would be consumed by caring for an ailing parent. But she surprised everyone by running off with Leo. In January 1908 the couple wed — Elsie wearing “a long, brown wrap covered with huge metal buckles. Cords holding tiny bronze figures of animals of all kinds crisscrossed her outfit.” [Aside: I don’t know about you but this I want to see. Google’s not helpful. If anyone finds it, please tweet it to @randallwrites.]

The couple had children but the marriage was turbulent and they were often apart. Leo would write The Root and the Flower trilogy, and became a literary star. Sadly his mental health issues were pronounced, and in 1944 he ended his life. Elsie survived another ten years, dying in 1955, aged 82.

That’s an example of the kinds of stories you’ll find in Sargent’s Women. I  urge you to seek it out. Of the four chapters, the one devoted to Sally Fairchild (portrait below — my least favourite of the images but one of JSS’s personal favourites) is mostly to be about her sister, Lucia, an art student who followed Sargent around, taking notes on all he said about art and painting techniques.

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She achieved renown in the US, one of six female artists commissioned to paint murals for the Women’s building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was 20. Another artist chosen was Mary Cassatt. Lucia changed tack, inspired by the need for income, as she had a waster husband and children to support, and became an expert miniaturist with a glittering client list.

Her story is shot through with sadness, from economic distress and a bad marriage, to multiple suicides (her brothers), family scandals, and debilitating bad health (what we now know was multiple sclerosis).

Elizabeth Chanler was 27 when Sargent painted her, and the portrait (below and used on the book jacket) was so cherished by sister Margaret that it became family ritual to move it twice yearly, in order that sister and portrait might always be together.

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Elizabeth’s life was also dogged by ill health. She was part of the Astor family, but lost a baby sister, her great-grandfather and her mother one after another, and by nine years of age, was the eldest daughter of ten surviving children, and the de facto woman of the house. The brood was deposited at the family estate in New York, surrounded by servants but not their father, who remained in Manhattan. “Elizabeth, a mere child, provided the emotional ballast.”

At eleven — having been shipped off to a British boarding school on the Isle of Wight, run by author and educator Elizabeth Sewell — her father died suddenly. She wasn’t permitted to go home or see her siblings. The Sewells looked after her kindly, but theirs were strict, moralistic ways, and the school “ a bastion of Victorian rectitude.”

To “cure” the illness that made it difficult for her to walk, a fleet of doctors decided Elizabeth should be strapped to a board for two years, completely immobilised. She was 14, alone, lonely, and for a while, denied even the chance to write letters. In 1882 and 3 she lost two of her younger brothers. In 1887 she came of age and into considerable wealth. A cousin, Daisy Rutherford (who’d helped launch Sargent in London), took her in hand. Sargent painter her in 1893, when she was 27, unmarried, and “dangerously close to being considered over the hill.”

Elizabeth also fell in love with a married man — her best friend’s husband, John Jay “Jack” Chapman. Never less than dramatic, as a university student, on discovering that a man he’d assaulted thinking that he’d flirted with Minna, his financé, Chapman thrust his hand into a roaring fire. It had to be amputated.

The affair discovered, Elizabeth was shipped off for exotic climes by her sister, but while they were in Calcutta they received a telegram that Minna Chapman had died. Jack had to remain in mourning for two years, but the clandestine couple burned up the postal service with their passionate letters. Eventually they married in 1889. Weeks before she was to give birth to their first child Jack — considered one of America’s “great intellects, a prolific literary critic, and a political gadfly” — had a mental and physical collapse. It was years before he recovered, but Elizabeth, no stranger to illness, called on her deep reserves of patience and stuck by him. He recovered eventually, but from here on in, though they remained a devoted couple, their lives were dogged by tragedy.

The final portrait in the book belongs to Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose life, Lucey writes, “seems to have the neat structure of a three-act play.” Raised to be a demure society wife, Isabella married a wealthy man, then proceeded to run wild, often scandalising society, though nothing she did seems odd by today’s standards.

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All must be forgiven, at any rate, for Gardner’s lasting legacy is one of the most marvellous museums.  Three floors of art, “and the placement of every single piece is fixed forever. . . If the curators move a piece of furniture or a canvas even a foot from its preordained spot, the entire collection will be put up to auction in Paris with the proceeds going to Harvard.”

Married by twenty to John Lowell Gardner Jr — from one of Boston’s wealthiest, most prominent families — Isabella, with her New York manners, was not embraced by  Boston society who considered her too flashy, a show off, and altogether rum.

Following the Civil War and the birth of a son, dogged by postnatal depression, Isabella packed her trunks and together with her quieter, duller husband, set off to see the world. They went everywhere, and “Bell sought out the most unusual experiences during their travels.” She watched sumo wrestling, ate boiled sea slugs in China, traversed the jungle (partly by elephant) to see Angkor Wat, and attended the installation of the nizam of Hyderabad. Along the way, especially in later years, she bought art.

Sargent’s 1888 portrait of Isabella was to prove as scandalous as its subject — from the pose to the arrangement of her jewels, and the depth (again, modest by today’s standards) of her décolletage. “Belle. . . wanted to expose herself and believed Sargent was the artist who could do it. She was married and she was not young, but the portrait celebrates her sexuality, her joy in her body. . . it was certainly a provocation.”

Her husband paid $3,000 for it, saying, “It looks like hell but it looks just like you.”

Isabella scooped up everything from paintings and antiquities to manuscripts, ceramics and glassware. She funded most of this with a massive $1.6 million inheritance from her father (in 1891 money!), which her husband agreed she could ring fence for this purpose. To further her ambitions she paired up with her old friend Bernard Berenson (misidentified as Bernhard in the book), whom she’d known since he was at university.

Jack Gardner’s death, in 1898, deposited another $2million into Isabella’s coffers, and she managed her fortune well, using it to build her museum and set it up precisely as she wished. In February of 1903 it opened to the general public  to immediate, rapturous reviews.

Setting out to view four lives, Donna Lucey winds up illuminating countless more. The result is a lively work rich in fascinating anecdotes that will please fans of biographies and anyone interested in the lives of little-known women.

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Ancestors in the Attic: My Great-Grandmother’s Book of Ferns / My Aunt’s Book of Silent Actors
By Michael Holroyd
Out now from Pimpernel Press Ltd. Two volumes, slipcased, £35 hardcover

Odd, haunting, and beautiful, this two volume set consists of memory books kept by Michael Holroyd’s great-grandmother and aunt, respectively. The former, living in north east India, collected ferns which she carefully sewed onto the pages, creating exquisite nature studies full of colour and texture. She had a genuine flair for composition. The latter is less artistic and compelling, consisting of black and white photographs of silent movie stars cut out of magazines. We learn that this photographic collection sits amid the bigger book of ferns, on pages left blank in the large volume because of his great-grandmother’s depression. The botanical plates have been annotated by Christopher Fraser-Jenkins, a world expert on Indian ferns.

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The scrapbooks had been abandoned in the attic of the family home, and Holroyd didn’t see them until he was much older, despite living in the house throughout WWII. They were rescued by subsequent owners of the house, who presented them to him as a gift.

In separate (but overlapping) essays, Holroyd sketches portraits of his family. They’re poignant tales of isolation, undiagnosed postnatal depression, and suicide. This is a nice wee companion piece to Holroyd’s two longer memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic, and with Christmas coming, this handsome boxed set would make a terrific gift for Holroyd fans (that’s everyone, right?).

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Women and Power, A Manifesto
By Mary Beard
Out now from Profile Books, £7.99 hardcover

Another great stocking stuffer comes from Britain’s favourite bluestocking, the renowned, redoubtable, remarkable Mary Beard. It’s a small book packed with big ideas, classical references, and photographs, addressing the gender agenda and putting it in historical context. Our basic template for “powerful” is male not female — but why should that be so and how did it happen?

The text is based on lectures Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, on the theme of “how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them. . . from the centres of power.” By going back to ancient times, Beard proves that “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”

Along the way  Beard reminds us that “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.” She points out that Elizabeth I’s famous speech at Tilbury probably never happened — at least not in those words — and debunks Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, with its Southern drawl cadences, pointing out that she came from the North and was brought up speaking Dutch. Further back in time, Amazon warriors were also a Greek male myth rather than a reality.

Beard explores the way women are silenced on social media, drawing on (but not dwelling there) her experiences with trolls. She notes that “unpopular, controversial or just plain different views, when voiced by a woman, are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she is stupid.”

She admits that she hasn’t come up with a solution to these issues, but recommends that we go back to basics, revisiting our “rules” of rhetorical operations, to think about “the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do.” She adds, “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”

A rousing wee book for these aggravating times. Recommended reading.

 

 

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RAPID FIRE BOOK REVIEWS Part I

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Dear Readers — If it’s not to arrogant to suppose you exist.

My apologies for not blogging for ages. My excuses include, but are not limited to:

•Massive amounts of prescribed reading for the McIlvanney Prize (judge); EIBF, Bloody Scotland, Wigtown Book Festival, Dundee Literary Festival …
•Ongoing pervasive melancholy
•Spending the past few months not knowing whether I was coming or going, mainly concentrating on being at a book festival on the right day at the right time with the right set of notes to hand
•All while finalising the programming of Granite Noir
•Turning 58 (what a dull, uninspiring number)
•Running back and forth to the post office thanks to the lovely people placing orders from my Etsy shop, PluckyCrocus
•And dealing with ongoing pervasive melancholy. Have I mentioned the melancholy?

None of this is as time or energy consuming as being a full time health care professional, a teacher, a firefighter, a parent, or — well you get the picture. It consumes me, though. C’est ma vie.

I have several different TBR piles. The one glaring daggers at me is recently acquired stuff, books I requested from publishers, books they sent me as lovely surprises, because they thought I’d enjoy them, and some that talented friends sent my way. I’m doing my best. There have been a few disappointments. Not naming any names, but also not reviewing those, as is my policy here.

In brief, are a few of the absorbing things I’ve read recently. Expect Part II soon:

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A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee. Out now from Chatto & Windus. £16.99 hardback

Not a review, because Neel and I are friends, and I don’t review my friends. Nevertheless I urge you to read this. Neel’s richly textured novels remind me of Tolstoy’s, with their attention to detail and their comprehensive — at times horrifying — introduction to a society most of us don’t properly understand. I’ve learned more about India from reading two of Neel’s novels than I did from paying a brief visit, or anything else I’ve read. This is a scathing portrait of a rigid and rigged society the likes of which you won’t see on a package holiday. His characters are complicated, their lives messy and circumscribed. Added bonus, the novel’s filled with mouth-watering descriptions of regional cooking that made me want to go out and try every dish he described.

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The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld. Out now from Orion as an eBook and an Export TPB, £12.99; out in hardback in January, £12.99

Fans of The Enchanted will love Rene Denfeld’s new novel, which is less shocking but no less stirring. She returns to the theme of damaged, dispossessed lives, revealing the resilience of the human spirit, and showing how beauty may persist even in horrific circumstances.

Naomi Cottle is a child finder, called in by desperate families, often long after a police investigation has stalled or ended. As the novel opens she’s meeting the Culvers. Three years earlier their five-year-old daughter Madison went missing. Her mother, especially, believes that she’s alive, and might be returned.

This story, part mystery, part quest, alternates with the slow unpacking of Naomi’s increasingly vivid memories of her own childhood abduction, her rescue, and subsequent life in foster care. She pushes against the rising tide of memories, frightened of horrors she might remember. But she’s equally frightened of the steadfast love on offer from a man who’s pure of heart.

Another strand of the novel is Madison’s own tale of captivity — for she is alive, albeit enduring a feral existence, imprisoned by one of Denfeld’s now-trademark complicated — yet ultimately compelling — villains. It’s intriguing, and surely no accident, that both her novels portray the “villain” as a man without a voice, someone returned to a primitive state, someone removed from society, who can’t believe in his own existence because his own abuser erased him so thoroughly.

Denfeld’s language is unadorned, and the story rooted in the real world, in the crunch of snow and the smell of blood coming from sprung traps, in the stench of bodies and the comforting aroma of home cooking. Though seasons pass in Madison’s thread, it’s a cold book, the chill coming not only from descriptions of the mountainous, wooded terrain, and the people who live there, but from events, as well.

In captivity, Madison evokes a private world, drawing on the walls of her subterranean prison. She creates an ongoing fairy tale, calling herself a snow girl; it’s part autobiography, part remembered bedtime stories. She hides in her fantasy world: “On the dirt floor she drew a large shape called MOM. She lay down inside it, pretending it was hers. She cupped her body there, sucking her thumb like a baby.”

My one concern is that Madison reads much older than her years, which span ages five to eight. Early on, when she’s presumably nearer five, Denfeld has her “feel her veins filling with nutrients as she ate, as if she were one of the trees outside, drinking in the milk of the melted snow.”

She is a strong child, remarkably adept at maintaining her identity and studying her captor. “Maybe he cannot read, she thought. This thought gave her pleasure. Maybe she knew something he did not.” Ultimately the reader (this reader) suspends disbelief about the girl’s vocabulary and thoughts. This, I’ve decided, is what happens in Denfeld’s novels, which conjure a sense of the magical. Think back to the horses sequence in The Enchanted. Go with her story and see where it takes you.

Eventually we understand that “B,” the abductor, is deaf. He no longer feels real to himself and believes Madison is magic. He is filled with rage. The story of how he became this way is, like Naomi’s, eked out — and devastating. It is why I put “villain” in quotes. He has done bad, more than once. But is he bad? These ambiguities are at the heart of everything Denfeld writes, and should be at the heart of all human interactions.

Interviewed by Michigan Quarterly, Denfeld said, “I want to explore how crime happens as part of our culture, not outside it, and how the victims are among us — they are us — just as the offenders are created, not born. I also wanted the story set in the natural world, part of the landscape where we find beauty as well as challenge. I wanted to turn over the tropes about so many people, from foster parents to sex abuse victims, and to demonstrate the immense power we all have to change lives for the better. I wanted to show the power of love.”

She succeeds beautifuly. Her humanity and empathy are never in doubt. No one is written off, no matter what, for behaviour is always contextualised. Hope is possible. Love is possible. Damage, while ineradicable, need not define us.

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You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks & Other Man-Made Women. By Carina Chocano. Out now from Virago. £14.99 paperback

American journalist Carina Chocano was a staff film and TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, and a staff writer for Salon. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elle, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Aeon and elsewhere. She’s been anthologised in several humour collections, and is the author of Do You Love Me, or am I Just Paranoid.

This essay collection functions partly as memoir, partly as a history lesson for her daughter, its dedicatee. It is also part exposé of some of the ways that female identity has been — and still is — shaped by male popular culture and male ideas. And how women regularly buy into that, unthinkingly. Though Chocano’s younger than I am, much of what she recalls held true for me, coming of age about 10-15 years earlier, underscoring the painful truth that we haven’t come a long way, babies, not at all.

It’s an uneven anthology, but that’s the nature of these beasts. The best of these essays more than make up for more lightweight fare. She’s done her research, and pulls in fitting references from a range of feminist texts. She also links to fairy tales and other children’s stories, especially Alice in Wonderland, making them illustrate her bigger arguments about the role of women and our place in society. She uses pernicious messages in the stories we’re told told and absorb — received wisdom, or so it seems, to a kid — to contrast with the shock of awakening, sputtering to one’s senses, saying, “Hey wait just a minute!” (Which reminds me of the version of Sleeping Beauty in which she’s raped while deep in enchanted sleep, and has a baby.)

Favourite essays of mine include Bunnies, which talks about her grandfather, and the warped world of Playboy magazine, and Can This Marriage Be Saved, which looks at her parents’ marriage and the institution as a destination, taking in The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and the eponymous advice column that ran for years and years in Ladies’ Home Journal. It contains this sobering realisation: “In societies where women’s rights are no longer openly, blatantly denied — as they are not in most of the Western world — women are instead encouraged to deny them voluntarily.”

The Bronze Statue of the Virgin Slut Ice Queen Bitch Goddess is good on Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. What a Feeling tackles how, during puberty, “It’s not that you lose control of your body so much as that you lose control over the way your body is interpreted.” She looks at the differences between male and female coming of age stories — yes, through the prism of Flashdance, decoding its dark messages.

You Play The Girl is absorbing, anger-provoking and worth reading at any age. An excellent Christmas gift for young people, it will remind them to question all the storytelling conventions that keep women down and help perpetuate toxic masculinity.

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Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Out now from Pushkin Press. £7.99 paperback.

Are there two more delicious words than “slim volume?” This SV, a collection of shortish short stories which won the PO Enquist Literary Prize, comes beautifully packaged by Pushkin Press, who do everything with style. Dorthe Nors is the author of four novels, a novella, and this collection. She was the first Danish writer to have a story appear in The New Yorker, and has been shortlisted for the Booker prize (For Mirror, Shoulder, Signal).
To be honest, I’m still coming to grips with these sharp, funny, unsettling tales. It feels as if the reader’s dropped into the thick of things — entire worlds evoked in a few sentences — then plucked out jarred, but not fully absorbing what’s just happened.  These are not stories for a once-over, but stories to return to regularly, to argue about and ponder.

In one, the unexpected delivery of a four-pound tomato leads to an even more unexpected romance. Another seems to be about neighbours, their dogs and the deaths of these dogs. Blink or skip a word and you miss what’s really going on.

I’ll return to Nors’s work — I’ve two more on deck — and to these stories, and hope to speak more knowledgeably about them. Meanwhile, I recommend them to anyone who enjoys spare, rich prose, and stories whose intensity belies their brevity.

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