I did enjoy reading these, but I haven’t got a whole blogpost’s worth to say about each of them. Please accept these brief paras in the spirit of strong recommendation.
Una McCormack, The Greatest Story Ever Told
I bought this from NewCon Press, one of a trilogy of themed novels about a populated Mars, with three different authors taking the theme and running off with it in different directions. McCormack’s story is told in the first person by a household slave, who takes the long way back to the house after an errand in the town to find herself in the middle of an insurrection. The bonded dance-fighters training at the house have decided to rebel and strike out for freedom, and they’re taking any of the hands with them who want to come. The rebellion swells, but it wasn’t until the description of crucifixion as a punishment that I realised that this is Spartacus retold. Or at least I think it is: I’ve never seen the film or read any of the novels, though I have seen the ballet. McCormack’s signature first-person narration is strongly on form. She also slips a radical setting past our notice until, quite late into the story, we realise that everyone is female. This is an all-woman society (unless everyone uses female pronouns), and what a difference this makes to the relationships and the power dynamics. No-one is raped, for a start. An excellent novel, effortlessly told and compulsive to read.
Colm Toíbín, The Master
This is Toíbín’s retelling of the life of Henry James, fifteen years old now, and it’s a beautiful piece of work. I spent a lot of time marvelling at his sparse use of dialogue, how he placed his characters’ development almost wholly in the narrative description, which I am sure is something MFA writers are told not to do. Thank heavens for this masterclass of showing by telling. It’s a perfect match of style and subject, since James too was a genius at showing the reader what they should think by telling them other things, obliquely and meanderingly. Like Toíbín’s Nora Webster, which is propelled by the slow release of information that changes our perspective, The Master also unfolds secrets and lies, careful refusals and opportunities not taken, which did damage and wasted lives. Henry James doesn’t come out of this novel as well as he might have wanted to.
Harold Nicolson, Journey to Java
In 1956 Nicolson was given a fat cheque for his seventieth birthday by a group of his friends, and spent it on a cruise to Java and back with his wife, Vita Sackville West. To my great joy they both treated the cruise as a sabbatical at sea, carefully selecting work to do uninterrupted in their separate cabins, with extra reading material for serious study. Nicolson’s homework was a philosophical question to which he returns periodically in the book. You don’t have to read this if you’re not interested in philosophy or his potted digests of the authorities he read. Far more entertaining are his shipboard diary entries, and the fabulous foibles of first-class travel by elderly public figures. Neither of them have any truck with the farcical ceremonies of Crossing the Line; they retain dignity, intelligence, a sense of humour and their hats at all suitable times. I was interested to learn that Vita never learned to swim because her mother did not think it a suitable thing for a debutante to do. Harold gets upset if he feels he isn’t dressed correctly. They both seemed like thoroughly nice people, if possibly rather exacting in conversational standards. And Harold met a murderer. A cracking good read, if you skip the philosophy.
Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place
I have wanted, idly, to read this ever since I read that Durrell named his brother Gerald Durrell’s latest book of animal-collecting anecdotes Fillets of Plaice after it. It’s not as funny, to be sure, but it’s quite good. It’s an assemblage of letters, poems (not too many), articles and drawings and paintings, and some stories at the back, put together in the late 1960s with a completely uncritical eye, since Durrell was still alive, by his friend Alan G Thomas. It’s unbalanced, being all in Durrell’s voice and from his perspective. None of his wives or daughters get a chance to contribute or say anything, and there are gaps in the chronology where, presumably, the transitions between wives are passed over without comment. Durrell is a hyperbolic correspondent, which gets wearing, but this collection certainly gives a sense of his personality and massive presence. The letters are far more readable than the stories and articles.
Patrick Campbell, A Long Drink of Cold Water
Campbell was a journalist in the 1940s and 1950s, and this is a collection of his pieces for the magazine Lilliput, which I think may have been an English precursor to Playboy. The introduction by Leonard Russell, one of the great anthologisers and editors of the period, lays great stress on how desperately funny a writer Campbell is, so my expectations were high. I didn’t start laughing out loud until the last two pieces, but by heavens they deserved it. The snappy 1950s illustrations by Ronald Searle, before he got all louche and casual in the 1960s, are a joy.
R A Dick, The Ghost and Mrs Muir
I confess, I enquired about the rights for this novel, as I was about 70% sure that I wanted to republish it. But they’re unavailable, so I feel free to extol its virtues here. If the agents get back in touch with more positive news you won’t find this paragraph for dust. Dick was the pseudonym of Josephine Leslie, an Irish author who published this novel and one other, The Devil and Mrs Devine, of which the only available copy is on offer for over $200. (If anyone has read it, do let me know what it’s like.) The Ghost and Mrs Muir, her earlier 1945 novel, is a little easier to find (but not much!) because it was republished in 2014 (with a terrible, film-focused introduction) on the strength of it having been the inspiration for the 1947 film starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. It’s also been written about by Margaret Stetz as an example of 20thC comic writing by a woman author. It is gently comic, but not uproarious. I’d say its charm is the Lolly Willoweseque situation of a suppressed Victorian woman escaping the tyranny of her family, aided by the ghost of a rumbunctious sea captain, whose house she decides to rent. I started reading this at lunchtime, and gave up all pretence of going back to work so I could finish it, two hours later, with a tear in my eye. It’s that kind of a novel. It’s not deep, it’s light and romantic and very satisfying. It lacks historicity and has a few plot holes, but is a delightful novel. I am perhaps now 80% convinced I want to republish it, but as things stand, I don’t have much chance.
Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major
I have never managed to make any headway with Jude The Obscure and I really dislike Tess (though it is a family obligation to admire that novel, as my grandmother’s cousin was directed by Hardy in Dorchester for the first stage production as Tess, so family lore has it). But I love The Return of the Native and Far From the Madding Crowd, and The Mayor of Casterbridge was an absolute joy to teach. My elderly Penguin Classics edition of The Trumpet-Major is afflicted with an introduction by a man who disliked the novel so much he quoted French theory at it, so I’m glad I didn’t read that first. This is a historical novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Wessex (Dorset) coastal villages and towns, and also about the vacillating affections of Anne Garland, a young woman who has too many suitors and not enough to keep her busy. The novel was written for serialisation, and my goodness it shows: the twists and turns of plot, the progressions of the various love affairs, and the completely satisfying ending when Anne finally decides who she will marry, are all designed to entertain and captivate the reader. It’s a comic novel in many ways, though the vile Festus Derriman has got to be one of Hardy’s most accomplished villains.