I have read so many duds and books recently that I gave up on because their meh factor was way too high. These are the pearls in a bit of a swamp, the ones I actually finished.
Bea Howe, Lady With The Green Fingers. The Life of Jane Loudon
I rather unfairly only think of Bea Howe as one of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s oldest friends, instead of as a quite good author who specialised in writing biographies of obscure women, and at least one slightly flawed but remarkable fantasy, A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee (1927). She was married to a conductor and musician, and that’s about all I can find out about her, without going to dig out her other books which have more details on their dustjackets. This biography (dedicated to Sylvia) is semi-novelised, in that Howe imagines thoughts and dialogue, but seems to stick closely to the facts of the life of Jane Webb, later Loudon, as described in the diaries of her daughter Agnes. Jane was obliged to support herself early in life after the death of her father, and wrote The Mummy which when published in 1829 was only the second science fiction novel written by a British woman. She visited London and met the up and coming garden designer of the day, John Loudon, whom she married. He was a workaholic, and she turned her life into supporting him and becoming a renowned garden designer on her own account, which was helpful as his overwork killed him. This biography shows a remarkable life of achievement and hard work, and constant gardening and travel. It’s a sobering account of how the Victorian artisanal middle classes hoped to make a living from patronage by the stuffy governing classes. Agnes was rescued by marriage into this rich caste after Jane’s death.
Heywood and Anne Hill, A Bookseller’s War
If you’re a Nancy Mitford fan to the extent of having read her letters and biography, you’ll know that she worked for part of the Second World War in the Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair, London. This collection of letters to and from the married couple who ran the bookshop, written when Heywood was in the army and Anne was struggling to manage the bookshop on her own, heavily pregnant, is a terrific evocation of London at war. It also shows how bloody annoying Nancy could be as a colleague and as an employee. She comes across as an intimidating spiky person, with prejudices that moved her to hide books by authors she had a hate on for. From a modern perspective the shop stocked a curious mixture of new works and antiquarian treasures, but such was the dearth of books during the war (paper rationing, printing plates being melted for salvage etc), people were so desperate for books that supplying them second-hand was as good for business as buying new stock. This shop had a very well-connected clientele, which had high expectations of not needing to pay their bills for months, and expecting miracle titles to appear within the week. This is reflected in the footnotes assembled by the Hills’ nephew who edited the book, who shared the same values, knew the families and spoke in the same exaggerated mode of the 1930s. The domestic details of a strange segregated society are fascinating. Anne Hill earned hardly anything from the shop but still employed live-in servants (she didn’t use her title, but servants were obviously normal for her). Heywood writes bitterly from his various army training camps complaining about the tedious work he has to do, but refuses to apply for a commission, even though with Eton and Cambridge behind him he is obviously born to that class (Osbert Sitwell urged him: ‘Tell them who you are.’) Bloomsbury figures are not mentioned: this is not their milieu at all. The details of the book business are dashes of reality, and Anne was struggling even to understand what stock the shop had. From such amateur hard work a legendary bookshop was born.
Evelyn Waugh, Scott-King’s Modern Europe
This was a surprise, a Waugh I’d never heard of, and it’s probably misfiled in catalogues as a text-book. But it’s a brief and snarling satire on modern (1960s?) academic and political corruption, based in the totalitarian European nation of Neutralia which has one internationally known historical native, a totally obscure poet called Bellorius. The Neutralian government holds a festival to honour Bellorius to which are invited a host of foreign dignitaries, including Mr Scott-King. He is a Classics master in a very minor English public school who refuses to teach any other subjects, but has a stubborn interest in the works of Bellorius. He travels to take part in the festival, intrigued and mildly interested, and finds himself a victim of internal politics, the astonishing boredom of conference speeches and very little food. He also discovers that he may be the only dignitary who actually knows who Bellorius is: there are other factors at work. Yet he is not a victim: he is not hapless, he is canny and independent, and hangs onto his integrity for as long as possible. He survives because he is extremely careful with his dwindling supplies of hard currency. Waugh is quite obviously letting off steam here about European political corruption and political tyranny, but even if you can’t be bothered with that, this is a darkly comic satire and very enjoyable. When I bought this in Hay on Wye it was one of three copies available in three shops with the same John Piper dustjacket (and also the cheapest by far).
Pauline Innis, Ernestine. A Pig in the Potting Shed
A wartime story of a teenage girl in Devon who buys a pig and raises it, ostensibly for food, but she cannot bring herself to kill Ernestine, whom she and her great-aunt and grandmother have come to love, so she breeds piglets off her instead so they can be sold for meat, thus appeasing the Pig Board. This is a charming and very funny novel, and also quite short. The illustrations are excellent, but this is a novel of the 1960s about the 1940s, written by the author when she had moved from England to California after marrying an admiral. It’s clearly written for an American readership, and the details of pig breeding and being bombed are really excellent. But somehow it’s not enough. I extravagantly bought Innis’s other novel from an American dealer, Fire from the Fountains, published a couple of years later, but to my great disappointment although it’s a sequel to Ernestine, it’s got much less propulsion in the narrative, with a not very good subplot about a young man who may or may not be a spy. It’s written from life but it’s trying to be art, and it doesn’t work. Ernestine is much better.
Amy Stanley, Strangers in the Shogun’s City
If you’re writing a novel about 19th-century Edo, the city that became Tokyo, and the regulations and conditions that immigrants from the countryside had to negotiate, this is the history book for you! The research is simply astonishing. Stanley traces the life of Tsunemo, a daughter of a Shinto priest who decides to leave her family home (after two failed marriages) and live in the great city of Edo. What happens to her, how she copes and fails and survives, her jobs and relationships, is teased out from the letters her angry and despairing family write to her, and the letters she sends them, asking for her clothes, her fans, her chest, for news of her mother’s health and so on. It’s a niche interest but good lord it’s packed with detail.
Alan Garner, Treacle Walker
I was gobsmacked to see this on the Booker shortlist, because their lists never usually contain anything that interests me. Treacle Walker was already on my wishlist because, well, it’s by Alan Garner, so I was mildly embarrassed to be seen buying a Booker nominee in public. This one is much more like The Stone Book’s four novels about home and unity and the roots of identity than Garner’s psychodramas of Alderley Edge that began with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. It’s about alternate identities, a Bog Man, a boy with a lazy eye reading comics at home, oblivious to who else might be in the house with him, and Treacle Walker and his cart, arriving and leaving like the passage of the sun. It’s told in cracking good dialogue, gnomic and also straightforward. While you’re never quite sure what is going on, the story is satisfying and emotionally sound. I did like this a lot. Read the late Maureen Speller’s excellent but very long essay on this.
Amy Chavez, The Widow, The Priest and the Octopus Hunter
More Japanese culture, and I loved this book, another cracker from Tuttle Publishing. The author (another American Amy immersing herself in Japan) moved to Shiraishi, a small island in the Inland Sea in Japan in the 1990s, initially renting a house from a widow and later buying it from the family when the old lady had died. But this is not about her, very much: this is a wonderful series of interviews with the inhabitants of the island (population 430 and falling) to find out what their lives had been like, how they live now, and how living on Shiraishi had changed since the 1920s. The interviews are expertly paced and arranged, each story unfolding more information about people, the island’s history, about customs and work practices, about the festivals and the schools, above all about the impact of the Second World War on the lives of the people; a stunning portrait of a world fast disappearing. In particular, a strong and unifying line of story runs through the interviews, the increasing mystery of the life of the widow whose house Chavez now owns, and whose packed cupboards and boxes she unpacks to be mystified by the things she finds in them.
I cannot praise the editing highly enough. However, Chavez’s own writing style is horribly overblown, since she uses the ‘variation’ mode in which no noun can be repeated: a fisherman might be described in one page as ‘the burly man’, ‘the son of Ishi’, ‘my neighbour’s brother’, ‘the owner of the red boat’, and so on (I’ve made those examples up but you get the idea.). It’s an utterly maddening style for writing English that is still taught, possibly in American creative writing modules? It’s certainly the norm in other languages where it’s considered good style, but it is dreadful in English. Anyhow, most of the book is the translated interviews which are related simply and in plain, elegant English. When Chavez forgets herself she writes calmly too, so don’t be put off by her mad overwritten purple patches. This is a terrific portrait of a community and its history, well told and glowing with integrity and heart.