All posts in the Books category

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Published 05/02/2015 by damselwithadulcimer

Elizabeth is missing

Throughout my mother’s final illness I was under more stress than I realised and lost my habit of reading. I just felt unable to concentrate, and was definitely too tired to read in bed at night. It’s taken a few months, but I’ve now bought a pile of books and intend to make up for lost time.

I had read reviews of Elizabeth is Missing and decided to buy a copy as it seemed to deal with the subject of dementia, something I still feel very close to.

Emma Healey writes as Maud, an octogenarian who has memory problems; the word dementia is never mentioned although the symptoms are clear. As a former carer for somebody with dementia I have talked with others about trying to imagine the experience and Healey makes a very good job of trying to get into the mind of somebody with the forgetfulness, confusion and anxiety that are part and parcel of this cruel illness. Maud’s obsession with trying to find her friend Elizabeth swoops and swirls around the disappearance of her sister Sukey more than 60 years before the narration of the novel.

Elizabeth is Missing crosses genres: it is part detective story, part reminiscence, and part a sad coming to terms with what can happen to us as we get older. The narrator’s obsessions with planting marrows, buying tins of peaches and looking for Elizabeth are juxtaposed with the shreds of her life as a teenager after the war, a time of austerity and rationing and buying her first lipstick. Above all it is a tale told by an unintentionally unreliable narrator with a Miss Marple like instinct for fathoming out an unsolved mystery.

You will be satisfied and unsatisfied, moved and touched by Maud’s story. And if you have had experience of dementia or Alzheimer’s you will recognise a journey that you have experienced as a co-traveller to a place that you hope you will never visit yourself.

Review: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Published 29/01/2014 by damselwithadulcimer

Instructions for a Heatwave

I’ve never ready anything by Maggie O’Farrell before, but tend to find myself drawn to contemporary Irish literature.  O’Farrell was brought up in Wales and now lives in Scotland, but she draws on her Irish roots in introducing us to the family in Instructions for a Heatwave.

The Riordans live in London, where they have raised their three now adult children.  The novel begins very precisely on 15 July 1976 with the announcement of the Drought Act of that year.  The weather had remained exceptionally dry over the previous twelve months, but the above average temperatures that began in June of that year, prompted the government to introduce the Act referred to above, and to appoint a Minister for Drought, Denis Howell. 

The novel begins with Gretta, the family’s matriarch, making the same soda bread that she has prepared three times a week throughout her married life. The precision with which she bakes the family loaf echoes the precise elements of the Drought Act.  But on this July day her life will change: her husband Robert leaves to buy a newspaper and does not return. Her search for Robert means that she will have to get in touch with each of her children and enlist their help in tracing their father.

O’Farrell teases out the tensions between the siblings.  There is Michael Francis, a schoolteacher with marital problems who never completed his PhD; Monica, stepmother to Peter’s young daughters and harbouring a painful secret; and Aiofe, the youngest daughter (whose pregnancy has impacted on Gretta’s health) trying to conceal a skeleton within her own cupboard.  With all these buried secrets is it no wonder that Robert’s disappearance will lead to the uncovering of even more hidden truths? 

The need to for Gretta to contact her children forces her to confront the past and provides O’Farrell with the perfect opportunity to fill in the younger Riordans back stories.  She takes the siblings back to shared events in their childhoods and to episodes from their adult lives and enables us to build up their psychological backgrounds and to learn how their lives impact on the family and on each other.  We all come with our own baggage, and the Riordan children are no exception.  All three are forced to face the past and mend bridges, both within and without their immediate families.  Gretta too, pieces together what has happened to Robert and travels back to Ireland with her offspring and grandchildren to reveal a deeply buried truth. 

O’Farrell will seduce you with her prose, force you to turn the pages to reach the conclusion, and make you empathise with the problems and dilemmas encountered by the Riordans, a truly modern family with its fractures and reconciliations.

Review: Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

Published 12/03/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

Helen Dunmore never fails to disappoint. She has a way with words and makes you believe you are inside the narrative and able to experience the sensations she evokes. I can always feel, taste, smell and hear a Dunmore novel.

Talking to the Dead is filled with tension and an awareness that something unpleasant will be revealed. The story unfolds through the filter of Nina, the younger of two sisters, who relates in the present tense, adding to the immediacy of the narrative. Although the perspective is Nina’s, she doesn’t try to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader, but presents herself in a way that is not entirely sympathetic. She is drawn deeper into the lives of her sister, Isabel, who has recently had a traumatic birth experience, and her husband Richard; the proximity between the two sisters leads to the awakening of long suppressed memories from the past.

Book Review: An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

Published 28/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

An Experiment in Love is Carmel’s story of her childhood somewhere near Manchester. She is educated at Catholic schools, earns a scholarship as a passport out of her working class background, and fetches up at university in London. Here she makes new friends from different classes and parts of the country, but fails to sever her ties with her school friends, who have joined her at the same hall of residence.

Carmel reflects back on her life, prompted by a newspaper article about a friend and former co-student, but it is only when we approach the novel’s end that we realise how her story, and her friend’s profession, are linked, and can understand what has prompted Carmel’s reminiscences.

This is a coming of age biographical novel, told against a background of the 1960s and early 1970s, of girls leaving home for the first time and trying to live independently in London. We are vaguely aware of the wave of feminism that underpins the era, although these girls are having to work it out for themselves. As someone who was born in the same year as Hilary Mantel, I was also touched by the memories that are so relevant to the 1960s, especially the ritual of buying the first school uniform, and encountering school teachers who are quick to lash out with a ruler.

T S Eliot famously stated that his past was part of his present, and this is acutely true of Carmel and her tale. She may have risen above her working class background, but she can never leave her former self behind.

Family Album by Penelope Lively

Published 13/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

Penelope Lively has long been one of my favourite contemporary writers. Once more she plays with the idea of memory in a novel that is not linear, but jumps around in just the same way that we remember the past.

Family Album is the story of a large middle class family and is told through the eyes of the parents, and the six children, who are all adults when the novel starts. What appears to be an ideal existence in a large and rambling home, Allersmead, actually turns out to be anything but. There is a skeleton in the family cupboard, and it gradually becomes apparent that it is known and acknowledged, although never explicitly acknowledged by the parents.

It’s often stated that a family that eats together, stays together. But this is not the case and the novel ends with the siblings widely scattered and keeping in touch by email. Thus a tale that starts slowly and that expands gradually, is reduced to the shortened messages conveyed through hyperspace.

Penelope Lively again proves that scratching the surface reveals that things are never quite what they seem, and that we don’t all take away the same impressions from shared experiences.

Review of The Fight for English by David Crystal

Published 05/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

This book should be required reading for anybody who cares about the English language. Although David Crystal is a linguist he passionately believes that our language must evolve. It can never be preserved in aspic. To endorse this belief he reminds us that Samuel Johnson saw the error of his way, and proclaimed that language can never be fixed. Crystal goes on to state:

You cannot stop language change. You may not like it; you may regret the arrival of new
forms and the passing of old ones; but there is not the slightest thing you can do about
it. Language change is as natural as breathing. It is one of the linguistic facts of life.

He charts the evolution of the English language, both verbal and written, from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day when American English is more the norm than the exception. He analyses the changes in our language over the centuries and discusses how the pedants and moralisers have tried to impose rules and regulations. How regional accents and dialects have been derided, and how writers, such as Shakespeare, have been retrospectively criticised for making grammatical errors.

Crystal reaches an optimistic conclusion that allows for changes to the English language. He is pleased that the teaching of grammar has been reintroduced to schools, but in a far less prescriptive and proscriptive manner that now permits children to understand and questions the rules.

It’s time to go with the flow and accept that the English language has never stood still, nor will it in the future. And there is nothing wrong with starting a question with a conjunction and ending it with a preposition. 

Review of Nemesis by Philip Roth

Published 19/11/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

It was difficult to read this novel without a growing sense of foreboding. The very title can mean retribution, or it can also mean an enemy in North American usage. The very ambiguity of the interpretation of the title feeds into Bucky’s feelings of guilt and makes the reader question why Bucky feels he must shoulder so much blame for the polio epidemic that is raging through New Jersey while World War II is being fought in Europe and the Pacific. Is he really an agent of doom, or can he never forgive himself for not being fit enough to fight in the armed services? Bucky can run, but he can’t hide. The novel also questions the existence of a cruel or a caring God and leaves you feeling unsettled and angry and upset for Bucky, the life thrust upon him, and the choices he has made.

Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger

Published 10/11/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I’ve been a Penelope Lively fan for years, so I jumped at the opportunity of attending a radio recording of her talking about her Booker prize winning novel, Moon Tiger.   I’ve been to the BBC Radio Theatre several times, but this was a World Service programme, so it took place at Bush House.

The experience was a completely different one.  We were taken down a couple of flights of stairs and across a courtyard then down a further couple of flights, ending up in the bowels of Bush House.  Having started out at the Kingsway entrance to the building, we were now over on the Strand side.  In a highly civilised manner we were offered glasses of wine before going into the studio, where Penelope was already seated with Harriett Gilbert.  There were only about 30 of us in the small studio, and I was told that mine was to be the second question of the programme. 

After Harriett introduced Penelope, the writer read a short passage from the novel before taking the first question.  The pattern of the programme was a series of questions, some taken from the audience, others put to Penelope by Harriett, who had received them by email, and a couple more came in by phone from around the world.  It was interesting to take into account the questions posed by others and to learn of some of the writer’s insights into her working processes and the building up of character. 

My question was on the conflicting perspectives given in the novel, others asked about the research put in to build up a story, why the story didn’t have a necessarily happy ending and how much of the writer was in the protagonist.

It will be interesting to listen to the programme when it is broadcast in a few weeks, especially as our hour and ten minutes in the studio will be edited down to 53 minutes.  After that the programme will remain in the BBC’s archives indefinitely. 

Nigel Slater: Toast

Published 14/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer


Nigel Slater is my favourite cookery writer and TV food presenter.  I refuse to call him a television chef, because he isn’t, but he understands food and how different flavours and textures work together.  His cookery books aren’t at all fussy or precise and he makes it very clear that cooking is a very personal practice that can be varied as the cook wishes.  But his recipes draw in the reader, make your mouth water, and make you want to rush off to the kitchen to start trying the dishes for yourself.

In this memoir he revisits his early and teen years using the sensory memories of different foods.  I was amazed at his recall of so many different items, especially the sweets.  I’m only a few years older than him, but I’d forgotten about some of the sweets he clearly remembers.  However he managed to sweep me back to my younger days of ‘Beatlegum’ (and the smell returned with the memory), Clarnico Mint Creams (my grandma used to eat them), pear drops smelling of nail varnish remover and the original Walnut Whips.  Back in the 1960s we weren’t very sophisticated on a culinary level, and I also remember when puddings tended to be fruit out of a tin, and when school dinners were atrocious, but you were forced to eat them regardless, including drinking the lukewarm school milk.  His food reminiscences work in tandem with his home life, his mother’s illness, his father’s remarriage, and later his father’s death.

He evokes experiences and encourages the reader to share his own teenage and adolescent growing pains, his mother’s loss, his difficulties with his stepmother, his early sexual adventures and his realisation that cooking is all he wants to do.  Each section (they’re hardly long enough to be chapters) bears the title of an item of food and it’s as if he’s sharing memories and experiences with the reader, and not recounting a linear autobiography.

Everyman by Philip Roth

Published 06/09/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Perhaps this novel struck a cord because I’m not getting any younger, although I’m not as old the novel’s protagonist, who reaches the age of seventy-one.  Roth takes a novel approach in this short story (novella?) which begins with the funeral of the tale’s subject.  Obviously this opening sequence leaves the reader in no doubt that there will be no happy ending, and this is reinforced by a quotation from Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, itself a melancholy poem.  Furthermore Everyman can refer back to a medieval morality play where the living are summoned to death, or it can simply be an analogy for the lives of all of mankind.

Although the outcome is obvious, this tactic doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to know more.  (In Romeo and Juliet‘s prologue, Shakespeare lays out the bare bones of the play, but nobody walks out until the play is over.)  The protagonist of Everyman looks back over his life and recalls his childhood and parents, before we learn about his loves, marriages, affairs and philanderings, his children, career and retirement.  Different passages send him on various journeys of remembrance and we gradually learn, as he also realises, that he hasn’t been a terribly nice person.  Various operations in hospital contribute to his declining health until he reaches the point where he appears to be happy to embrace death, or to let it welcome him.

Two sentences made a strong impact on me: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’  This appears to sum up his failing health, although we know that his older, more successful and healthier brother, Howie, would obviously think differently.  The second occasion is when the protagonist appears to be moving closer towards death and impulsively decides to visit the cemetery where his parents are buried.  ‘They were just bones, bones in a box, but their bones were his bones … The flesh melts away but the bones endure.’  It is obvious that he is a secular Jew, religion plays no place in his life, and he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but the realisation that he is still connected to his parents is an epiphanic and painful one.  ‘He couldn’t go.  The tenderness was out of control.  As was the longing for everyone to be living.  And to have it all over again.’

I closed the book, but the story has left me with an ache.  Roth has a knack of setting out the human condition and pointing out that things could be different.  It’s up to us to follow the right path and make the necessary choices.  A funeral can (and should) be a celebration of an individual’s life and the final page of Everyman is that in a way.  We’ve learned how the protagonist lived his life and found out why the mourners at his funeral acted as they all did.