“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang – review

Before this review gets underway I should say that it does contain a few spoilers.  I always try really hard to write my reviews without them, but it was just too hard to even begin explaining this complex novel without giving something away!  If you don’t mind that, then read on…

So, how to explain the weirdness that is “The Vegetarian”?  It’s a book that I can’t compare to any other I’ve read, a unique journey into the un-probed recesses of the psyche that shocks, saddens, disturbs and bemuses in by turns.  It comprises three sections, almost like three acts of a play, each one of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story (although not always in the first person).  As the acts unfold, new layers are added that force the reader to re-evaluate events that have gone before – the issue being that we were never sure how to interpret events to begin with, such is their strangeness and ambiguity.

The novel begins as Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian.  This being Korea, such a decision is an almost unheard of break from social norms and is greeted with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and outrage by members of her family.  Most peculiar of all, though, is that her reason for suddenly shunning all meat is a dream, an explanation that sounds like lunacy to those around her.  The rationale behind her turn of mind never becomes completely clear to us either; intermittently throughout this first act we find ourselves in Yeong-hye’s head, but her voice is a stream of consciousness journey through sensations and visceral images, not explanations.  We see blood, animal skulls and flashes of ambiguous violence, all of which pass in an instant and leave us wondering: where have all these macabre mental images come from?  And how do they connect to this abrupt, mysterious vegetarianism?  There are no answers provided – yet.  But we do see real and shocking violence erupting in Yeong-hye’s present, real life; the poor woman’s treatment at the hands of those you would expect to care for her leaves us feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Then suddenly, it’s on to part two.  At the time of reading I found it a bit of an unexpected, and somewhat unwelcome, jolt to move on to another character and a completely new part of the story before the questions of the first part had been answered; hang in there though, because when you’ve got to the end of the book and are able to look back on all three chapters together, the separate sections feel much more cohesive than they do while you’re actually reading them.  Whereas I came away with the impression that part one is all about supressed trauma, part two is about supressed desire – supressed temporarily that is!  This section focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who we came across fleetingly in the first chapter.  He’s an artist, and after his sister in law converts to vegetarianism he becomes more and more obsessed with her sexually, a fantasy that turns into a desire to use her in a piece of erotic performance art.  It’s just as strange and unsettling as the first episode, but in a very different way.  After the earlier drama, violence and mental collapse of the bullied, victimised vegetarian, when Yeong-hye appears in this chapter she is eerily passive.  No longer privy to her inner thoughts, it almost seems to the reader as if she doesn’t have any.  Whether she is genuinely numb, an empty shell drained of emotion by the trauma she’s suffered, or whether her exterior blankness is merely a product of how others (predominantly men) see her we do not know.  She could be a metaphor for the invisible woman who has been rendered meaningless by a male-dominated society, or she could simply be an isolated individual who has become a victim of her own mind.  Either way, the role she takes in the increasingly bizarre imagination of her brother in law is no less troubling than the abuse she endured before.

The final act is in many ways the most straightforward of them all, and it’s the one I felt most at ease reading.  The writing loses a lot of its earlier dreamlike quality ad becomes more storytelling in its style.  Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, her sister in law In-hye is separated from her artist husband, and we finally start to find out what’s driven the troubled vegetarian from giving up meat to a state of near madness.  In-hye too, in between emotionally draining visits to her sister, is re-evaluating her own life and feelings.  Is it significant that it’s only now, when removed from the influence and dominance of men, that the two sisters are able to work towards achieving emotional peace?  It certainly seemed that way to me; I felt very much that the whole novel is about the control that society allows men to have over women, both explicitly and tacitly.  Yeong-hye ends the novel wanting to stop being human and to connect herself to the earth, living as a tree does – the ultimate extension of the vegetarianism that started the whole story.  It could be insanity, or it could be the ultimate means of gaining control in a life where others have constantly tried to take it away from her.

What the book is trying to say is a question that there is perhaps no need to answer.  The act of reading it in itself was an incredibly intense experience that I suspect will differ greatly between every individual who picks it up.  It’s no bad thing to be shaken out of your reading comfort zone every now and then, and this novel certainly achieved that for me.  Don’t read it for a realistic story with a satisfying conclusion, but do read it for an intellectual and emotional thrill-ride.  It’s different – and really quite remarkable.

“The Muse” by Jessie Burton – review

When you’ve enjoyed an author’s debut novel as much as I enjoyed “The Miniaturist”, the arrival of a second book is a time not just of excitement but also a tiny bit of trepidation that perhaps this novel won’t quite reach the heights of the first.  Jessie Burton’s tale of the mysterious dolls’ house and its owner will always have a special place in my heart as I’d never read anything quite like it before, so it’s with some surprise that I’m able to say without hesitation that “The Muse” is actually a better novel.

The book is split fairly equally between two stories and time periods.  In 1967 Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, thinks she has fallen on her feet when she lands a job at a London art gallery; before long, however, the arrival of an intriguing painting with a questionable history draws Odelle into a world of secrets for which she is completely unprepared.  In 1936, in a large house in rural Spain occupied by Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his family, the provenance of the picture starts to come to light.  The family have not long moved in when two local youths, Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, come to the finca looking for housekeeping work.  Teresa quickly becomes friends with Olive, the Schloss’s daughter, but Olive’s attention is drawn towards Isaac, the artistic, volatile elder brother, who is politically passionate and as handy with a gun as he is with a paintbrush.  Spain is on the brink of the horrific civil war that will tear it apart, and the Schloss family’s involvement with left-wing revolutionary Isaac is about to become a very dangerous one.

One of the joys of this novel is the way the pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together to tell the true story of the aforementioned painting, so with that in mind I’m not going to give away any more details of the plot here.  What I do want to talk about is that magical something that makes Jessie Burton, in my eyes, such a compelling writer.  It seems a slightly bizarre thing to say, but what I loved most about this novel was the subtle but almost universal sense of sadness underpinning each character’s existence.  The arrival of the civil war in the latter part of the book brings with it vivid and grotesque horrors, but the author absolutely nails the face that suffering is not in any way confined to the big, key moments of grief or fear that periodically punctuate our lives.  Sadness hovers constantly about her characters, whether it’s two friends gradually growing apart, loneliness kept at bay with drugs and alcohol or a love affair that never quite turns into the grand romance that it should, the spectre of disappointment is always there.

So can the determined pursuit of artistic endeavour assuage this sense of disappointment?  Or is it in fact our demons that drive our artistic impulses and lead us to produce our best creations?  Isaac Robles, the angry freedom fighter, can undoubtedly paint with skill, but his true passion lies in creating not a beautiful piece of art, but the Spain that reflects his political ideology.  Olive Schloss is also a talented painter with an as yet unfulfilled desire to study at art school in England; but until she meets and develops passionate feelings for Issac, she has never found the raw soul to put into her work.  It goes without saying that the path of her love for this fiery young man will never run smoothly, but it is undoubtedly love’s torment that unleashes the talent she has always possessed.  Back in the 1960s, gallery administrator Odelle is nursing a creative spark of a different kind.  She’s an aspiring writer whose work has only been shared with friends and family until matriarch of the gallery Marjorie Quick spots her ability and encourages her to start thinking bigger.  Like Olive some thirty years before her, Odelle falls in love, but for her the relationship between love and creativity is a more ambiguous one.  On the one hand she recognises that for her, writing is in many ways akin to love; and yet love can also get in the way, preoccupying the mind that needs to be left free if one’s best work is going to come.  “The Muse” is more than the story of one painting; it’s a fascinating exploration of art’s place and purpose in life.

I really appreciated the fact that, although there is a genuine element of mystery to the novel, Jessie Burton is never out to completely fox her readers; she lays enough clues that you can start to work out where the story is going, and the plot is not so wilfully obscure that there have to be any bizarre twists in order to reach a resolution.  Yes, there are a couple of revelations left right to the end, the final one of which wrapped everything up so neatly that I wanted to punch the air in satisfaction.  The one issue I had with “The Miniaturist” was that it left a couple of pretty significant questions unanswered – or at least not answered adequately for me – but I had no such issues this time round.  I really felt that everything about the story had bene meticulously thought out, and the result is an extremely fulfilling read.

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“Anatomy of Murder” by Imogen Robertson – review

It’s always exciting when you discover a new author that you love, possibly even more so when they’ve already written several books as it means you can follow up your new-found passion immediately.  I’ve literally only just finished reading “Anatomy of Murder” within the last ten minutes, and have started beavering away at a review already as I’m so keen to share the love for what looks like being one of my new favourite historical crime series.  I’ve mentioned S J Parris and C J Sansom on the blog many times, and if you enjoy books of that ilk then you’ll adore this I guarantee.  One of the best historical novels I read lately was “The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor (if you read my review you’ll know how highly I rated it) and this is most certainly on a par in terms of writing quality and a vivid sense of time and place.  I should point out though that “Anatomy of Murder” is in fact the second book in the series, something I didn’t realise when I bought it; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way but there were very definite references to events of the previous book that obviously had a bearing on the current situation of the main characters, so if you want to give this author a try I would recommend reading book one, “Instruments of Darkness”, first.

The opening scenes take place aboard a Royal Navy ship as she engages with a French enemy vessel off the coast of Newfoundland.  The year is 1781, and there are frequent Anglo-French clashes out in the Atlantic following the French government’s recent treaty with the Americans.  In this instance, HMS Splendour is successful and her foe captured; events begin to unfold, however, which suggest this apparently ordinary French ship may be harbouring something particularly valuable.  Flash forward six months to London, and we meet Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther, who have been summoned by a local Justice to help investigate the murder of a man found tied up and dumped in the River Thames.  Harriet, it turns out, is the wife of the man who was Captain on HMS Splendour when it secured its much talked about victory all those months ago.  Sadly, however, his illustrious naval career has been cut short since then by an unfortunate accident on board that has left him with severe brain injuries.  Harriet, while not exactly a widow, has lost any meaningful relationship with her husband as he languishes in a residential home, subject to bouts of confusion and aggression.  It transpires, however, that the fight against the French has moved from the high seas to the drawing rooms of the capital, as the murdered man is suspected of being involved in international espionage; it is now Harriet’s turn to take up the patriotic cause where her husband left off.  Like many a good detective story, there’s also a second mystery running alongside the main plot strand.  This one features another tough and resourceful female investigator, Jocasta, who lives and works in the less desirable parts of the city, earning a very basic living by reading tarot cards.  Not someone to be easily spooked, she is unusually disturbed by the reading she gives to a frightened young woman who comes to her for guidance.  Plagued by the certainty that something terrible is going to befall the girl or her loved ones, she decides to take matters into her own hands and before long her worst fears are confirmed.

What I loved most about this novel, and what I think makes it so successful, is the totally authentic representation of life at both extremes of the social spectrum.  In quite a few of the historical novels I’ve read, the middle and upper class characters (often these are also the main characters) are nuanced and believable, but the lower classes – the servants, street urchins and the like – can come across as somewhat clichéd, as if the author hasn’t quite got a handle on their reality.  This author treats every single one of her creations with equal care: Jocasta and the occasionally questionable people who she gathers to help her have sentiments and motivations as complex as those caught up in the high-society espionage game.  As for that strand of the plot, the intrigue centres around one of London’s great opera houses, a fascinating setting that opens the door to a vibrant world of equally vibrant characters.  For a certain section of society, the European opera singers who came to England to perform were the celebrity stars of their day.  Much of the story hangs on the mass adoration and hysteria that these musical legends – and the composers who wrote for them – evoked throughout the city.  It was an area so well researched (and well-loved I suspect) by the author that you’re utterly transported, and that’s what you want almost more than anything else from a historical novel I think: to feel as if you’re actually there.

It’s engaging from the word go, but the books really picks up to an incredible pace by the final act, to the point where I happily abandoned everything else in order to gallop through the closing chapters and find out how the story would end.  Without giving too much away, the conclusion was such that it made me quite interested to see where she takes the lead characters in her next book.  Imogen Robertson is definitely now a valued addition to my bookshelves, and I’d highly recommend you give this series a whirl.

“This Must be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell – review

Nobody can write about being human like Maggie O’Farrell.  Nobody else I’ve read comes close to capturing the emotional essence of the tiny moments that coalesce to form our lives – the almost-brush of two hands, the sound of a long forgotten voice, the flash of memory from a photograph.  Nobody can put into words as she can the deepest and most unfathomable states of being such as grief and love.  When it comes to unravelling lives and knitting them together again into a gut-wrenching tapestry of humanity, she is in a class of her own.

If someone was to ask me what this book was about, hoping for a neat plot summary, then there wouldn’t be an easy way to tell them.  The linear story strand is really a thread from which to spin a multitude of narratives and ideas, each one digging deeper into the lives of the characters; it’s almost not so much about what happens as it is how and why.  The principal players are Daniel and Claudette, an apparently content married couple who live with their young children in a remote part of rural Ireland.  We join them just before something happens that tips their relationship into crisis and sets in motion a struggle between the forces that pull two people apart and those that keep them together.  The trigger for everything that unfolds is a seemingly insignificant event: a voice on the radio.  As soon as Daniel hears it he is jolted into remembering someone from his past who has lain dead and buried, literally and figuratively, for many years.  At this stage we know nothing about this mysterious woman, but she’s significant enough to send him on a quest that spans hundreds of miles – a journey he hopes will provide and answer to the question that’s been smouldering at the back of his mind for two decades or more.  It soon begins to look, however, as if by seeking out his past Daniel may be in danger of jeopardising his present happiness with Claudette; it transpires that she too has a history that has left her nursing an emotional fragility not apparent from her confident, no nonsense exterior.  Just as important as these current events, though, is the story of the lives that husband and wife have led up to this point, about which we find out through chapters told in flashback and narrated by different characters.  With this emphasis on backstory the author shows us how fundamental our pasts can be in shaping our present self, and how we can only truly understand her characters by seeing the loves, tragedies, transgressions and disappointments they’ve experienced and still carry with them.

Often when a novel is written using numerous voices and jumps between time periods I find it frustrating to read.  There is the potential confusion of where you are in the story’s timeline and also the pitfall of not engaging with some of the narrators as much as you do with others.  It takes an immensely talented writer I think to make all the voices resonate as authentically as each other, and the fact that Maggie O’Farrell has that ability is one of the things that makes the book work so well.  There are no filler characters or anyone whose point of view has been shoehorned in purely to provide some exposition: every single one makes a crucial contribution to the picture being painted of the two lead characters.  It’s almost as if by using such a complex, multi-person narrative the author is demonstrating that in a way each of us are as many different people as there are others to perceive us.  There’s even a chapter very near the end of the book told from the point of view of a completely new character who we’ve never met before and who has no bearing at all on the rest of the story.  At first I found that slightly bewildering but after some thought I realised it revealed another truth, namely that even people with whom we connect only fleetingly can have an insight into an aspect of our personality or situation that we ourselves haven’t seen.  Yes, it’s a novel about something that’s happening to people every day the world over – the forging and then the disintegration of a relationship – but the author is determined to go as deep as possible into the nuances of this commonplace yet absolutely fundamental element of human existence.

There are some perfectly captured moments here that will move you to tears; Daniel shouting for help in the hospital as he clings to his suffering child is the one that has stayed with me the most.  And you won’t be able to hear the words, “I’ve changed my mind” again for a while without your heart breaking ever so slightly.  Yet while nothing in the novel is smooth sailing – after all, when is life ever like that? – it’s still ultimately an optimistic book at heart.  If we love someone enough we will never stop fighting for them is the message here, and I can’t think of a more joyful message than that.

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Past Masters – Sarah Dunant

I haven’t done one of these blog posts in a while, so if you’re new to This Girl’s Book Room, this is an occasional series of articles in which I highlight my favourite authors of historical fiction.  Today I’m spreading the love for a novelist who knows how to get inside her characters’ heads like no other: the fabulous Sarah Dunant.

Which historical period does she write about?

She’s written some thrillers as well as historical fiction, but the novels for which she’s best known – and the ones that I particularly love – are set in late fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy.  This is the world of the Borgias and the Medici, a world where the religious, the profane and the political all intertwine in a brutal, sensual melting pot of humanity.

Why should I read her?

If like me you’re already fascinated by Renaissance Italy then you’ll be hard pushed to find another author whose fiction engages with the era so well.  I’ve read a number of novels set in this period and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but Sarah Dunant’s books are a cut above the rest.  What I find so fascinating about this setting, and what the author captures so well, is the fact that squalor and opulence, deprivation and extravagance rubbed right up against each other in a slightly bizarre society reminiscent at times of a surreal puppet show.  Yet behind the hedonism of the Borgias, the obscene wealth of the Medici and the hysteria-inducing religious extremism of Savonarola and his followers, it was also a time when intellectualism was bursting forth and unleashing new philosophies and creative expression on the generations to come.  In Dunant’s novels we experience in a very tangible way what it must have been like to live – or to survive – in a time such as this, in particular what life was like for women.  She creates some exceptionally strong female characters, some real and some imagined.  In “Blood and Beauty” we have a reimagining of Lucrezia Borgia, possibly the most famous member of this notorious family; in “Sacred Hearts” she gives us an insight into the life of a woman on a much more modest scale in the shape of Serafina, an unfortunate girl who has suffered the fate common to many women of the time of being forced into a convent.  All the characters truly become flesh and blood, and you feel every joy and every agony alongside them.

Which book should I start with?

I loved “Blood and Beauty” – apparently the story is going to be continued in a second novel of unknown publication date (if anyone has any news on it please feel free to comment below!) but it’s still a wonderful book and very much worth reading even if there’s no follow-on as yet.  Otherwise I’d go for “The Birth of Venus”, which has one of my favourite leading ladies of any novel I’ve ever read.

My Top 5 Mindbenders

There’s nothing more satisfying than a truly mind-bending novel, the kind that makes you feel the need to go and lie down with a cold flannel on your head as you recover from the effort of getting your head around the unfolding events.  No-one likes to be completely mystified; we prefer, I think, to feel like we’re on the verge of “getting it” before the author surprises us, and there’s a very fine line between complexity for complexity’s sake and the genuinely clever writing that drip feeds you just the right amount of information to keep the mental cogs whirring without leaving the reader floundering in a sea of confusion.  The novels listed here fall on the right side of that line, so if you fancy a bit of an intellectual workout you could do a lot worse than today’s top five.

  1. “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton – I’m not going to lie: when I read various reviews of this novel after finishing it I came to the conclusion there was a whole subtext that I’d completely missed. Yet even on the – apparently superficial – level on which I’d read it, it proved to be a pretty intellectual endeavour.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another book that managed to juggle so many different characters’ plot threads, and I couldn’t help thinking that if keeping up as a reader was challenging then what on earth must it have been like to write!
  2. “The Ecliptic” by Benjamin Wood – by the time I got to the end of this novel I was in a state of stunned silence. It was one of those moments when you can only sit there thinking, “what? how? WHAT??” repeatedly, until you’re forced to admit that the author has been toying with you the whole time.  Slightly galling at the time perhaps, but with hindsight a very impressive feat.
  3. “Never let me go” by Kazuo Ishiguro – what makes this novel so clever is the way in which it skirts incredibly close to normality but all the while instils a sense that something is definitely not right. If you manage to guess where the story is headed then you’re a smarter cookie than me – in a million years I wouldn’t have seen the conclusion coming.
  4. “The Night Watch” by Sergei Lukyanenko – yes, there are plenty of wizards, werewolves and vampires, but this Russian masterpiece is less about the bloodsucking and more about the battle for control between the forces of the righteous Night Watch and the malevolent Day Watch. But hang on – are things really as black and white as all that?  Apparently not; just when you think you’ve got your head around the double crossing, the triple crossing begins, and by the end you will have no idea who the bad guys really are.
  5. “Stone’s Fall” by Iain Pears – this author is one of the ultimate scramblers of grey matter and I love him for it! If you want a devilishly clever plot that wrong-foots you at every turn and bombards you with twist after revelation after rug-from-under-feet moment, then try this; just make sure you’ve got your brain in gear first.  There’s a real skill in executing a story such as this without making it feel contrived, and despite the shocks it’s completely believable all the way to the end.

Hope you enjoyed today’s suggestions, as ever I’d love to hear what your choices would be!

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My Top 5 books to make you laugh…

I’ve been getting bogged down in some truly depressing novels of late.  It seems that in everything I’m picking up there are either far too many unpleasant characters, or the likeable characters are undergoing such hideous suffering that I can’t bear to read on.  My desperate desire for something cheerful led me to write today’s top 5: quite simply, it’s my pick of the books that never fail to make me laugh.  If like me you’re stuck in a rut of literary misery then maybe one of these is the way forward!

  1. “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome – An oldie but a goodie, this nineteenth century classic proves that disastrous holidays have been a feature of life since time immemorial. Three men (and their dog) decide to take a break from the tedium of everyday living with a relaxing boating holiday.  Unfortunately their ineptitude combined with a series of unforeseen disasters result in a trip which is a very long way from the one they had in mind.  A hymn to the British determination to persevere with a plan no matter what, it’s a very funny read.
  2. “Stark” by Ben Elton – This early Ben Elton novel does what many of his books do: it makes a serious comment on an aspect of modern society in a side-splitting and riotous way. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by him, but this one has a special place in my heart as it’s the first one I tried.  Its theme is the environment, and it’s at once ridiculous, extreme, farcical – a scarily, a little bit believable.
  3. “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I wrote a review of this a few days ago. She may be a creation of the 1930s but the Provincial Lady is just like any one of us (I particularly appreciate the way in which she fends off the melancholy of her financial woes by going shopping!)  Her neighbours are as hilarious as they are hideous, and it is with great wit that the heroine endeavours to maintain her integrity in a stratum of society where keeping up appearances is the name of the game.
  4. “Does my bum look big in this?” by Arabella Weir – I never took to Bridget Jones as a character, and in fact would go so far as to say I found her incredibly unlikeable at times. This, however, is what “Bridget Jones’ Diary” would have been like if it had a more naïve and endearing heroine.  The subtitle is “The diary of an insecure woman”, which tells you exactly what you’re going to get: jokes about cellulite, sex and dress sizes abound, and pretty good jokes they are too.  It might all sound a bit hackneyed, but for a bit of girly silliness you can’t do much better.
  5. “Down Under” by Bill Bryson – I knew I had to get a Bill Bryson book in here, as no author has ever made me laugh quite as uncontrollably. The question was which one to choose; in the end I went for this one purely because there’s a scene involving a visit to a small, provincial museum that is as close to comedy perfection as you’ll ever get.  Bryson can come across as somewhat curmudgeonly on occasion, but there’s no doubting his comic gift.

Well, that’s brightened my evening no end!  As always I’d love to hear your thoughts – which books make you laugh out loud?

“The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – review

I’m quite an old-fashioned girl at heart.  Many wonders of the modern world, such as on-demand TV (I prefer to, as I still refer to it, “set the video”) and Apple-pay (I still have a cheque book in a drawer somewhere) are yet to become a part of my life.  I can’t even claim that I’m shunning technology and going retro because that’s what the trendy people are doing right now – I quite simply haven’t moved with the times.  All of which probably explains the sense of comfort I feel when reading novels such as “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”; set in the 1930s, it’s a period that doesn’t feel so far removed from the present day as to be considered “historical” as such, but is distant enough to evoke a real feeling of nostalgia.  One thing hasn’t changed though: the fact that many of us spend a fairly high proportion of our lives feeling wholly inadequate compared to those around us.

That feeling of inferiority, whether of appearance, intellect or financial circumstances, is the recurring theme of the Provincial Lady’s diaries.  Downbeat and self-absorbed, though, they are not.  Our hugely entertaining diarist may spend her days flying into a panic about not having an appropriate outfit to wear or the fact that her woeful attempt to grow indoor bulbs is being met with disdainful comments from her neighbours, but ultimately every setback is faced with endearing good humour.  What is more, she’s totally upfront in acknowledging that the very people she’s trying to impress are usually the ones whose attitudes and lifestyles she despises.  Among these surrounding characters are some brilliant comic creations: Lady Boxe, the supremely arrogant, self-appointed lynchpin of village life; Pamela Pringle, who works her way through inappropriate men at an astonishing rate, and “Mademoiselle”, French nanny to the Provincial Lady’s two children and who is prone to frequent bouts of mild hysteria.  I laughed out loud countless times; the author is so astute at nailing (mostly unflattering) observations of her fellow humans – all through the protagonist’s eyes of course – and the level of cringe-inducing awfulness on display is something to which we can all relate.  I’m sure at one time or another most of us have encountered the pretentious bore at a social gathering intent on making sure everyone knows how well-read they are, or the person who subtly slips into conversation the fact that their forthcoming holiday is more exotic or their dress more expensive than yours.  Most hilarious of all are the beleaguered diarist’s internal responses to all the odious people around her – perfect, pithy comments that of course she – like all of us – never voices out loud.

The book is actually made up of four stories – novellas I suppose you could call them.  The first, “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” centres around everyday village life; the subsequent three, “The Provincial Lady Goes Further”, “The Provincial Lady in America” and “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” follow our heroine to London and the United States.  I have to say that for me, none of these worked quite as well as the first story.  There is still a lot of fun to be had and the author’s skill at creating finely-drawn comic characters remains, but I found the mundanity of the day to day tribulations found close to home much more engaging than the pressures of the London or New York social scene.  The subtle observations of a WI meeting, a village fête or a family picnic are exquisite in their accuracy, and when the lead characters venture away from that cosy setting some of the sense of reality is lost.  It’s also about that feeling of nostalgia I mentioned earlier: the inherent cosiness of a long vanished rural way of life appeals to me much more than a metropolitan setting.

Despite these reservations this novel definitely still gets a recommendation from me.  If you’re feeling a bit low it will lift your spirits, and I think sometimes that’s what we all need from a book.

“Belonging” by Umi Sinha – review

If ever there was a time I’ve been glad I judged a book by its cover, this is it.  “Belonging” is even more exquisite on the inside than on the outside, a delicately spun tale with a rich emotional resonance that gets a grip on your heart and won’t let go.  It is the most apparently innocuous of items, an embroidered tablecloth, which precipitates the shocking event that sets this often tragic novel in motion; appropriate, because the book itself is reminiscent of a work of embroidery, with threads moving in, out and around each other, creating a sequence of vivid vignettes that eventually come together to produce one gloriously intricate yet cohesive picture.

The story follows three generations of the same family and revolves around the British presence in India during the days of the Victorian Empire.  Arthur is an officer in the British military and his son Henry a civil servant; but it’s the third and final generation we meet first in the shape of Lila, Henry’s daughter.  At the start of the novel, Lila’s involvement in the cataclysmic event I alluded to earlier results in her leaving India for England where she lives, initially at least, in a state of emotional shock, with a great aunt to whom she cannot and will not relate.  From then on, the book gradually reveals through letters and diaries how the family came to be at the terrible, shattered place it now is.

The idea of belonging can mean so many things, and one of the beauties of this novel is the subtle way it approaches its fundamental theme from so many different angles, from the broad view of colonialism and its implications to the microcosm of a romantic relationship.  It would be very easy to judge the colonial aspect through twenty-first century eyes and conclude that none of the British inhabitants could ever truly “belong” in India since, as we would probably all agree today, they were interlopers who had no right to be there.  Yet for the people who lived through those times it was so much more complicated than that, as the author shows us.  What about the thousands of children who were born in India into a British family and were expected to conduct themselves according to Western values, but who were effectively brought up by Indian nannies, looked after by Indian servants and spent their youth with Indian children among their companions?  Lila is one such child, and only really begins to understand the conflicting nature of her cultural identity once she is forced to spend her teenage years in England, a country whose nationality she holds but that she’s never seen.  In India she’s most certainly not a native and there’s no doubting her position as a white, British young lady; in Britain on the other hand she’s viewed with suspicion and sometimes derision as the “Indian” girl, whose upbringing sets her apart from others her own age.  In her own mind, Lila belongs to a homeland that now the rest of the world is telling her is not really her own.  A confused sense of belonging isn’t limited to the British expatriates: in the politically and socially complex world of empirical India the army is full of Indian nationals fighting, potentially their fellow countrymen, on behalf of their colonial overlords.  A succession of almost unbearably tense, anguished chapters depicting a mutiny and subsequent slaughter at Cawnpore show in bleak and brutal detail how feelings of loyalty and of belonging to a particular ethnic group were so delicately poised at this volatile time.

The act of being in love is another kind of belonging all together, and just as the novel is full of misplaced souls unable to belong to the place in which they find themselves, so it is full to the brim with the pain of unrequited or thwarted love.  The idea of belonging to someone else and the fulfilment to be found from that walks hand in hand with the emotional necessity of having a place to call home.  Lila loses her family, friends and security right at the beginning of the book, and later on looks set to lose someone else that she’s grown to love.  Only then does she realise that since leaving India there’s only been one person “with whom I felt I belonged” as she says.  Without that person to anchor her, she belongs nowhere.

It’s an incredibly sad book in many ways, as successive generations struggle to overcome the dreadful culmination of all the secrets, lies and misfortunes that have gone before them.  Bizarrely though, it doesn’t feel that way as you read – and you certainly don’t come away feeling completely downcast, despite all the horror that’s just unfolded.  Maybe it’s because the story progresses so gradually and you feel as if the author is exploring her characters’ emotions with real care; at every stage she gives the reader time to draw breath and ruminate on everything that’s going on.  For me, this novel exemplifies one of the great things about reading: a book that glides in completely under the radar and then blows your mind with its quality and artistry.  The skill with which the novel switches between eras and narrators and slowly but surely gathers all the threads together is extraordinary.  Often with stories told through multiple voices I find that I’m more interested in some strands than others, but not here.  Come for the cover just as I did by all means – but stay for the content, because it’s truly a work of art.

“The Lake House” by Kate Morton – review

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about Kate Morton and why I’m a fan of her books.  After reading her latest offering, those reasons are just as true as ever.  With “The Lake House” she doesn’t break the mould but carries on doing what she does best: a dual-narrative novel with one strand set in the past and one in the present, both of which are connected.  This time the main setting is a country house in Cornwall.  We first visit it in the 1930s when the family’s youngest child has just gone missing, and again in 2003 when disgraced police detective Sadie Sparrow becomes intrigued by the unsolved case whilst on enforced leave from the Met.

This is Kate Morton’s fifth novel and I think it’s my favourite so far.  I put this down to the fact that I was just as engaged with the modern story as I was with the historical one, something that doesn’t always happen with this type of book.  In fact I felt Sadie was the most interesting and well-rounded of all the contemporary characters the author has created to date.  The mystery of the missing child is the puzzle on which the novel hangs to be sure, but there is another disturbing case in the present day that needs resolving too.  The link between past and present is the formidable Alice Edevane, who in her adult life has made a living as a successful crime novelist, but whose carefree childhood was scarred by the loss of her baby brother Theo during a midsummer garden party at their Cornwall home.  Before that dreadful day, life on the Loeanneth country estate had been an almost fairytale-like existence of endless sunny days, picnics and boating on the lake.  What appears at first to be an unsullied idyll, however, is gradually exposed as a rose-tinted picture of life as seen through the eyes of a child.  The reality is that Loeanneth is a claustrophobic world of illicit affairs, deep-rooted jealousies and psychological trauma.  Not long before Theo vanished without trace, Alice was beginning to stumble across her family’s secrets; in 2003 when Sadie meets her, she may just be the only person left alive who knows the truth about what happened to her brother.

It’s a complex plot, and by the end I was taking my hat off to Kate Morton for managing to come up with a mystery whose solution had so many strands to it.  I didn’t guess exactly how Theo disappeared; there are clues and red herrings placed carefully throughout the book but I failed to knit all the evidence together correctly, which I think is as is should be.  My one criticism may sound bizarre, but it’s that I felt everything was in fact wound up a little too perfectly.  I’ve never liked completely open or mystifying endings to books, but in this case I thought that a few of the small side-plots didn’t actually need to be resolved.  (I’d better put in a spoiler alert at this point!) The Loeanneth mystery was solved and that was enough; I didn’t feel the need to be reassured quickly in the final chapter that all the main character’s personal issues had been solved as well.  That small gripe aside it was a really enjoyable read, similar in structure to her others but then if it isn’t broken, why fix it?!