Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Jacob's Room is full of booksI was an enormous fan of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – a book all about her year of reading only books from her shelves that morphed into a series of short essays about anything and everything to do with reading. It was bookish, opinionated, and (I thought) an inevitable delight to anybody who loved reading. About that I was wrong – it divided people – but I have re-read and re-loved it, and have been waiting eagerly for the sort-of sequel for as long as I’ve known it might be a thing. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books (2017) was never in doubt as one of my Project 24 books.

I’ve been following the development of the book with interest. Ages ago, I saw Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen listed on Amazon, and asked Susan about it on Twitter – yes, she confirmed, it was sort of a sequel to Howards End is on the Landing, but only about women writers. At one point it became Jacob’s Room is Too Full of Books, with a cover design on Amazon. Who knows when that changed, and when the title was changed, but what we’ve got instead is ‘a year of reading’ – she follows the calendar from January to December, talking about what she’s reading and what she’s thinking about, interspersed with notes on nature and life. The title doesn’t make sense (yes, Jacob’s Room is a novel by Woolf, but where Howards End is on the Landing and, indeed, Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen can describe the place of books in the house – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books doesn’t mean anything, and will confuse anybody who doesn’t know the Woolf novel) – so, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t care. I still loved this book and raced through it in a handful of days – even while trying to savour it.

Though the calendar year structures the book, Hill darts all over the place. Sometimes for a moment merely – she throws in the thought ‘does Donald Trump ever read books?’ in a line or two – sometimes at greater length. She talks about the authors she loves, from Dickens to Ford Madox Ford to Ladybird Books. She talks about the literary scene – judging book prizes, getting into hot water in columns. She writes about the writer’s life. She writes quite a lot about things that aren’t connected with books, particularly flora and fauna. It’s wonderfully conversational and far-ranging – not as siloed as Howards End is on the Landing, but equally delightful to dip in and out of. Every page will have something to engage with. I couldn’t help picking it up and indulging when I should have been reading something for book group or the podcast. I loved it.

There are definite flaws. Hill repeats herself – the same points come up almost word-for-word at different times about (say) whether or not you can ‘catch’ a writing style – and there are silly errors (88 Charing Cross Road should have been caught – and somebody at the publishers will feel red-faced about putting an apostrophe in Howard’s [sic!] End is on the Landing on the dustjacket). Some of the paragraphs end in with that sort of trite beat that I find so frustrating in fact or fiction. This kind. To prove an argument. Perhaps.

And, yes, Hill is extremely opinionated – which is anybody’s prerogative, of course, though it is refreshing when she admits that she could be wrong about something. I can be very opinionated about books myself, but the only times it annoyed me a little were when Hill seemed to think her opinions were fact – or when she claimed that ‘nobody’ read such-and-such author. On almost every occasion, I had read that author. And this… well, gosh.

The Olivia Manning trilogies have grown in stature since they were first published – as some books do. They have already stood the test of time and I am sure they will go on doing so, while novels by many of her female contemporaries have all sunk without trace. Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone? Kay Dick?

What a bizarre thing to say about Ivy Compton-Burnett! Not only is she (to my mind) one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, she is also in print with NYRB Classics. No mean feat, so many decades after she wrote – and hardly sinking without trace.

But this is, really, one of the things I find so beguiling and enjoyable about Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. Hill may be a little more strident than I can bring myself to be, but it’s still wonderful to hear from somebody who cares so passionately about books, who has read avidly for so long, and (incidentally – but truly incidentally) has met so many of the people she’s talking about. Some people complained that Howards End is on the Landing felt name-droppy. It didn’t to me, and this doesn’t, but perhaps others would find it so? Anyway – Hill and I do not share a taste at all, though there are overlaps. We both love Dickens and Woolf, for example. Our experiences with To The Lighthouse are so similar that I wrote ‘yes! yes! yes!’ in the margin. But there are definite divergences. She writes so enticingly about The Masters by C.P. Snow that I almost wanted to go and hunt it out – despite having read it earlier in the year and finding it one of the most boring, pointless books I’ve read in years. She – as mentioned – does not properly appreciate the genius of Ivy Compton-Burnett.

But disagreement makes bookish discussion all the more engaging. Obviously it’s not a duologue – though I suppose I could reply on Twitter or something – but it feels like a deep, thorough natter about books. I could have done with more about reading, more specifics about books, and perhaps a bit less about birds and whatnot (though plenty will welcome those seasonal variations) – but I loved what I got. Susan Hill has a strong personality, or at least a strong persona, and this book couldn’t be written by anybody else – but I hope she writes at least one more in this series. For now, I’m thrilled to be able to put this one next to Howards End is on the Landing on my books-about-books shelf.


Something on Sunday: Shania Twain

Jenny over at Reading the End has come up with a concept – Something on Sunday. What is it? Well, her intro post gives you all the deets, but here’s a snippet of the sort of thing that it entails:

The only guidelines are that you write about something that kept you on your feet that week, whether that’s a person that inspired you, an action you took that you’re proud of, a book or movie or TV show that nourished your heart, a self-care strategy that worked for you, a goofy event or moment that brought you joy.

The idea was set up to be a bright corner in a fairly dark time for many people in the world. Now, Stuck in a Book is a fairly cheerful place all the time (I think), and I face a lot less difficulty and oppression than most – and, perhaps most importantly right now, Donald ‘Total Disaster’ Trump is not my President. I’m no lover of the political situation in the UK right now, but everything is relative.

Come On OverEnough caveats. It’s a good excuse to talk about things that bring joy. I’ve decided I might use it to do little posts about things I love that aren’t to do with books – not necessarily related to the past week, but just personal posts about things big and small in my life. And, yes, I’m starting with Shania Twain. Not really about her music, but about what it has meant to me over the years.

When I was about 12, I had vouchers or birthday money or something, and I had enough to buy two albums. Pop music was something I was very into at the time, and I bought and avidly read Smash Hits and Top of the Pops magazines. Because yes, of course, whatever I was into I wanted stuff to READ. But I think I was mostly motivated by the tastes of my best friend at the time, a boy called Tom who had recently moved to the area and joined the school. I was pretty unpopular and uncool; he was pretty cool but new. I think that made us about equal on the school scale for a moment or two. And I’m pretty sure he encouraged me to buy the two albums I did get – Savage Garden by Savage Garden, and Come On Over by Shania Twain.

I’m far from the only person to have bought that album. It’s one of the bestselling albums of all time. And it remains a total joy – uplifting, touching, unbeatably catchy. Not, I imagine, at all cool. But while younger people today seem only to know ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’ and perhaps ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ – two upbeat and sassy songs from the album – I was equally in love with ‘When’, ‘Whatever You Do, Don’t’, ‘You’ve Really Got A Way’ – pretty much all of them. By this point I owned perhaps five albums – so Come On Over was on repeat.

But it proved popular across the family, at least to an extent. Dad likes a few bands and singers, and listens to them occasionally; Mum never really listens to pop music. The music in our house growing up was almost always classical, but we’ve never been the sort of house that put a CD on in the background – when people talk about their musical upbringing, or how they inherited a love of soul or punk or jazz or whatever from their parents, I can’t really relate. I inherited a love of books, baking, the countryside, all sorts of things – but not that. So I find it quite touching and lovely that it was sort of the other way around with ‘You’re Still the One’ – which my parents heard me playing, and which became ‘their song’. They hadn’t had one before, and the lyrics Shania sings – ‘You’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to, you’re still the one I want for life’ – are simple, but rather a good song to choose for a couple decades into a marriage.

Simple lyrics worked again when I was in my late teens and feeling rather low. It might sound silly, but the song ‘Up!’ was the only thing that really worked at that time – ‘Up, up, up, can only go up from here’. Never underestimate the power of simplicity. And cliches can be profound when they’re needed.

By now – say, 17 – I’d got all of her past albums too, and listened to them inside out. I still do. And it was one of the things that really helped at university – this time because it helped me bond with a new friend. I made lots of fantastic friends at uni (people who liked reading! finally!) but, on day one, Andrea was a Godsend in every sense of the word. I absolutely didn’t want to go clubbing or get drunk. I have never done either in my life, and have not the slightest temptation to – they both sound like horrible experiences to me, but each to their own. On my corridor of new people, only one person preferred to make a hot chocolate and chatter that evening – thank goodness for Andrea. I don’t know if it was in that conversation or later that we discovered that we both knew all the words to all of Shania’s songs. I do know that we once spent a silly and happy afternoon being punted around Oxford (by our friend Michael) while we bellowed out word-perfect versions of ‘Who’s Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?’, ‘Raining On Our Love’, ‘Any Man of Mine’, and more. Michael was embarrassed but tolerant.

Thirteen years after we met, we’ve finally managed to get tickets to see Shania Twain – next year in London – and it feels like a nostalgic moment that brings together many threads of my life. My affection for Shania Twain has certainly lasted longer than any of my friendships, since I’m not regularly in touch with anybody from school (er, except my brother). She might be a distant memory for most people my age now, and a little bit the butt of a joke, but I still love her – not just for her infectious and uplifting music, but because of the happiness she has brought me, in different ways, for about twenty years.

Are They The Same at Home? by Beverley Nichols

Are They The Same At Home

The Year of Beverley continues! I actually read Are They The Same at Home? (1927) steadily over a few months, dipping in and out of it, and finished it during my hinterland in the internetless years. (It felt like years; it was not.) I bought it back in 2010, and it’s a collection of his encounters with… well, with more or less everyone you can imagine from the cultural world of the 1920s.

Indeed, this isn’t going to be a review so much as a list – at least at the bottom – because I think this could be a wonderful little resource for fans of any of these people, and you probably wouldn’t stumble across it by accident. Each chapter describes his interview or friendship – and I say ‘describes’ because almost none of these are set out like discussions; instead, he gives his impressions, he darts around the topic or the room or the theatre, he throws in a few choice words from the subject – and the matter is closed. It is fanciful, fey, and entirely Nichols. It tells us very little in hard fact, and everything in impression. I came away knowing not what these people were like, but what Nichols thought of them.

Each essay is like an impressionist painting, giving us the outline and the character, if not the exact portrait. When he writes about Rose Macaulay, for instance, he spends half the time talking about whether or not people need to wipe their glasses when they cry – Macaulay says no; American friends of his say yes. No biography of Macaulay would use this as a keynote, but he is able to extrapolate much about her lack of romantic imagination – linking in, neatly, her most recent (and, of hers, my favourite) novel Crewe Train. Only Nichols could put together feats like this with such bravado and such delightful inconsequence. They are nothings, but delightful, almost accidentally insightful, nothings. Any lover of the 1920s world should have this on their shelves.

And who were they? Well, they came mostly from the arts, but with some sportspeople and politicians thrown in. While I knew who all the authors were, and have read most of them, there were plenty of names from other spheres which meant nothing to me. An impressive variety. And here they are, all 61 of them. In alphabetical order, as in the book, with one out of order at the end. Why? Who knows.

Senorita de Alvarez
Michael Arlen
Lilian Baylis
Thomas Beecham
Hilaire Belloc
Arnold Bennett
E.F. Benson
Lord Berners
Edna Best
John Bland-Sutton
Andre Charlot
Alan Cobham
C.B. Cochran
Duff Cooper
Noel Coward
Arthur Conan Doyle
Alice Delysia
Sergei Diaghileff
Gerald du Maurier
Jacob Epstein
George Gershwin
Eugene Goossens
Philip Guedalla
Sacha Guitry
Seymour Hicks
Anthony Hope
Aldous Huxley
Margaret Kennedy
Theodore Komisarjevsky
Ronald Knox
Philip de Laszlo
John Lavery
Suzanne Lenglen
David Lloyd George
W.J. Locke
Frederick Lonsdale
Edwin Lutyens
Rose Macaulay
John McCormack
Eddie Marsh
Cyril Maude
W. Somerset Maugham
Nellie Melba
Florence Mills
George Moore
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Norwood
Sean O’Casey
William Orpen
Arthur Pinero
Landon Ronald
Osbert Sitwell
Marie Tempest
Edgar Wallace
Hugh Walpole
H.G. Wells
Rebecca West
Jimmie White
Ellen Wilkinson
P.G. Wodehouse
Georges Carpentier



Goodbye, Christopher Robin

I’ve written before about my love of A.A. Milne’s books, and how significant they were in my development as a reader and book collector (of sorts) – I still read him relatively often, and it was with eagerness that I awaited the release of the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Mostly because I wasn’t sure how accurate it would be, and I was ANXIOUS, y’all. The anxiety was not helped by the release of the trailer…

Thankfully for me – though perhaps disquietingly for those expecting something else – the film was nothing like as twee as this trailer made it seem. Yes, it includes the development of the children’s books that we all associate with A.A. Milne, but they aren’t a panacea for the world’s ills, and this isn’t a fairytale.

The film shows the period between A.A. Milne leaving WW1 and Christopher Robin fighting in WW2. Domhall Gleeson looks remarkably like Milne, and there is a plausible narrative about PTSD being one of the reasons that he needs to move to the countryside, and affecting his relationship with his young son – Christopher Robin, known to the family as Billy Moon. Whether or not he had PTSD, I don’t remember – and I don’t imagine anything like it would have been diagnosed as such in the 1920s. But it gives the film a gritty coherence. Gleeson handles it very well, although the script is a little unsubtle about it at times; it is also more or less the only plotline, other than the simple movement through time, as Christopher Robin et al grow more and more famous.

The nanny (Kelly Macdonald) is also focal, with some of the more twee and/or impassioned scenes – and an extremely moving moment towards the end – and she, as with all the cast, works well with the exceptional Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher. He is cherubic and wide-eyed, which the role calls for, but also gets the emotion of more difficult scenes.

Margot Robbie plays Daphne, Milne’s wife, and it was exciting for me to see somebody from my much-loved Neighbours who has made good. I know she’s a big star now, but this is the first film I’ve seen her in (except for a few scenes in About Time, also with Gleeson). Their marriage is a bit of a mystery, but the film is probably accurate in showing the cracks as they want very different things. Ann Thwaite wrote that Daphne was like AAM’s whimsical characters – the problem being that he wasn’t.

Ann Thwaite looms large in this adaptation, I am thrilled to say. She was historical advisor, and it is clear throughout that her biography of Milne was a great resource for the scriptwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan. Time and again, I recognised moments that could only have come from there, complemented (I imagine) by Christopher Milne’s excellent autobiographical series and A.A. Milne’s It’s Too Late Now.

I went expecting inaccuracies, but I only noticed a few (Tigger turns up too early; he was bought between the books. Christopher’s bear wasn’t actually the model for E.H. Shepard’s illustrations – those were Shepard’s own son’s bear; Peace With Honour is mentioned a long time before it existed) and a few misleading omissions (Peace With Honour flashes up at the end, but War With Honour – Milne’s corrective, as it were – isn’t mentioned; the four children’s books are more or less whipped into one, without any sense that Milne became a famous children’s writer before the Winnie the Pooh stories). Etc. etc. But it is only one film, and I couldn’t have expected them to do a roll call of all I know about Milne.

It’s a beautifully shot film, and it’s definitely a tearjerker. And I feel like I can brief a sigh of relief that, after all, AAM has been well served by Goodbye Christopher Robin.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

It’s been another busy week, and I feel like I’ve hardly been in my flat at all – so it’s nice to be here for the weekend, and I’ve got various friends coming around too. The more people who see it, the more it feels like home. And I’ll give a proper tour before too long, I hope!

Hope you’re having a good weekend – and here is the usual weekend miscellany round-up of book, blog post, and link.

This Little Art1.) The link – is an exciting new initiative called Bluestocking Book Tours. Lauren got in touch to tell me about it, and it sounds fantastic – 2.5 hours of a guided specialist tour of some of London’s bookshops, with different themes for different tours. The link above has details about when and what they are, and if you come on the 18th November one then I’ll be there too! I’ll also report back fully on the tour I attend, of course.

2.) The blog post – I’m over at Shiny New Books writing about one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, and it’s hilarious. Anybody who loves non-fic about books will adore this one – think of it as a slightly more cynical version of 84, Charing Cross Road.

3.) The book – I think David mentioned this on Facebook, though could have misremembered – it’s This Little Art by Kate Briggs, about translation. It’s part of a series of interesting essay collections, beautifully and simply printed by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and one I’ll probably give in and buy at some point when Project 24 is over…

The 1968 club is coming this month!

It’s come around quickly, but the 1968 club isn’t far away! For those keeping tabs, Karen and I have shifted the week back a bit – but it’s happening 30 October to 5 November, and we have a badge all good to go. These are great fun to make, finding appropriate pictures, and I keep meaning to put all the past badges in the sidebar…

1968 club (1)

For those who haven’t seen previous clubs – the idea is that we all read and review books published in the same year, and – together, collaboratively – we can build up a really detailed picture of a year in books. I’ll host links to all new reviews (and feel free to do some reading in advance!) – novels, poetry, short stories, non-fiction, drama, everything is welcome. Books in translation also strongly encouraged, particularly if they were published in the original language in 1968 – but feel free to make up your own rules!

We’ve done 1924, 1938, 1947, and 1951, and I thought my enthusiasm might wane as we get nearer present day – but the line-up for 1968 is looking really great! If you’re feeling stuck, check out 1968 in literature on Wikipedia, or take a look at the (gasp!) 23 options that I’ve got waiting in my library. We love a wide range, so do have a hunt on your own shelves – and Karen and I will be back in late October to set everybody off!

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

It’s been quite the week. I burst a tyre! I changed a tyre! I got Shania Twain tickets! Well, that’s the rollercoaster over and done with. I suppose it hasn’t really been quite the week, all things considered, but it feels more active than usual. And I’ve come oh-so-close to finishing unpacking in my new flat, and there’s basically no room for any more books. And – spoilers – it’s quite possible that I’ll buy more books at some point. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it… but, for now, here’s a book, a blog post, and a link.

It's Too Late Now1.) The link – is a book group that I wish I could get to, but can’t. All the Forgotten Fiction book groups at Gower Street Waterstones in London look amazing, but their fifth one – on 25th October – is a dream. It’s Shirley Jackson AND Barbara Comyns! I would be there in a heartbeat, but I’m going to be on holiday. If you can go, please follow that link and let me live vicariously through you.

2.) The blog post – it was published nearly two months ago, but I loved this list of 10 Books Set in the English Countryside, at Bag Full of Books – the seven I’ve read are all rather lovely.

3.) The book – Bello keep reprinting loads of my favourites – whether coincidence or not, who can say – and I’m thrilled that they’re bringing back some A.A. Milne titles, as Print on Demand and ebooks. All the available books are here, and include some titles which are very tricky to track down. You’ll never find Lovers in London except in Print on Demand, for instance. But I’ve highlighted It’s Too Late Now – his autobiography – which is one of my favourite books, and good homework before you see Goodbye, Christopher Robin at the cinema!

The Boat by L.P. Hartley

The Boat

When Rachel and I discussed trains and boats in novels in an episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ – you can hear the episode here – David had a few suggestions in the comment section, one of which was The Boat (1949) by L.P. Hartley. I was particularly pleased to see him mention it because it was on my shelves. John Murray kindly sent me all their L.P. Hartley reprints a few years ago, and I’ve been fully intending to get to them – better late than never, as The Boat is brilliant.

Timothy Casson makes his living writing articles, usually travel articles, and has spent happy, carefree years touring Italy and the like. But now he has been requested to write about England, to support the war effort, and it is partly this stricture that finds him renting a house in an English village – having chosen a house next to the river largely because of its boathouse. He has a passion for rowing and for boats, and has proudly brought his boat with him. But he discovers that the local gentry aren’t happy at the idea of disturbing the fishing, and the landowner – who also owns the river – has to decide whether or not to allow him his rowing.

Such is through-thread of this novel, which is over 450 pages long. Such, one might say, is the river running through it – at just the right moments, perfectly judged, Hartley returns us to this theme. A letter may be sent to the old lady whose decision it is, or Timothy might make a bold decision against his plan – it crops up just often enough to remind the reader that it is something of an impetus. And it pays off in a bold climax – but the novel is not really about climaxes. It is slow, observant, gradual – brilliantly paced, while not being remotely pacey.

I talked a bit about this in another podcast episode – it really is one of the most brilliantly structured books I’ve read. I had to read it slowly. It took months, and I read many other books at the same time, but that was how it worked – gradually finding my way through the hundreds of pages, letting this life ebb along beside me.

For it is mostly about Casson’s life – about his relationship with his maid and cook (who are hilarious; I loved every scene in which they appeared, particularly when they considered themselves affronted), about his gardener, about a fledgling romance, about confusing conversations with the vicar’s absent-minded wife, about failures to ingratiate himself with the local landowners. Most touchingly, about a pair of young boys who are briefly evacuated to his house. Hartley puts together a village world – but, unlike most rural novelists, we are not introduced to that world as a whole. We feel our way through it, alongside Timothy, learning more and more about it but feeling forever at a slight distance. He is nobody’s equal in this social hierarchy.

Lest this sound worthy but dull, I must emphasise that The Boat is an extremely funny – often, as I said, through Timothy’s baffled methods of living with servants, but also through Hartley’s dry tone. His observation often has the mildest of barbs, and the balance of his sentences makes them joyful. While this isn’t the most amusing part by any means, it’s a section I noted down as enjoyable…

Mr Kimball was a sweet-pea fancier, and knew more about them than Timothy knew of all of the rest of the world’s flora put together. Like most experts, he had an attitude towards his subject which no amateur could hope to enter into; the beauty of the flowers he took for granted; what interested him was their size, shape, colour, the difficulties attendant on rearing them, their habits of growth and above all their prize-winning capacities. But even this last was devoid of excitement for him; the thrill of the prize was subordinated to and almost lost in the various technical points necessary to secure it. The winning of the award was not so much a crowning glory as the logical outcome of having fulfilled all the conditions, and he expatiated at equal length on Mariposa which had taken several first prizes and on Wolverhampton Wonder which, owing to an exaggeration of certain qualities, attractive to the public but fatal to the true harmony and balance of the bloom, was never more than Highly Commended. Timothy listened, bored as one must be with an accumulation of details outside the grasp of one’s mind, but respectful, because he recognised in Mr Kimball’s dispassionate approach to his hobby the signs of an austere idealism which was lacking in his own art. From time to time Mrs Kimball supplied the personal touch that her husband had left out – “Mr Kimball stayed up until three o’clock the night he thought Bradford Belle had caught cold,” and so on, but he clearly deplored these womanly intrusions, and quickly elbowed them out of the conversation.

You see, perhaps, that Hartley does not rush. Mr and Mrs Kimball aren’t important characters, but nothing is hurried in Hartley’s prose – but it is a wonder to read each unhurried moment. And somehow the more eventful moments didn’t feel out of place, but almost earned by the mellow timbre of the rest of the writing. I could have done without the letters he writes and receives from two off-stage characters (who remain off-stage throughout); I suppose are there to help us work out Timothy’s personality, and give him opportunity to reveal himself in ways that he can’t to these neighbouring strangers. See, I even argue myself out of my criticisms.

This is such a leisurely book, and also an extraordinary one. Thank you for prompting me to read it, David, and I hope that – in turn – I might have prompted some others to do so.

Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson

Letters From KlaraWhen I saw that Thomas Teal had translated another set of Tove Jansson stories, I knew that the collection would be one of the books I bought for Project 24 – and, while I bought it two months ago, I was waiting to feel exactly in the mood to read it. That’s partly because I have to be in the right mood for any collection of short stories, but also because I’m savouring what little Jansson there is left to translate. I think the only remaining book is a 1984 novel which is Field of Stones in English. Why hasn’t it been translated yet, one wonders?

Letters from Klara was originally published in 1991 and was one of the final books Jansson wrote. I have to be honest from the outset – it’s probably the least good of the books I’ve read by her. I say ‘least good’ rather than ‘worst’, because it is still good – but I’ve come to have such high expectations of her work that it still came as a bit of a disappointment.

She is strongest in the longer stories. ‘The Pictures’ looks at the difficult relationship between a young painter and his father, when the painter leaves home with a scholarship. It has Jansson’s trademark subtlety in showing how two people who care deeply for each other can’t properly communicate; she is wonderful at showing the strain of silence in these relationships, where others might go too far in showing awkwardness. The final words of it show Jansson at her spare best:

The train stopped out on the moor, as inexplicably as before, and stood still for several minutes. It started moving again and Victor saw his father on the platform. They approached one another. Very slowly.

The other story that struck me as truly excellent is also the other long story: the haunting ‘Emmelina’. Emmelina is an old lady’s companion who inherits everything when the old lady dies, and who is one of Jansson’s enigmas. David – through whose eyes we see her, albeit still in the third person – falls in love, but cannot understand her, or where she disappears to. Emmelina has the sharp commonsense of many of Jansson’s characters, but also feels almost spectral. The story has no twists or conclusions, but it simply a wonderful example of how to keep a reader guessing, without quite knowing what the question is.

Elsewhere, some of the stories feel too short, too sparse. Jansson seems to have been experimenting with cutting down her prose further and further. Usually her spareness is a great quality, but in some of these stories we lost too much. An emotional logic was missing; the structure didn’t allow her usual character development. In ‘Party Games’, for instance, a school reunion is supposed to reveal hidden rivalries and resentments, but it doesn’t quite work – and female rivalries is a topic Jansson has addressed with startling insight in other collections, perhaps most notable in ‘The Woman Who Borrowed Memories’.

None of the stories in this collection are bad, but some feel like they just missed the mark – or never quite got going. The title story is a series of letters to different people that develop a character, but don’t cohere into a story. Other stories are good but belong in different collections – ‘Pirate Rum’ feels exactly like a chapter missing from Fair Play, being about two older women on a remote island (and presumably as autobiographical as Fair Play was).

So, I’m still thrilled that this book is available to read, and glad I read it, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a good place to start. Jansson has done much better. But thank goodness for any of her words finding their way into English – and thank you to Thomas Teal for all he does in translating her.