Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested WillIf I had to pick my favourite book title, there is a strong chance that it might be Contested Will (2010). I’m a sucker for a clever play on words, and Shakespeare helpfully lends his first name to plenty of them – though they were puns that he made himself in the Sonnets, so we can hardly assume he’d be hurt. James Shapiro’s book doesn’t end its cleverness there, though – Contested Will has the subtitle ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’, but it’s really a study of how different theories came about, and the evidence acquired for them.

I read a little around the ‘authorship question’ when I was researching to write the notes accompanying a DVD of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a funny little job that I got to do while working in the Bodleian Rare Books department, and I never saw the end result (or even know if it came to fruition), but I do know that my first draft of Shakespeare’s biography was rejected as “having too many facts”. Anyway, I dipped one toe into the waters, and even put forward Jane Austen as a candidate, sort of. Last time I approached the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ question, I got quite a lot of lengthy, impassioned comments – so I look forward to doing the same this time!

Contested Will looks at three candidates for the authorship – one of them being Shakespeare himself (I’m not going to bow to the style of some who write ‘Shakspere’ or ‘the Stratford man’; the former misses the point about not having standardised spelling at the time and the latter is too cumbersome). The other two are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – though, as Shapiro acknowledges, there are almost as many candidates as there are people arguing about it. These three are the mainstays – or at least held sway for the largest number of people.

The keynote of Shapiro’s book is calm thoroughness. He says early on that he is persuaded that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (and – nailing my colours to the mast – so am I), but he is not bombastic or insulting. Nor, to be honest, is he the ‘devastatingly funny’ that John Carey’s puff on the back cover promised me, though he is occasionally enjoyably wry. No, he is professional and engaging – as interested in the psychology of those who passionately argued the case of Bacon, Oxford, or others as he is in the question itself.

The first section looks at the history of hunting out Shakespeare’s papers, and the near-desperation that people had over several centuries to find out more about his life. Not until some years after he died, sadly, and nobody troubled to interview his surviving relatives – so the papers were all. Along with the discoveries you may have heard about (paperwork about poaching and a loan), Shapiro details forgeries that fooled some across the years – and, alongside, rebuffs some of the “gosh, it can’t be him” claims. Worried that a rural lad could know Latin? The education at Warwickshire grammar schools was about equal to a contemporary Classics degree. Concerned that no books are mentioned in Shakespeare’s will? It was very common for wills to be accompanied by inventories that detailed things like books, and Shakespeare’s has been lost. Anxious that his family kept grain? So did everybody else with any money in the area.

From here, we move onto Bacon, and the earliest stirrings that something was amiss – though Shapiro also reveals that some of these early murmurings were, in fact, latterday forgeries. Much of the ethos of Bacon’s authorship seems to have been involved with strange code-hunting practices, believing (like so many conspiracy theories) that those who are desperate to hide the truth will also, for no clear reason, leave clues to the truth. Baconians dominated the early 20th century, when less was known about the way plays were produced in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, or how the First Folio was printed, and much of this code-breaking was based on misunderstandings. And yet luminaries were involved in these theories – Mark Twain devoted the last years of his career to the authorship debate, and Freud was also preoccupied with it – ditto Henry James, Helen Keller, and right up to Mark Rylance (albeit these people don’t all favour Bacon).

I’m racing through, because there is so much richness in Shapiro’s book and this review is getting too long, and we move on to the man of the moment (for now, at least): the Earl of Oxford. Yes, he died before many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were written, but that’s one of the things carefully tidied away by Oxfordians. He remains very much a popular choice for Shakespeare’s writings, but he did almost die out as a candidate – through lack of interest, rather than anything else. Shapiro writes very interestingly about his unexpected survival, and how it came about.

Oxford’s claims mostly come from the idea that the plays and poetry must be autobiographical – a theory I find as frustrating as Shapiro clearly does, though he manages to write about it with the same calm he demonstrates throughout. It intensely annoys me that anybody would think a genius would have to reflect his contemporary thoughts and feelings into his work rather than, y’know, being creative and making things up. And the idea that anybody might discover anything through research is anathema to some people of this school. You can’t possibly write about Italy unless you’ve been to Italy; you can’t write about being an earl unless you’re an earl. I suppose they haven’t spotted the irony of writing about Jacobean playwrights when you aren’t a Jacobean playwright.

Shapiro is more polite than I am, and doesn’t let himself get carried away – instead, he steadily tells us about Oxford’s time in the sun (including a court case in the Supreme Court about the authorship, no less; Shakespeare won) and points out times where the anti-Stratfordian arguments are based on unintentional or intentional errors, or explain away anything contrary to their views. Here, Shapiro refers to a story written by James Lardner in the New Yorker, which in turn quotes Professor James Boyle:

“The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretive framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information”/: “all the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected”. When Boyle added that it was impossible “to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents”, Lardner asked, “What about a letter in Oxford’s hand… congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?” Boyle didn’t skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: “What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player!… Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!”

But the essential chapter is the last, where we are back to Shakespeare. In it, Shapiro (again, very calmly) outlines all the reasons that he has been convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – based on everything from contemporary printing practices to the diaries of fellow playwrights, and countless other points that he expertly explains. Long story short, being an expert in the period and in theatre history, Shapiro is able to help a 21st-century reader understand the reasons behind things that look like anomalies today, or show how many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments have been based on misunderstandings. The chapter should be handed to anybody interested in the authorship question, and no advocate of any other author should be able to continue without coming up with good replies to all the points made (as Shapiro has, in turn, come up with good replies to the Bacon and Oxford arguments).

I loved reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, where he has a lot of fun in depicting the inconsistencies of anti-Strafordians; Shapiro is less amusing but better mannered (though even he can’t resist enjoying the psychics who relayed information from Shakespeare and Oxford). Much of what he writes is documenting what happened, and how theories came to popularity – it is still a page-turner, and fascinating, but less of an all-out entertainment. And it really is fascinating – and given me a taste to read more and more about this area. And I’m also excited to see which new candidate might take centre stage in the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ debate – indeed, perhaps it will be Jane Austen after all?

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple ChairFor my holiday, I treated myself to one of the unread books from my shelf of books about reading. I’m rationing these because they seem all too finite, and I can’t get enough of them. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) turned out to be quite different from most of them, but a very good read.

Nina Sankovitch decided to read a book every day for a year. Each day = one book. And one book review. It sounds like an impossible task, but it’s what she needed to do to help recover from grief at losing her sister to cancer – which happened three years before her year of reading took place, but it took that long to realise that other coping mechanisms simply weren’t working.

Sankovitch wrote about her experience at her Read All Day blog, which I assume was later picked up by a publisher, and the first question has to be: how does she fit it in? Well, she wasn’t in paid work at the time: she’d left her job as a lawyer to raise four children, while her husband did paid work. By the time her ‘year of magical reading’ (overt nod to Joan Didion) began, all four were school age – so she prioritised reading during the day, as setting her on the path of recovery from grief.

The venture is bold and rather beautiful – but how to turn it into a book? We wouldn’t want to read 365 short book reviews in a row – or, at least, it wouldn’t be a continuous narrative. I was super impressed by how Sankovitch managed to make it work – because she manages to turn the experience into a novel. It is about memories of her sister, it is about the quick downhill spiral of the cancer, it is about everyday moments for a mother – and all the while, it is also about the books.

All the great books I was reading were about the complexity and entirety of the human experience. About the things we wish to forget and those we want more and more of. About how we react and how we wish we could react. Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfilment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.

There are plenty of books from her reading year which don’t get a mention in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – except, thankfully, in the complete list at the end. (I’ve read only 22 of the 365, and haven’t heard of most of them – I think quite a lot of contemporary American lit appears, though Sankovitch’s reading tastes are catholic and admirable, and she writes very well about how books have affected her, as well as their literary qualities. And the Provincial Lady features!) But she does weave certain of them through chapters – either grouping, such as several that consider death, or sex, or war, or drawing out moments of beauty and realisation from her reading.

Somehow it all works beautifully together. I don’t think I’d ask for either less or more detail from her reading reflections, and presumably can dig out fuller details on her blog. But she has worked a miracle in making a story about grief and a story about reading 365 books come together into a captivating, moving memoir.

My only real criticism of the book (incidentally, I have a beautiful American paperback edition) is the title. She reads in a purple chair; one of the first books she reads is a Tolstoy novel. The book is emphatically not about Tolstoy, which is surely what anybody would think seeing this title? It’s certainly what I thought – and there are any number of titles that would have crystallised the book far better.

But hopefully you can see past the title, and add this to your own books-about-reading shelf. It deserves a place there.

Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac CityProject 24 is going so well, guys. Not just that I am (cough, very broadly speaking, cough) on track – 15 books so far – but that I’m reading most of the books I’m buying. That’s pretty good going, since there are still a fair few that I haven’t read from Project 24 in 2010.

I already have a fair few Oliver Sacks books unread on my shelves, but I couldn’t resist going out and buying Insomniac City (2017) by Bill Hayes – mentioned in a recent Weekend Miscellany here, and which Jenny informed me existed. I even paid full price for a new hardback for myself, which basically never happens cos they cost dollar-dollar. But think of the money I’ve been saving through Project 24! Think of it and, if you see them, mention it to my bank manager.

Bill Hayes was Sacks’ partner in the last years of Sacks’ life, and has written books on various topics including blood, insomnia, and Gray’s Anatomy. So it seems like Sacks and Hayes shared an interest in quirky books about medicine… they also shared a love of New York, though Hayes’ was quite different from Sacks’. While Sacks lived in a curious parallel timezone – never using computers or technology – Hayes embraced the noisy, hectic modern world in all its forms. Even when they had been a couple for many years, they maintained separate lives to an extent – separate apartments, separate forms of engagement with the modern world. But there was nobody closer to give a detailed account of this period of Sacks’ life – as ‘O’ – and it is beautifully poignant, mixing humour and memory (including many of Hayes’ diary entries from the time).

Undated Note – June 2011

The difference between us in two words:

“Me, too,” I say.

“I, too,” O corrects.

Hayes takes us through their meeting, their relationship, and Sacks’ cancer. It is an extraordinary depiction of moments scattered through their experiences together, forming a whole from the glimpses.

If Insomniac City is a love letter to Sacks, and it unquestionably is in many ways, it is also a love letter to New York. That’s the sort of phrase that would normally put me right off a book, but here it works. Perhaps because it is not the sort of love letter that deals in overblown similes and references that exclude the non-traveller; Hayes gives us a collage of photos, diary entries, and reflections about his experiences of the city.

The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting. First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hard hat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.

In fact, a collage is a useful way to think about this book. It is a patchwork of thoughts and observations that hold together unexpectedly, even while we are aware of all the bustling life that Hayes doesn’t document. I would rush towards anything connected with Sacks, and this is a wonderful addition to my Sacks shelf – not at all the sort of book he would have written, nor the way he would have written it, but a beautiful complement to the writer and the human that ‘O’ was.

Resurrection Year by Sheridan Voysey

Resurrection YearI should start with the disclaimer that I know Sheridan Voysey a little. He goes to my church, but it’s quite a big church and I think our conversation probably has never gone further than me offering him a choice of tea or coffee. But he does sometimes speak from the front, and I once heard him speak about much of what happens in Resurrection Year (2013) and it was very moving. Soon after, I bought the book… and, eventually, I read it.

The book (a memoir of sorts) starts on Christmas Eve, 2010, in Sydney. This is from the opening pages:

“Let’s just get some takeaway,” Merryn says.

It’s dark but the rain has eased as we walk back to the car, with our packet of mince pies and some bread rolls for tomorrow’s drive. We get in, shut the doors, and Merryn bursts into tears.

“I feel so depressed,” she whimpers.

A Chinese restaurant is open. The motel has a vacant room. We dump our bags on the floor and the food on the table. Merryn collapses on the bed and my heart breaks into a thousand pieces.

I pull out my journal and write:

God, this is cruel – leaving us in the wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years – tired, thirsty, and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land, and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering.

This section is really opening at the midpoint of the story, and it quickly goes back to 2000 to fill in the gaps. Over those ten years, Sheridan and his wife Merryn had been trying to have a child – naturally, through IVF, through adoption. After ten years, they have realised that the final door is closed, and that it almost certainly isn’t going to happen.

The first half of this excellent book takes us through those painful years – painful for the waiting and the hoping as much as the disappointment. We more or less know the outcome from the outset, but it is still a heartbreaking journey to witness, and to share. And Voysey writes it approachably, like a friend filling in a friend on the disappointments he and his wife have weathered, so it does feel like we share it.

Alongside this, of course, is the rest of life: Sheridan’s career as a radio host goes from strength to strength, while Merryn’s career is not going in the direction she wants. What she does want is the chance to work abroad, in an area of science that I couldn’t begin to understand. Their plan is to go to Switzerland – I was a step ahead, as I knew perfectly well that they ended up moving to the UK. Indeed, to Oxford. Indeed, my church – which has a little cameo. And that is exactly what they do.

The second half of the memoir looks at their ‘resurrection year’ – the healing and restoration that God could provide in this move across the world. Certainly it came with its own struggles: while Merryn thrived in her new role, Sheridan had to leave a job he loved, and found it hard to pick up his career in England. And the grief at not having a child couldn’t just go away – Voysey writes about how it affected so many parts of life, from planning for the future to being introduced to a pregnant neighbour.

Resurrection Year is not a theology book, but it is centred around God and soaked in the experience of living with Jesus. I don’t know what somebody without faith would make of it, to be honest, though I’d be intrigued to hear. Voysey never questions his faith (I think there comes a point in a Christian’s life, certainly in mine, where they have seen and heard too much to doubt God’s existence) but he and his wife do question Him about why this is happening – and ask themselves if they have made the right choices, and so on. And He answers questions and prayers in unexpected ways during this ‘Resurrection Year’. But above all this is really just a beautifully honest book about a couple’s experience, told in simple, poignant, disarmingly and almost ruthlessly honest prose.

I read the whole thing in a day or so, and I’m keen to read more by Voysey – and it also makes me wonder what other good faith-based memoirs are out there. Suggestions, please!

Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

ThreadsI don’t remember putting Threads (2015) on a wishlist, but I think I must have done – otherwise the choice my friend Barbara made in buying it and sending it to me was more serendipitous than I can expect. I imagine I put it there while reading Claire Harman’s biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner – but I had the happy experience, with my terrible memory, of forgetting anything about the connection at all until Warner’s name cropped up near the beginning of this book.

In brief, Craske was a fisherman who had a serious breakdown that left him unable to continue that profession – and he turned, instead, to painting and (later) embroidery. He was discovered by Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland, and briefly became something of a cause celebre in a select circle – though has since been rather neglected; the museums that hold his work are often ignorant or ashamed of the fact.

Blackburn’s book – beautifully produced by Jonathan Cape, with a lovely solidity and brilliantly chosen cover and illustrations – isn’t really a biography. It’s more an account of tracing his life story, which emerges in bits and pieces as the book continues – and of Blackburn’s life as it continues alongside.

I feel like I don’t know much more about Craske than I did when I read the blurb on the inside jacket. He proves quite an elusive figure – beyond the bare framework that Blackburn details of his ancestry, his occupation, and his war. Perhaps he let his work do the talking – and there is plenty of that in this book; we see his depictions of the sea and ships which he painted on any surface that was available, from trays to biscuit tins. Eventually there is the extraordinary, large embroidery of the D-Day landings – a tiny part of which is shown on the cover. Usually the art conceit of using ‘detail’ to mean anything that isn’t the whole image really annoys me – but in this case it is only a detail. Craske’s work, whether in paint or embroidery, is a striking mix of naivety and knowledge. As a fisherman, he knows precisely how the sea behaves; as an artist, he is teaching himself and has a unique perspective.

Craske

Two people truly emerge from this book. One is Laura Craske – John Craske’s wife, who valiantly and quietly cared for him through mental illnesses that she did not understand (and his brothers – defeating any sort of stereotype of unsophisticated rural fishermen – were equally sensitive to Craske’s ailments and requirements). She was also determined for his work to have exposure, when offered, though also rather alarmed at the money that Warner and Ackland offered her for the work. By incremental millimetres, we learn about Laura’s character and resilience, and I certainly warmed to her.

But far and away the most dominant character in this book is Julia Blackburn herself. Her style of writing is so unusual, as is her approach. I had to check to see if she’d written any books before – she has, quite a few – because this feels so like somebody writing for the first time, and striking it lucky. Like Craske’s work, and (who knows) maybe influenced by his work, Blackburn’s prose is almost primitive. Here, for instance, she is doing some research into the family:

Philip came back with the photograph album and there was Grandfather the good doctor, tall and pale-eyed with a big blond moustache and a look of benevolent abstraction on his face. And here was Granny Cats his wife, also abstracted, but less benevolently so, or was that my imagination? And here was their infant son who appeared so thin and wan and that you would never expect him to survive into adulthood, but he got through and became a solicitor and married and had a son called Philip so that was good.

So many of her accounts seem to be about artwork she forgot to see or questions she forgot to ask. The raw threads of her biographical technique are exposed here, like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery. Many of the people who might have known the family are now very old – and she comments on the erratic interviews she manages to get. And the tangents! A thought leads to a thought. There is a chapter on a man she knew who had a parrot, which has nothing to do with Craske; there is a chapter that is a story a man called Keith sent her; there is a surprising chapter on Einstein’s visit locally (and accounts of the firm rebuttals made to her by Einstein experts that he couldn’t possibly have been seen riding a bike at that point, as he had yet to learn). There are sections of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, which I, of course, loved. There are very moving chapters on Blackburn’s husband and his illness.

It is all a very unusual combination, and would put Hermione Lee into hysterics – but it works, and completely beguiles. Blackburn does nothing linearly. The quest for Craske is the book, and he is not the subject – instead he, and his art, are (yes) the golden threads shimmering through the centre of this strange and wonderful work.

The Runaway by Claire Wong

The RunawayI don’t think I’ve yet got around to mentioning the second book I bought for Project 24 (still only bought 2 books! I’m 2 in hand!) – it’s The Runaway by Claire Wong, which I bought because Claire is a friend of mine from church. I think she’s the first friend I’ve had whose had a novel published – as opposed to friends I’ve made after reading their novels – and it’s super exciting. And, thankfully, it’s also really good!

It does feel weird writing a review of a book by a friend, but I’ll try to pretend I don’t know Claire while I write this… I’m even going to follow my usual reviewing style of using the author’s surname when referring to them. And that will feel so odd. Sorry, Claire – you’re Wong from now on!

The runaway of The Runaway is 17-year-old Rhiannon, who leaves her aunt (and guardian) Diana after the last in a long line of fights. She doesn’t go terribly far – into the thick Dyrys Wood, next to the small Welsh village she grew up in – but it is enough to make her unfindable by the search parties that come looking. She finds a shelter, learns some rudimentary skills, and manages to set up her own solitary life there. Solitary except for a rather fantastic hawk, called Lleu, that is.

It tries to move again, and achieves only a pathetic little shuffle. If its wing is broken, it won’t be able to hunt. It will probably starve. Hawks take care of their young, but that’s as far as the altruism goes.

“No one’s coming to help you,” I say, and the words come out sounding sadder and more sympathetic than I had expected. I find that I don’t like looking at it, so I decide to go and search for those tin cans by the path instead.

Meanwhile, back in the village there are appeals to find her – but life also goes on. The friendships and tensions of village life continue – there is a host of recognisable and well-realised characters, from pent-up Callum to shy Nia to Tom, trying to balance being everybody’s friend while also being the local policeman. My favourite – surely everyone’s favourite? – is Maebh, a sort of surrogate grandmother to the whole village, who retains all the stories that have happened there. She is something of an oracle, and weaves memory and fiction in the tales she tells – using the storytelling form as a way of reminding the village of its past, and trying to set the right path for its future.

I love novels which incorporate storytelling (Angela Young’s Speaking of Love is another great example), and Wong handles it deftly; the atmosphere of fairy tale and parable seeps throughout the whole novel, while also remaining (paradoxically) firmly on solid ground. As with fairy tale, it matters less why Rhiannon has run away, and more about what happens next. And part of what happens next is the arrival of Adam and Grace – whose father was from the village – looking to better understand their past. Needless to say, it ties pertinently in with the current situation.

One of the reasons I really liked The Runaway is because of what it says about small communities. Too often these are treated as places to escape – claustrophobic, nosey, and repressive to creativity. It’s ironic that a novel where somebody literally escapes this community doesn’t suggestion that small-town life is an evil. Nor is it a rose-tinted view either. Instead, Wong shows us that this sort of village can be supportive even while it is constraining – both a blessing and a curse. More to the point, it feels like a real place – with real limitations and real advantages. (Wong also manages to write a 17 year old who isn’t maddeningly annoying and isn’t unrealistically good – very impressive!)

This is a really enjoyable, thoughtful, and touching novel that also has spark and humour – it feels like a modern fairy tale in the best possible way.

 

On Wheels by Michael Holroyd

On WheelsI’ve still only finished one book in 2017 – I do hope this trend doesn’t continue throughout the year – and it was on 1 January. The book was On Wheels (2012) by Michael Holroyd, which I picked up in a charity shop in Oxford on a whim. And it’s a curious little book.

I read Holroyd’s memoir Basil Street Blues, published by Slightly Foxed, but didn’t know all that much about his career as a biographer. He seems to have made a career out of writing repeatedly about George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, and Augustus John. Scroll through his Wikipedia article to see how many times he’s written about ’em all – a trio that, I have to admit, I have very little interest in reading about.

BUT I was intrigued by this little book about how his subjects have dealt with cars, along with his own history of driving. Learning to drive was among the less enjoyable experiences of my life – basically a year of low-level dread – so I quite enjoy the empathy now of reading about others who found it difficult. It’s one of the reasons I like hearing Tom Allen on his podcast. And, yes, there is plenty to enjoy of this. But Holroyd talks more about his post-learning experiences – most memorably about getting his car vandalised when Ireland played England (because he lived in Ireland and had an English licence plate), then having his car repeatedly searched by English police when he’d switched to an Irish number plate (because it was during the peak of the IRA’s terrorism).

Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw seem to have been equally reckless and enthusiastic drivers – a terrible combination, really – and there are some amusing and illuminating anecdotes about these.

The hints given to him on the art of reversing were of little use, Shaw taking half an hour to turn a corner backwards and demolishing some flowerbeds in the process. But the village grew proud of his road exploits. Local dogs, knowing him well, would play dead under his car while he anxiously crawled after them – when they would bounce out, barking triumphantly. Though reckless, he was always considerate, leaping out on to the road after a bump or crash and offering to pay all expenses and drive people home or to the hospital. He was especially chivalrous to the injured when the fault was theirs.

Overall, this is a fun book to flick through. It feels rather as though it started as a few notes jotted down from his other researches, and those notes don’t become much more – it’s a series of thoughts, rather than a study. But it doesn’t have any aspirations of being more than that, which I admire; better a chatty 104pp than a bloated book with only the kernel of those hundred pages in it. Give it to the car enthusiast in your life, if they enjoy reading. Or stick it (as I will) on that shelf for quirky books that don’t quite fit into any other category.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftI think (though I haven’t checked) that Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift might be the only novel written in 2016 that I read last year – I read a handful of non-fiction titles published last year, but no other novels are coming to mind. It was given to me by my dear friend Lorna, because she thought it sounded like my cup of tea. And she was right – I mean, it’s set in the 1920s, for starters.

More specifically, it is set on 30 March 1924 – guess which festival falls on that day? Yes, it’s Mothering Sunday – and clever, thoughtful Jane Fairchild is given the day off to visit her mother, like all servants up and down the land are doing. Only Jane is an orphan. She tells her master that she will spend the day reading, but instead cycles off for an afternoon of passion (if you will) with Paul Sheringham. He is a well-to-do man, friends with the Nivens, the family for whom Jane is a housemaid; he is also engaged, but is spending the time before he drives off to see his fiance having sex with our Jane.

This is sounding a bit tawdry, but Mothering Sunday is nothing of the sort. Yes, my 1920s mindset had to get to grips with the 2016 novel’s willingness to throw in explicit words of an anatomical nature – but this is not a morality tale, or even a tale of rebelling against morals. It’s more a beautifully written depiction of one significant afternoon in a girl’s life – told in the third person, but throwing in moments where the 90+ year old Jane is clearly looking backwards.

And secret love. And secret friend. He had said that once to her, ‘You are my friend, Jay.’ He had said it so announcingly. It had made her head go light. She had never been called that, named that thing so decisively by anyone, as if he were saying he had no other friend, he had only just discovered, in fact, what a friend might be. And she was to tell no one about this newly attested revelation.

It had made her head swim. She was seventeen. She had ceased to be a prostitute. Friend. It was better perhaps than lover. Not that ‘lover’ would have been then in her feasible vocabulary, or even in her thinking. But she would have lovers. In Oxford. She would have many of them, she would make a point of it. Though how many of them were friends?

Swift layers his story, giving hints of what is to come – both on that afternoon, and in the rest of Jane’s life – building up a narrative piece by subtle piece. For that reason, I shan’t give any spoilers. I was really impressed by the way he did this with a sort of rhythmical structure. It reminded me of a needle sewing through a fabric, but occasionally looping back a bit – or a piece of music, where motifs are repeated or alluded to now and then. The same phrases appear again and again, or variants on them; we are told something we already know so that the narrative can build on it a little, putting together a portrait incrementally. It’s very cleverly done – the sort of not-straightforward writing which isn’t showy or off-putting, but like waves on the shore coming in and out.

So, there you go; the prose is like sewing, music, and waves! Put together those images and you might get an idea of what the reading experience was like. Better yet, give it a try. It’s a slim novel, only 132pp in my edition, and occasionally it feels like a luxuriously extended short story – whatever it is, I really enjoyed reading it.

Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

It’s no secret that I’m madly in love with Slightly Foxed Editions, and covet having the whole library on my shelves one day. So far I have this lovely bundle of them…

slightly-foxed-circle

The one I’m going to talk today is not a reprint, though; it’s Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham – a history of girls’ boarding schools from 1939-1979. It’s basically the perfect stocking filler for the bookish person in your life, and I’ve already given one copy to a friend who was thrilled with it. I wrote about Terms and Conditions in more length in Shiny New Books – you can read the whole review here. And please do – this book is a real treat.

To The River by Olivia Laing

to-the-riverSomehow it took me months and months to read To The River (2011) by Olivia Laing, having it on the go alongside lots of other books I was reading – and yet it is likely to be on my best books of the year. I think I was enjoying it so much, and realising what an unusually perfect book for me it was, that I didn’t want to read any of it unless I was in exactly the right mood.

I discovered that To The River existed when reading reviews of The Shelf, I think (just in case you’ve missed how much I loved Phyllis Rose’s book, have yourself a merry little read of this) – I quickly ordered a copy, but waited until it felt like the right time to read it. Why was I so excited about it? Well, I have two words: Virginia. Woolf.

To The River plays on the title To The Lighthouse, and it’s inspired by Virginia Woolf – at least partly. The loose structure of the memoir (for such I suppose it is) is that Laing is walking the length of the Ouse – the river in which Woolf drowned herself in 1941, but also (unsurprisingly) one which has a long and varied history before that. Laing mixes the personal and the investigative as she walks along this route – an area she knows fairly well already, but with plenty left to explore and unearth… and all while Woolf comes in and out of the narrative, always a reference point, if not quite the subject of the book.

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.

I’ve kinda already spoiled which river that is (mea culpa) – and it was a form of grief that took Laing there this time: the break-up of a relationship, which she mentions throughout the book (though not in an Eat, Pray, Love sort of way – more as a series of memories threaded throughout). (FYI, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love and have no idea what it’s really like.)

Like Laing, I am very fond of rivers. I grew up in a village called Eckington, in Worcestershire, which is in a bend of the River Avon. That meant that it flooded every year, and two of the three roads that led out of the village would generally be impassable, but it also gave me a lifelong love of rivers – you could walk all the way around the village by river, or you could stroll down to one of the two locks. You could even follow the river for miles in either direction, if you so chose. And in Oxford I have usually lived relatively close to a river – it’s five minutes’ walk from my house now – and it’s where I instinctively go when I’m sad. This week, in fact, I was pretty miserable for a couple of days – and, in the first burst of it, I went and stood by the river, staring into it. Not in a Virginia-Woolf-throw-myself-in, I should add, but because I find rivers calming and beautiful, and somehow reassuringly constant.

Anyway, Laing walks along the river – or as near as she can get to it; a lot of the riverbank is privately owned – and it’s greatly enjoyable just to read about the places she stays, the people she bumps into, and her reflections on her surroundings. I love reading all this sort of thing:

I walked back through fields of sleeping cows as the dusk fell down about me. I was staying that night in an old farmhouse near Isfield church, in a room at the end of a long corridor separated from the rest of the house by a velvet curtain. It smelled smoky and sweet, as if apple wood or cherry had been burning for generations. I’d been lent a torch when I went out, and now, tiptoeing back in, I was given a flask of hot milk and a homemade truffle to take up to bed. It was nice to be coddled. I wrapped the duvet round me and ate my feast while flicking through a book I’d found hidden beneath a stack of Country Life.

But To The River is much more than a travel diary: along the way, Laing discusses all manner of things that happened near her route, or which she is reminded of. And I mean ‘all manner of things’. There is a brief history of the discovery of dinosaurs and the rivalries it entailed; the life of Simon de Montfort; Piltdown man; folklore about dancing nymphs – it’s really all there. And, weaving in and out of all of them: Virginia Woolf. The places she visited, the inspiration she gathered for her novels, and the way she would have experienced the area. To be truthful, I would have loved a bit more about Woolf and about Laing’s history of reading her books – but I can’t fault the exemplary way that Laing brings together all the disparate histories she discusses with the trip she is taking. It’s quite extraordinary. It somehow doesn’t feel disjointed at all – as each thought comes to the surface, naturally, she gives a brief and engaging summary of the topic. It’s conversational and (here comes the river metaphor) flowing.

It was a pleasure to spend time in To The River. Such an unusual premise for a book makes me applaud the good people of Canongate for being willing to publish it – and wonder what other books of this ilk might be out there. Thank you, Olivia Laing, for taking this trip – for being both a brilliant researcher and a vulnerable self-analyser, and for bringing the two elements together so beautifully.