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.

But What if We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

No, the image is not upside down.
No, the image is not upside down.

I heard about But What if We’re Wrong? on a popular culture podcast I love called The Cooler – because they had an interview with Chuck Klosterman. I loved the idea of it, and it’s just the sort of quirky non-fiction title I pick up every now and then. So, what are you waiting for? Why not read my thoughts about it over at Shiny New Books? Spoilers: it includes some controversial opinions about the American Constitution.

How many non-fiction books do you come across which combine literature, music, television, sports, science, and aliens? Not that many, I’m going to wager – but, then, I could be wrong – as Klosterman’s book is continually reasserting. There are many kinds of wrongness, of course, but the focus of this book is clear in the subtitle: ‘thinking about the present as if it were the past’. How will the early 21st century be remembered in decades and centuries to come?

3 books about reading

I am so proud of everybody for the response to my most recent post. You’ve really shown the positives that can come of people coming together on the Internet. It brings a tear to the eye! I’m excited about my Furrowed Middlebrow books arriving, and will certainly report back on what I think of the books.

But for today – let’s look at some books about reading. This has certainly my go-to comfort-genre of choice over the past year or so. I picked up quite a few in my trips to America, and I am endlessly entertained, informed, and charmed by them – thankfully there are plenty more to read on my shelves. As I often turn to them when I want episodic distraction, I don’t always get around to making proper reviews of them – so I’ve grouped three together for mini-reviews. Sound ok?

Why I Read (2014) by Wendy Lesser

why-i-readThe subtitle to this one is ‘the serious pleasure of books’, and Lesser is certainly not taking the role of the average reader. She wears her education heavily (if that is the opposite of ‘lightly’ in this instance), and it becomes rather farcical how often she mentions Henry James, BUT it’s still an enjoyable and extremely thought-provoking look at the different elements of reading. She divides her chapters in ‘Character and Plot’, ‘The Space Between’, ‘Novelty’, ‘Authority’, ‘Grandeur and Intimacy’, and ‘Elsewhere’ – make of those what you will – and her thoughts and arguments cover great swathes of territory and many writers and nationalities.

I would certainly need to re-read to familiarise myself afresh with her lines of argument, and this is closer to a scholarly book than most of the books-about-reading I enjoy, but is still certainly accessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, it would be infuriating in a scholarly context, because there are no footnotes or referencing

Why does she read? The whole book is, of course, building that answer – but I also liked (if did not agree with) the summing-up of sots of ‘I read […] for meaning, for sound, for voice – but also for something I might call attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself’. I’d certainly recommend Why I Read – and it is also beautifully designed and printed – but somebody should have a word in her ear about how often one can get away with throwing in Henry James. I shall always wryly smile in recollection of ‘Very little in the world can compare with the experience of reading, or even rereading, The Golden Bowl, but we cannot always be reading The Golden Bowl‘. Well quite.

The Art of the Novel (2015) edited by Nicholas Royle

art-of-the-novelI asked for this collection of essays for my birthday last year – thanks Rhiannon! – because my friend (can I say that on the strength of meeting once?) Jenn Ashworth has an essay in it. You may recall I raved about Fell earlier in the year; in this collection she writes on ‘Life Writing / Writing Life’. Everybody in the collection discusses different angles on how to write, from genre (Leone Ross on magical realism; Livi Michael on historical fiction) to broader concerns like place, details, plot twists, etc. Besides Ashworth, I’d only heard of a handful of the authors (Alison Moore, Stella Duffy, and – believe it or not – two Nicholas Royles, whom I’d got confused on a previous occasion) but I am hardly the benchmark for knowing about modern literature. Only one contributor, one of the Nicholas Royles in fact, takes a weird tangent – into the concept of the death of the author – which has little to do with practical advice.

This was one of the books I read in Edinburgh, and it was entertaining – I was reading it more out of interest than seeking advice – but I did particularly like how each essayist ended their section with a list of books they admired or recommended. It was interesting how often Muriel Spark’s excellent book The Driver’s Seat came up.

The Whole Five Feet (2009) by Christopher R. Beha

the-whole-five-feetThe most personal of the three books featured today, and the most unusual in concept (is there a word for ‘gimmicky’ that isn’t negative?) – and by far the longest subtitle. *Clears throat* ‘What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else’.

The great plants in question are the Harvard Classics – Beha decides that he will try to read all of the Harvard Classics in a year. They supposedly take up five feet on a shelf, hence the title. For those not au fait with the series (as I was not), it was created in 1909 to be the best literature, fiction and non-fiction, made available to the everyman, in 51 chunky volumes. It is quite an unusual collection of works; the blurb describes it as ‘from Plato to Dante, Shakespeare to Thoreau’, but it also includes some more idiosyncratic choices – like Two Years Before the Mast, an account of sailing by Richard Henry Dana, Jnr.

What makes this book so engrossing is how well Beha combines the reading experience with personal accounts of his own life – losses and illness chiefly – that accompany the year, writing with a empathetic dexterity that makes the reader warm to him and care deeply. The actual responses to the books become less important as The Whole Five Feet continues, and it ultimately seems more of an endurance test than an engagement with literature. In some ways, this is more memoir than a book-about-reading, but it is none the worse for that.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

FellIt’s time to start pointing you over to my Shiny New Books reviews! (And, while you’re there, do take some time exploring all the reviews and features on offer.) This one is the latest novel by Jenn Ashworth, whom I met at a bloggers-meet-authors event a few years ago, where we had a lovely chat and bonded over being the only non-Londoners there. Fell is a really wonderful, unusual, and sensitive novel. Read all my thoughts over at SNB; here’s the beginning of my review:

The title of Jenn Ashworth’s fourth novel could mean any number of things – or, indeed, all of them. The first two that come to mind, as you start reading the novel, are the felling of a tree (the fate of two sycamores is in discussion) and falling to earth – because our narrators, we learn fairly quickly, are dead. Not in a Lovely Bones talking-from-Heaven style, but in an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-anxious away.

When The Floods Came by Clare Morrall

I am lucky enough to receive quite a few review books in the post. Some of these I snap up, some of these end up sitting in the living room for a while – and my housemate Melissa nabbed (with my full blessing and encouragement) a novel called When The Floods Came. Even better, she wrote me a review of it! Here it is – do make her feel welcome please.

When the Floods CameThere’s a certain trend in literature these days that plays on our insecurities about what we really know to be true. Everyone loves a good whodunnit where the killer is revealed at the end, or an action adventure where the good guys win; but the fact is that in real life juries disagree on who actually did it and no-one is quite sure who the good guys were in the first place. Reading this book on a day when I’m feeling disjointed and confused about whether the world makes any sense at all may have been a good thing – I’m not sure I could have stomached something with the quiet certainty of Narnia or the inevitable outcome of Pride and Prejudice.

I don’t know enough literary history to know whether authors have always exploited our insecurities; I do know that there are many variations of the dystopic novel on bookstore shelves at the moment, and this one fits firmly into that trend. There’s the introduction to a new world with the unsettling mix of familiar and unfamiliar; the gradual piecing together of how our world fell apart and this new world was built on it; the lack of clarity about who is really in control and whether or not they’re on the right side. This world has been shaped by many of the things we’re afraid of today: environmental change, market forces, uncontrollable disease, ill-considered government policies. The UK has been decimated by epidemic, quarantined by the outside world, flattened by storms, cut off from all but online contact with the rest of the world and the occasional aid package dropped by drone. It’s a world where education and high-level technology – our traditional markers of progress – provide no protection from danger and deprivation.

Against this backdrop live the Polenskys. The parents are transplants from an age we’re familiar with, activists who welcomed decisive action on climate change and fought corporate domination by Amazon (it’s rare for a novel to mention a company by name!) They are concerned about their children’s education, behaviour and values as much as their security. The kids are independent and ambitious, exploring freely across the territory around their home, working online for Chinese companies who pay them in education and medical security, happy to cooperate with government rules that their parents find stifling. They’re surprisingly well-rounded given their tiny social circle in a world where people are few and people under twenty are pretty much extinct. The family has their secret (which is hardly a secret given that they’ve no-one around them to hide it from): little daughter Lucia was a waif found by the roadside and adopted in place of their own little one who did not survive. She doesn’t know this but you get the feeling that she can feel it, and needs an increased level of reassurance that she really does belong.

Their secluded family life, in an area of Birmingham where no-one else lives anymore, is about to change as 22-year-old narrator Roza plans her wedding to a work colleague she’s never met in person. Hector is a part of Roza’s life that never fully materialises, appearing as a hologram or in voice messages and nervously awaited in the flesh; a joker who allows only occasional glimpses of his real self to show through. The wedding will involve a trip to Brighton for the whole family – a first outing in two decades to a place that really is inhabited.

But before any of this expected change can occur, the family is disrupted by the arrival of Aashay, a charmer who moves into a neighbouring flat that has lain empty for years and who refuses to provide an explanation for himself. He clearly holds some attraction for Roza and I thought at first that it would be one of those (*annoying*) novels where a hot guy who turns up out of the blue and disrupts all her safe and sensible plans. But that isn’t quite the way it goes, and the family’s relationship with Aashay continues to fluctuate between friendship and distrust.

Aashay opens the family’s eyes to a world where people meet and interact in person outside the rules. The prospect holds both interest and fear as they contemplate the possibility of stepping outside the safe boundaries they’ve lived within for so long. In fact, their trip out to a clandestine fair reveals pretty much what you would expect: there are both things to be gained and there are risks. For the most part, it’s unclear whether the people they encounter are to be trusted or not and what their motives are for being welcoming, but what does become apparent is that all these people are there for different reasons, and there is not one guiding force uniting them. It’s just another way of doing life in the harsh reality they live in. If there is danger in it, the danger ultimately is not due to the people they encounter there or the fact that the fair is technically illegal, but simply in being more exposed than they have been before.

There is a twist at the end; it’s neither predictable nor a major surprise. You get the feeling that the author could have chosen to end the book in one of several ways. Not all the questions are answered, but most of them probably didn’t need to be. I appreciated that there is some closure, that you do end up knowing who was and who wasn’t to be trusted. I’m not sure that’s a realistic outcome in this scenario, but it’s a nice change.

There’s one issue in particular addressed in this book that I’d like to look into further, around entitlement to children. It’s an unusual feature of this dystopia that infertility is wide-spread, and children are a rare commodity. Child abduction and trafficking flourish because of the longing many have for a family of their own rather than for the purpose of exploitation, which means that the attraction strangers show to little Lucia is concerning for a very different reason that it would be to us today.

In such a context, Lucia’s adoption by a family who already had children of their own walks a difficult line between the admirable, in rescuing and caring for an abandoned child, and the selfish, in taking for themselves what so many others wanted to have. When questions are raised about who Lucia’s birth family could be, the Polenskys’ instinct is to run, ostensibly to protect her, but also to protect themselves from being exposed as imposter parents and from losing her.

Although it isn’t yet so extreme, the place of children in our society has changed a lot over a few decades. It’s not that long since having children was a necessity to parents who needed to ensure an income and support for themselves in their old age, or simply an unavoidable reality in the days before contraception. Today, with reliable contraception and varied fertility treatments, children are seen as a lifestyle choice and as a luxury that many feel they cannot afford.

Neither of these approaches are completely unselfish – nor should they be, since children deserve to be wanted. Sometimes, though, the degree of choice we have over how, when and what children we will have can be unsettling. How do we ensure that we continue to value our children without turning them into a commodity? I haven’t reached any answers, nor does the novel provide any, but it is a question we would do well not to ignore if we want to make sure our children continue to be welcomed, wanted and treated with respect just as they are.

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Guys, I love Virginia Woolf. That ain’t no secret around these parts. And now I’ve read four novelisations of her life… or at least where she features. Those are The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and now Vanessa and Her Sister (2014) by Priya Parmar.

Vanessa and Her Sister

The Cunningham novel remains my favourite, but all of them have been good in their different ways – and Parmar takes the different angle of framing this as the diary of Vanessa Bell, which opens thus:

Thursday 23 February 1905 – 46 Gordon Square
Bloomsbury, London (early)

I opened the great sash window onto the morning pink of the square and made a decision.

Yes. Today.

Last Thursday evening I sat in the corner like a sprouted potato, but this Thursday, I will speak up. I will speak out. Long ago, Virginia decreed, in the way that Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she the writer. “You do not like words, Nessa,” she said. “They are not your creative nest.” Or maybe it orb? Or oeuf? My sister always describes me in rounded domestic hatching words. And invariably, I believe her. So, not a writer, I have run away from words like a child escaping a darkening wood, leaving my sharp burning sister in sole possession of the enchanted forest. But Virginia should not always be listened to. 

Alongside these ongoing entries there is a collage-style selection of letters from various members of the Bloomsbury Group – most amusingly between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, the former trying to persuade the latter to marry Virginia Stephen. Spoilers: he does.

That does bring about one big factor in reading this novel, or any book about real people. The reading experience will depend a lot upon how much you know about the people in question. I read Vanessa and Her Sister for my book group, and some people there said they were forever flicking to the list of people at the beginning, and trying to work out how everybody was connected: I was in the lucky position that I already knew who everybody was, and what would happen to them, and even some nicknames (‘Goat’ for Virginia, for instance). I have rather immersed myself in Virginia and her circle, of course – as have many of you – and so I wasn’t surprised when Thoby died (for instance) and none of the novel held tension for me, per se.

This also meant that I had to read the book with parallel sets of people: the real individuals, and the characters that Parmar has created. She is keen to emphasise in her afterword that the novel and people are fictional – but, of course, one can’t help thinking constantly of the actual lives these people lived, and real events are constantly being referred to.

The focus of the novel, as both the title and the excerpt above suggest, is the relationship between sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephen. The novel, indeed, ends before Virginia’s first novel is published – so we see them as sisters learning their craft as painter and writer respectively, without their later reputations clouding the scene. And most prominent in Parmar’s handling is the possessiveness Virginia feels over Vanessa.

Much happens in Vanessa and Her Sister that would probably have been cut from a complete fiction, as distracting from the main narrative – the Dreadnaught Hoax, for instance – but it is Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell and Virginia’s resentment of this that occupy most of the book. Virginia and Clive begin an affair of the mind, and Vanessa tries to deal with the fragility of Virginia’s mental health alongside the indignity of Clive’s other affairs, and this betrayal.

Tbh, Virginia comes off terribly in this book. We don’t see her talent, and we certainly don’t see her humour – which is always evident in her writing, particularly her non-fiction and letters. She is chiefly a clingy, selfish, extremely weak person in this narrative. But, then, who is ever charmed by their own siblings? Love them, yes, deeply – but we see our nearest and dearest in clear ways that nobody else would, and speak of and to them in ways that nobody else could. The angle is perhaps realistic?

Oh, and Parmar certainly writes well and very engagingly. We can’t know how Vanessa would have written her diary, because she did not. What worked less well, to my mind, were letters between people who did write letters to each other. When we can read the letters Virginia, Roger Fry, or Lytton Strachey wrote, why would we want to read versions that Parmar has made up? (Incidentally, Roger Fry is easily the novel’s nicest character. I don’t know much about him, and have yet to read the biography of him that Virginia Woolf wrote.)

My most pressing question throughout was: had Parmar read Susan Sellers’ novel? So much of it seems to be inspired by the same things, though Sellers wrote in a much more Modernist way, that worked very well.

You’re spoiled for choice if you want to read novelisations of the Bloomsbury Group. I’d still always recommend The Hours as a first choice, and would probably choose a biography before a novelisation anyway, but Parmar has tackled a difficult topic and approach very capably. This is certainly an enjoyable read, but perhaps for people who already know the figures well, rather than those hoping to learn about the individuals involved.