The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

the women

Set in Bavaria, Germany, The Women of the Castle follows three women as they come to terms with the end of World War II and the arrival of the Russians and Americans. I do love historical fiction and I haven’t read a huge number of novels set in post-war Germany (The Reader is the only novel that springs to my mind). The premise, seeing three very different women thrown together in a dilapidated castle, intrigued me.

Marianne von Lingenfels’ husband was a Nazi resistor. The castle is his family legacy and so she returns there after his execution for a plot to assassinate Hitler. She is the matriarch of the strange family that is formed after she goes in search of other resistance widows. Benita is the beautiful widow of Marianne’s childhood friend, Connie. Less principled that Marianne, she blames her husband for abandoning her. Rescued from sexual slavery, Marianne hopes that they will become allies, while Benita is not sure that she believes in Marianne’s high ideals. A third woman, Ania, is found in a labour camp and brought to the castle, but perhaps isn’t quite who she seems.

This is a novel that hops around in time, beginning with a prologue in 1938 before jumping ahead to 1945. There are other jumps – filling in the gaps in Benita and Ania’s pasts for example, then moving forward again to 1950. At times I did struggle a little, and if each chapter hadn’t been signposted with dates and location (the castle is, disappointingly, only a small part of the story) then I would have been lost. I did start to wish that Shattuck had concentrated on a story within the castle timeline as there was lots there that was left unexplored. In some ways, as this is a book written around the author’s own family history, and following years of research, I wondered if she had felt constrained to tell a certain story.

The blurb on the jacket cover promises that Benita will begin a clandestine relationship, and that Ania is trying to conceal a complicated role in the Nazi regime. I thought that these would be key moments, exploding Marianne’s dreams, but in reality by the time these revelations come they seem to lack the danger that they would have had if the women had all been together at the castle. When Marianne feels betrayed she just walks away and there is no real consequence (actually, perhaps for Benita there is, but I feel that her actions are driven by complex factors which could have done with more scrutiny).

I thought that this was a well written novel, examining difficult situations within a complex war, and Shattuck does well to make the history enjoyable to read. I just wish that, with the ingredients she had at her disposal, she’d written a story that examined the relationships between the women more closely.

Thanks to Readers First for this review copy in exchange for an impartial review.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

birdcage walk

I do love a Georgian drama, and Helen Dunmore has written a brilliant depiction of eighteenth century Bristol. Birdcage Walk is so authentic I could smell it. Dunmore’s city is one where women have agency without being too modern and she weaves historical fact into a dark tale of a marriage that is dangerously controlling.

The year is 1792 and Lizzie Fawkes is barely more than a girl. Recently married to John Diner Tredevant, a property developer and widower in his thirties, their relationship is one of passion. This was not an arranged or forced marriage, rather Lizzie tells the reader several times how she longed to be with him and ignored her mother’s advice to wait. It is only now, as he gradually becomes more controlling and demanding, that she wonders about his first wife, Lucie, and what really happened to her.

While Diner is concerned with making money from his most ambitious development, a terrace of fine houses overlooking the Gorge, Lizzie’s family are radicals, busy writing their pamphlets and spreading word of the French Revolution. Their ideals are the very opposite of Diner’s, and she defends him to them even as his scheme falters. In uncertain times, as the French bourgeoisie are being lead to the guillotine and there is talk of war, who will want to buy a fine mansion house? In turn, Diner sneers at the fanciful idea of women’s rights that Lizzie’s mother writes about, thinking of the radicals as clueless idealists.

The prelude of the novel is present day, a novice dog owner who likes to stroll along Birdcage Walk, a path that leads through a real graveyard in Clifton, Bristol, it’s church gone after being bombed during the second world war. Helen Dunmore wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian on the inspiration for the novel, and also her recent cancer diagnosis. Legacy is an important theme of the book. Diner hopes that his grand terrace will outlive him. Lizzie’s mother, Julia, writes pamphlets and is revered and reviled for what she publishes. These writings no longer survive, though in the present day her husband, Augustus, is still remembered a pamphleteer. Strange, when Lizzie tells us that it was Julia who wrote so compulsively, not her husband:

Hannah sniffed: her nose was red, with a drop hanging from it. ‘It’s rest she needs, not writing-boards.’

Sacrilege, coming from Hannah. Mammie’s ideas flowed most clearly at night, with one lit candle to speed her pen while Augustus slept on beside her. There was nothing more important than that those ideas of hers should be captured and set down. Hannah had always arranged our days for that purpose. Our rooms were clean, our clothes washed and our food cooked, but even so Mammie needed the night for her work. She would wake with her mind suddenly, startlingly alive. She’d sit up in bed, reach for her writing-board, prop it against her knees, and seize on her thoughts before they vanished. Who would imagine, from the clarity of her treatises, that they sprang from a warm bed?

Birdcage Walk is a masterclass in how to write historical fiction well. Using fact and fiction in equal measure, this is an involving story with a satisfying conclusion.

 

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Cazalet Chronicles Book

confusion

Book three of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion takes us through the second half of World War II. Most of the children are now young adults and facing the challenges of learning to stand on their own two feet as well as dealing with the dangers of wartime London.

Headstrong, independent Louise surprises everyone by abandoning her dreams of the stage and making a society marriage. Unhappiness and loneliness, which have also plagued her mother’s marriage, quickly settle in – Michael seems more interested in his ship and his mother, to whom he is extraordinarily close, than in his young bride. And both Michael and his mother are desperate for her to become pregnant, a wish not shared by Louise.

Polly and Clary, now in their late teens, finally fulfil their ambition of living together in London. But the reality of the city is not quite as they hoped. Polly is having to come to terms with the death of her mother, as well as look after her grieving father. And Clary – clever, sharp Clary, acutely aware she is neither beautiful like Polly nor striking like Louise – is the only Cazalet who seems to believe that her father might not be dead.

I enjoyed this book more than the second in the saga, probably because the children from the first novel are now adults and I could relate a little more to their problems (although, being upper middle class in the 1940s, all they really seem to do is potter about and not have to worry about getting proper jobs). Louise’s story especially I found heartbreaking, finding herself married to a man who will always love his mother more than her (favourite quote from mother-in-law to Louise: ‘If I felt that you were – in any way – making him unhappy, I should stab you to death. I should enjoy doing it.’).  The way his family treat her, for childbearing purposes alone, was very well portrayed. Not only does poor Louise have an awful time giving birth, but her husband pops his head in for all of ten minutes to say well done, then abandons her to spend the rest of his leave from the navy with his mother! A different time indeed…

There are also lots of affairs in this novel, mainly concerning the women, but it did make me laugh a little at how little they seem to enjoy them. I was rooting for Louise and Hugo (her husband’s cousin) and was bitterly disappointed for her when he, being a good egg, confessed to the husband who promptly threw him out of the house and devised a way to keep him away from Louise (not sure what Hugo thought would happen!). Hardly any of the women seemed to enjoy sex at all though (or ‘being made love to’ as it is referred to throughout) and viewed it as a necessary evil when embarking upon an affair. I was also glad to see that Sid became fed up with Rachel’s do-gooding and found herself a young student to have a fling with.

So far, this is my favourite in the saga. On to book four I think, and post-war Britain with a fair few surprises in store…

 

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

the-somnambulist

Named after the Millais painting, but also featuring a sleepwalking character, Essie Fox’s novel takes us back to later Victorian London (1880s) and is rooted in the gothic, reminding me greatly of Wilkie Collins who has inspired my own writing as well as Fox’s. Published in 2011, for any readers familiar with the genre there is a lot within this book which is familiar. Fox is the author of The Virtual Victorian, a blog dedicated to the era, and her love of the time period comes through in her writing.

When she spots an enigmatic stranger in the audience one night at Wilton’s Music Hall, seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner doesn’t realise her life is about to change. Mr Samuels offers her the job of companion to his reclusive wife at Dinwood Court – a grand country house that may well be haunted and which holds the darkest of secrets.

Leaving the hustle of London’s East End, Phoebe finds herself disturbed by her new surroundings. She awakes to hear sobbing in the night and it soon becomes clear that she has not been chosen to work there by chance…

As far as the main plot of the book is concerned, this should have ticked every box for me. A young girl being taken away from everything and everyone she knows by a dark mysterious stranger. A country house where some of the staff do not behave as they should. There were so many questions that I had after the opening few chapters but they were annoyingly answered almost immediately! Although the novel is mainly written in first person from Phoebe’s perspective, Fox made the odd choice to include the odd chapter written in third person from Mr Samuels’ in which, since he knows all the answers to Phoebe’s questions, the reader is let into most of the secrets before Phoebe knows what’s going on. For me, the tension was lost. I spent the rest of the book waiting for Phoebe to work things out incredibly slowly.

My other issue was around the romantic elements of this novel. Phoebe falls for two men during the course of the book, purely from sight it seems. There was no introduction to her emotional state and therefore the romantic aspect never felt true to me. Also, there is a dodgy Tess/Alec d’Urberville style sex scene in the woods which I do think modern authors need to be wary of. If you’re going to include something that reads like a rape scene then it needs to be addressed further than the character feeling guilty the day afterwards, otherwise make it clearly consensual.

What I loved about this book was the attention to detail. At the beginning and end of the book there are several scenes at Wilton’s Music Hall which I enjoyed. The character of Old Riley, former dresser to Phoebe’s aunt, was brilliantly drawn, and I felt that Phoebe was a fuller character when around these familiar friends. I also thought that Mrs Samuels, the tragic reclusive wife, rang true and was pitched just right. Mr Samuels also, though I would have liked his chapters removed to keep his mysteries a little longer, then perhaps a few more scenes between he and Phoebe in London before she goes to the country.

Overall verdict: for a great Victorian mystery look elsewhere as this is no The Woman in White or Fingersmith, but for a light read that evokes the feeling of 19th century London, music hall and an air of the gothic this definitely fits the bill.

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

the-bluest-eye

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Toni Morrison’s first novel, originally published back in 1970. Morrison’s reputation goes without saying, and I had to remind myself that this was her debut, a book that is so accomplished, so expertly structured in a non-traditional way that works to enhance the book rather than being just a gimmick. The theme of the book is the question of beauty; specifically Morrison asks why white beauty is the benchmark that we all (still) hold ourselves up to; why would a young black girl beg for God to give her blue eyes and think that without them that she will never be good enough.

Set in Ohio in the early 1940s, The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola, a young girl growing up in a poor black family. Part written in first person from the perspective of Claudia, a schoolmate of Pecola’s, mainly written in a third person that shines a spotlight on the various characters that make up the local black community where the girls live, the structure is unusual but effective. Morrison looks at race particularly in this book, and is asking the question of her own community: why is lighter skin seen as superior? She uses examples of characters of a lighter complexion to show this point, most notably a schoolmate of Claudia and Pecola’s named Maureen Peal, a ‘high-yellow dream child with long brown hair  braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back’. Where no one at school wants to sit next to dark skinned Pecola, everyone wants to be Maureen’s friend.

She enchanted the entire school. When teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn’t trip her in the halls; white boys didn’t stone her, white girls didn’t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls’ toilet, and their eyes genuflected under sliding lids. She never had to search for anybody to eat with in the cafeteria – they flocked to the table of her choice, where she opened fastidious lunches, shaming our jelly-stained bread with egg-salad sandwiches cut into four dainty squares, pink-frosted cupcakes, stocks of celery and carrots, proud, dark apples. She even bought and liked white milk.

This isn’t an easy book in terms of subject matter. From the beginning we are told that Pecola will fall pregnant by her own father and so you spend the book waiting for that to happen. But Morrison is brave: there are no entirely good or entirely bad characters in this book, only flawed people. And so she shows us the upbringing of Pecola’s father, Cholly, how his mother and father desert him in turn, how he is shamed and abused, treated like an animal by a pair of white men in his teenage years. Even the scene of Pecola’s rape is seen from his point of view, not to justify it but to avoid dehumanising him. He, as with all of the characters, are real human beings, products of their place in society and all clinging on to their rung of the ladder, or falling off in the tragic case of Cholly and Pecola.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

the-silk-merchants-daughter

I had often seen Dinah Jefferies’ novels in bookshops and supermarkets, and wondered if they would be my cup of tea. I love Asia, and historical fiction, but I wasn’t sure if they would be a bit ‘Mills and Boon-like’. The title of her last two novels have also acted as a slight deterrent (The Tea Planter’s Wife, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter – why do woman have to be qualified by their relationships to men?). In the end I was attracted to a Goodreads giveaway, which I subsequently won, and had no reason not to read this book.

1952, French Indochina. Since her mother’s death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule – and her own family’s involvement shocks her to the core…

Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she’s always dreamed of. But who can she rust in this world where no one is what they seem?

The setting of this book is brilliantly painted. I’ve been to Vietnam, though not to Hanoi where the majority of the novel takes place, and Jefferies brings the city to life. The plot of the book is also gripping. I had no prior knowledge about how the French colonial rule came to an end but the writing incorporates the history effortlessly. I trusted every detail. There was a little bit of me wishing that the author could have made the book a little grittier, but I appreciate that her readership would probably not have wanted this. There were executions, brothels, rape, murder, but all lightly written so as not to offend.

What I struggled with the most was Nicole herself. She seemed very immature and a bit cold: even when some horrific stuff is happening around her she cries for a bit and then gets over it. There is no emotional depth to her which I found to be an issue. At one point she runs away to join Tran and the Vietminh, and goes through an immense ordeal after the insurgents decide that anyone of mixed race cannot be trusted. There was barely a mention of her suffering, and the six months she spends up in the north is mainly skipped over leaving me feeling slightly cheated as potentially this could have been an interesting way to develop Nicole’s character. The only reason for this section to exist really was to get her out of the way for a period of time to set up the last act of the book. She was also far too trusting, and completely reliant on other people to make decisions for her. I had the impression that if left to her own devices she wouldn’t have survived.

Overall, this was a light and enjoyable read. I’d recommend it from a historical point of view and for Dinah Jefferies recreation of 1950s Vietnam, and the story itself works. Just skim over some of the more expositional sections and ignore Nicole’s passivity!

 

The Man With his Eyes Sewn Shut – Part Four

Italian Opera

‘Where the hell is that man?’ Sam was pacing backstage, missing his Iago. Everyone else kept well out of his way, preparing themselves for the curtain to rise. ‘Ned!’

Ned lifted his head from his script which he was furiously studying. This could be it, the opportunity he had been waiting for, but there was a tricky song in the middle of the play, placed in only to comply with the Olympia’s licence which disallowed them from putting on straight plays. ‘Boss?’

‘You were with him last night. Patrick. What time did he go home?’

Ned swallowed and thought quickly. ‘It wasn’t that late, really. We were on Union Street. Left at the same time, but we live in different directions so…’

‘Damn him!’ Sam stormed off, calling to one of the odd-job boys to run to Patrick’s lodgings and see if he could be dragged to the theatre.

‘Looks like it’s me and you again.’ Daniel had appeared as if out of nowhere. For a large man he moved quietly, Ned thought. ‘Funny how things work out.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Ned spoke defensively.

‘Just that the part was supposed to be yours until Patrick arrived in town. Unless he’s so gravely ill that he doesn’t know where he is, Sam won’t trust him again.’

‘I didn’t realise Sam was so quick to bear a grudge.’ Ned thought back to the conversation he had had with the theatre manager the week before. Sam had trusted him. If he found out that Ned had left Patrick in the street like he had, he’d surely blame Ned as much as Patrick.

‘It’s not about grudges as such. More about protecting what we have here.’ Daniel slapped Ned on the back. ‘The Olympia is all about giving talented actors a chance, but we have to earn it.’

‘I’m sure that there’ll be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Patrick’s absence,’ Ned said, his conscience prickling. But any guilt was soon forgotten.

‘Ned! Get changed into Iago’s costume. You have five minutes.’ Sam thundered past. ‘Now who will be my Cassio?’

Excitement carried Ned through the performance, one of his best by the volume of the booing that he received as he bowed deeply, the applause so loud it felt like a soft punch to his body.

‘Incredible work, both of you.’ Sam was waiting in the wings to congratulate Daniel and Ned as they came off, shirts drenched in sweat after two hours before the heat of the footlights.

A young boy came up and tapped Sam’s elbow. ‘Sir?’

‘What? Oh. Did you find Patrick?’

The lad removed his cap and looked solemn. ‘Yes, sir. It’s not good news. I went to where he was living only his landlord hadn’t seen him since yesterday. I walked back the way you said he would have gone, past the river, and a fella there told me that a body was found there this morning.’

‘Dear God.’ Sam sat down heavily on the nearest crate. ‘Surely not.’

Ned felt his body weaken. ‘Boy. Tell us now. Was it him? Was it Patrick?’

‘Yes sir. I went to the morgue, you see, that’s why I took some time gettin’ back. He had a letter in his pocket which was damaged from the water, but when I give his name they managed to decipher enough to pick out his name and the name of the theatre.’

‘The letter that I sent him.’ Sam shook his head. ‘How did it happen?’

‘Fell into the river and drowned they reckon.’

‘Oh lord.’ Ned staggered and dropped to his haunches as nausea overcame him. ‘It’s my fault. I should have walked him home.’

‘Come now, how were you to know?’ Daniel lifted Ned back to his feet, acting as a crutch. ‘This isn’t your fault. It’s not like you left him there to drown. He was on his feet when you left him.’

Ned fell quiet but he knew that envy had bettered him.