Between the Pages

Here I shall post reviews of anything I've read and enjoyed - fiction and non-fiction, not necessarily newly-published - and occasional posts about my own work or experiences. I hope you'll enjoy my selections.

Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017

I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 


She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. In The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival.


Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: "The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm."

I'm glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven't yet read. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.


(This is part of a joint tribute posted by Adele Geras, Celia Rees and myself on Writers Review.)


Struck by a Duck

Yesterday I went into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to look for something that proved to be less interesting than I'd expected. But as I wandered into the Mughal India section I saw this duck painting across the room, and had to take a closer look.


It's one of several bird paintings by a Mughal artist called Shaikh Zain ud-Din, who apparently lived in Calcutta in the 1780s. He was commissioned by Lady Mary Impey, who moved to Bengal with her husband Elijah when he became a Chief Justice there. Interested in natural history, she appointed artists to paint various creatures, including those in her own menagerie.


In the Ashmolean, this Male Nukta or Comb Duck is one of four paintings by Shaik Zain ud-Din, who is described there as the most gifted of the artists employed by Lady Impey. All four are engaging and endearing, but it was the duck that caught and held my attention.


This reproduction really doesn't do it justice, though you can see the realism of the pose, the heavy tread of webbed feet and the intent gaze on (probably) something interesting to eat. The original - gouache on paper - shows the texture and iridescence of the plumage, the plump featheriness, the purposeful, busy duckishness. Almost you can feel what it would be like to stroke those back feathers and feel their firm springiness, or to pick the bird up and feel its weight and the sway of its neck as it turns to look at you.


I like the thought of Shaikh Zain ud-Din watching this duck so closely, observing its behaviour, and focusing closely on his painting. His nose must have been positioned precisely where mine was as I looked. He must have worked and paused and stood back to assess, wondering if he had captured the essence of this duck, and surely - justifiably - he felt pleased that he had. There must have been a moment when he put down his brush and thought, "Yes, that's it. Got it." Maybe he was anxious that his patron should approve, and surely she did. And also there's the duck itself - this duck that lived and pecked and bred and died almost two hundred and fifty years ago, full of life and presence in an Oxford museum today. That freshness of vision has survived into the twenty-first century.  


It's the week of the Manchester bombings. (This week, too, with far less press coverage, eleven refugees drowned in the Aegean Sea.) In response an acquaintance posted this Tennessee Williams quotation on Facebook, and it was widely shared:


"The world is violent and mercurial - it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love - love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love."


Those words were in my mind as I looked at Shaikh Zain ud-Din's characterful duck. Art and love. The giving of devoted attention, which is perhaps what love is. Art, love and lives that have somehow reached across the centuries and across continents.


Natural Selection, by Dan Pearson


This piece was written for Writers Review, and published on 1st May 2017.


Speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival in March, Dan Pearson said that his love of writing developed alongside his passion for gardening from an early age, and he illustrated his talk with some of the lists and stories, journals and notebooks he has kept from childhood. Now one of the most influential garden designers working today – his Chatsworth garden at Chelsea in 2015 won both a gold medal and Best in Show, and his design studio has worked on prestigious projects in Japan and Italy and many others including Maggie’s Centre in London and Lowther Castle – he somehow still makes time for writing alongside the many other demands of a busy career.

Until 2015 he wrote weekly pieces for the Observer magazine (where his page was the first I’d turn to, and still miss …) and his new book, Natural Selection, brings many of those articles together as a year-book companion, following the seasons’ progress. But while progressing through the months we move back and forth in time and through many different settings – his own plots in Peckham and now Somerset; his childhood home; deserts, forests and coasts he has studied on his travels; a memorable visit to George Harrison's garden at Friar Park – while other sections compare the merits of various roses or magnolias or planting combinations, or simply look at the joys of a particular season or day: “The garden is a sanctuary of sorts and one that allows me to combine mindfulness with the purely physical.” Although there's a fair bit of dirt-under-the-fingernails detail on semi-ripe cuttings, seed harvesting and growing salads for succession, this isn’t a how-to gardening book so much as an appreciation of plants, landscapes, seasons and the effects of light and shade.

Dan Pearson credits both Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West as his writing mentors, and yes, his writing gives the sensuous pleasure he admires in theirs. This is a book to relish for the eloquence of its description as much as for the information it imparts. Here’s a camellia he saw in Japan: “… There it was in the gloom, a white, autumn-blooming Camellia sasanqua. Its delicate branches had formed a perfect dome four metres high and swept down to knee height to fan out as if it was doing a curtsy. Each leaf, a slim twist of the darkest, most lustrous green, reflected what light there was left in the afternoon, and along its branches was the peppering of flower. Pale and pure glistening white, the five-petalled blooms flared informally away from a golden boss of stamens.” Walking in Greece, “I found a bowl-shaped valley giving way to oaks with juniper clinging to the cliff faces. The dark shadows at their base were lit by a surf of moon daisies, and a hush descended for a moment as my ears adjusted from the waves to a roar of bees feeding in a sea of Lavendula stoechas.” At home, on writing days, he brings a posy of flowers indoors, to notice “the way a flower is put together and how it sits on the stem …  You can witness the passage of bud from opening to demise, see how the colour is infused and then diluted, or in some cases intensified by ageing. The seed and the berries and even the skeletons, come the winter, are of just as much interest.” 


The hallmarks of Dan Pearson’s designs are the subtlety of his response to place and atmosphere. and the inspiration he takes from wild landscapes. Beth Chatto was an early influence, from whom he began to learn the art of “achieving a delicate balance between steering nature and being part of it rather than trying to dominate,” and “gardening with wild plants rather than overworked cultivars”. He knows the importance of quiet moments of appreciation, whether in exotic locations or in his own garden. Of his planting for Maggie's Centre for cancer care, he writes: "I have always instinctively known that intimacy, sensuality and sanctuary in a garden are key to creating a sense of wellbeing, but it has been made so much more vivid seeing it through the eyes of someone who is seizing life with a new intensity."


Natural Selection is a beautiful object to hold, printed in dark green rather than black ink and with endpapers, cover design and an illustration for each month by Clare Melinsky. It’s a book to read twice at least: first to devour the lot in one go, as I’ve just done; then returning to each section in its own month. And I recommend keeping a plant encyclopaedia or i-phone handy as you read, as you’re sure to want to look up the plants and gardens mentioned - and, more than likely, to place orders.


To keep in touch with Dan Pearson’s journal, and the development of Hillside, his Somerset smallholding, you can follow his regular blog and newsletter, Dig Delve.


Natural Selection is published by Guardian Books / Faber.



My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You: Louisa Young


(This piece also appears on WRITERS REVIEW.)


I can't think why it's taken me so long to get round to reading Louisa Young's engrossing First World War novel. It was widely publicised, having been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and also chosen for Richard and Judy's Book Club, guaranteeing a wide readership. This thoroughly involving story includes an area of the war and social history which isn't - as far as I'm aware - much covered in fiction, namely the pioneer work in facial reconstruction undertaken by Major Harold Gillies. It stands alongside Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy as a powerful exploration of the physical and psychological effects of injury and trauma.


We first meet Riley Purefoy as a boy of eleven, when he's hit by a snowball in the face (neatly prefiguring the far more serious injury he'll receive ten years later while fighting in the Ypres Salient). This incident introduces him to the bohemian Waveney family, including daughter Nadine, and through them to an elderly pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Alfred, who promptly recruits the boy as a model and then general assistant. Thus the clever, enterprising Riley is introduced to the artistic middle class of Kensington, and begins to see a future for himself beyond the more limited expectations of his working-class parents.


By the time Riley joins the Army, still only eighteen, he is in love with Nadine, aware that her French mother discourages their association because of his lowly origins. His wit and adaptability soon lead to him being commissioned, however; and Nadine herself, loyal and spirited, scorns her mother's doubts. Their growing love is set against the decline in trust between Riley's Commanding Officer, Peter Locke, and his beautiful but vapid wife Julia. Julia wants nothing but to be a good wife to Peter, but finds him increasingly remote from her, both in his letters and in person when he comes home on leave. Longing to receive and offer physical solace she is dismayed by his perfunctory, almost brutal, embrace in bed. Lacking much purpose, even after giving birth to a son, Julia becomes obsessed with the need to preserve her looks. Her experiments with eyebrow tattooing and facial peeling treatments are set against the more drastic remodellings being attempted at the nearby Queen's Hospital, in Sidcup, where her VAD sister-in-law Rose works under the supervision of Harold Gillies. (Alongside Gillies, another real person we glimpse here is Kathleen Scott, Louisa Young's grandmother, a former student at the Slade School of Art who assisted the surgeon by making models and casts of patients' disfigured faces.)


Inevitably, Riley Purefoy arrives at Queen's for treatment. "The young man who had been the arrowhead of the system of destruction now became the epicentre of an industry of reconstruction. He who must destroy had become he who must be mended.' Some writers, describing terrible injuries like Riley's, veer too close to sensationalism and even relish, but Louisa Young strikes just the right balance: there's enough stomach-turning detail to make the reader aware of the huge and painful adjustments faced by Riley and his fellow patients, but not so much as to seem gratuitous. 


The relationship between Riley and Nadine - now a nurse herself, serving in France - has till now been characterised by openness and honesty, which makes the letter that gives the book its title all the more heartbreaking. Two letters from Riley to Nadine begin in this way: the first sent from the Casualty Clearing Station on a standard form; the other from the Queen's Hospital, enlisting the help of Rose Locke. Both letters include lies. The first is understandable and probably not unusual. The second is devastating. 


The Armistice comes before the novel ends, and we see the uncertainties it produces. 'No one ever wins a war, and wars are never over.' For Riley, 'Before, while it was still on, I was Captain Purefoy, wounded soldier. Who am I to be now? Mr Purefoy, disabled ex-serviceman? His age rang through his head like the tolling of a bell. Twenty-two, twenty-two, twenty-two. There was an awfully long time ahead of him.'


What sort of life can these characters rebuild? Where has the war left them? These questions clearly intrigue Louisa Young, as she has gone on to explore them in a sequel, The Heroes' Welcome. I hope that among other things there will be a fulfilling role for Rose, who is pivotal in the plot of this first novel, supporting all the other main characters and even keeping her patience with the exasperating Julia, while assuming that she'll never find a loving relationship of her own. Maybe she'll be proved wrong.



Until We Win: Donald Trump, Votes for Women and the power of protest

This is a slightly edited version of an article written for The Bookbag, published on 26th January 2017.


Last weekend, following the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President, there were marches on a scale the world has never seen before – the Women’s Marches, protesting against Trump’s hateful attitudes and disgraceful conduct. Among the London marchers was a group dressed as suffragettes, wearing VOTES FOR WOMEN sashes, to remind us how hard women fought for the vote, more than a hundred years ago. Against a patronising misogynist like Trump, that fight still needs to be fought – no longer for the vote, but for equal rights with men, equal opportunities, equal dignity.


It wasn’t only women who marched. News coverage showed a sizeable proportion of men who know that women’s rights are everyone’s rights; there were children, babies, dogs wearing slogans. Those marchers stood up for fairness, consideration and respect for everyone. They were making a stand against racism and homophobia and hatred.


My latest novel, UNTIL WE WIN, is about Votes for Women, and the involvement of one teenage girl, Lizzy. My first published book, RUN WITH THE HARE, was about animal rights; and in both stories, my main characters – Lizzy and Elaine respectively – are campaigning against something they see as wrong, something that must change. Having done a fair bit of animal rights campaigning myself over many years (I support the League Against Cruel Sports, Compassion in World Farming and PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) I know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed and despondent at the scale of the problem. Things change so slowly / the world doesn’t care / what can one person do, anyway? Thoughts like those, at low points, can make you feel like giving up – almost.  


But the question “What can one person do?” feels irrelevant when you look at the coverage of those marches. It’s never one person. The suffragettes were powerful because they acted as a group – (even if, as in my story, opinions differed as to how best to make their points). The animal rights organisations I support work by raising awareness and appealing to the sense of empathy and fairness everyone has to some degree. Attitudes do change, even if very slowly. A hundred years ago, women didn’t have the vote. Forty years ago, few people bothered about whether their cosmetics had been tested on animals, coats made from the fur of exotic animals were considered fashionable and glamorous and it was seen as a bit peculiar to be vegetarian. Things change. Maybe, forty years on, the idea of eating the flesh of dead animals will be viewed with revulsion.



So, in a way, writing UNTIL WE WIN took me right back to my first novel. Something is wrong: unfair, unjust. It’s got to change. Both Lizzy and Elaine feel a burning sense of injustice, and both find purpose in life through their determination and commitment. I called my new book UNTIL WE WIN - partly because we know, of course, that the suffragettes did win, though not until after the First World War; and partly because of their fierce determination. They would never give up until women got the vote. 


What a weekend of contrasts it was – arrogance, threats and empty promises from the new President in Washington; hope, defiance and solidarity demonstrated most emphatically by the marching millions. Even the blinkered Mr Trump can’t ignore it. That stand for fairness isn’t going to shut up and go away. Hatred and bigotry will not win.

On Writing, by Stephen King


I have to confess that I've yet to read a complete Stephen King novel. Trusted friends have recommended CARRIE, MISERY and others, and after being so impressed by ON WRITING, which I first read a few years ago, I did embark on MISERY. But ... no. I read only two or three chapters before concluding that Stephen King's fiction just isn't for me. It was gripping, undoubtedly, but perhaps I'm just too much of a wuss for such meaty stuff (and also vegetarian).


This, though, I highly recommend. It's part memoir, framed by King's early days as solitary writer of stories, contributor to a school magazine and journalist - always with a hunger for writing, and tireless energy - and, at the other end of the book, an account of the traumatic accident which he was lucky to survive (he was hit by a truck driver while walking alone on a country road) and his slow recovery, during which resuming the writing of this book was a significant stage.


There is so much to like here, not least Stephen King's devotion to his wife Tabitha (also a writer) and his gratitude for her support throughout his career, especially after the accident. His sales number hundreds of millions, he has published more than 50 novels, won a barrowload of prestigious awards and his current novel END OF WATCH is a New York Times bestseller; yet here he comes over as assured but not conceited, generous with his advice, genuine in his desire to pass on the joy he finds in writing.


I've always disliked the nuts-and-bolts approach to writing which suggests that if you follow the rules and work hard you'll end up with a publishable novel. Although King does look at aspects of style and technique, he is clear that writing well is more than that. "At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style ... but as we move along, you'd do well to remember that we are also talking about magic." Yet he's good at debunking ivory tower notions of writerly preciousness, stressing that the most important thing is simply to get on with it. "There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station." (In a footnote, King explains "Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine's a guy; I'm afraid we'll just have to live with that.") Like many writers, he finds his 'muse' mainly by turning up for work and putting in the hours.


He stresses the need for truth in what you write, dismissing a cynical market-based approach which puts sales and profit ahead of honesty. "It's morally wonky, for one thing - the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story's web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn't work." In terms of his own love of the horror genre, "If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have," fed by his early love of horror movies and comics. Interestingly, King is a writer of suspense thrillers who does not give foremost importance to plot: "I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story."


This isn't a writing textbook and there are no exercises, but there are plenty of examples (good and bad), a section of text which is then revised, with explanations, and one exhilarating what-if masterclass in which King takes a simple, familiar situation as the basis for a story and then plays with expanding it in ways that tighten the tension. It seems that his prodigious output since the publication of Carrie, his first novel, in 1974, has done nothing to dull his enjoyment in writing and creativity. "In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."


Reading this book for a second time, I like Stephen King every bit as much as I did on my first reading. So: should I give his fiction another try? What would you recommend?


This account of The Dead Zone (published in 1979) has a particular, prescient resonance now; King's initial idea "called for a dangerously unstable politician ... a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes'-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way." Thinking about his other narrator, King wonders: "Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of the novel? The good guy?" 


I might have to read The Dead Zone to find out if he did.




Children's Books Round-Up

Since becoming Patron of Reading at Great Chesterford Primary Academy, near Saffron Walden in Essex, I'm always looking out for books to recommend to the children. The Boy in the Tower came to my attention as one of the selection used by the Essex booksellers and consultants Just Imagine for their Reading Gladiators scheme. From a strong range of novels, this was the Year 4 children's favourite by far. It's an inventive and unusual first novel by primary teacher Polly Ho-Yen - a kind of Day of the Triffids for juniors. Ade, who lives in a London block of flats, has to look after his mother, who won't go out. When nearby buildings start to collapse, it seems to be the work of the strange blueish-green plants that are sprouting everywhere, yet for some reason Ade's own tower block is untouched - so far. Ade's survival is soon dependent on the small community remaining in the flats, with dangers increasing by the day.


I enjoyed meeting Rebecca Stevens recently at a Moray Libraries event, Great War Great Reads, and after hearing her talk about her novel Valentine Joe I wanted to read it myself and pass it on to the Year 6 children. It's based on the true story of Valentine Joe Strudwick, one of many boys who lied about his age in order to join the army. Rose, a young teenager visiting Ypres with her grandfather, comes across Joe's gravestone. Finding herself transported back to wartime she is desperate to change Joe's fate; yet, as she's seen his gravestone, his death is inevitable. It's a poignant but uplifting story with a ghost element sure to appeal to young readers.  


Moving up to lower secondary, there's more ghostliness in Jeremy de Quidt's linked stories, The Wrong Train. A boy travelling alone late at night realises that he's on the wrong train, and gets off at the next station - but is it really a station? An old man appears (shades of Dickens' The Signalman) and starts to tell very creepy, unsettling stories, none with a reassuring ending, to his unwilling listener. And there's a final, clever twist. Readers who fall under Jeremy de Quidt's spell should look out for his two novels, The Toymaker and The Feathered Man. 


There's a ghost again, a surprising one (I didn't set out to look for ghost stories, but several have come my way), in Mary Hoffman's Shakespeare's Ghost, which shows us the development and staging of Shakespeare's plays from the point of view of a young actor, Ned. Ned is caught between the real world and the realm of faery when he catches the attention of the bewitching Faelinn, who has her own plans for him. Mary Hoffman, best known for her Stravaganza series and the picture book Amazing Grace, has recently set up her own publishing company, The Greystones Press, and this was one of the launch titles. Mary and I both live in Oxfordshire, and it's pleasing that a key scene takes place at the Rollright Stones, which are shown on the cover.


Finally, for teenage readers, Sarah Dessen's Saint Anything. American author Sarah Dessen is like Anne Tyler for young adults - an accomplished writer who always conveys acute emotional insights with a light touch. Here, teenage Sydney is trying to cope with the aftermath of a drink-drive incident in which her brother Tyler caused serious injury to another boy. Her parents' unquestioning support for Tyler prevents them from acknowledging that he was to blame; it's Sydney who has to question their values and her own, while forging new friendships that help her towards independence. You can read my full review here.