(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.
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.
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.
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.
This post also appears on WRITERS REVIEW, together with Pick of the Year choices by my fellow bloggers there, Adele Geras and Celia Rees. If a title is highlighted, you can read my full review by clicking on the link.
In 2016 I finally read War and Peace, spurred to do so by the Andrew Davies BBC version. I was sometimes ahead of the dramatisation and sometimes behind, boring anyone within earshot with a refrain of "It's not quite like that in the book ... " I found that simultaneous viewing and reading worked well, the TV drama helping me to identify the huge cast of characters; I enjoyed BBC's sumptuous production values and superb acting (especially Paul Dano, so endearing as the well-meaning but often misguided Pierre Bezukhov, Jessie Buckley as Marya Bolkonskaya and Ade Edmundson as Count Rostov), while for epic scale and sweep the novel can't be rivalled. I'd happily both watch and read again.
New novels that impressed me this year were Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard, Sarah Moss's The Tidal Zone and Sarah Perry's deservedly-praised Victorian Gothic The Essex Serpent. I'd already read several of Tracy Chevalier's titles (including the excellent Remarkable Creatures, reviewed here) while Sarahs Moss and Perry are both authors I'll be looking out for in future. I shall certainly re-read The Essex Serpent, and the same goes for Ali Smith's dazzling How to be Both – two linked but very different stories, one of a modern teenager undergoing therapy, the other of a Renaissance frieze-painter - which can be read in either order, with links and overlaps gradually revealed. In this ingenious jigsaw puzzle of a book, there's more than can easily be picked up in a single reading.
It was thanks to my Reading Group that I read Katherine McMahon's The Crimson Rooms, set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War: a murder mystery, seen through the eyes of a young female lawyer, but also a poignant and realistic portrayal of the effects of war on participants and others. My final fiction choice is Trio, by Sue Gee, which has all her hallmarks: powerful emotion rooted in realistic situations, wonderful sense of place and time (Northumberland, in this case, in the late 1930s), acute observation of weather, seasons and human behaviour. There's music too, in this latest novel; descriptions of performances by the Trio of the title will have you searching YouTube or your CD collection so that you can listen as they play. And reading Sue Gee always makes me want to write, which is a bonus.
William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives went with me on my first trip to India, two years ago, and this year City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi was the perfect companion – informative, personal and anecdotal - for my visit to the city in February. I’ve included Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica because it’s a favourite non-fiction choice for not just this but every year, with its mix of botany, natural history and folklore – I always dip into it around the winter solstice. Finally: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is part natural history, part memoir, by naturalist and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham. I greatly admire Chris Packham for his vast knowledge of wildlife and his ability as a communicator, and also for his outspokenness on matters of animal abuse and the environment. This was a revelation – a highly personal account, with striking literary echoes, of his teenage years, his close observation of - and even identification with - birds and animals, and the therapy he underwent later when suffering from depression. I wonder what he’ll write next?
Quick links to older reviews:
TRIO by Sue Gee
NATURE CURE by Richard Mabey
THE CRIME WRITER by Jill Dawson
THE HYPNOTIST by Laurence Anholt
THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley
THE TIDAL ZONE by Sarah Moss
A FATAL INVERSION: Barbara Vine's masterclass in psychological tension
THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry
REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier
SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES by Katherine Langrish
WHEN A WRITER ISN'T WRITING by Jenny Alexander
FINGERS IN THE SPARKLE JAR by Chris Packham
THE CRIMSON ROOMS by Katharine McMahon
SAINT ANYTHING by Sarah Dessen
I’ve enjoyed several of Sue Gee’s novels since reading The Hours of the Night many years ago. That’s still my favourite, though this one, her latest, comes close, and shares similar ingredients: rural life, loss and recovery, the tentative beginnings of a new relationship, music, social conscience.
The setting here is Northumberland in the three years before the outbreak of the second world war. Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, loses his wife to tuberculosis, and stays on, bereft and alone, in the remote moorland cottage that was their home. A charismatic colleage, Frank Embleton, from a far more affluent background, draws Steven into his social circle: the trio of the title, comprising Frank’s beautiful sister Diana, who plays the cello; violinist George, who nurtures a secret love; and aristocratic Margot, the pianist, who has lived all her life at Hepplewick Hall, which she now shares with her widowed father. Knowing little about music, Steven is drawn in, finding an appreciation that helps him through his grief and attracts him to Margot. The two have little in common apart from bereavement – Margot’s mother died when she was a little girl – but the attraction is mutual. Sue Gee excels at portraying the first flare of attraction, its growth into love and the flashes of insight, understanding and tension that pass between people who know each other well, as these musicians do.
Her writing about music will have you searching YouTube or your CD collection so that you can hear what Steven hears, as he begins to understand “that the whole piece was a conversation between their instruments, a move from question to answer, from gentle enquiry to passionate response … when he watched Margot’s slender body half lift from the stool in a fast, dramatic passage, as if she couldn’t stop herself, he began to wonder at what it must do to you, to play like this. And at who you must be, to want to make it your life.”
Always in the background, becoming more evident as the months pass, is the threat of war: Guernica, the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss. Steven worries about Frank, who is secretive about his political activities, and about the adolescent boys he teaches who will soon be of age for military service. The school scenes are particularly well done, showing us Steven’s regard for the boys, his diligence, the staffroom exchanges and the solace he finds in work. Sue Gee also has a wonderfully easy way of making readers aware of weather, the seasons and the natural landscape, contrasting the wild moorland scenery with the elegant landscaping of the grounds at Hepplewick Hall, with its cedar tree and ha-ha.
A coda, a short Book Two which brings us into the present and the viewpoint of Steven’s son, now elderly, comes as a jolt, and introduces maybe too many new characters, but is a clever way of leapfrogging the war while showing us what happened in the lives of the main players, then and since. And, just as importantly, to the places.
I suspect that some readers will find Sue Gee’s careful evocation of character, relationships and social settings rather too slow; others will find it poignant and engrossing, as I did.