In a yoga class once (stay with me) the instructor talked of yogis who sat on the banks of the Ganges and allowed their thoughts, worries, stories to drift away on the water. If there was ever a book that described this, Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is it. It’s a book about water, about storytelling, and about how you can make decisions to change the tide of your life or you can go with the flow.
You may know Diane Setterfield from her wonderful debut The Thirteenth Tale, made into a TV programme with Olivia Colman. Once Upon a River is similarly atmospheric, with talk of ghosts and other worldly connections, and again, it is highly readable.
It is set in and around an ancient inn, The Swan at Radcot, on the Thames, well known for its storytelling. One evening – the longest night – a man bursts through the doors. He is injured and confused and in his arms he holds a dead child. He is tended to by the local nurse, midwife and all round good woman Rita, and hours later, the child stirs and take a breath. She has come back to life… but how?
As different members of the Radcot community try to piece together who she is and how she came to be there, we are immersed into their lives, their secrets, their tragedies both hidden and public, and their love – for each other, for their way of life.
This is a slow book. You need to wallow in it, to take stock and just let it wash over you. There is a full cast of characters – Rita and the injured man, Mr Daunt; Margot, the pub landlady and her family; Mr and Mrs Vaughan and their heartbreak; Lily White and her tortured thoughts; and lovely Mr Armstrong. But the character with the most presence is the River Thames itself, washing through lives and taking or giving as it wants. I especially loved the story of Quietly, the riverman who is doomed to remain on the water and save or transport people to the next life as required.
Setterfield’s skill is in recreating an old world with old ways but with emotions that run through the ages. As the characters try to unpick the mystery of the girl, attributing her revival to folklore, to superstition or new scientific ideas, we watch as deeper human reactions – of love, hate, greed, and common decency come to the fore and shape all their lives. Storytelling runs central to the theme of the book – how do we control what stories are told of us, and the things we see? Each telling changes a detail until only the essence of the tale remains. (I feel Margaret Lea from the Thirteenth Tale would love exploring this too.)
This is an excellent book, just the thing to curl up in front of a fire with this winter. My thanks to Alison Barrow for supplying a gorgeous proof copy.
Once Upon a River is available on ebook from today, and is published in the UK in hardback on 17 January.
Today I’m really pleased to be joined by Fiona Mitchell, whose novel The Maid’s Room, has just come out in paperback. The story of two sisters, Dolly and Tala, Filipino maids to the privileged community in Singapore, The Maid’s Room is a sometimes shocking, sometimes funny account of the hidden lives of others and how much we need to connect with each other. While Dolly and Tala are struggling looking after others and making enough money to send home to their own children, Jules, a newcomer to Singapore, has her own difficulties among the expat community.
Fiona, thanks so much for answering my questions. I really enjoyed the book and thought the issues it covers are so pertinent today. There is the danger that exploitation like this is hidden in plain sight; that if you don’t think about the reality of the lives of others around you, then it doesn’t exist.
Let’s start off by asking about how you came to write The Maid’s Room?
I moved to Singapore in 2009 where lots of people employ live-in domestic helpers. When an estate agent showed us around a flat, she pointed to a 12ft by 5ft bomb shelter and said, “your maid will sleep in here.” When I mentioned the lack of windows, she said, “they don’t need things like that.” This attitude abounded. I met people who confiscated their maids’ passports and issued curfews. And it wasn’t as if domestic helpers were protected by the law; back then, they didn’t even have a legal right to one day off per week. When I spoke to domestic helpers, their reality was even more upsetting – every woman had a story to tell, and only being given rice to eat was the most common one. I was a freelance journalist, and at first I thought I’d write a feature, but the issue felt much bigger than a few thousand words, and I started to wonder whether writing a novel could be the way to go.
The two maid characters, Dolly and Tala, are beautifully written and each is flawed and as open to exploiting their situations as they are being exploited. I liked that Dolly, as the submissive and calm sister in the face of abuse, is as able to pick up some benefits for what she has to put up with in her own quiet way, as much as the outspoken Tala. How did you work out the characters of the sisters when you were writing the book?
Tala’s character came easily to me and she was my favourite character to write. She was based on a domestic helper I got to know with a massive personality, although the woman I knew wasn’t nearly as bolshy as Tala. Dolly was much more difficult to write; it took me lots of drafts to capture her voice. In early drafts the sisters were just close friends, but somehow that didn’t work. When I decided to make them sisters, Dolly’s character fell into place.
A lot of the conflict comes from the two blogs – Vanda with her ‘rules’ for maids, and Tala’s Maidhacker. Has the internet made this kind of thing easier to uncover or is it a handy plot device (or a bit of both)?
The idea for the Vanda blog came from a blog that was running when I was living in Singapore. This anonymous blogger actually wrote a series of rules on how to treat domestic helpers – it was clear she saw domestic helpers as somehow inferior to her, and it appalled me. I wrote to her to complain, but of course she didn’t put my comment up, so Tala taking matters into her own hands and writing her own blog was me wanting to shift the power away from people like Vanda.
It must have been difficult to ensure that the rich white characters, especially Amber, didn’t come across as cliched and two dimensional in their awful behaviour towards the maids. How aware were you as you wrote, that on some level readers would need to sympathise with some of the women so it wasn’t just a maids vs employers story?
I was very much reflecting what was around me, and although I experienced people treating domestic helpers badly, I only made friends with people who respected the women. From that point of view, there was always going to be a Jules in my book. I knew that for the book to be compelling, I’d need to have sympathetic characters, albeit hugely flawed ones. But to be honest, I didn’t consciously think about making the expat characters sympathetic, the balance just arrived naturally.
There is a secondary plot through the book about motherhood, about losing children, keeping children and risks to motherhood – for all four of the main female characters. I especially related to this line: ‘…no amount of watching other people’s grief had taken hers away, and hers was nothing compared to such things.’ This idea that unless we’re really suffering somehow our pain is invalid, and yet all these women have experienced loss in different ways and each is as valid as the others. Was writing the book cathartic for you, working through your own grief?
I was really down when I found out I would never have a second child, and I felt incredibly guilty about my unhappiness. It was overwhelming at times and it was this emotion that kickstarted me to write a book. Every time I sat in front of my computer and typed, it brought me a kind of peace. That first draft was quite depressing, but as I came to terms with my situation, the book gained more light and laughs.
Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed reading the book and having the chance to ask you about the book.
The Maid’s Room is published by Hodder and Stoughton today and retails at 8.99. Thanks so much to the publishers for my review copy.
Novellas still seem rare but are often intriguing. There is much in the 170 pages of The End We Start From that could have been fleshed out and given more detail but I’m not sure the end result would have been as powerful.
All you need to know is that an enormous flood has wiped out London and much of England. No why, when or how. While some preparations were in place, the devastation was still hard to manage. The narrator and heroine of this book, unnamed, flees with her husband and newborn son (also unnamed, in fact characters are only referred to by their first initial in this book) to Scotland to his parents’ home. When a further family tragedy takes place the three of them up and leave again, to a refugee camp but the husband runs away, unable to cope.
Unnamed and baby leave the camp and sail to an island commune where they are safe for a while but reports of the mainland leave her feeling she must return and try to find her husband.
So far, so post-apocalyptic, but what grounds the story and makes it both powerful and relevant is the part of the narrative about the new baby. Interspersed with the devastation and fear are her experiences of new motherhood, so normal and down to earth and relatable. These serve to make us realise how and why life goes on, that for every tragedy, every natural disaster or war or attack, humans endure through devastation, panic and heartbreak.
In a world that seems every day to turn its back ever harder on those fleeing war zones and all kinds of horror, it is perhaps more important than ever that books like The End We Start From are published, and to provide a searing glimpse of “there but for the grace…” that we seem to so badly need. An excellent debut.
I feel perhaps I should change the target for my reading challenge this year, I’m well over halfway towards it already. I didn’t expect to get through so many books this year and still manage to keep up with writing every day but it turns out a healthier eating and exercise regime can have unexpected benefits with sleep quality too. *turns into health bore* Sorry.
My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout
I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book, and this got so many great reviews that I nearly wasn’t disciplined enough to wait for the paperback. However, I’m glad I did – because I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it lacked a certain something for me. Obviously the subject matter was dark, and realistic, and impressively low-key – so many lesser authors could’ve made a meal of the revelations, but still. I’m going to hang onto it for a while because I think a re-read may yield more.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
I heard Hamid interviewed on Radio 4 the other week and realised I’d not read his best-known book. How I enjoyed it, once I’d got used to the style. The style is, I think, the best thing about it but its honesty about the politics was refreshing and full of things observers felt perhaps they couldn’t say in the time following 9/11.
The Last Days of Leda Grey – Essie Fox
A journalist finds a copy of a beautiful 1930s silent film star in a shop in a coastal town and sets off to find the star, now a reclusive old lady living in the ruins of a house on the cliffs. His interviews aim to find the truth about her life. I don’t want to go into more detail without giving away the plot but I found it unsettling, immersive, creepy and melancholy. I really enjoyed this!
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami
Non fiction of the month is a running book that came into my mind when I was out for a run myself. I’ve never read any of Murakami’s novels – I find the cult of him rather offputting and really should get over myself – but I enjoyed this wander around his mind and a lot of what he said resonated with me. The comments about training yourself as a runner and writer make sense, and if I can get myself to run 10k within a matter of weeks, why do I not apply the same techniques to writing with more discipline? While I writer every day, the amounts vary and the results are less obvious – I have a feeling this is more to do with self doubt than anything else. I do like that he doesn’t really think of anything while he runs, because neither do I but I think people often assume that you do.
Guernica – Dave Boling
I know very little about the Spanish Civil War so my non-fiction aims now include Antony Beevor’s book about it – there is so much literature based around the conflict. This was an interesting book and I think it probably benefited from me not having much knowledge of the war. The first half of the book is mainly to immerse the reader in the town of Guernica and some of the families within. There are brief cameos from Picasso and the German bomber in charge of the attack. The characters are perhaps a little one-dimensional but I didn’t think I mind this, until the main attack occurred and then I found that I wasn’t as upset at what happened as I might have been in the hands of a better author. The other problem with Guernica is that of course, there was no real revenge or conclusion to the atrocity, so the author has to manufacture a slightly contrived ending in order to bring about an end to the story. But having said all that, I still found this an interesting read and it will spur me onto find out more.
Hold Back the Stars – Katie Khan
I rarely read sci fi but I enjoyed this very much indeed. The opening chapter is astonishing, and draws you right in, hand in heart. This is a love story between Carys and Max and we find them floating in space further away from their spaceship, and with only 90 minutes worth of air left. In that time, we learn about how they met and why they’re floating in space. It turns out there’s been a massive war that has destroyed the USA and the Middle East, and much of the remaining world has joined together in a utopian system which forbids people to form close relationships until they’re over 35. And the asteroid belt has moved closer to Earth and prevented humans from exploring space any further. As you can imagine, there is a lot to cover in the book, and Khan intersperses the countdown of air chapters with the backstory with ease.
The Lauras – Sara Taylor
I thought Taylor’s first book was good but not completely enjoyable. This was different. Told in the first person by Alex, a teenager of indeterminate gender, as their mother leaves their father and goes on a road trip, just the two of them, to clear up loose ends. Alex’s mum spent her youth in foster homes and broken homes and has gone through all kinds of unpleasantness, but made friends – many of them called Laura – and promises along the way. The two of them have to stop every so often for Alex to go to school and for the mum to make some money by waitressing but essentially make their way across the US and finally up to Canada to find one of The Lauras. Along the way, Alex starts to grow up, find out more about what kind of person they want to be. It’s an occasionally bleak, but always absorbing read.
Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny
If you ever wanted to read a book that talked about the phrase, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” this is it. Heiny’s first novel is a very funny story of a marriage, told from the point of view of Graham, the husband. His second wife Audra is unlike anyone I would ever want to meet in real life, and there are moments when Graham appears to feel the same. Through a string of awkward encounters at parties, with his first wife, with friends and odd acquaintances, Graham and Audra look after their son, who has Asperger’s and try and get through life as best they can. It’s insightful, bitchy, wickedly funny and a really good read.
I’m so pleased to welcome Kay Langdale to the blog today, to answer questions about her most recent book, The Comfort of Others.
Minnie and her sister Clara are two elderly spinsters living in an old house in the middle of a housing estate. They have an ordered lifestyle, trying where they can to stop decay in the house, and living quietly together. One day Minnie starts to write again in her childhood diary, finally ready to record the unspoken sadness at the heart of the sisters’ existence.
In the house opposite them, lives Max and his mother. Max has never known his father and is happy with his life until his mother gets a new boyfriend. Confused and feeling rejected, he starts to use his mother’s old Dictaphone as a diary.
The two characters become unlikely friends and their stories intertwine, each influencing the other in ways they didn’t expect. And as they do so, the ghosts of the past and the challenges of the present weave together to make an enthralling read.
I should start the Q&A by saying how much I enjoyed the book – I raced through it, reading it very quickly. It’s absorbing, moving and there’s some lovely humour and humanity in it.
What made you decide on a diary format?
I felt that the diary format allowed me to get under the skin of the characters better, especially Minnie. Her reticence meant that she would not have chosen to talk directly with anyone about what happened to her, and so allowing her to write it down felt like the most authentic means of capturing it. With Max, the Dictaphone allowed uninhibited chatting which felt somehow more age appropriate. At the beginning he says that he feels like a reporter, and so it allows him an emotional freedom to explore what’s happening to him.
The book hinges around the idea of an estate sold off with new houses surrounding a large manor house – Minnie is hemmed in. Where did this idea come from? Is the house based on anywhere in particular?
I drove past a large house once that had been similarly surrounded by an estate, and I was very struck by how it looked as if it was marooned in its own space like a vast sea creature. I felt the idea worked on multiple levels; life is going on beyond the house while Minnie is ‘encased’ within it, and also the estate has erased the parkland but it’s all still there in Minnie’s mind. It allowed the past spaces to still have a physical, ghostly presence.
The book is made up of tiny details and there’s a theme of ‘noticing’ things, overlooking people as they go about their lives. You seem to celebrate the beauty in the everyday – do you see this as part of the writer’s job?
Yes, most definitely. I also think the small things often communicate the most. So often, it is a small detail about someone’s life that tells us the truth of that life. I think that the home, and the daily round, are sacred spaces.
I loved Max’s humour – he was such an enjoyable narrator – the book has such distinctive character voices, Minnie being more formal. How did you ensure the voices were so distinctive while you were writing them? Did you write large parts in each voice and then divide them up for the smaller chapters?
I confess to hopping between them. I had a very strong sense of them as characters right from the beginning and so moving between their voices wasn’t difficult. The first time we see Minnie is the image I first had of her; waiting, hands clasped, by the bay window. Minnie’s most difficult scenes I wrote in one section, mostly because it was such an immersive piece of writing. I also listened to the Bach Goldberg sonata piece Minnie refers to – over and over while I wrote – which was a way of steeping me in Minnie’s experience. (It’s the version played very slowly by Glenn Gould and is for, me, the musical heart map of the book.)
Minnie’s formal style makes the two shocking scenes almost more shocking and sad because of the matter of fact way she relates them. Yet in some ways her sister Clara seems more repressed of the two elderly women. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore? Minnie’s experiences as a young girl, and then as a palliative nurse, make her more alive and attuned to the importance of showing kindness while we learn little of Clara and how she feels.
You are absolutely right. It was completely my intention that Clara remained ‘unexplained’. The things we know about her – that she painted a watercolour, that she sat on a bench with a boy, that a Latin teacher phoned her – is all reported by Minnie. We only see Clara through the prism of Minnie. We always see Clara behaving responsibly –as first born children often do – and conducting herself just as her mother would like. The only time Clara indirectly communicates is when she plays the piano at two key moments in the novel.
I saw Minnie and Clara’s relationship to each other like a duet, but we can only hear one voice. It was my intention that the reader has to piece together Clara’s story for themselves – to imagine how it was for her. I’m quite interested in one day writing Clara’s version. Perhaps she was not always as stultified as Minnie perceived.
The other thing I loved was a small detail about Max’s friend Eddie who has special needs. Max’s friendship with him is important to both of the boys but it’s not made a big deal of in the book. I liked how Max was able to connect with ‘outsiders’ but how he just sees them as other people – his innocence is refreshing and ideal. Was this a conscious decision to reflect something about Max or did you want to include a different character who was just part of the landscape?
It was both. I wanted Max’s world to be less confined that Minnie’s, and I thought it was important – and realistic – that he would have school friends and experiences outside of his home and Rosemount. But, the fact that Max is so intuitive about Eddie’s needs was important in the way I was trying to build his character. For Max, the quality of love is a little unreliable and as such he is watchful and alert. He is quick to sense other’s discomfort or disquietude. However, his natural warmth and sunniness means he is also quick to provide an antidote to it. With Eddie, he works within what makes Eddie comfortable. It’s that innate sweetness which I think Minnie senses in him, which is why she allows herself to begin the friendship.
Thank you for such interesting and insightful questions – I’ve loved answering them.
There we go! Thank you so much to Kay Langdale for answering my questions. The Comfort of Others is available now in paperback, priced at £8.99.
My thanks to Hodder Books for sending me a free copy to prepare the questions
I came to the second novel by Louise Walters with some anticipation, having enjoyed her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase very much. This second book is being self-published by Walters, an act of independence to be admired.
A Life Between Us is set in the present day and features Tina, a lonely housewife, avid reader, compulsive overeater and bereaved twin. Tina is still grieving – her twin Meg, we know, died in childhood in an incident that Tina blames herself for. When Meg asks Tina to avenge her, we are plunged back into the past and the story of Tina’s aunt Lucia.
The narrative switches between the past, as we begin to find out more about Lucia, and the present, as Tina starts to follow her husband’s advice to get out more, joins a reading group and makes a friend.
Walters has written of a lovely, engaging, ordinary woman who has very little idea of how she is struggling, and her hapless husband who is equally stuck in different ways. (I mean it as a good thing when I describe Tina as ordinary – the kind of person we could all meet.) Walters is excellent at portraying an isolated woman, as she showed in her debut novel, and here she describes Tina’s attempts to make sense of her world with a strong sense of pathos. She has also written a real *SPOILER ALERT – KIND OF* nasty piece of work in Lucia, someone whose first scene as a child displays some of the mean spirit she will continue throughout. The mean streak is not really explained, as some authors might do, and this is refreshing. She just is.
This is less a whodunnit, despite Meg’s urging for revenge, and more an examination of how we deal with grief and loss. A confident and assured novel.
A Life Between Us is published on 27 March by Troubador Press. You can buy a copy here.
This has been a good reading month, an interesting and absorbing reading month. Here’s my review:
Shamim Sarif – Despite the Falling Snow I only realised when I got this home that it’s a film cover; I picked it up because it sounded intriguing. A spy-love story from Krushchev’s time, interspersed with some modern day reminiscences, just my cup of tea. And on finishing it, I realised I’d read Sarif before – her marvellous book The World Unseen. I liked this, though perhaps the language was at times a little too flowery for my liking. I spotted the ‘twist’ fairly early on, so early that perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be a twist? but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book which sheds light on an unknown era and a time that perhaps isn’t examined very much these days. I also liked the main character Alex and his niece, though I remember thinking some of the other supporting characters were a bit odd?
Sarah Winman – A Year of Marvellous Ways Marvellous Ways is an old lady, a recluse who lives in a caravan in 1940s Cornwall. It was always going to be important to have this set in the past as the magical reclusive element probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise. We live in distinctly un-fairytale lands these days and are the poorer for it. Anyway, this is a sweet enchanting tale about connecting with each other, myths, mermaids, a good sourdough starter and of course love. I’m wary of magical realism but when it works, it’s a lovely genre.
Sarra Manning – After the Last Dance
I really wanted to like this but I struggled to be bothered about anyone in it, especially the modern part of the story. I’ve not put my finger on why it didn’t work for me so I won’t go into too much detail. Give it a try, it might just be me.
Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
My reading group’s choice for this month was something I’ve wanted to read for a long time and not got round to. I started out really enjoying it – the observations and carefully crafted stories of a group of poor, dispossessed people in Deep South America were really absorbing. For those of you who don’t know, the story involves a deaf mute man who lives and works in a small town and somehow becomes a confidant to a range of people, all of whom project their own ideas onto him. This is largely because he gives very little back except smiles and hospitality. He can lip read and write notes but communicates little. The only time we see him care about something is his fellow deaf mute friend, who is an unstable alcoholic and is eventually taken to a care home. The ending is where the book fell down for me – I didn’t feel it was true to the character and had to ask if I had projected what I wanted onto the character as well and if this was done on purpose by McCullers, or was it just an oddity?
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place
I wasn’t going to buy this in hardback until I saw it and couldn’t resist. It came on holiday with me last week and I’ve not really stopped thinking about it since. I’m sorely tempted to pick it up and re-read it immediately because I loved it so much and I fear that by racing through it I missed so much, and because I’m not ready to read something else yet. In basic terms, this is the story of a marriage, about two people and their relationships – with others, with each other and with their children. It features stories and perspectives from many characters, and there are a number of experimental chapters – one is written purely in the second person which is always brave – and another moves the plot along purely by pictures and captions of an auction lot. Experimental things worry me but this all worked, it all hung together beautifully partly because of the quality of O’Farrell’s prose and because somehow she’s got this invisible thread pulling it in. The other thing to say is that the characters were so well drawn – both the main protagonists are flawed and at times downright unlikeable but of course all the more real. Even the people who appeared in the book for no longer than a chapter (especially Rosalind who I liked very much and would love to know what happened to her next. I hope she had a ball, whatever it was) were well fleshed out. It’s a book that sparked all kinds of thoughts, ideas, and emotions in me as I read. In short, I loved it.
Anyone who knows me will realise that a book with the word ‘knitwear’ in the title was bound to pique my interest. But Chrissie Gittins’s book has so much more to recommend it than just its name.
The book is a memoir of Chrissie growing up, and then as an adult who has to deal with a period of her life when she lost both her parents. The ‘story’ is told across a series of short chapters, each discussing a certain tiny incident or exchange.
What makes the book so absorbing is the level of detail packed into each chapter. I’m sure, if asked, what you most remember about growing up or about your parents’ habits, you could come up with a hundred little memories – shouts, smells, snippets of conversation – just random things that have stayed with you. That’s what Gittins has done here. The chapters are packed with everyday detail but all are drawn so vividly and each one tells its own story about how difficult things were for her – to deal with her mother’s mental illness, to manage visiting her parents at the other end of the country when one slipped into dementia and the other just into frail old age.
My favourite was the chapter entitled ‘Piercings’ which told of a week’s holiday Chrissie took with her mum, to Wales. It describes the time leading up to the holiday, where her father has been taken into a home and her mother gets confused with the shopping. The time the two of them spend away is full of small memories – getting her mother’s ears pierced, going on train journeys – but it’s during this time that Chrissie can talk to her mother about more important things, things they’d not discussed before. “The ECT was very frightening.” “Did you mean to kill yourself?”
What this chapter highlights for me is that moment when you realise as an adult that your parents are adults too, and how your relationship subtly changes. Sure, they used to look after you and in so many cases you may well end up looking after them but there’s this other bit, where you’re both equals trying to get through life as best you can. For me, the rest of the book – its emotional punches, the mental struggles and the grief that Chrissie describes – all come from that moment where she has to paint as accurate a portrait of two people she loves, and doesn’t want to use a child’s lens to view them with.
I urge you to read this book. If you’re of a certain age, some things will ring as true for you as they did for me (reading Lady Macbeth’s speech out loud in class seems to have been a rite of passage), but there are universal observations for all of us – in how we treat ourselves and each other. While some of the subject matter covered in the book may sound bleak, the book itself is not, it’s an affectionate portrayal of good people and their love.
How I long for the days when I could spend a long afternoon curled up on the sofa in a book. These days, 20 minutes of snatched bus journey or late at night with a book torch are more likely reading situations. The quality of reading is necessarily affected by having to check where you are in case you miss your stop, or by blearily staying awake for just one more chapter.
I bring this up because sometimes it doesn’t really matter if you have time to indulge in reading or not. Some books can cope with snatched moments. But others are definitely better if you can live in them, absorb them and lose time. Mr Mac and Me is one of those. It’s not just the historical detail, the evocation of a poor agricultural village during the First World War, the storyline of a great man and the circumstances that brought him low or the wistful narration of a crippled boy in the face of events greater than him. It’s the sum of all those things.
I’ll be honest, it was a slow burner. I didn’t immediately get drawn in. But once I’d got so far, I realised I wanted nothing more than to abandon everything else and read till it stopped. I think this is partly because the story doesn’t really get going until halfway through – the set up is nice enough and very evocative but you don’t get really involved till later.
The story is told by Thomas Maggs, a boy in his early teens (though he seems younger than this in his outlook but I guess this is perhaps reflective of the age) who lives with his parents and sister in an inn on the Suffolk coast. Thomas is a reflective observant boy who is haunted by having survived beyond childhood, unlike his elder brothers – there’s a terribly poignant scene where he sits in the graveyard and sees a bunch of starlings which he knows are his brothers, watching him. The sense of responsibility he feels for having made it is acute.
He also likes to draw – mainly boats but he is also keen on drawing the face of a visiting Irish herring girl, Betty. It is his drawing talent that gets him noticed by a visitor to the area – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish architect and artist. Mackintosh and his wife are in exile, and are trying to make the best of being away from home in a time of war. The artists are both sub characters in the story, enigmatic yet kind, gruff yet welcoming, to the boy, and both encourage his drawing.
In between visits to the Mackintosh’s, Thomas has to go to school, patrol the beaches, work at a local rope makers and do his chores, while avoiding his father’s filthy alcohol-fuelled temper. The conflict across the Channel has serious repercussions for all in the village – from the parents of fighting boys, to boarding houses and the inn now full of soldiers, and tragically to the great architect himself. Mackintosh is portrayed as a gentle but frustrated man, full of passion but still able to notice the smallest detail of the land around him. But this is Thomas’s story and he is a worthy hero.
I’ve read Freud’s work before but this appears to have more depths to it than some of her earlier novels. I will wallow in it again some day, and relish the astonishing ease with which she paints her pictures with words. For now, I will just tell you to go and read it.
I’ve read Alice Hoffman books before but not for several years and in my memory her magical-y tales of witches and fables were the stuff of light hearted beach reads. So it was with pleasure to discover, with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, that she’s changed and, dare I say, matured somewhat.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things tells the intertwining stories of Coralie Sardie, a curiosity kept captive at the Museum by her father, and Eddie (Ezekiel) Cohen, a mourning Jewish boy who leaves his father and tries to make his way in New York first as a runner for a mystic and then as a photographer. Each story is told in turn, a chapter in the character’s voice and then a further chapter moving that character’s story on told in the third person, before returning to the other. Eventually, of course, the two stories combine, as you knew they would, and resolve in a finale of fire, beasts, love and death.
The story is structured between two turbulent events that took place in New York in 1911 – the devastating fires at the Triangle shirtwaist factory that killed many workers, and the Coney Island Dreamland fire. Both events are described in detail and with a compassion that nevertheless doesn’t flinch from describing the more unsavoury human side of tragedy. The grim details continue, first in the telling of how the ‘wonders’ – a collection of genetic abnormalities, scientific curiosities and trickery – are treated by Coralie’s father, including some terrible experiences for Coralie herself, and then in the familiar tales of worker exploitation by rich factory owners.
Hoffman’s characters leap off the page but with a grounded realism that was perhaps missing from her earlier, whimsical works. This has its fair share of grit and is the better for it. So here we meet Mr Morris, wolfman, an armless girl who earns her keep as a human butterfly at the Museum, a hermit with a pet wolf and Maureen, a beauty who is burned with acid by a mysterious man before devoting her life to Coralie.
Hoffman writes in the back about her connections to New York and her affection for the city is evident in every page – it’s clear in each character and in each description. The history of this ever changing city, its dirt and corruption always near, is brought to life here in an engrossing read. There are books that succeed because the author has concentrated their efforts on creating a strong world of clear characters and good plotting. Sometimes it feels hard to master these basics of storytelling but Hoffman manages it with aplomb in The Museum of Extraordinary Things.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is published by Simon and Schuster