Oh, this is a simple and lovely book. And a timely book, also. It is told by Nuri Ibrahim, the titular beekeeper of Aleppo who has had to flee Syria with his wife Afra.
Nuri and Afra are in a bed and breakfast in Brighton with several other refugees, all waiting to see if their claims to asylum will be accepted by the British authorities. Nuri starts to tell us of life in the B&B and his account of life merges into his memories of his journey to get to the UK, and of the life they left behind.
As you can imagine, this is a difficult and heartbreaking story, and the reader realises sooner than Nuri that there is something wrong with his recounting. Nuri is trying to reach his cousin, best friend and partner in beekeeping, Mustafa, who has made it to Yorkshire and is setting up a beekeeping project for refugees. Mustafa’s emails to Nuri are often the only thing that keeps him going through the terrible journey he and Afra make, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Greece and then to the UK. It is a journey of terror, sorrow, heartbreak and humiliation. It is no spoiler, I think, to tell you that Afra and Nuri are suffering the effects.
The book is incredibly well written, unflinching in its depiction of the hardships, but without unnecessary detail – leaving some of the worst events to the reader’s imagination. The writing is full of warmth when describing the characters and their lives together, you are rooting for them from very early on. I liked how the current chapters morphed into the reminiscences, the passages joined by a single word.
This is an excellent debut, full of compassion and hope, for characters lost when their world changes beyond all recognition. It should be widely read.
My reading group’s choice for March was The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I have a lot of Woolf on my shelves but haven’t got round to reading very much so I was glad at the choice. Until I picked it up and tried to read it.
It’s well known as her most challenging work and for good reason. There is a rhythm and an order to the words but it is very poetical, at times random and mostly quite a difficult read.
I put it down again.
I needed to get into the flow of her writing and I looked at my shelves of Woolf and decided an experiment – I would read only Woolf or Woolf-related works all month and immerse myself in her and then near the end of the month, I would try The Waves again.
I owned five volumes of her diary and decided to start with those, reading her fiction simultaneously as she wrote it, and supplement the whole thing with biographies, criticism and essays, and ideally read some contemporaries too. It was an ambitious ask for someone with a full time job, a small child and a novel of their own to rewrite but I decided to see what I could do.
The diaries start in 1915 and so far this month I’ve managed to read two and a half volumes of them so I’m at 1927. We’ve witnessed the end to the war, the flu outbreak, a range of political changes and the general strike. The Woolfs (they referred to themselves as the Woolves) have moved back to London from Richmond, and bought property, started the Hogarth Press, taken a variety of writing jobs, and Virginia has written The Common Reader, a range of Short Stories, Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Of these, I have read the stories, Jacob and Mrs Dalloway. I’ve also managed to read some biographical and critical books too, supplementing my own books with a trip to the library.
What has this experiment achieved? I’ve absolutely loved the immersion in Virginia’s world. It’s a confusing whirl of dinners and teas with famous people, setbacks and illnesses, lost dogs, arguments with the servants, and heaps of books. She reads and writes and reads some more. I tried reading her diaries before but spread them out and spent too much time trying to remember who everyone was. This was a mistake. It is easier to let the detail wash over you and read them in big chunks as many of the same people come in and out. She is a writer who rewards you with a big reading exercise like this – with her letters, diaries, novels and range of articles there is a lot to get through and they provide you with a full honest picture.
Woolf is racist, anti-semitic, and a terrible snob. While much of this could be excused as being a product of her time (and class), it is still galling to read some of her dreadful thoughts and then be told that her set believed they were intellectually superior and open to more ideas. Nevertheless, she has great insight into other people, and offers that insight into her own marriage and her own resilience in dealing with a mental illness for which there was no real treatment at the time. She has humour, a healthy sense of competition and criticism, and a real sense of injustice that can at times transcend her snobbery. She was, in short, a real contradictory, flawed person – and one with a wonderful writing gift.
I have resumed my diary in response to hers and admire her experimental writing techniques in hers as a place to try new things. I would love to continue the experiment and immersion as I still have so much to read but I also have reviews piling up to get through (Virginia would approve of this as much of the time she had to put aside what she wanted to do in order to write reviews that brought money in) so hopefully in May I can resume with To The Lighthouse.
I did read and finish The Waves, which was still challenging but without the immersion I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have finished it. The only disappointment is that I didn’t read it in order alongside the diary, because I haven’t got that far yet but I may dip into it again when I get there and see if I find it different.
Woah! I read a LOT in 2018. 91 books so far and a week still to go. I’m not quite sure how I fitted all of this in, except that I’ve stopped cycling to work and now have tram time.
To be fair, two were novellas in flash, one was a short story in a single slim volume, and three were children’s books I read to E at bedtime (we’ve moved onto chapter books and these were all new to me so I included them). There was also a cookbook and a volume of poetry.
Still, that’s a lot of books. I didn’t finish three of them, but one of those was 300 pages in so a substantial chunk.
At the start of the year, I started to keep track of how many books I read each month and how many I buy, as well as library books, review books and so on. It was pretty interesting, most months I got through as many as I brought into the house until May when I had a ‘stop buying for a while woman!’ moment (this lasted a month) but then I did calm down and didn’t buy quite as many as I read.
60 of the books were by women and 28 by men. The others were collections of short stories of both sexes.
I read 17 non-fiction, including two feminist cartoon (for want of a better word) books. The best of these were:
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – a brutal memoir of the year after Didion’s husband died suddenly and her daughter was incredibly ill in a coma, and how Didion coped with all of this. It’s brutal because she was absolutely floored by her husband’s death and at times this feels like her focus when the reader wants her to focus on her daughter’s needs.
Flaneuse: Women Walk the City by Lauren Elkins – a look at how women have claimed public spaces. Elkins picks a few cities – New York, Paris, Tokyo – and walks them while also examining how we claim space, how cities don’t encourage a flaneuse, and a look at artists who have also walked cities.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – a fascinating book, linked a little to the previous title, where Laing explores isolation in cities and how this has been represented in art. It’s part biography, part autobiography, part art history and a bit of sociology.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – a monster of a book but really well written. If the founding fathers had been written like this when I was studying them at university I would have found them much more interesting. It helps when you can sing an accompanying soundtrack from the musical too…
The rest were fiction and I have read some great stuff this year. Last year I narrowed the reading down to a top five but this year it’s a top eight fiction titles. So in no particular order:
Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce – I loved this debut, simple and funny and charming – review is here
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty – an underrated author, MacLaverty, I think. I loved Grace Notes for its simple beauty and this too is a wonderfully written poignant book of an older couple whose marriage is disintegrating.
The Power by Naomi Alderman – I LOVED this. Women develop an inner power, zapping men with electricity and the world’s men watch and plot in horror. The scene where the Saudi women zapped all the cars they hadn’t been allowed to drive had me cheering out loud while I read. Fabulous stuff.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson. Part of the series that retells Shakespeare’s stories, this is The Winter’s Tale and really enjoyable. It also works so much better than the recent series that retold Jane Austen’s tales – get Winterson on Persuasion.
Larchfield by Polly Clark – Auden, Scotland, post-natal depression and nasty neighbours. Really enjoyable debut novel.
Jeff Goldblum rocks. You know it. Helen McClory thinks so. So she wrote a bonkers pamphlet containing poems, flash fiction and bingo all about Jeff and alternate versions of him in other universes. You can buy it now with a yellow cover but mine is colour your own, adding more fun to the mix.
It’s absurdist and very silly but even more fun, you can now also watch a film of Jeff reading from it because he is the best of men.
As promised, I wanted to write about a childhood in books with a few featured. I have also decided to commit to blogging and reviewing every day in December and tagging authors to give them a boost about how much we appreciate them. (You can find out more about this here on Twitter – do think about joining in!) So here’s day 1.
I was reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm and thinking about the books I loved, the ones I return to, the ones I leave safely in the past but whose footprint is still with me, the ones I want to pass on. The passing on is especially important – I read a blog a while ago about a mother who had saved up a trip to Prince Edward Island with her daughter so they could share the wonder of Anne of Green Gables together and her daughter just didn’t like Anne. My heart! How awful – I dread this happening with E.
So as you can imagine, Anne of Green Gables is one of my absolute favourites. Yes, she talks too much, hugs trees too much and could be seen by some as utterly irritating but none of that ever bothered me. She was aching for love that girl, and had so much to give. My copies of the books are all TV tie in editions of the Kevin Sullivan production (the ONLY version worth watching) with Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and the lovely Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush and remains to this day, one of the only decent men in the whole of literature. He spurs Anne onto greater academic achievement, allows her to voice her opinions and in every way respects her. You can count men who do that in books or onscreen on ONE hand. Anne of Green Gables also has one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever written in it – the death of Matthew Cuthbert – something that can make me cry at any time. Half my copies were presents from my Grandma, who bought them for me on a rare trip into Croydon together and whose kindness completed my collection, so I also think of her when I read them.
Going back a bit, my earliest book favourites were Rapunzel and Beaky the Greedy Duck. My mother hates both of them because she had to read them so often, and I think both were Ladybird editions. I’m not a massive fan of Ladybird books despite these, simply because when I was ill in bed as a child, a neighbour gave me the Ladybird version of The Little Mermaid and I was so upset by the awful ending I never read any more – Ladybird or Hans Christian Andersen. Give me the Disney version any day.
Of course I had an Enid Blyton phase, not the Faraway Tree, but straight into the Secret Seven, Famous Five, and the school books of Malory Towers and St Clares. The famous Five were favourites because of George and Timmy, who were something to aspire to – George being possibly the first tomboy character I was drawn to. A few years ago staying at a friend’s house overnight I came across a Secret Seven book that belonged to his son and started reading it out of curiosity. God it was awful.
One set of books I loved and now E loves too is The Worst Witch. It’s not clear which of us is more excited by the new books in the series that Jill Murphy has started to bring out again – we have the new one ready for Christmas. Mildred Hubble is a great heroine. I was drawn to her because her hair was messy and her bootlaces were undone and she made mistakes but she had a good heart. I still love her while E is more drawn to Mildred’s steadfast friend Maud. E is too messy and disorganised herself to be anyone other than Mildred but I like that she values Maud. (Other characters I value because their bootlaces were undone also include Katy Carr from the ethically dodgy What Katy Did, which I acknowledge has dreadful morals but still has a place in my heart because of the bootlaces.)
What else? My mum worked in an infants school for a while and when I came to meet her from junior school one evening one of the teachers gave me a book from
their library that was too old for their children. I still own it. It’s called A Fox in Winter by John Branfield and tells the story of a teenage girl who befriends an old Cornish farmer and listens to him while he tells her of the old mining days. It’s quietly compelling and explores isolation and generational differences and connections or disconnections between people. I also love and still own my copy of Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, a sweet and little celebrated epistolary novel of an orphan and her guardian.
I also remember something I was gripped by and reread called Vipers and Co which was a kind of crime book I think. I can’t find any information about it now but I remember loving it. I also got a Robert Cormier book out which was called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway which I read more than once simply because it was disturbing – about a boy called Barney who lives in a medical facility for experimentation.
I will tell you of two more. Obviously Judy Blume must figure. My favourite was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, but obviously I had the Forever rite of passage. As with so many, the library copy was so battered every time someone returned the librarians tried to mend it only to have to hand it over immediately to another teenage girl who wanted to read it. I also made the mistake of asking my mum what some of the phrases during the sex scene meant (well, if you’ve not come across it before, saying somebody ‘came’ is very confusing) and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” Oops.
Finally, of course, my spiritual sister Jo March has reminded me that I must mention Little Women. We read this a few years ago at my reading group and one of the group said she couldn’t finish it because they were all so pious. I was heartbroken. Of course they are. But Little Women is part of me and, like practically every bookish woman, I am Jo March, although she is clearly a better person than me because if Amy burnt my book I would have left her to drown in the pond. Pious indeed. In the US I made a trip out to Concord to go round the Alcott house, visit their graves and generally worship – it’s fascinating, I do recommend it.
I would love to hear your childhood favourites! Drop a comment below – and don’t forget to keep reviewing books, visiting libraries and buying books from flesh and blood bookshops.
Today I’m hosting the blog tour for JM Monaco’s how We Remember, a debut novel of dark family secrets and their after effects.
Jo O’Brien, Irish-American professor of Art History living and working in London, returns home after her mother’s death and, in the process of clearing out her mother’s diary and papers, is reminded of an incident from her teenage years which stirs up all kinds of memories. Family secrets come to the fore, as the three family remaining family members deal with a history of addiction, mental ill health, and bitter confrontations.
Jo is a well written character and the book is shaped around her. She’s not always likeable and she makes a lot of mistakes, but all this makes her recognisable and realistic. What a mess her family life is. But this is not a plot-based book, instead it’s a snapshot of what happens when the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day all start to unravel.
Some passages are hard to read. Jo’s account of the incident in her mother’s diary, a sexual assault by her uncle, made me bite my lip but even worse were the recriminations from her own family members that Jo, a teenage girl, had been ‘asking for it’. And the family dependence on alcohol, the accounts of depression that devastated their family life but was never really treated are heartbreaking.
Despite this, I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s a dreary or sad read. It’s frank, realistic and has passages of tenderness and love that show you that we’re all just trying as hard as we can, sometimes against the odds.
It’s a sure-footed debut and worthy of critical and popular acclaim.
Phew! What a title! Your Second Life is a French phenomenon. Published three years ago, word spread and it’s now a bestseller, staying in the French top ten for over a year, despite its terrible title. Now it’s coming to England.
It’s rather cute to look at, a small hardback with a Tiffany blue cover and the title in red. ‘The novel that made 2 million people happy!’ reads the strapline.
Your Second Life is about Camille, a normal working mother who, like all of us, is trying to juggle her life and finding it hard. She doesn’t like her job, her work colleagues laugh at her, she’s lost connection with her husband and she spends time shouting at her son and hating herself for doing so. Her self esteem is rock bottom and, when she has a tyre blow out one night in a rain storm, she seeks help in a nearby house to call a mechanic and finds much more.
Claude, an older handsome Frenchman, is inside the house and as Camille breaks down from stress he comes to her rescue.
“You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis.”
“Acute routinitis. It’s a sickness of the soul that affects more and more people in the world, especially in the West. The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your way in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness…”
“But… how do you know all this?”
“I’m a routinologist.”
I admit, this made me laugh. For we’re all Camille, aren’t we? Claude goes on to help Camille reconnect with her life and her sense of self. From here the novel is basically a self-help book, with Claude offering tips on how to make time for what’s important and discard negative energy. I’ve read business books with narratives before so it’s a tried and trusted technique and works nicely here too. (Claude would, I’m sure, tell me that my dislike of the title is part of my negative energy and I should change it. Yeah, maybe…)
The feminist in me did bristle at parts of the book, some of which I think might be a reflection of French culture, but nevertheless. Camille is encouraged to see herself as both the problem and the solution, taking her frustrations with her husband, son and patronising rude workmates and changing her ways in order to get them change theirs. At no point is she allowed to suggest to her husband that he might do some housework, to make her feel better, for example even as the new Camille, she’s still putting herself down for not doing some cleaning, and she’s really pleased when she has time to make dinner. When she and Claude tackle her self esteem and negative body image, she rates her success by how many compliments she gets from men, with no other real benchmark.
Of course, nothing in the book says you have to follow the same path or rate your own self improvement in the same way as Camille. So yes, I’m going to rate my own body image in how I feel about it, thanks very much. The techniques suggested by Claude are all listed in the back of the book to help offer advice or guidance on what you might like to tackle – most of them are really simple, things like using positive notebooks, making collages of people you admire, mindfulness, taking small steps, and so on.
As you can imagine, there’s little tension in the book as you know Camille will work her problems out but I liked the ending – a neat wrap up and continuation. We can all help each other.
Whatever you might think about self-help books, taking some time to be mindful or appreciating the small things, staying positive and taking small steps towards new habits are all good things to try and a reminder like this is helpful to all of us. After all, we’ve all been Camille, we’re all struggling from time to time. Using Your Second Life can help you take stock – it’s a fun read with a little lesson within.
Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.
I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.
A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.
Twenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.
I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.
I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.
A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.
When scholars explore the decline of modern civilisation they will cite two causes. The first is the invention of the motorcar. The second is the decline of letter writing. A good letter is a gift but a good correspondence is an art form. You can find insight, honesty, and character in a good correspondence.
This is why I love epistolary novels. And why I love Anne Youngson’s debut, an epistolary novel of searing truth and beauty.
Meet Me At The Museum is about Tina Hopgood, a Norfolk-based farmer’s wife who, along with a group of her teenage friends, wrote to a Danish professor on the discovery of Tollund Man, and had him dedicate his book to them. Years later, Tina has reason to evaluate her life and writes again to the professor via the Silkeborg Museum, to ask if he thinks she should visit, if she has wasted her potential; in short, if she is special. The professor is dead but Tina receives a reply from the museum’s curator, Anders Larsen, a man who also has reason to evaluate his life, and so a correspondence begins.
Much has been made of Youngson’s age, a refreshing 70-years old, when discussing this debut and the novel too, features protagonists that are older than many we often see. Tina and Anders discuss their families, their failures, their losses, their children and their wider interests, as well as talking of Tollund man and the nature of digging up or replanting and their connection to the world. They are both given to reflection and regret and the correspondence soon grows into an intimacy neither perhaps experiences elsewhere.
Real life must intrude, into correspondence as in all else, and Anders’ daughter provides some plot developments. But then Tina writes that she will correspond no further, leaving Anders to wonder what has happened to her.
This is a lovely novel and although there was quite a lot of discussion of ancient graves and funeral rituals for my liking, these parts were easily moved on, leaving the reader to dwell instead on the voices. Several points while reading I was tempted to join in the correspondence, telling them of my own experiences related to the subject.While there may have been other ways to tell this story, I believe none would have been so effective, the epistolary form giving Tina and Anders the intimacy they crave while retaining a distance, and this juxtaposition is essential to the feel of the novel. An old fashioned way of telling (although they do switch to email halfway through) an ageless story – about connection and significance, about belonging and love.
Meet Me At the Museum by Anne Youngson is published by Doubleday on 17 May. With thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.
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.