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.
What a tonic this book is. I saved it to read until one cold snowy evening last week, as the Beast from the East did its worst outside and it was an excellent decision. ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ is exactly what you would want to be reading while the elements are howling at the door. It is warm, cosy in the best sense, and full of positive loveliness.
The story is told by Emmeline Lake, Emmy to her friends, who dreams of being a journalist – a lady war correspondent (it’s 1941) to be precise – and so when she spots an advert for a junior at The London Evening Chronicle, she seizes her chance and goes for an interview. It is only when she has quit her job and told all her friends at the fire station where she volunteers, that she finds the job is actually a typist at the Woman’s Friend, an ailing women’s monthly. Not only that, but she is the junior assistant to Mrs Bird, a redoubtable creature who is the magazine’s Acting Editress and agony aunt. Furthermore, Mrs Bird has STANDARDS when it comes to the type of letter she will answer and these are very restrictive indeed.
“I hardly think the Woman’s Friend reader wants her afternoon spoilt by This Kind Of Thing, do you?”
“Affairs… losing their heads… babies… UNPLEASANTNESSES,” she boomed, pausing to let the abomination sink in. “And, even, Miss Lake… NERVES.”
Well, really. Emmy tries to make the best of it, if only to save face and also because she starts to become friends with the rest of the very small staff at the magazine. However, she regards the women in the letters very differently to Mrs Bird and, after her early attempts to get Mrs Bird to answer some of the queries fail, decides to answer the letters herself.
Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty, and friends with a wider circle of girls, all of whom are trying to make it through the bombing raids in one piece, doing their bit but still trying to have fun. Emmy’s friends at the office are friendly and full of that old fashioned ‘making the best of things’ spirit but none of this feels cliched – you immediately care for all of them and don’t mind if this all sounds familiar in a Sunday evening TV drama kind of way. Mrs Bird herself must have been great fun to write.
As you can imagine, the letter writing scheme soon has consequences but not until after a dreadful tragedy that shakes Emmy’s world.
This is a light read, easy to get through, but shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It seems so rare these days to have a book that offers comfort against dark times, and perhaps it’s exactly what we all need. Dear Mrs Bird is funny, sweet and warm, celebrating friendship and the consequences of taking a chance. Curl up and enjoy.
Louise Walters’ third book turns out to be her first. When I finished reading this, I tweeted her to say how much I enjoyed it and she replied to say it’s been sitting in a drawer for 10 years. Would that we all had novels of such quality in our drawers!
The Road to California is the name of Joanna’s quilting business. She sews beautiful quilts to earn a living, recycling vintage material from charity shops. The business is named after a quilting pattern but also has relevance for Joanna, who is sheltering secrets her son Ryan knows nothing of.
The book opens with Ryan at school, teased and bullied until one day he snaps, punches his bully and is suspended. A further incident at school later sees him accidentally punch his bully’s girlfriend and Ryan is excluded from school.
His mother, not knowing what else to do, suggests two things. One is to homeschool Ryan for a while and she joins forces with flower child Sharon and her children at a weekly study group. And she also makes a call for help. Into their lives rides Lex, a motorcyclist, glamorous and wealthy. Lex and Ryan hit it off immediately, and the reader (and then Ryan) soon suspect he is Ryan’s father.
Ryan, away from school, starts to blossom, reading a lot and practising the writing his old teacher told him he had a talent for. He also starts to study with the bully he punched from school, an unlikely friendship but a rewarding one. Relationships bloom between the three of them but then tragedy strikes.
This is a character-led novel, beautifully written, and full of normal flawed people just trying to get on with life the best way they can. The relationships are excellently portrayed, and it’s an absorbing mature read. As with a patchwork quilt, there are lovely details on the smallest parts that combine to make a stunning whole. I loved how the characters interacted, how Walters manages to illustrate how the mistakes we make can lead to the memories we rely on later. It’s a lovely novel and I wholly recommend it!
Walters is the author of two previous books, Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and her self-published follow up novel, A Life Between Us. The Road to California is also published on her own imprint and is easily her best yet. It is released in paperback on 1 March. Thanks to Louise Walters for my advance copy via Netgalley.
Warning. This is a dreadfully sad book. Unless you have a void where your heart should be, you will need tissues and possibly, some consoling biscuits.
On the face of it, it’s a bog standard boy meets girl story. Rob meets Anna at university where she is wowing people with her accountancy skills and he is planning a computer revolution. Rob is the narrator of the story and nice enough, though I imagine his school reports read “Could do better if he applied himself.” He is the son of a taxi driver and studies at Cambridge without any of the hang ups I would have there, for example. Anna is more complicated, the product of an odd family life and Rob states a number of times that she could come across as cold or distant.
They marry after graduation, move to London, make money and then tragedy strikes. Anna miscarries two babies. Anna is devastated, or so we imagine – Rob says very little about this at this point. And then they have Jack, a lovely little boy. Rob is the primary carer, all seems well until Jack starts to fall or lose his balance.
I won’t go too much further in the plot as I don’t want to spoil what happens next, but it is emotionally very difficult – for Anna and Rob, and for the reader. All we know from the book’s opening is that Rob is now living alone in Cornwall, drinking hard and picking up women for one night stands. He spends time taking panoramic photos to put on his website We Own the Sky, and the relevance of this title becomes clear as we learn more about Jack.
As you may gather, Rob is not the most sympathetic of characters, but he is very real and flawed in ways that make you know him – he’s that bloke you’re friends with on Facebook. One of the loose themes of the book is how casual acquaintances deal with other people’s losses (spoiler: badly) and how all those posts you see on Facebook can be a by-product of a thousand poor attempts to empathise. When it comes down to it, few of us will always say the right thing in the face of another’s tragedy – either through embarrassment or inexperience – but this book does offer a raw lesson in how to think about enormous life changing issues.
Anna and Rob face their tragedy in different ways, and again, these are absolutely relatable and filled with flaws. These are both very human characters, and excellently portrayed. We Own the Sky is the product of the author’s own cancer diagnosis, and also a way of coming to terms with his father’s death from cancer – and the theme of father-son relations runs throughout the book, with Rob and Jack, Rob and his own father, and other fathers and sons that Rob meets. Between the lines of this is someone who knows exactly the kind of pain experienced and resilience required to face hard times, and someone who also knows that we’re only human and that people fail, especially when facing the loss of a loved one.
Essentially, this is a simple story, well told and full of facts as well as human emotions. It will break you but it does offer you a hand back up again, a way home. It’s a shattering debut.
We Own the Sky is published on 8 February by Trapeze Books. Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for offering me a review copy.
So you may remember Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, did STORMING things last year so there’s been quite a lot of anticipation for her follow up book.
Let’s start with how it looks. Covers are important. This has Battenberg cake on it. And jigsaws. Look at that. Already you’re interested, right?
Goats and Sheep was all about friendship and small mysteries and things that happen to you that seem unremarkable in the wider world but have a massive effect on you and hey, so is this. But where Goats and Sheep featured two little girls, this focuses in on an old lady called Florence who lives in sheltered accommodation and doesn’t like it very much.
Florence is a bit of a trouble maker, but once in a while you can see her heart is in the right place. The story opens as she has fallen in her flat and she lies on the floor and spots the mess under the dresser, and starts to tell her story. An unmarried woman with no children, we could assume she has had a dull life, but when an old man turns up at the sheltered accommodation, she is convinced he is not who he says he is, but instead a shadowy figure from her past.
Florence is accompanied everywhere by Elsie, her best friend, and soon also by another resident, Jack, who helps Florence to solve the mystery. Along the way, we come across a supporting cast of characters, some sad, some apparently busybodies, some just witnesses flitting in and out of lives, but all important in their way.
The story was apparently inspired by Joanna Cannon’s work with older people as part of her day job, and serves as a reminder that everyone is someone, and no matter how we may dismiss them, old people have as much right to exist and be haunted by the past and have their own opinions and quirks as much as anyone else.
It’s a lovely story, and I think will put a lot of people in mind of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ although I think I prefer this as there was something about Florence (and especially Jack who I loved as a character) that stuck with me more. However, expect to hear the two books discussed in the same breath. Florence is an engaging narrator for all her foibles, and her unreliability is as much of her charm as anything else.
This is, primarily, a book about the housing crisis. Don’t let that put you off – but most of the characters are, in one way or another, affected by the current housing situation. It’s not an obvious theme for a spooky tale (I’m resisting calling this an out and out ghost story) but it’s also a portrait of a marriage, and an observation on the flighty nature of employment.
Sound too much? It’s mostly deftly juggled by Murray-Browne, though her characters are at times more annoying than they need to be. The main one, Eleanor, a working mother with two small girls moves into a Victorian house in need of renovation with her husband Richard. Richard is, without a doubt, one of the worst men I’ve ever read. He has already taken on a number of projects throughout their married life, and the house is his latest, while he also works part time and studies for an MA.
Eleanor has her doubts about the house, nothing that she can put down to anything more than a gut feeling but as they try to settle in, they find the upstairs room which is full of foreboding, strange leftover objects and scribblings on the wall from ‘Emily.’ Eleanor’s foreboding turn more serious later when the house starts to make her physically ill and has a detrimental effect on their daughter Rosie.
Eleanor isn’t immediately likeable but I felt for her so much as the book went on. Richard, despite seeing her illness, is still wedded to the renovation and overrides her objections. To pay for the renovations they take a lodger, Zoe, who is at a loose end in her career and her life, having broken up with her boyfriend and walked out of a job. She too is difficult to like, but if you wanted to look at representations of women acting like men – especially when it comes to fear of commitment – then Zoe is perfectly true to life. Her main concern is having regular sex, but she also feels the strange atmosphere of the house and starts to spend more time elsewhere.
I liked that it wasn’t too over the top at the end and I wasn’t sure how much I’d really been affected by it – until I had a sleepless night after I’d finished it. Somehow, it will get under your skin.
What a treat to read something as fresh and nicely eccentric as this. A book that’s full of stories, without being a book about stories, if that makes any sense.
Two Cousins of Azov or You can’t pickle love (it has a subtitle) ostensibly tells the story of Gor and Tolya, the two cousins of the title, both in the autumn of their days. Gor is trying to make himself better known as a magician and is busy training up a new assistant Sveta while dealing with a series of mysterious events. There’s a tapping. There’s a dead rabbit outside his door, and the egg he wanted to boil for tea has disappeared. Is he going mad or just getting old? Tolya, meanwhile, is in a hospital following a serious illness and being interviewed for a research project for a trainee doctor. Tolya insists on telling him stories of his childhood and harks way back into the past.
The book is structured to alternate the point of view and this makes it easier for the reader to pick out the symmetry in what’s going on. The tales told by Tolya are full of folk stories and charm, and there seems to be a significance to the events happening to Gor – will the two men find each other? Will they solve the mystery?
There is a wide cast of characters, all with little foibles and quirks, (you do have to concentrate to start with in order to get them all straight in your head) and there’s a lot of food mentioned. Of course as the book goes on, we find the characters are all connected and intertwined somehow, and we start to get to the bottom of the mysteries. The food however, is another matter. I do feel this should come with a selection of snacks available to eat while you read so you don’t spend your whole time feeling hungry, the way I did when I was reading.
The blurb on the back mentioned that if you were a fan of Rachel Joyce (which I am) you would like this. This seems correct – both authors look at exploring the lives of ordinary people where perhaps not much adventurous or exciting happens but what does happen has an impact and is worth telling.
In short, this is a charming novel with plenty of humour and fun. The two main characters are playful storytellers and I enjoyed spending time with them.
Two Cousins of Azov is published by Borough Press on 13 July 2017. Thanks to Borough Press for the review copy.
A new Rachel Joyce is always something to look forward to. Joyce specialises in writing about ordinary people, their trials and tribulations and funny ways. Especially their funny ways.
It’s 1988. Frank owns a music shop. He insists on selling only vinyl, despite this being the dawn of the CD. But Frank is not just any music shop owner, a far cry from the intimidating list-making types captured so well in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Frank is welcoming, and happy to broaden his customer’s knowledge and improve their lives through his own knowledge in music. He makes links to different genres, and prescribes them to customers the way a doctor would with medicine.
Frank has attracted a group of friends equally as eccentric. The music shop is housed in a sad, neglected row of shops that a development company is trying to knock down to build ‘luxury’ flats. Scrawled National Front slogans mark many of the boarded up shop fronts. Frank’s friends own many of the businesses nearby and all are uncertain of the future. The Music Shop is, in many ways, a focal point for them all and Frank its unwilling leader. But Frank is alone. We know that his mother Peg bequeathed her love of music to him but she is dead and Frank has no one else. He is a man who needs to be prescribed ‘Verdi Cries’ by 10,000 Maniacs.
One morning, Ilsa Brauchmann, a woman in a green coat stands outside the shop. She catches Frank’s eye and then she faints onto the pavement. It’s a strange start to a strange relationship but Frank finds himself drawn to her and when she asks him to teach him about music they go on a series of ‘dates’ to a local cafe where he talks and brings her records. But Ilsa has a secret and this could ruin everything.
It’s the cast of characters and their interactions that make this book. Frank mostly plays it straight but others are allowed to be as eccentric as possible, and I especially love Kit, Frank’s young clumsy loving music shop assistant who likes to hand-draw their posters.
But there is a serious point to make too, about the pace of technology and development and how it can leave people behind. And then of course, there’s the music. We need a playlist to go with this book, to play as you read. I love that this has such variety, that a plotline about Handel’s Messiah sits alongside Aretha Franklin. Frank talks to people about music the way none of my boyfriends ever did, and their conversations were the poorer for it. Here we can clearly see that music has a power, to change, to heal, to talk to others and that it can take the soul of the lowliest people and make it fly.
The Music Shop is about connecting with others, about how we’re all worth a little time and effort, no matter how low we get. It’s about the wonder of Vivaldi and Miles Davis and Shalamar (yes really).
Ever wanted more time? Wouldn’t it be useful to live longer, learn more, have more experience, travel…
How about 600-700 years?
That’s the premise of How to Stop Time – a type of people, referred to here as Albas, who age very slowly.
The story is narrated by Tom, very much in the present day, yet born in the 1500s. Tom is part of the Albatross Society, a band of people led by mysterious millionaire Hendrich, who protect and help Albas when they run into trouble. Tom’s past includes a meeting with Shakespeare, travel with Captain Cook and playing a range of instruments – sounds glamorous doesn’t it? But his appearance is a front for a troubled soul. Tom’s mother was drowned as a witch when his condition caused suspicion among the townspeople where they lived and her death haunts him, as does his promise to her on the ducking stool that he live.
One hundred years later or so, Tom falls for Rose and marries her. Their love is sweet and kind, but his condition makes this difficult too and they are estranged for a time before Rose dies of the plague. This too haunts Tom. But it is his love for his daughter Miranda, herself an Alba, that troubles him the most. After he left Rose, Miranda ran away and for 400 years he’s tried to find her.
This is an ambitious yet easy to read book – encompassing observations on human nature, Donald Trump, greed, death, love and pride. Haig explores what makes us human and what we do to protect ourselves and those we love.