The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In ‘The Tenth Gift’ Jane Johnson spins a story around an extraordinary piece of history:

In 1625 corsairs from North Africa sailed into Mount’s Bay, they entered a church and they took sixty men, women and children, to be sold as slaves.

That church might have been St Mary’s in Penzance, standing at the centre of Mounts Bay, just behind the harbour, clearly visible from the sea. My church, my mother’s church, my grandmother’s church ….

That drew me to the book, but it made me wary too. Because I knew that I’d know if she got it wrong. But I’m pleased to say that she didn’t get the things I knew wrong at all, she taught me some local history that I didn’t know, and that gave me so much confidence when she wrote about things that I didn’t, couldn’t know.

cornwall10Catherine Anne Tregenna, nicknamed Cat, was in service at Kenegie Manor, she was betrothed to her cousin Rob, but she wanted more than that. She was young, she was bright, she was spirited, and she hoped that her talent for embroidery would give her a chance to see more of life, more of the world. She had been given the chance to make an altar cloth for the Countess of Salisbury, and she hoped that might help her to win more commissions, and maybe even gain entry to Broderers Guild.

But her life changed when she and her mother went to church ….

Cat’s story was uncovered by Julia, in a second storyline set in the present day. When her lover left her he gave her antique leather-bound book.  ‘ Needle-Woman’s Glorie’  had been Cat’s book, and when she was torn from her home she began to keep a record of what she experienced, writing in between the embroidery patterns.

Julia followed Cat to Morocco – telling herself that she was researching the story she had uncovered, but also running away from the mess she had made of her life.

The two storylines worked well together, and the links and the mirroring of Cat’s and Julia’s lives didn’t feel contrived at all. But I liked Cat  far more than I liked Julia – it’s hard to care about a heroine who has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband – and her story was not nearly as strong as Cat’s. I would have liked the book more, I think, if the present day story had been pulled back to become a framing story, or even if it had not been there at all.

There was for than enough in Cat’s story – her life in Cornwall, her experiences when she was kidnapped, what happened in Cornwall after the raid – to make a fabulous book all by itself. There was a little dramatic licence taken, a little stretching of credibility, but not too much. Certainly no more than I could forgive when I found so much that was good.

The writing was wonderfully readable, the plotting was very well done, and I loved the links to real history and to the authors own story. I appreciated that she was even-handed, that she understood that the corsairs had reasons for doing what they were doing, that there was right and wrong on both sides, that there could be much common ground between people from different backgrounds and different cultures.

The evocation of time and place – of Cornwall and of Morocco – was so very vivid that it pulled me right into the story. And I couldn’t doubt for one moment that the author was writing of what she knew and what she loved.

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

I have come to love and admire Margaret Kennedy’s writing over the last few years, and I know that others love her too, but even though her books have been coming back to print, even though there are more on the way, I want to do everything I can to steer others towards her work.

Hence MARGARET KENNEDY READING WEEK!

I find it difficult to explain what makes her special but you can find a lovely piece written by her granddaughter, novelist Serena Mackesy here and all of my posts about her books here.

So what so we have?

We have dates:

6th to 12th October.

Because I want to read Mary Stewart with Anbolyn in September, because I want to give anyone whose waiting for the last few reissues at the very end of September time to get their books, and because I don’t want to delay things any more than that.

We have a badge:

kennedy Badge

I’m quite pleased with it, though making such things is not my talent and there are not too many images of the author out there. Please display it and please spread the word!

We have a bibliography:

I couldn’t find one definitive source, but I’ve pulled a list together from a number of sources and I think I have pretty much everything that was published in book form.

All of the novels except the last one are in print – or will be in the weeks to come.

Some are published as Faber Finds and others by Vintage Books.

None of the others are, but because Margaret Kennedy was hugely successful in the 1920s, and well regarded after that, libraries may well have copes tucked away and there should be used copies out there.

Novels

The Ladies of Lyndon (1923)
The Constant Nymph (1924)
Red Sky at Morning (1927)
The Fool of the Family (1930) sequel to The Constant Nymph.
Return I Dare Not (1931)
A Long Time Ago (1932)
Together and Apart (1936)
The Midas Touch (1938)
The Feast (1950)
Lucy Carmichael (1951)
Troy Chimneys (1953)
The Oracles (US Title – Act of God)(1955)
The Heroes of Clone (US Title – The Wild Swan)(1957)
A Night in Cold Harbour (1960)
The Forgotten Smile (1961)
Not in the Calendar: The Story of a Friendship (1964)

Non Fiction

A Century of Revolution 1789-1920 (1922), history.
Where Stands a Winged Sentry (1941), wartime memoir.
The Mechanized Muse. P. E. N. series (1942), on the cinema.
Jane Austen. Novelists Series No. 1 (1950), biography/literary criticism.
The Outlaws on Parnassus. On the art of the novel (1958), literary criticism.

Shorter Fiction

A Long Week-End (1927), novella – published as a limited edition.
Dewdrops (1928), novella – published as a limited edition.
The Game and the Candle (1928), novella – published as a limited edition.
Women at Work (1966), two novellas – The Little Green Man and Three-Timer.

Plays

The Constant Nymph (1926), written with Basil Dean.
Come with Me (1928), written with Basil Dean.
Escape Me Never! (1934), a dramatisation of The Fool of the Family.
Autumn (1937), written with Gregory Ratoff.
Happy with Either (1948)

And there is one biography – The Constant Novelist by Violet Powell.

And we have some reviews to tempt you – ten different readers on ten different books:

A Girl Walks into a Bookstore on The Ladies of Lyndon
Geranium Cat on The Constant Nymph
Fleur in her World (me) on The Fool of the Family
TBR 313 on A Long Time Ago
Stuck in a Book on Together and Apart
The Captive Reader on Jane Austen
Furrowed Middlebrow on The Feast
Another Look Book on Lucy Carmichael
Vulpes Libres on Troy Chimneys
Novel Readings on The Outlaws on Parnassus

I do hope that you have found something to tempt you to join in.

Do tell me, and please ask is you have any questions at all.

Rebecca Mascull and The Visitors: Questions and Answers

The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull was the first book I read this year. I read it, I loved it, I was intrigued by it, and I wrote about it back here.

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“Imagine if you couldn’t see couldn’t hear couldn’t speak…Then one day somebody took your hand and opened up the world to you. Adeliza Golding is a deafblind girl, born in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm. Unable to interact with her loving family, she exists in a world of darkness and confusion; her only communication is with the ghosts she speaks to in her head, who she has christened the Visitors. One day she runs out into the fields and a young hop-picker, Lottie, grabs her hand and starts drawing shapes in it. Finally Liza can communicate. Her friendship with her teacher and with Lottie’s beloved brother Caleb leads her from the hop gardens and oyster beds of Kent to the dusty veldt of South Africa and the Boer War, and ultimately to the truth about the Visitors.”

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Today The Visitors was published in paperback, and when I was offered the chance of asking the author some questions I had to say yes. And I am so glad that I did, because Rebecca’s answers are so thoughtful and insightful, and she makes so many points that really strike a chord with me.

So here are my questions and her answers

Adeliza is a very special character. Please tell me about her, what makes her special to you, and what inspired you to write her story.

Thanks for saying that about Adeliza. She is very special to me now, as she represents the first character I’ve ever written who simply came alive and took over the story. The first line of the novel came to me complete one day and thus her voice was born. I honestly don’t know where it came from, but she just started ‘talking’. Her voice was shaped by her unconventional upbringing i.e. coming to language late. Thus, she ‘speaks’ English in a curious way, with some odd constructions, like a speaker of English as a second language. She also has some Kentish dialect in there, as her teacher comes from that area. This was woven into the language as I went along, yet her forthright tone and her way of looking at the world – all that came from her. Nothing to do with me!

 I was moved by Adeliza’s emotions when she could neither see nor hear, and by her joy as she learned to perceive the world around her and to communicate. How did you get into her head?

I’m so very glad it moved you; thank you. Three sources were key in trying to imagine Adeliza’s experience – Helen Keller’s autobiography, an account of Laura Bridgman’s education and lastly ‘Emma and I’ by Sheila Hocken, about a blind woman whose sight was restored in later life. Helen and Laura were both Victorian girls who were formally educated in the manual alphabet. Bridgman’s teacher wrote an almost daily account of how she was taught and how she responded to what she was learning; this was crucial evidence for me in constructing Liza’s learning curve. Keller writes so eloquently about her experience of being deaf-blind, yet I did ensure that I read these accounts early on and without taking too many notes, as I didn’t want to simply rewrite a fictional version of Keller, as she’s so well-known. I wanted to let the ideas I’d gathered from reading Keller inform the novel in more of a deep background way. It was important to me that Adeliza be her own person. As for Sheila Hocken, her account of the day she could see for the first time is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read in my life. I hope I did some little justice to that astonishing event in Liza’s description of her own life-changing moments.

It was lovely to watch the relationship between Lottie and Adeliza grow from teacher-pupil into a true friendship. Who or what inspired that, and how important a part of the story you wanted to tell was that relationship?

The relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan was influential. If you know anything about these two remarkable women, you’ll know they also had a remarkable friendship which lasted for decades. Annie’s life is just as fascinating as Helen, as she had problems with her sight from an early age and a very difficult childhood. However, I didn’t want Liza and Lottie to be a carbon copy of Helen and Annie, and luckily their own back-stories just took over and carved out their own paths. If you work one-to-one like that, day in, day out for years, there is going to be an extraordinary closeness. One of the saddest things I read was about Laura Bridgman’s relationships with her teachers; Laura was educated at a kind of boarding school for the deaf-blind, the Perkins Institute in Boston, USA. She wasn’t lucky enough to have her teacher at her beck and call all day and night as Liza does with Lottie. And as teachers do, Laura’s tutors had their own lives and eventually, every so often, one would move on to another job or to marriage. And all that special closeness Laura had built up with that one person was gone, and she’d have to begin again with someone else. She was a passionate and emotional girl and found these changes very hard to cope with. It was heart-breaking to read about her loneliness when a particularly favoured teacher left. I just couldn’t let Liza go through that! So I decided from the beginning that they would become friends, true friends. I felt, though, that it was important that Lottie had her own life that was vital and full, and that’s how her family and the story of her old flame came about. She does sacrifice some things for her intense relationship with Liza, yet she gains an awful lot too. I hope that came across.

Who came first, Adeliza or her visitors? What is it that makes the visitors, who give the book its title, important?

Liza did come first and the visitors most definitely came later. Once I’d decided that one of the main characters was going to war, I had a vision one day of Liza walking through a battlefield strewn with corpses and seeing the spirits of the dead soldiers rise and turn towards her. I’ve no idea where that came from! I do love ghost stories and movies about all that sort of thing, so I guess it was likely I’d write a ghost story one day, but I didn’t know it would be this one! I remember coming downstairs and saying to my partner Simon, What do you think about ghosts in this story about the deaf-blind girl? And he basically said, I like it! I wanted to make sure it wasn’t silly or daft, the ghost idea. And that it didn’t take over the whole point of the story, but I have to admit they grew on me and I loved working out the rules of their existence i.e. who they could see and hear, and how they came and went, and why they were there at all. Some readers loved the visitors and some didn’t really feel they were needed at all, but sometimes as a writer you just have to go with an idea, and on reflection, I’m very glad I did. I think it adds a curious dimension to the story and sets it apart from the classic narrative of overcoming adversity. And of course they ended up as the name of the very novel itself! But I like that oddness, and the spooky book cover designs convey that unsettling feeling perfectly.

 I was so sorry to have to part company with Adeliza at the end of the story. Do you have an idea of what lay in her future then, and might you ever come back to her story?

Gosh, that’s a lovely thing to say. I’m thrilled you felt like that. And I do have some idea of what lies ahead for Liza, I do indeed! In fact, I have a good few ideas about a possible sequel to ‘The Visitors’, but there are a few other projects I feel I want to do first. So we shall see. Perhaps one day. All I can say is that it would begin in America and may well deal with some aspects of late C19th/early C20th American history, but after that, I couldn’t say. Not because I’m being coy, but as I know well enough by now that there’s little point predicting the course of a novel not yet written. They tend to go off and do their own thing, despite your best laid plans. Like children.

Are there any books you would particularly recommend to readers who have loved ‘The Visitors’? And does being a writer and a published author change the way you read and respond to books?

Two very good questions. Firstly, I’d say if you want to know more about deaf-blindness, then read about Keller and Bridgman. And the Hocken book is fascinating too. I also loved ‘Seeing Voices’ by the great Oliver Sacks, about the deaf mind and some of the history of deaf education. As for fiction, I avoided reading any novels about deafness or suchlike while I was writing, as I’m always terrified of being influenced! Yet I did read the Forsyte books by Galsworthy around that time, as they are set in the same period, and loved them so (and both TV versions, both super in their own, very different, ways). Some recent readers have said my style of writing reminds them of Geraldine Brooks and also early Helen Dunmore – what a compliment! I hope it’s true, as they are fabulous novelists both.

Your second question is very knowledgeable and insightful. Being a writer and getting published has changed me hugely as a reader. It’s a massive question and I could go on all night, but in a nutshell, I’d say it has done two contradictory things: being a novelist has at times actually spoiled the reading of novels for me, as I find myself noticing all the cracks, analysing the techniques and losing that ability to lose myself in a story. Ian McEwan has written eloquently about this. It’s a busman’s holiday type thing. However, since being published and particularly beginning on social media, I’ve come into contact with many wonderful contemporary writers, including quite a few debut novelists like myself. Also my publisher Hodder give me books too, very, very kindly! And through this, in the past year or so, I’ve been reading some novels I probably would not have chosen myself, and have been wonderfully surprised by all of them in different ways. This has fundamentally altered the reader I once was. Now I know how much work goes into a novel, not only by the novelist of course, but through all the editing process and via reader responses; all of this has made me so much more benevolent and magnanimous to other writers! As a young reader, I was very impatient, and assumed that if I didn’t like a book then it was crap. As a got older, my position shifted slightly, and I presumed that if I didn’t like a book, then it was simply not well written enough. Now I know all that is largely garbage. Excluding the books that most people could generally say really ARE crap, I can now read a novel and say, That was brilliantly written, this person is a great writer, but I didn’t happen to like it, it didn’t suit me. That’s a big change for me, and I would say, a very positive one. I kind of wish all reviews were like that, and it does rile me when I see a hatchet job on a novel and I think, just because you didn’t like it, it doesn’t mean I won’t, or a thousand other people, or a million. I have an uncontrollable hatred of opinion masquerading as fact. Literature and indeed all art is mostly down to subjective response – I certainly know the publishing world is – and that’s ok. We could sit here all night and debate what makes great art or the top ten novels ever written, but I bet we wouldn’t agree. And that’s ok too. My favourite books stay with me in my heart because they chimed for me at a particular time in my life, they meant something to ME. You can’t analyse that scientifically, and you can’t bottle it and sell it, thank the STARS! That’s the magic of books.

Can you tell me anything about any future books, or anything else that lies in your future?

Right now, I’m engaged in the line and copy editing stages of my latest novel, ‘Song of the Sea Maid’, It’s due for publication by Hodder next year, in June 2015. It’s set in the eighteenth century and is about an orphan girl who is found by a benefactor and educated. She becomes a scientist, travels abroad and makes a remarkable discovery. In September I’ll be starting the next one, but all I can say about that at the minute is that it’s set in the early twentieth century. I think a writer can’t or perhaps shouldn’t talk too much about their current project, as it will probably all change anyway, and also, there’s a superstitious part of me that believes if it is seen in daylight, it’ll disappear in a puff of smoke. Writers are peculiar like that, you know…

Today I Have Been …..

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…. listening to Louisa Treger at the Morrab Library. She spoke of Dorothy Richardson and of her forthcoming novel, inspired by a significant part of the author’s life with erudition and with love.

I started reading the first volume of Pilgrimage at the weekend, I am very taken with it, and it is lovely to know a little more of the background.

WP_20140715_008…. walking in the woods with a dog who has a wonderful instinct for finding mud – she loves it!

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…. intrigued by a wide ranging discussion between crime writers Jessica Mann and Antonia Hodgson at the Exchange Gallery. It started with a discussion of the merit of contemporary versus historical crime fiction and moved on to consider much, much more.

I haven’t read much crime fiction at all this year, and I’d like to read a little more now.

It’s wonderful what you can do in a singly day off work in the middle of the week.

Thank you Penzance Literary Festival – and thank you Briar!

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

Oh, this is lovely. A ghost story told so beautifully, so evocatively, and with just a perfect touch that it is something very special indeed.

“This morning I found a strange boy in the sheds. He frightened me , Cyn, but I want to see him again. You’d tell me not to, you’d tell me he wasn’t right, I know you would, but there’s no one else to play with. He didn’t speak to me, but I know he’s be my friend. Sas and Ma don’t believe in him, but you would. I am making it my mission to find out about him ….”

Dieter was just a boy, but he was that master of Sugar Hall, a grand country house in the Welsh borders that had been home to his ancestors for many, many generations.

His family had never visited that house while his grandfather was alive, but when he died his German-born widowed mother, Lilia, and his elder half-sister, Lilia, to make their home there.

20660874The house was big and grand, but it was terribly dilapidated, dirty and neglected. Lilia tries to put things to rights, with the support of her general factotum, John, and her neighbour, Juniper, but it is not easy to fit a modern family into the long-established pattern of an old house. And she had her own history, her own ghosts that she had to come to terms with.

And so Dieter was left to wander through rooms, to gaze at family portraits, to examine the collections displayed in glass cases, and to be drawn into the thrall of the silent boy who wore a silver collar.

He didn’t know, his mother didn’t know, that they had been caught, pulled into a story that had been playing out at Sugar Hall for years and years.

The arc of the story is simple, but the execution makes it special.

‘Sugar Hall’ illuminates the time when the war was over but the consequences were still being felt, and the post-war world hadn’t quite begun. It explores the consequences of old sins and the reverberations they send into the future. It considers the importance of the home, the consequences of leaving, the importance of having a place in the world.

And it does that with the lightest of touches, so that the stories of lives and the story of the ghost can live and breathe.

There’s room for lovely imagery, there’s room for lovely details, there’s room for letters, pictures, documents, lists …. and still there is space to think, to wonder, to catch your breath.

Tiffany Murray’s prose is gorgeous; evocative, spooky, light as air; and her storytelling is spellbinding.

I suspect that there is much more here than I could take in, but I was captivated by the people, the time, the place and the story.

This is a book that will stay with me for a long, long time. And I suspect that it will pull me back to read again one day.

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an annual event - celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books I’ve read and the books I’ve discovered.

Here are my six sixes:

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Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
The English Air by D E Stevenson
The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goodge
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Six books from the present that took me to the past

The Visitors by Rebecca Maskell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

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Six books from the past that pulled me back there

Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer
Esther Waters by George Moore
Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade
Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

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Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Wake by Anna Hope
Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
The Lie of You: I Will Have What is Mine by Jane Lythell
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

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Six successful second meeting with authors

The Auction Sale by C H B Kitchin
The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Mrs Westerby Changes Course by Elizabeth Cadell
Her by Harriet Lane

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Six used books added to my shelves

The Heroes of Clone by Margaret Kennedy
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet
The Stag at Bay by Rachel Ferguson
Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Boorman

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Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart

I fell in love with a Scottish island when I was eight years old.

Looking back it was a mad thing for my parents to do, travelling so far across country with two young children, but that wanted to see Scotland, and they had been guided to a particular place by a very good friend. So if it was madness it was the very best kind of madness, and if I had to live outside Cornwall I should still choose to live on a Scottish Island.

That’s what drew me to ‘Stormy Petrel, even though I knew it was one of Mary Stewart’s later novels and not considered to be her best work; it was set on a fictional Scottish island, and island very close to and very like mine.

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The story opened in a Cambridge where Rose, who write poetry for love and science fiction for money, was  a tutor of English. A newspaper advertisement caught her eye: an advertisement for cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. It sounded perfect. Rose could have the time and space to write and her doctor brother, a keen wildlife photographer,  would love to take pictures of the rare birds that nested on the island.

Rose travelled north before her brother, and she found the island and the cottage to be everything she hoped them to be.

When Rose wakes in the night to the sounds of someone moving about downstairs she assumes that her brother has arrived. But he hasn’t, and another man is making tea in the kitchen. Both are startled, but the intruder is quick to reassure Rose, explaining that he had lived there with  foster parents, he had fallen out of touch, he had no idea that they had moved away. And then another man arrived. His explanation was that he was a visiting geologist, he had been camping, and when the storm carried his tent away he had come to look for shelter where he saw lights.

The two men claimed not to have met, but there was something in their manners towards each other that told rose that they had, that something was amiss. Rose made a sensible decision: she withdrew to her room, leaving the pair to make the best of things downstairs.

When Rose woke again the storm and her house-guests had gone. She thought that was the end of things, but of course it was only the beginning ….

I found a lot to like in ‘Stormy Petrel’.

Moila is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved.

 ” It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.”

I loved that Rose came to love her island as I loved mine, that she appreciated that things that made it so special. And I was pleased that she proved herself to be sensible, capable and practical.

I was pleased that the romance was low-key, and that the resolution of the story was gentle, with future possibilities simply suggested.

I was less pleased that the suspense was low-key, that it became clear quickly who was the hero and who was the villain, that the villain was not so very wicked, and that there was very little mystery to be resolved or danger to be faced.

And so I loved my trip to Moila, I loved the company, but the story - it needed something more.

Tryst by Elswyth Thane

I was intrigued by some lovely reviews of this ghostly romance from the thirties, I was thrilled to find that the library had a copy on reserve stock, and as soon as I read the opening words I was smitten:

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books. She tiptoed along the carpeted upper passage and whisked around the corner to the second flight of stairs leading to the top floor of the house. Gripped tightly in one hand she carried her burglar tools- nail scissors with curved points, a button-hook, and some wire hairpins stolen from Aunt Effie’s dressing-table.”

The story of what had lead Sabrina to take such drastic action, and of what happened next, was lovely. If Mary Stewart and D E Stevenson had ever sat down together to write a ghost story it might have been rather like this.

Sabrina Archer was the loveliest of heroines; she was bright, she was bookish, and her sheltered upbringing had made her older is some ways and younger it others than her seventeen years. I found her so easy to love, so easy to understand, and why heart would rise and fall with hers as events unfolded.

TrystShe had moved with her self-absorbed father and conventional aunt to Nuns Farthing, a house they have rented in the English countryside. There was one locked room at the top of the stairs. The housekeeper explained that it was because the family member who usually occupied that room was away, abroad, and that the family hadn’t wanted to disturb his things. It was perfectly reasonable, there was more than enough house room without it, but for reasons she didn’t entirely understand Sabrina was irresistibly drawn to that one room. hence the nail scissors, the button-hook and the hair-pins.

When she gained access to the room, when she saw the desk, the armchairs, the bookshelves, the wonderful array of books on those shelves, Sabrina knew that she had been right to do what she did. Everything about the room felt like home; that feeling grew as she spent time there, and so did her interest in its absent occupant.

Hilary Shenstone was wounded  on assignment in India for the Home Office and then , as he was being flown back for medical treatment, his plane was shot down. Hilary’s final thoughts were of England, and especially of Nuns Farthing. His spirit found its back there, found strangers in the house, found a kindred spirit in his room.

It wouldn’t be fair to say much more about the story than that.

There were some lovely moments, some amusing, some heart-warming, some sad, as Hilary made his way home and as Sabrina curled up in an armchair to read from his bookshelves. And though the arc of the story had a feeling of inevitability it never felt predictable, and I was always held in the moment. I was involved. I cared.

The characters are simply drawn, the logic probably wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, and I can’t deny that the story is sentimental. But it works beautifully, if you take it for what it is: a simple, ghostly, old-fashioned romance.

The ending seemed a little melodramatic, but suddenly it became so very bittersweet.

Oh how I wish that I could shelve ‘Tryst’ alongside stories like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘Still She Wished for Company’ - and not have to give it back to the library.

I know though that, even without a copy of the book on hand,  Sabrina and her story will be staying with me.

 

Shiny New Books, Cornish Books, Books to Write About ….

You may have spotted it already but, just in case you haven’t, let me tell you that the new issue of Shiny New Books is here!

There is a wonderfully rich and diverse array of bookish reading; hours of wonderful entertainment for anyone with an interest in books of pretty much any kind.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’ve already added books to my wishlist and pushed others up my list of reading priorities.

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Somewhere in there you’ll find my list of books to transport you to Cornwall.

I can warmly recommend each and every one, and I can recommend many more. There were books that are out of print – but easy to obtain, there were books that had to be set aside so that the list could be diverse as possible, and there are books that are so well known that they recommend themselves and don’t need me.

Here are some of them:

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Though I’m sure that there are wonderful books that I haven’t got to yet, and others that have slipped my mind …..

But now it’s time to move on and write about some of the books that I’ve read but not written about.

All of these:

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It’s definitely time I caught up.

And Margaret Kennedy Reading Week is definitely on.

More soon!

Not in the Calendar by Margaret Kennedy

I’m delighted to see that Vintage will be reissuing lots of Margaret Kennedy’s novels, and when those titles are added to the others available as Faber Finds that means that nearly all her novels but one are readily available.

All of novels but one – this one – and I am so sorry that it seems to have slipped through the net.

‘Not in the Calendar’ was Margaret Kennedy’s final novel, published in 1964, and it tells the story of a friendship that lasted a lifetime with all of the subtlety, understanding and grace that I have come to expect from her writing.

Not in the calendarCaroline was the tenth of twelye children of the Knyvett family; the family could trace its history back to the Doomsday book, but it had fallen into decline and to send to many sons out into the world, to find good marriages for so many daughter out into the world would not be easy. But the children had been brought up to be proud of their heritage, to be aware of their status, to take their rightful places in the world ….

Wyn was the deaf- mute child of a family who all worked at the big house. she and Caroline played together so happily. They ran, they played with dolls, they examined the things they found. And they found ways to communicate with each other, through pantomime, through gestures through signs. Wyn began to copy Caroline’s lip movements and to make the signs of speech, and she showed a gift for art when Caroline brought her coloured chalks.

It was a lovely friendship, and it gave so much to each girl.

But Caroline’s family saw none of that. They just saw an ungainly child making ugly sounds, and they took steps to separate the pair.

And then life took them in different directions.

Wyn was spotted by the governess to the deaf-mute daughter of a wealthy family, and she was quick to see now bright Wyn was, how much potential she had, how much the two girls might learn together.  And learn together they did! They learned sign language, they learned to read lips, and in time they learned to speak.

She wrote to Caroline; Caroline wrote back; their friendship was quickly re-kindled,

She found success as an artist, and an inheritance from her adoptive parent gave her independence.

Meanwhile, Caroline’s elder sisters were marrying well, while she was left behind to look after Lallie, the youngest sister who was an invalid, who needed her.

But, in time, Lallie found her own path in life, and found the strength to take it. And that allowed Caroline to follow her own calling; to build on what she learned as she played in the kitchen garden.

Margaret Kennedy tells the story of a friendship that would last a lifetime beautifully. The perspective changes; Wyn’s governess speaks of her charges, a brother’s visit to Caroline is observed, letters between the Knyvett sisters are opened. Each chapter on its own is effective, but the structure works a little less well than a more traditional narrative.

Because Margaret Kennedy observes everything so very acutely, but she doesn’t push too hard, she leaves space for her readers to think. And I think that this story needed just a little push.

The other thing that didn’t quite work for me was the suggestion – out forward in the title, the introduction, and the text –  that Caroline was saintly. She was undoubtedly good, but I saw her as a woman who had come to understand what was truly important in life, who wanted the best for those she loved, and who knew that sometimes it was best to quietly wait and hope.

What I loved though was the give and take in the different relationships; the two little girls in the kitchen garden, the governess and her two little girls, the teacher and her pupils, and, of course, the artist and the teacher who had played together in the kitchen garden when they were so very young.

I loved the eccentric household that grew around Caroline, and watching one of her nieces step into it.

All of the characters, all of their worlds, are so very well drawn. Margaret Kennedy is wonderfully clear-sighted and unsentimental, and that works particularly well with the story and the ideas in this book.

But it was so sad that Caroline’s sisters could never see how much Wyn had achieved, could never  appreciate what Caroline was doing or what she was doing it.

Their stories made a nice backdrop, and caught the changes that the twentieth century would bring for families like the Knyvetts.

This Margaret Kennedy’s best work, but it is profound, it is moving, and I know that Caroline, Wyn, their lives and their relationship will remain close to my heart.

* * * * * * *

And now I must mention an idea that’s been floating around my mind for a while now:

If I was to host a Mararet Kennedy Reading week, say in the start of October when all of the reissues are with us, would anyone join me?

I’d love to do it, but I’d hate to be here banging the drum on my own ….

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