Books I read in August.
- The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson ♥
I thought of Midnight in Paris when I read this, with the yearning for Paris’s Golden Age in the Belle Epoque when everyone ate at Maxim’s. But it also reminded me of the starving artists in garrets from Of Human Bondage. Told from three women’s points-of-view: Maud, an English artist in genteel poverty; Yvette, a French artist’s model; and Tanya, a wealthy white Russian, the story is set in 1909/1910, with the climax occurring during the Paris Flood. My favourite Golden Age!! So wonderfully descriptive and suspenseful, with heavy foreshadowing and great use of exposition to peel back the layers of this oil painting. Vignettes of every Parisian corner.
2. The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe #aww2017 ♥
Joint-winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella competition, this novella takes as inspiration the reference to a ‘Malay trollop’ in W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’. In Riwoe’s story, that girl is Mina who leaves her village and the innocence of her mother’s home to work in the kitchen of a Dutch colonial. She takes with her the smell of the sea, and her batik sarong, which she must discard for the garb of a servant. Under the tutelage of the cook, Ibu Tana, she learns of strange foods, and strange ways, so when a boy from her village, Ajat, pays her attention she clings to him. But she is lost to the world of the village now. Property of her master, and therefore able to be passed on as chattel. So devastating in its imagery and simple emotion.
3. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier ♥
This was utterly brilliant. Like reading Rebecca for the first time, I imagine, though I can’t remember it was so long ago. The premise of the story: two men, French Jean and English John meet in a bar, and they look identical. John is a loner, yearns to belong to people, Jean is the patriarch of a French chateau and what a tangled web of relationships he has! Jean and John trade places, with John on the back foot trying to work out what Jean means to his family, and what the awful thing is that he’s done in the past, rushing towards a thrilling climax.
4. De Potter’s Grand Tour by Joanna Scott
Set mainly in the first decade of the 20thC, this is a story of Armand and Aimee de Potter, an American couple who lead tours of Europe and Egypt. Until Armand disappears off the side of a boat one day and Aimee pieces together the lies that her husband has told about his life. We see excerpts of Aimee’s diary, introspection and tick-tacking back and forth through time with Armand’s perspective as he contemplates what he is about to do. I thought the inclusion of black and white photographs ingenious, a bit like William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, until I discovered that these were real photographs and the story is based on the author’s great-grandparents and the remnants of this episode that she found locked in a steamer trunk. The fashioning of the story, in photograph-like vignettes made sense from a craft perspective then, and knowing it was based on true events to begin with would have improved my enjoyment of it. However, there was something missing for me at the heart of the story. I think it was imagination.
5. Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft
Set in 1891 Alexandria at the time of British rule, Olivia is trapped in an abusive marriage to Alistair, who is business partners with Olivia’s sister Clara’s husband. There are multiple couples within the British expat set, who have complex relationships with each other. Thank goodness for the simplicity of Olivia’s growing love with Edward. I felt immersed in the period and engaged to find out who had kidnapped Clara off the street and why. The storyline is complicated by simultaneous narratives of Egyptian Nailah and her family. I found these sections the most interesting and enjoyed the contrasts set up between the Egyptians and British. The political context is woven in well, especially as it creates possible scenarios for Clara’s kidnap. I just found there were too many characters with their relationships and issues to keep track of.
6. The Promise of Things by Ruth Quibell #aww2017
A short book of essays on the meaning and role of ‘things’ in our lives. My favourite was the last ‘The Empty Drawer’, asking how we ensure that our treasures are recognised as such by those we leave behind when we die; the way that certain items retain memories of who we were, and the changing attachments that happen. I also enjoyed Quibell’s essay on The Edwardian Wardrobe, which reiterates William Morris’s refrain that all things must be beautiful or useful, though in this case the thing in question is neither. There is no rationality sometimes in why we clutter/ornament our lives with things, or yearn for one thing and its illusive promise of an imagined self, and it’s all psychological. Quibell studs personal anecdotes with theorists, but this is not a heavy read.
7. Love in the Years of Lunacy by Mandy Sayer #aww2017 ♥
Set in Sydney 1942, Pearl and Martin are saxophone-playing twins, when Pearl falls in love with James Washington, an African-American GI. They can’t be together, because of society’s disapproval. Martin is separated from his sister by war and initially does his service touring Australia with a band playing to troops. Pearl falls apart, and is institutionalised, meeting the Master of Lunacy, a psychiatrist whom she later agrees to marry. But she is living a flat, dull life, with no soul or colour. A snap decision sees her change places with her brother when he is shipped off to New Guinea, and she returns to the saxophone and her pursuit of James Washington. The prose is saturated with jazz music, and, once Pearl arrives in New Guinea with a heady sensory sense of place. This should have been an implausible section, but the pace, the tension, and the lush descriptions were immersive. And such a tear jerker. The only thing that marred this book for me was the frame story in the final pages, where there are revelations about a character’s identity that didn’t sit well with me.
8. The Scent of Murder by Felicity Young #aww2017
This is the third in the Dr Dody McLelland historical crime series, one which I’m really enjoying. In this one, Dody is invited as chaperone to her sister’s fiance’s pile in the country, where the women become involved with the nefarious goings on of the occupants of the manor and the local workhouse. Until Florence’s fiance is thrown from his horse and dies and Inspector Matthew Pike arrives on the scene. I found the insights into police forensics, Dody’s techniques as an autopsy surgeon and the organisation of workhouses to be intriguing. Dody’s relationship with Matthew progresses, having to be played out away from the disapproving eyes of society. The climax reveals some pretty disgusting attitudes that upheld Edwardian social hierarchy.