Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.
A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.
As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.
Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.
I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.
And the TBR drops back down 1 to 208! I seem to be stuck there…
Here are a few more that should escape from the quagmire soon…
The Island by Ana Maria Matute
Courtesy of Penguin Classics via NetGalley. I might not normally have chosen this one, but I’ve been keeping my eye out for fiction for my Spanish Civil War challenge, preferably written by Spaniards, and this fits the bill. And that’s half the fun of challenges – being tempted to go off the well-worn path…
The Blurb says: “This is an old and wicked island. An island of Phoenicians and merchants, of bloodsuckers and frauds.”
Ana María Matute’s 1959 novel (original title Primera memoria) is a stifling story of rebellious adolescence, narrated by Matia, as she struggles against her domineering grandmother, schemes with her mercurial cousin Borja and begins to fall in love with the strange boy Manuel.
Steeped in myth, fairy tale and biblical allusion, the novel depicts Mallorca as an enchanted but wicked island, a lost Eden and Never Never Land combined, where the sun burns through stained glass windows and the wind tears itself on the agaves. Ostensibly concerned with Matia’s anxieties about entering the adult world, this internal conflict is set against the much wider, deeper, and more frightening conflict of the civil war as it plays out almost secretly on the island, set in turn against the backdrop of the Inquisition’s mass burning of Jews in previous centuries. These two conflicts shimmer at the edges of Matia’s highly subjective account of her life on the island, where life is drawn along painful and divisive lines.
* * * * *
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo via NetGalley. This and the next two are all from my 20 Books of Summer list. I’ve read and enjoyed a few contemporary Japanese crime novels but I think this is my first vintage one…
The Blurb says: Japan’s greatest classic murder mystery, translated into English for the first time.
In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis around the village.
Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music – death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.
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Fiction: Sychronised Reviewalong
A Month in the Country by JL Carr
Every review I’ve seen of this one has been glowing, so my expectations are stratospheric! I’m delighted that some of my blog buddies – Sandra, Christine and Alyson – will be reading it at the same time, and we’ll be posting our reviews or, for non-bloggers, sharing our opinions in the comments of the reviews on 31st August. If you fancy joining in, you’ll be more than welcome! It’s very short…
The Blurb says: In the summer of 1920 two men, both war survivors meet in the quiet English countryside. One is living in the church, intent upon uncovering and restoring an historical wall painting while the other camps in the next field in search of a lost grave. Out of their meeting comes a deeper communion and a catching up of the old primeval rhythms of life so cruelly disorientated by the Great War.
* * * * *
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
Courtesy of Random House Transworld via NetGalley. I’m ashamed to admit that this one has been on my TBR since 2017 – one of the little backlog of review copies that got left behind. I don’t know why – it’s another most people have raved about – but somehow I have a kind of irrational feeling that I’m going to hate it, which is why I’ve kept putting it off. I hope I’m wrong!
The Blurb says: Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. At 33 years-old, she finds herself pregnant with the child of a 17 year-old Traveller boy, Martin Toppy, and not by her husband Pat. Melody was teaching Martin to read, but now he’s gone, and Pat leaves too, full of rage. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming, while the past won’t let her go.
It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a bold young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life. Following the nine months of her pregnancy, All We Shall Know unfolds with emotional immediacy in Melody’s fierce, funny, and unforgettable voice, as she contends with her choices, past and present.
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The TBR has gone up again!! How did that happen?! I’ve been so good, too! 162. But in my defence I did spend most of the last two weeks nocturnally watching tennis (end result, two Scottish champions and one Scottish defeated finalist – woohoo!!!) so reading took a bit of a back seat. Oddly, I seem to have been able to fit in adding more books to the pile, though…
Scottish Hall of Fame
Anyway… it’s been ages since we last had a People’s Choice vote, but after your success with Snowblind, I feel it’s time for another look at some of the great reviews around the blogosphere, and for you to help me choose which one of these books deserves to be added to my TBR. As always, an extremely difficult choice, I think…
So which one will you vote for? Which of these tantalising books deserves a place? The winner will be announced next Thursday…
With my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:
The Blurb – The Secret River is the story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia in 1806. The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world, and his slow realization that if he wants to settle there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers, and to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people.
Rose says: “Kate Grenville certainly doesn’t shy away from putting the settlers in the wrong, clearly showing the terrible ways the Aboriginal people were treated. This is very unusual in Australian fiction, as in a lot of it the reader wouldn’t even realise that anyone else even lived in Australia when the English arrived. I grew up less than a kilometre from a beach called Massacre Bay, and until I was an adult, did not learn that this name was given because (allegedly), the Aboriginal men living in the area had been driven off the cliffs near this beach, while the women and children had been drowned in a nearby swamp…. To be an Aboriginal person when I was growing up was even worse than having a convict in the family.
The story of The Secret River is sad and depressing, but also fascinating because somehow, from all of the horror and violence during those early times, that is where the Australia that we have now came from.“
TJ says:“It really struck me how similar the settlement of Australia was to the settlement of America when looking only at the interaction between settlers and natives. I don’t know why that has never occurred to me. Ignoring the fact that one group left voluntarily and the other group was forced to leave, the mindset of all colonists was more or less the same: They considered themselves superior to the native population, completely missing the fact that they could learn from a different way of life. (At the very least, it would have made their own survival a little easier.) And sadly, in both cases, the settlers wreaked havoc among the native population.”
The Blurb – Trouble is brewing in the small, bucolic mountain town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. An American who came to Trafalgar as a Vietnam War draft dodger has left land and money to the town. But there’s a catch. The money must be used to build a garden to honor draft dodgers. This bequest has torn the close-knit, peaceful town apart. Then the body of a leading garden opponent is found in an alley, dead from a single blow to the head. Constable Molly Smith is assigned to assist veteran Detective Sergeant John Winters in the investigation.
Kay’s review is actually of a later book in the series. She says:“I have loved this series and loved revisiting the characters, the small town charm, and the gorgeous setting. Molly is an interesting character and her life is filled with good friends, an eccentric mother, and co-workers that have all kinds of issues, both good and bad. The cold case mystery is always a favorite of mine and I was caught up in the investigation of the missing man and also loved the personal aspects of these characters. This author does a good job of giving us a mystery to solve and friends to hang out with. The best parts of reading a series.”
The Blurb – In J. L. Carr’s deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter’s depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.
Margaret says: “I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach…I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting… But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby.”
The Blurb – The Widow is the story of two outcasts and their fatal encounter. One is the widow herself, Tati. Still young, she’s never had an easy time of it, but she’s not the kind to complain. Tati lives with her father-in-law on the family farm, putting up with his sexual attentions, working her fingers to the bone, improving the property and knowing all the time that her late husband’s sister is scheming to kick her out and take the house back. The other is a killer. Just out of prison and in search of a new life, Jean meets up with Tati, who hires him as a handyman and then takes him to bed. Things are looking up, at least until Jean falls hard for the girl next door.
JacquiWine says: “…circumstances and events conspire to force a dramatic denouement. This is a first-rate slice of noir from Simenon, just as dark and disturbing as its cover suggests. The style is spare yet very effective with the author carefully modulating the tension as the story unfolds. There is a palpable sense of foreboding from a fairly early stage in the narrative and if anything this feeling only grows as we move closer to the final chapters.”
The Blurb – A Heart so White begins as, in the middle of a family lunch, Teresa, just married, goes to the bathroom, unbuttons her blouse and shoots herself in the heart. What made her kill herself immediately after her honeymoon? Years later, this mystery fascinates the young newlywed Juan, whose father was married to Teresa before he married Juan’s mother. As Juan edges closer to the truth, he begins to question his own relationships, and whether he really wants to know what happened. Haunting and unsettling, A Heart So White is a breathtaking portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.
MarinaSofia says:“In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable…”