Putney – Sofka Zinovieff

Rating: 4 stars

Putney charts the tale of Daphne and Ralph; set mostly in and around her family home by the river in Putney, the scene shifts between the 1970s and the early days of the 21st century. The mutual fascination and attraction between the two grows over the course of long hot summers spent in the house with its garden that goes down to the Thames, the smells of London air richly mixing with those of the spectacular Greek-based home cooking done by Ellie, Daphne’s mother (her full Greek name – Eleftheria – means liberty), before shifting to the intense heat of a lengthy bus and ferry journey Daphne and Ralph make to Greece, where they have full sex together for the first time. Their tryst is cut short, however, when Daphne’s grandfather dies unexpectedly and she has to go straight to Athens for the funeral, forcing Ralph to go to his pregnant wife Nina, an old friend of Ellie’s. Ralph tells Daphne:

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“We’re not bound by old-fashioned morality or small rules made by churches or by leaders who want to keep you under control. We’re free. You’re a free spirit.”

She paused, then nodded, believing him. Maybe she was free, even if it was unclear what that meant.

This is no regular heady romance, however; when they meet, Daphne is a child of nine, described by her father, novelist Edmund, to Ralph as:

“a free spirit. … Nine, you know, I think that might be the perfect age. A child at the height of her powers. Unafraid to be herself.”

Ralph, on the other hand, is then twenty-seven, a composer friend of her parents, and he becomes obsessed with the little girl, showering her with tiny gifts which he says must be kept secret. By the time she is twelve, he kisses her, tells her he loves her, but says:

“You’re the boss. I like it when you tell me what to do.” She knew him, trusted him. A friend. “A special friend,” was his expression.

Their relationship continues throughout the rest of Daphne’s school days, and Daphne’s understanding of it only changes when her own daughter, Liberty, reaches the age she was when she first fell under Ralph’s spell. She contacts her old school friend Jane who propels her into going to the police with her story – by this time, Ralph is a famous composer, lauded worldwide, and the ensuing scandal when he’s arrested will surely engulf and end his career and turn his fame to notoriety. The tale twists and turns, as we see Daphne’s struggles to come to grips with what happened to her as a child and how it changed her life afterwards. Jane’s tale, charting her relationships with Daphne and Ralph and her subsequent adult life, is also told, although this side of the book is, I feel, rather less successful; Jane remained to me a plot device, largely there to move the adult Daphne towards recounting her story to the police, whereas Daphne’s relationship with Liberty and her understanding of the nature of being a young pre-adolescent girl as she observes Liberty and her friend felt a far more genuine thing.

In the midst of the police investigations, Ralph goes to Edmund’s birthday party, where he faces up to Daphne, still unable to believe that he has done anything wrong. The narration shifts between Ralph, Daphne and Jane, all with strong individual voices. I had problems with the further revelations about Ralph towards the end of the novel, which changed the whole nature of the relationship between Daphne and Ralph, a relationship we’d seen largely through his eyes, describing his memories of it as he is in hospital undergoing chemotherapy; because of these revelations, I was left very uncertain as to how Ralph actually felt about Daphne. Up till that point he’s portrayed it as if it were a unique lightning strike in his life, rather than being one of a series of rumbling thunder storms throughout his adult life, part of a pattern of behaviour. Putney is a novel about abuse; but also about narrative, and who controls it. You, the reader, choose whose version you think is correct. Daphne’s, still seeing Ralph through rose-tinted lenses? Ralph’s, self-centred to the last? Or Jane’s, Daphne’s gawky teenage friend, who felt excluded and put aside? Read Putney and decide for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find it compelling reading.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

Peggy is the narrator of Claire Fuller’s remarkable first novel, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliot Prize for debut novels. Her story opens in November 1985 when she finds hidden in a drawer a photograph taken in 1976 of her parents, Ute and James, with his friends, Ute having removed all other photos of James.

“I stared at the photograph, still in my hand. The face of my father stared back, even then so innocent he must have been guilty.”

The novel leaps back to 1976, to the time when James and his friend Oliver are part of a group known as the North London Retreaters, who are preparing for an impending catastrophe by creating fallout shelters and stocking them with durable provisions (although the Retreaters disagree fiercely about what form the catastrophe will take). Ute is a concert pianist and while she is in her homeland Germany on a tour, James withdraws Peggy from school; they move into a tent in the garden of their comfortable house, and live by foraging and trapping squirrels until Oliver arrives unexpectedly and moves with them back into the house. One night Ute phones from Germany, the two men fight, and Oliver leaves. The next morning Peggy and James set off to find “die Hutte” – “a magical, secret place in the forest”, James tells the little girl, where he promises her they can live an idyllic life free from authority, rules, and the impending un-named catastrophe.

What unfolds certainly takes place in a secret place, but the life which little Peggy, renamed by her father as Punzel (as in Rapunzel) leads there is far from magical. It is raw and basic; the only food they eat is what they catch or forage in their remote forest. On the first night there is a huge storm and James tells Peggy that “the rest of the world has gone”. They live a dangerous and solitary existence alone for years with no comforts or reminders of their former London life, save for Phyllis, a beloved doll (who works well to externalise the girl’s mental disturbance). As the bitter winters wear on, the child veers between innocence and complicity, ignorance and ingenuity. She adapts bit by bit to her situation; while James is a chillingly convincing villain; and Ute feels like a living, breathing presence in die Hutte, brilliantly represented by the silent wooden piano which James carves, together with the fragment of some of Ute’s sheet music they have taken with them.

Over time Peggy becomes aware of a man named Reuben also living in the forest. As she and Reuben secretly spend time together, James becomes increasingly confused, desperate and morose, often calling her Ute and and rambling about death lists. A final spiral of events brings an end to the years in die Hutte, and a shock realisation for Peggy that the world has not suffered a major catastrophe or cataclysm.

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Being forced to rejoin the world is hard for Peggy and it is equally hard for her mother to be reunited with her long-lost daughter after so many years. The portrayal of her return to London is as gruelling and tough as that of her days in the forest, with endless problems to overcome and questions to be answered, as her and our understanding of the truth of what has happened to her changes over the last pages of the book.

Disturbing yet delightful, beautiful yet brutal, Our Endless Numbered Days is a darkly fantastic first novel, which I thoroughly recommend.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

I was hooked from the start by the tremendous opening of Fuller’s novel:

“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”

swimming lessons.jpgWithin the four pages of the book’s prologue we learn that “Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly”. In his pursuit of Ingrid from the bookshop, Gil falls from the promenade onto the beach below. “It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be…” And here we have all the leading players in the present-day story.

Organised, neat and tidy, Nan, a 27-year-old midwife, and her 22-year-old artist sister, Flora, whose life is perpetually chaotic and shambolic, go to take care of their father, followed by Flora’s new boyfriend, Richard, a bookseller. Gil is clearly elderly and ill (quite apart from his fall), a writer who’s devoted to second-hand books, with a preference for any which have been written or drawn in, or which contain old cards or letters. His house, called The Swimming Pavilion, is overflowing with such books, heaped everywhere, and it’s apparent that has he’s recently been searching for something, with every surface now heaped with books. And within days of meeting Richard, Gil asks him to burn all his books on his, Gil’s, death, which we increasingly realise is imminent. We also realise that Gil knows that over the weeks before her disappearance from their lives, Ingrid left him dozens of letters about their relationship and life together, all hidden within appropriate books.

Bit by bit we learn their history through reading these previously unread and hidden letters, which Swimming Lessons juxtaposes with developments in the lives of Gil, Nan and Flora. They are related in parallel tracks; the 1992 series of letters recount Ingrid and Gil’s life from the time of their meeting in 1976, when he is her university teacher and already a famous novelist, and the 2004 lives of those she has left behind – not just her family but also close friends Jonathan and Louise.

Fuller deals beautifully with the stresses felt by young Ingrid, becoming a wife and mother while still at university, and giving up all her hopes and young dreams to live with her new family in rural Dorset in The Swimming Pavilion. She has a constant struggle to make ends meet,  living off the occasional sale of one of Gil’s short stories or small royalty cheques from his published novel. She also struggles to feel she is doing anything right in how she looks after or loves her children, and when a prematurely born son dies she cannot come to terms with the loss. Gil is a wayward flirt whose eye is constantly roving, as indeed at times is he himself, with lengthy absences from the family’s home. Ingrid’s pain is real, and by the time we read the last of her letters we are sure that she suffered more than she could bear. We also understand that the elderly Gil is suffering terribly now, having spent nearly 12 years wondering what has become of her, and now having found some of the letters she wrote to him.

Fuller is an observant writer, capturing her characters’ mannerisms and gestures with apparent effortlessness but with beautiful attention to tiny details, such as how Flora eats her food or puts on her clothes; we see too Nan’s impatience, Gil’s selfishness, Richard’s bewilderment, Jonathan’s blundering attempts to help. In exploring the psychology of relationships gone sour or in their early stages of developing, Fuller ensures that the mystery continues up until the very last page. Swimming Lessons is a subtle and compelling tale of family tragedy, memories only half-understood, and stories better kept silent.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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One Moonlit Night – Caradog Prichard (translated by Philip Mitchell)

Rating: 5 stars

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This was not a book I would have come across on my own. Originally written in Welsh, and chosen by my local book club, One Moonlit Night was a strange, fantastic revelation. Gothic and – in places – hallucinogenic, it moves in fits and starts through time, describing life in a small Welsh mining village, all under the shadow of a series of deaths, midnight wanderings, madness, and people who disappear to an asylum never to come back. The rituals of the Church and institutional religion intersperse with small-town rural superstition – the devil in a black lake, a lady who sleeps along the slope of Snowdown.

The novel is remarkable for its early-twentieth-century compassion for mental illness – and not just in the narrative. It shows a community that feels sympathy and compassion for those with poor mental health. The blurb of my copy compared it to Under Milk Wood, but the comparison seems lazy and based on the fact they both describe Welsh small-town life – One Moonlit Night doesn’t have the whimsy or wild absurdity of Under Milk Wood. It’s dark and troubling, ambiguous and unsettling. It’s dreamlike, sure, but in an entirely different way.

I was informed I was wrong to do so by a native welsh-speaker at my book club, but I liked the style of the translation. The style was childlike in places, and grew with the narrator, but the naivety of the voice wasn’t twee or cute – it added to the unsettling ambience throughout, especially in places where it was used to lose the reader somewhere between reality and fantasy. I would strongly recommend this unusual, unsettling little book to any reader!

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Sealwoman’s Gift – Sally Magnusson

Rating: 4 stars

The Sealwoman’s Gift is a historical novel about the 1627 kidnapping of 400 Icelanders from the Westmann Isles by pirates who took them to Algiers and sold them as slaves. The book mostly follows Asta, the pastor’s wife. The pastor himself is sent on to the King of Denmark to negotiate a ransom payment, and Asta is left in Algiers with her daughter and newborn son, as the slave of an extravagantly wealthy moor by the name of Cilleby.

The great pleasure of this book is in the description of 17th century Algiers. Iceland is a cold, dark place where people eat a lot of puffins and listen to a lot of enthusiastic sermons. Algiers is a diverse and beautiful place where cultures mix and Asta’s life – though one of work – is comfortable. The characters themselves – especially Asta and Cilleby – feel lively and complex, and they make it engaging and attractive to read. My interest in the story waned a little whenever Cilleby was not around. He was more than a gruff, aloof master – there is a sense of wry detachment, for sure, but we’re dealing with more than a Mr Rochester here.

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I did have some reservations about a few of the events in the latter half of the novel, and there was a lot of leaning on the analogy of Sheherezade and the Thousand and One Arabian nights, though I could forgive this as I enjoyed the snippets of Icelandic saga. I think this is the challenge of fitting what is essentially an imagined story into the confines of historical fact, and the novel was rich with research and detail.

Ultimately, I would strongly recommend this as an immersive and engaging historical novel that gives a witty, detailed, engaging view of an event – and a time – that I knew little about before.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Lullaby – Leïla Slimani: Lavinia’s Book Pick, September 2018

Lullaby is the story of the murder of two young children by their nanny. That’s not a spoiler – that’s how it opens. It’s tense, tight, and enigmatic throughout. There’s a light touch about the writing, from the moment the middle-class but middle-eastern lawyer mother goes to the nanny agency and is treated rudely by the agent – until she realises she’s a potential customer, not a potential employee. An acknowledgement that bigotry is an everyday event for those who face it. The passing frustration, too, of the mother Myriam, re-entering the world of work, is deftly captured.

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It doesn’t offer too much, or explain too much. We see the crippling poverty of the nanny, Louise. The way she is afraid to say no to anything. But the requests of the parents are just requests, and though they treat her as an employee, they’re not exploitative or demeaning. The children are ordinary children – with charms and challenges. It’s a mystery where we know exactly what happened at the start, but little about why it happened, and the answers aren’t easy or comfortable.

You’ll love this book if: 
– You like complex, ambiguous characters
– You like a naturalistic ‘slice-of-life’ style – it’s a snapshot into upper-middle-class Parisian life
– You like a super-French aesthetic – think cigarettes all the time and dinner party conversation about people’s sex lives

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You find stories about children getting murdered upsetting

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And find me at my blog here: laviniacollins.com

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The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rating: 4.5 stars

Rachel Joyce is one of my favourite contemporary authors – I absolutely loved her recent collection of short stories, A Snow Garden, reviewed here earlier this year, as well as her three previous novels. She has the ability to make her characters feel utterly believable, so that readers become totally engaged with their lives, at times delighting in them and at others infuriated by them, just as we all are by friends and acquaintances. And, given that I also love listening to music, the idea behind The Music Shop instantly drew me in.

The hero of the book is Frank – a “gentle bear of a man” who owns a music shop with a difference.

His shop was often open into the night – just as it was often closed in the morning – music playing, coloured lamps waltzing, all sorts of people searching for records. Classical, rock, jazz, blues, heavy metal, punk … As long as it was on vinyl, there were no taboos.

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Frank’s passion is music and he has an instinct for what music each customer or acquaintance will love or what each of them needs, when they themselves are often looking for something completely different. This unusual ability makes him a wide range of friends, who even include Henry, the bank manager who then offers him a loan and full business support for many years.

The Music Shop opens in January 1988, at a time when cassettes and CDs were rapidly replacing vinyl, with vivid descriptions of Frank and his shop, and of other shop owners and residents of Unity Street, including Maud the tattooist, Father Anthony who sells religious mementoes, the Williams brothers who run a long-established family funeral business (they are so touching in their love for one another – they “sometimes held hands like children”). Then there’s kind-hearted, well-meaning and generous Saturday Kit – “if you treated him like a young terrier sending him out for regular walks and occupying him with easy tasks, he was less liable to cause serious damage”. Rachel Joyce brings them all fully to life, so the reader has an understanding and appreciation of this little community, increasingly isolated from the changes happening within their town. Unity Street is under threat from developers and one by one the band of friends is broken apart.

When a stranger, Ilse Brauchman, walks into their lives (or, rather, falls, since at their first meeting she passes out), I initially found it hard to feel any empathy with her. Then I felt that she was supposed to be different and slightly odd and jarring – had we met the residents and shopkeepers of Unity Street one by one over many chapters, they would surely each have felt just as unusual. Frank’s long-established patterns of behaviour are broken apart by the threat from the developers, by the pressure being exerted on him to give in and sell CDs and cassettes, and finally by this chance encounter with Ilse. He arranges to give her music lessons each week in a cafe by the cathedral, The Singing Teapot, whose waitress is a gem of a character, watching Frank and Ilse’s weekly music lessons, shifting from reluctantly serving them tea or orange squash, over the weeks graduating to cooking them increasingly elaborate meals (she has “a potentially lethal passion for amateur cookery”). And at the same time as we are engrossed in the 1988 struggles in Unity Street, we also learn more about Frank’s highly unusual upbringing with his mother, Peg, and understand that he needs to have change forced upon him to heal ancient wounds.

I really enjoyed most of The Music Shop, all set firmly in 1988, but did initially have problems with the final section, entitled “Side D: 2009”, in which the action leaps forward by over two decades and resolution is needed for Frank, Ilse and other leading characters we’ve come to know, including Saturday Kit, who’s no longer a hapless teenager, prone to crashing into things, but a local radio DJ, a bit like Frasier but with music – Late Night Surgery. This closing section brings them all back together to heal Frank’s emotional wounds – but in a way I found at first a little too contrived. But then I thought again about the ending section – Hidden Track – with its warm glow at the reuniting of these wonderful characters! It’s a bit like a modern-day fairytale. Suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the music!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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