The Lido – Libby Page

Rating: 5 stars

If, like me, you’re feeling that summer is an awfully long way off, now’s the time to turn to a book to make you feel better about the wait, and I thoroughly recommend turning to The Lido. Like Flora and her mother Ingrid in Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, the two leading characters in The Lido, Rosemary, who is 86, and Kate, 60 years her junior, feel liberated and free when they are swimming. But whereas in Swimming Lessons the swimming is done in the open sea in Dorset, for Rosemary and Kate their liberating swims take place in Brixton Lido, a much-loved local venue. Rosemary has swum there for her entire life and it’s the key cornerstone in her whole being, as she’s watched the city she grew up in changing and shifting around her. So when it’s under threat of closure for redevelopment as part of a proposed luxury development called Paradise Living, she starts a campaign to prevent this. Kate is a young reporter working on the Brixton Chronicle who is assigned the task of covering the story.

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In this, her first published novel, Libby Page writes beautifully both about her characters – Rosemary and her late husband George in particular are an unusual central focus in modern fiction, working class and childless, and portrayed in tender detail – and about her setting. The descriptions of Brixton are vivid and capture a real living place, chronicling vividly its changing nature, from Rosemary’s childhood in wartime right up to modern times. (George’s old greengrocers’ shop in Electric Avenue has become a trendy cocktail bar, for example.) Rosemary has many friends in the streets of her home town, so her shopping days are happy outings punctuated by long chats and treats; at home, however, she’s alone and missing George desperately.

Kate, on the other hand, is desperately shy, with no friends either at work or outside it, spending her evenings crying in her room in a house share.

She doesn’t tell anyone that often she feels like a sad, matted teddy bear you might see forgotten under a bench on the underground. She just wants someone to pick her up and take her home. … Kate’s loneliness sometimes feel like indigestion, at other times it is a dull echo at the back of her eyes or a weight that makes her limbs feel too heavy for her body.

Gradually Kate finds her way back to enjoying life – she has her eyes opened by Rosemary and her friends, and starts to become friends with them herself as she becomes aware of sides of Brixton she’d never previously known existed. She and Rosemary swim together and work together on a campaign to save the pool; she draws from Rosemary’s strength to become stronger herself, and when Rosemary is ill Kate steps in to find she is capable of doing so much more than she’d previously known – each of them needs the other in sometimes surprising ways. In addition, there’s a rich cast of other characters we come to know: members of Brixton’s eclectic community, from the teenage boy swimming at the Lido, to the gay couple in the bookshop, from the staff of the Brixton Chronicle to those working at the Lido, Rosemary’s old friends and colleagues. All play their part in this celebration of the triumph of hope, friendship and community over loneliness and feelings of loss.

Congratulations are due to Ms Page; I can’t wait for your next novel! Fingers crossed, too, for a film version of The Lido – there are two great lead roles here for both an older and a younger actor. Suggestions for casting?

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5 stars

This book by Gail Honeyman was the winner of the Costa Book Awards 2017 for a first novel. And what a fine first novel it is.

Told in the first person, the narrator opens with a description of her everyday humdrum life, and I was gripped right from the outset. Eleanor Oliphant is nearly thirty and works in the accounts receivable office of a graphic design company. We know straightaway that her life has been difficult. She believes her boss, Bob, took pity on her when he employed her nine years ago: “I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.” Clearly she’s had a difficult period in her life (to put it mildly) and now wants nothing more than a poorly paid office job and routine. Eleanor also tells us within the opening pages that her weekends are spent on her own drinking vodka, and that she speaks to her mother each Wednesday. She’s clearly lonely and troubled, but would admit to neither of these should she ever allow anyone the chance to talk to her for long enough to ask.

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Eleanor is a loner, annoyed by other people’s slovenly or imprecise use of language, keen to point out ways of saving money; now, though, having been given free tickets at work for a gig she’s felt obliged to use them and is on a mission to meet the singer in a band, whom she fantasises is “the one”. She sets about making improvements to her appearance and to her contact with modern life, teaching herself about the internet, Twitter and Instagram. Very soon we find ourselves wrapped in Eleanor’s world – the one that has gripped tightly around her for years – and the sudden changes that come about both from her mission to find out about and meet the singer, Johnnie Lomond, and from her actual meeting with the company’s IT expert Raymond Gibbons. By chance, she and Raymond get involved in the life of Sammy Thom, an elderly man whom they help when he has a fall, and his family. Bit by bit, Eleanor’s life changes and she discovers an ability to relate to people and feel an empathy she didn’t know she could ever feel.

Gail Honeyman slowly and delicately reveals the secrets of Eleanor’s past, always in Eleanor’s precise and careful voice, and describes her gradual and painful thawing and her difficultly in dealing with her own childhood secrets which she has for years hidden from herself in a tightly sealed box in her memory. She discovers that she has abilities and emotions she didn’t previously acknowledge or realise, and that she can learn to trust people and relate to them in ways she, at the outset, would have found completely impossible.

I was completely gripped by this book – I found Eleanor entirely believable and her life by turns sad and funny. At times the humour rings through so strongly that I laughed out loud, particularly at the situations in which she was placing herself in her quest for Johnnie. Her growing compassion for her fellow workers and other people she meets, such as Raymond’s widowed mother, rings true throughout. This is a beautifully written tale about loneliness, secrets, relationships, and trust. A well-deserved prizewinner.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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